Perspective: Being Grateful for What You Don’t Have

Today is a gift

“Let me, if I may, be ever welcomed to my room in winter by a glowing hearth, in summer by a vase of flowers; if I may not, let me think how nice they would be, and bury myself in my work. I do not think that the road to contentment lies in despising what we have not got. Let us acknowledge all good, all delight that the world holds, and be content without it.”  George MacDonald 

I was thinking about the above George MacDonald quote yesterday, and it turned into a longer piece. elephant journal has been kind enough to publish it today just in time for Thanksgiving.

Gratitude has been marketed to death as a means to an end.

If you want to be happier, live longer, be more productive at work, have better relationships, make it through a difficult season—all you have to do is be grateful. Buy a cute “gratitude journal”—even though any journal or book will actually do the trick—and start writing.

 The underbelly of gratitude, which isn’t talked about as much, is bitterness. Is it possible to be content, even grateful, not solely for the things that we do have in our lives, but for the things that irritate us, the things that we’ve lost, or the things that never arrived?
Please head over to elephant journal for the rest of the piece here.
Happy Thanksgiving. Thankful to everyone who reads my words.

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Big Words #2

IMG_3062We do not wish for the disappearance of our sufferings but for the grace to transform them. Simone Weil

Today’s “Big Words” are brought to you by my current acupuncturist, a lovely woman who also works as a nurse in palliative care. I’ve been seeing her for almost two months due to some health issues that I’m experiencing. In an attempt to avert medication, I see her weekly at the integrative center of a local hospital.

When I was in my 20’s, I went for acupuncture for a hip injury for a series of weeks. I don’t remember minding it at all. In fact, I remember taking photos with my phone of the needles- mostly in my legs. Again, I went for acupuncture when I was six days past my “due date” with Audrey. I was hoping to avoid being medically induced which I did. I went into labor the next day.

This time, I’m not sure if it’s because I’m older, suffer from anxiety, or just have a more sensitive nervous system, but I have a very difficult time lying there. I feel each needle going in, and she places them in different surprise spots every week- in the tips of toes, right in between my eyebrows, in between the tiny veins on the underside of my wrists. Before I found Suzanna, my first acupuncturist was quite cold. I got incredibly dizzy the first time. So, now I worry about getting dizzy or passing out. I also worry about any sensations that don’t feel normal. I worry that I’ll get low blood-pressure. I have a very hard time letting go and surrendering to the “acu-high.” For me, relaxation has become intertwined with trauma and crisis because just moments before I got the call that my husband was dead, I had been swimming with my daughter at our condo pool and thinking about how relaxed and content I was. What fires together, unfortunately wires together- making it very hard for me to relax now. Instead, I struggle with being in a hyper state of vigilance lest I am blindsided again. For all these reasons, getting through those 20 minutes each week is a challenge.

I get through the twenty minutes of lying there by grounding myself in numbers: I look at the clock. I don’t close my eyes. I tell myself that if I want to, I could take the needles out myself and be liberated. Suzanna gives me a mantra I’d already learned in the “Emotional Freedom Technique:” “I deeply love and accept myself despite…(insert whatever you’re dealing with here: ie. my anxiety etc). I ask for a bell to be placed in my hand so that if I feel dizzy I can ring it. She offers to come in and check on me after the first ten minutes.  I can’t say that I enjoy it, but I’ve gotten much better at managing my anxiety during the treatment.

It was at one of those first anxiety-filled sessions that Suzanna said today’s “Big Words,” and I think they might be useful for anyone fighting their way through something difficult today, maybe something at which every nerve in your body is screaming out, “No!”

“There is no ‘right way’ to do this.”  The first thing these words do is acknowledge that something is hard. Maybe it’s not “supposed to be” hard, but it is. Secondly, they take away any sense of shame or feeling of inadequacy. When we think that there’s a prescription to follow or a best method, we heap on another layer of guilt in addition to whatever it is we’re already dealing with. When there is no right way, many ways seem to open up.

Audrey and I have really enjoyed watching “American Ninja Warrior” the past couple of summers, and we even got to meet one of the ninjas at a local obstacle course venue. Sometimes the ninjas have a really great run and move through the obstacles with such ease. But sometimes…sometimes they barely make it through each obstacle. They trip and fall, pulling themselves back up at the last minute. Sometimes their strategy seems strange; they might go backwards on a particular obstacle or attempt it differently than everyone else. They spend too much time on one obstacle, but then they make it up later. Their final climb up to the buzzer is anything but graceful. But in the end, if they do hit the buzzer, they’re through to the next round just like anyone else who made it through with ease.

Yes, sometimes there are more graceful or peaceful ways to pull through the challenges we face, but for me, it’s been very liberating to hear those words, and I think of them now during other obstacles that come my way.  There is no right way to do this. 

 

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Big Words

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“Words: so innocent and powerless…how potent for good and evil they become, in the hands of one who knows how to combine them!”  Hawthorne

According to Jung, certain dreams are considered, “Big Dreams.” These are the dreams we have at night that remain with us long after we wake, sometimes for years. They can be analyzed symbolically and reveal certain important things to us from our unconscious minds. They are much more than a menagerie of sensations and scenes our brain is playing around with. They are significant. You will know a “big dream” when you have one.

With that idea in mind, I’ve started calling certain words in my life “Big Words.” Sometimes they are overheard while I’m on a walk, but usually they are directly spoken to me by a friend, acquaintance, or even a stranger. While writers speak to me constantly through the written word, the “big words” in my life are usually spoken or sometimes written by a person I know in real life. Unlike most daily conversations, these words don’t dissipate with time. Instead they have a way of settling in and taking up residence in my heart’s mind.

I’ve done a small series on here before entitled “Small Comforts,” in the past, and unintentionally, I’m calling this one “Big Words.” I thought that perhaps, even though these words weren’t directed at my readers, because they’ve remained with me for so long, they might become “Big Words” for others as well.

This week’s “Big Words” are just two small words and my most recent addition. I had randomly written a friend asking her advice on managing my home—cleaning and organization. She’s someone that I respect and seems in general to have a good handle on things. Looking back my message to her feels like someone spitting out sentences without taking any breaths, without punctuation. What I hear in what was meant to be a casual, friendly message is a tinge of the desperate: words like  “never enough, I’ve tried but I can’t, overwhelming.”

This lovely woman, in her gracious reply to my frenetic message, did give me some good ideas including hiring a cleaning lady if my finances allowed it! But before any of that advice, she wrote two simple words that became “Big Words” for me the past few weeks.

“Be gentle.”

Not be gentle with yourself. Just “be gentle.” I thought about the tone of my own message: the exasperation, the frustration, the clenching of fists even—that those words, “Be gentle” seemed to release. I exhaled reading them.

When Audrey was a baby and a toddler, I remember specifically teaching her gentleness. When she’d go to touch something excitedly, I would just say, “Gentle…” and instead of grabbing or shaking, she would gently run her hand over the object like she was petting a small animal and repeat in her baby voice, “gentle.”

The first word my friend wrote was just my name with an exclamation point, “Julia! Be gentle.” So maybe next time you’re feeling frenetic you can use this mantra beginning with your own name, this touchstone that unclenches hands and induces a slow exhale.

“Be gentle.”

 

Praying

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How easily could God, if He so willed,
Set back the world a little turn or two!
Correct its griefs, and bring its joys again!
Edna St. Vincent Millay

Today we will offer our condolences and prayers on social media. I suppose that means different things for different people. I will intercede on your behalf. I will say your name before bed, or before meals. I will be thinking of you. Your loss will be on my heart and in my mind all day, the taste of it, the sick feeling in my gut, the oppression. But I will have no idea what it is really like to suffer your particular suffering. My compassion and empathy are genuine, but will only go so far because of the distance, and because it will interlace with fear—my own vulnerability and weakness. 

It wasn’t until quite a few years after my husband died that I began to tell people again, “I will pray for you.” I never wanted to utter those words truthlessly, and in the early years I knew that was all they would be if I said them.

I do not pray paragraphs of poetic words.  I do not worry aloud. Or bargain.  It doesn’t mean that I believe I have a power that others do not to somehow connect with God.

“Did you talk to God about it?” my 95 year old spiritual director would say. So sometimes it’s a conversation. Sometimes in writing. Often it is just speaking names aloud throughout my day, while I walk, or when they come to mind. Sometimes it is reading the names on a handwritten list I keep. Many names have been crossed off that list in recent months. They were not healed. They did not get better. I put one line through her name, replace it with the family members. It is they now, who need to be remembered.

“I will remember you in my prayers.” Not forgetting. Bearing witness to someone else’s pain without looking away. 

I started to pray again when Audrey entered kindergarten in the wake of Sandy Hook. It was instinctive—the way you would shield your child from harm. I found myself on my knees after dropping her off in the morning without thinking, and mostly just saying, “Oh God, oh God.” That was it. It was an understanding.

Many will say that we don’t need “prayers.” We need action. We need change. This is true too. But prayers do not have to be paltry. They speak of remembrance, connection, hope, and above all, love. And why should the good of anyone depend on the prayer of another? I can only answer with the return question, “Why should my love be powerless to help another?” George MacDonald 

A Life Unto Itself

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“One begins the slow walk back to health by choosing each day things that enliven one’s selfhood and resisting things that do not.” Parker Palmer, “Let Your Life Speak” 

I am often, actually almost always—overwhelmed. This probably has something to do with being an only parent, being an extremely detail-oriented person, and repeatedly making to-do lists that are entirely too long for one day. A few years ago, I decided to really examine where my time was spent. I knew what my priorities were, but I wasn’t sure I was spending my time accordingly, so I purchased the above tiny jars and labeled them. I thought that if I could place something small in each jar every time I had invested time in that priority, I’d have a visual at the end of the day to see if the way I spent my time was indeed matching up with my values.

As is often the case with me, my execution of the idea never took place. It turned out though, that just having those little jars staring at me on my desk was enough for me to internalize them.

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” said Annie Dillard, and I started to think of each day as a tiny life unto itself. If I die later today, I’d think, would I be happy with how I’ve spent just “this day?” If what I value is getting out in nature, spending quality time with Audrey, writing—then if I’ve spent most of my day doing those things—and let’s say, not endlessly scrolling on FB—then I will be content.

We’ve become accustomed to the huge successes and achievements people share on social media, but rather than pout because we haven’t made a tremendous social-media worthy “success” of ourselves, we can still focus on filling each “day-life” with goodness. “The most meaningful lives, I’ve learned, are often not the extraordinary ones. They’re the ordinary ones lived with dignity.” This is the epiphany in a NY Times op ed piece by Emily Esfahan Smith that I highly recommend you read in its entirety.  Long-term goals are still important to me, but I focus more on living my tiny day-life the best way I know how, hopefully—with dignity. It sounds simple enough—but many of us get lost in the busyness of life and end up just reacting, or even just surviving. Living in day-lives means slowing down and being intentional about your small actions throughout the day.

In the book Tuesdays with Morrie, Morrie, who is dying, suggests this: “Do what the Buddhists do. Every day, have a little bird on your shoulder that asks, “Is today the day? Am I ready? Am I doing all I need to do? Am I being the person I want to be?” I think when you lose someone close to you suddenly, that bird comes to live on your shoulder and never leaves. You understand in a way that many do not yet that tomorrow is not promised. There’s always the possibility that those long-term plans and goals you’re striving for will not have the chance to materialize—but—you have this one day.

How do you try to live intentionally and spend your time wisely?