Hope for Tomorrow

This time of year, here in the U.S., there’s a lot of Religion on display. Not just twinkling lights creating glittering outlines of  reindeer striking poses in people’s front yards – but also gossamer angels floating in trees and homemade Nativity scenes gently lit to suggest the candlelit birth of the Christ. I live in a ‘county island’: an area of super-wide streets devoid of sidewalks and street lights, and lots of trees. People near my home tend to go ‘all out’ with decorations and, in the darkness of night (coming so early now, in the Northern Hemisphere), their efforts are pretty dazzling.

Despite Christmas being a Christian celebration, I notice that, all around my city, the excitement and anticipation of Something New Ahead is palpable. The Universalist church and the Buddhist temple happen to be on the same street, less than two miles from each other; I pass them on my way to visit our nearby mountains. I’ve noticed that both gathering places are looking particularly festive, in their own ways, at the moment. More color; more lights; flowers and wreaths; paper lanterns, ornaments and mini-lights strung outside along fences and in trees.

Who doesn’t love a reason to celebrate? It feels like we’re all looking for one, and maybe even desperately in need of one.

I wasn’t raised in a religious household. My mother (who died when I was only 9 years old) was an Agnostic (despite her mother’s Mormon beliefs). My father couldn’t decide – it seemed to me – which was more appealing:  an Existential nonchalance (he’d been schooled in France, and definitely ‘schooled’ by authors Sartre and Goethe) or flat-out, unapologetic Atheism. Still, during the holidays there was always a pine bough with a red bow hung on the door. I never asked my father why he did it; but it made me smile. Even the hardest, most cynical hearts can find seasonal joys almost irresistible. To my mind, that pine bough and a single satin ribbon bow was a symbol of my father’s desire for, and belief in, Hope. For a new day; a better tomorrow; happier times.

When I moved to where I live now, over sixteen years ago, I did so to be near my father – as his care provider in his last days on earth. To cope with the strain of his care, and the emotional drain of watching him slip away from us, I began taking daily walks in and around my neighborhood. Nature is a great healer, and I was in dire need of help.

On my walks, I began noticing the many red-tailed hawks that apparently nest in the large pine trees of my neighbors. I loved looking up, as exhausted as I usually was after working, and then caring for my father, and watching them lazily circling the pines in the twilight.

Hawks are beautiful, fierce and mysterious creatures. They’re also excellent hunters, as well as very shy birds – they keep their distance from humans and mind their own business. I suppose that’s why – when I came across my first beautiful hawk feather as I was walking, it seemed magical to me. I picked it up and took it home with me. Then, a very strange thing began happening. About once a week, I’d come across a new hawk feather. Each time, the feather I found was both longer, and different colored:  rust-red stripes; golden brown chevrons; creamy beige with black flecks.

I’d read somewhere that, in Native American culture, feathers are symbolic of the connection between the owner or ‘finder’ of the feather, the Creator, and the bird that gave the feather. Hawk feathers, in particular, are supposedly portents of Something New:  often, the birth of something, or someone. In any event, I collected about 9 feathers in all, and then they stopped appearing during my walks. I bought a very light and delicate mobile (online, from Germany), with little clamps on the end of each filament. I clamped each hawk feather into the mobile, which now hangs in my bedroom, as a reminder.  

As I’ve lived life more fully – in joy, and through many sorrows, I’ve come to believe that there’s a kind of  universal connection between all people, of all faiths – and even people of ‘no faith’ at all. It’s so delicate, yet so fundamental, instinctual, and strong in our human family. Its symbols are everywhere. Whatever form they take, in whatever time of year, they offer comfort, peace and the assurance of hope for tomorrow.

Take All The Time You Need

Once we reach adulthood, it’s assumed that we pretty much know who we are, and the general direction we’re headed, based on what we want for ourselves. Aren’t we all, on a daily basis,  acting-out our desires for our lives? This is where it gets a little tricky; where I make a point about ‘life down the road’…my way of defining Growing Up, and Growing Older.

Just because we think we know who we are at a certain stage, doesn’t mean that we stop evolving as people. Ongoing change is not only inevitable, but necessary, to get the absolute ‘max’ out of life. On the other hand, some people seem to grow ‘old’ without ever getting a good grasp on self-fulfillment.

I used to think, when I was in my twenties, that this time of life was the most fraught with Who Am I ?, and, What Do I Want? quandaries.  Turns out, if we’re living life bravely – without fear of what others think and how we might be judged – Life constantly nudges our hearts and minds with questions like, Why am I doing this (fill in the blank) ? I totally hate this situation!

Sometimes we just feel miserable, but lack the energy or motivation to suss-out the reasons for our ambivalent-sad-disappointed-frustrated-confused-resentful emotions. Maybe we’ve struck a bargain with someone or something:  a job, a relationship, or a commitment of some other kind. We’ve told ourselves Considering what others want, and compromise, is good – being selfish is bad.

A single, but super-important question needs to be asked, as we consistently check-in with ourselves – in our twenties, thirties, forties and even beyond:  Am I content with how things are? I’m not talking about the trivial stuff we fuss about – you ordered-in pizza, but I really wanted Chinese. I’m talking about major life decisions:  in committed relationship, or not; buying a house, or not; having kids, or choosing a lifestyle of non-stop spontaneity. Full-disclosure:  I got to this ‘party’ a little late. Even though I had a really strong sense of ‘self’, even in my twenties, it wasn’t really until my forties that I acted on some of my most life-sustaining desires.

Statistics are encouraging. More younger men and women are taking whatever time they need to explore all aspects of who they are, and what they want in life, and from life. Still, it surprises me that so many succumb to what I call “accidental choices”:  life-altering commitments made without asking, Is this what I really want?

And speaking of desires and charging ahead to fulfill them, just a few days ago, the top travel company (in terms of guided, and independent travel bookings) cited some amazing data. It seems that female travelers 50+ years old represented a 53% increase in solo travel in 2018.

Not only single women and widowed women, but married women whose husbands don’t enjoy travel. Women are choosing to create and live-out travel dreams all on their own. Savvy companies are alerting to this trend and (thankfully) re-considering the higher prices of solo travel for all.

From my perspective, it’s a good thing when people — whatever their age and circumstance –think for themselves and try to live out their desires and goals. I don’t consider it selfish, or short-sighted in the least. Compromises can of course be made along the way, but ‘compromise’ shouldn’t feel like a relentless push-pull – in our families, our social circles, in the workplace, or in our personal lives.

Marie Kondo’s demo: “not Joy”

Marie Kondo, the ‘tidying up’ lifestyle guru, tells us that our surroundings should ‘Spark Joy’. Her brand of uber-organizing might seem silly and superficial to some. But Kondo’s method is ruthless in helping us zero-in on what makes us happy, by tuning in to who we are and what feels right. If the process needs to begin with a closet, so be it. Take all the time you need.

Returning to a Sense of Worthiness

O, my friend, if you are longing to be written on, become a blank page – RUMI

I generally don’t have a problem with Change in my life. I need to clarify that statement by saying that positive change is always welcome; and, over the years, I’ve learned to ‘surf’, rather than be drowned by, unhappy changes. But today I was reflecting on how many (many!) changes I could have encouraged, and discouraged, just by becoming more aware of my own self-worth.

To my mind, there’s a clear distinction between Worthiness and self-worth. Worthiness is something we’re all born with:  we’re inherently lovable and therefore deserving of care, nurturing, and all of the good things that life has to offer. Self-worth, on the other hand, is a collection of beliefs and attitudes that we accumulate over time. At first, our self-worth comes from our earliest relationships with our parents and care givers.

But as we grow older, self-worth grows or shrinks in accordance with broader interactions. If we get a lot of positive affirmations, we learn to expect there’s more of that to come. In the reverse, being overly-criticized, or (worse) ignored can establish patterns of low self-worth that seep into the nooks and crannies of our adult lives. The choices we make and the paths we follow are certain to be influenced by what, in the most tender areas of our subconscious minds, we feel we deserve.

I’ve known both kinds of people over the years:  those who grew up in nurturing, stable (even wealthy) homes, and those whose childhoods were filled with uncertainty, deprivation and angst. It’s strange, but those that I was sure had enormous stockpiles of self-worth (in comparison to me) didn’t necessarily enjoy happier, more successful lives down the road.

It’s as though (so it seemed to me, during a recent get-together with a woman I’ve known since high school) that the initial sense of certainty my happiness is assured” —  might be the culprit. An ironic situation of too much confidence in positive outcomes. Not that I wouldn’t be tempted (for a minute) to trade my own rough childhood (just about every classic family dysfunction you can think of) for the option of more positive ‘advantage’ and influences growing up.

But I’ve come to understand – one of the distinct benefits of becoming older and wiser – two important Truths about how I can guide events in my life in more positive ways. The first Truth is that my sense of self-worth is in-gear at all times, driving even the most minute decisions that I make every day. The second, and most important Truth, is that my original Worthiness – what I was born with – can never be taken away, unless I allow it. I’m returning to the ‘blank page’ that poet Rumi describes. I’m creating a clean, clear space for the changes I desire now: what my heart wants, and what it’s deserved for a long, long time.

20 Days of Love Stories

Norman Vincent Peale

One of the earliest books (In Western culture) written about the power of the human mind to alter what happens in the body is “The Power of Positive Thinking” (1952). Since it was written by a Methodist minister, Norman Vincent Peale, many people assumed that the focus would be Spirituality. Turns out, his book had much more to do with Peale’s un-scientific and non-religious experiment with his own cancer treatment, and his resulting belief that mental positivity can heal.

The story is that Peale, in his early 50’s, was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of cancer. According to his doctors, his prognosis was grim. They suggested admitting him into hospital, but he refused. Instead, Peale did something that his medical team thought was totally crazy:  for 6 to 7 hours each day, in between dozing and eating light meals, Peale watched old black and white films (reel to reel copies he’d borrowed from a Hollywood friend) of Laurel and Hardy comedy sketches. Long story short, around 7 months later, Peale claimed that he had literally laughed his cancer into remission. His doctors agreed:  he was cancer-free. Peale lived another 43 years, passing away at the age of 95, from natural causes.

Laurel and Hardy. Courtesy, bottomshelfmovies

I have a good friend that I’ve kind of lost touch with. I went fast-forward into a demanding career phase, while Janelle left the work scene to care for her gravely-ill baby daughter. While the baby went to a renowned children’s hospital and lived by machines breathing for her, Janelle stayed in a dorm on the hospital’s campus. Janelle later told me that, for the 3 months her child struggled to survive, she got “hooked” on two television channels that were non-stop Love and Happiness. She craved the diversion, and her heart desperately needed a continuous loop of happy-endings.

What seemed like a year later, my friend phoned to let me know that the baby was out of the hospital and at home, though still under doctor’s care. She segued into talking about her tv “shows” and how they’d remained an ongoing part of her life. “They’re all I watch, anymore”, she said. I did a silent eye-roll, then caught myself going a little judge-y: Whatever works; who am I to criticize icky-sweet dramas that end, predictably, with happy outcomes for all?

What was most surprising was the fact that, previously, Janelle was what I’d call ‘tough’. She’d worked with hardened juvenile offenders and gangsters, and had herself grown up in a rough household of drugs and poverty. She was savvy, streetwise, and a bit cynical. How could she have ‘gone over the rainbow’ so completely? Simple answer:  her baby’s life was threatened, and Janelle needed the magic of Everything Will Always Be Ok. She’d dosed herself, the way Peale did, with the sights and sounds of joy and hope. For months. And it worked for her.

Mindless chores like dusting and folding laundry always involve Dance music and lots of it. On a particular day in early November, I decided instead to turn on the television. I didn’t check the channel, it didn’t matter; but before I knew it I’d gotten roped into a charming (and high-grossing, at the time) Rom-Com film I hadn’t seen in years. It had just started, but I had too much work to do so I recorded it to watch later that night. Which I did, until around midnight. Happy ending: check. Plenty of tears and smiles woven-together: check. Silly, simple and absurd at times:  check. Everything that I – apparently—had wanted and needed, because I nodded off in a kind of goofy stupor, sleeping better than I have in a long, long time. The next night, I found another film of the same genre and, I have to say, gave myself over to it in the same mindless way. At the end of multiple films over a number of days, I felt ridiculous — but strangely better.

Rom-Coms and funny skits don’t make The World go away, but there’s definitely something to be said for allowing our minds to take a break from so much worry, fear, angst and stress of daily living. There’s no danger of my falling into a place where I never again watch my news feed, or my favorites, Noir films; but I’ve re-discovered the amazing link between happiness-dosing and a peaceful mental state. So what if some of what we consume is cheesy (literally and figuratively)? There just might be a longer, happier life hidden in that mix. Peale called it “The Happiness Habit” and suggested that we should “cultivate it every day”. How we choose to do that might seem silly to others, but hey – if it works…?

My Workout in "The Now"

I’ve had quite a few friends who were, and still are, serious body-builders (heavy lifting, in order to get ‘definition’ or to ‘bulk up’). At one point (long ago), I trained with a friend of mine who was hoping to compete nationally. Karen did brutal short, fast repetitions with progressively heavier weights, while I (pathetically) mimicked her workout with lighter ones. I came to admire the discipline that chasing the perfect, chiseled physique requires. Not just the commitment to hours at the gym, but restrictive diets and the comprehensive mindset of the lifestyle. For me, personally, much of that lifestyle depended upon the daily (sometimes hourly) exertion of willpower, self-control, and extreme focus.

I flashed-back to “powering through” intense and exhausting workouts as I listened to – my term, hopefully not sounding too cheeky – a Wellness Guru. As it happens, one of Deepak Chopra’s daughters. The story she shared was about her in-person interview with author Eckhart Tolle (his best-known book, “The Power of Now”). Ms. Chopra shared with her audience that she’d tried for months to gain access to Tolle (despite the ‘intro’ she had, with her father and Eckhart already being friends and colleagues). But with Tolle’s schedule (and him not being very inclined to travel), it was proving almost impossible. Then one day, when she’d almost given up on the idea, the author’s assistant called:  could Ms. Chopra meet Mr. Tolle in Stockholm?

“The Power of Now” is all about controlling The Mind. From Tolle’s perspective, there is no Past and no Future; only the Present Moment exists. We’ve heard this before, but Tolle lives this ‘mental workout’, as Chopra discovered. At first, she shared, Chopra thought the author was playing a game with her. Try as she might to get him to talk about his personal and professional journey, to each question she asked about his Past, his response re-directed her to the very moment of the experience the two of them were sharing in the interview.

Chopra said that it took her awhile to get the ‘hang’ of Tolle’s process. His assistant had allocated 2 hours for the interview, but – Chopra confided during her talk – she’d spent a frustrating ninety minutes asking (the wrong type of) questions and being rebuffed. Tolle’s focus was so consistently in the Present Moment that it seemed (to Chopra) to be almost beyond belief; almost beyond human ability and understanding.

On a slow day, I might be able to clear my mind to meditate for maybe five minutes. If I’m honest, two or three minutes are spent ‘working’ at it, which I know is not the point. On a more typical day, my tendency to plan, structure and execute whatever’s on my To-Do list seems like a much better use of my time. Often, I catch myself either Troubleshooting, via Past recall, or trying to peer-into the Future, struggling to anticipate any and all scenarios.

For the novice trying to focus on The Now, Tolle suggests a thought experiment:  Try to pinpoint where one thought ends, and the next one begins (perhaps while looking at a painting, or a flower – something simple). This space between thoughts Tolle calls The Gap. I’m paraphrasing from his book:  “When you find it, step into it and see how long you can stay there without the next conscious thought pushing you out of the Gap.”

I’ve been practicing this ‘In the Now’ exercise for awhile now; stretching my time in The Gap feels like testing already-sore mental muscles. But when I do get there (in the Gap), it’s the most amazing sense of calm imaginable; it’s just really hard to sustain. One thing I have learned through this discipline is just how strong my preoccupation with Yesterday and Tomorrow is. I have imaginary ‘arguments’ with Tolle:  “How can I possibly plan what I want for my Life without a review of my Past, and without fantasizing over my vision and hopes for my Future?”

I can still recall the day I officially gave a ‘hard pass’ to the competitive body-building workout. A friend and I went downtown, to the old-school Carnation Soda Fountain. I ordered the most decadent item on the menu:  a triple-chocolate sundae. These days, I’ve accepted the fact that whatever feels like a ‘workout’ to me probably isn’t going to work out for me, in the long run. I’ll continue trying to coax my ever-busy mind into The Gap whenever I can remind myself to. But I’m finding that balance is much more fun than perfection.

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