Potential

This year, for whatever reason, I have been noticing pinecones—perhaps because they have been quite numerous, and perhaps because I am drawn in by their regular patterns and varied textures—the orderliness with which they present themselves to the world. They are all different—in size, texture, make up. Some are smooth and hold themselves together tightly while others are rough and open. Some have many small, flimsy seeds while others have fewer thick seeds. One day this past fall, I reached up to pull a pinecone off a tree, and it was so sharp and prickly, it dug into the skin of my palm. I pulled my hand away, imagining I might be bleeding—though I was not.

This morning, as I was out walking, enjoying some quiet time in the rather brisk air, I spotted a tiny pinecone, much smaller than most I see on my daily walks. It was about the size of the top portion of my little finger. If I hadn’t been paying attention, I might have missed it as I passed by.

But as I marveled at its size, I also considered its incredible potential. It may be small, but there could likely be a forest in this pinecone. If properly nurtured, its seeds could create several trees, and those trees could create many more seeds, and this would continue for generations of trees.

A tiny pinecone, the size of the tip of my little finger has the potential to become a forest. If this pinecone has that kind of potential, what might you become? And how might you harness your unlimited potential to create a lasting legacy?

 

Year One: #PandemicLife Lessons

As we run headlong into year two of this crazy pandemic life, I wanted to take a minute to reflect on where we’ve been. I thought it would be worthwhile to acknowledge the efforts and experiences we’ve lived since last year at this time. We’ve come a long way in our acceptance of our current reality, so it’s a good time to reflect on what we have learned thus far. Some of the lessons of the past year have been re-learned from childhood, but others have been a bit tougher to swallow… and to maintain. Here are some of the big ones:

Personal space: This year, we learned personal space is an actual thing. In the past, it wasn’t always respected, and people sometimes got too close. They might accidentally bump into you when they were reaching over you at the grocery store. Or you might sit three people across in a space made for one-and-a-half on an airplane. But personal space is important, and now we have come to see that more space is better! Now, when someone who doesn’t need quite as much personal space as you gets just a little too close, you can politely take a step (or five) backwards—while they are advancing—without offending them. Just claim Covid and social distance.

Cover your mouth: Whenever you cough or sneeze (or breathe, for that matter) cover your mouth (and nose, friends). This pandemic has really driven home the point that exposing others to your germy droplets can be downright dangerous. Of course, when you do cough or sneeze, make sure you do it into your elbow, so you don’t go spreading those germs around when you then touch something. This elbow-thing has been tough for me (decades of using my hand to cover my mouth is a hard habit to break), but I think I’ve finally adjusted, and I am willing to admit not coughing/sneezing into your hand makes great sense when you stop to think about it.

Be patient: This is one of the biggest lessons of the pandemic. We have no idea how long it will be before we can reclaim our “normal,” so we have to be patient. Now, there are many people who have had enough and are not waiting. They are reclaiming their “normal” now. Personally, I don’t recommend this. I was exposed to Covid and spent 10 days waiting it out; I believe erring on the side of caution is preferable to too many more periods of quarantine. So I am being patient and gathering some projects that I’ve been meaning to work on: knitting, painting, reading, walking, praying, and making exercise a habit. That last one is a struggle… but there are some great videos on YouTube. By the time we come out of this cautionary period of social distancing, I will (at the very least) have compiled a library of good workout videos with which I will (someday) make exercise a daily habit.

Inner reflection: Sometimes, in times of quiet loneliness, we are forced into some inner reflection. In fact, that is actually a good thing. I would argue that in our society, we don’t do enough reflection and personal work on figuring out who we are as individuals. Instead, we keep ourselves busy with activities and friends and events. We have appointments and meetings and conferences, and we fill our calendars as full as we can. But not since last year. If you are looking to grow and evolve into a better person, you have to start with yourself—you have to look in rather than out. What we often fail to realize is that what we want is not out there. It is inside us. What better time for inner reflection than now, when there’s not a lot else to keep us busy?

As cliché as it may sound, history repeats itself. One thing we’ve learned this year is that people don’t want to listen to what worked 100 years ago because much has changed in the last century. What has really become evident this year is that lessons from history are lost once the people who learned them are no longer with us. Therefore, history repeats again, and again, and again until we not only learn the lessons we need to learn, we internalize them and they become part of who we are as a society. I heard about the Spanish flu when I was growing up from my grandpa. He was in France in World War I, and he had lived through the epidemic. He had lost many men in his division to the flu. We used to speculate that his penchant for raw onion sandwiches at lunchtime kept him healthy. True or not, we’ll never know, but there’s no doubt he would have had much to say about our current pandemic based on his past. But we’ll never know that, either.

It’s been a long year bursting with lessons, and the lessons will continue this year and into next. Hopefully, not much longer because I, for one, am ready for the lessons to become lessons of beating a pandemic and moving forward into a new “normal.” Let’s hope the lessons learned this time will inform society and help them deal more efficiently with whatever the future may hold.

Here’s hoping.

{Photo by Pepe Reyes on Unsplash}

Crazy, Magical Life

Welcome, friends, to this grand adventure we call “life.” Come as you are—we are not formal here, at least not much of the time.

Here in life, you may be anything you wish to be—within reason, of course. You cannot be a unicorn for the simple reason that unicorns don’t exist within the realm of real. Also, you cannot be younger, though I haven’t quite figured out why on that one. Younger exists in reality, though I suppose that negates the statement, “Come as you are,” so perhaps that has something to do with it.

You can be a dreamer. An innovator. A creative. In fact, those types of individuals thrive around here, especially in pandemic life when we’re kinda making things up as we go. The innovators will discover ways to keep busy in the most challenging times. If you would like to be a plumber, you can do that. A teacher is a noble choice. A philanthropist, an accountant, a millionaire… all are within your grasp. If you put your mind to it, and you are willing to do the necessary hard work and persevere through the tough times and the setbacks, you truly can be anything you want to be (well… except for a unicorn).

You will have adventures here in life. Some may be amazing, planned adventures based in travel or exploring or taking risks. Other adventures may be unexpected and threaten to derail you from the path you are traveling. Each of these adventures has many lessons to teach if you are open to learning. Life’s lessons can be hard but internalizing them will allow you to move forward freely and more informed for the next adventure. Or mis-adventure, as the case may be. Always keep in mind that difficult roads often lead to beautiful places.

Welcome to this crazy world where things seldom go as planned—sometimes for long stretches at a time. But there are always other people here to share your experiences and help you through. To celebrate your joys, and to help you bear your heartache.

So come as you are to this crazy world. The people make it all worthwhile. The love, the joy, the laughter, and even the tears. These things are precious. And even if there are no unicorns, life can still be magical beyond measure.

{Photo by Pierre Châtel-Innocenti on Unsplash}

Understanding

Understanding. I am trying to approach everyone I meet with understanding as I contemplate their unique perspective on the world and their individually challenging situation.

A bit before class last week, one of my students emailed me. “I’ll be on Zoom today. I have to babysit.”

Normally, babysitting is not an excuse to be out of class. Class is important, and if you’ve ever taken the time to figure out the price (per class) of a college course, it’s fairly expensive, as well. So no, I do not condone skipping class.

But this is not a normal year. In fact, there is little that even faintly resembles “normal.” Excuses abound in Covid time. “I have a doctor’s appointment.” How can I argue that? “My mom’s car broke down, and she took mine.” Yep, Mom has to get to work so she can make money. “It’s snowing and I have to get home to help out with my little brother.” “I was exposed to Covid, and now I am in quarantine.” Ugh. So many excuses.

I am a proponent of attendance in class, but I also try to be flexible. In the past, I would have asked for a doctor’s note, a court summons, or whatever. Documentation can excuse you from class.

But this year is different. This year has been tough. Everyone has a different situation. I don’t know who has younger siblings that might need supervision. I don’t know whose family is struggling and whose parents have lost jobs. I don’t know which of my students has taken on a job (or two) to help with the bills. I don’t know unless they tell me. And some students aren’t ready to be that vulnerable.

But I do know that people are struggling. I know that my students are struggling. The world, as they knew it, disappeared just as they were preparing to graduate from high school and move out in the world and work on their independence. It has been almost a year since that time. We are all tired of this. We all have pandemic fatigue. We all want to see a relative or friend, go to a concert, attend a wedding, have dinner out with non housemates…. There is so much we are missing about our former lives.

So I take a step back and I ask myself, is it my position to question this student’s situation, or is it simply my position to express understanding? I am not going to judge anyone in a year like this.

Like everything else this year, I am exercising flexibility. If you tell me you have to Zoom into class because you have to babysit, I am not going to ask. I’m going to send you the Zoom link and see you, virtually at least, in class.

Everyone is struggling. Not necessarily in the same way. In fact, not likely in the same way. Understanding is what we need. From where I sit, understanding is the best path forward.

{Photo by Jeffrey Hamilton on Unsplash}

Ignite Hope

Every day, I drive by a snowman on my way to work, and every day, it appears a bit more despondent than it did the day before. Its slouch increases; its scarf hangs lower; and at some point early in the week, its nose slipped out of place and landed in the snow.

Every day, as I drive by this snowman, I see it as an image for our current situation. Every day, we may grow a little more despondent. And every day, the spark of hope is just a bit more challenging to ignite. There is a fatigue that permeates even the air we breathe, and we just can’t escape.

And yet, if we can tap into even the slightest hope and know that things are going to change… eventually, we can pull ourselves up, day by day, and keep going. One step at a time. This, friends, is part of our journey. We may not like it, but there are some things that we don’t get to control.

However, we do get to choose how we approach every day of year two of pandemic life. (Who would’ve thought we would ever put those words together in the same sentence? And yet, here we are….) What if—upon waking—you lie in bed and take an inventory of all the things for which you are grateful? What if you take five minutes each morning to focus on the things that are going well in your life, no matter how insignificant they may feel?

I am pretty sure this simple and brief exercise will help you frame your day. If you begin with a focus on the positive, you may see the positive more often. It is a simple shift in the way you approach the day. At first, the positivity may last for only the five minutes of your reflection. But little by little, the five minutes will expand—6, then 10, then an hour—until the shift is lasting and significant.

You get to decide how you will face the continuation of this crazy journey we are on. You get to decide if you will tap into the positive and drag it—perhaps kicking and screaming—into everything you do in an absurd attempt to spark hope in your life (and possibly in that of others). Or you could choose to face the day with the growing despondence seen in this snowman.

If despondence is your choice, I would caution that this snowman is about to lose his head. One warm day and it could drop into the snow and roll down the hill, coming to rest in the middle of the road where it will be squished by car after car after car.

Don’t get me wrong. I would never say bringing the positive is easy or always the best choice. But if you can bring the positive more often than not, if you can see the good in your life, and if you can be grateful for the little things, you might be able to change your outlook on our current situation. And you might just spark a tiny seed of hope in the people around you.

{Photo of the despondent snowman taken while safely stopped on the side of the road}

Comfort Zone

It has been cold here in New England recently. Earlier this week, it was bone-chilling, teeth-crackling cold. So cold, in fact, that even the thought of going for a walk made me shiver. But after a week in quarantine, working from home, and barely going out, I was stir-crazy, and I forced myself to go for a walk.

I bundled up and stepped out the door and into the cold. The air was still and no one else was out as I walked down the path past the pond. The bare trees of mid-winter reveal the landscape in new ways, and I could see the stream through the twigs and branches that line the path. In warmer months, these twigs would be dense underbrush. I could see where the stream split in two then rejoined as one before emptying into the pond. Far above me, the trees whined and groaned in the slight breeze.

The normal acoustics of the outside world seemed muffled by the cold, the snow on the ground, and my hat on my ears. An airplane flew low overhead preparing to land, and the sound was much quieter than at other times of year when the volume can be deafening.

When you are willing to step outside and brave the elements, you are often rewarded with peace and fresh air and sights not seen indoors. As I walked up the hill, I spotted a sundog gracing the clouds up ahead—a wink from my dad, the spotter of rainbows and shooting stars, letting me know he’s here even though I cannot see him. And at the end of my walk, as I approached home, the wispy strokes of an angel-like cloud danced in the sky, beckoning me forward.

Here’s what I know. When you are willing to step out of the warm comfort of your home and pay attention to the world around you, it feeds your soul. When I stepped outside, I opened myself up to the sights and sounds that awaited me. The smell of snow, the clouds against the blue sky, the shape of a snow heart set off by the dark pavement.

But here’s what I want to know. If these are the possibilities with a simple walk outside, what are the possibilities if you step out of your comfort zone? What kind of growth is possible if you take the step you’ve been putting off? How will you change if you take the risks that you know you want to take, but you can’t quite muster the courage?

True growth happens when we make ourselves vulnerable. When we do the thing we have been putting off. It might be to leave a comfortable job for a new opportunity. It might be to reach across the void of years to reconnect with an old friend. Or to leave a relationship that isn’t healthy. It might be venturing out on your own to create the life you desire and deserve.

Yes, it may be scary. Yes, you will be able to come up with a million and one excuses for not doing the thing. But what do you have to lose if you take the risk? More importantly, what regrets will you have if you don’t take the risk and do whatever it is that is calling your heart?

No doubt, the first few steps will be cold and uncomfortable. No doubt the journey will be bumpy and at times unsettling or even downright discouraging. But when you find your footing, when you take a look around, you will notice the beauty. You will realize your strength. And you will begin to find your confidence.

Take the step, whatever that may be for you. Venture beyond your comfort zone and discover the joy and wonder that lie just beyond your current reach. You just might be surprised by what life has in store for you!

Hope and Possibility

The past year has been one of sorting old photos. I have been through many years of photos, revisiting memories of times gone by, discovering images once captured but long forgotten. Occasionally, I am struck by people I barely remember, events I don’t recall attending, and images of the girl I once was.

Years back, I had taken a large box of photos from my mother’s home with the intention of preserving them in some way. Mom had (somewhat) organized them by year, but they remained in a cardboard box, untouched and seldom seen. The years (decades really) had not been kind—they were deteriorating, fading and discoloring where they had been in contact with the cardboard. When I initially took them, I had moved them into a photo-friendly storage container. This year of lockdown and isolation seemed the perfect time to examine and sort and scan as many photos as I could.

While I was scanning, I found several pictures that made me reflect on the girl I was a long time ago. These pictures hinted at the carefree nature and silliness I had when I was young, back before life came in and swept all the glitter from between the floorboards and blew the magic out the window. Life has a way of doing that, you know. Through carefully examining the girl in these pictures, I began to reevaluate who I was and who I am.

This girl in this time—there is much I can learn from her. The possibility she had for the future was nearly infinite. Silly was an option for her. Fun was a choice. She was lighter before she had the responsibilities of adulthood.

This girl—she hasn’t completely disappeared, but she doesn’t command the room in the same way. My children, they have learned much from this girl. Photo after photo of them fooling around and refusing to be serious—perhaps this is a familial trait or perhaps it is the prevailing attitude of youth. Does it need to go away? Is the world really so heavy that it crushes the fun from us?

“Who you become is infinitely more important than what you do or what you have.” This girl in the pictures, she was still becoming, though I don’t think we are ever truly finished with that process—we merely lose sight of it.

Adulthood may have stripped the carefree from this girl, but I am going to work on reclaiming at least some of that part of my younger self. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to become the girl of so many years ago—I have already been her. I want to recapture the energy and hope with which that girl approached life. I want to reframe my choices and reorder my priorities to move some of the heavy out the door.

And I’m going to start leaving the windows of possibility open, and maybe some of the magic and glitter of youth will blow right on back in to my life.

{Photo by Alistair MacRobert on Unsplash}

Sometimes it doesn’t take much to inspire ideas to flow. This morning, it only took 7¢. It was scattered on the pavement, a nickel and two pennies. Perhaps the coins were dropped unintentionally, or perhaps they were purposely cast aside. I have no idea.

Let’s be real, friends. It’s been a tough week. Deep, heavy events occurred here in the U.S. Events that should affect the entire manner in which this country moves forward. Events that should bring us to our knees. Events that should pull us together, encourage us to rally around each other and our political system and begin a long overdue healing process. But healing and working together would be arduous and protracted, and to be honest, I think many Americans lack the capacity to truly work on the issues that divide us. Attention spans are short, and people don’t see themselves as part of anything larger than themselves. These days, many people seem to be repelled by hard work, patience, and understanding. We have proven too selfish, too unkind, too hateful to reflect on the big things. To dwell on the meaningful. We are too focused on the newest cell phone, the latest version of a video game, the things money can buy that bring only momentary satisfaction. We have become shallow shells moving through time and blaming everyone else for the problems in our society.

But let’s hope this one is the tipping point. Let’s hope this is not like every single natural disaster, school shooting, raging pandemic, and act of terrorism in which Americans have been better at making excuses than addressing the broken. Let’s hope we do not shove this into the past and move on without looking back. Without learning important and difficult lessons. Without dealing with the core issues that created the problem in the first place. Without reflecting on who we are as a nation. Without a second glance.

I’m told people have lost faith in loose change. Coins are an annoyance. They are heavy. Noisy. Not worth the effort it takes to carry around. We cast them aside as soon as they come into our possession, leaving a trail of change in our wake as we move through life. On the floor by the cash register. In the cracks of our car seats and sofas. On the pavement in the parking lot as we enter and exit our cars.

It’s not worth much. You can’t buy anything with it. But loose change adds up. If you drop it in a container on your way into your house at the end of each day, it will eventually become something worthwhile. If you were to save 7¢ every day, you will fill a cup or a jar, and you might soon be able to buy a carton of milk. Or go to a movie. Or pay a bill. Loose change is only inconsequential if you cast it aside.

Come to think of it, this is much like small acts of kindness. They fill our cup. They help us to feel better about who we are and the life we are leading. They make us feel like we are part of something. Small acts of kindness add up to large acts of kindness and these, in turn, contribute to an improved outlook on life.

If you make a habit of saving 7¢ a day, your loose change will begin to come together. It will begin to be useful. You will have 49¢ over the course of a week. And at the end of a year, you would have an extra $25. Kindness is like this, too. If you make it a habit to hold the door for someone on their way in to work, eventually you will be holding the door for someone each day. Then you might start to say, “Good morning,” and this might lead to longer conversations and deeper connections. Pretty soon, you will be starting your day in conversation with new friends, and this may prompt you—and those around you—to perform more acts of kindness, changing your outlook (and theirs) for the better.

We all say we want our society to change—there’s too much hate… we are too divided… we have lost patience with others. But change doesn’t happen all at once. It happens 7¢ at a time. Small kindness perpetuates more kindness, and with a lot of time and tremendous patience, we will begin to see the changes that will shift the attitudes of an entire society and finally begin to make a difference that matters.

{Photo by Jonathan Brinkhorst on Unsplash}

Beads on a String

Years ago, I was part of a writing group in which we often talked about our inner critic. You know the one I am talking about. My inner critic sits on my shoulder and tells me all the things I am doing wrong. She says things like, “You’re not going to write that, are you?”

I can’t shake her.

I could go out and run three miles or hike a mountain, and when I come back into the house and sit down to write, there she is. Still sitting on my shoulder. Still letting me know my ideas are not good enough. My handwriting isn’t neat enough. My typing isn’t fast enough. The list of criticisms is never ending.

I swipe at my shoulder, trying to brush her off. “Go away!” I grunt, batting at her as if she is an annoying and persistent mosquito.

“Your pen is running out of ink,” she taunts. “It’s a sign. Stop writing. You’re no good anyway.”

I take a deep, slow breath in, gritting my teeth as I gather strength to deal with her. Unlike an annoying bug or persistent distraction, this is my inner critic. She is a part of me, the result of too many years of disappointments and all the voices that told me I wasn’t good enough, from school-yard bullies to power-seeking bosses to abusive partners.

Logically, I can piece together all of the experiences that gave her strength. And as I quickly run through each of these negative people and events, I visualize them as beads on a string, misshapen, dull, and discolored. One by one, I pluck them from the string and flick them to the floor. They ping, bounce once or twice, and scatter to the far reaches of the room, disappearing in dark corners and under seldom-moved appliances.

With a now bare and empty string, I can re-string it with ideas, positive thoughts, and encouragement. These beads are perfect in their varied shapes. Their colors are complementary and offer hope for an uncertain future. Together, they create a beauty that is striking.

The more I am able to diminish my inner critic and soften her criticism, the more beauty I can add to this growing strand of beads.

We all have our own inner critic, and mine is not limited to writing. She is always with me, trying to pull me off track. The metaphor of beads on a string allows me to be selective about the messages I keep. By plucking negative thoughts from the string and casting them away, I can replace them with positive ones. I can refocus away from my inner critic’s constant commentary and work on creating beauty—in writing and in life. My ideas flow more freely, and I am able to play in imagination, unencumbered.

2021 – Bring Your Thunder

Recently, I saw this new message circulating on Facebook. It was clearly a post directed to the turning of the calendar, and it said something like, “What is one thing you want to tell me?” And so, here are my thoughts as inspired by that question.

What are the things I want to tell you? I want to tell you that no matter what anyone says, you are special and unique. You have your own individual gifts and talents that make you perfectly you. These gifts and talents, when fully realized, will help you to be the best version of yourself. Don’t minimize your talents because someone doesn’t like who you are. Don’t let someone else’s expectations of you influence your essence.

I want to tell you to embrace your passions because doing so will help you and the world around you. If you are passionate about helping others, get out there and do it. If you love to build things and work with your hands, go find a place where you can build. If you know you need to create beautiful things or generate ideas, find a way to feed that passion so you can nurture your soul. Don’t give up what you want to do because you feel constrained. Look for ways to engage your passions.

I want to tell you to shed unhealthy influences so you can truly live your best life. I am not denying there are things we all have to do that we might not enjoy. However, if you are losing who you are for others or for unhealthy habits, rethink your relationship to that person or thing. Unless the person is a child or elder who depends on you for their very existence, you might consider limiting their influence on you and your activities for your own wellbeing. Work to combat unhealthy addictions so you can move forward unencumbered. Recognize toxic influences for what they are and take steps to let them go.

I want to tell you to set boundaries that work for you. If you are working too much, step back and reconsider your schedule. Are you taking on extra work? Are you constantly going above and beyond expectations? Do you feel you are picking up slack for others in your work environment? Critically evaluate your schedule. Cut back where you can and let someone else pick up the slack every now and then. Time is our most valuable resource. Use it wisely.

I want to tell you to take care of yourself. Time and again, we hear that we will only be our best for others if we are our best for ourselves. I truly believe this is the case. We are given one body just as we are giving limited time. If we do our best to take care of it—in sickness and in health—we will feel our best and perform our best. When we eat well, exercise, and get enough sleep, we have the energy necessary to get through the day and to push through the tough times. Improved physical health can contribute to better mental health and overall attitude. Make a positive investment in yourself.

I want to remind you to be realistic. If you have not exercised in years, you won’t be running a marathon next week. If your living space is full of clutter, tackle it one room at a time (or one shelf at a time, if necessary) rather than all at once. Small improvements will give you satisfaction that will encourage continued effort until the job is done. Being realistic is not telling yourself all the reasons you can’t do something but taking the steps to move toward success.

I want to tell you that a spirit of gratefulness goes a long way to fostering a positive attitude. Create a habit of thankfulness for all that you have and all that you’ve gone through. Each day, each journey—good or bad—contributes to who you are and who you are becoming. Your identity—your self—is made up of every experience, every lesson, and a small bit of every individual you have come across. Be grateful for the richness of your life and experience—past, present, and future—as these things weave together to create the best you possible.

I want to encourage you to move into 2021 with intention. I want to encourage you to focus on all the ways you can bring your best self to all that you do. Despite whatever may happen this year, find a way to look for the positive. Be fully you. Make some noise. As you move into 2021, bring your thunder.

{Photo by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash}