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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Returning Home

Trips to Columbus, Ohio are always confusing to me. I never know which direction should be referred to as “going home.” I once wrote that home is where your bed is. By that criteria, I guess Chattanooga is our home destination. However, having spent nearly 40 years living in Columbus, the paltry 3 we’ve lived in Chattanooga have not been enough to erase the feeling of returning home when we head North on 75.

This last trip North ended the longest stretch I’ve gone to date between trips to Columbus. It’s been long enough that I can’t actually remember when my last trip up was, but I know it wasn’t in this calendar year. With my remaining family all living elsewhere these days and many of my friends having moved away as well, it sometimes catches me off guard how much Columbus still feels like home. When I think about what makes it feel homey, here’s what I’ve come up with:

  1. I know how to get to every place I want to go without using GPS. If one route has traffic, I know another route, also without GPS.
  2. I can come up with restaurants I want to eat at based on style of food, quality of adult beverages, particular favorite dishes, or outdoor ambience. (I confess, I did have to check with several restaurants on whether they allow dogs on their patio or not–Tisen came along on this trip.)
  3. I know where the “bad” parts of town are.
  4. I know where the best camera shops in town are and which ones carry Canon gear.
  5. I have a doctor and a dentist there.
  6. I know where to go for a safe pedicure without an appointment.
  7. Graeter’s Ice Cream is available just about everywhere–even Costco.
  8. The biggest problem is trying to fit everyone we want to see into a few days and realizing we’re not going to be able to get to see many of the people we’d love to catch up with.
  9. We have a place to stay where there is a room just for us and our dog is welcome (and offers from several other friends to stay with them)–I guess we do have a bed in Columbus.

This trip was timed around the Columbus Guitar Show. It was my first time working a show (although I’ve attended a couple before). Manning the booth and giving away T-shirts to people who participated in my marketing campaign turned out to be both fun and exhausting.

One of the best things about our timing was that we were in Chattanooga for the beginning and end of the Riverbend Festival, but missed the middle of the 9-day event. This means we didn’t get tired of the extra people and traffic in the downtown area. And, we were home in time for the fireworks–out of all the fireworks in Chattanooga, the Riverbend fireworks are by far the best and longest display.

Taking Stock

It’s officially been 2 months since my leave of absence began. I thought it would be a good time to enumerate both the new lessons I’ve learned and the old lessons that have  resurfaced as particularly relevant to this major shift in my life.

  1. Your time will fill. No matter how much you have to do or how long you think you have to do it, time will pass more quickly than you expected and you will get less done than you planned.
  2. It doesn’t matter how much of an out-of-the-box thinker you are; if there is no box, you can’t think outside of it.
  3. When you have a mile-long list of things to do and believe you have only a fraction of the time you need to get them done, you manage your time far more judiciously than when you have a short list of things to do and believe you have all day. (See #1.)
  4. There is always more opportunity than capacity.
  5. When one thing has been your biggest time investment for a long time, when you pull it out of your schedule, everything that surrounded it collapses on top of each other and you have to scratch and claw your way through the crap to shove in something new and get all the little stuff safely held at bay.
  6. Staying busy is not the hard part. It’s staying busy doing the important things instead of the distracting things that’s hard. (See #1.)
  7. Just because something must be done urgently doesn’t mean it should be done at all.
  8. I really mind a dirty house less than I mind cleaning it.
  9. We treat people we have an intimate personal relationship with like someone we have an intimate personal relationship with even when the topics are professional–it takes effort not to hear “I don’t love you” when you disagree.
  10. Working with your spouse is an opportunity to better your overall relationship. Creating artificial lines between your personal and professional relationship is only lying to yourself. The two roles are inseparable and must feed one another, driving both a closer, more intimate relationship and more creative energy from the feeling of being on the same team working towards the same goals.
  11. Sleep helps. This is theoretical. I used reverse logic: lack of sleep makes everything harder. Therefore, I believe that if I someday get enough sleep, it will make everything easier.
  12. Every day we have the opportunity to be more focused, more productive, more playful, more creative, more effective, more attuned to our health, and to get more sleep. We probably won’t do all of these things in the same day, however.
  13. At the end of the day, it’s you. There is only you and what you did and didn’t get done, whether what you did made a difference, and whether that difference is the difference you intended. Ultimately, there is not, and really never has been, anyone else to blame.

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.

Talking ’bout Generations

Generation 1 grinning from ear-to-ear while hugging generation 3--I love grandma's smile

Generation 1 grinning from ear-to-ear while hugging generation 3–I love the smile

Upon reflecting on spending Saturday morning with Great-grandparents, Grandparents, Parents, and child, the continuum struck me as profound.  I now have five close friends who are grandparents.  Everyone of them says being a grandparent is the best experience in the world–they don’t actually have to say that, the look on their faces says it all.

Perhaps it brings a sigh of relief knowing that you can pass the baton and let your child be the one who does all the hard stuff while you sweep in to blow raspberries on baby’s belly or to spoil a toddler with cookies at breakfast or let a ‘tween do something they’re not allowed to do with a wink and a shared secret never to be told to your children?

Sleepy face on Generation 4

Sleepy face on Generation 4

I am reminded of my own grandparents.  My father’s parents were born before the turn of the century–the 20th, that is.  My father was a late comer in their lives, born when they were in their 40’s.  By the time I arrived on the scene, they were nearly 70.

They were still fun people, albeit moving slowly, until I was about 12 or so.  We saw them twice a year, living about a 10-hour drive away.  Grandma always baked for us.  She made fancy homemade cakes for my brother’s birthday at Christmas.  But what really got us excited wasn’t the cake.  It was her marshmallow treats.  We had never had them before my grandmother made them for us the first time.  She set the standard.

My grandmother also made the best strawberry preserves I ever ate in my life.  Grandma’s strawberry preserves were so darn good, I still drool whenever I think about them.  I used to regret not learning from her how to make them, but now I think the memory of those preserves is sacred.  Grandma’s secret ingredient in all her recipes was an infusion of love.  Eating her goodies was like a sacrament–the embodiment of all that she hoped to pass down to us.

Generation 3 holding generation 4 and looking like only a proud papa madly in love with his baby girl can look

Generation 3 holding generation 4 and looking like only a proud papa madly in love with his baby girl can look

My grandfather did not bake.  Rather, he was just downright silly.  He was world-class when it came to horse play.  Whether it was chasing us around the house (irritating Grandma with our shrieks of joy), bouncing us on his knee, or pretending to steal our noses, Grandpa’s genuine goofiness was a crowd pleaser.

The most poignant moment of visiting Grandma and Grandpa always came when we waved goodbye.  Armed with a bag of candies to get us safely home again, we waved out the back window of the station wagon and watched Grandma bury her tear-streaked face in Grandpa’s shoulder as we disappeared from view.  I asked my mom once why Grandma always cried when we left.  Mom said something about Grandma missing us when we’re gone.  I didn’t figure out until many years later that it was because every time she said goodbye, she thought it would be the last.

Generation 4 rebooting

Generation 4 rebooting

Borrowing Babies

Mom and baby just chillin'

Mom and baby just chillin’

I don’t really think of myself as a baby person.  Babies are cute and cuddly and fun for a short period of time and then they start to need things.  And you have to guess at what they need because they’re not particularly articulate.  This is about the time I like to have someone handy to hand them back to.

But meeting the new daughter of one of the two women in the world who refer to me as their “second mom” felt different.  I’m not saying I wanted to whisk this tiny baby off and be responsible for her.  But, her crying wasn’t annoying.  Her smile seemed brighter.  Her expressions were cuter.  And her laughter was more addictive than the babies of people I didn’t watch grow up.

Grandma grabbing a kiss

Grandma grabbing a kiss

I was still happy Mom and Dad were quick to jump in when she started fussing.  Fortunately, they speak baby and were were able to interpret exactly what little Ireland needed quickly.  But it occurred to me why so many parents are excited about becoming grandparents.

In the decision not to have children, we didn’t really think about the inevitable outcome of not having grandchildren either.  I think I’m OK with borrowing other people’s grandchildren.  I suppose it’s not really fair–after all, we didn’t go through the sleepless nights or the difficult adolescence or the expense of raising the next generation.  But, sometimes it’s best to leave these things to more qualified people.

Just watchin'

Just watchin’

I enjoyed watching Chris and Karen with their daughter.  They have a sense of calm rarely seen in new parents.  Or maybe it was just exhaustion?  Whatever the case, they exuded confidence and seemed unflustered, knowing what was needed when and dealt with hunger, fatigue, and projectile spit-up like pros.

I’m sure it helps that Ireland is a happy baby without colic.  There are many parents who would probably be calm and collected if their babies weren’t keeping them up all night.  In any case, we apparently kept Ireland up past her nap time.  After enjoying playing for a while and then having her own breakfast, she started nodding off like some of my sleep-apnea-suffering co-workers during a long, boring meeting.

I actually remembered my DSLR is also capable of shooting video just in time to catch Ireland nodding off one more time before she was put down to sleep in her car seat.  Isn’t it amazing how a baby can sleep soundly in the middle of a restaurant patio in a car seat?  She slept through conversation and commotion and even while she was carried across the shopping center and set back down time and time again.

Perhaps that wouldn’t be so bad–someone to cart you around while you nap.

Mom's beautiful smile

Mom’s beautiful smile

Meet Up

Surely this is Olympus?

Surely this is Olympus?

Today was full of nostalgia.  It started off with a visit with friends.  One of those friends is a young woman I’ve known for 23 years now–since she was 7.  I didn’t realize I’d known her for 23 years until we sat down and figured it out over breakfast.  But there I was, flipping back and forth in my mind between the 7 year-old Karen the day I met her and the 30 year old wife and mother sharing breakfast with me.

Karen and Chris

Karen and Chris

It was the first time I met her new daughter, just born in March.  She’s a happy baby.  Smiling and cooing and doing cute baby things.  I will have photos from today eventually, but I need to get them downloaded and post-processed first and I forgot my card reader–I’ll have to find one tomorrow.

Since I don’t have new photos to post, I thought I would take a trip down memory lane from the last time I saw my friend and her husband.  It’s hard to believe it’s been 3 years since I last saw them.  We went hiking with them in Montana when Pat and I were out for a visit.

IMG_8111One of the things Pat and I did while we were in Montana was take a helicopter ride over Glacier National Park with some other dear friends who accompanied us on part of the trip.  We flew over the mountains, above the clouds that surrounded the peaks.  I think of these photos whenever my young friend talks about her job.  She’s a paramedic and flies on life flights over the same mountains I paid to see.

I sometimes visualize her in an emergency medical chopper over these same mountains.  I am part jealous and part afraid.  Such beautiful sights so often, and to get paid to see it to boot!  On the other hand, it seems like such a dangerous thing to do, rushing out into this unforgiving landscape in a tiny helicopter to try to save someone.  I am impressed all over again every time I think about it.

Sun breaks through

Reconnecting with this friend and her extended family (4 generations were at breakfast together) reminded me how wonderful family is.  I found myself missing my own family as well as this adoptive family I was able to spend the morning with immediately upon leaving.

I started winding through history, remembering cute things Karen and her twin sister and younger brother did when I spent 2 summers babysitting them.  I also remembered all the hard times having this group of people in my life helped me through.

I managed to slip back into the present moment enough to enjoy one of the nicest parts about meeting the whole family:  getting to watch Mom and Dad, Grandma and Grandpa, Great-grandma and Great-grand dad all making faces at the newest addition to the family.  They were all adorable in their face making approaches.

No--we are not climbing that