Friday, December 30, 2011

Ring It Out

I can't end the year without re-posting one of my favorite posts. It's a list that I still use, still stand by.

To all of you, have a happy, healthy, successful 2012!

Here's my basic Life Toolkit - also known as Ten Things to Take With You on the Ride Through 2012. I promise, you'll be equipped to deal with pretty much everything if you keep these in mind.

  • Never mind that the word kindness is a noun - it is an action, and it requires action. No one was ever accused of being kind who sat in a corner doing nothing.
  • Contrary to popular belief, Time does not heal all wounds. Nature does. Surrounding oneself with natural beauty reminds one that everything shares an interconnectedness and that sometimes the big heavy stuff (while seeming to require a mental forklift on our individual parts) is but a grain of sand in the grand schema. That doesn't mean that we or our lives are in any way insignificant - keep in mind that a single grain of sand can change everything (ever get one caught in your eye?).
  • Laughter is a requirement, particularly the ability to use it while looking in the mirror.
  • Significant events in life will happen if you're ready or not. Keep these emergency supplies handy: observation, openness, at least one good friend (with two good ears), inventiveness and/or creativity, sense of humor, water, and chocolate.
  • Love, while a useful tool, is not a possession. Give it away. The one who dies with the emptiest toolbox wins.
  • Music is as essential to survival as food is. It can change an attitude. It can fix a mood. It just plain feels good to belt out a familiar tune, or dance (even if it's alone in the living room), or close your eyes and escape to whatever desert island awaits (I hear Bob Marley and I don't care how cold it is - I'm puttin' on a Hawaiian shirt!). And so, as the man sang, "Lively up yourself. Don't be no drag."
  • Physical Fitness, Mental Fitness, and Spiritual Fitness are a triad and require strength on all three sides. Therefore on a daily "nutritional" basis:
    ~Eat Well - We all know how to do that, I don't need to expound.
    ~Think (outside the box will give you the best workout) - Learn something, feed your head.
    ~Meditate - dream, pray, whatever you want to call it, so long as you take time to nurture your spirit.
    ~Get daily exercise - Walk, get outside and get outside yourself!
    ~Experience - give your heart a very long leash, remembering the words of Rilke: no feeling is final.
  • Connect with Innocence, whether it's a child or an animal. Seeing the world through unblemished, unjaded, non-judgmental, unconditionally loving eyes is a joyful thing. If you don't have a child or a pet, visit one - generally speaking, good parents and good pet owners are happy to share.
  • Sometimes the person you need most in your life is (still) a stranger. Sometimes the person they most need is YOU. Say hello (with a smile, dammit!) to people you don't know.
  • There's no rewind, there's no fast forward, there is no pause. There is only Play or Stop. Take care to keep it on Play - you're needed more than you know. (Oh, and there are no subtitles either, so speak up!)

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Not So Silent Night

Happy Solstice!

I had a post all ready and written in my head... something about how I love the darkest day of the year. How the dark speaks to the artist in me, how the shadows created stir my creativity. How that deep need to snuggle and drink warm beverages feeds my soul. It's all true.

I was going to talk about magic and how the darker days seem to make so much feel like magic, or beckon magic, or something like that. How I can understand why so many fairy tales take place in a dark forest. Or how much we need an apparition to take shape in the dark, even if only to know we're not alone in it.

It all fell apart this morning as I went searching on youtube for really amazing guitarists, doing really amazing renditions of Christmas songs. I found many, as I suspected I would... great rocking electric guitar talents like Joe Bonamassa, Steve Vai, and Silent Night as done by Joe Satriani.

Throw rotten eggs at me if you must, but I really don't like the tune a lot. For one thing, it's difficult to sing with any real success, given the octave leaps that tend to strain the average voice. Plus, I have a traumatically induced mental block against it from having to learn and sing the German version of it over and over and over and over again in my freshman German class. Nothing makes a tune sound more like you're trying to huck up a loogie than the German word for night... "nacht." All that is to say that Satriani takes one of my least favorite Christmas songs and turns it into something that leaves me breathless, and warm, and... and... alive.

This... wow... this is magic. Just close your eyes and listen.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

All I Want For Christmas

Now that I've had time to slow down, I've been a lot more reflective. Nothing new there.

This morning I was cleaning out my inbox and perusing old emails. I found an email that I'd sent Timothy four years ago - the first Christmas after John died. It reads: "The Gift of John... There are people who give presents, and then there are people who give gifts. John was a gift giver. He would agonize over what to give people that would be meaningful. Even in death, there are no exceptions to that rule. All of us loved John to our own extent, and were equally so loved by him. In leaving this earth, thoughtful as ever, he did not leave us empty-handed. John left us each other. What began as the camaraderie of shared grief has developed into deep, enduring friendships and relationships between all of us. So, this Christmas, here's to you John, to the gift of you in our lives. Here's to the beauty you brought us, the lessons you taught us, and the continuation, in us, of what was so great about your spirit."

It went right in line of something I was thinking about yesterday, which is always a clear sign that the Universe is tapping me on the shoulder and trying to get my attention.

Yesterday I met a "new" friend for coffee. We've actually been online friends for a couple of years, but earlier this year she moved from the Southwest to within about five miles of my house. We kept saying, "Let's do coffee." But, as often happens with such lines, life kept stepping usurping the actual event. Yesterday we made it happen.

Let me backtrack just a little. I should mention that this past Summer I discovered that I was a bit lonely. It's all Jessica's fault. When she came out to visit, I had so much fun with her that I realized I'd been missing that kind of friendship - someone to just hang around with and talk about everything and nothing. I mean... I'm not lonely lonely. I have Steve and he's my greatest friend (I won't say best, because all my friends are best), and I have friends all over. I just don't have friends that are close by. So, when Jessica left, there was an empty space that was tangible. Since then, I've been thinking that I really need to cultivate some new friends who live a little closer.

All that is to say that when I discovered that Tanya had moved so close by I saw it as an opportunity to turn my thoughts into action. Let me just say that it was an excellent choice. We sat and sipped coffee and talked until we realized that three hours had flown by. It didn't feel new, it felt comfortable. I felt like a five year old telling Steve when he came home, "I made a new friend today!" (I also fell down on the sidewalk, did arts and crafts, and took a nap. Perhaps this is my second childhood.)

As we were talking, we discovered a mutual tendency to keep people from getting too close, from being too important in our lives. And neither of us are good at letting other people take care of us. I told her (and reminded myself) what I discovered when John was sick, when I came to a point where I (we) couldn't make it much further on my rather stubborn brand of self-sufficiency. I had to let people help me in all sorts of ways. I had to let people in. When I did that, I realized that helping made them feel good, no matter the effect it had on me. It gave them purpose, and who was I to deny someone else from being who they needed to be in my life? Who was I to put constraints on their friendship in my life, to say "Your love can go this far, but no farther"?

It sounds silly, but the most difficult challenge I've had in my relationship with Steve is allowing him to do things for me. Slowly, I've realized that when I deny him doing those things, I'm denying him the chance to express his love for me the way he wants to... and needs to.

The people in my life are what I treasure in my life. They are the gifts that keep giving, and I need to graciously accept that... and let them give.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Major Generalization

No single thing defines who we are. We are a conglomeration of all the things in our lives. I'm an artist, a lover, a writer, a female, a 50 year old, a cook, an atheist, a daughter, a heterosexual, a musician, a sister, a reader, a nature lover... the list goes on. This is why I get peeved whenever someone tries to generalize me into a tidy little box that falls in line with their thinking.

But here's a stinky little not-so-secret. I do the same thing, and I detest that quality in me. So, I'm sitting here confessing to you in hopes that I'll kick the shit out of that nasty little beast and it won't have the balls to come back.

I caught myself doing it just yesterday. I made a generalization about Christians. In fact, I have nothing against Christians. Some of my finest friends are Christians, and I respect their right to their belief. To me, preferring one religious belief over another (or none at all), is pretty much like preferring a certain flavor of ice cream. Whatever floats your boat, put it in a cone and have at it. Just don't try to make me eat it too and we'll get along fine. We all take comfort from something.

I'm off track... where was I. Ahh, yes. I made a generalization about Christians, and a fairly derogatory one at that. In fact, the offense had nothing to do with the fact that the person claimed to be a Christian, but more with the fact that they were blatantly rude and without compassion. Rather than simply call them on their disrespect, I called them on their Christianity. Yeah. Me. The chick who constantly tells people not to judge.

Mea maxima futuo culpa.

So, I am apologizing to you, to all of you. Because that is not who I choose to be, and I will hold myself accountable. How could I not? Many are the times that I've mentioned something about myself to another person and in return I get an assumption. I tell people I'm an artist and I get the look (if not a verbal response) that tells me they think all artists are insane - which I find ironic, because art is what keeps me sane. I tell people I'm an atheist and more often than not I get one of two looks - Look One is a mournful thing akin to the response expected upon telling someone your body is riddled with inoperable cancer; Look Two is a hardened, almost angry look that says, "By Jesus, don't you even think about trying to talk me over to the dark side!" Either of those looks drive me bonkers. Not only do I have a soul, but it's usually a fairly sensitive one at that.

That's why, when I feel the need to point out the flaws of others, I realize that there's probably something about me that's holding sway over the entire gig. And that's why I'm sitting here writing this. All too often the offense we take is the offense we give.

Can we all do each other and the world a little favor? Can we pare back on the generalizing and prejudging? No matter what the subject is?

We're all people, all hanging out on the same rock. That's all the generalizing we should do.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Can't Touch This

We were driving around doing errands, which included a stop for lunch and a cup o' bean to go. It was an ordinary day, nothing special, and it was a moment that could have passed by, completely ignored.

But she said, "I'm happy. This is a perfect moment. My belly is full. I'm in good company. I'm warm, and I have a warm beverage. Nothing can touch me right now."

It took me by surprise just as much as it made me think.

How infrequently it is that we stop to pay homage to life's simple goodness. How very rare it is that we truly occupy a day rather than just wander through it. Our awareness is clouded by myriad tasks and distractions.

When Steve and I first got together, almost every night as we'd snuggle in and begin to drift off, I'd ask him, "Know what my favorite time of day is?" "Hmmm?" he'd query. And I would answer, "Right this very minute." I stopped doing that somewhere along the way, for no particular reason.

Still wrapped in my warm bathrobe, I watched a brilliant sunrise this morning, the sky turning shades of gold, salmon, fuchsia, and lavender. I took a sip of my hot coffee. I thought, "This is a perfect moment. Nothing can touch me right now." And it was true.

Maybe in a minute, a day, week, month or year... something out there in the Universe will rear its ugly head and reek havoc on my pastoral little life. But that's not now. Now is just right. Now is the dream fulfilled, and I appreciate the moment for what it is.

Why don't we do that more? We're quick to curse even the smallest offenses and claim an entire day has gone to shit by the mild nuisance of being stuck in traffic. We'll jump into the fray of an argument without even bothering to check for any valid, good points. We criticize every weakness without championing strengths.

It's all habit. It's what we've learned. We tend to go with what we know.

I've heard it said that it takes two weeks to break a habit and/or solidify a new one. So, what if we make an effort to rewire ourselves? What if we reach for the positive rather than leaping toward the negative?

Well, I'll tell you what if. We will see our worlds unfold. We will find the beauty that our lives were meant to be. We will know and foster peace. We will make dreams come true - our own, and those of others. We'll be better able to appreciate the good in our lives.

I'll tell you what else. We'll be happy and we won't even notice it until we realize how unhappy we were before. Happiness is a choice. Happiness is the ability to choose what we see in any given moment. It won't be Utopia - bad things will still happen, but we'll be better equipped to deal with them.

I know you're going to accuse me of being an overly idealistic soul. I can hear the Pollyanna remarks coming. But, you know what? I don't care. Because in this moment I'm writing and sipping some fine bean. This moment is perfect, and nothing can touch me.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Shining Through

Yesterday I decorated our Christmas tree, and found therein what I hold sacred about Christmas.

As I unpacked the boxes of baubles that I've been collecting for at least 40 of my 50 years, I had opportunity to wander down memory lane. There was the set of frosted angels that my Dad bought for me during a trip to Frankenmuth, MI back in my pre-teen days. There was a hand-crafted, red ceramic pretty with my oldest nephew's picture on it, dating back 35 years. Nestled in the tissue paper were the three country mice that my sister stitched for me. I gently unpacked the shimmering swirly hand-blown glass balls that my nanny family gave me. With gentle respect and a bit of sadness, I hung the glass heart that John gave me for our first Christmas together. There are a few ornaments dating back to before I was born that my Aunt gave me along with ornaments that friends have given me over the years. Scattered amongst all of them are frosted silver balls that Steve has added to the collection.

As I looked at the completed tree and watched all the pretties dance and sparkle in the lights, I realized that I was looking at much more than pretties dancing and sparkling in the lights. What came shining through was the love that was given with each of those ornaments, and the light that was brought to my life by the givers.

That is my Christmas. This is what I hold sacred about the holiday... the love that's been shown me.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Christmas Presence

I guess it's time for us to have that little talk again, huh? Time to lay out the facts so you're not all confused and bumping around in the dark. Fine then. Sit down, wipe that smirk off your face, and allow yourself to be educated and enlightened.

I've bit my tongue on this one for a few weeks now, mostly because I've been incredibly busy and haven't had time to properly write it out. But I haven't gotten over being ashamed of my fellow Americans. I watched, with a profound sense of disquiet in my soul, as my compatriots left their still warm turkey carcasses on Thanksgiving, ditched their sleeping families, and camped out to shop for Christmas presents. They jostled and punched each other, spit epithets with great vitriolic hostility, and yes, even pepper sprayed other shoppers to get what they wanted. To get what they wanted to give as a gift, no less! I caught a news report wherein a prepubescent child was interviewed. He said he was at the store to buy an Xbox, had one in his hand, and some adult walked by and snatched it from him.

For shame. For everlasting fucking shame. Who are you people?! I'll tell you who you are. You are people from all walks of life, varying religious and spiritual beliefs (including the one that worships a baby that was born on... wait... what? Christmas!). You are people with children, cousins, parents - you are family people. You're nobody special. You're some Schmoe who's brain is defective enough to think that this kind of behavior is acceptable because you're doing it in the spirit of... (*shakes head*)... giving.

Congratulations. You make the Borjias look like Mouseketeers.

It astounds me that I, an atheist, seem to have more Christmas spirit than the average person. Considering that the bulk of my profit comes from Christmas card sales, I have to "get my elf on" earlier than is warranted. I really should start in July, but I find it impossible to design a Christmas card when it's 75 degrees and sunny. So, I wait until the cooler, grayer days of September when my mad dash begins in earnest. However, as Dickens so aptly proclaimed, I keep Christmas in my heart all year long.

Think about it. Do you remember the gifts you received as a kid? All of them? No. The only one I remember was the Easy-bake Oven I got when I was six. My best Christmas memories are memories of ice skating in our back yard, or going to my Aunt's house, gathering around the piano, and singing Christmas carols.

I'm not a Grinch. I'm not anti-gift. I'm just saying, put aside the ridiculous spending and frantic behaviors and give gifts that count. Turn off the TV, the computer, the cell phone. Pop some popcorn and spend time reading a book to your children, or playing Parcheesi. They'll remember that long after they've forgotten what an Xbox is. Will your geriatric parent really care about yet another pair of slippers? No. But they'll be delighted if you take them to lunch, or for a stroll through some botanical gardens or some such thing. Pour your mate some delicious beverage, turn the lights down low, and rub his or her feet. The gift of your time is what will last.

Maybe you think I'm being overly idealistic but I don't concur. I believe that what we give of ourselves is what matters most. Always in all ways.

As Train sang, "In a world of what we want is only what we want until it's ours..." It's about presence, not presents.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

As Good As It Gets

We've all heard it before and I'll wager we've all said it before. "You did your best." Or, "I did my best."

It's a shabby consolation prize when your best isn't good enough.

I have a friend who is going through troubling times in her relationship, a relationship that she treasures. Her mate is questioning the validity of their union (through nobody's fault, I might add). It's just the way he's feeling. I know that she has given everything she has to that relationship. I know that there's not a more loving person on earth. She gives her best. Suddenly, for whatever reason, her best isn't good enough.

And my best isn't good enough either, because all I can do is say feeble things like, "I'm here for you. Let me know if there is anything I can do. I love you." All good things, albeit a bit over-used and mostly useless when it comes to facing down our worst fears and deepest sorrows.

It's not like the birthday cake is a little bit lopsided. It's not like you came in second in the marathon. It's not like you fell short of a fundraising goal. Those kinds of times are when doing your best is really pretty damned good. Those are times when anyone else will tell you, "Don't be silly. You're amazing."

That doesn't apply here. That doesn't apply when our best has no effect on something that is out of our control. I'm talking about those moments when life just feels... well... fucked. And it's nobody's fault. Doing my best didn't keep John from being in pain, nor did it cure his cancer. Doing my best meant nothing (to me, at least) in the face of what he suffered. It was like trying to put out dragon's fire with a thimble of water. Did that stop me from feeling guilty and useless and angry? Not at all. My best wasn't good enough and it ripped me apart.

So, where do we go when our best isn't good enough? What can we do? And I do believe that with holidays coming up and all of the bittersweet mélange of flavors that come with family dynamics, this is a timely question. I don't know that I have much of an answer, but I'll... give it my best.

What you can do for yourself when Your Best Isn't Good Enough...
  • Be gentle with you. Berating yourself for something you have no control over will send you spiralling.
  • Take some time to meditate. Five minutes of deep breathing and a quiet place does wonders.
  • Let other people in. Tell someone how you're feeling, what you're going through. Get the shit out.
  • Cry. Allow yourself to mourn.
  • Don't be afraid to ask for a hug from someone, anyone.

What you can do for others who are experiencing My Best Isn't Good Enough...
  • Be there. Just... be.
  • Give love. This isn't a time for judgment or questioning.
  • Listen. Don't placate. They're feeling what they're feeling and it's justified. Let them feel it.
  • If possible, touch. Hold their hand. Throw an arm around their shoulders. Hug them. Anything that will help them feel less alone.
  • Refer back to point No. 1 as often as needed.)