Tuesday, 21 April 2015

So Much More

I have my husband's ashes at home, packaged in a cardboard box, sitting on the top shelf of a bookshelf in what was so recently his bedroom. I keep looking at that box and wondering how such a small container can possibly hold him. He was, in so many ways, so much larger than life: big heart, big enthusiasms, big spirit. How could all of that fit in there?

My fella roared through life. He embraced it. He was childlike in his enthusiasms. He ate too much, he drank too much (until he didn't), and goodness knows he talked too much. When he loved someone, he loved them with his whole heart. When he was interested in something he gave it his entire attention.

Sometimes his enthusiasms drove me nuts - like when he filled the garage with more than 100 homemade clocks and every one of them ticked out of sync - but often (and for me these are the times that count) his enthusiasms demonstrated the sweetness of his spirit. He adored so many of the good things in life, and he celebrated them loudly and long. He swept those around him along on the tide of his delight.

So, why am I telling you this?

Because what's in that box fits in there because it is just a single, small part of what my husband was.

We are all much more than the sum of our parts.

Our bodies are just vehicles. They carry us through the experiences of our lives but they are just a means of transportation. They need to be maintained, to be sure, and kept in good working order, but we need to live both in them and outside them. We need to adventure, and love, and enjoy, and admire. We need to laugh, and to cry. We need to imagine, and to dream. We need to see wonders in the small things around us, and in the great. We need to grab onto all that life brings us and experience it as best we can.

Bodies break down.

Goodbyes are inexpressibly hard.

In the end, memories and experiences and love are what carry us through.

So take good care of your vehicle but don't obsess about it. Don't miss the journey because you're worried that you might break down along the way. Grab life two-fisted, mistakes and hurts and annoyances notwithstanding.

You are more than the sum of your parts and you always, always will be.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Fake It 'Til You Make It

Most weekday mornings I write a "Good Morning" post at A Word From Aunt B and most weekday evenings I write a "Good Night" post on my Facebook page. The tone of these pieces is deliberately calming, the language and flow of the wording deliberately soothing, the subject matter deliberately positive.

I'm not always calm when I sit down to compose my posts.  I don't always exist in a zen-like state.  My life is just as crazy and disorganised and stressful as anyone else's.  

My purpose in writing my morning and evening pieces is to practice a form of meditation.  They are like mental yoga for me:  stretching the muscles of my mind while at the same time focusing my attention and calming my spirit.

When we're feeling stressed or anxious or grumpy there may well be merit in trying to "fake it 'til we make it;" acting the way we wish to feel. Research suggests that when people are feeling sad or stressed the simple act of intentionally pasting a smile on their face actually works to improve their mood.  Smiling stimulates the brain to release mood improving neurotransmitters like serotonin and norepinephrin, which work to reduce or balance stress related hormones.  It also stimulates increased production of endorphins, which improve our mood and can even increase our resistance to pain. Likewise, assuming a more confident, open posture appears to result in increased feelings of self assurance.

Certainly, the practice of writing calming, positive words reduces my level of stress.  By focusing my mind on the peaceful, restorative things in my surroundings, I am able to slow myself down, draw deeper breaths, and find a quieter place within myself. I may not always be calm when I start to write, but the process of sharing soothing words leaves me feeling more peaceful when I'm done.

I'm not saying that fake it 'til you make it will always work.  Many troubles are bigger than a smile (no matter how wonderful), a confident stance (no matter how bold), or a few calming words (no matter how well intended) can cure, but it's a worthwhile method with which to address the smaller concerns of every-day.  

So, the next time you feel your shoulders inching up towards your ears, the next time you're nervous about an interview or meeting, the next time you find yourself gritting your teeth rather than losing your temper, consider it.  Try pasting a smile on your face, or standing up straight with your shoulders back, or sharing a silly joke, or writing a couple of paragraphs about something that calms you.

It's worth a try, right?  At the very least you'll have paused for long enough to give yourself a small break before moving on.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Give a Little, Take a Little

Recently, a friend and I went for a walk in one of my favourite parks.  We visit there often, walking familiar trails along the rocky shoreline, then back through the shaded woods, finishing at salt water once again.  

On this particular walk, near the end of the path through the woods, we found a new surprise.  Someone had carefully crafted a fairy house, shaped to fit the hollows of a large fir tree.  

It really was charming:  A little curved door and an arched window, calked with living moss, and bearing a sign that said "Give a Little, Take a Little."  

I unlatched the tiny door and found all sorts of treasures inside: Feathers, pretty shells, heart shaped stones, notes, and photos, and little greeting cards. 

I was charmed both by the idea of the fairy house, and by the fact that so many passers-by had chosen to participate.  

There is something to be learned from this gift in the forest:  

It speaks volumes about our desire to reach out to others, to feel part of a community, to share what is beautiful to us.  

It speaks about our ability to respect the creativity of others, and to use our creativity to bring moments of brightness to friends and strangers alike.  

And it speaks to our understanding of need to give when we can, and to accept gifts with grace when we need them.

I have trouble with the accepting part, and I know that a lot of other people do too.  I find great joy in helping others but when I'm offered help myself it embarrasses me and hurts my pride.  I feel shame that I can't surmount every challenge on my own.

Pride is a good thing.  It helps us to carry on in times of trouble.  It helps us to retain our dignity.  It helps us to be self reliant and to do our best to rise above our circumstances.

But pride can be a bad thing too.  There are times in every person's life when they truly do need a helping hand; sometimes in the form of emotional support and sometimes in the form of tangible assistance, like help with food, or shelter, or medical care.  When you are stretched beyond your ability to cope by yourself and pride prevents you from accepting a hand up, your pride is working against you.

Perhaps the key to finding balance between pride and need can be found in the example of that little fairy house in the woods.  When you're doing well and reach out to help others who are struggling, you're leaving a treasure in the fairy house.  When you're struggling and in need of some caring, it's okay to take a what you need from the trove.  In doing so, you're honouring the kindness and generosity of those who left the gifts, and you're receiving some small repayment for kindnesses that you, yourself have done in the past.

So, please, if you are in need right now, do reach out for help. There are generous hearts and caring arms all around you, reaching out to help hold you up.  Don't let pride get in your way. You'll repay what you've received - and more - when you're able, by offering your own gifts to others.  

Give a little, take a little:  In the greater equation, it all balances out in the end.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

A Work in Progress - A Rule Of Threes

Look:  I'm a work in progress just like everyone else.

I want to lead a healthier lifestyle, but I still say "Yes, please" to a slice of chocolate cake.

I want to be more frugal, but then I splurge on extras at the fabric store.

I want to slow down but, instead, I take on more work.

I want to simplify, but I resist letting go of things.

I spend a lot of time feeling disappointed with myself for not doing a better job of attaining my goals.

I have learned something along the way though:  I do better at moving forward if I can break my big, grand, I-want-to-be-better-at-everything goals down into a series of smaller, more attainable ones.

With that in mind, I'm working these days on a rule of threes:  Three simple goals, each broken down into three smaller things.

Morning and evening I pause to list at least three things I'm grateful for.

Each day I remove or discard at least three items from my home.

Each day I make a "to do" list of only three items.  One chore at home, one chore at work, and one creative project.

The list has been the greatest challenge.  There are so many things that demand my attention each day it's hard choose just a few. (I'm sure the same is true for you.)  It's a valuable lesson, though, because it requires that I set priorities.

The great thing about this rule of threes business is that it's a place of beginning, not one of limitations.  It's okay to do more:  To be thankful for more things, to get rid of more things, to accomplish more things than I have on my list.

I do that almost every day.

On few days when I accomplish only my three things, though, and not any extra, I still feel okay about it.  I've reached my goal without falling short.  And I've accomplished that goal day, after day, after day.

And THAT'S a good feeling.

Really, really good.

Because I am a work in progress

but at least I am progressing.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Thirty-Three Years

Today is our wedding anniversary: 33 years.

When I look at my wedding pictures, I seem impossibly young.

I was 23 when I married my fella.  He was 42.  A golden anniversary may not be a likelihood for us, but I think we've done quite well, don't you?  A marriage of more than 30 years is not so commonplace any more.

I've thought a lot about what to say here about our years together.

It would be dishonest to say they've all been good.

We had a tough time adjusting to one another at first.  My stubbornness and independence didn't mix well with his one-generation-older views about marriage. But we bumped along, frequently clashing, and somehow made it through to the next part.

My fella worked on a ship and was away from home for weeks at a time.  My independence worked to my advantage during those absences, but it wasn't always easy to adjust to one another again when he came home again.

Departures posed their own set of challenges and anxieties, often marked by fiery clashes between the two of us.

There have been illnesses and hardships.

There has been deep sadness and great joy.

Some years we grew together, other years apart.

There were long periods of time when we really didn't like each other.

Sometimes it seemed the only thing that held us together was the fact that marriage is not just about emotion; it's a business partnership too.  The financial consequences of separation kept us together when emotional strife might have torn us asunder.

There have been good times, too: lots and lots of them.

Times so joyous that it seemed my heart would burst from the sheer magnitude of it.

Moments so tender they made me cry.

Struggles surmounted and discoveries made together, trips taken and stories told, company kept and grand-babies to hold.

So, so good all of that, that in the end it outweighed the bad stuff, making it all worthwhile.

So what can I say about our years together?

That life is hard and times are often difficult.

That when things are bad they can seem very bad indeed.

That the bad years may well outnumber the good but, for me at least, it's been more than worth it to tough it out.

Because, when the good times are so very good, love's light can illuminate even our darkest hours.

Turns out Will Shakespeare had it right:

Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

If this be error and upon me proved, 
I never writ, nor no (wo)man ever loved. 

Monday, 2 June 2014

Making the Best of Things

The internet is a lot like the humans who created it and now help it grow.  There's good stuff and bad. There's personal stuff and business stuff and hard stuff and fun stuff.  There's encouragement and hope.  There's cynicism and unkindness.  There's a sea of information, on any subject a person could imagine.

The internet is vast and expanding at an exponential rate, as fast as our thoughts, and ideas, and causes can carry it.

Everything I might say or do or think or know or imagine or share has already been said or done or thought or known or imagined or shared by someone else.  Within the vast universe of binary code that is the internet, the zeros and ones that encode the small amount I write are less significant than even a single speck of dust within the big, wide physical universe around us.

It was that thought that caused me to step back from blogging. If it's all be said or done or created or thought about and discussed, what's the point in saying anything at all?  I needed to take a break from all this on line stuff and re-engage with the real life world around me, and to restore my sense of proportion.

During my quiet months, something new occurred to me:

With so much information available to us, what really becomes important is not what is said or shared, but the intention behind the act of saying or sharing it.

I know, I know:  It's been thought, and said and written before.  

The newness (to me) in this idea comes in its application to my writing.  I'm returning to blogging because, although nothing I may say is new or revolutionary, I'm saying it out of my belief in the importance of positive thought, compassionate listening, and encouraging speech.

Actions taken or words spoken out of anger, hate, bitterness, or envy bring anger, hate, bitterness, or envy in return.  Negativity feeds on negativity.

Actions taken or words spoken out of hope, compassion, inspiration, or gratitude, bring positive change in return.  

We can't always control our circumstances, but we can control our responses to them and, in sharing positive thoughts and actions, we offer encouragement and inspiration to others along the way.

There are lots and lots of ways to make the best of our circumstances:

  • We can live frugally, making the best of our resources.
  • We can live respectfully, seeing the best in others and in our environment, and honouring what they have to share.
  • We can live gratefully, being thankful of the many "bests" each day has to offer us.
  • We can live pragmatically, accepting that there are some things we cannot change and seeking the best way to live within those circumstances.
  • We can be dreamers.  There are always things we can make better or grow into.  
  • We can practice empathy, striving to understand what others are experiencing and accepting that their "best" may be different from our own.
  • We can act with kindness and compassion, helping to bring out the best in ourselves and in those around us.

Making the best of things really does make things better  

and, while I know that none of us are at our best every moment of any day, we can all benefit from making a conscious effort to adopt a "making the best of it" attitude.

That's why I'm blogging again.  

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Yellow Violets: A Life Lesson From My Mom

When my mom was in her late thirties, she decided to return to teaching.  

Mom had been a teacher early in her marriage, but by the time she contemplated returning to the classroom she'd been away from teaching for more than a decade.  During that time teacher training requirements had changed drastically, from a two-year program at Normal School to a four-year university degree.  

In order to return to work, Mom had to complete her degree and, in order enter university, she had first to acquire some high school prerequisites she lacked. 

Among those required high school courses was biology.  My mom is an artist by nature, with little inclination toward the sciences, but she took a workman-like attitude to that biology course, determined to get through it with good grades.    

One of the biology class assignments required that students collect ten wild plants and then present their collection correctly labeled with their botanical names and information about their attributes and habitat.  Predictably, the students accomplished this by gathering wild plants and either pressing them or drying them in silica gel, then attaching them to boards on which they had written their cultural information.  

All except my mom.

Mom took her easel and oil paints to a favourite local park and made a painting of the shaded landscape beneath the forest canopy.  Once the landscape painting was completed, she carefully added in detailed images of the wild plants she intended to include in her project.  When the painting was finished, Mom made a line drawing of the painted image with the plants numbered and then detailed in a carefully lettered legend that provided the information required for the assignment.

I loved that painting, not least because a few sunny yellow violets stood like a bright exclamation point in the shadowed right hand corner of the foreground, the only spot of vivid colour among the whites and greens of the other plants my mom had chosen to describe. Those yellow violets were among her favourite spring wildflowers and she had highlighted them beautifully within the composition.

I have no idea what happened to that painting. It disappeared into the the tides of passing time, life events, and moves to new addresses.  It remains in my memory though, as clear as if it were framed on the wall in front of me, because I loved both the image itself and what I learned from it.

In choosing to fulfill her biology class assignment in a way that suited her artistic nature, my mom taught me something really important:  Life doesn't always allow us the luxury of doing things we enjoy but, if we are willing to invest a little extra thought and effort, we can still find the means to make whatever work life may bring us uniquely our own.  It's a lesson I've been thankful for again and again. 

It's the season of the yellow violet right now.  They're blooming in the woodlands, spangling the shaded undergrowth with their sunny faces.  Every time I see them I'm reminded again of my good fortune.  To have a mother who cares so deeply about fostering and sustaining creativity, a parent who has inspired her children to remain true to themselves while making their way in the world, is gift beyond measure.