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}

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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?

Simplicity

Recently, I was on a social media site, and I saw a picture of a pinecone in a tiny pot sprouting itty bitty pine trees. This picture was astonishing to me, both in its cuteness, and in its simplicity. The idea that I could take something as generally disregarded as a pinecone, put it in some dirt, and watch it grow captured my attention.

Not long after seeing this picture—on one of only a smattering of gorgeous spring days we’ve experienced—I stepped out for a walk during lunch. Rather than walking toward the road, I chose to walk to the back of our building. I had only a couple minutes to enjoy the warmth and the sunshine, and the grassy yard was calling to me. The ground under the pine trees was littered with beautiful, perfect pinecones. I’m going to try to grow one! I thought to myself, so I picked one up and brought it inside.

One of my students immediately discounted my idea to grow it. “It’s so dry,” she commented. “I can’t imagine anything growing out of that.” But then again, that is the miracle of a seed, isn’t it? That an object so small and dry and seemingly worthless can sprout life and become something as majestic as a tree.

Maybe my little pinecone will grow a seedling, and maybe it won’t. But I’m going to give it a try. I’m feeling a need for simplicity and growth in my life.

And if this pinecone does grow, maybe it really would be just a little bit of a miracle.

Uncompromising…

If there is one very important lesson I’ve learned in life, it’s that there are some things you just can’t compromise. Sure, you can compromise on decisions like what to have for dinner, who will take out the trash, or even where you will live, work, or attend school. But the one thing you cannot compromise is the very essence of who you are. And I mean: The. Very. Essence.

When you compromise that part of yourself, either consciously or subconsciously, things begin to suffer. You begin to suffer. At first, it will be almost imperceptible. There will be a vague feeling of malaise. As it intensifies, things will seem to be… well, “off,” but you won’t be able to grasp exactly what is not right.

At the same time, you won’t be able to move closer to where you are supposed to be—your true purpose in life. You will feel stuck. And that’s because you are. If you compromise your true self, you cannot grow and experience life fully. Everything will seem flat.

Recently, I’ve been working to round myself out and fluff myself back up. Like an over-used pillow, years of tending to the needs of others have taken their toll. Before I started this journey of self-(re)discovery, I had been feeling flat and lifeless.

No doubt this will sound cliché, but the work I am doing is to discover the purpose of life. And I don’t mean the grandiose philosophical idea of “the purpose of life,” but I am particularly working toward the purpose for my life. Perhaps this is something I should have figured out years ago, but then again, I wonder if anyone ever truly figures it out….

This past weekend, I was moving through my day when the uncompromising essence of me smacked up against a tiny shard of the divine purpose of my life. The result was a collision so intense that it knocked me to my knees and brought tears in my eyes. And now I know.

I know if I can quell the noise long enough for regular, daily reflection, I can move toward that space—where essence and purpose are in perfect harmony and lead to a life that is so captivating that I will become fully entrenched in the work and invested in all that comes next.

And I know that in the pursuit of a life of amazing energy and passion and grace, some things just can’t be compromised.