On New Year’s Eve, as the final light of 2021 faded into an eerie dusk, I walked through my neighborhood listening to my footsteps, a dog barking in the distance, and the sound of tires on wet pavement as the occasional car passed by on the street. I breathed in the damp winter air as I watched the fog rise from the melting snow. I noted how the snow cover brightened my path and softened the darkness. I took in the world around me in my quiet walk to end the year.
These walks have been important to me over the past two years (since the start of lockdown back in March of 2020). These walks have kept me grounded. They have offered me fifteen minutes each morning to reflect on my day, and they have given me space to breathe, reflect, pray, and allow creativity to flow.
Too often, we tend to fill every minute of our lives with “stuff” that likely doesn’t really need doing. We keep a hectic schedule, running from commitment to appointment to activity. In between times, we cram in as much social media and web-surfing as we can in attempt to prevent downtime and keep our minds from being idle. And so as we enter the new year, I want to urge you to leave yourself some empty space.
Despite all we have been told about idleness, an idle mind is necessary to live a healthy and balanced life. Empty space allows us to recognize and process what is going on in our lives, in our heart, in our heads, and with our emotions. When we have a moment to process the heaviness of the world—and the laughter, as well—it opens up space for new ideas to flow. It opens space for new feelings, for grounded thinking, and for a more objective view of ourselves.
More importantly, it is in the empty space that ideas take shape, dreams become reality, creative ideas form, and inspiration happens. It is in the empty space that new thinking can take hold, leading you to move down an entirely new path in your life. Or maybe it allows you to come up with a plan to change the things that need changing in your life. Regardless, empty space is a vital part of a healthy life. As you fill the days, hours, and moments of 2022, leave some empty space for yourself. Leave some space that won’t be filled with the hustle and bustle of everyday life and social media interactions on your devices. Whatever your empty space brings, may it bring you joy and happiness or at least a more defined direction and self-confidence as you face all that the new year may bring!
My train of thought has derailed. I got caught up in the What ifs of life, and my thoughts were swept away under their own momentum. Remember the Little Engine that Could? That determined little engine used positive thinking—I think I can… I think I can… I think I can…—to pull its cargo of toys and treats up a hill it didn’t think it could climb.
In my case, it is a whole train of negative What ifs that has pulled me off track. In fact, the mantra What if… What if… What if… has been growing stronger and steadier. My train of thought picked up speed going down a hill. It was going faster and faster, and when the track veered off to the right (or the left, I can’t even remember anymore), my train of thought stayed straight and derailed.
Now, I am sitting in a pile of steaming wreckage. Twisted metal rises around me casting spooky shadows against the foggy night sky. All the cargo that was neatly in its place is now scattered across the landscape—a million pieces of life that will never fit back into place all tidy and neat as before the derailment. A million pieces of which I may find only half.
No, sometimes life needs some shaking up. Sometimes, we get too comfortable in our day-to-day, and one thing comes along—be it good, bad, or indifferent—and steps smack into our path with a challenge: “Think you’ve got everything figured out? Try THIS!” And while these challenges force us to re-examine various parts of our life—or maybe the whole thing—seeing life from a new angle can be helpful as we search for a creative solution to a difficult situation or a path to a more productive (and more positive) future.
And so… I sit here in the rubble that was my thinking, my life. I sit in silence, not distracting myself with any of the occupations of life that got me into this situation in the first place. The longer I sit here, the sharper my perspective grows. Of course, it helps that the derailment occurred in the dead of night, and the dawn is slowly claiming the darkness. It helps that the outline of what is left of the train is ever more visible against the faint tint of early day. And as the sunlight begins to poke up over the horizon, beams of light illuminate tiny tendrils of smoke winding their way out of the wreckage. The longer I sit here, the brighter my thoughts become, and I gain a sharper realization of the steps I must take to move forward. The longer I sit here, the more certain I am that I will rise from the wreckage of my What ifs, leave this mess behind me, and move into the future carrying a smaller portion of the weight of the world.
And I’m pretty sure that as I move on and leave the What ifs behind, I will take with me only what is needed for today.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.