Forty Days Returning, Day 31–Just Keep Moving

I continue to be amazed by people, who in the midst of emotional, mental, and physical weariness somehow manage to keep moving, keep serving, keep working. We are seeing it now in the grit and determination of medical professionals and first responders who in the face of the pandemic, keep helping the people around them. So much depends on them, and so we are grateful to each person who gets up each day and re-enters the “war zone.”

My own challenges have been less dramatic than what we’re seeing in the world today, but in the midst of my own challenges and hardships, I have managed to do what needs to be done to persevere, to put one foot in front of the other, even when I don’t want to–especially when I don’t want to. That is the theme of today’s post from 2015. May we each find the strength and courage to keep moving, even in the face of adversity.

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Forty Days, Day 12–One More Mile

Sometimes I am simply too tired to fight. I read a friend’s Facebook post this evening that said, “This winter has taken the fight out of me.” I can sympathize with the winter weariness, though I am not feeling it fully myself. But I do know the feeling of being done in, exhausted, dispirited, and feeling like the life energy is leaking out from my very pores. It hasn’t happened in a while, but it has happened.

Lao Tzu says, “The journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step.” Sometimes I don’t have to go 1,000 miles, I only need to be able to go one more. What is it that keeps us moving when everything in us wants to sit down in the middle of the road and give up? I might not feel like I have the strength for the single step, let alone a mile, let alone 1,000. This is all metaphorical, of course, but it is emblematic of the effort it sometimes requires to take the next step into whatever’s waiting for you.

I was talking recently with someone who was admitting that sometimes they want to throw the covers over their head and stay in bed rather than get up and face the uncertainties of another day. I can relate, and told them so. I think that a hero is not only a person who does some courageous thing–stares down an enemy, defies death, rushes into burning buildings, and so forth. Real heroes also include those everyday people who get up each morning in spite of their exhaustion, aching bodies, weary minds and go about living their lives as best they can, doing good where they are able, caring for their families or other people or their dog. Very few of these regular folks get lauded as heroes. They don’t get medals or press coverage. But sometimes the simple act of taking the next step, going one more mile is for them a heroic action.

There are times when we face significant challenges–we lose a job, a home, a loved one–and it would be understandable to simply give up and take the path of least resistance, whatever that means. But even in the midst of grief, despair, depression, sadness, fear, anxiety we manage to muster up the energy to keep going. Winston Churchill is reported as saying, “Never, never, never give up.” And mostly I agree with him. When I’ve hit a wall occasionally and am reeling from a difficult situation, I actually do give myself permission to give up. Just for a minute. Maybe even for an hour. But the practical side of myself eventually exerts itself reminding me that I can’t in fact sit there forever lamenting my situation. So eventually I get up and get back at it. But seriously, it’s okay to quit for a few minutes.

Really, though, I love this quote from Eleanor Roosevelt, because for me it captures the essence of what it means to keep going even when you feel like you must stop:

You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

As I contemplate the various themes that are arising over these 40 days I think about how often I have been called upon to do the thing I thought I could not do. I am sure during his 33 years of life, particularly near the end, my friend Jesus did many things he thought he could not do. In many ways great and small, that is what perseverance is all about. We keep moving when we feel like we can’t take another step. We may not make the 1,000 miles, but we might make one more. And so it goes.

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Forty Days Returning, Day 30–More on Suffering

As I was pondering what I wanted to share this evening, I searched my previous posts for the word, “anxiety.” As I have been experiencing a little anxiety today, I wanted to see what wisdom I could offer myself from one of my Forty Days blog entries. I ran across this post from 2017 and realized I had two posts from two different years titled, “On Suffering, Part I.” I also noted that in neither of those years, 2017 and 2018, did I ever write a Part II. Perhaps I will rectify that this year, we shall see. In the meantime, I offer a second Part I, which I suppose is technically Part II for this year. Please enjoy this post from March 2017.

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Another Forty Days, Day Two–On Suffering, Part I

Today I’ve been thinking about the nature of suffering. So much of Lent, particularly at the end, those last few days, hours of Jesus life is focused on suffering. Often people’s attention is focused on the suffering of the body, the physical manifestation of pain and anguish, but so much of suffering occurs in a different realm than the physical.

Each morning, I close my daily journal writing with this wish: “May I and all beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering. May we experience and know true happiness and peace, and taste, savor, and enjoy the fruits of thereof. May it be so for us all.”  This particular wish or blessing arises from Buddhist tradition. The Buddha thought and taught a lot about suffering, and most of what he saw at first was the physical suffering of human beings all around him. But, upon closer inspection, we almost always can see that suffering goes well beyond the physical. Sadness, fear, grief, anger, depression, anxiety are all various forms of suffering, and not one of us, not a single human being has gone unscathed.

So what do we do with the suffering? It occurs to me that we have a number of choices for how we face and deal with the suffering in ourselves and in the beings around us. For some of us, the first instinct is to turn away, feeling that to witness it is almost too overwhelming to bear. So we allow ourselves to be distracted, and turn away from it. Whether it’s the physical suffering of the homeless person on the street, with whom we fail to make eye contact, or the other patients at the clinic when we go for our routine checkup, we instinctively pull back, withdraw, turn away. We sometimes do the same thing when we witness mental or emotional suffering. Only in this case it’s the anguish of someone in the throes of grief over having lost a loved one, or the embarrassment of a person stammering their way awkwardly through a speech in front of a room full of people, or the simmering anger of an innocent person being unfairly targeted because of their identity.

We turn away from their suffering in part because it exposes something within us. Sometimes it’s in guilty relief: “I’m glad I’m not that poor bugger,” or more likely because we can intimately relate to their suffering because we have experienced it ourselves. It’s there in front of us, reminding us of what we ourselves have been through and have no wish to experience again. We turn away from the rawness and vulnerability that is exposed to us because of what it exposes in us. 

But what if we stood in the face of the discomfort and looked those who are suffering in the eye, opening our hearts in compassion? The word compassion derives from a term meaning “to suffer with.” Those who have suffered and have not allowed their circumstances to harden them and turn away begin to understand how to suffer with others, how to be with them in the midst and offer solace in the midst of it all.

The times that I have “suffered” were mostly non-physical: the loss of a job and months of mentally stressful unemployment, the ending of a relationship, the loss of a home, the death of a loved one. Adding to the adversity was each of these situations occurred within six months of one another. I learned a great deal about myself from that time, including my capacity to learn from the experiences rather than simply tolerate what was happening to me. I realized that no matter how challenging the circumstances I was going through, I was still blessed to be alive, relatively healthy, and with family and friends who loved me and offered moral and physical support and comfort. I developed a deeper sense of connection to and understanding that my own suffering connected me to a community of people who had been touched by varying degrees of adversity. Compared with so many others, I was blessed.

I don’t pretend to have experienced deep suffering. My life has never been touched by war, I have not known that particular terror. My life has not been threatened by illness or calamity. I recognize that I am blessed. As I spend time in reflection over these 40 days I know I will spend more time thinking about the manifestations of suffering, as well as what actions I can take in my own small ways to alleviate it to the extent that I can. This will likely be the first of many times I write on this topic over these weeks. Always present in my mind is the experiences of Jesus, both as one who extended himself toward those who suffered in myriad ways, as well as one who himself experienced mental, emotional, and physical suffering. He knew how to suffer with. My hope for myself is that I can continue to open my heart, as best I can and follow his example. And indeed may all beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.

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Forty Days Returning, Day 29–Stillness at the Center

Sometimes in the midst of noise and the drama and trauma that is swirling around us, I am grateful for the spaces of quiet that I am able to create around myself. In The Desiderata, Max Erhmann says, “Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.” I am remembering the peace I can find in silence. And when I can’t find external quiet, I seek internal quiet, the stillness at the center. And so I share this piece from 2017 that talks about the stillness at the center. In the midst of storms, I hope that each of us reaches for and finds that stillness.

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Another Forty Days, Day 31–The Essence of Faith

Sometimes I feel a stillness in my center that lets me know that in this moment all is well and that all shall be well. This is the essence of faith, I suppose. No one has to lay hands on my head, no prophet needs to speak words to or over me, no light shines down on me from the heavens. I simply know. There is nothing I have done to deserve this, no amount of fasting and prayer or attendance at religious services has granted me special access to this truth. I simply have to turn my attention to it and it is there.

I don’t mean to sound all deep and mystical; honestly, I am describing it as simply as I feel it. I have not had a particularly good day today, in fact, the past weeks have been a bit of a struggle and I have found myself in an exhausted funk most days. But that does not negate the fact that at my core I feel at peace, and in this moment that peace is accessible to me.

Lest I be accused of being atheistic or anti-religion, that is not so. I honor many faith traditions and support those who practice and live out their faith and serve their fellow humans even as they serve their gods. And I deeply believe in the Spirit, the spark of the divine that I believe resides in each of us. Perhaps that is what I am accessing when I feel the stillness at my core. I don’t really poke at it or try to explain it, I am simply and profoundly grateful that it’s there.

Like many people, I discovered my faith, I learned what I am made of, touched the spirit, not as a result of some kind of religious revival, but rather when pieces of my life had been stripped away from me. This happened at various pivotal moments in my life when, losing something tangible exposed something deeper and more valuable. I learned about the “grace of God,” at a time when I was so angry at “Him” that I was cursing at him at the top of my voice driving to work one day. “Eff you, God!” I screamed, “I hate you! Why is this happening?” I got control of myself enough to drive safely the rest of the way on my 45-minute commute. As I got out of the car and walked to my building, I calmed down with each step I took. By the time I had walked into my office, having greeted the people outside, I sat down and felt the peace.

I realized that even as I’d been walking I was praying and thanking God. It had not annoyed God that I’d gotten angry. There were no rumbles of thunder and lightening. God did not topple off his throne in surprise that I had sworn at him. I had done nothing to “deserve” the peace that descended on me. I realized that no matter what was happening in my life, my heart of its own volition always turned toward gratitude, toward whatever this notion of “god” is. I understood grace in that moment as I never had before when it had been told to me or preached at me. I felt the grace.

I have had my share of life drama. The storms and arrows of outrageous fortune strike every one of us, even the most privileged and fortunate among us. We are all touched by pain, sorrow, death. Suffering, as the Buddha (and countless others) observed, is all around us. When some years later I experienced a serious of significant losses, I once again learned what I was made of. There were times when I got depressed, approaching despair at the circumstances I’d found myself in. But as I had that day I cursed god, I found myself moved by and grateful for the simplest of things that I experienced all around me: birds singing, warm sunlight sparkling off water, the movement of the stars and planets and moon in the heavens. Life was challenging, but it was also incredibly beautiful.

Finding gratitude, connecting with all the things in my life that were good rather than constantly focusing on all the troubles saved me, kept me strong even when tears were streaming down my face. Fear and pain mingled with gratitude and joy, and appreciating the beauty around me kept me very present in the here and now. Friends and family stood by me, supporting me, encouraging me, loving me, and even protecting me from despair. All these things helped me stay connected to the peace at my center.

Nothing extraordinary happened to me today. And so I rest in gratitude that, here at the end of a normal day, I can touch the stillness and be grateful. And in this moment, all is well.

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Forty Days Returning, Day 28–On Tears and Grief

It has been nearly 25 years since my mother died. And while the grief is still present, it is more like a gentle hum than the ever-present roar that it was in those first few months. I’ve discovered that grief is a cyclical thing, just like forgiveness. You grieve over someone or something lost, you heal and recover, and the grief comes back around again. Each time it returns and you address it, when it comes around again it is a little less painful. I’ve thought and written a bit about grief and forgiveness. This post from 2015 focuses on grief. For whomever or whatever you may be grieving, may you find healing, peace, and comfort.

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Forty Days, Day 3–Tears in Heaven

“Beyond the door,
There’s peace I’m sure,
And I know there’ll be no more
Tears in heaven.”  ~Eric Clapton, Tears in Heaven

The other night as I was stashing my computer on the lower shelf of my bedside table I ran across my crying towel–the small towel I keep handy for those moments when I need to have a good cry about something. I smiled fondly as I picked up my small pink fringed hand towel–actually more the size of a wash cloth–and thought about how much of a workout I used to give it. When I was going through a serious period of sadness in my life I discovered the concept of the crying towel. It was much more practical than tissues, which were one and done, and the advantage of the small towel was that I could bury my face in it and howl if I needed to, muffling my sobs and cradling my face in softness. It absorbed the tears much more easily than a tissue and all you had to do was let it dry and it would be ready for the next sob session. My rule was that I never blew my nose into it–that I saved the tissues for. Nope, my crying towel was for good, clean, salty tears.

I haven’t cried in a long time. Oh sure, I get misty-eyed from time to time over some sentimental song or poignant moment in a movie or television show that evokes some emotion or triggers some tend memory that cause a few tears to escape my eyes and tumble down my cheeks. But it’s been a while since I’ve had a total gut-wrenching, body wracking, sobbing breakdown. I consider this a good thing. It means that perhaps I am finally close to fully releasing some pains and anguish I’ve carried around for a while.

Releasing, grieving, forgiving, healing are all processes. There’s no particular timetable, end point, or total completion. But it’s always amazing when you realize that the sharp edges of pain that once characterized a phase of your existence have suddenly smoothed and rounded. Their impact is no longer as deep and painful. Often it’s a gradual dawning: you realize that you simply don’t hurt any more, not that constant, intense ache. It’s eased and you can breathe again. And the more intentional you are with working through your emotions–allowing rather than denying, but also not getting stuck in them–the more cleanly you seem to heal. At least that has been my experience.

This is the time of year when I occasionally get hit with what I call “grief bursts.” I can be minding my own business when suddenly out of nowhere something will touch me in a particular way and  I find myself sobbing, reaching for my crying towel grateful that it was where I left it. Anniversaries can be particularly difficult. Twenty years ago this week I was back in my home town staying with my mom and dad and taking mom to her chemo treatments. I took a week off from work to help take care of her, fix her meals and make sure that she ate them, clean up, and be helpful in pretty much any way I could. I also went down in April to perform the same responsibilities. It was a labor of love because I was able to enjoy a lot of one-on-one interactions with my mother. In late May she died and I was, as were my siblings and my father, quite devastated. The crying towel got a lot of use back then.

Each year since then I have experienced some measure of grief. It used to catch me off guard–I wouldn’t know why in late winter or early spring I felt so sad, even though things were going well. Eventually I came to realize that this phenomenon was simple grief. You see, my conscious mind might not be paying attention, but my subconscious mind and my body always seemed tuned into the cycle of grieving. Eventually I caught on that during that particular time of year I was re-experiencing my mother’s illness and passing. Eventually, of course, the acute pain eased and became more bearable, and once I knew what I was experiencing I could welcome and give space for my grief. This year it is a little more present with me as a big anniversary approaches.

Perhaps I don’t need my crying towel as much as I used to; now perhaps I might simply use it to dab the corners of my eyes as tears well up. These 40 days provides a space for quiet reflection and gentle probing of those tender places where once again a crying towel is handy. It’s a good time to put on a song like “Tears in Heaven,” or “Fire and Rain,” or “Dance with My Father” or some favorite, tear-jerking song and let the tears roll.  It is an exercise in healing, letting go, release. Perhaps I will give myself just such a space during these 40 days.

“Would you know my name
If I saw you in heaven?
Would it be the same
If I saw you in heaven?

I must be strong
And carry on,
‘Cause I know I don’t belong
Here in heaven.”

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Forty Days Returning, Day 27–On Struggle

One of the side effects of this new world of working from home is that I am less aware of what day it is. I lose track of time. Now that I do work-work in my home office, I get mixed up when I’m up here doing my personal work. Thus I totally did not realize until late last night, that I had failed to post my nightly entry of this blog. Oh dear. Time to rectify that now, as the morning sun is streaming through my window.

“Why do you do this every day?” someone recently asked me. “Because I don’t want to let down my dozen of adoring fans,” I quipped, then sobered. “It’s as much for me as it is for other people. And while I like the idea that someone, even if it’s only one person, is reading my thoughts, it’s my own way of reaching out. It’s another way to connect that’s not work-related.” In some ways, it’s my message in a bottle that I wrote about a number of years ago. It’s my way of connecting with the world, particularly during these days of separation from others. And do I invite you to settle back and enjoy this entry from last year.

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Forty More Days, Day 22–The Struggle is Real

I have to admit that I struggle sometimes. After all these years working, I still am assailed by self doubt. No matter how much I might accomplish, no matter how many people tell me how awesome I am, I somehow manage to not believe them, to not believe in myself. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a daily phenomenon–I do have days, many of them, when I am confident that I have done well. But at other times, the struggle is indeed real.

There are times for struggle, when we have to “rumble,” as Brene Brown calls it, with our doubts and fears, our shame and frailties, and myriad other states of mind and heart that we so often inhabit. If we are open, we can grow and learn from our struggles, but we must be willing and in the right head space to look for and accept the lessons they teach. There are different types of struggle: the kind where you wrestle with issues like self-doubt, and other emotions, and then there’s the kind that result from resisting what we’re being shown. I can remember when my mother was “explaining” something to me, she would grab my chin and turn it in her direction, commanding me to look at her. I was most definitely resistant to that.

Resisting sometimes, in fact often, prolongs the struggle, extends the lesson. There’s a balance in there somewhere. A time comes when you realize that to struggle is pointless. It is easier to simply surrender, “I give up. Show me what I need to see in the midst of all this drama.” This too is real. There is a wisdom in this form of surrender. Surrender in this case is not about quitting. This form of surrender takes courage. It’s a letting go of being right, of all the things that one can get hung up on in the process of learning.

We’re all learning in what Gary Zukav calls, “Earth school.” And we learn as much from the struggles, from the surrender, from the whitewater rapids of life as we do from more calm, easier, placid times. If Jesus learned obedience from those things which he suffered, it seems appropriate to me that I too learn from my own forms of suffering and struggle. I am grateful for that and would not trade it, even though it is painful.

Throughout this journey of these 40 days and beyond we’re going to have our struggles, we’re going to suffer. It goes a bit with the territory. Lent is not a fun, celebratory time. But this is a learning season, a time to be open to the lessons woven in with the struggle. Yes, I struggle, and the struggle is real, but I embrace them as best I can, learn from them, then let them go. “Trouble don’t last always,” the old folks say. Thank goodness.

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Forty Days Returning, Day 26–On Suffering

There’s a lot of sadness, grief, and suffering in the world right now. It has always been so, but now we’re perhaps more present to it.  I wrote the following piece on suffering two  years ago, when I was more removed from the level of suffering I’m seeing today. Nevertheless I am offering it this evening as we continue this journey of 40 days. May it prove useful to you on your journey.

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Forty Days Revisited, Day 6–On Suffering, Part 1

One of the challenges of nightly blogging is that, usually by the time I sit down to write, I’ve worked all day and my mind is worn out. During this first week of Lent, I have been even more exhausted than usual, given the pace of my work and the hours I’ve been keeping. I’ve resorted twice already to dipping into my blog reserves to bring out a piece that I wrote two or three years ago. That is a mark–one of many I’ve experienced recently–of having pushed myself too far for too long. It also is the nature of my work right now, especially at this particular time in the country and world when things seem to be going haywire faster than our capacity to keep up with them.

And so I find myself, once again, pondering the nature of suffering so that I can write about it, while I actually am suffering. Perfect, right? Part of the observance of Lent is intentionally focusing on fasting, and penitence, and giving up sweets and beer and swearing and other things, to deny ourselves in commemoration of the fasting, suffering, and ultimately, death of Jesus. For those who observe Lent, this is a solemn time, a contemplative time. It is time when some of us think a great deal about suffering as we walk with Jesus during the last, fateful days of his short ministry.

I actually think about suffering a lot, because in so many different forms it is all around us, literally everywhere. For some people, the nature of their work puts them in constant contact with people who are suffering. People like physicians, nurses, health care providers, psychologists and social workers, aid and rescue workers, hospice providers, drug abuse counselors, homeless shelter and food pantry staff…these people see suffering up close and personal on a daily basis–their jobs, and often their callings, are to provide direct care and compassionate support for and to ease the suffering of the people around them. For some of us, the connection is less direct, but we observe the suffering nonetheless.

It’s easy for us to see a homeless person in tattered clothes, muttering to himself as he walks down a cold city street and observe that he is suffering. We watch on the TV news as a mother wails in anguish over a child who was gunned down in the street, and our heart aches at her suffering. We see makeshift memorials on the side of a highway where someone has undoubtedly been killed in an accident. We might not even know what the circumstances were or who died, but we are somehow touched by the pain of loss that someone must have felt when they left those flowers, that teddy bear, or cross marking the spot where their loved one died. Everywhere we turn, there is suffering.

But some suffering is not so visible or obvious. The well-dressed executive who is in deep despair that her work is not satisfying, but she feels trapped in a nightmare existence wherein she takes medication to manage her depression, anxiety, and stress so she can force herself to go to the office one more day. As unlikely as it might seem to some of us, some people who appear to “have it all,” often inhabit a space of internal turmoil or angst or loneliness or feeling like an imposter that is very nearly immobilizing. That, too, is suffering.

It is why, I like to believe, we reach out to one another in compassion. We all have suffered. All. Even those who don’t realize they’re suffering are and have in the past. Their lack of recognition of their condition does not invalidate the truth of their suffering. We can see it even if they can’t.

I can imagine that Jesus couldn’t stand to see people suffering, ill, in pain or grief, or any number of ills. By couldn’t stand, I mean that he couldn’t sit idly by and not act to relieve or alleviate that which he saw around him. He was compelled to help those who reached out to him. It’s who he was. And so it is with us. We are not all called to be direct care providers that ease the physical suffering of the body, but some of us are called to support others whose hearts or minds are suffering, who are lonely and need to know someone cares, or who are in the grip of forms of suffering they cannot name. Jesus was compelled to help, and so too, are we.

I have lately suffered from varying degrees of burnout and exhaustion. I’ve been forced to consider that I perhaps need to take a step back from the work I am doing. While my work no doubt helps and has touched a lot of people, it has taken a lot out of me. The nature of the work, as well as the mental demands sometimes leave me feeling exhausted and spent. Even Jesus got tired sometimes. Even Jesus took a rest.

Over these 40 days, I know I will spend a lot of time pondering the nature of suffering, the obvious and the not-so-obvious. Some of it I will record in this blog, if I have the energy. If I want to help heal the world, I need to ponder suffering–theirs and my own–and embrace what I see in others. This is the journey of the 40 days. This is the journey of life.

Today, may I and all beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering. May we experience and know true happiness and peace, and taste, savor, and enjoy the fruits thereof. May it be so for us all.

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Forty Days Returning, Day 25–Moments of Joy

Recently I have asked myself the question, “What gives you joy?” It seemed like so many people around me had an activity or pastime where the joy they received from engaging in it gave them immense pleasure; in a word, it gave them joy. My brother gets joy from riding his Harley, a friend loves ballroom dancing (she does the Salsa), and yet another enjoys creating beautiful flower arrangements.

“I don’t know what gives me joy,” I would lament to them, and to myself. I think what I was looking for was the one big thing that I would do that would give me the elusive joyful feeling I so jealously saw others receiving. It wasn’t until just the other day that I realized that what gave me joy was not the monumental, big, life-altering thing that brings pleasure, but my joy is found in moments. How could I have missed it? (I can almost hear my friend saying, “Well, DUH!”) But for me, it simply had not come clear except in the past few days.

I get joy from looking out my home office window and seeing the pond that lives behind my house. Every day, as I work from home, I watch the acrobatics of the many ring-neck ducks as they dive and swim in amazing synchrony, and the wondrous joy of discovering, swimming in the midst of the the ring-necks and mallards and Canada geese, a brand new breed I’d never seen before–a cinnamon teal. I mean, who knew? I also watch the numerous varieties of birds visiting the feeder and the antics of the squirrels trying, unsuccessfully to get at the food in the feeders, all the while ignoring the corn cob I’d put out specifically for them. In the past weeks, in addition to the new ducks, I’ve seen a red fox, a wild turkey, frolicking deer, and a newly discovered muskrat living near the edge of the pond.

I realized that I am a nature lover of the highest order, reveling in the beauty of the wildlife, trees and plants that are all around me. I have also thoroughly enjoyed the dance in the heavens of Saturn, Mars, and Jupiter aligned in a semi-triangular array in the early morning sky, along with other familiar constellations. The wonders of the heavens is present for me, it gives me moments of joy, and those moments add up to a life that is filled with joy. This has been an amazing discovery for me, and I am incredibly grateful for this new–if obvious–awareness.

So one could ask what, if anything, does this have to do with the 40-day journey we’re on right now? This time of anticipation of Jesus’s suffering need not be always solemn. There were no doubt times when Jesus reveled in the beauty of the creation all around him. Even knowing, as he did, that he was destined to die (though, aren’t we all?) he did not dwell on it all the time. He had to have witnessed, for example, the beauty of the lilies of the field that he referenced in one of his sermons. He had to have known moments of joy.

And so we, though we are living in incredibly stressful and sometimes frightening days, must find our own moments of joy to ground us and balance the anxiety that is all around us. I know it sounds like such a simple thing, though it is not easy to do, to look for and find the beauty that is literally all around us. I am grateful to have discovered something that gives me joy. I hope that even those who are in the midst of suffering find moments of joy, of comfort and ease. May it be so.

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Forty Days Returning, Day 24–WWJD

A little while ago I dragged myself back up the stairs to my home office so I could publish tonight’s blog post. I had just gotten myself in my pre-bedtime routine when I realized I had forgotten it. Drat! Still, I’m grateful for this process, even when I am tired, because I get to read an older post through fresh eyes. And I manage to learn or relearn something in the process.

When I look at the monumental challenges facing the world today, I don’t wonder WWJD–what would Jesus do–I ask myself what I can do. That’s not meant to be noble, but is simply a recognition that if something is going to happen to improve things, I have to be involved in it, we all do. We are, after all, Jesus’s hands and feet. We are the foot soldiers in this war, some of us on the front lines, some there for support. We each have a part to play, even if it seems small. It is the collective, not solely individual efforts that will win the day. And so this post from March 2017 gets us thinking about our role in this work. I hope you find value in it.

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Another Forty Days, Day 12–That’s All Well and Good, But I’m Not Jesus

Sometimes when I look at the magnitude of the problems that our society faces, I am overwhelmed. Today I was listening to a panel of professionals talking about the work they’re doing to address poverty, homelessness, hunger, and other challenges confronting a significant  portion of the population in the city where I work. When we began talking about what it would take to truly eradicate poverty, I found myself shaking my head at the many, many things that would have to be put in place to truly take on the issue.

At the end of the day, how is it that we live in one of the wealthier countries in the world and yet we allow millions of people to live in substandard or no housing, experience hunger on a regular basis, have limited or no access to adequate health care, and work but cannot earn a living wage? And in the current political climate in this country, those working to address these social issues are even further constrained by budget cuts proposed by elected officials, many of whom are far removed from the struggles of every day people, let alone those who are most vulnerable. As I listened, I found myself feeling angry, frustrated, and helpless, as I pondered the immensity of the systemic issues that have created the conditions that allow poverty to thrive, and the political will and social pressures that would have to be brought to bear to change it.

As I continue to consider it, particularly in light of this Lenten theme, I find myself thinking about Jesus. He took on the establishment in so many different areas. He constantly ruffled political and theological feathers, while healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and encouraging and empowering the people around him to do the same. Throngs of people heard his message, followed him, told their friends, who also followed him. He did all this without the internet. The ripple effect of who he was and what he did still touches people today thousands of years later. It begs the question, as has often been posed over the years, “What would Jesus do?” if he saw the conditions of things in this country and around the world? How would he respond the the myriad social ills that plague this country alone, let alone the rest of the globe?

Then I think again about what I can do as an individual to take on these challenges, and I feel relatively powerless. Yes, I do believe in the ability of individuals to make a difference for and in the lives of people in need; I saw examples of it on the panel today, and see it all around me. But it’s difficult to apply individual solutions to systemic problems. And while a whole lot of individuals working on the problems faced by many of our most vulnerable citizens improves the quality of life for the people they serve, it does very little to change the systems that make these ills possible in the first place. The time I spent volunteering that a food pantry a number of years ago made a difference for those people I served, but did nothing to solve the problem of hunger in that community or anyplace else.

What would Jesus do? I mean, he was raising people from the dead and doing all kinds of wild stuff. How would he approach this problem, and what, if anything, could I learn from his approach? I’m a good human being (mostly) and I work hard to make a difference where I am. But I’m not Jesus. I often remind myself that I can do what I do where I am, and invite, allow, empower others to do the same. If we all play our collective roles, maybe we take down the system that allows some to have access to “basic” needs like food and water, shelter, and access to economic opportunity while others do not. “Get in where you fit in,” do your thing to help save the world.

Over these 40 days, what can I give? What kind of initiatives can I start or contribute to? How do I work to dismantle the system that keeps things the way they are, advantaging and privileging some, while harming and disadvantaging others? Yes, these things look overwhelming when viewed through the lens of my own small footprint, but I can’t allow that reality to keep me from trying. And so I go on. Who’s with me?

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Forty Days Returning, Day 23–On Making Comparisons

Every once in a while I read one of my previous posts just when I need to get a particular message. That is definitely true of today’s post on comparison. I have recently been suffering from comparing-myself-to-others syndrome, and the results are not pretty. I find myself feeling bad and getting down on myself. Talk about piling on. I need to learn to give myself a break, the benefit of the doubt, and definitely some love, as I was reminded when I reread today’s post. May you learn from my mistakes, dear reader. Read on

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Forty Days, Day 5–Shall I Compare Thee…?

Anyone who’s ever tried to do anything every day knows what a challenge it is to establish a habit and maintain the routine. When you’re trying to write or create artwork or compose music or do anything creative every day the challenge multiplies, perhaps exponentially. When you try to offer that work of creativity publicly every day it feels astronomically challenging. It doesn’t need to be of course, unless you’re a perfectionist, which I unfortunately happen to be. I’m working on it, but there it is. I wrote a daily blog on gratitude for three years. Some days were insightful, wise, and relatively well written. Others were–well–less than brilliant, perhaps to the point of not being very good. Nevertheless I faithfully published them each night for some 700-plus days in a row and 1,001 days overall.

A friend of mine writes a haiku every day. I find myself envying him because while it can be challenging to write a really good haiku, it still is only three lines and 17 syllables long. And while I would not suggest that anyone can write a haiku a day, somehow implying that haiku writing is easy, it feels like it would be less time consuming than my daily blog over these 40 days, especially when I’m trying to be wise and insightful. An old acquaintance of mine challenged herself to paint a painting a day for 30 days. Now that would be challenging. Comparing my daily blog to her producing a painting each day is a bit like comparing haiku writing to writing my daily 500-plus words a day blog. The level of work and commitment and time to produce a painting–and most of them were portraits–feels incredibly awesome to me as someone who has very limited artistic ability.

But as I got to thinking about it I realized that a serious problem arises with when I start comparing myself, what I’m doing, and how I’m doing with another person. Many of us grew up being compared with or comparing ourselves to people around us. If you’re from a large family like I am, comparisons are inevitable–family members, friends, school teachers all begin comparing you with your siblings. You soon learn that in order to be noticed you have to distinguish yourself by doing something unique. Sometimes this means doing something “good” or acting out, becoming the class clown, getting the best grades, and so forth. The cycles of comparing and competing can run unchecked through most of our lives unless something happens to interrupt them. We can get to a place in our lives when we feel like we’re always being measured against other people and somehow come up short, we are lacking in some way.

For some of us it takes a dramatic shift of perspective to move away from the “I am not as good as this person” or “I need to keep bringing my A game to stay on top” or “I hope they don’t figure out that I don’t know what I’m doing,” or any of the 1,001 things we say to ourselves or others say to us that can leave us feeling completely demoralized. I suffered for many years watching and comparing myself with some of the people around me. I was baffled as to how people who were less capable and talented than I was were somehow doing better in their careers. I spent too much time looking around at what everyone else was doing and what was happening with them and too little time looking at myself.

Eventually I realized that what I needed to focus on was showing up, doing the best I could on any given day, and on helping the people I was there to help. I let go of the need to be perfect and the idea that everything had to be excellent. There were times when pretty good had to be good enough. I learned that I wouldn’t always be able to “get it right,” but that I could always do my best. I had to learn that sometimes my inability to please someone else–especially in a work context–was less about my work ethic, the quality of the end product, and my commitment and more about the other person. I learned a lot through painful trial and error, and while I wish I could lay things out in such a way that I could spare others some of my more challenging lessons, I’m not sure I can. Each of us must come to our own realizations that, at the end of the day, it really is much more about who we are and how we show up in the world (as in how we share our true selves in the world around us) and about doing the best we can than trying to be someone or something we are not.

One thing I want to be clear about: competition and comparing ourselves with others is not bad in and of itself. Some elements of competition are what helps us improve and sharpen our skills and abilities. When people are pit against one another in competition, where “winners” and “losers” are created and people are made to feel inferior, then competition and comparison becomes destructive.

In one blog post I am not going to convince anyone caught in this cycle that you need not continue to participate in the comparison Olympics, that you are not in competition with yourself or anyone else to prove who is more worthy, who is better, who deserves this or that. What I will do is invite you over these 40 days you spend some time in contemplation and compassionate conversation with yourself about who you are and what shifts you need to make to begin to see your that your inherent value lies in who you are at your core and how you bring your own unique gifts and talents into the world. It takes courage for each of us to do such examinations, but when all is said and done, the outcomes of such exploration and the subsequent changes we make in our lives are well worth the effort. And so it goes.

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Forty Days Returning, Day 22–When the Magic Happens

Some days I write about more random things in my blog, like this entry from 2018. Sometimes I like to look at the more whimsical side of things; while most of these posts are relatively serious, sometimes the more lighthearted, tongue-in-cheek kinds of pieces are just the thing. So when I spun the random number generator wheel, I landed on something slightly less serious. The journey of 40 days is, after all, a marathon rather than a sprint. There is time for both levity and gravity in the remaining days, never fear. I appreciate both as these days of confinement stretch on. Take care and enjoy this post from February, 2018.

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Forty Days Revisited, Day 13–When the Magic Happens

There comes a time when you simply have to give up, to surrender, to cry “uncle.” Today is not that day. Today I had one of those “Bullwinkle moments,” where I had to pull something out of my magic hat. When I reached into it, with some degree of trepidation, I pulled out something quite useful and successful, what I needed to go well went well. Sometimes I know about assignments, work projects, presentations I have to give, proposals I have to write, etc. weeks, sometimes months in advance, and yet I somehow manage to end up cramming at the last minute to get it done. What is that about? I am grateful that when I reach in to my magic hat, something good is usually produced. It is remarkable. And as much as I don’t like to rely upon last minute preparations (I stayed up late and got up early to prepare) I am grateful when things go well.

I don’t like to take these things for granted. Sometimes things go well because I have studied and learned and practiced. I have worked hard, and I “know my stuff.” Still, it puts me under undue stress to have to reach into the hat and pray I don’t find a lion or bear, instead of a rabbit. So far, so good.

I wonder if Jesus ever worried that he wouldn’t have what he needed when he needed it. He was doing a whole lot more than I’ve even attempted. I wonder if there were times he wanted a do-over. Probably not. The gospel writers do, however, write of a very few incidents here and there, where Jesus didn’t hit it out of the park on some of his first attempts at things. There was that time he was healing the blind man, and at first the healing was incomplete. He went from not seeing at all, to seeing men as tall trees. Jesus had to make a slight adjustment before the man could see clearly. He had only one or two other situations like that, as I recall.

As I look back over the previous three years of this Forty Days series, I realize I seem to be preoccupied with Jesus seeming more human and less like God. I think that I look for ways he was like me, similar cares and worries, moments when he was tired, uncertain, exhausted, grief-stricken, fearful, sad, and lonely like I have been. And did he feel a sense of accomplishment or awesomeness or exhilaration when he “pulled off” a great sermon, a powerful healing, a significant miracle? Can you imagine Jesus doing a Tiger Woods fist pump after he fed the 5,000 or turned that water into wine at the wedding? No, me either, but I confess to having those “Yes!” moments when I’ve pulled something out of my hat, did something that went really well.

The journey of these 40 days, Jesus’s and ours, is one of so many twists and turns, unexpected joys as well as unanticipated hardships. It is life. It is a time for noticing, paying attention to the world around us, as well as our inner states of being. Sometimes I can close my eyes and immediately be transported to a place of quiet, calm, and peace. In an instant. Other times my mind is cluttered and my heart aching and I can barely find my way through a day. Such is life, such is the path. I wonder if Jesus had days like those. I bet he did, and that is comforting beyond imagination.

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