Tis the Season to Appreciate

 

gift-wrapped-boxIt is post-Christmas week.  One of my favorite weeks of the year.  Thanksgiving feels to be so long ago.  Christmas Day is in the near past.  For many, the practice of giving is now moving into a new dimension.    We tend to shift our sense of openness, generosity, awareness of others and their needs after the holidays.  There are so many ways to give.

christmas cookiesI have witnessed many selfless acts during this past holiday season.  It has been a blessing to see how openly and sweetly and richly others have shared their love, goodwill, traditions, and time.  I am thinking of the fabulous feasts that were so generously prepared by family during this recent holiday season.  The measure of time and love and sense of tradition that went into these meals was truly amazing.  I felt the love when I saw all of the cookbooks opened on the kitchen counter, the living room coffee table, and the couch.  I could feel the meals from holidays past lilting from the open and stained and dog-eared pages.  There were homemade cookies to be enjoyed.  Chips and vegies to be dipped.  Crackers to be cheesed.  The variety of dishes served was astonishing, actually.

When my daughters were young, it was our tradition that they would create the holiday menu.  It was fun and always a culinary adventure.  The menu was generally quite limited to a few favorite foods that were general considered to be taboo by any nutritional standards.  And the added bonus was that their menus demanded a blessedly brief amount of time and a decided lack of culinary talent on my part.

I think of the year that I served red Jell-O in the shape of teddy bears with freshly-whipped cream.  Or the year that we ate nothing but potato chips and onion dip for the entreé and pumpkin pie for dessert.  These were not incidents of pure laziness or nutritional abuse on my part.  These meals built a foundation of culinary autonomy . . . it was a day of Anything Goes.  Why not?  We were not serving others who held expectations of basted turkey, cornmeal stuffing, and giblet gravy.  We were Gastronomic Outlaws – bucking the current societal holiday conventions that demanded hours of shopping, food preparation, and marathon clean-up.

There was one year that I did cook a turkey.  It was a rare year, as we had family visiting us and it would not do to forego the traditional meal.  Whining from one of my more outspoken house guests would ensue, and we could not have that.  Placating with a cooked bird was preferable to listening to his traditional ranting.

Alas, we don’t remember enjoying the golden-brown-basted turkey from that year because we lost our power and our running water for five days, starting on Christmas Day morning – about 1.5 hours into bird-cooking time.  I remember looking at the turkey that was half-cooked in the electric-powered oven . . . wondering how I could possibly continue to cook an entire bird while balancing it on the top of the old barrel wood stove in the living room.

The solution?  I went out to the woodshed and got a shovel and buried the turkey in the field.  We had no refrigeration and no promise as to when the power would return to us.  I didn’t want to invite any unwelcome poultry illness . . . or any opportunistic animals to come marauding in the night, had I tossed the uncooked bird onto the compost pile.  As insane as this sounds, it felt like a righteous act to bury poor Tom Turkey, as my heart was not entirely in agreement with cooking an unfortunately-fated bird that year.  A silent blessing was bestowed.  R.I.P.

While we still had daylight, we went sledding instead on Hamburger Hill – the name of the sledding run behind the school . . . one that had been dangerously groomed by the school children during the previous weeks before Christmas break.  It was a fun and memorable and active way to spend the day.  We came home and made hot chocolate by balancing a tea kettle on the round arc of the barrel stove. We made peanut-butter-and-honey sandwiches by candle light and finished the meal off with Christmas cookies.  Not even my best of turnaround traditional attempts was to come to fruition. Only minimal whining about the peanut butter was uttered by the Traditional Outspoken Relative.  We had somehow managed to maintain our time-honored tradition of eating minimalistic nutrition for yet another holiday.

That is why the meals from this current year were exemplary.  All of the stops were pulled.  It was one wing-ding of a holiday meal.  I do not recall ever seeing so much love poured into a meal that was to be served to loved ones.  My daughters?  They served up seconds and thirds on dishes that they had never tasted before.  Green bean casserole, sweet potato casserole, soft white-flour rolls . . . What had they been missing all of these years?

But who said that you always have to serve the perfect holiday meal that fulfills all of the nutritional requirements of the food pyramid?  We have survived the sugar highs, the salt-induced edema, the Year of the Sauerkraut, the subsequent tummy aches, and, yes, the year of the peanut-butter sandwiches.  And we have built a lot of memories along the way.

It is strange how even non-traditions present as gifts of love.  It is a way to measure . . . a way of setting fence posts through time.  There are so many ways to give.  We give through sharing, through accepting, through laughing through the crazier moments that define where we are today.  What we choose for today.

We have an amazing opportunity to give.  To breathe life into a holiday in ways that are unexpected.  Memories are forged and we laugh in spite of the years that felt to be a bit tougher.  Life is good.  There is much to be appreciated.  And we anticipate the next holiday season with wonder and awe – never knowing what it may bring to us in the way of unexpected gifts. toaster oven

 

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How many times will you try?

embracing-failure-and-my-love-of-data-L-Krvr_Z

What do you think?  “How many times should you try?”  These inspiring examples of people believing in their ideas, skills, and talents are incredibly inspirational. 1500 times to launch Rocky?  Amazing.  1500 times.  Which of my projects do I believe to be so perfect or so inspirational that I am willing to subject my idea to 1499 rejections?  That is a lot of Belief.

So, the question is: How many times should you try?  What project or dream or invention or book or screenplay or song or practice or blog or . . . are you committed to launching?  How many times should you try?  Will you try?

Should is a loaded word in these days of intentional and mindful living.  Google’s “define:should” gives this definition: “used to indicate obligation, duty, or correctness, typically when criticizing someone’s actions.”  Obligation.  Duty.  Correctness.  Criticism.  No wonder many of us bristle when we encounter the word should.   I should do this.  I should have done that.  I should take care of this.  I should be nicer to him.  To her.  To me.   I should have worked harder.  Run harder.  Played harder.  I should be better at that.  This list is endless.  All of the many shoulds.

Coincidence-FateI ask myself: What are some of my common shoulds?  I sometimes think that I am too hard on myself.  And there are those times when I am too quick to step aside and let fate and coincidence charge into each other.

When this happens, I wonder why I seem to take myself out of my own life’s equation — only to later banish myself to the Realm of Should.  I shouldn’t have said that.  I should have stayed home.  I should have been more aware.  I shouldn’t have danced like such a dork.  I should have been more supportive.  I should have been a better self-advocate.  I should have given a hug to that stranger who was crying in the frozen-food section of the grocery story.  I should have been more gracious, kind, loving.   I should have been tougher and just said what needed to be said.

I should have just said it . . . all of these shoulds.  No wonder I find that I am too hard on myself.

Surely, life is not entirely left to coincidence and fate.  I have a part in this passion play, and it is my role to navigate past the shoulds that present themselves to me as I shift should into will.  I remember when I was going through a tough time of either-or in my life — one of those definitive crossroad moments — and my brother was encouraging me to shift into a new change.  I was balking and reciting the many excuses as to why I could not do anything to create something more positive in my life.  I remember my brother’s question to me: “Can’t?  Or won’t?”

Can’t?  Or won’t?  Should?  Or will?  The lyrics from an Indigo Girls song have been running through my mind as I have been writing this morning:

“There’s more than one answer to these questions
pointing me in crooked line
The less I seek my source for some definitive
The closer I am to fine.”

The closer I am to fine, the more likely I am to be more flexible.  More fluid.  More willing to be in flow-mode.  There truly is more than one answer to the many questions that present.  And a crooked line is sometimes to be expected.

gratitude-rainbowspiral1Life has its many many blessings that are all around me.  When I experience an active awareness of this, I feel my spirit bumping some of the ever-present shoulds into a different position, allowing me to enter that magical bubble of grace, easing me into an easier space.

This is one of life’s anointed experiences that is rarely stored in the memory for later recall during some of the more challenging times.  And like the Biblical manna, this sort of moment is supplied miraculously on a daily basis.  It is up to me to harvest it, to enjoy it, and to not try to store it or hoard it.  It is a single moment to be released into and from my life.  One at a time, preferably without an army of shoulds marching at the head of the procession.

In life, we are blessed when we can experience true sweetness.  At the risk of sounding pessimistic, this can be quite rare.  How many times will I try to not only acknowledge but to return this sweetness?  Over and over.  Like Thomas Edison and his 10,000 tries to invent the light bulb, I will.  toaster oven

 

 

 

 

 

Freedom. What is it?

wishing_for_freedom_by_rosiesnotred-d3h0imjWhat is freedom?

When I have asked people this question, their responses have been both delightfully unique and predictably predictable.  Freedom is time for travel, not having to work, doing whatever it is one wants to do, playing music, volunteering, not having to set an alarm clock every night, eating a limitless amount of cheescake and not gaining weight, experiencing no boundaries. . .

Many people equate freedom with money.  Financial freedom has its many perks that allow for choices that can be bought.  Exotic travel, a newer car, a bigger home, a better body that has been nipped, tucked, and enhanced.  A better wardrobe, more shoes, a bigger closet.

But what about those many things in life that do not have a price tag? Like health, love, laughter, respect, integrity . . . many of the things that ask that an active and committed and mindful choice be made.  Choices about the food we eat, how often we exercise, what kinds of supplements we want to add to our diet.  Our choices to extend love, to share, to forgive someone their humanity – even when we truly do not even feel like it.  Our choices to walk through the walls of our ego for a different view and laugh at ourselves and with others.  Choices to not sell ourselves short too quickly for a short-term solution.  Choices to believe that something wonderful is about to happen.  Always . . . believe that something wonderful is about to happen.  Choices to stay on the sunny side and to believe in optimistic outcomes.  All of these choices . . . we have so much freedom to choose in any given second of any given day from an infinite library of perspectives.

But I sometimes think that I tend to oversimplify . . . especially when I am writing at my old, favorite, beat-up library table with a fire going in the fireplace and a glass of white wine nearby.  There is beautiful music playing and it is official: we are on the sunny side of winter solstice.  I am blessed with so much and choices feel easier when life feels good.

I read East of Eden by John Steinbeck many years ago.  The idea of timshel is discussed – the Hebrew word for thou mayest.    We are born with a sense of free will that allows us to make choices for better or for worse.  Timshel is freedom of the mind, but isn’t it also freedom of the heart entwined with freedom of the mind?  I am not sure how to separate the two.  Which camefirst?  The thought or the feeling?  There are neuro-scientists and neuro-psychologists that can surely answer to this.  There is amazing and impressive research concerning our emotional intelligence and what occurs during an emotional hijacking . . . how our emotional brain races ahead of our rational brain.

timshel

Thoughts.  Feelings.  I am convinced that there is an additional element that blends and swirls with our thoughts and our feelings: timshel.  We can accomplish many amazing things; we can meet many goals; we can overcome staggering obstacles.  Amazing and stunning displays of success.  But what came first?  The Thought?  The Feeling that motivates and drives us?  Or the Freedom of Mind that opens the doors that allow our Thoughts and our Feelings to pass vigorously, creatively, and humbly into the worlds and dimensions around us?

john steinbeck quote east of edenWhat is freedom? ” . . . the way is open . . .”  Some definitions of freedom remove obligations but my current definition asks that I embrace responsibility for Freedom of Mind . . . for embracing timshel and understanding that thou mayest means different things to different people.  Defining anything can introduce a wealth of confusion and possibly disagreement.  Words, as wonderful and beautiful and elucidating as they can be, can also limit us in the ways of thou mayest – a blessing of optimism.  “Now that [we] don’t have to be perfect, [we] can be good.”  Simply put . . . what is freedom?  I believe that it is optimism.  Always believing in the possibility that something beautiful has the power to enter into my world. toaster oven

 

A New World Is Born . . . a World of Surprises

Life is full of surprises.  All sorts of surprises happen every single day. I went down to the laundry room this morning and was surprised to see cat kibble spread all over the floor.  The cat was inventive throughout the night and discovered for the very first time in her 14 years of life that repeated clawing at a tough plastic-fiber cat food bag will spell e-u-r-e-k-a!  Needless to say, when she began her morning yowling for “More food!  More food!” it was her turn to be surprised that she wasn’t being fed on demand — her rotundness being particularly pronounced after her Midnight Kibble Party.

Then it occurred to me that the cat must have been incredibly surprised to discover that my sense of feline-nutritional guilt had kicked into gear when ordering her cat food this last time: I had just switched to a different brand to be delivered — a much healthier option over the cheap, grocery-store brand that I traditionally buy.  And then it was my turn to be surprised to discover that she actually liked the more healthful version over the super-cheap version.

All of these surprises.  Anais Nin wrote: “Each friend represents a world in us, a world not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.”

And as Tony Robbins says, “Good surprises we like . . . but bad surprises we call problems.  Good point.  Surprises, like friends, represent “a world in us, a world not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.” I believe that how I embrace or deny surprises in my life defines my life in some small measure.  Am I open to an unexpected moment?  Or am I hunkered down, waiting for the storm to pass until the sky is predominately blue?

If I were to view surprises as friends that add depth and meaning and flavor to my days, then I would welcome them with open arms.  All surprises . . . the good and the bad.

There was one final surprise regarding the Magic Cat-Food-Bag-Turned-Feeder.  I had been surprised and a bit alarmed to see how much food had been consumed by my dear old cat while I was unaware that there had been a breach in security . . . only to discover that my 8-pound dog had been partying with the 17-pound cat — inhaling kibble with the best of felines.

Important EncountersThe moral to the story?  Do not leave temptation in the presence of an ever-hungry cat and a fairly-smart dog.  The other moral?  Be open to surprises.  What I perceive to be a less-than-stellar surprise (aka “problem”) could morph into an amazing journey that leads to “a new world [being] born.”  One never knows when one might be daydreaming or waiting in traffic or lending a hand to someone or doodling in a journal or taking that risk or enrolling in classes or standing in line . . . and encounter a world of incredibly wonderful surprises.  toaster oven

 

Smiling: a Super Power

black and white tree branchesDuring these gray, dark days of winter, I find myself turning inward.  I spend more time in reflection, in meditation, in exercise, in self-care, in research, in cooking and cleaning.  As I focus inward, I sense that I am not smiling as often as I normally do.  I thoroughly enjoy this indoor time of engaging with family and friends on a more intimate level; still, as my thoughts travel further and farther inward, so does my smile.

We are really lucky we can smile.  We are actually born smiling.  Scientists once thought that babies “learned” to smile by mirroring others, but they now agree that babies are smiling while in the womb.  The babies then, after their trip down the birth canal, do not normally smile until they are approximately six weeks old.  It is speculated that this is because babies have to get used to a completely new and strange environment . . . a stark contrast to the the baby’s stress-free environment in the womb.

“Did you know your smile can be a predictor of how long you’ll live – and that a simple smile has a measurable effect on your overall well-being?” I was re-watching Ron Gutman’s TED talk “The Hidden Power of Smiling.”  It is a great talk that reminds us of how important it is to our own health and to the well-being of others.  Gutman’s talk tells how the world can be changed by simply smiling.  Research and common sense and personal experience substantiate this.

Keep-smiling-keep-smiling-8001329-386-480I thought about this research today as I was out and about running errands.  I made it a point to smile at everyone who was stopped next to me in traffic.  Even at a few people who were walking on the sidewalk and crossing the street.  Some people’s expressions led me to believe that they thought that I was a creeper, but this was not the case with everyone.  Some people smiled back.  Some people waved.  One car let me go ahead of him in traffic.

Near the end of the afternoon, I found myself in the insane maze of Trader Joe’s parking lot.  Insanity rules in this particular location as the number of shoppers far outweighs the number of places to park.  People troll from lane to lane with grim expressions of determination on their faces.

I went into the maze with a philisophical state of mind.  Determined to carry out my mission of smiling at strangers today, I put myself into the ludicrous and absurd flow of cutthroat parkers.  People were cutting others off and zipping into parking spots ahead of them.  Sign language ensued.  A near fender bender was prevented by some pretty insane honking.  Everyone was wanting to get in and get out with their groceries.

I spied an empty spot, turned on my blinker, and then saw a car bearing down on me from the end of the lane.  Yikes!  This person must have really needed my spot because he zipped in ahead of me before I could even begin turning my wheel.

When he got out of his car, he smiled at me.  But it wasn’t a nice smile.  It was a smile of one-up-man-ship.  Gotcha! is what his smile said.   Now I am not a saint.  No, not by any long shot of the arrow.  And I could feel my brow furrowing and the corners of my mouth turning south.  But I paused.  And I thought.   And I remembered my research mission of the day.  As he came walking by my truck — which was hopelessly stalled behind two other cars that had been wanting that same parking spot — I smiled at him.  Really smiled at him.  He looked at me smiling at him, shook his head at me to confirm my insanity, put his head down, and kept walking.  I don’t know why, but this made me laugh out loud.

The moral of the story.  I ended up parking across the street from the fray of bumper cars, went into the store and ran the aisles, paid for my groceries, and rattled the cart across the way to my truck.  I was loading my bags into the back when a voice clear out of nowhere asked me, “Can I help you with your bags?”

It was a woman who had somehow materialized behind me.  I looked at her and thought, “Whoa!  Where did you come from?”  I almost declined her offer but then thought better of it.  She was smiling.  She helped me with my bags and then offered to return my cart for me.  Wow!  Like an angel, she rattled back to the store with the empty cart, still smiling.

I shut the tail gate and got into the truck and sat there while the truck warmed up.  I felt as if I had been visited by a significant act of kindness.

toaster ovenMy research mission for tomorrow?  Smile more. Even when I am here at home clattering away at the keyboard, I am going to smile more.  Research has shown that when you are feeling really blue, you can take a pencil and hold it horizontally in your mouth, across your bite, to simulate a smile.   This simple little act of holding your mouth in a make-believe smile — which is called facial feedback or priming — will indeed make you feel better. Good feelings are released.  It is like an instant therapy in moments of stress or sadness.

Below is a link to Ron Gutman’s TED talk.  Enjoy!  And it is my wish that your day is awesome and full of smiling.

What’s Up?

” . . . and my life is still
Trying to get up that great big hill of hope
For a destination . . .”

This is such a great song.  What is hope?  What does it mean?  What does it instill in our soul?  What does it provide in the ways of forward motion?

Do we equate success with hope . . . is success in some way proportional to hope?

After all, what is life without hope?

I remember talking with a friend whose girlfriend had experienced a critical and heartbreaking rock-climbing accident.  I remember not knowing exactly what to ask or to say to my friend, as his girlfriend was an Olympic-quality athlete and was enduring the painful realization that life would not be in any state of re-dial in the ways of movement and in the ways of time.

We talked and I asked how life was healing and evolving.  His response: “Well, where there is life, there is hope.”

I remember this conversation well.  It struck me that this was all there really was left to say in the aftermath of a life-changing tragedy.

I think of this song by the 4 Non Blondes and I realize that hope can feel like “that great big hill.”  We worry and we fret.  We despair and we want to give up.  We want to crawl into a shell.  We want to try something entirely different — even when it means walking away from an epic life-dream.

But hope tugs at us and gets us up in the morning.  We want time to stand still for even a fractional moment.  But it doesn’t.  It simply doesn’t.  There are days when the merry-go-round is moving too fast to factor Hope into its revolution but we still manage to catch a glimpse of something that spells b-e-t-t-e-r.

“And so I wake in the morning
And I step outside
And I take a deep breath and I get real high
And I scream at the top of my lungs
What’s going on?”

So, we keep breathing and we tell ourselves that life can get better.  That different is not always bad.  That sometimes different opens new windows and doors that we could never have imagined as being so beautiful and loving and perfect.  That we worry too readily.  That there are days when we want to scream at the top of our lungs: “What’s going on?”  But there are also days when we say, “I never could have imagined this.  It is so perfect.”toaster oven

We make our plans and we project our timeline.  We map out our SMART goals and we think we know our destination, but we don’t.  Which is a blessing on the good days.  And a blessing on the bad days.  I remember being at a retreat and listening to a woman telling a group of us about the challenging things that had been taking place in her life.  She said that she had been feeling sorry for herself until she talked to someone who had challenged her in a big way.  This person asked her: “If you were in a large group of people and everyone were to put their biggest problem in a brown paper sack . . . would you be willing to reach into that sack and take on whatever problem that you pulled out of the sack?”

She posed the question to all of us at the retreat.  There was silence.  “Exactly,” this woman said.  “No one feels capable of taking on different.  We are all somehow amazingly prepared to deal with what it is we given to deal with.”

You can see why this story has stuck with me all these years.  I lost track of every artist from this retreat, but I still thank this woman for both sharing her heartbreaking situation AND for the healing challenge that she posed to all of us.

So when I ask myself or my loved ones or the Universe: “What’s going on?” . . .  I remember this story and “I take a deep breath and I get real high” and I move toward something that feeds my soul at the Table of Hope.

It sometimes takes courage to realize that I do not know “what’s going on,” but I want to opt for staying “high” and keeping my eye on “a destination.”

seed crack growth

Confidence . . . an Appreciation of Self

kindness confidenceConfidence.  What is it?  Confidence is defined as “a feeling of self-assurance arising from one’s appreciation of one’s own abilities or qualities” (Google: define).  We read and hear a lot about appreciation.  Appreciation for our blessings, our possessions, our jobs, our health, our friends, our family, our senses, our brains, our abilities.   Technology, nature, transportation, travel, beauty.  We appreciate others for what they do and for the joy they bring into our lives.  We appreciate how they love us through those thick-and-thin moments.  We reciprocate and make them coffee in the morning.  We send a nice email to someone at work.  We let a stranger go ahead of us in traffic.  We leave a love note on the mirror in the bathroom.  We kiss each other good bye each morning. toaster oven

We pick up the slack on a project with a deadline.  We choose to be gracious when we don’t feel like it.  We laugh at someone’s bad joke.  We sky-lift a worm on the sidewalk after a rain to safety.  Little things.

When was the last time you paused to appreciate an ability or a quality you have?  Really appreciate it.  A quirk or a talent?  A spot of brilliance or a burst of intuition?  A kind gesture you have made that was based more on intuition than anything else?  Do we even notice when we are expressing a kindness?  Or do we continue to be hard on ourselves – when we might not have been exactly perfect in that instantaneous snapshot of time that we call Right Now?

We tell others what we enjoy about them or about what they do to contribute or what it is that makes them unique and lovable.  It seems that this is absent on a self-level – on a level that escapes the traps and chains of egoism or conceit or narcissism.  Just plain and simple appreciation.

What do you appreciate about yourself?  What one little thing have you done or thought today that you appreciate?  Maybe you turned a mad-attitude into an accepting-attitude.  Maybe you realized that you have been offering resistance in a situation over which you have zero control.  Zero.  Maybe you made some pumpkin pie and delivered it to your significant other.  Or maybe you gave someone a hug – someone who really needed a hug in that moment. Or maybe you told someone you love him when it just felt right in that second to say it aloud.

When we experience a moment of confidence, maybe it is as simple as acknowledging the little things that we do each and every day.  Moments that assure ourselves that we are on this planet for a reason.  For a good and mighty and blessed reason.  I believe that there are many moments throughout the day when one has an opportunity to give a high five or an elbow bump to your little ol’ self.

Would the world be a more self-actualized place if we were kinder to our own selves?  I think so.

self confidence