I used to be . . .

734D4A65-1E4E-4705-A356-D13DF9C7F9B4I used to be . . . 

It’s a phrase I use a lot these days as I fight off the feeling that in retirement, I am useless. It’s not true, of course, that I am useless. But to be honest, I do feel just a little useless these days, at least some of the time. The reason? I used to be a bona fide workaholic. I used to feel important and productive. I used to be busy all the time, night and day. I used to be a perfectionist. I used to have just a bit of obsessive compulsive disorder, and all,of that drove me to a dangerous place.

The problem is that when you love and believe in your work so much, your work can become your whole life. Then things can get unbearable. So I admit that I am a recovering workaholic. I was the person that put in far more than 40 hours a week and never took a day off. But the critical question I had to answer was this: Is my ego at the root of my workaholism?

What was the job that was important enough to push me to work so hard?

I was a minister and a trauma counselor, and I was executive director of Safe Places, a nonprofit organization that served victims of violence. There was always someone in trouble, someone who had been battered by a spouse, someone trying to escape trafficking, a teen that was recovering from rape, a child that had been abused. So the work was never done.

I loved my work. I believed in it with all my heart. But I could not see what others saw. I could not believe the truth spoken by friends and colleagues, that I needed rest, that my work was hurting me. As much as I didn’t want to admit it, I was working myself sick. Circumstances, and maybe the alignment of the stars, brought me to a “come to Jesus” moment that forced me to take stock of my life. I realized I couldn’t do it all. So I took a very slight respite and pulled back from the constant work. In the meantime, as the stars would have it, we lost our federal funding, and suddenly Safe Places was gone. It was over. 

The stress did not end, though, because those that needed help kept calling . . . my phone. I had no staff left and, though I tried, I simply could not continue helping all these hurting people by myself. So I was forced into an unwanted and unplanned rest. 

During this “rest” time, grief and loss took over my psyche. But miraculously, my body began to rest. My pace slowed down. I was becoming mindful of every moment and what was going on in every moment. And in spite of the grief and sadness, my mind and spirit began to heal. What happened next was the shock of a lifetime. As my mind and spirit began to heal, I finally allowed my body to tell me what was going on. My doctors got to the bottom of it and diagnosed me with end stage kidney disease. Before I could even begin to take it all in, I was hospitalized and on dialysis.

I honestly believe I had worked myself to death, or at least nearer to death than I wanted to be. I spent a great deal of 2014 in the hospital trying to stabilize and then working to take my life back. It was hard work learning to write again, to think again, to walk again. But I made it through to a “new normal” that meant for me at least 7 1/2 hours of dialysis every day for the rest of my life, unless, of course, I am able to get a kidney transplant.

The experience of serious illness changed me. After I began to recover, people told me that I was unusually quiet. I didn’t speak much even when others around me were engaged in meaningful conversations. I knew that I was being quiet, quite unlike my normal personality. I was often silent when normally I would have had a great deal to say. I was different, to be sure, but inside myself I was okay. If I had to describe myself I would say that I was soft, broken open and free. And I was content in that place, although my family was concerned about me. I had traveled to a new place in my life, and it was a good place to be.

So here I sit in my “new normal,” tending plants, painting, cooking, writing, reading, and doing all things for pleasure. Most often I am still tempted to dive in and work on something until I am exhausted. But when the tiredness begins to creep up, something in my body remembers. Remembers I need to rest, to embrace stillness, to just “be.”

Still, I fight my old workaholic ways. Sometimes they push me to do things faster and better and longer. Sometimes my old workaholic ways push my button, the button that accuses me of uselessness, as in, “You are not worth much anymore! What are you going to do to change the world?”

Good news! I have finally given myself permission to not change the world. It has been a major shift for me, but I am seeing the truth more clearly, that I never could have changed the world anyway! So most of the time, when I feel myself pushing past my edge, I walk away. I write a blog post or fiddle with my flowers. I cook something fabulous or watch a little Netflix. So what will I do to live happily in these retirement days? I hope that I will keep studying the secret art of rest. I hope that I will continue to learn the grace of mindfulness, just cherishing the moment, every moment.

I used to be a workaholic. Not anymore.

Oh, and one more thing . . . a prayer. Though my faith tradition has always eschewed prayers to Mary, mother of Jesus, many very beautiful and meaningful prayers are prayed to her. I leave you with this one written by Mirabai Starr.

Mother of Consolation, help me to let myself be consoled. 

I hold it all together, Blessed One. 

I have convinced myself that it is up to me to keep the airplane aloft with my own breath, that I am the only one capable of baking bread and scrubbing floors, that it is my responsibility alone to alleviate the sorrow in the heart of every single person I know. 

But I have forgotten how to weep, Tender One. 

Teach me to reach out to the ones I comfort and ask for their comfort. 

Let me feel the tender touch of the Holy One on my cheek when I wake in the night, weary and frightened. 

Help me to be vulnerable and soft now, broken open and free.

— Mirabai Starr

 

 

Joy

102F7D81-F946-4E11-A42A-07566031DEABAs I often do, I found today, in my lengthy list of unread emails, a plethora of pleas to do something. Save the bees. Save the libraries. Save the children. Save the political candidate . . . and several other things that someone wants to save.  I care deeply about most of those things that need saving, like the libraries and the children and the bees. And I spend a fair amount of time worrying about them and praying for them to be saved.

But for this day, I am laser focused on saving myself, saving myself from the onslaught of various illnesses, from nature’s effects of aging, and mostly, from a life filled with worry where there should be joy.

Memories flood my mind with sweet, little songs from the past: “The joy of the Lord is my strength . . .”  (1)  “I’ve got that joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart . . .” (2) Simple songs they were for us when as children we learned every word and took the melodies into our hearts to recall in the years to come.

And so today, I recall them, realizing that whatever may come, I have joy in my heart, and most of all, that I am leaning into the truth that the joy of the Lord is my strength. These were good and positive lessons to learn as a child, with simple music as the teacher. So today, I remember the songs, singing them silently as I write. Singing them aloud would most surely disturb the household. So I keep silent.

It can be a dangerous thing to keep silence, for in those silent times, there can be a flood of memories, thoughts, recollections, and the sacred space so essential to the spiritual life. Today’s sacred space brings these words to my heart:

The Lord is my strength and my shield;
in him my heart trusts;
so I am helped, and my heart exults,
and with my song I give thanks to him.

— Psalm 28:7 (RSV)

You are being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might, so that you might patiently endure everything with joy.

— Colossians 1:11(ISV)

Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

— Nehemiah 8:10 (NIV)

On top of my end stage kidney disease, debilitating fibromyalgia, diabetes, and an almost constant barrage of new diagnoses, I have one job really: to find ways of guarding the joy that makes its home in my heart, to patiently endure whatever comes with joy. I must trust that joy really is there in my heart. I must believe that joy is still a part of my faith. I must know that joy has been with me on my journey, every day, at every turn, over every mountain and through every valley.

I must guard my joy lovingly and persistently. And I must guard my heart, joy’s dwelling place. When new illnesses come along, new concerns, new challenges, new problems and new sorrows, perhaps the most important thing I can do is to guard my heart.

Along with the other passages of scripture that have entered my sacred soace today, there is another tiny scripture passage that has moved me over the years. The writer of the book of Proverbs begins chapter four with a list of life instructions, and for twenty-two verses, the writer admonishes the reader to be vigilant, to be careful, to hold on to instruction, to avoid the path of the wicked, etc. And then in verse 23, the writer of the everlasting wisdom of the Proverbs gives us one more tidbit of advice and advises us to pay attention to this one instruction, above all else.

Above all else, guard your heart,
for from it flow the wellsprings of life.

— Proverbs 4:23 

I am never 100% certain about the meaning of scripture passages, but this one feels very clear to me — guard your heart and the wellsprings of your life will flow from it. I think the wellsprings might be joy! Not such a simple message, is it, that we have “joy down in our hearts to stay.”

 

(1) The Joy of the Lord Is My Strength, written by Alliene Vale, ©️1971, Universal Music.

(2) Joy In My Heart, written by George William Cooke, 1925

Life Can Lose Its Magic

 

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Photography  from Lize Bard’s blog, Haiku out of Africa at https://wandererhaiku.wordpress.com/2018/07/18/aura/

Life can lose its magic. 

It happens. 

It happens when labor eclipses the joy of leisure. 

It happens when busyness replaces moments of re-creation. 

It happens when meaningless prayers are more common than deep spiritual contemplation. 

It happens when relationships are taken for granted. 

It happens when entitlement replaces gratitude. 

It happens when despondency is more present that genuine laughter. 

It happens when nature becomes commonplace and we miss its breathtaking beauty. 

It happens when we hear the sounds of the birds as white noise instead of captivating birdsong. 

It happens when the dawn’s sunrise happens without our notice.

It happens when a serene, pink sunset that gently paints the sky loses its enchantment.

it happens when music becomes noise rather than the soul’s inspiration.

It happens when the shimmer of the moon is just a nightly expectation and the sparkle of the stars in the night sky becomes ordinary.

Life can lose its magic. 

How tragic.

 

 

 

Depression’s Heartbreaking Hold

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Depression’s Heartbreaking Hold

Depression wields a heartbreaking hold on those who suffer its relentless assault. It has a harsh clench, a grasp on one’s life that steals all traces of well-being. Men and women suffer depression’s attack. Young people are besieged by depression’s terror. Even the youngest among us suffer from that elusive sadness that a young child could never understand. Depression sometimes results in the most tragic of outcomes: suicide. Depression overwhelms people we know and care about, our children, our parents, our close friends, and the friends we know from afar.

Anthony Bourdain was such a friend to many. My husband and I loved watching Parts Unknown, just relaxing while Anthony Bourdain took us on exotic journeys near and far. He had a way of bursting into our living room through the television, grabbing our attention with his friendly swagger, and taking us along on an adventure in food and culture. We took for granted the delightful experiences he created for us, but now that he is gone, we are grieving as if he had been a best friend.

He had this special way of inviting us into his life experience. He was gifted in making us feel present with him in his current adventure. He took us to places we never dreamed of going, and made us see the possibility of eating foods we would not normally put even near our mouths. He expanded our wanderlust and our taste buds. He made us feel that we really knew him.

But we really did not know him, it seems. We did not know the depth of his emotional life, his bouts with depression, the dark place that he was obviously dealing with. Even his close friends and family did not expect that he would take his own life. But he did and, as his colleagues expressed, it will be a loss of creativity, talent, and the delightful quirkiness that would say, “Your body is not a temple; it’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.” (Anthony Bourdain)

We are left to wonder, though. Perhaps Anthony Bourdain did not always enjoy the ride. Mental health challenges can take all that one enjoys and twist all of it into something unrecognizable, something hurtful, something that steals one’s joy. It has been too much to take in, the deaths of Kate Spade and then, so soon, Anthony Bourdain, both apparent suicides. We cower at the thought of an epidemic that we are not prepared to control. Those who know tell us, again and again, that the interventions for mental health in this country are woefully inadequate. The current reality is that suicide rates rose steadily in nearly every state from 1999 to 2016, increasing 25 percent nationally, according to a report this past Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2016, there were more than twice as many suicides as homicides.

These are statistics that should cause us heartbreak, enough heartbreak to compel us to use our voices to advocate for more appropriate and effective mental health interventions in our nation. But the heartbreak gets more personal when we lose a friend, a bigger than life friend like Anthony Bordain. It appears that he, too, knew something about heartbreak. In his own words:

Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s OK. The journey changes you; it should change you . . . You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.

Anthony Bordain did leave something good behind, something that he showed us each week: how to open ourselves to other cultures, how to join strangers around tables of friendship, how to try new things and learn new things, how to enjoy food, drink and friends, and how to know yourself better because you stepped out of your comfort zone to know another person from another land.

He gets the last word, the last poignant word:

It’s been an adventure. We took some casualties over the years. Things got broken. Things got lost. But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

 

 


How to Help a Loved One Who Is Severely Depressed

Don’t underestimate the power of showing up

You may not feel that your presence is wanted. But just being by the side of someone who is depressed, and reminding her that she is special to you, is important to ensuring that she does not feel alone, said Dr. Norman Rosenthal, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine.

 

Don’t try to cheer him up or offer advice

Your friend has an enviable job and two lovely children. He’s still ridiculously handsome even though he hasn’t gone to the gym for six months. It’s tempting to want to remind him of all these good things. Not only is that unlikely to boost his mood, it could backfire by reinforcing his sense that you just don’t get it, said Megan Devine, a psychotherapist and the author of “It’s O.K. That You’re Not O.K.”

“Your job as a support person is not to cheer people up. It’s to acknowledge that it sucks right now, and their pain exists,” she said.

 

It’s O.K. to ask if she is having suicidal thoughts

Lots of people struggle with depression without ever considering suicide. But depression is often a factor. Although you may worry that asking, “Are you thinking about killing yourself?” will insult someone you’re trying to help — or worse, encourage her to go in that direction — experts say the opposite is true.

“It’s important to know you can’t trigger suicidal thinking just by asking about it,”  said Allen Doederlein, the executive vice president of external affairs at the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. If the answer is yes, it’s crucial that you calmly ask when and how; it’s much easier to help prevent a friend from hurting herself if you know the specifics.

 

Take any mention of death seriously

Even when a person with depression casually mentions death or suicide, it’s important to ask follow-up questions. If the answers don’t leave you feeling confident that a depressed person is safe, experts advised involving a professional as soon as possible. If this person is seeing a psychiatrist or therapist, get him or her on the phone. If that’s not an option, have the person you’re worried about call a suicide prevention line, such as a 1-800-273-TALK, or take her to the hospital emergency room; say aloud that this is what one does when a loved one’s life is in danger.

 

Make getting to that first appointment as easy as possible

You alone cannot fix this problem, no matter how patient and loving you are. A severely depressed friend needs professional assistance from a psychologist, psychiatrist, social worker or another medical professional. What you can do is to try to make getting to that first appointment as easy as possible. That might mean sitting next to your friend as he calls to make the appointment, finding counseling that he can afford, or even going with him that first time, if you’re comfortable with it.

 

Take care of yourself and set boundaries

When the thoughtful and kind people we’ve loved for years are depressed, they may also become uncharacteristically mean and self-centered. It’s exhausting, painful and hard to know how to respond when they pick fights or send nasty texts. Just because someone is depressed is not a reason to let their abusive behavior slide. Set clear boundaries with straightforward language such as, “It sounds like you’re in a lot of pain right now. But you can’t call me names.”

Boundaries about how much you can help and how much time you can give are important. Although you want to be present with your friend, set boundaries that keep you healthy and stick to them.

 

Remember, people do recover from depression

It can be hard when you’re in the middle of the storm with a depressed friend to remember that there was a time before, and hopefully a time after, this miserable state. It is important to remind yourself — and the person you’re trying to help — that people do emerge from depression. Because they do. 

(From a New York Times article, “What to Do When a Loved One Is Severely Depressed” by Heather Murphy, June 7, 2018, http://tiny.cc/yqyiuy)

 

A helpful website providing many resources for help:

https://www.speakingofsuicide.com/resources/

 

Recommended Reading:

4D1432A6-EA0F-47EB-B111-A35D095D42DARethinking Depression: How to Shed Mental Health Labels and Create Personal Meaning, February 14, 2012, by Eric Maisel.

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Why Smart People Hurt: A Guide for the Bright, the Sensitive and the Creative by Eric Maisel, https://www.amazon.com/Why-Smart-People-Hurt-Sensitive/dp/1573246263/ref=pd_lpo_sbs_14_t_2?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=72HYRNBE90SYMTN8PMY7

 

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Mindfulness for Kids: Create a Happier Life for Your Kids by Reducing Stress, Anxiety and Depression, November 27, 2017 by Jasmine Warren.

Available on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Jasmine-Warren/e/B0788M6G2R/ref=dp_byline_cont_book_1

 

The following website offers an excellent resource:

http://www.drugrehab.com/guides/suicide-risks/

 

Beside Still Waters

 

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Still waters near Pulaski County, Arkansas. Photo by Steve Nawojczyk.

I long each day to live beside still waters, to dwell in serenity, to find peace in the depths of my soul. Not such a simple task, that. 

The problem is that life is not that much about still waters. It’s more often about churning waters and swelling currents. Don’t get me wrong, I love the sound of waves crashing in the ocean and then coming to the shoreline with a special kind of energy. I love the rolling of a mighty river, the trickling sounds of creeks, and the splashing sounds that streams make as  they ripple over stones.

But the sheer silence of still waters . . . That’s when you can skip a rock across the top of the water and watch its antics. In still waters, you can hear the sounds of fish flying up to the surface and turtles paddling almost silently acreoss the waters with only their heads visible in search for a morsel of food. In still waters, a family of ducklings can move through the waters with just a hint of a sound and the graceful swan can glide by with hardly any sound at all while its webbed feet move swiftly to push the waters aside.

Those still waters! Their silence and their calm show us how to be.

The truth is that rushing waters do describe our lives at times. That is our reality. Life brings what feels like raging storms. Life assails us with a power that reminds us of the breaking waves of the ocean. In this life, we come upon rivers too deep and too wide and too turbulent to cross. We will feel a force against us that may come because of serious illness or the loss of a loved one. It may come with the pain of broken relationships or with devastating financial hardship.

Life brings brokenheartedness, but it brings brokenheartedness in the midst of grace. For on this journey we call life, we travel with a divine guide, One who does lead us beside still waters. And it is there that our soul is restored and comforted in the midst of green pastures of sacred serenity and holy calm.

I am thinking, of course, of the words of the Psalmist.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;

       he restores my soul.

He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me;

        your rod and your staff — they comfort me.

— Psalm 23:1-4 (New Revised Standard Version)

I also think of my friend, Steven Nawojczyk, who is finding his much-needed peace in the forests, mountains and valleys of Arkansas. His stunning photograph illustrates today’s blog post. With his beautiful dog and companion, Feebi, he follows a path of serenity and healing, hiking through nature’s beauty most every day.

His life has not been an easy one. As a public servant — many years as Pulaski County Coroner — he has seen far too much anguish for one person. He was integrally involved, literally in the trenches, with ending and preventing Little Rock gang violence, and has been a staunch champion for young people.

He faces serious illness and harsh treatment in his retirement. but he knows that life really does have a pathway that goes around the dangers, toils and snares. He knows that he and Feebi will find lightheartedness in exploring a forest or watching a flowing stream. He knows that the simple joy of a mountain view can bring transformation. He knows about peace, and he has chosen to follow the life path that passes beside still waters. I admire him. I have always admired him, but even more so now as I witness his unwavering commitment to serenity.

That’s what it’s all about in the end — a commitment to serenity, a firm resolve to walk beside the still waters of life, and in that intentional journey, to find our souls.

May the grace and peace of God fill your soul, and may your journey, wherever it leads, bring you serenity.

 

 

 

Just to Be Alive

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Another day to be alive! It’s a day without the need to prove anything or to accomplish anything. It will be enough just to be, to enjoy the brilliant sunlight, the warmth of the day, the colors of the autumn trees. It can be a day to refresh and renew. If we let it.

Bishop Steven Charleston writes, ” Make doing nothing a value.” Here are the rest of his wise words.

Turn your light within that you may shine that much more brightly for others. Do not neglect the care you give to yourself, the time you need to rest and be renewed. No hamster wheel of expectations is as important as minding your health: body, mind and spirit. Draw in the hours around you, making space for doing those things that help you the most. Give a priority to having fun. Make doing nothing a value. The best of our lives is rarely spent at the grindstone. Allow yourself the space to be, to think, to dream, to wander. Discover again how good it feels just to be alive.

Good Things Happen

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Good things happen. Life is filled with them, but sometimes we hardly notice. My husband and I woke up this morning, ready to enjoy another day of life. The mockingbird in the neighborhood is still singing his ever-changing song. The hummingbirds are still buzzing around the feeders. The leaves are beginning to take on fall colors. The morning breeze has a new Autumn crispness.

Sure, life has its challenges. I am dealing with health issues every day. I worry about my husband. I worry about the future. I miss my grandchildren who live far away. Most of all, I feel a sense of dread about life changes.

But I don’t want to let those feelings overshadow the good things. Yes, most of us fear change. I like to remember, though, that every good thing that has happened in my life happened because something changed.

Maya Angelou wrote, “We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.”

So let the changes come, as inevitably they will, and I will embrace the good and beautiful things they bring my way. Good things happen!

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.    – James 1:17

Small Things

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I find so much beauty in small things. Nothing delights me more than the hummingbirds that zoom across my front yard feeding and playing chase with one another, daring each other to approach the feeder.

How often we forget the message of small things, especially when life’s big things are in disarray. But the small things help us focus on special moments, special people, special events that we take for granted.

I cannot express this message better than Bishop Steven Charleston.

The message is in the small things. Sometimes when we are focused so intently on the major issues of our lives, we walk right past the small signs of hope scattered around us like wildflowers. The beauty of a summer sunset, the kindness of the shopkeeper, the call from an old friend, the playfulness of the family pet: all of these things and a thousand more are the steady stream of grace that flows past us each day.

Indeed, we are greatly blessed by the small graces that stream through our lives.

Celebrate!

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How can this be a melancholy day? The sun is shining. The flowers are blooming. A gentle breeze cools the day. Yet, melancholy days can come upon us, days when we feel that discouraged feeling that something is missing. Loved ones may be far away. Physical pain may be getting us down. Any number of circumstances can make for a melancholy day.

Today, I am there, feeling a bit sad, missing my grandchildren, concerned about my health. It happens. There will always be days like this. But we learn to get past them to a more hopeful mood. Even on melancholy days, aren’t there things to celebrate? Like relatively good health, loving family relationships, a comfortable home. Osho writes about learning to be celebrators.

Be the celebrators, celebrate! Already there is too much—the flowers have bloomed, the birds are singing, the sun is there in the sky—celebrate it! You are breathing and you are alive and you have consciousness, celebrate it!

― Osho, Creativity: Unleashing the Forces Within

How true that is! Breathing and alive, we can celebrate the day. We can enjoy the blooming flowers, the singing of the birds, the bright sun in our sky. We can celebrate our life!

Into the Sunrise

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I rarely, if ever, see a real live sunrise. First of all, I am usually asleep. And then if I do wake up in time, there are too many trees and buildings to see the sun at its rising. It’s a shame, really, to miss such a magnificent act of nature, to miss one of life’s simple joys.

So I have learned that, if there are things worth seeing in life, I have to make a concerted effort to see them.

I imagine watching a sunrise and feeling a sense of new life.

The beginning of a new day might remind me of new beginnings in life.

The brilliance of a rising sun might reveal the brightness of new hope.

Since I have not seen a sunrise in a very long time, I do not really know what emotions the sight might bring out in me. So it’s worth the effort to make the effort, I think. It’s worth losing a bit of sleep just to look into the sunrise and take in the awe of the experience. I think I’ll try it soon.