NOTE: For full-screen slides, click on the small dotted box on the bottom right side of the slide screen. If you’re on a mobile device, you may need to swipe slides to advance screen.

The Story

It was explained to me this way by a therapist-friend of mine: When we are blindsided by trauma – death, illness, accident, unexpected loss, or, in the case of 2020, a pandemic – many of us sort of slide into a “flatline” of depression. Oh, not the deep dark hole type of depression; just a shallow gray line of non-energy. We go through the motions of living each day, but a large part of us feels numb. The desire to curl into a fetal position for a long nap (hours? days? maybe weeks until all this is over?) is almost overwhelming.

Now that might not describe you, dear reader, and how you have been feeling through the global trauma of the past six months or so, but it certainly describes me. And yes, there have been good days spent with family and friends (with appropriate social distancing, of course). And yes, there have been lots of home-cooked meals, and lots of old movie-streaming, and long phone chats with relatives. Oh, and Zooming – lots and lots of Zooming.

And yet, underneath it all, there is a free-floating anxiety, a holding one’s breath, a prayer for “normal” again, whatever that was and no longer is.

So, for me, the feeling of being lost in this “flatline” is ever-present. Some days I can hold my own against it; other days not so much.

Yet, often when I least expect it, there is a gift of grace – a reminder that the natural world can lift us up, can hold us close, can heal what hurts. David Wagoner’s poem “Lost” was one of those gifts. Another was a lovely article that I came across yesterday – heartfelt, endearing, and hopeful: How My Family Discovered That Chickens Have Chickenality.

So I set aside the lost feeling for a few hours today. I stepped out into the forest that surrounds our home. I breathed in the greenery. Then I went back inside and tuned our piano (well, just two octaves, but that’s 42 strings!). Then I made blueberry scones. After that, I spent an hour bonding with our little cockatiel (the closest pet we have to chickens). I must admit, I don’t feel quite as lost right now.

Beaky, Our Cockatiel

Holding the Note

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The Story

Death sucks. And the death of a beloved pet can sometimes suck as much as the death of a human that you love. Especially if the pet is one you’ve raised since babyhood and has been your constant companion for nine years. And especially if you have a debilitating illness and your four-footed companion has stuck by your side through the worst days (as well as the not-so-bad days). And especially if the death comes with no warning – one minute your beloved pet is alive; the next instant she has collapsed with no vital signs. No rhyme nor reason to it; no logic, no rational explanation. The sadness is overwhelming; the loss devastating.

No one knows what to say to you. ” Is there anything I can do to help?” No, there really isn’t. You just have to make sure you get up and get by, hour by painful hour, day by sorrow-filled day. 

And gradually – a moment here, a few moments there – something tugs you away from the sadness. A friend’s visit. A plant blooming in your garden. Preparing a special meal for a family member. And then, for a few minutes, or an hour or two, there is a break in your sorrow, a longer reprieve. A good movie. A meal out with family. Playing with your sibling’s pets. Eventually – in a few months or maybe a year or two – you might entertain the thought of finding another little four-footed one to raise, to train, to live with you, to love. 

Because what’s a heart for, after all, but to open us to love? And what’s a beloved pet for, after all, but to teach us how to love – unconditionally, completely, heart-to-heart?

“Holding the Note” is a metaphor I use for mentally bathing someone we love in thoughts and prayers of healing and peace. I created the slides and the poem above for Jeremy, my husband’s son, who is living with multiple sclerosis and whose beloved pet Lacie suddenly died at our house two months ago. I am holding the note for Jeremy …

Second Chances

The Story

When I was twelve years old, I had a crush on a cousin of mine. He was a dozen years older than I and, when he came over to our house one day to introduce his fiancée to our family, I was heartbroken.

Jerry never knew about my crush – I was just a kid to him – and he went on to marry soon after the visit. He became a lawyer, had a son, and lived what seemed to be a charmed life, with everything falling into place for him: the lovely wife, the adorable child, the perfect job, the expensive home in the upscale neighborhood, the supportive church group, the extensive travel.

Years went by with no connections. My Mom faulted him for that, telling me that Jerry had “crossed us off his list,” which was her way of saying the lack of connection was done on purpose – in her mind, he was a rich, arrogant lawyer who had no time for family.

Then my Mom died and my cousin got in touch with me. He offered his condolences and asked if he could host the immediate family for a simple meal at his house – to reconnect with us and to honor my Mom. He and his wife were gracious and kind to us all. During the meal, Jerry recounted how much he had admired my Mom throughout the years. I was surprised and touched.

A few years later, his wife passed away after a long illness and, again, my cousin contacted me to ask if the family would consider attending the memorial for her. We did and he, in turn, was touched that we would do that for him. We received a hand-written note from him later, letting us know how grateful he was that we were there.

Present day: We see Jerry once a year now, when we’re visiting family members who live in his area. He is always a gracious host, humble in his stories of the past, and generous with his offers of lodging and meals. He always asks about everyone.

I find myself enjoying his company and feeling glad that I got a second chance to reconnect with him. Somehow, I think my Mom would be happy about that, as well.

The Broken Voice

Quote from: “The Heart Aroused” by David Whyte

The Story

Words – the right words, the perfect words – don’t come easy to me. After a class I teach, or after a business meeting I facilitate, or even after a conversation with a bunch of friends, I’ll spend a lot of time thinking of all the things I wish I had said instead of what I did or didn’t say. It’s enough to drive me crazy (or, at the very least, to keep me awake at night).

I often feel like a mouse in social situations – quietly smiling, nodding my head, wanting everyone to get along, to feel good, to like me. More often than not, when a conversation veers off into a controversial topic, I’ll say nothing while stronger egos than mine voice their passionate opinions. Or I’ll simply say, “Oh, that’s interesting,” when secretly, I’m thinking, “You are SO wrong, dude!”

A few months ago I surprised myself and spoke up. You, dear reader, have probably done this lots of times; but for me, it took a good dollop of courage. Afterwards, I felt a sense of pride, like my inner child had done something very brave.

There were six women from my neighborhood sitting around a table sharing a potluck dinner. One of the gals, who had a history of bringing up controversial topics with groups of friends, decided to voice her opinion about a very divisive political subject. She had done this before, almost as if to say, “I dare you to contradict me!”

This time was different. Somehow, I found myself turning to her and saying, politely but firmly, “My dear, you know we disagree on that subject, so let’s not go down that road now while we’re enjoying a nice meal with friends.”

There was a moment of startled silence. Then I looked around the table and asked a general question about upcoming holiday plans, and the conversation shifted to more pleasant subjects.

It wasn’t that I was hiding from controversy, exactly. And I know that often, out of initial disagreements, can come some common ground, some deeper understanding among friends.

It was just that it took more courage for me to say something rather than nothing. It took courage to keep someone from ruining a good party. And while it might have been just my opinion that it wasn’t the right time or place to discuss politics, a couple of the gals thanked me afterwards for changing the subject.

The quote above, from David Whyte, author of “The Heart Aroused,” is one of my favorites. That evening at the potluck, I spoke in the voice that was my own.

Radical Optimism

The Story

It never fails: I awake in the morning full of hope as the day begins and all the productive hours stretch out before me. My “to-do” list is long but I’m positive that I will be able to check off every item on it.

Midway through the day I get discouraged: there is just way too much to do and absolutely no time to finish it all. I begin to feel depressed.

I fall asleep at night counting the day’s failures: “I didn’t complete the blog post I was writing. I didn’t return a friend’s phone call. I didn’t reply to the emails piling up in my in-box. I didn’t take time to exercise or draw or practice the piano. ” And on and on the litany goes.

Holding onto optimism throughout the day is a challenging task for me. Especially in the afternoon – when the hours of the day disappear into the coming night – my energy ebbs and the to-do list looms over me like a silent reproachful shadow (tossing the list in a desk drawer doesn’t seem to help).

I’ve alway thought the fault was mine – that I just wasn’t a positive enough person (or organized enough!) – until I came across an article on optimism published in Time Magazine (2/7/19).

The writer is Guillermo Del Toro, an Oscar-winning filmmaker, director, and producer. In the Time Magazine article, Del Toro states that “The most radical choice you can make is to be optimistic.”

He continues: “Optimism is the hard choice, the brave choice. And it is, it seems to me, most needed now, in the face of despair … Optimism is our instinct to inhale while suffocating. Our need to declare what “needs to be” in the face of what is.”

For me, Del Toro’s words reframe what optimism really is. Instead of an emotion that ebbs and flows with the daylight (or lack of it), optimism is a conscious choice that I can make no matter what the hour is. I can find some small task to do (perhaps even something on that darn list) that will restore my sense of optimism in that moment. One email response, a short walk, one blog paragraph, a blues riff on the piano, a quick pencil sketch while waiting for tea water to boil. I have only to choose one thing and it’s even okay not to finish it. I can choose to feel optimistic about what I have begun.

Del Toro summarizes it thus: “Every day, we all become the balance of our choices—choices between love and fear, belief or despair. No hope is ever too small … Optimism is rebellious and daring and vital.”

The Choice

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The Story

I hate my neighbor. Okay, maybe “hate” is too strong a word. Maybe “actively dislike” is better. I actively dislike my neighbor. She constantly complains about almost everything: the leaves littering the lawns in the fall, the icy streets in the winter.  If it’s sunny, the flowers will whither. If it’s raining, the meadow will flood. Behind her back, I call her “Chicken Little” because she’s the neighborhood doomsday crier – always telling folks that “The sky is falling!” – metaphorically speaking, of course.

And yet, if I were to be completely honest, I know that deep down inside myself, there is a part of me that is like her. A part that always notices what is wrong with everything and never what is right. A part that always sees the glass as half-empty, never half-full. A part that wants everything to be perfect, all the time.

It has taken me the better part of six decades to recognize this not-so-nice part of my personality and to choose NOT to give it a voice. It has taken thousands of inner conversations with myself to understand that this criticizing part of my nature has ancient roots left over from childhood. And it has taken a great deal of self-kindness to ease the pain brought on by my not being able to control everything, by my not being able to make everything perfect for everyone, and by my not being able to make everything right with the world by telling everyone else what to do.

I just reread the paragraph above and it was a bit shocking for me to admit that about myself out loud, in writing! You, dear reader, probably don’t harbor that desperate need for perfection. You probably don’t have the compulsion to complain about imperfect things like my neighbor Chicken Little does.

If you’re not afflicted with perfectionism, I applaud you! There is a lot of self-inflicted pain in trying to be perfect and in trying to make everything else perfect. There is a lot of self-blame and regret that comes with being a very ordinary, imperfect human trying her best to be perfect all of the time. 

So, with a bit of kindness and compassion for both myself and my neighbor, I offer the slides and poem above, with the hope that it will ease the pain of those of us who are perfectionists at heart. 




NOTE: For full-screen slides, click on the small dotted box on the bottom right side of the slide screen. If you’re on a mobile device, you may need to swipe slides to advance screen.

The Story

I’m worried about visiting my brother next week. He and I are only two years apart in age (both in our sixties – how did THAT happen?) but we are worlds apart in our political and spiritual journeys.

He’s deep-red while I’m deep-blue. He belongs to an evangelical church; I’m more Theist than Christian. Those are generalities, I know, and they don’t go to the heart of the matter – they just skim the surface of our cognitive biases and beliefs.

The heart of the matter is this: Our different belief systems bite us both on the butts when we least expect it. For example, we have an unspoken agreement to forego discussions about politics or religion and, instead, chat about teaching (we’re both instructors of adults) or music (he plays the guitar; I play the piano). But oftentimes a side-comment will lead to a judgment call about one another. And then more intense emotions surface as we look at each other and incredulously ask, “How can you say that? How can you believe that?”

It’s the side-comments – the “blurts,” if you will – that I’m worried about. And I’m not sure how to stop them from happening, nor how to lessen our suffering in each other’s presence when the blurts occur. For there IS suffering: I feel judged and betrayed. He feels the same (or perhaps not – I’m not sure). And then it takes us a long while to get back to common ground, to reclaim a semblance of sibling-care.

Whenever I’m confronted with situations like these, I make lists. I plan and rehearse my responses (as if you can just pull out a response to a blurt at the drop of a hat). Sometimes the lists work; sometimes they don’t.

This time I think I’ll approach my brother differently. I’ll set an intent: to listen with compassion, to ask clarifying questions, to paraphrase, to “draw a larger circle” that includes, rather than excludes, him (rereading this last paragraph, it certainly looks like a list to me!).

Over six years ago I created the short, image-rich slides above to remind myself that, sometimes, just to begin is enough.