Empty Space

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!

Lost

Photo by Dunamis Church on Unsplash 

When I look back on 2021, I will remember this as the year I lost my way.   

At the beginning of the year, everything seemed to be going along pandemic-fine, thank you very much. And by “pandemic-fine,” I mean I was figuring out how to exist in the world with the constant ebb and flow of the waves of COVID virus. It took a little time, some deep thinking, and lots of creativity, but we had even figured out how to work side-by-side with students without infiltrating their enlarged 6-foot radius of personal space. At the beginning of 2021, I kept my head down, plugged along, and stayed the course.

Things were going along fine—at least… they seemed to be. Until they weren’t.

I had been so focused on what I was doing that I must have missed an important turn. Or maybe I took a turn that I shouldn’t have. Because when I had the opportunity to look up and study my surroundings, I didn’t recognize anything. There was more shade than I’d grown used to. Space seemed a bit warped from what I remembered. And time had a unique way of crunching together while simultaneously stretching out to the horizon. Seriously, nothing looked familiar. And try as I might, I could not figure out how to get my bearings when I didn’t recognize anything.  

For a bit of time, I walked the line between fear and intrigue. How would I find my way back? How would I ever get back on track? And did I even want to? I just couldn’t see how this situation would right itself.

But as time dragged on and direction remained elusive, I settled in to experience the ride and figure out what had happened. Time is a funny thing. And Lost is a curious place. I kept working, hoping for familiar, and a funny thing started to happen. I started to get used to being lost. I started to recognize the unfamiliar, and I became just a bit more brave. I took on tasks I didn’t know I could complete. I made small changes that surprised me. And I forged a new path because no matter how lost you are, you still must continue to move forward.

Of course, hindsight is 20/20, and from here, I can look back on my journey and see it for what it has really been (and continues to be)—a shift of focus. A readjustment of priorities. And a need to exit the fast lane. I now have a new focus and a new direction.

Somehow, in the busyness of life, I got caught up in what I do, and I forgot who I am. I forgot why I’m here. I forgot that life is short and finite. Losing my way has made me realize I am not where I want to be. I am not living the life I want to live. Somehow, I lost myself when I lost my way. But the disorientation that always accompanies Lost allowed me to reconnect with something deeper. It allowed me to reconnect with the real me and the meaning of life—the meaning of my life, but that also allowed me to find my way back to a better life, a stronger me, and a greater sense of purpose.

Maybe I didn’t lose my way after all. Maybe I just took a scenic detour and ended up traveling in a new and unexpected direction to a brighter and more appealing destination.

The journey from Lost is not over. In fact, this journey—the one that will take me into the new year and beyond—has just begun.

Running Ragged

Lately, I have been run ragged by life. If I were a toy, my seams would be ripped, my stuffing spilling out. It’s funny (or not), but sometimes life does that to you. I have slumped into a funk that I can’t escape. I keep pushing to move beyond this point, so I can get back to the energy and light that creativity brings. And so I am working to develop a strategy to get me through.

I am pulling myself away from noise and into silence. It is in the silence that we can hear what is going on inside our heads. It is the silence that reveals the truth.

I am turning away from busyness and moving toward stillness. Busyness pulls and rubs and irritates, but stillness is peaceful and soothing. Stillness is like the hug of an old friend—warm and comforting.

I am rejecting chaos and clutter for simplicity. Chaos and clutter are a result of the worldly and material taking over as the focus of life. Simplicity brings calm. Simplicity allows us to disconnect from the material to reconnect with the spirit.

Sometimes—often, in fact—you need to reject the ways of the world if you are to see your own light. If you are to spread your light in the world.

Sometimes, you need to be alone in reflection to see where you fit in the world with others and within your own life.

Don’t be afraid to take the steps necessary to care for yourself, to rediscover yourself. Too often, we get caught up in the everyday. We try to live in the expectations of others, of the world, and we lose ourselves. We lose what makes us true and right and unique. We lose our passions.

Without passions and creative energy, our light dims. Our candle burns out. Our life becomes a series of day upon day upon day with no real rhyme or reason.

It is only in pulling back into the silence that we can escape the noise. It is only in seeking stillness that we can recognize the poison that is busyness. And it is only in letting go of all the trappings of the here and now that we can truly find ourselves among the simplicity.

So let go. Find your way back and reconnect with your true self.

Piece by Piece

Pieces of an intricate antique puzzle

I have become the keeper of the puzzles. These puzzles, they are very old, yet nearly new. They are barely used, but they’ve been saved for decades, tucked away in a box under the eaves in the attic, a treasure long ago forgotten. They were created with great care and attention to detail back at a time when all things were created this way.

These puzzles are the definition of jigsaw puzzle—cut from a sheet of thin plywood. They are in boxes that look like standard gift boxes, some red, some white, and some off-white, weathered and stained. They come with no photo of what they will look like when they are assembled. Hundreds of pieces. No photo.

That’s right… the puzzles of yesteryear were sold without a guide, so when you first remove the pieces from the box, you have no idea what goes where. Color won’t help you other than grouping like-colored pieces together. Pattern is irrelevant. Even the edge pieces—or the pieces that appear to be edges—could be assembled upside down before the orientation is slowly revealed. It is only in the process that the end-product starts to make sense. Piece by piece.

As I put these puzzles together, I have realized they are much like life. We did not arrive here on Earth with a guide. There is no manual for many of the things we experience as we travel our journey. There is no map or even a sign to point us in the right direction. We are simply left to figure it out as we go.

The pieces we discover along the way are random—sometimes they fit, and sometimes they don’t. Most of the time, the pieces make sense. We can see their colors and shape, where they fit—and how—as soon as we discover them. Their edges slide seamlessly into the bigger picture. Sometimes, the pieces are here for a time, and then we discover that their angles are too sharp, their picture is too dark, or the color disrupts the environmet we are creating. And every now and then, we acquire a piece we don’t want, that absolutely doesn’t fit, but we are forced to make it fit. We must do the work to smooth the edges and reshape the experience, so we can work it into our lives and find a place where it not only fits but somehow enhances the whole.

As we move through life picking up pieces, we need to remain open to possibilities, and we need to draw upon the vast array of resources we have accumulated. The more of life we have traveled and the more experiences we’ve endured, the closer we may be to figuring out how to proceed with the next piece—unexpected or not—that we stumble upon. If we are having difficulty with one piece or other, we can lean on those around us for support. They may have dealt with a similar piece, and they can share how they eventually got it to fit in their own puzzle.

No, there is no guide to this on-going challenge we call life. But with patience, persistence, a lot of work, and a little bit of luck, all of the pieces will eventually fall into place in a way that is far more beautiful than you could ever imagine.

When we are together…

When we are able to be together again—whether post-pandemic or as the waves recede for now—I am going to smile my warmest, unmasked smile in your direction, and I’ll greet you with a hug so tight, it might feel like I’ll never let go. I really miss hugs. And smiles. I so miss seeing people smile.

When we are together again mid- or post-pandemic, I will stand close to you while we talk—close enough that I will feel your warmth. I will watch your mouth move in familiar patterns as you shape the words you speak. I will nod in agreement, and I might reach out and touch your arm while we joke about one thing or another.

When we are together again, we will sit side-by-side on a bench or across a small table from one another. We might sip coffee or tea or maybe an adult beverage. We will talk and laugh and snack on finger foods we share from a plate that rests between us.

When we are together again, we will have much to catch up on. I will ask how your life is going and how it has changed in recent months. I will ask you about your work, your home improvement projects, your crafts and reading, your mindfulness and reflecting, and how you spent your time in lockdown and in the months since. I will ask you about the ways you’ve found to cope in these most unusual times.

When we are together again, I will tell you about the projects I worked on while I was home, the ones I started and the ones I completed. I will tell you how a project of scanning childhood photos turned into a soul-searching rediscovery of a girl long ago forgotten. And how I reclaimed some of her traits and pulled them back into my now-life. I might even tell you that I’m not sure it was the photo-scanning that prompted the reclaiming, but perhaps the time alone and long moments of reflection served to ground me back into myself. I had pulled apart a bit over the years—my soul tearing from my physical being just enough that the disconnection was real, but not detectable through the hustle and busyness of normal life. I am working to carefully stitch those parts back together so as to avoid a recurrence of this detachment in the future.

When we are together, I will try to explain how very much I needed to be a “helper” when the waves of covid were rolling in. But I felt helpless. I will tell you how that feeling made me dig through my drawers of old fabric and begin making face masks to distribute to family. I will tell you this was a project that lasted through a shortage of elastic and snail-speed shipping on supplies and stretched on for months—even into 2021. Every time I felt like I needed to be more helpful, I would sit down at my sewing machine and stitch face masks. A few hundred face masks later, I have begun to slow my pace—not because I don’t think they will be useful, but because I want to tackle other sewing projects and finally use some of the fabric I bought years ago. It’s part of my intentional recovery and reconstruction.

When we are together, I will tell you about the rethinking I did about my life—about the fact that I am transitioning from being Mom, in an all-the-time kind of way, to mom-to-grown-adults. While I am still mom to three kids, my day-to-day life is no longer defined by my role as somebody’s mom, and that is a difficult but necessary change to navigate. The quiet time of the pandemic has given me an opportunity to think about who I am now that I am not who I was. I will tell you that this time, in many ways, has prepared me for that transition. I will also say that the pang of grief of this transition wound its way through and around the Covid stress-grief and these two feelings became nearly inextricable.

I will tell you that I had many projects I could have done around the house and in the garden, but lockdown meant I was working. Harder than usual. And I took on my second job since life was restricted, and food became (and remains) ridiculously expensive. I will tell you that money was a worry, but that I am fortunate that I have been able to maintain my work thus far. I will tell you that worry is part of my DNA, and I have always worried. A lot. About stupid things. I will tell you I need to let go and let God deal with my stress… and the things I have no control over. Because amazing things happen when you let go of what you cannot control and fully embrace the knowledge that God’s got you.

When we meet again on the other side of the pandemic, I will tell you that it’s good to see you. To be with you, and to talk and to sit in silence. I will tell you that I know the pandemic is not over, but I will enjoy our time together. When we are separated again, I will have these moments to hold onto, to dig into, and to help me realize that I am strong, resilient, and able to find all of the necessary resources when required to do so. I will let you know it’s good to be back. It’s good to be together. But the changes we experienced in the past year? They were good, too. We are stronger now. We are better now. And I hope these changes will stick and weave their way into our new existence, whatever that may eventually look like.

Ignite Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope and Possibility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

{Photo by Alistair MacRobert on Unsplash}

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.

Accepting Technology

2020 Lesson Number Three: Technology is not always our friend, but we can come to terms with it

I do okay with many technologies, though I would never say I was an expert. I regularly use instructional technologies. This past spring, I did okay as I simultaneously learned several different virtual meeting platforms. For me, the challenging technologies are GPS technologies that require me to relinquish control in order to follow someone else’s directions to a place I have never previously traveled to.

I am a firm believer in maps and atlases and relying on one’s internal sense of direction. When I get in the car and I am not sure where I am going, I like to have a map and directions printed out and at the ready—especially if I need to double-check my route. Lately though, have been using GPS more often, and it makes me feel adventurous, spontaneous, and carefree, like I am a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of girl. I am not. Nor am I yet an avid fan of GPS. But I swallow my pride and use it because it is convenient and it saves paper.

I drive, and my Google gal narrates my trip via her built-in maps that are, apparently, updated regularly. And this is great, really. Except when she gets interrupted or distracted by a phone call, as she did back at Thanksgiving. While I was on the phone, she remained silent. Then again, there wasn’t much to narrate at that point since I was traveling on the same highway for several miles. Thankfully, my phone call ended just in time for her to continue my journey. I followed her directions (exactly, point-by-point), but when she announced I had arrived at my destination—a grocery store where I was to meet my daughter to bring her home for Thanksgiving—there was no store in sight. In fact, I was in a questionable section of a town I didn’t intend to be in. My “destination” seemed to be the warehouse of a moving company with lots of large moving trucks, but not much else. And there was no one around. Anywhere. I pulled into the parking lot, reset my GPS, and headed to my true destination, still 20 miles away.

And despite the way it might seem, that experience was a good one for me to have with my Google gal. That experience humanized GPS technology in my mind. It allowed me to see that I was right in my desire to have a back-up plan in place. But it also improved my relationship with my GPS.

Now, I affectionately refer to her as, “Girlfriend.” When she gives me directions (“take the next exit onto Route 2 east,” for example) I respond with, “You got it, Girlfriend!” When I cross a state line, she welcomes me to the new state. “Thanks, Girlfriend! You too!” I reply.

We have a new comfort level, me and my GPS. She does her best to lead me to my destination, and I, in turn, recognize that I may… or may not… arrive where I am going. But now I accept that any journey could become a grand adventure in an instant.

{Photo by Ali Kazal 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}