Birdsong

I was out walking on Friday afternoon when I finished working—something that has become part of my “quaroutine.” I have found that a walk between work and preparing dinner helps to clear my mind and allows me to shift more fully to family time. Working from home can sometimes blur the work time/family time distinction.

Toward the end of my walk, I had almost turned around but decided, instead, to venture across the street into a different neighborhood. I had checked the time, calculated how long I had before my son returned from work, and decided on an extra mile. It was, after all, a gorgeous day with bright sun, a slight breeze, and flowers blooming everywhere.

As I walked, birds sang, but one song in particular stood out. The song was both foreign and familiar—not one I recognized from the birds in my own backyard, but one I had heard before. It continued to sing as I grew closer. I looked up toward the sound, and at the very top of the tree, I spotted orange plumage against the spring-green leaves. An oriole!

In an instant, I was right back in the heat of a summer long, long ago. My dad had a cat living at his workplace, and the cat had attempted to catch an oriole. Unfortunately, the oriole had not emerged unscathed. It had a broken wing and could no longer fly.

Dad brought the bird home in a shoebox. From somewhere in our house, he scrounged up a birdcage, and he lined the bottom with newspapers. He got out a roll of white medical tape, and he set to work carefully removing the bird from the box and taping the tips of its wings together. This would hold the broken wing in place, and prevent the bird from thrashing about. He placed the bird in the cage with some birdseed and some water and placed the cage on a table on our enclosed front porch.

That bird lived on our front porch for what now seems like most of that summer. At first, every time we walked out the door onto the porch, the bird would panic and flit around the cage trying to get away from us. But after a while, the bird calmed a bit. We discovered that it preferred fresh berries and fruit to birdseed, and the sweet black raspberries from our backyard bushes became its main food.

After the requisite amount of time, Dad announced that it was time for us to let the bird go. I am not sure how he knew “the requisite amount of time,” but I believe he had consulted a local bird expert about broken wings and healing and bird care.

On the day of the announcement, Dad took the bird from the cage and painstakingly worked to remove the medical tape. He worked the sticky residue from the bird’s feathers with some harmless solvent—again, most likely a tip he had gotten from his bird expert source. We put the bird in a box and took it to a forested area of town near a pond and an open field. We parked the car and carried the box across the field toward the wood line. Dad set the box on the grass, removed the cover, and gently lifted the bird out. He held him for one final time.

“Here we go,” he announced as we all hoped and crossed our fingers that the bird’s wing had healed. Dad held the bird out in front of him at arm’s length and gave him a gentle toss away from him. The bird thrust out its wings and dipped toward the ground, but about a foot from the grass, it lifted up, flapped its likely stiff wings, and soared up into a tree where it landed on a branch. We all exhaled breath we hadn’t known we were holding in. Our bird sat on the branch, a bright orange spot, watching us for just a moment. Then, it flew away, farther into the woods and out of our sight.

And here was an oriole, serenading me as I walked the streets of this neighborhood. When I got back to the tree where it sat, I slowed and paused to search the tree to see this beautiful bird one more time before I went home. But the bird was uncomfortable with my proximity. It flew from the tree, its orange body bright against the clear blue sky. For a moment, it seemed to pause mid-flight. Then it flitted to and fro, completing a little dance before it flew off to sing from a distant tree.

That bird was an incredible gift to end my week. It brought me a few moments with Dad in my memories from a long time ago.

Kaleidoscope

        

Have you ever looked into a kaleidoscope and seen the beautiful patterns that emerge when you hold it up to the light? With only a slight twist of the lens, you can change the pattern to something completely different but just as beautiful.  A slight twist, and the shapes and colors shift and move and fit themselves into spaces that other pieces have vacated, providing a new and differently beautiful vision to the viewer.

Life is like this. There is a constantly shifting balance that rises and falls as life is maintained and the various pieces work together to create a whole and beautiful picture. Over time, some elements move from our lives while others fill in the spaces that have been left behind. There is a tremendous beauty in the constant motion and workings of this rhythm.

Just when we think we have things figured out, they change. We shake our heads to clear out the cobwebs that settled there in our complacency. And at first, we might think, No! I liked things the way they were! Because they were comfortable and familiar. We get so used to our environment—as it is right now—that we stop taking risks and making changes. And, in fact, we stop seeing the beauty as we settle into the safety of the mundane.

But life… it’s dynamic and constantly changing. We have to change with it, or eventually, we will be dragged along, kicking and screaming, headlong into the changes.

This is where we are now. We are being dragged headlong into a change over which we have very little control. But if we are among the lucky, if we are among the thoughtful, if we are among the introspective, if we are among the creative… we can make the most of this change. The people, the businesses, the services that are thriving right now are the ones that have been able to see our new circumstances, examine them from all angles, and see a new perspective. They are the ones that have noticed what the world needs,  taken a risk, and attempted change what they deliver to fill that need.

Maybe it wasn’t comfortable. Maybe it wasn’t what they wanted. Maybe it wasn’t even cost effective. But it was something. And from that something, they can continue to grow. From that something, they can fit themselves back into the whole in a way that makes sense—in a way that will contribute to the shifting beauty.

We are all part of the kaleidoscope. Take the time to step back and take in the bigger picture. The togetherness. The introspection. The opportunity to reevaluate and reset. The family time. The slower pace. Take a moment to figure out how you can take your talents and fit them into the direction the world is going. It may not be comfortable at first (taking a risk never is), but it will give you a glimmer of control over the direction you may go when this is over. Look around you. Find the pieces that work—the building blocks of the beauty that is emerging. And fit them back into the life that you want.

Moment by moment… recognize the beauty that is this kaleidoscope we call life.

Just in case…

Just in case you need to hear this today, you are doing great. As you sit in your home and look in on your friends and connections on social media—the ones who seem to be rocking quarantine—you need to know, we are all struggling in our own way. We all have different coping mechanisms for dealing with this isolation and lock down. Some of us are sitting home binging on Netflix, and others are purging and redecorating their homes, room by room. You are doing what you need to do right now, and you are doing great.

Just in case you need to hear this, you are beautiful. Perhaps you got up this morning and donned jeans and a sweater, put on makeup, ate a good breakfast, and did something productive throughout the day. Or maybe, you rolled out of bed at noon (or later), didn’t comb your hair, had a breakfast pop-tart, and spent the day in your jammies. Regardless, you are beautiful.

Just in case you don’t know, you are awesome. All that you are doing to get through your isolation, this is what you need to be doing. You are making an effort to keep it together day after day in unpredictable circumstances. The people around you might not be joyous every day ago because they, too, are trying their best to handle the circumstances of our current world. Whatever you are doing to deal with your isolation and quarantine, you are doing your best.

Right now, as we work through our situations, each on our own and in our own ways, we are more exposed than ever. We are more real than ever. The beautiful, wonderful mess that is life is on display daily for each of us to deal with and for those on Zoom to see.

No matter what you have on display, no matter if you are having a good day or a bad day, just know you are loved and needed and cared for. Know that people rely on you for a smile, a kind word,

Just in case you have forgotten, you matter.

The View from Here

The view from here is very different than it was a couple weeks ago. We have now been in social distance mode for just under two weeks—far less time than most of the world. We knew it was coming—we watched it sweep slowly across the globe on its way.

That doesn’t make the view from here any brighter. We are broken people in a society that is also severely broken. In our attempts to deal with this global pandemic, we need to come together—work together and protect one another. But we can’t.

Because the view from here looks out over a broad chasm that has been growing and deepening and pushing us farther apart. We have forgotten that we are one humanity in a global environment, and we are stronger when we band together and create a united front. We will always be stronger together.

We have forgotten that life is not about all the things we want in this life and how we will get them, no matter the cost. We have forgotten that most of the “things” we possess don’t matter, especially when weighed against human health and life itself. Even in our isolation, we continue to buy and buy and buy to the point of hoarding because “enough” is a concept our society ignores as it pushes spending and materialism and greed as a way to promote a “healthy” economy.

We have filled our lives with material things. We have been so conditioned to look outward for happiness and acceptance and validation that we have lost sight of the most important element—what we are feeling on the inside. Who we are. The very traits that make us special and unique and individual—these have been cast aside for too long. They have been stomped down and buried deep inside ourselves as we live a life that is filled to the brim with a busy-ness dictated by society. Most of us—we aren’t even truly happy anymore.

The view from here is not in touch with the things that matter. It is weighed down by all the lies society has been telling us for decades. The expectations we are supposed to live up to. We are tired and weary. The burden weighs on us, and we are struggling to break free.

But the view from here—it is quiet and lonely. We are in a period of grieving all that we have lost or perceive we have lost. We are grieving what we may lose. And we are grieving all the changes our society will face—changes that we just can’t fathom from this particular vantage point. But if we take the time to really look and examine our lives, the view from here may be (dare I say) just a little peaceful.

While we may be feeling overwhelmingly burdened by our current situation, the view from here may shift, giving us a glimpse of elements of peace, simplicity, and kindness. It is quite possible that with a bit of time and a new perspective, the view from here might just be the soil in which we begin to change and blossom.

Remnants

The last time I was visiting Mom, she handed me a small plastic sandwich bag. “This is stuff I cleaned off your father’s dresser. Do you want any of it?” I studied the bag, turning it over in my hand. Seriously? I squinted through the plastic, my mind flipping back and forth between: Of course I want it! and Why would I want any of this?

When my son was little, he would pick up all sorts of remnants that he found on the floor. If we walked into a fabric or craft store, he would gather balls of thread that had fallen off the frayed edges of material on the bolt, pieces of silk flowers that were lying on the floor, buttons that had fallen off clothing. His pockets were never empty, and I had to be careful to check every single pocket on laundry day.

The bag my mother handed me was much like the contents of my young son’s pockets—remnants of a life of gathering. The bag contained pieces of unrelated objects collected on the daily journey and deposited into a common container on the top of Dad’s dresser. All they had in common was the container in which they ended up. And the man who had gathered them.

The bag held washers, screws, broken things, a bunch of oddball items. I sat down on the floor and untied the knot at the top of the bag. I stirred the contents with my finger, revealing all of the treasures that Dad had felt it necessary to keep. The metal spring from a wooden clothespin. A ring that I had made by winding yellow electrical wire around itself. Around and around and around. A firecracker with an old, frayed fuse, but no doubt just as explosive as ever. Two broken angel wings, clearly from two different angels.

No. Dad was not an angel wings kind of man. Two broken eagle wings, clearly from two different eagles. But with a lack context, they are the wings of angels in my mind. Under the circumstances and left to my interpretatin, angels are more appropriate.

Why did Dad collect these items, number one, and save them all, number two? What was it about the yellow wire ring? The firecracker? The angel wings?

This bag might seem to be full of useless items, some broken or seemingly meaningless. But they had meaning to Dad. He saved them all for a reason. Perhaps he intended to glue the wings back on the angels. Find the wooden parts of the clothespin. Set off the one remaining firecracker. Or maybe he was waiting to see how someone else might piece together the remnants he gathered up along his way.

What matters

There is a vast amount of sensory and intellectual input that we have to process each and every day. Not only do we have to pay attention to the physical world and all that it presents, we have to deal with the virtual world. Advertisements, messages, propaganda, manipulations…. The constant deluge can numb one’s soul and senses if we let it.

I watch students, my children, and so many people walking with their heads down, eyes glued to their devices. These people are walking without seeing and moving through the world without experiencing the life around them. Right next to them, someone may be struggling or celebrating or in need of a kind word, but they miss it.

I am working hard to focus on the things that call to my heart. There are so many things that our society wants us to believe are important and urgent and necessary. But most of these things… they just aren’t. They are not important. They are not urgent. And they are far from necessary. The person who is crying… that is important. The accident that happened two cars ahead… that is urgent. A warm, nutritious meal… that is necessary.

Today, I was stopped at a stoplight. My window was down, and I was at the front of the line of traffic. Standing by the sign on the raised median, awkwardly close to me, was a homeless man. His hand-written cardboard sign made mention of his need for camping supplies and a hot meal.

This got me to thinking. What if I bought a few gift cards to local chain restaurants—the ones with many locations where someone wouldn’t have to go far to get a meal? And what if I were to give these to pan handlers who are advertising their need for a hot meal? What if this simple gesture could make a difference in someone’s life?

As I work to pay attention to the things around me, I sift through all the information that comes in, and I pull out what is important. If I pay careful attention, I might be able to see beyond all the superficial the world presents and look deeply enough to see the things that matter. Instead of becoming numb to all that is around me, I could be spurred to action, be enlivened, and learn how my actions might just matter to someone else.

{Photo by Manasvita S on Unsplash}

Cloudy with a patch of…

I was driving to work on Friday morning, minding my own business, when I accidentally hit a patch of grief (because—after all—no one hits these patches on purpose). As grief tends to be, it was sudden and unexpected.  And intense. There was no hiding the tears. But I was in the car on the highway, and the drivers around me didn’t notice and probably didn’t care either way. The tears flowed freely as I drove, and by the time I arrived at work, I was better.

But later that day, intense feelings returned, again while I was driving. This time, I was on the way to take prom pictures of my son, my youngest child. I realized this would likely be the last time I would partake of this particular ritual—meeting up with prom-goers and their families at the local spot with the most picturesque, fairytale-ish gardens. On each of the three years previous (one with my oldest child and two with my middle child), I have known there might be another year. But this time, I am fairly sure this is the last of this tradition. On the drive there, it hit me that with this child, I am entering a pattern of not just “last” for him, but “last ever.”

I may have had this realization subconsciously already, which would explain Friday’s inclination toward emotion. Or maybe there was just something in the wind that day that triggered my soul to react more deeply.

Whatever it was, one thing I’ve learned is that there is always a chance that grief (and emotion) will sneak up and surprise me. These patches, in a way, they bring comfort. They remind me of the things that make up a life—the things that are and the things that were. They remind me that feeling deeply is what makes me who I am. And they remind me that all of these things together make up this journey that is life.

Buddy Bench

Last weekend, I took part in an annual “Day of Service” with the students in my freshman class. On this day, all of our first-year students disperse to various organizations in order to perform community service work—from working with children or the elderly, to spring clean-up, both indoors and out. My class was split up between an indoor site and an outdoor site, and I put myself with the student group doing outdoor work preparing a summer camp for the upcoming camp season.

Our first task of the day involved raking leaves in the main area of the camp around the office—the area where visitors first arrive. It was raining in the morning—as it had been through the night—and the leaves were sticking together, heavy and wet. As we raked, the leaves rolled up toward us, making it easy to move them onto a tarp in large clumps. Once the tarp was full enough, we dragged it into the woods, and rolled the leaves out of it. We dragged the tarp back to our raking area and started again.

When we finished the main area, the Camp Director took us to a hill by the lake. On the hill, there were several benches placed in a half-circle overlooking the water. Our final task of the day was to clean the leaves and pine needles from under and around the benches. When we were done, the Camp Director told us that the benches were “Buddy Benches.” If campers were feeling lonely and didn’t have someone to play with, they would sit on these benches. Other children knew that those who sat here needed a friend. What a great idea!

This got me thinking… shouldn’t there be “Buddy Benches” for adults, too? How many times over the years could I have used a friend? Why couldn’t it be as easy as simply sitting on a bench and waiting for someone to come and sit next to you and talk. Or listen. Or just be a support system?

If you sit on the Buddy Bench when you are overwhelmed, someone will come and talk you through it.

Stop by when you are lonely or you’ve had a bad day. Have a seat when certain pieces of your life (work, finances, family, spiritual) just don’t seem to fit right.

Come by when you have received bad news, or you’re scared about something, or your health is declining.

Come to the Buddy Bench when your spouse leaves you for “greener pastures,” and you have to figure out how to raise a gaggle of children on your own.

Have a seat on the Buddy Bench when you have lost a loved one, and you don’t think you can go on.

So many people have been through these same things. They won’t make your pain go away, but they can gently guide you through and help you to keep going: step by step, minute by minute, day by day until you can see the light through your troubles.

A Buddy Bench would help you to recognize how many people can understand what you are going through because they have been through something similar. It can show you how many people care and are willing to help.

Because a Buddy Bench will help you to find the people who can best support you. It will give you a place to rest and find comfort and support. And … it will remind you that you are not alone.

We are all in this together. Come. Sit on the Buddy Bench and rest awhile.

{Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash}

Blind Spot

It’s raining, and I’m driving to work, making my way down the highway a bit faster than I should. Cars are passing me, but I continue at the same pace, resisting the pressure to succumb to their impatience. My exit is not far off, and I need to move one lane to the right. I turn to look over my shoulder to check that the lane is clear, and I am startled by a large, red truck hanging out in my blind spot. An entire truck, bright red and visible even amid the road spray from the rain. How is it that something so big and bright is able to hide right next to me?

This, I realize, is not unlike the route my summer has taken. My life will be traveling along on what seems like a good path, headed in a positive direction, but then I notice something big and startling hanging out in my blind spot. I try not to swerve from my path to avoid it; I try to remain calm.

The past few weeks, it seems, there has been much that is hiding in my blind spot. These “life issues” hover on the periphery of my life, just out of my vision. So close yet so hidden. Every now and then, when I least expect it, they poke their heads out to taunt me: “Here I am!” mocks Loss. “Gotcha again!” shouts Grief. “Be quiet!” whispers Insecurity. “Not good enough,” chants Inadequacy. Each and every time, as I am caught off guard, I retreat within myself.

But I am tapping into my resources. This summer, I have been involved in some work with encouragement, wellbeing, belonging, and courage. Research that has affected me very deeply. And an important part of each of these is vulnerability. Vulnerability is at the heart of much we face in our lives; it’s a valuable part of connection—both to others and to ourselves.

The (involuntary) break I’ve (accidentally) taken from my blog has not been good for me. I am happier when I am writing and posting regularly. I am more centered and able to deal with the challenges—big and small—that life tosses in my path. Not writing has allowed me to realize that maybe what’s hiding in my blind spots needs to be tackled head on.

And so, I open myself up to the vulnerabilities. I will stand and be brave in the face of all that is hiding—the sadness and sorry, the challenge and grief, the insecurities and failures. By allowing myself to feel all of my emotions and be vulnerable, I can live into joy.

Grow your Good

On Friday evening, I was driving to my daughter’s dance rehearsal. The sun was low and the traffic was heavy with summer weekend tourists. I was alone in the car, and my mind was flipping through the pages of the day, churning through a brutal narrative of destructive self-talk. I am not enough of this, and I am too much of that. It was the typical inner focus on my flaws and deficiencies.

As the weight of the evening’s inner monologue grew clear to me, I stopped myself and worked to redirect the narrative. You’re not stupid, I tried to convince myself. But that wasn’t much of a redirection. The statement needed to be positive rather than negative. You are much smarter than you give yourself credit for, I ventured. You have good ideas and you follow through. Better. A good deal better! You are enough, I told myself.

As I pondered my self-talk, I reminded myself that I’m not the only one who’s killing it in the self-bullying department. While so many people seem to believe in themselves without a problem (or they’re faking it), other people struggle as they navigate their daily lives. Our inner critics are not kind. But most people couldn’t possibly be as brutal in their inner monologue as I am. Or could they?

What if… just for today, we stop comparing ourselves to others? Everybody is unique, and everybody has their own talents that they bring to the world. We all have positive aspects and negative aspects, and most of the people I know spend inordinate amounts of time focused on fixing the negative when they should instead focus on growing their good. Despite what social media might suggest, nobody’s life is perfect. Accept what you have and work with it. Grow your good.

What if… we began to tell ourselves the truth rather than some warped version of the truth we use to make ourselves feel bad? We could focus on the child we made smile while we were standing in the grocery line. We might consider how well we handle the demands of our job. Or we might look at how a great sense of humor helps us through the day.

What if… just for today, we stop keeping a laundry list of all the things we have done wrong. Better yet, what if we rip up that laundry list and throw it in the trash? Or maybe we could bring it with us the next time we go camping. Then we could throw it in a campfire and watch it slowly melt away into ashes.

What if… just for today, we were to celebrate our successes rather than dwelling on our failures? We might recognize that we have raised good children, or that we handled the latest two-year-old temper tantrum with a patience we didn’t have yesterday. We might see that we walked half a mile more than we intended, or we beat our personal best in our most recent marathon.

What if… just for today, we rewrite our inner monologue? What if we focus on all the things we are rather than all the things we are not? What if every time we heard ourselves engage in negative self-talk, we changed it to a positive statement? By doing so, we might give ourselves an opportunity to see the good in ourselves and the possibility for our future.

And what if… tomorrow, we were to do the same thing?