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.

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…?

Signs, Synchronicities & Godwinks

I just finished reading an editorial by the conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks. Now I’m totally certain that the mind-body connection has gone completely mainstream. Brooks announced – it made me smile, writing as though he’d just recently stumbled on this important discovery – that the human body’s Vagus Nerve extends from the brain to the digestive system, and is responsible for ‘gut reactions’, ‘gut instincts’, and (gasp!) ‘intuition’. I hope his Twitter followers are kind to him; he really put himself out on a limb with that last word.

Funny, but only a week ago I’d read another piece about this particular nerve, which is actually a vast web or network of nerve endings every bit as sophisticated as those in our brains, by a medical doctor. I’m really liking the fact that it’s now official – what our elders have been telling us for years:  “Go with your gut!” Even though they probably didn’t understand the science of it, they knew all about a stomach ‘ in knots’ or filled with ‘butterflies’. Turns out, that’s not just all in our heads. We don’t imagine it. It’s real.

Which makes me wonder about certain realities we all encounter, as we learn to trust our very trustworthy instincts:  how can we for sure tell the difference between actual signs, versus simple wishful-thinking? Is it possible to confuse the two? I can totally get carried-away with signs and synchronicities – perhaps reading more into them than I should. But I’ve had some startling experiences and what seem like inexplicable coincidences. I envy those who feel and see these immediately as Godwinks. How could it be otherwise? My rational brain resists ‘magic’ and ‘magical thinking’, even though I’ve felt firsthand how my mind (thoughts) can communicate to my body (feelings)…and then some amazing little thing manifests in real-time.

One small case in point:  Last winter there was about a week of solid rain where I live. One afternoon the downpour had eased up, so I grabbed the leashes and herded my three bored, now excited, dogs out of the yard. As they sniffed the special scents rain brings to trees and shrubs, I happened to look up at the sky. I saw the strangest rainbow I’d ever seen. Not an arc at all, it was sort of an oblong shape:  rings of color with a dark blue center. I flashed back to a memory:  the macramé design that used to be called a “God’s Eye”. I joked aloud to myself, “What, God only has one eye?” My smallest dog had caught her leash on a twig, which I stooped down to untangle. Standing up again, I looked back to the sky for the ‘eye’. Now, unbelievably, there were two of the same, strangely-shaped oblongs. Two eyes. I stopped walking and stood staring – trying to convince myself what I saw just could not be real. A bubble of laughter came then. We walked on.

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I’ve pretty much accepted the fact that I’ll never solve, with total certainty, the mystery of signs, synchronicities and Godwinks (which is what the little oblong rainbows felt like). Maybe a good portion of what I feel, and sometimes see, has a rational source or explanation. On the other hand, I don’t think ‘knowing’ is as important to me as the feeling that I get when I acknowledge and accept these little gifts. Not all that is real can be fully explained and understood. I feel like a ‘crazy person’ as I write those words and yet, I’m somehow totally ok with that.

When You Just 'Know'

When it comes to my personal toolkit – the knowledge and experience that keeps me from going off the rails in Life (always an option, no matter how ‘together’ I feel) – I’m continually on the prowl for new perspectives on complicated issues and topics. But to grab my attention, whatever wisdom is on offer has to come from someone who’s been doing, feeling, living, and surviving pretty significant challenges. Even better, whatever lessons have been learned through navigating Life’s choppier moments hasn’t caused permanent bitterness, wariness and self-imposed isolation from the rest of the world. It’s pretty clear to me that the wisdom I’m chasing comes from the Wounded Heart; now even more open in its suffering; more determined to not only survive, but to flourish. More receptive and, ultimately, more loving.

There’s a global celebrity who’s parlayed her traumatic childhood and young adult years into what I call a Syndicate of Wellbeing. Her media presence and brand is instantly recognizable, credible, and obviously hugely helpful to people around the world. Especially women who’ve survived abuse. Although I don’t track this mega-star like I used to, there’s a meme — always featured in the first pages of her monthly magazine – that resonates with me daily. The meme’s actually more of a mindset: a gentle invitation to come closer; to settle-in comfortably with the intimate friend who knows you so well, whispering, “What I Know For Sure”. Her revelations about Life –  always unassuming, transparent, inclusive, and offered sincerely – encourage and reassure at the same time.

I realized recently that I’ve incorporated this meme or mindset into my daily ‘process’, as a way of self-checking my own authenticity. Am I being honest with myself and others, especially when it’s super-hard and even painful to do so? Am I being true to Who I Really Am, and to the kind of life I want to live? It’s so easy – too easy – to stumble around in relationships and decision-making without truly participating in the effort. Realizing and accepting that every single thought I have and every single action I take comes from my accumulated ‘baggage’ takes an unwavering willingness to not only look, but to see.

Why did the relationship end? Why didn’t I get the job? Why do some opportunities that I thought were so ‘killer’ turn out to be disappointments? Looking at Life from the perspective of “I got myself onto this particular stage; the other people here with me are really just bystanders” is a tough reality-check. It requires ownership. It means accepting that most of Life evolves from how we think, what we do, and how we do it. The act of living comes together as a whole string of teachable moments and lessons-learned (or not).

Distilling Life’s Lessons down to “What I Know For Sure” is a way of acknowledging that, at the end of the day, it’s up to me – and me alone – to chart my own journey; not rely on anyone else’s compass or coordinates for Bliss. I get to decide what my heart wants, and whether or not I have the courage to go after my deepest desires. It also means that, no matter how black and unbearable in the moment heartache and suffering may be, in the morning I’ll have added new knowledge to my personal toolkit. The journey may feel a little lonely at times, and the new information hard-won, but the ‘knowing’ comes from my own inner being, so it’s mine forever.

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