Remembering Gratitude

I wasn’t going to write a gratitude list this year. I’m too busy, too many important things to do, just no time. But, I have learned and re-learned a thousand times that the things I hear myself saying I don’t have time for are sometimes the most important things I need to make time for. Sometimes I don’t have time because I am keeping myself busy so I don’t have to face the hard things.

This has been a tough year. They happen from time to time. This has not, by far, been the hardest year of my life. But it’s not been one where things to be grateful for jump immediately to mind.

The loss of my dear friend, G, tops the list of things that prevent me from wanting to think about gratitude. But, it is actually G who inspires this exercise for me this year. In fact, very shortly before she was suddenly and shockingly taken from us, she decided would create a gratitude blog. We talked many times about the importance of developing a gratitude practice. And we discussed the biggest challenge of practicing gratitude: being grateful for the things that hurt the most.

I don’t know how to be grateful for the loss of someone I love. I can’t even get close enough to the loss to really look at it. Often, in the few quiet moments that happen between sliding into bed and sleep, it occurs to me that this latest wound needs the dressing changed. When I manage to get close to attending to it, the smell turns my stomach. I cannot find the courage to rip off the tape. I turn into a simpering fool, paralyzed by the fear of gangrenous, maggot-infested flesh that surely lies beneath the neglected bandage.

I suspect this wound is really just a reopening of an age-old wound that has never formed a scar. It is the pain of loss.

The past year was what seemed like a long series of losses, some more paralyzing than others: the loss of my canine companion; the loss of belief in myself when I wasn’t able to help my husband with his business; the loss of my own identity in taking time off from my corporate career; the loss of income; the loss of financial security for me and my small family; the loss of faith in good health and self-determination when my 70 year-old yoga instructor (who also does triathlons’s and century bike rides) had hernia surgery that resulted in a near-death struggle for survival over several months; the partial and temporary loss of my own mind from a concussion from a biking accident; the loss of my amateur status in photography that brought with it business management overhead that I wasn’t fully prepared for; the loss of feeling like we lived in a safe community when a shooting that reached international news occurred just a couple miles down the road; the loss of my freedom when my leave of absence ended; the loss of my Friday morning yoga class that I’ve depended on for sanity for nearly 4 years; the loss of easy access to our first friends in Chattanooga when they decided to move to Florida; the loss of yet another pillar in my support network when another friend moved to D.C.; the list goes on. Of course, the unexpected and difficult to understand death of my closest friend was by far the most staggering loss this year. It is still not real to me even though I sit on her couch as I write this.

See how easy it is for me to feel sorry for myself? Even the decision to shoot professionally, something I’ve worked towards for many years, has become a loss. The sense of loss can be every bit as infectious as a good laugh.

This is, in a nutshell, why my gratitude list must be a priority for me. And why it needs to be a daily practice, not an annual one.

In fact, Forbes listed 7 positive benefits of gratitude different studies have demonstrated ranging from improved physical health to improved sleep in an article run last year for Thanksgiving. You can read the article here: http://www.forbes.com/sites/amymorin/2014/11/23/7-scientifically-proven-benefits-of-gratitude-that-will-motivate-you-to-give-thanks-year-round/

In the end, we develop habits. As Charles Reade is oft paraphrased (this is the version I first saw on an elementary school cafeteria wall in 2002):

Mind your thoughts for they become your words;

Mind your words for they become your actions;

Mind your actions for they become your habits;

Mind your habits for they become your character;

Mind your character for it becomes your destiny.

Our brains are relatively easy to train into patterns of thought. If we take in our experiences and make them losses, they are losses. But we can just as easily learn to take in these same experiences as reasons for gratitude. The point is to choose to create a destiny that is not full of regret and and an overwhelming sense of loss.

And so, in honor of G, I make my list this evening. I am grateful for:

  • Having loved so dearly that the loss knocked me down, stopped my heart, filled me with endless longing and yet having found the courage to love so dearly again.
  • Having learned (and continuing to learn) from wise friends who come with many points of view and experiences.
  • Having had a glimpse of what dementia feels like so that I may be more compassionate, patient, and empathetic with those who suffer from any form of mental confusion.
  • Experiencing the strength and grace of practicing yoga and knowing that I can remain flexible and strong for decades to come.
  • Having met caring people who have welcomed me into their lives in both big and small ways and made me feel like I am part of a community–both locally and afar.
  • Having taken the risk and time to explore the possibility of what my husband and I could and could not do together rather than wondering what might have been.
  • The opportunity to return to a job that gives me a sense of security and provides for my (even smaller) family.
  • The ability to continue to pursue photography and to push my limits in a part of my brain that isn’t always exercised.
  • Having been published in a major magazine.
  • Being inspired to start the Serious Women series which has re-awakened my creative spirit as well as inspired me in new ways as I learned more about the women I was shooting.
  • My iPhone and Facebook, which make it possible to incorporate keeping in touch with distant friends in fractions of minutes in even the busiest of days.
  • For being able to see my family for important events in their lives as well as ordinary visits even though we are geographically dispersed.
  • For Euchre.
  • And, for my friends in Chattanooga who haven’t abandoned me even though I have sorely neglected them.
  • I am grateful for having had 3 years with my boy, Tisen. 3 years during which I was the star of every day for him and that reminded me to try to be the person my dog believed me to be (as the bumper sticker goes).
  • I am grateful for having been able to ease Tisen out of the world gently. And for a vet who was willing to come in for this somber purpose on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. For a husband who is the kind of man who cried shamelessly over the loss of a dog who loved me like no one else and who often guarded me jealously—even from the same husband who was there for him to the very end.
  • I am grateful that G remained a central part of my life even after we moved to Chattanooga. I am grateful that we were both able to use technology to keep in touch, often in random and hilarious ways—that we were able to bridge space and time.
  • I am grateful that G inspired me to write this list (and the many, many other ways in which she continues to inspire me) and that I took the time to write it. I am grateful that my life is so full of lessons, opportunities, love, and surprises. I am grateful that I continue to muddle my way through the curve balls.
  • I am grateful for maggots—they can cleanse wounds thoroughly and without disgust.

“If you want to be happy, notice that you are.” -Georgia Crosby, 1957-2015

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I Handed Away My Heart

I handed away my heart. It happened accidentally—I meant to hold something back. A little lifeline to reality: my dog would only be in my life for a few short years.

But now my heart is breaking. Each crack created by a change in my dog as the tumor in his brain grows. Each time he runs into something, each time he stumbles and falls, each time he looks blankly at a favorite toy and leaves it behind, I feel a new tear.

We are both disintegrating—I in my chest and he in his head.

I am so honored to be loved by this dog. A dog who came to us as a foster dog from the local shelter. They had nursed him for 2 months after his previous humans had tried to starve him to death on purpose.

How could I not have given this boy my whole heart? He loved me. He had no reason to trust a human ever again, but he claimed me as his and went all-in. He has been my constant shadow, convinced I was not safe in the world without him by my side.

How could I withhold any part of my heart when my heart was all he asked for? My heart and squeaky toys. My boy gave me, and his squeaky toys, unconditional love in a way that only a dog can.

A dog reaches into that soft and squishy place that reminds us what is most important in life—-tapping into the essence of our humanity. A dog gives us the hope we are better people than we thought we were and inspires us to be better still.

To be entrusted with another being’s happiness and his very life reminds me I am powerful, tender, needed, loved. My responsibility to him requires me to be patient, kind, gentle, forgiving. And somehow, it’s easy to be patient, kind, gentle, and forgiving when the smallest smile makes a dog’s tail wag. Dogs are masters of positive reinforcement.

But I’d forgotten what a tricky thing it is to keep your heart safe. After all, it’s been 6 years since I last lost a dog. That’s the trouble with dogs. You think you’ve prepared yourself for the shortness of their lives. You think you’re going to be just fine. And then the day comes when you are faced with the reality that the end is near. That’s when you realize you’ve handed away your heart. Even if accidentally.

Being Golden


Growing up, I was taught to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It seems simple enough. However, this rule can quickly turn an attempt at thoughtfulness into an act of egocentric selfishness.

For example, my aunt was compulsively punctual. Because she was also exceptionally nervous, continually worried about abandonment, and a complete freak to deal with when she was upset, my family went to great lengths never to be late picking her up under any circumstances.

In my aunt’s mind, making us wait even a second would be inconsiderate. At the same time, if she waited more than a few minutes, she would begin to think she was confused about what time we were picking her up and chaos would ensue. “On time” to my aunt meant about 10 minutes early. There was a 4-minute window in which you could safely arrive and retrieve my aunt without panic, chaos, guilt, or retribution: arriving 5-9 minutes early meant you had not waited on her and you were early enough to avoid triggering her panic. This resulted in many dangerous acts of driving.

All in the name of thoughtfulness.

From her I learned to watch myself. To watch when “doing unto others” takes that dangerous turn into “assuming others want what I want.” The hardest acts of thoughtfulness are when what feels thoughtful to someone else is completely different than what we would want. Removing ourselves from the equation and truly making it about the other person is actually quite a challenge.

I think of my grandfather who never wanted gifts and my mother’s desire to give a gift he would like. Every Christmas, she would give him something more and more practical trying to align her gift giving with what she thought he would enjoy. Every year she was disappointed by his reaction. In reality, what he wanted was no gifts but my mother couldn’t give up on her belief that the perfect gift would result in him expressing genuine gratitude.

As selfless and thoughtful as my mother was, here she wasn’t really being thoughtful–it was her own need for her father’s approval that drove her compulsion to find him the perfect gift rather than any need of his.

And this, in a nutshell, is the problem with the Golden Rule. If we apply it from the perspective of our own neurotic need for approval, appreciation, or even just confirmation of what we believe about ourselves (we’re giving, thoughtful people), we usually don’t really apply it at all.

In the end, we don’t want people to do unto us exactly the way they would want us to do unto them. Rather, we want people to know us, see us, understand us, and, as a way of acknowledging that they accept us as we are, do unto us as we would have them do unto us. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” really should come with many footnotes.

Attitude

I have been thinking a lot about attitude lately. Merriam-Webster defines attitude as:

          1: the way you think and feel about someone or something
2: a feeling or way of thinking that affects a person’s behavior

3: a way of thinking and behaving that people regard as unfriendly, rude, etc.

I don’t think the first and second definitions should be separate. The way we think and feel about someone or something necessarily affects the way we behave.

For example, if we are having a really bad day and are at our absolute worst and then run into an acquaintance at the grocery store, if we have not established trust with that person, we are likely to behave politely and pleasantly in spite of how we feel. Conversely, when we get home, because we trust those whom we love to forgive us, we may unleash a torrent of unpleasantness on them.

This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes. It was told by Maya Angelou as something her grandmother once said to her: “If you have only one smile in you, give it to the people you love. Don’t be surly at home, then go out in the street and start grinning ‘Good morning’ at total strangers.”

It begs the question: Why do we save our best behavior for people we don’t know?

Showing the worst of ourselves requires vulnerability. Being willing to be vulnerable comes from trust and intimacy. When we are intimate with someone, we show all of ourselves to them, for better or worse. We trust them to take us as we are. Or, to put it less positively: we believe we can get away with it.

But perhaps the damage we inflict on them and our relationship really isn’t worth the relief of not having to hold in all our anger and frustration?

When I was a child, my mother brought home a book called “TA for Tots”–a popular book in the 70’s. It talks about things like “warm fuzzies” and “cold pricklies” as a way of helping children and parents identify feelings and behaviors and make better choices. Essentially, giving us a way to choose our attitude.

As a teenager, my mother’s touchy-feely parenting became regarded as “uncool.” Later, as a woman in a male-dominated industry, I believed the worst thing anyone could say about me was that I was “emotional.” To talk about feelings became taboo.

Yet, the heart of our attitude, our behaviors, and, ultimately, all of our relationships and all that we accomplish comes down to our feelings.

If instead of snapping at my husband I could simply say, “Hi. I’m glad you’re here. I’ve had a really crappy day and need a hug,” wouldn’t that go a lot further a lot faster to restoring me to my better self? And wouldn’t it make my husband feel wonderful that he could be there to give me what I need? Once again, I should have listened to my mother.

A New Year

Here we are.  A new year.  Another marker of the passage of time.  So, taking stock of some of my 2013 high/low lights:

I experienced complete and utter presence in the moment repeatedly while learning how to handle birds of prey.  I also began to understand how much more I have to learn.

I sat silently with my husband on a cliff in South Cumberland State Park and listened to the wind blowing through the pine trees, experiencing the simple joy of knowing that the wind, the trees, the rocks, my husband, and I were all connected in that moment.

I listened to a troubled friend with an open heart and felt their pain with empathy and without judgment.  More frequently, I fell back to my old habit of listening, judging, and trying to fix.

I spent an afternoon visiting with my bestie that was so relaxing, we both fell asleep and napped.  There was a time in my life when I would have thought that was a bad thing, but sleep is the ultimate vulnerability.  To be with someone and feel so calm and so at ease that I can sleep in her presence now seems like an amazing gift.

I stopped in places I had never seen while on a road trip with Tisen.  I paused in my constant push to get somewhere faster to stop and see what was a few miles from the highway, discovering bison, quiet fishing lakes, and a historical village.

I took a walk through a historic plaza in the middle of Madrid on a sunny day in February  and feasted on local fare at a tiny restaurant with 6 tables, served with the warmth of family by the couple who owned the place.  I experienced food made with love and hospitality.

I deepened my knowledge and appreciation of photography, pushing myself to a place where I feel comfortable that I know what I don’t know and I know what I want to work on next.  What I appreciate the most is that it truly is all about the journey–there’s a new discovery every time I look through the lens.

I lost sight of some of the things that are of the greatest importance to my health and well-being.  I injured my back in the spring and stopped rowing and riding, only to re-injure my back when I started again weeks later.  I haven’t been on my bike in months.  Eating has become something that happens when someone hands me food or I’m so hungry I feel nauseous.  I not eating well and I am not eating enough.  I also stopped finding time to meditate.  All of this has added up to sleepless nights, frenetic energy, anxiety, and physical discomfort.

So, I guess I know what my goals for 2014 are:  more moments fully experienced.  Less time trying to do more.  More time recharging myself.  I guess that means it’s time to stop writing and go to bed.

Christmas Present

Regardless of which version of history you believe and what holiday(s) you do or do not celebrate, I think it’s worthwhile to have a “winding down” of the year during which we shift focus from frenzied work and socialization to calm time with family and friends–and with ourselves in quiet reflection.

For me, it goes kind of like this:  work extra hard for weeks getting ready to be (mostly) out of the office; run like mad for a couple of days to get ready to go visit family; spend a day traveling; relax, unwind, and enjoy being with people I love for a day and a half; discover when I relax that I am exhausted and require frequent naps; spend a day traveling back home; collapse and relax (relatively) quietly until New Year’s Eve, reflecting on the past year and working on some sort of self-discovery that I optimistically believe will lead to life-improvement.

The time with family and the week “off” between Christmas and New Year’s Eve are the times that matter most to me.  I’ve given up on massive consumerism in favor of minimizing the gifts and enjoying the visit.  For gifts, I go with silly stocking stuffers and money for my college-aged nephews.

Tisen is the only one I go overboard on.  I bought him a fleece that fits him like a dress, a bigger Lamb Chop, and some treats.  He’s easy to buy for and he thinks every gift is perfect.

Oddly, now that Christmas is so much easier (stocking stuffers for 4 and money for 2; I don’t even do cards anymore), it’s less enjoyable.  Having removed the majority of the consumerism from the holiday seems to have also removed much of the potential thrill.

After all, the best gift I ever got wasn’t a gift I received, it was the gift of having thought of the perfect gift for someone else.  It truly is the thought that counts–but I want the thought to be “I know you; I see you; I love you as you are.” Not “you really need this thing you’ve never heard of because I think you do.”  Or, “I have no idea what you would want, so thank you for making a list.”

Gone is the feeling of connectedness and belonging that comes along with knowing someone else so well or at least having paid close enough attention that you came up with that perfect gift for them.

On the flip side, after years of failing to think of the perfect gift for the people I love, I go in with realistic expectations and come out without disappointment.

Perhaps the secret is not tying the spiritual calming of year end reflection and time with loved ones to gift giving.  Perhaps we could give gifts when the perfect idea presents itself instead of based on a date on the calendar.  Then the only problem is if the perfect idea never comes.

Speaking Owl

Artie looking very happy on Horst's glove

Artie looking very happy on Horst’s glove

Note:  my husband is once again the guest photographer for all photos of the Raptor Experience, including in yesterday’s post.

One of the great pleasures in life is sharing something you love with someone who enjoys the experience.  Think about it.  While on the one hand, we might respect that everyone has different tastes, there is something in human nature that causes us to gravitate towards people who appreciate the same things we appreciate.  And introducing someone to something that’s a personal favorite makes for a particularly enjoyable experience.  It’s like discovering a new food that makes you want to groan when you put it in your mouth and finding out that someone else has the exact same reaction–it’s something in common, creating a tiny bond.

Elvi speaks owl fluently

Elvi speaks owl fluently

I think that’s why I enjoy volunteering for Wings to Soar so much.  There aren’t many people who don’t enjoy getting up close to birds of prey.  There are a few.  I recently met someone who is terrified of birds–probably not a great idea to introduce her to the raptors.  But most people are pretty fascinated by getting to see a creature up close that they normally only get to see soaring overhead or perched high above.

Me assisting in the background in my Cayce-protecting boots

Me assisting in the background in my Cayce-protecting boots

It’s interesting how this interest crosses cultures and language.  I may not be bilingual, but I’m pretty sure the owls are.  They seem to recognize their admirers in any language.

Artie, the Barred Owl, hopped on Horst and Elvi’s gloves and immediately settled down and looked content.  he wasn’t the least concerned about what language they spoke–as far as he was concerned, they spoke owl.

Theo hopping over to Horst's glove

Theo hopping over to Horst’s glove

Theo, the Barn Owl, however, might have been a little too settled–he was content to ride over to Elvi and Horst when we were hoping he would fly.  He sat on the perch and stared, occasionally acting like he was going to fly, but then waited patiently for Dale to come over and put him on her glove.  Dale walked Theo closer to Elvi and Horst in turn, trying to get Theo to a distance from which he would fly.  Theo looked longingly at the tasty piece of mouse on the destination glove, but he wouldn’t fly to it.  When Dale put her glove next to Horst or Elvi’s glove, he happily hopped over to their glove and munched contentedly.  He seemed perfectly happy; he just didn’t feel like flying.

Theo happy to join Elvi

Theo happy to join Elvi

Theo is a human imprint–he was raised by humans and doesn’t really understand he’s an owl.  I sometimes wonder if his reluctance to fly is because he identifies so much with humans, he starts to think it’s unnecessary.  But, then there are days when Theo doesn’t seem to want to sit on a glove at all.  He baits and baits and can’t seem to stay still.  I don’t know if it was the calming influence of Horst and Elvi, but I think he would have sat all day.

The 3-gloved approach

The 3-gloved approach