Friday, December 30, 2011

Last blog post of 2011

Bracing for the New Year

I have friends who are good for me and those who are bad.  Tuesday, I couldn’t decide which category to put Michelle Mills in. We met for a workout at the new popular BLAST900 fitness studio in Mt. Pleasant.  At the time it seemed as if it were a good idea. I had the day off, it would only be an hour and it would be a chance to work off some of the three holiday desserts I had felt compelled to try.
Hopping on the treadmill, I enjoyed a warm, fuzzy moment thinking how good it is to have friends who encourage you along life’s way. If it weren’t for her, I probably would be in bed, reading and listening to the rain. Instead I’m reading such affirmations on the wall as: Your mind is the athlete.
Bring it on, I think.
This studio does intense, interval sessions. After several sprints on the treadmill and doing walking lunges up a 27-percent incline, I looked over at her, but she wouldn’t meet my eyes. Definitely, bad for me. Warm, fuzzy feeling is gone. I sneer at the positive affirmations on the wall. My mind obviously is no athlete.
I think of getting pizza with my kids, my reward for surviving, as we walk to get our bags and mop off our sweat.
“You want to go to Trader Joe’s and get some thinkThin bars? she asks.
Sure, why not.
What are friends for?



Hurley's First Snow

This is all new.
Something cold, white, crunchy under your paws.
Not sure what to do.
Each step must feel strange.
You pause and look to me.

I do my best to guide you, mother you,
Reassure you from the other end of the leash.
"It's okay.
Just take another step.
I won't be far."

Each time I stand on the brink of the unknown,
I need the same from God.
Guide me, mother me, reassure me.
But there is no leash connecting us.
It's not so easy to know where to look.

Still, when I take that first step,
Sometimes I think I hear a familiar whisper.
"It's okay.
Just take another step.
I won't be far."



In these in-between days,  between the first holy days of Christmas and the revelry of the New Year, I find myself reaching for grace.  So, the quilts didn’t get finished this year,  the book is still in process, the house has yet to be de-cluttered, my blog post is late.  My never ending list of projects will simply have to go on the to-do list for 2012.  In the meantime, this in-between time,  we will have visits from family, dinners with friends, a daughter still home from college, and life to enjoy.  And so for these last few minutes of 2011, I’ll put away the to-do lists, sit on the back porch and put up my feet, and simply be.


Thursday, December 22, 2011

Fourth week of Advent - Love

Winter solstice 
Darkness falling fast
The shortest day
The longest night

We face the darkness
stringing hope
  on branches and wire frames,
along the rooftops.

  Evergreen indoors
electric Yule
candles of hope and peace, 
joy and love

 We live
these December days, 
holding the darkness,
keeping the light. 



Every year I do something totally decadent during the holidays. I take a restorative yoga class at Holy Cow. This is not a workout, at least not in the traditional, Type A western style.  It’s not hard. You basically show up and get pillows, bolsters and blankets and get in restorative poses that are held a deliciously long time.

This year the teacher reads from a meditation entitled Sabbath Time by Susan McHenry.

 “One thing done in peace 
will most likely be better
 than 10 things done in panic. 
I am not a hero if I deny rest; 
I am only tired.”
I’m liking this teacher, I think.   

Before I became a single parent, I was good about getting things done. Now I go to bed every night with items on my A list undone. I do triage every day on the most pressing needs. At home I have a beautiful tree with lights and one lone ornament. I got interrupted, and haven’t returned to it. I’m waiting to see if the boys notice. If they don’t, it’ll save me the time of taking them down. Sad, I know.
Susan McHenry would understand though, as does my friend Megan Fink, who let me photograph her in perfect repose during Queen’s pose at the end of class. Our teacher reminds us that breath and slowing down creates inner space, space for love and good will for all men.

I drive home nicer to people in traffic. I notice the stars in the sky. The boys jump up and down to see me as I walk in the door.

I ask them when they want to decorate the tree.



There are times (more often than I'd like) when loneliness and self-doubt overwhelm me and I feel unloved. At such moments, I reach for the Happy Thoughts Box.  Since I was a teenager, I've been filling the box with things that are for me tangible reminders of love -- drawings done for me by children I babysat, birthday cards from friends and relatives, what's left of the balloon bouquet coworkers surprised me with on my last day at a former job, cassette tapes my little brother and I made when we were very young, letters of encouragement from pastors and teachers, and much more.  

In recent years, it is overflowing.  I may need a second box.  That's a lot of love!  In a way, Jesus in the manger was like the reminders in my Happy Thoughts Box.  Those who could see and touch him had flesh and blood proof of God's love.  The beauty and providence of creation all around them testified to that already.  But in Jesus, God showed a love that was willing to enter our dangerous world as we all do, in the vulnerable form of a baby.  What a gift!  It is a thought expressed beautifully in a French translation of the carol Silent Night: "The mystery foretold is accomplished.  This Infant asleep on the hay IS infinite Love."


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Third Week of Advent - Joy

This is one image of joy I've had sitting around my house the past few days.  It's pretty indicative of what we are told this time of year.  Joy is about the right gift under the perfect Christmas tree surrounded by the happy family.  Really?  I don't think that's exactly what the Bible means by joy.  James exhorted his fellow believers, "Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds" (James 1:2 TNIV).  In times of trial, it's not brightly wrapped gifts I crave.  Even now, when my life is relatively trial-free, that isn't what I really want.  What I want is to be one of those people who can endure life's struggles with an unshakeable joy in God, not just a sappy smile.  I'm still trying to understand all that joy is about, but if it has anything to do with gifts, I know it's less about the ones wrapped under the tree than the One who was placed in a manger.



    Let a joy keep you.
Reach out your hands
And take it when it runs by...
Carl Sandburg

It’s easy to catch joy when it’s all piled up on your lap.   My nieces and nephew - a trendy 8 year old, an all-boy 5 year old and a two year old who begins everyday with the announcement “It my bir-day!”   - are visiting this week and our quiet evenings at home with the cat and the Christmas tree have been replaced by silly giggles, campfire s’mores in the backyard, and a floor full of legos and Polly Pockets.    

We toured the Charleston holiday scene - including the James Island Holiday Festival of Lights.  We had already made one drive through the light show with our three grown children.  It was a fun trip, full of memories and hilarious political and religious commentary on the light vignettes.  This week, we returned to see the lights with the nieces and nephew in tow.   “Yook! Yook!  A weindeer!”   It was pure jumping up and down delight  (well, except for the few moments of sibling disagreement and rebellion- but I’m not their mom so I was having a great time!)  

I love catching these fleeting moments of joy as they go speeding past - in the guise of a two year old who thinks everyday is her birthday and three children who manage to jump in the ocean - even in December!  What joy!



I love storms. I took this photo in St. Augustine, Fla., at dawn, just before a storm rolled in. It was a long, quiet walk, full of shifting clouds and light, a stolen moment before I resumed the drive down to Satellite Beach with my family, the destination of our Thanksgiving break.  The choice was to sleep in or to walk. The light and electric charge of the air drew me out. By the end of the walk, I walked back in soaked, but happy. In the entrance of Shay’s school, Ashley River Elementary, is a Picasso quote: “Art washes away from the soul the dust from everyday life.” I don’t always have time for a long, soaking walk, but I’ve learned every day has its offerings of joy to be gathered. Manna moments, if you will.

Sometimes, it’s the only way I get through the day.


Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Second week of Advent - Peace

I recently found this moon shell on a beach walk. It’s a shell that appeals to me with its serene, smooth spirals, a calming meditative symbol for this week of Advent that focuses on peace. The shell’s other name, alas, is shark’s eye. It’s all a matter of perspective. If you look at the dark innermost spiral, you can see the shark’s eye. I was disappointed to learn of its other name and that the snail inhabitant is such a devious creature injecting its enzymes into clams to dissolve their adductor muscles so they have no defenses.

So much for my peaceful meditation that has gone way off tangent.
I think of the movie I just watched, “The River Why,” and how the main character grapples with the same issue of dealing with a life that’s not always what it appears. The main character is an expert fly fisherman who finally is able to have the river teach him its wisdom. We do best going with the flow, accepting what is, knowing we’re always in a state of flux – and therein is much peace.
I hang onto my little moon shell, shark’s eye and all.



Notice anything missing in this picture?  I notice it every time I look at my Nativity scene, and the empty space where that missing piece should be has been a great help in my Advent meditation the past few years.  When I lived overseas, I realized that all of the Creche scenes in homes and department stores and churches were missing the baby Jesus.  Asking one of my French friends about it, I got the reply, "Of course He isn't there! He hasn't been born yet!"  Now I follow the same tradition when I put up my own Nativity scenes.  There is no baby Jesus there until Christmas Eve.  Since I put up all my decorations the day after Thanksgiving, that means weeks of seeing Mary and Joseph looking down at that empty spot, as if they are waiting, longing, hoping.  It reminds me that I am supposed to be doing the same thing during the weeks of Advent, since we live in what my seminary professor Dr. Goodman called "the already-not-yet."  Jesus was born over 2000 years ago, of course, and that already-ness taught us incredible things about God's love for us and how we are to live as God's people.  But in a sense, Jesus's arrival was only the beginning, and the story is far from complete.  This week's Advent theme of peace leaves me feeling the not-yet-ness more than any of the others.  We hear a lot of songs about "peace on Earth" this time of year, and read those words from Luke's gospel, but our world is far from peaceful.  The "not-yet" aspect of Advent reminds me to work and pray for the day when it will be, echoing the words Jesus taught His disciples to ask God: "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven."  When that happens, the Advent of the Prince of Peace will be complete.



At lunch with friends recently, I realized that I had just missed half the conversation.   My body was seated at the lunch table, but my mind was  busy organizing gift lists and fretting about shipping dates and charges.   I was lost in the holiday to-do-list jungle.  I was planning menus,  worrying about the broken bench beside my front door,  trying to decide on a great gift to give to my new son-in-law... and on and on and on.....and on.

As the waiter brought my check, (Did I really order caesar salad again?) some wisdom from writer Anne Lamott worked its way through the holiday clutter in my brain.  Anne says “Be where your butt is... and breathe.”  My butt was sitting right in that restaurant chair,  but my being self was nowhere in sight. My inner frettiness (what the Buddhists call monkey mind)  had caused me to zone out on a conversation with good friends.  I took a deep breath and refocused my self for the last few minutes of lunch.     

Anne’s advice is a path to peace that I need to remember in the midst of the holiday chaos.   “Be where your butt is.”  Show up for your own life.  Be present to each moment - not worrying about the future or bemoaning the past, but simply staying focused on where you are right now.  You might find something holy hidden just inside this crazy chaotic moment you are living through.  

With some last words of wisdom particularly appropriate for this season of feasting,  Anne adds  “I almost forgot the most important thing: refuse to wear uncomfortable pants, even if they make you look really thin. Promise me you'll never wear pants that bind or tug or hurt, pants that have an opinion about how much you've just eaten.”     I’ll add - ditto that for shoes! 

So, my new plan for peace in the midst of the holiday hoopla.  Listen to Anne Lamott. Pay attention to each moment - wherever I happen to be -  and spend those moments in stretchy pants and comfortable  shoes.

Note:  Quotes from Anne Lamott from a commencement speech given at the University of California at Berkeley in May 2003.   Click here to read full text of the speech by Anne Lamott.


Thursday, December 1, 2011

First Week of Advent - Hope

This week, we light the candle of hope for Advent.  I find myself hoping a lot these days. I hope for the economy to improve.  I hope I can run, walk, or crawl far enough to finish a half marathon in January.  I hope my daughter gets into the grad school of her dreams.  I hope my son-in-law finds a job after he graduates from law school in May.  I hope my friend’s baby arrives safe and healthy.  I hope....

One of the earliest lessons I learned about counseling has been one of the most universal and most enduring.  I had just started my year long internship as a counselor at the mental health center in Morganton, NC and was working with everyone - children and adults, individuals and families.  It was a year of learning and practice, of happy successes and miserable failures.  As I was beginning to see my first clients, my supervisor told me,  “The first thing you have to do is give them hope.  No matter what the problem - big or small, simple or complicated  - you have to start with hope.  If they can believe things will get better, it will happen.  You have to help them see the light in the darkness.”
Hope does that.  It shines light into the darkest corners.  It’s the first step out of depression or family chaos.  Hope gets us out of bed in the morning and moves us forward.  Hope gives us the courage to try again or to start over one more time.  Hope says “Take my hand. We can do this.”   Hope is transformative, bringing new ideas and energy for healing and recovery.

As the poet, Lisel Mueller writes in her poem entitled Hope from
Alive Together: New and Selected Poems:

“It is the singular gift
we cannot destroy in ourselves, 
the argument that refutes death,
the genius that invents the future
and all we know of God.”

Or,  as Andy tells Red in a letter of encouragement in the 1994 movie The Shawshank Redemption,  “Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”

and so... I hope...


Ah, for the life of my cat Sylvester, who can relax in any position imaginable.
Upside down. Half on, half off a chair. Hanging on the slender ledge of a window sill. In a 360-degree corkscrew.
I think there's much to be learned from pets about how to live life. One of my favorite books on living in the present moment is Eckhart Tolle's Guardians of Being that explores the fascinating lessons that pets have for us.
During this season of Advent, I have decided to carve out periods of stillness, of utter relaxation and just "being." It's a tough goal. Deadlines and holiday frenzy squeeze in. But I have my cat as a meditative symbol, as a reminder that sometimes just being is enough. Or maybe what I need more than added holiday shopping is a simple cat nap.



On a recent commercial -- one of many aimed at getting me to spend way too much money on gifts or decorations or food -- I heard the tagline, "The holidays are all about family."  That can be difficult to hear if you are, like me, a singleton with no spouse or children (yet), and living hundreds of miles away from anyone biologically related to you. That is the situation more and more people find themselves in here in 21st century America, though advertisers would still have us pine for that Norman Rockwell family Christmas, and spend any amount necessary to get it.  Above is one of my holiday family photos.  I do not share DNA with anyone in it.  They are my friends, fellow church members, mentors, encouragers, or blood relatives of those who are.  Last Thursday, when I was between two night shifts at work and unable to travel to my parents' home in KY, they were my Thanksgiving family.  We shared an afternoon, a prayer, a meal, conversation, a game of touch football, and an abundance of laughter.  It was a wonderful holiday, one of many when I have been blessed with non-traditional family. 

The first time I spent a holiday away from my parents, brother, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins was Thanksgiving of 1998, when I was an exchange student in Angers, France.