Saturday, December 29, 2012

Newly Bright

So when you feel all the endings coming...begin looking for all the beginnings.  –Ann Voskamp

I have a painting titled "For today, newly bright." Each day is new, and each year is new. True, it is an artificial delineation, but still a chance to begin again. This morning I will go up to my cabin in the mountains to spend the last days of the year reflecting on the year that is ending and anticipating the year about to begin.

I look forward to my New Year's Eve ritual.  I build a fire in the fireplace.  In the last hours of the year, I write a letter to the old year. I reflect on the year, on what I learned and experienced, on the themes of the year, on what I think I will remember.  I thank the year for all the blessings it has brought.

Then I write a letter to the new year.  I welcome the new year and share my hopes and intentions.  I invite the new year in like a new friend, curious, eager to get acquainted, excited about possibilities.

I hold both letters as I say a prayer, once more thanking the departing year and welcoming the new year.  Then I burn both letters in the fireplace as an offering.

In the final minutes of New Year's Eve, I pick a word for the following year.  It is always a verb. It is not a resolution.  My word is a focus word, a gentle reminder, a guide. I write the word on little cards that I place where my gaze is sure to light – by my computer, the bathroom mirror, the car dash.  Throughout the year, my word is there, wherever I look.  As the months go by, it becomes a part of me.

How do I choose my word?  Sometimes I am pretty sure I know before New Year's Eve, but more often I don't.  As the year comes to a close, I open my mind and heart.  The word comes to me, like a whisper in my soul.

My word for 2012 has been "Shine.” The word itself has been a beacon to me, guiding me always towards the light, encouraging me during some dark times, reminding me that the light is always shining in me and all around me. In some very tangible ways, my word sustained me during the months of getting my book ready to publish. And in some very personal ways, my word helped me right myself when I stumbled over fear.

It is a word of faith, of hope, of joy, of promise, of transcendence. And it is a word of forgiveness and acceptance and love. As noted in the Bible and other wisdom teachings, the sun shines on the wicked and the righteous without distinction. So generous.

I’m grateful for my word this year, and I’m eager to find out what my 2013 word will be.  When I get back from the cabin on the 1st, I’ll write a post and let you know.  If you pick a word for yourself, I hope you’ll share it, too.

As part of my thanks to the departing year, I would like to say thank you to you.  I started this blog in February 2010, not at all sure what I was doing (still don’t know), and with no idea where it would lead (still don’t know that either).  But I do know this.  I have been so deeply touched and humbled by the support and encouragement I’ve gotten from so many people.  Through you and your blogs, I have received so much wisdom, inspiration, challenge, information, and lots of great fun.  And as we all know, fun is good.  (As the Cat in the Hat said, “It is fun to have fun!”)  I am so blessed to be part of this network of people.  You are such a gift.  Thank you.

Best wishes for a blessed end of 2012, and a new beginning with unlimited possibilities in 2013.

[One of my favorite things about the cabin is that I am away from phone, cable, and internet, so I will be “unplugged” from today until I return on Tuesday.  I hope you know by now that your comments are valuable and valued. Because I use comment moderation to monitor spam, there is a delay in the appearance of your comments, for which I apologize. Don’t let that stop you!  Please leave a comment, and it will magically appear New Year’s Day as soon as I get back.]

Thursday, December 27, 2012

On the Razor's Edge

Sometimes the darkest challenges, the most difficult lessons, hold the greatest gems of light.  –Barbara Marciniak

As the year comes to a close, with all its attendant reflections, the image of 2012 that keeps coming to my mind is the razor’s edge. It is not a place of comfort. It’s not a good place to take a nap. When we are there, we usually want to be somewhere else. Anywhere else. Instead, we find ourselves face to face with fear...and opportunity.

This is where we practice, where we have an opportunity to grow, to deepen, to awaken. When things are as we wish, we can relax and enjoy. But when challenges arise, we must respond. Walking on the razor’s edge requires alertness, balance, openness, care, courage.

Seems like I have spent a significant amount of time this year on the razor’s edge. Fears that I thought were long laid to rest have burbled up from the abyss. Circumstances have thrown me into familiar dilemmas, challenging me to choose, over and over, whether to react with anger, anxiety, and futile efforts to control, or to breathe myself open, to wait, to offer compassion, to have faith.

Where, in the past, I often chose fear, life has been gently saying to me this year, “Choose again.” And for the most part, I have chosen differently. It’s hard sometimes. That’s why we speak in terms of practicing kindness, practicing compassion, practicing forgiveness.

2012 has given my plenty of opportunities to practice all of these. Although I have had a few whiny “why me” moments, I find myself reflecting on the year with profound gratitude, a humble confidence, a sustaining faith, and a peace that indeed passes all understanding.

Is there an image or phrase that captures the essence of 2012 for you?

related posts: Embrace the Tiger; The Dance of Fear

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas Spiders

[This is a story I wrote several years ago and now it has become my yearly Christmas post. Merry Christmas to all!]

When James was three, he helped me decorate the Christmas tree one evening.  The next day while he was at preschool, I realized that we had forgotten the tinsel that we draped over the branches to make it look like icicles.  (This was back in the days before we knew that this was not an environmentally friendly decoration.)  I quickly tossed a couple of packages of tinsel on the tree and called it good.

When James came home that afternoon, he went about his business, not really paying attention to the tree.  But that evening when he walked into the dark room after I had turned on the blazing, multi-colored tree lights, he froze and stared in wide-eyed amazement at the long silvery streamers glittering in the soft air currents.  “Shh.  The Christmas spiders have been here,” he whispered.

That is a happy memory.  This morning I was reminded of it when I encountered several spiders of the summer variety.  They seem to be everywhere these days.  When I woke up, there was one suspended from the ceiling in the middle of my room, floating like a levitating yogi in the air.  I got a cup from downstairs and gently scooped it up and carried it outside to the garden.

When I opened the car door, there was a perfect web stretching from the steering wheel to the driver’s seat.  The builder was sitting in the center, ever hopeful in the locked up car.  I found a piece of paper and with some regret, destroyed the magnificent creation and carried the spider to the bushes where I thought it would have better luck.

I drove off and had only gone a few blocks when I noticed another web connecting the driver’s side rearview mirror with the car door.  The web was already battered by the wind, and the poor little spider was holding on like a bull rider at the rodeo as the web remnants violently vibrated .  I tried to ignore it, but after a few more blocks, I sighed and pulled over.  I found another scrap of paper in the car, onto which the traumatized little cowboy gratefully clambered.  I carried it to the curb and eased it onto a lovely rosebush.

I was briefly annoyed at all the interruptions in my morning, but then I remembered the Christmas spiders.  Sometimes when I think back over James’s childhood, my heart sinks with memories of all the challenges his autism presented.  I forget that there were also magic times of childhood wonder and delight.

Shh.  The angel spiders have been here.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Everything Is Impermanent

“Everything is impermanent” is an often used topic of contemplation in certain spiritual practices. I was thinking about it this morning as I was shredding paper. (I use the shredded paper to line the bird cages.) My mind wandered while I was feeding the paper into the shredder, back to the copious amounts of paper I recycled and shredded when I retired last year.

Amazingly, a lot of that paper was not just junk. Well, at least at one time it was not junk. Class materials and notes that I developed over the years guided my teaching of hundreds of students. Cases, articles, news clippings – all were relevant at one time to whatever I was learning or teaching. Notes and memos about clients from different decades and even countries. Samples of every imaginable sort of contract (I taught contract law and contract drafting.)

All of it, at one time, had been useful. I had put a lot of effort and care into amassing and organizing what was, to me, a treasure trove of information and resources. As I cleaned out my office, I considered keeping much of it just because at one time it had been very important. Much of who I was and how I saw myself for thirty years was in those papers. They represented my career, my expertise, my legacy.

But I didn’t keep any of it. I saw that it had been important only to me, and that it had no future usefulness in my life. Boxes of paper gathering dust in the attic did not constitute a legacy of any significance to anyone. The importance of the papers was impermanent.

Even my own importance was impermanent. I don’t mean my value as a human being. I mean that no matter how successful I was as a professor, within three years after I left, no student would know who I was.  I realized that I was okay with that. Indeed, it seemed quite natural.

Why was I thinking about that today as I was cleaning bird cages? Perhaps because I am in another transition in my life, to an empty nest. Oh, I know about that revolving door that seems so common these days, and who knows what will happen in the future? But this is the first time I’ve lived without at least one of my children in the house since I became a mom almost twenty-six years ago.

My nest has been empty for a week now.  I still forget when I wake up in the morning that I’m in the house by myself.  The house, which seemed so small when the kids were doubled up in bedrooms and we had to eat at the dining room table because we couldn’t all fit in the kitchen nook, now seems cavernous.  There’s not as much food in the refrigerator. The dirty dishes in the sink are...mine.

I’m beginning to clean and reorganize, to claim the house as mine, too. To ease into this next stage of life. I’m still a mom, but not a day to day mom. Things that were important just a short time ago, now aren’t. I feel curious and excited. I like it.

And someday, this will change, too.

Anyone who has lost something they thought was theirs forever finally comes to realize that nothing really belongs to them.  –Paulo Coelho

related posts: As It Is; The Doors of Change

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Joy Comes

Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.  –Psalm 30:5

Once again, I find myself nearing the end of the year...surprised. Last thing I remember, it was Thanksgiving, and now poof!  Christmas is almost here with the new year close behind. I will join others in reflecting more personally on this year, but today I want to offer one more post on what seems to me to be one of the prevalent qualities of this year.

Fear. And fear’s spawn – anger, hatred, judgment, anxiety, greed, blaming, isolation, selfishness, vengeance, stress.

We saw a year full of violence all over the world and in our own back yards, shattering not only lives but also innocence. In the United States we watched as a fiercely bitter political climate continued to polarize our country, with no end in sight even now. Nature added to the devastation with storms reflecting the human climate.

What to make of a year like this? I loved what Julie Barrett of A Clear Sign said in a comment to my last post. “I actually feel more hopeful. It feels to me as if there has been a huge shift in energy to the positive. I'm not sure why that is - it just feels that way to me.”  Me, too.

There is something so radiant and resilient about the human spirit.  Something in us, sometimes in our darkest hour, reaches for the light and transcends the fear that would keep us shackled in the pit.  We can all think of examples, some that are known only to a few, some that inspire nations and even the whole world.

I need not look further than my own family. I think back to when Dan joined our family. He was a classmate of my son James, both in a special classroom because of their autism. When Dan was 14, his parents died within a few months of each other. They were refugees from Vietnam who came to the US after the war and Dan had no other family here. And so he became part of our family.

He was a 14 year old boy with autism and limited communication skills, an only child who had known only one home, with a family who loved him and protected him from the things in the world that he didn’t understand. Then suddenly he lost everything and everyone he ever knew and loved, and was thrust into that very world. He came to a new home, filled with strangers, with new food, new language, and a dog that terrified him.

It’s more than many of us have ever had to cope with, especially at a young age, and many of us have more obvious coping resources than he had. Yet Dan was not down for long. He quickly adapted and soon his sunny nature was beaming again. Dan has a zest for life that many of us aspire to. It never bothers people when they can’t understand him. They respond to his open spirit and his eagerness to be friends. He is my hero of indomitability, a phoenix rising from the ashes of the life he was forced to leave behind.

So like Julie, I am filled with hope because I know what we are made of, we humans. I know what we can do when we move through our fear and let our lights shine. And how do we do this? By heeding the lesson this young warrior learned.

A young warrior once had to battle fear.  She did not want to, but her teacher insisted.  On the day of battle, the warrior stood on one side, feeling small.  Fear stood on the other side, looking big and wrathful.  The warrior bowed to show respect and asked fear, “How do I defeat you?”  Fear thanked her for showing respect and replied, “My weapons are that I talk fast and get in your face.  Then you get completely unnerved, and you do whatever I say.  If you don’t do what I say, I have no power.”

As we wrap up this year, let’s respectfully refuse to do what fear tells us to do. Let’s move towards the morning of the new year with an open hand reaching out, with sadness perhaps for what has been lost, and joy in our hearts for what is to come. Blessings to us all.

related posts: It Is Not So; Game Change

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Help Someone

If you’re feeling helpless, help someone.  –Aung San Suu Kyi

I was still hurting over the shooting in the mall here in Portland when I heard the heart rending news of the shooting in Connecticut. And the stabbing of so many children in China. I just sat down and cried. So many people who are in such pain and so full of rage, so alienated and hopeless, so lost in their minds and their souls. They cry out in violence, cutting down innocent children and adults.

There is no sense to make of this. How do we respond? In fear? I read that gun sales are way up. One legislator proposed arming teachers. Would I want my child sitting in first grade with a teacher who is packing heat? Are we moving towards a society in which we pocket our cell phone, pick up our keys, and strap on our weapon as we leave the house to run to the grocery store or drive the car pool to soccer practice?

Do we really think that arming everyone will stop violence? Buddha taught that “hatred never ceases by hatred, but my love alone is healed.” Hate is born of fear. And fear is born of a mistaken belief that we are separate from each other. But we are not. And that simple truth is where any healing begins.

Yet what can I do? I remembered the above quotation this morning. Helpless. Yes, that is what I feel in the face of such random, unimaginable killing. Helpless to protect my children and grandchildren. Helpless to protect any children, for all children are my children. And yours. Yes, I’m feeling helpless. Are you?

Aung San Suu Kyi counsels us, then, to help someone. What can we do? If this violence is perpetrated by people who feel so dissociated from their humanity, perhaps the response is to affirm our shared humanity.

Years ago, a phone company introduced an ad campaign with the slogan, “Reach out and touch someone.” Touch. An affirmation that we exist, that we are connected. So what if we all touched someone? Call an estranged friend. Visit a homebound senior. Thank a first responder. Praise a child. Write a thank you note to a teacher. Help a neighbor. Shake the hand of a veteran. Smile at a stranger. Listen to someone.

We are not helpless. We need not fear. We have the only thing that will ever counter violence. Open hearts.

Fear not, for I have redeemed you
I have called you by name, you are mine
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you
And through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you
When you walk through fire you will not be burned
And the flame will not consume you.
–Isaiah 43:1-2

related post: From the Ashes; Calling for Love

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Jolly Molly? No Thanks!

Underneath the hardness there is fear
Underneath the fear there is sadness
In the sadness there is softness
In the softness is the vast blue sky

My daughter Mia attended a birthday party when she was four.  The party’s main attraction was Jolly Molly, a popular local clown who was a big hit with the preschool set.  When Mia arrived, Jolly Molly opened her arms wide and greeted her.  Mia took one look and ran shrieking from the room.

Sometimes I feel that way about Christmas.  The store decorations go up at Halloween.  Elf commercials start airing. Christmas music is everywhere.  Shoppers battle in the wee hours of Black Friday.  Everything is so manically festive.  Some people love it.  Like the young partygoers who were clustered around Jolly Molly clamoring for her attention, many people’s spirits sing with the season.  And that’s wonderful.

For me, it’s often just too much.  I tend to stay away from the stores.  I look forward to going to friends’ homes for celebrations.  I enjoy Christmas, but in a quiet way.

For others, it is a time of feeling alienated, overwhelmed, sad, anxious, lonely, even angry.  I’ve started noticing blog posts about the dark shadows of Christmas.  There is grief over loved ones who are no longer here, sad memories of Christmases past, isolation in the present, financial anxiety, bitter struggles with family.  Sometimes, it’s too much to bear.

Yesterday, a man ran into the very mall where my children were shopping on Sunday, and started shooting, killing two people and injuring a third before shooting himself.  I don’t know anything about this man and whether his tragic outburst was at all related to the Christmas frenzy, but I know he must have been in a lot of pain.  His attack in a popular mall during a time of holiday shopping is like the two trains of Christmas crashing into each other.

Marlo Thomas, who has continued her dad’s support of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, ends her commercials with “Give thanks for the healthy children in your life, and give generously to those who are not.”  That seems like a balanced approach. We can be grateful for our blessings and at the same time offer compassion to those in pain, including ourselves.  Our hearts are big enough to hold all these feelings.

Chogyam Trungpa teaches that joy comes from the gentle heart of sadness.  When we can break through the hardness of absolutes and move through our fear of uncertainty, we find ourselves in the sea of sadness.  All the suffering of the world is there.  We might want to escape.  Fear might lure us back to the “safety” of our hard defenses.

But if we can find the courage to stay, to yield, we can sink into the softness of our tender, open heart.  With our heart thus exposed and vulnerable, we  we are connected to the deep heart of all hearts.  And isn’t that what Christmas is really all about?

The heart that breaks open can contain the whole universe.  –Joanna Macy

Monday, December 10, 2012

Looking Back, Looking Ahead, and Thank You

Whoa, where did 2012 go?  December got here while I was still basking in the glow of a wonderful Thanksgiving, and now the holidays are upon us as well as the end of the year.  Someone pushed the fast forward button in October.

Many people rev up at the end of the year.  Things get hectic.  Stress levels rise.  I’m not immune to that, but overall, I like to slow down.  The increasing darkness (in the northern hemisphere) draws me inside, literally and figuratively.  The end of the calendar year is an artificial demarcation, but it’s a good time to look back...and forward.

One thing I’ve been thinking about is my blog.  I started this blog in February 2010.  For the first year, I posted randomly about the 10 Steps.  Beginning in January 2011, I focused on one step per month, with the idea that this would encourage the development and reinforcement of the habits associated with each step.  Highlighting one of the 10 Steps each month took me through October of last year.  After that, I reverted to posting randomly about the steps which I continued to do through this year.

This year also birthed my book about the 10 Steps, which was released in October.  I’m pleased that it has been well received and continues to help me raise money for Edwards Center, the nonprofit to which I’ve pledged all the proceeds from the book. (You can find out more about the book by clicking on the link at the top of the right margin.)

So what’s next?  One thing I’ve been thinking about is doing more with my FB page (which you can visit and “like” by clicking on the FB link in the right margin, or just click here).  Beginning in January, I’m thinking of launching a short daily FB post with the theme “Living in Your Happy Place Every Day.”  Posts might include quotes, links, video clips, suggested daily practices, and whatever else catches my attention.  The point is to remind us on a daily basis to open our spirits to joy.

Which brings me back to the blog and a request to you to offer any suggestions or feedback you might have.  As you have probably figured out by now, I’m pretty low tech, so don’t be looking for fancy tech changes.  I guess what I’m asking you is to give me some feedback about what brings you here, and, if you are a regular reader, what keeps you coming back.  Are there things you would like me to do differently?  Topics you would like addressed?  Something I’m missing?  How can I support you better in developing habits to grow a joyful spirit, to find and stay in your happy place?

Okay, my turn to give you some feedback.  One of the things I love about writing the blog is the wide range of connections I’ve made through it.  I now have blog friends all over the world.  I am so grateful that people of different nationalities, cultures, faiths, opinions, hemispheres, experiences, ages, lifestyles, ethnicities, can all meet here to share our thoughts and stories.  I’ve read on other blogs about problems with people be hateful or hurtful in some way.  How lucky I am that given the amazing diversity of readers on this blog, I have had next to zero issues like that.  The fact that we come here from such different backgrounds and yet can all listen and speak with deep respect and honor to each other is a marvel I don’t take for granted.

What’s even more marvelous is that my blog is not unique in this respect.  Not at all.  On the contrary, I visit many blogs where people come to the table with openness and eagerness to hear each other, to learn from each other, to support each other.  Isn’t that amazing?  I just shake my head in humble wonder.

So whether you are here for the first time or you’ve been here many times before, I thank you for the blessings you bring here with your presence.  And I look forward to seeing what the next year brings for all of us.  Thank you so much.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Embrace Limbo

Suffering is the extra tension created in the mind when it struggles.  –Sylvia Boorstein

I was chatting the other day with a friend who is writing a book.  She has worked with much more diligence and self discipline than I ever practiced in writing mine.  So when I asked her about her progress, I was surprised to hear her say that things had stalled a bit, not on the writing side, but on the publishing side, the part she can’t control.

She is such a dynamic and highly motivated person that I expected her to express some frustration and impatience.  But as she described how she is coping with this time of uncertainty, she said, “I’m learning to embrace limbo.”

Wow.  Limbo is not a comfortable place.  In her book Open the Door, Joyce Rupp calls this the liminal space, in the doorway, where you are no longer here, but not yet there. Many of us do not like this space.  We have left the comfort of what was familiar, and we can’t see clearly what is in the next room.  We sometimes handle our anxiety by trying to control things, by pushing through to resolution, any resolution, rather than pausing, waiting, breathing.

Limbo, or the liminal space, is not something I have historically embraced, or even tolerated very well.  I’ve noticed over the years that my life seems to run in four year cycles.  Every four years, there is often some major transition in my life – a move, a new child, the beginning or end of a significant relationship.  I went through many of these cycles before I noticed the pattern.

Even now that I see the pattern, I often forget about it until after the transition into a new cycle, when I look back and realize that I have passed through a cycle year.  Last year, for example, I retired and became a grandmother twice over.  It was only as I started writing this post that I did some quick math and what do you know?  Last year was a cycle year.  I guess by now I should not be surprised.

Leading up to the cycle year is often a time of restlessness, agitation, a time of limbo. This used to be an extremely difficult period.  I often was wedded to the way things were and didn’t want to give up what I thought was going to last forever.  Once I accepted the inevitability of coming change, then I wanted it to come fast and be over with so that I could settle into my new “permanent” state.  (How many cycles did it take me to understand the nature of impermanence?!)

Finding footing in the shifting sands of limbo was challenging on so many levels.  Even more upsetting than knowing change was coming was not always knowing what the change would look like.  And worst of all was trying to alleviate my distress by trying to control things I could not control.

So when my friend said she was learning to embrace limbo, I recognized those words as meant for me.  I have made my peace with limbo, but she has inspired me to see the liminal space as a welcome gift, full of promise.  Embracing limbo is accepting the natural rhythm of the universe, trusting in its basic goodness, releasing our fear, finding perfection in the mystery.

For peace of mind, resign as general manager of the universe.  –Unknown

related posts:  Man Plans, God Laughs; The Doors of ChangeThe Curiosity of Not Knowing