Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Power of Gratitude

More than ten years ago, I read Simple Abundance, by Sarah Ban Breathnach. Second only to the Bible, that book has had the greatest influence on the way that I live my life. It served to alter my attitudes about joy, love, hospitality, friendship, and most of all, my attitude of gratitude.

In response to a recommendation made in that book, I began to keep a gratitude journal. The concept is simple: at the end of every day, write down five things you are thankful for. Don't just think about them or say them out loud; write them down. Then with the passage of time, I ended up with several small journals filled with things, people, foods, drinks, places, events, moments that I was grateful for each day.

There were big things like being able to pay the mortgage and our car payments. And good health. And surviving power outages during snow storms while living in a house that was heated with electric heat.

There were little things. Like finding parking spots near the door of the supermarket when my children were both still little. And finding lost earrings. And discovering that our favorite cereal was on sale at the supermarket.

Then I noticed that the little things became big things. After all, saving money on cereal or the electric bill is a big deal. And so was being able to find my car keys in my rather large diaper bag while standing in the rain with a crying infant in my arms.

Then I noticed more and more things for which to give thanks.

I learned to find reasons to be grateful even when the car needed new tires that we thought we couldn't afford. At least we had a car, two cars in fact. And there were reputable car repair people in our community, establishments that would recommend replacing only two tires at a time so that we could afford the upkeep of our cars without overextending ourselves financially.

I found reasons to be grateful when a connecting flight was cancelled. I had been wondering about how to make a slow reentry into my life after an emotionally eventful trip overseas. There's nothing like getting stuck at O'Hare Airport and having to spend the night in a nearby hotel to make for a slow reentry. And because I am a very light traveler, I had everything I owned with me in my carry-on. I was the only person checking in to that hotel that night that didn't have to ask for a toothbrush at the front desk!
I found something to be thankful for when the pool water remained a disturbing shade of dark green for an entire week after we opened it one summer. I was reminded that we can spend hundreds or thousands of dollars throwing stuff into our lives, all the things that we are told will "clear it up" and nothing changes. Then we are told, "Oh yeah, you need to throw shock into the pool first. If you don't put the chlorine in there, then nothing else will make a difference." For me, the shock, the chlorine, the clarifier has been God Himself. I've tried a whole lot of other stuff. I still am prone to wander off and try other stuff and other people, but falling back onto my knees in silence reverence and gratitude still set me straight more than anything else ever has.

I found reasons to be grateful even when I cut my finger and needed stitches. Medical insurance and a nearby Urgent Care Center are a great combination. I hope that someday soon everyone in this nation will be able to get the help they need when they need it without having to worry that they may lose their house as a result. Our medical costs increase every year, but my husband and I agree that if we have to pay out a little more every month so that others will get the care they need, then it's worth it. We don't care how communist or socialist that sounds to some. We know what it is to need urgent care for ourselves and our children. We have been grateful to and for every doctor, nurse, nurse's aide, receptionist, medical assistant, midwife, and physician's assistant that has every tended to us. The time may come when we have no insurance for one reason or another; we'd like to think that even then, we will be able to receive the medical care we need - especially after bonehead maneuvers like trying to slice off the top of my right pinky finger with a recently sharpened knife.

Somehow I was able to muster up reasons for gratitude when my daughter was sick, my son's allergies flared up, (see preceding paragragh) and my husband was annoying the heck out of me - no comment - not that any of those things happen very often.

This morning, I am grateful for strong hot coffee after strong cold drinks at a surprise 50th birthday party last night - no, not for me, for my son Daniel's best friend's father - who also happens to be one of Daniel's tennis coaches.

I am grateful for a new cell phone after my old one imploded earlier in the week.

I am grateful for the quietness in my house; I am the only one awake. But I've got to go wake up my son for a tennis tournament.

I am grateful for the public library - if I had to buy every book I long to read, I would be a penniless geek.

I am grateful for airplanes that transport me, my friends and my family across land and sea into and away from one another's loving embraces, and that transport sweet Spanish clementines, strong Italian coffee, and long grain Indian basmati rice from their homelands to mine.

I am grateful for a body that works well most of the time, that obeys most of my demands of it, and that responds well to being nourished with fresh food and ice cold water.

I am grateful for laughter, good dreams, honey whole wheat bread from The Great Harvest Bread Company, chewable vitamins, watercolor crayons, Sharpie markers, peace signs on silver jewelry, Nag champa incense, veggie burgers from 131 Main, calcium supplements, kale salad with homemade dressing, cutting boards, hardwood floors, fireworks, fresh basil, clean socks, nail clippers, umbrellas, toilet paper, Dr Bronner's soap, combination locks, zippers, remote controls, lavender-scented laundry detergent, sharp scissors, the music on my ipod, hairdressers, cool late summer mornings, tomatoes still warm from (a friend's) garden, automatic dishwashers, a friendly vet, sensitive toothpaste, tracing paper, Good Will stores, down comforters, cookbooks, turbinado sugar, prayer beads, cloth bags to carry our groceries in, ice cubes, a great sense of direction, lazy Sunday mornings, frozen grapes, silver polishing cloths, the rich abundance of food in the supermarket, the lazy susan on the kitchen island, coconut oil, magnets, Life is Good stickers, generous neighbors, and the smell of tiny babies.

What are you grateful for today?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The perfect poem for someone with a hungry heart...


It’s never the same, is it, that next night following the meal
you threw yourself into, having braved the zoo of the weekend market,
the mad scramble in your files for a cheesecake recipe that could steal
anyone’s heart, the patient stovetop stirring, the kitchen a thicket
of aromas and your own wild, unassailable ardor. Now, these same dishes
rendered less spectacular the second time around, dessert
a little on the gummy side, house too quiet, and your only real wish is
to clear the fridge of this remainder, wipe the shelves of the effort
you gave. You want blankness, space, a raw canvas for creating.
The stomach of your heart is ravenous and waiting.
Maya Stein has done it again. And right on time.
It's almost as if she's been reading my mind and my journal.
And then she rewrote my thoughts in ten perfectly crafted lines of poetry.
Le Pain Quotidien, Washington, DC.
My heart is ravenous these days.
Deep fried soul food heavily salted by prejudice and fear,
non-nourishing soul junk food coated in sugary pablum,
prepackaged, over-cooked, underseasoned white bread style soul food that others 
have forcefed me for decades, the predigested kind -
I seem to have developed a severe allergy to all of it.
But before I can decide what I'm going to feed my hungry soul, I need to spend time doing what Maya suggests in her poem - cleaning the shelves. Get rid of the sticky, overripe, rotten stuff that has been sitting around for far too long. The old ways of relating to the people I know and love. The old ways of relating to people I no longer need or wish to have in my life, in my inner circle. The old ways of denying myself the love and passion and joy and freedom that my soul craves. Even the old ways of prayer and faith and reading the Bible. Everything must change. A deep cleaning is underway, folks. Deep.
It's time for everything to be taken out of the pantry of my soul and inspected.
It's time for a good old fashioned sniff test: if it stinks, it's out.
It's time to check expiration dates. If it's outdated and no longer applicable to my life, it's out.
It's time to do some allergy testing; if my heart starts to itch or break out into soul-deep hives, it's out.
The National Cathedral, Washington DC.
It's time for soulful cell phone serenades from kindred souls - thanks Jen.
Thanks for reminding me that there are many ways to live the life of faith - thanks Rachelle.
It's time for text and email exchanges with another woman on her mid-life adventure - thanks Louise.
It's time for paint and glue and markers and the free flow of creative juices - thanks Heather and Mary Anna.
It's time for reconnecting with loved ones thru travel - thanks for saying "yes," Liz.
Can't wait to see you, Natalia. Gotta pick a weekend with you, Launa.
Plus there is the ever-present yearning return to my soul's birthplace, Madrid.
We have got to make that rendezvous in Barcelona happen, Judy.
It's time for long slow meals and candlelit conversation.

It's time for laughter and singing and dancing late into the night.
It's time for holding hands, telling stories, and staring at the full moon.
It's time for sitting in silence rather than filling the air with unneeded and unheeded sermons.

On pilgrimage in Valladolid, Spain.

It's time for an entirely new diet of Soul Food.
I'm ravenous.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Life is too short for...

I'm loving the new decor and design at Caribou Coffee these days.
What can I say? I'm a sucker for things that look like they were hand-written.
Their logo - "Life is short. Stay awake for it"  - is a saying that I could easily adapt as my own. Who's got time to sleep eight hours each night when there are dozens of books to read, a handful of books to write (what am I waiting for???), people to talk to and write to, food to eat, beverages to drink??? There's simply isn't enough time to get it all done AND sleep. So stay awake!!!

The other phrase that appears at Caribou is:
Life's too short for - and then a list follows.
Fake anything
Putting profits before people
Over-roasted coffee
Crabby people
Waiting for change to happen
Wifi you have to pay for
(How many of those were chosen as critiques of Starbucks???!!!)

Here's my list:  Life's too short for

* complaining
* being unhappy
* basking in self-pity
* denying myself dessert
* begging for love and affection
* sitting through unimaginative movies or bland books or demeaning church services
* eating food that doesn't make me happy
* worry and fear
* missing out on opportunities to know and be known, to love and be loved
* sitting out too many dances
* uncomfortable shoes and clothes that are too tight
* being sarcastic and mean
* fighting with the people I love - or with anyone at all
* wasting time listening to angry people try to make me angry at and fearful of people and situations that have nothing to do with me

Instead, I plan to stay awake for:

* bold coffee and spicy tea
* food made with love and fresh ingredients (NOT made by me!!!)
* long, winding conversations with beautiful, kind, gentle, attentive friends
* laughter, deep belly-jiggling laughter
* game nights with my family
* class preparation - I have been asked to teach journaling as a spiritual discipline again
* taking photographs of my family, my friends, and my food
* blogging, facebook, texting, chatting - maintaining communication with my loved ones
* learning how to stand up, speak up, be calm, be strong, be at peace
* staring at the moon when the street is quiet and everyone but me is asleep
* filling the pages of my journal with dreams and plans and sorrows and disappointments too
* making journals from scratch: fold the watercolor paper, cut it, stitch it, paint it, and then fill it with myself
* silly reality television shows that take me far from my own reality
* learning contentment with the life I already have
* deep thought, quiet prayer, meditation on The Word
* living this life to the fullest, day by day, hour by hour, steeped in gratitude and joy

Thursday, August 12, 2010

What I am cherishing these days...

Jen Gray shared some of the things and people she is cherishing these days over here. Her way with words moves me deeply; thanks, Jen. "Cherishing the huge and the tiniest bits of this life. It has helped drown the chatter and static, and has definitely helped me to really slow down. I am practicing letting go of things that previously would suck my spirit dry and trying to fill it with the guts of what really matters most. "

And because I'm not having too many original thoughts these days - at least none that I can share in public - I am going to follow Jen's example and share a few things that I am cherishing, a few things that are watering and nourishing my parched and famished spirit these days.

1. Journaling, so much journaling. Cracking my heart open, spilling its contents, trying to keep the mess between the covers - and not always being successful at it. Pages painted and collaged and written on and filled up day after day.

This photo is taken at the art table of my sweet friend, Heather.
That's my journal undergoing transformation.

2. Coffee every morning. Sometimes I flavor it with the peppermint syrup I bought at Starbucks. Yes, you can buy bottles of their flavored syrups and throw your own super-sweet coffee parties in your own kitchen. One bottle of syrup costs considerably less than two of my favorite coffee concoctions.

3. Reading, reading, reading. I don't remember most of what I read, but I love doing it nonetheless. Perhaps my very short-lived short term memory causes me to love reading all the more, because if I remembered everything I've ever read, there wouldn't be room in my overstuffed brain for new books or magazines.

A pile of collage and art journaling books on my lap at Barnes and Noble.
Am I the only one who takes pictures of books and favorite pages in books?

4. Deepening friendships. I'm learning that daily contact isn't nearly as valuable, soul-stirring, or life-affirming as deep contact. And there has been some seriously deep contact happening this summer. Dailyness often morphs into shallowness, unfortunately. And who has time for shallowness when there is so much beauty and richness and power in the deeper places of life and faith and spirit?

5. Trader Joe's Caribbean Fruit Floes. Now that's a popsicle for grown-ups - but my kids tend to get to them before I can!

6. A lemon drop martini with a veggie burger and braised red cabbage at 131 Main. Plus key lime pie to take home for later. Yum!!! And the opportunity to enjoy all that alone with a good book - now that's the perfect meal!

7. Chasing my silly little dog around the house - and then snapping my fingers and having her lie down at my feet immediately.

8. Air conditioning in the minivan. We are going through the hottest summer in recent history down here in Charlotte. Feeling that cool air flow past my sweaty face is a beautiful thing, indeed.

9. My bed. Big and cozy. I'm in it alone a lot these days - not that I"m cherishing THAT part, but it's a great bed and snuggling down between the sheets on my super soft pillow is one of the highlights of my night. This summer, Steve and Daniel have abandoned us for life on the junior tennis circuit. That boy had better pay off the balance of my mortgage and buy me a new pillow or two with his first paycheck, that's all I'm asking.

Daniel talking to himself about tennis strategy.
I want to scream: "I don't care how you do it, boy - just WIN!!!"

10. Life itself. I am cherishing life these days. With illness and surgery and flooding and fires and oil spills and shootings and war and death all around me, life is looking and feeling mighty fine these days. With laughter and phone calls and tales of wildness and long rambling emails and giggle-producing text messages and quiet art dates and bubbly time with my Life Group and going to the movies alone & with friends and dancing with Andre at cardio funk and hopping and dancing around the room at zumba and burning incense and taking short road trips and dodging butterflies and rescuing turtles and talking with friendly neighbors on humid summer nights and listening out for the subtle murmuring of ancient evenings and distant music - with all of that swirling around me and within me and thru me, I am a woman falling back in love with my life. Just as it is. Empty bed, full garbage cans, ironing pile, patchy grass, and coffee-stained teeth notwithstanding.

My art journal, a bag of markers, and my favorite travel mug - the perfect start to the day.

Friday, August 06, 2010

My Last Screw - Part 2

The image of that loose screw hanging on to the bottom of my chair hasn't left me yet. Nor have the questions that have come up since putting my chair back together yesterday morning, the chair that is holding me up right now with only two screws.

Questions like - Where are the other two screws? What has kept me from falling, from having the seat of my chair slide off and send me sprawling all this time? What keeps me upright every day? Who helps me find just the right book on just the right shelf at a branch of the library I don't usually visit, a book that is helping me understand myself as a mother to a child with needs I cannot fill? What about the other books and movies I discover on my library and bookstore and Blockbuster jaunts - the books and films that highlight my love for the Spanish language, Renaissance art, and solo travel adventures, aid me in my pursuit of being the best mother I can be to these two amazing, challenging, loving, angry, delightful, needy, self-centered, mama-loving teenagers I live with, and all the while not neglect to attend to my deepest soulful murmurings - all at just the right moment, all without me actually setting out to find any of those books or movies? Who directs the fingers of friends to send just the right words of humor, wisdom, grace, and encouragement my way at just the right time? Who guided these persistently present, insightful, patient, dazzlingly beautiful, inspirational, adventurous, daring, forgiving, wonder-filled co-travelers onto the path of my life journey all at the same time? And most baffling of all, why do they all still love me when I so often feel and act in ways that are so undeserving? 

Hands on display at the National Gallery in Washington DC.

I realize this morning, sitting here on my perfectly sturdy, if inexplicably underendowed chair, that I have always been kept safe and strong, mostly in ways and at times and by means I have been completely unconscious of. I have been kept safe on countless late night walks down dark and empty streets in Rome and Madrid and Florence and Barcelona. I have been kept safe on late night walks down hospital corridors and across shopping plaza parking lots. When my tears have ruined my make up and stained my shirt, while bus and taxi drivers looked at me worryingly and helplessly through their rear view mirrors, even then, I have been held up. I have been kept safe late at night right here at home when my heart was fractured by fear and lacerated by loneliness. I have been held up by the prayers and love and friendship of others. I have always been held upright and held close and held together. I have always been held up by strong and invisible hands of love and grace and mercy.

Today as I sit here, right here, right now, I admit that I don't understand why. I don't understand how. I don't understand who. But I do know this: I am alive and well, happy and at peace right here, right now because I have always been held, during the countless times in my life when I was down to my last screw and it was loose.

I have often pretended otherwise. I have often declared otherwise.
And there have been many times when I proclaimed certainty and knowledge and proof.
But right here, right now, I've got nothing.
Except some pretty remarkable promises -

Be strong and courageous. Do not tremble or be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you, wherever you go.

These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have trouble, but take heart, have courage; I have overcome the world.

Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.

An ad for an apartment building that contains wisdom beyond its own understanding.

So off I go into another day of appointment and meetings, cooking and cleaning, laundry and packing, tennis matches and birthday parties. Another day of meeting deadlines and demands. Another day of holding myself down and back in order to hold her and him and her and him upright and together. Another day of preparing the speech when I will inform them that, contrary to their belief and all appearances to the contrary, their being held upright and together has absolutely nothing to do with me. Nothing at all.

I am still down to my last screw and it's still loose.
But help is on the way.

No, scratch that.
Help is here.
It has always been here. Always.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Down to my last screw...

and it's loose.

My seat is the one closest to the two doors.
The one with the books and pens and journals in front of it.

This morning, I sat down at my usual place at the kitchen table for coffee and quiet reading. As I shifted my weight in my chair, I felt something unusual under my right foot. I hoped it was a chunk of Maya's food - she takes a few pieces of her food at a time under the table and eats each piece slowly - and not something worse. I peeked under my chair with apprehension. I was wrong on both counts.

It was a screw.

This wasn't the first time I had found one under my chair. Every few months, a screw on the underside of my chair works its way loose and falls to the floor. As soon as I find it, I get a philips head screwdriver, replace it, and then I check everyone else's chairs. The last thing any of us need is for one of us to fall off our chair while sitting at the kitchen table.

Here's an interesting fact about this screw issue: my chair is the only one at the table that ever has loose screws.

Here's another interesting fact about this screw issue: After picking up the fallen screw this morning, I turned my chair over and discovered that I was down to my last screw - and it was loose, connected only by the tip, as though held there by some mysterious magnetic field. I have no idea what happened to the other two screws.

I shook my head and laughed at the obvious connection between the chair and my life: I am feeling a whole lot like my chair these days. Like I'm missing a few screws, one is lying on the floor beneath me, and my last screw is ominously loose.

This week has been crazy hectic. My son played tennis in a tournament that ended on Sunday. Another one started on Monday and ended today. He left ninety minutes ago with his father for yet another tournament that begins tomorrow and ends on Sunday. And next Tuesday night, they will leave again for a statewide tournament that begins on Wednesday and ends next Sunday. And I neglected to mention that on Sunday and  Monday nights, Daniel's doubles partner slept here at our home.

My daughter has had driver's ed this week, four hours a day, beginning on Monday, ending today. That schedule will resume next week. Plus she had a sleepover, a visit to the orthodontist, the library, a bead shop (she makes jewelry), a yarn shop (she is learning to knit), and several trips to the gym.

Supermarket. Laundry. Cooking. Giving the dog antibiotics after she got her teeth cleaned. Three large boxes of homeschooling material that arrived in the mail yesterday that I have yet to open and evaluate. I was invited to teach a journaling class a couple of weeks from now. I was thrilled - but then I found out today that I can't do it. Someone dear to me is undergoing minor surgery and guess who has to be the driver back and forth and oversee the early recovery period??? And that's just the stuff I can remember at the moment.

Then there is the emotional stuff that gets shoveled my way. The complaints - "you never do what I want to do." The accusations - "you like him/her/them more than you like me." The demands - "make my hunger and itchiness and pain and loneliness and fear go away." The suspicious inquiries- "who was that you were talking to/texting/emailing?" The misunderstandings - "I thought you were going to be here/ be there/ do this for me, but you didn't."

Not to mention my own emotional stuff. The yearnings. The longings. The questions. The doubts. The anger. The resentment. The hunger. The mental and intellectual and spiritual dehydration. And the OVERWHELMING urge to walk away from all of this. Tonight. For at least six months. Gone in sixty seconds. Without a trace.

Voices, other people's persistent voices, echo in my ear:
This is your life; you chose this. Suck it up and do it.
This is the only moment you have; enjoy it.
Be grateful for how great your life is.
Be contented with what you have.
Think of others before yourself.
It could be worse.

Then MY voice kicks in:
It could be a lot better.
I am desperate for a minimum of five days away - alone. Desperate.
When will these people take the initiative and take care of themselves?
Yes, this is my life. When will I be brave enough to live it the way I really want to?
Why am I the ONLY one whose chair has two screws when everyone else's has four?

Like I said, I'm down to my last screw - and it's loose.

I need your help, dearly beloved reader. Please send suggestions for how to spend not five days, but five hours of free time. Help!