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.

Waiting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blooming – 2020 style

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

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

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

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

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

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

Humor, Hope, and Haircuts

My heart is heavy today. I have heard from several students who are in healthcare situations working with COVID patients. These are young adults facing the unthinkable—dire situations that career-long doctors and nurses have never before experienced. I am afraid for them. My heart is breaking for them.

My heart is also breaking for all the people who have tested positive for the virus or who are suffering with it. This morning, I received word that the wife of one of my students has contracted the virus through her daily routine as a medical worker. She is in isolation in a room in their house while he has moved to the basement with their two little girls to keep them safe. I have offered a hand in the form of front door grocery drop-off. It’s all I have to give.

After a month of social distancing, there are hints of hope in discussions about returning to normal. That is one moment of the day. The next moment is heartache in knowing that we are not there yet. In fact, we may be a long way off from “there.” We are HERE, and for now, here has to be enough. Here and hope. Because without hope, what do we have?

HERE, we get through every day with humor. Hope and humor go hand in hand. Jokes and one-liners and pranks. Everyday, there is something to keep me on my toes. We laugh our way through the long, lonely days of house arrest. Because without humor, we would have a boring, socially distanced monotony for a month or two or ten.

And every now and then, something comes up to shake up the routine. Today, I gave my son a haircut. I used to give my boys haircuts back in the early days of single motherhood to save a few dollars. When he started complaining about his hair last week, I checked the bottom drawer of the bathroom vanity, and sure enough, we still had our hair clipper. Today, I gathered all the necessary tools, and I cut his hair. Is it even? Most likely not. Is it shorter? You bet! Will he need another haircut next week? Absolutely. I didn’t want to risk cutting too much off. As I told him, you can always cut more off, but you can’t glue it back on.

For today, something as minor as a haircut improved our mood, gave us hope, and eased the heartache for just a moment. Tomorrow is a new day—a new day for jokes and humor. And a new day for hope. We are HERE, and hope will prevail.

{Photo by Marcelo Silva on Unsplash}

Goodness as a Gift

This morning, as the sun came up bright on the new day, I realized that even in these trying times—through any trials we face—goodness is all around us. Right now, despite the difficulties we are facing in our global society, goodness shines through like a gift just waiting to be discovered. Just outside my window, flowers are blooming in my garden, and the plants my kids and I put in at the end of last season are beginning to poke through the dirt, reminding me of the weekend we spent cleaning up the garden.

Today was a quiet Easter day. We could not go to church. We could not have people over to share in some rowdy dinner conversation. Regardless, the weather was gorgeous. I ventured out for a walk with only a sweater rather than the jacket I have been wearing until now. Several small children, out on walks in the neighborhood with their families, stopped in front of my house to look for my cat and play with him. My cat has been dubbed a “neighborhood celebrity” because he is overly friendly and just confident enough to appear more human than feline in his interactions with passersby.

Out further in the world, where I prefer not to venture these days, our essential workers are fighting the battles we cannot fight. They are stocking the ever-emptying food shelves while sanitizing between customers, hauling our garbage away and cleaning even at the town dump, filling prescriptions for medications to keep people healthy, caring for the sick, and comforting the dying. They are tending to the emotional needs of those who are struggling in this strange new world, and they are keeping our utilities up and running. Our teachers have not only transitioned their entire jobs online, but they are digging deep to make it look easy so they can smooth the same transition for their entire student population.

The goodness is always there—not just now, but always. If we take the time to look for the it and recognize its presence in our lives as a gift, the goodness will grow. Our attitudes will shift. We will more readily see the goodness, have a positive attitude, and be the goodness for someone else. We will begin to influence others, and soon, goodness will displace negativity. We will begin to see that we all want the same things, and we will begin to work together for the good of us all. Positivity begets positivity. Take the time to look for the goodness and highlight the goodness because goodness will grow. And once it starts, there’s no telling what could happen.

See the goodness. Be the goodness. You are a gift.

{Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash}

Fun with F words

Today is F day in my alphabet rotation. I am a few letters behind, but I’m forcing myself to keep going rather than falter in my quest to finish the AtoZ challenge, especially so fresh out of the gate. It is a few days from Friday, and far back in our former times, my friend (in fact, my BFF), had formulated plans to visit for Easter. Her flight was to arrive today. But her plans were foiled, and she is far away, while I remain frozen to my flat. We have resolved to plan a fun fiesta sometime when the future permits.

In the meantime, one could easily fixate on frustration in times like these. But I pledge to remain a force to be reckoned with, finding no functionality in the stress of fizzled plans. Positivity is far more fitting to my personality.

So this afternoon, I wandered out for some fresh air. The flowers are finally poking their flashy colors through the faded not-quite-green that follows winter. Forsythia have burst their sunny yellow blossoms for all the world to see. And the fabulous sapphire sky above me was furrowed with puffy clouds, the perfect end to an invigorating stroll.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the Fs I’ve furnished in following through on my quest to float through the full alphabet by the end of April.

Dots… and Everything Else

Life is a process of connecting the dots. When we are young, our lives are full of dots that have little connection. We live life one day at a time with few plans. We play with this friend, that toy, and we work to discover our talents. As children, we live moment to moment, figuring things out as we go.

When we grow, we take all the things we have experimented with in our “play” and in our growing up, and we examine them, figure out which things we want to keep, and which things we really don’t enjoy or prefer not to pursue.

Now, here’s where the tricky part comes. In order to connect the dots and begin to fashion a life that has meaning and purpose, we have to determine how our “dots” fit into the bigger context of the world around us. We have to figure out what we bring to the world, and how that talent or  interest meets a need that the world has. That is where meaning, purpose, and passion come together.

One of the things I do in the real world is ask college freshmen to begin connecting their dots. What did you LOVE to do when you were nine or ten? What is something from your childhood you wish you hadn’t given up when you transitioned to adulthood? What are you doing when you are most likely to lose track of time? If you were asked to work alone in isolation every day, would you be able to do it, or do you need to be with people?

That was the dot that got me back when I was graduating from college. I had planned a desk job for my life, working in a cubicle in an office building. But a teaching internship slammed on the brakes, showing me I was on the wrong path. I had forgotten to consider the dot that needed dynamic, face-to-face interaction with people. [Now, of course, here I am in Corona Isolation, craving dynamic, face-to-face interaction, but this is a temporary story.]

If you haven’t yet taken the time to examine your dots and figure out how they connect, now is a perfect time to start thinking about that. Are you doing what you love? Are you fulfilling a need in the world? Are you happy? And more than that, do you experience regular moments of joy?

Not only is now a great time to begin to connect any dots you haven’t yet connected, it is also a good time to begin to examine Everything Else. What is it that makes you fully you? Are you in the best job for you? Do you have enough time for family? Is there something else you need to be doing? How can you put steps in place to get where you belong?

Here in this down time, take a moment or two to examine the Everything Else that makes up your life; if you are not on the right track, create a plan to get back on track.

This time—this quiet time when we have opportunity for greater reflection and focus, when we can look deeply inside ourselves and see who we really are and what we really want for our lives—this is a gift.  Don’t let it slip away without at least taking some time to think. Your dots deserve to be connected, and you are the only one who can do that.

{Photo by Michael Dziedzic on Unsplash}

Change (and a bit of Creative Reframing)

This morning, I woke up with Billy Joel’s “I’ve loved these days” stuck in my head. Why this song? I have not heard this song in years, and yet, there it was, going round and round in my head. So… I started to think about it.

Now, there are a lot of things that I don’t like about these days: the loneliness, the fact that I can’t see my students, the monotony of the same few rooms that keep me confined. But truth be told, it’s comfortable here, and if I look at things in the right light, there are blessings in this situation.

Since I’ve been working from home, I am not up at 5:30 in the morning to see my son out the door. Nope. These days, I’m often up at 7:00, but I can get up as late as 8:30 and slide into work with slightly damp hair—coffee in one hand and toast in the other—by a 9:00 meeting. I can wear jeans and slippers and wrap in a blanket when I am cold. Better yet, if my “office” is cold, I can bake a batch of muffins to warm things up a bit. When I need to clear my head, I step out into the fresh air and go for a walk. I don’t have to plan ahead if I want lunch.

When I am outside, I see more families spending time together. Because the weather is beginning to warm up, children are out riding bikes, and parents often accompany them, either on bikes or maybe walking the dog.

In the space of only three weeks, there have so been many changes, but they haven’t all been bad. Our space may have grown smaller, but the pace of life is noticeably slower. People are more patient and understanding. “Oh, it’s fine that you didn’t get that done. We are all trying to figure this out.” And despite our distance, people are coming together more. They are organizing drives to help others, checking on their neighbors, and offering a helping hand.

When things eventually go back to “normal,” I will try to remember what I’ve loved about these days. I really hope some of these changes stick around. The challenges of a global emergency might just make us better people.

{Photo by Kylo on Unsplash}

Struggle

I am struggling to find something to write about, to find a topic that works, that fits with where my head is. I have been thinking and striving and trying for a while now, but for the life of me, I cannot come up with a topic that works. In fact, I’ve written several blog posts recently, but none is right to post, though I may come back to those someday. Who knows?

I know this is part of the process, this struggle and striving. Writing is not as easy as it seems. Sure, it seems like all I have to do is string a bunch of words together to make some sense of the world. Anyone can do that, right? But there are times—so many times—when there is just nothing. No light shines through the cracks in the walls as it usually does, bringing with it a flood of new ideas on which to focus. No light.

Just a dark silence that reverberates through my brain, voiding my imagination of all… well, imagination. My creativity needs a new igniter.

I know this is a temporary situation; I’ve been here many times before. And I also know that pushing through it to write something—anything—will help me begin to move beyond this creative vacuum more quickly.

And so, press on I do. I have written those several aforementioned blog posts that are too bad to share. I have written letters and freewrites and quotes that might make me think. And still, the struggle continues. Over the weekend, I will work on some writing exercises. Anything to get some ideas flowing. And who knows? One of these days, the floodgates of creativity may just give way to a fast and furious overflow of ideas.

{Photo by DJ Johnson on Unsplash}

Nothing

Nothing. That is where I am. Still. After weeks of struggling with nothing, I am still at nothing. No ideas. No motivation. No creativity. N-O-T-H-I-N-G.

So… I have decided to go out and steal some ideas. I’m going to go and listen in on other people’s conversations. I’m going to use their ideas to jump-start my writing. Maybe, if I’m feeling particularly persnickety, I will interrupt their dialogue—jump in and try to redirect their ideas. I might even mess with them just a bit to see if I can incite a heated debate or two. You know what might be fun? I could follow someone around the grocery store while they carry on a phone conversation. I could keep reaching in front of them to collect items from my list, and since I am there, I might offer them advice to deal with the person to whom they are talking!

I am going to engage in some random acts of mischief. Maybe I’ll swap some price placards at the grocery store (those things are so easy to change out!) or leave messages on chalkboards in random classrooms: Today’s class has been moved to room 302. I could walk around in a Halloween mask, or—if I’m really feeling daring—flip the arrows on construction detours. (This last idea would be best carried out under cover of darkness…).

I am going to pretend to occupy myself with some intensely secret projects. These projects will involve all kinds of crazy equipment and supplies, none of which will be related in any conceivable fashion. But I will collect everything I “need” in a massive pile on my front lawn, all the while touting my “top secret endeavor.” Or maybe I’ll just dig a six by six by three-foot hole in my front garden. That might make  my neighbors curious about what I was up to….

I am going to plant seeds of kindness. I am going to leave post-it notes with inspirational messages in places where their discovery will be a pleasant surprise—next to the toilet paper dispenser, inside the elevator door, on people’s car windows, and on the napkin dispensers in the dining hall. I am going to hold doors, offer words of encouragement, and hand out flowers on a street corner.

I am going to hold a wacky raffle and give away tickets for free. (How many people will write their names and emails on wacky raffle tickets for a stranger?) I will raffle off items from my home that I no longer need or want. This will be a much easier way to get rid of my clutter than selling it or hauling it away. And imagine what a pleasure it will be to email strangers and say, Hey, you’ve won this week’s wacky raffle!!

I am going to go out on a limb once a day for the next week and step out of my comfort zone. I am going to sit with a stranger who is crying or upset. I am going to talk to the children whose parents are consumed by their phones and not paying attention. I am going to offer a helping hand, a hug, or a kind word or bit of encouragement and hope that I can make someone’s day just a little brighter.

And maybe when I’m done with all of this, maybe … just maybe … ideas will start to flow. Because right now, I’ve got no ideas. Not even one. I’ve got nothing. But if you want a wacky raffle ticket, let me know. I’ve got those!

{Photo by Mark Eder on Unsplash}