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}

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}

Waiting

2020 Lesson Number One: Waiting is an important part of life.

Over the years, our culture has evolved into a society that rejects waiting as undesirable and something to be avoided.  We have found ways to remove the need to wait from our lives. We are able to find out the gender of an unborn child so we don’t have to wait nine long months and wonder about the child we will meet. When we have an idea we want to explore or research we want to do, we have a wealth of information at our fingertips—no more waiting for the library to open and then waiting to obtain a physical copy of a book or magazine that might have to come from another town or state. Nope… information is now available (from the comfort of your couch) at any time of the day or night. Need something that you don’t have in your house? Place an order, and if you are willing to pay a little extra, you can have the item by tomorrow. Not feeling well? No need to wait to see the doctor. Just take to the internet and diagnose yourself! That way, you can decide if you really need to bother the doctor, and when you finally get an appointment, you can tell the doctor what is wrong with you. (Note: I do not support self-diagnosis via the internet and nether do most doctors).

When all is said and done, we don’t get used to waiting anymore. We expect instant gratification. We have forgotten that there are things we cannot control, regardless of the time that passes. We have lost the benefits of waiting—of delaying gratification and anticipating what will come… in time. And most importantly, we have forgotten the art of using waiting time to benefit our lives and ourselves.

This year, we had to wait, and we had to figure out how to deal with long stretches of time spent waiting. On March 13, when so many of us were told to go home and stay there for two weeks, we thought it would be just that—two weeks. But two weeks stretched to a month, then two, and before we knew it, we had been at home for four months. Or six months. Or more.

People took up new hobbies. They worked on developing cooking and baking skills. They learned to knit. They took up yoga and meditation. They made home improvements and became master gardeners. People began taking walks in nature, playing outside with their children, and connecting with family members. People connected with each other as they reflected on what was to come and how our society—and their lives—might be different on the other side of COVID.

Waiting is not a waste of time, as society has programmed us to believe. Waiting is one of those in-between-spaces where we think nothing is happening. And yet, waiting is a valid and valued part of life. Waiting is where the pieces of life come together. Waiting—and working through problems and ideas in our heads and lives—is where meaning is found.

This year, we learned to wait, and hopefully this new skill will help us to create a more meaningful life when we finally settle into our new normal.

Blooming – 2020 style

My Christmas cactus is having a difficult time this year. It has always been a late bloomer, but this year, it is really struggling. It has been pushing out teeny little buds that show great promise. Like many things this past year, these buds give me a brief hint of excitement and hope. But after a few days, they wither up and fall off. This cactus… it’s not even close to blooming, and I am wondering if it will bloom at all this year.

Truth be told, I have been having trouble blooming this year, as well. This year has been tough, and some days I feel like I just don’t have it in me to be my best. Some days I lack the patience necessary to think about tomorrow. The days blend together, and Monday becomes Tuesday and blends with WednesdayThursdayFriday until the weekend, and then the week starts over again. On and on and on it goes.

It’s been a tough year, but it has also been an important year. In its break from reality, its focus on silence, its fear of crowded spaces, this year has given us some much-needed room for reflection. I tried hard to take advantage of what this year offered, so I might be in a better space going forward. I refrained from railing against authority and complaining about not living life as “normal.” I embarked on a lengthy journey to reconnect with my self—the essential core of who I really am.

I’m not going to lie. This year was filled with tough lessons that weren’t fun but were very much necessary. It took a great deal of patience and tenacity to sit through these long months, especially when we began to see hints of how far we have strayed from where we need to be. Our goals and our focus have drifted away from being good people to amassing as many possessions and as much power as we can, no matter the cost. We have grown to focus not on who we are as people, but on what and how much we have. I have to believe this is not why we are here.

So I took this year as a correction. I am taking its lessons, and I am coming back to center. I am re-grounding and rediscovering myself and my mission for my life. The lessons I learned emerged—as many do—from loss, boredom, anxiety, and resolve. They came in the form of traits such as patience, resilience, tenacity, discipline, and a habit of self-reflection. They involve listening to myself in order to continuously rediscover and recreate who I am. And they involve looking carefully and paying attention to the little things so I will know better how to fill the spaces where need is great.

Stay with me for a few days. I’m going to take you on a journey through this past year and share with you some of the lessons that I have learned—lessons that I will take with me as I venture into 2021.

Wits’ End

Hey you!

Yes… you.

How are you doing? I don’t ask that question in a quick greeting-in-passing kind of way. How are you really doing? Are you hanging in there or hanging by a thread? Are things under control or are you so out of sorts that you can’t tell if you are coming or going? Are you questioning anything? Everything? Have you been able to remain organized or do you wish the world would just pause so you can take a breath and pull yourself back together? Are you at your wits’ end?

Wits’ end, as scary and frustrating as it can be, is often a good place to start anew. It is a place where we are forced to take a look around and survey the landscape, size up the current situation, and create a plan for the future. Wits’ end is generally a turning point that can move us in a new direction.

Daily life has become exhausting and fragmented like a jigsaw puzzle that won’t quite fit together the way it’s supposed to, the way it used to, or the way we think it should. Troubles mount and the consequences of coronavirus continue to challenge us, and it is tempting to lash out in frustration. Or dissolve into a puddle of tears. And it just drags on.

These tough times require patience, resilience, and an ability to dig deep and lean in. We are navigating challenges on a scale no one has seen in a very long time, and the ability to dig deep will determine how effectively we move forward.

The challenges, the loss, the grief, the instability… they just keep coming. But you are not alone. You have friends and family and neighbors and community members who care about you. We are all navigating the pandemic—and its consequences—in tandem. We are all trying to envision how the various fragmented pieces of present day life will fit into the big picture of the future as we create a post-pandemic world that will likely look much different than our current and previous life.

Life is uncertain and this year has been a living illustration of that fact. We cannot imagine how things will look in another month or two or ten. However, if we let go of our expectations and recognize that this pandemic is changing us and will continue to change us, we can build a future that is better and brighter than before. If we harness all of our kindness, patience, love, and support and channel it into our work together, we can create an amazing future.

It’s going to take time. We are deep in the throes of what this year has brought us, and there is no magical switch that comes when one year changes to the next. But there is hope.

So when you are feeling weak or lost or hopeless, lean on those around you. Ask for help. Recognize that you are stronger and wiser than you were last November. Give yourself a pat on the back for all you have endured over the last few months. Before you take to social media to lash out at the world, remember… we are all human in an unpredictable world. Be kind. Be patient. Be forgiving. With others and with yourself. We are all—every single one of us—at wits’ end. But we are all doing the best we can to grow and change and become stronger under the circumstances.

{Photo by Erik Eastman on Unsplash}

Wonderings

I wonder what would happen if I climbed one of the amazing trees on the grounds of the Country Club where I walk on my lunch break. They are old-growth trees—mostly maples—and their branches are just low enough to reach from the ground or from the slight hill near where they are situated. I could climb up as high as I dare, take a seat, and observe the world. No matter that I’m in my office work clothes. I wonder how long it would be before someone tells me to get down.

I wonder what would happen if parents were willing to give their teenage children the freedom to develop themselves into the young adults they are capable of being. Often, we place restrictions on our children for our own peace of mind. We give them parameters of behavior—do this, not that—that [we believe] restrict them from making mistakes and recognizing their own limits. We do things for them rather than giving them an increasing amount of responsibility over their own lives. And nowadays, more and more parents use tracking apps on their children’s phones to keep track of them. While we believe these things are keeping our children safe, we are actually letting them know, loud and clear, that we don’t trust them… that they are not capable. I wonder what would happen if we eased up a bit, offered guidance when necessary, and showed our children that we trust them to develop their own interests and find their own way.

I wonder what would happen if I spent more time talking to my neighbors. Over the past year, some long-time neighbors have moved away, and several new neighbors have moved in. I haven’t spent the time to get to know them. I haven’t gone out of my way and broken with my routine to talk to them and learn about them. I have no idea about their struggles and their triumphs. I have not offered them a helping hand. In fact, I haven’t really been as “neighborly” as I could be. I wonder if it’s too late.

I wonder what would happen if we took the time to admire each other’s work. When I was walking one over the summer, I passed by a crew of landscapers who are working the bare dry dirt around a newly constructed building. They were shaping the land, smoothing it, and planting grass and plants and mulching around them. They took what was bare and plain and made it beautiful—stunning, really. And they worked long hours in the sun and heat of mid-summer. I stopped. “This looks fantastic!” I said to a worker leaning on his rake while he waited for his crewmates to come back from lunch.

“We’re trying,” he replied as a smile softened his weary expression.

“Well, it looks great! What an improvement just since last week!”

“Thank you,” he replied with a small wave as I resumed my walk. Why don’t we compliment each other more often?

I wonder what would happen if I got rid of all the things in my house that I no longer use. I could put them out for a Yard Sale, but instead of a sale, I could have a big “Yard Free.” People could come and take the things they want. This Yard Free would be mutually beneficial; I would get rid of the stuff that’s cluttering up my house, and others would be able to take the things they need and would use. All of my cast-offs would be put to use and not end up in the landfill. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the months of being at home, it’s that I don’t need nearly as much “stuff” as I own.

I wonder what would happen if we approached the world with love rather than hate. Hate is like Velcro. It has hooks that grab you, dig in, and cling. If you let hate take hold, it can be very difficult to disentangle yourself. Your emotions cloud over, and your physical body becomes a time bomb just waiting for the right moment to set it off. Hate is debilitating. Love can unwind us, help us to breathe more freely, and give us a sense of peace—with ourselves and each other. Love can help us live more freely and make better choices. Love allows us to see the humanity in everyone we meet.

I wonder what would happen if I started to live the life I want to live. How might my creativity and new outlook on life change those around me? I would stop filling my days with the constant work of multiple jobs and, instead, work to develop the endless possibilities that come with making different choices. I would climb more trees and take more risks. I would write more stories and spend time with people who inspire me and make me better. I would make more friends and broaden my perspectives. I would reach out to others and approach all people with love.

Curiosity keeps us moving forward. It helps us to imagine the possibilities of our lives and change the things that are not working. And now that I’ve put these wonderings in writing, I think I’m going to make some changes. I’m going to approach my life with a spirit of courage and adventure. What about you? What are some of your wonderings and how might they change your approach to life?

{Photo by Fidel Fernando on Unsplash}

Rock Bottom

On the way to Rock Bottom, we encounter a number of valuable lessons that we will need for our long journey back. It is our job to notice these lessons and put them into practice. We need only look around, pay attention, and engage in self-examination and examination of society to find them.

On the way to Rock Bottom, we are given glimpses of who we are and of what we have become. We have ample opportunity to see our failings—one after the other—as they pass us by on our journey. We see flashes of indiscretion, indecency, and arrogance that have seeped into our everyday lives. Most importantly, the hatred that has tainted the edges of our lives rears its ugly head in a way that is no longer deniable. The hatred will launch us farther and faster toward Rock Bottom than we ever knew possible.

On the way to Rock Bottom, there is injustice, violence, and fear. If we are not strong and brave, these things will render us incapable of moving and of turning around. They will paralyze us, and we will continue our descent rather than stand up and fight our way back upward and away from Rock Bottom.

On the way to Rock Bottom, we are offered innumerable ways (and means) to fix what is broken. We are able to stand up for what we believe in. We are offered opportunities to be kind. We are confronted with situations where we can respect others. We are expected to be humble and listen and share in the experiences of others—experiences we can’t possibly know because they are not our experiences. On the way to Rock Bottom, humanity is exposed, rough and ragged and raw.

On the way to Rock Bottom, there are many diverging paths that will allow us to stray from the unpleasant and undesirable destination. We can open our eyes wide enough to see that Rock Bottom is where we are headed, but not where we want to go. We can open our hearts to show love to others. We can open our minds to reach out, lend a hand, and stand up for someone who is not able to stand up for themselves.

The closer we get to Rock Bottom, the harder it is to see the light. But the good news is that on the way to Rock Bottom, we can step up and do the important work we need to do to prevent us from reaching the uncomfortable destination. This will save us work in the long run. When we step up, we will have no choice but to rebuild, but we will have something left. We will need to rework what we thought we had and who we thought we were, but we are reworking with some pieces still intact.

On the way to Rock Bottom, look for the signs—they are all around you. Let go of the hate—it has taken hold in society. See the humanity—it is everywhere—and act on it. Dig deep. Protect other humans as if they are your own children, your family, because in many ways, they are. We are one big family. And we must act now before we hit Rock Bottom.

The good news (if there is good news on the way to Rock Bottom) is that if we actually reach Rock Bottom, the only way to look is UP!

{Photo by Yannis Papanastasopoulos on Unsplash}

Clearing Out

Throughout my life, I have spent a good deal of time quieting the voices of others that ring through my head. These are the voices that have attempted to direct my life, to make me someone other than who I am, to make me listen and behave.

These are voices that, at one point or another, I have taken on and considered part of me, and yet, these voices are not me and do not reflect my reality. These voices reflect who I am or was in the reality of the speaker. But these voices—these words—were designed to make the speaker of the words feel better in his or her own life.

Over the years, the messages have been many:

You are not good enough.
You are not strong enough.
You are too negative
You are not smart enough.
You are selfish.
You are too sassy.
You are not pretty enough.
You are weak.
You are not feminine enough.
You are not…. You are not…. You are not….

But I am not these things that others have projected on me. Admittedly, I am broken. We are all broken.  And the only way I’m able to address my brokenness is to grab hold of the fact that life is short (and it feels even shorter while a pandemic is raging). The time to be fully me is now. The time to work on becoming whole is now. Time is running out.

If not now, when?

My life is shifting. I am shedding the me others think I should be. I am clearing out their voices from my head. My thoughts are mine, and that is enough. I will respect who I am and who I want to be, and that is enough. I will shed the ideas of others, letting them slip to the floor before sweeping them up and tossing them away.

I am making a shift in my life, respecting my thoughts, my ideas, and my wishes. I will not entertain others’ perceptions of who or what I should be as my own reality. I will be me—more me than I have ever been. And every day, I will know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I am enough.

{Photo by David Clarke on Unsplash}