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…?

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.

On Feeling Alone

Here in the Western hemisphere, days are growing shorter, darker and colder. I can feel my seasonal urges for soup-making, and bringing out the plushest blankets I can find in my closet, kicking-in. I live in California – far from blizzards and true bitter-cold. Still, my tendency to indulge in more decadent eating and just lounging-about this time of year always makes me feel like an animal ready to hibernate. That’s how I justify my need for more comfort foods, and way more sleep, anyway.

Fall and winter also bring a kind of wistfulness. While the natural world is slowing-down, changing into reds and golds and getting ready for sleep, the frenzy of The Holidays, and other people’s ideas about what that means, seems to clash with the quiet peacefulness of Nature, with her soft prelude into deep rest.

Darker, colder days and reminders that The Holidays are supposed to glitter with love and contentment can also be a time of great loneliness for many people. Everyone else’s lives seem to be illuminated by a light and warmth that we don’t share. Today as I was listening to someone who I normally find spot-on with her observations and recommendations for living life fully and happily, I found her ideas about Holiday ‘blues’ uninspired.

This practitioner spoke directly, for a few moments, to “all the people who are alone; without family and perhaps even without friends”. Her recommendation was to “take initiative”, “have a party and invite your neighbors”. I knew what she was getting-at, what she was trying to say, even though my mind immediately registered her suggestions as totally absurd.

What I wanted her to say, longed for her to say, is what every person who’s ever spent a festive season alone needs to hear:  Whatever you’re feeling, it’s OK to just ‘be’ with that, in whatever way you choose. I also wanted the speaker to mention (total wishful thinking on my part) that a lot of the smiling faces on people that seem to be in bliss this time of year aren’t always Feeling the Love, on deep and meaningful levels. They’re just caught up in the frenzy, like everyone else.

There might be something to the expression, Fake It ‘til You Make It:  trying to jolly yourself into a certain mood or spirit. But there are other ways to “survive the holidays” (that sentiment alone, heard in frequent adverts, is enough reason for me to get creative).

What the practitioner I listened to this morning failed (perhaps there just wasn’t time in the podcast) to mention, is that ‘Alone’ can be a choice, or a circumstance. Either way, being, or feeling alone during the holidays doesn’t have to feel like one of the worst of Life’s struggles. Also, fulfillment through companionship – whenever its wanted and needed — is not solely found through other people. It can be through pets, and books, and music, or walks in nature. ‘Company’ can be felt through travel, cooking, mediation, writing, and personal rituals that honor Just Being. Even if a lonely heart feels that none other than a lover or true friend will do, the above options are often pathways to people.

It’s good to remember, I think – especially during festive seasons — that ‘alone’ isn’t always defined as loneliness, or, by a lack of family or friends. Some of the loneliest people I know are married, with children, and a gaggle of people they call ‘friends’. Our choices and decisions about how we exist are always our very own, regardless of the seasons, as long as we live and breathe. That’s something worth celebrating, even after the decorations come down and the party hats are put away.

Mistakes Will Be Made

While waiting for a friend today, I scrolled to an interview with a high-profile and internationally known celebrity. She described a recent ‘health scare’ she’d had, amplified by the failure of her doctors to correctly diagnose her issues. Which caused her to believe she was seriously ill, when she actually wasn’t. It’s comforting to believe that medical professionals have super-powers; I fell into that habit for decades. It took the pressure off of having to be accountable for reading, learning, and studying up on my own body. But, as this very famous, extremely wealthy woman (who could obviously consult only the best physicians) discovered, even the most intelligent and well-educated professionals can get it wrong. In reality, smart, sensitive, aware and responsible people get it wrong all the time. It just doesn’t feel good for anyone, giving or receiving, to admit that.

It’s for sure that, as we enter the adult realm, others begin holding us to higher standards of knowledge and behavior. How many times over the years have I heard “You should have known!” Buying a particular car; moving to a new city; taking a certain job; entering into a doomed relationship. The less-than-stellar choices I’d made meant, in the opinion of others, I’d ignored The Signs.

And how many times have I rolled my own eyes, when a friend tells her story about putting a loving heart (as well as years of commitment, not to mention tangible assets) into the hands of a liar and a cheat? Someone who had raised Red Flags all over the place, multiple times. How did she did not see them?

There are two key Truths that I stumbled onto, just through the act of living, with the only ‘toolkit’ I was born with, and with the best intentions for myself and those around me. The first is that Life itself is a Progress Toward Perfection in our minds only. Mistakes are not only bound to happen, they’re completely acceptable and even necessary. ‘Failure’ is not supposed to feel, or become, fatal:  we only experience it in that way, in our darker moments. Repeated mistakes (“I always choose the wrong people to fall in love with”) are important lessons that are – sad to say – going to continue until and unless personal work (inquiry) happens, and the ‘message’ comes through in a way that just can’t be side-stepped.

Despite our best efforts to ignore it – or to put the responsibility onto to someone (a messed-up parent) or something (bad luck, or fate) — each one of us has to ‘deal’ with our own stuff. The second Truth I stumbled onto (after getting knocked on the head with repeated ‘learning opportunities’) is that telling  someone “You should have known” is not helpful. Not even a little bit. People are much smarter than we give them credit for. Most of the time, S/he did, actually ‘know’,  but chose to look the other way, as disaster of some kind was oncoming.

If, to me, another’s miscalculation feels like a “Well, duh!”, there are a few things I can say, but How Could You Not See This Coming ?! shouldn’t be one of them. As part of my own process here on Planet Earth, I have to assume that most everyone (I concede that there are exceptions) is doing the best that they can, with the ‘toolkits’ they have. No one needs to hear my criticism, in order to live bravely; but I’ll definitely share my mistakes as I continue to make them, which is going to be a lifelong gig.

Lessons in Survival

britannica.com

Lily was almost 100 years old when she left this world, very peacefully. I hadn’t yet reached my 20’s, so she was like, (channeling my former self), this other-worldly relic of times that I struggled to imagine. Small, under five feet tall; pure white hair that looked like spun sugar, always worn in a topknot on her head (people said she stopped cutting it when her husband died 20 years earlier); a pink-cheeked Apple Doll face that spoke, “I’ve just seen stuff, alright? You don’t even want to know”. Except that, like many really old people, Lily loved to talk about her younger life and had an amazing – almost unbelievable– recollection of her teenage years. Her story began right after she was married at age 16. Traveling West, to California, in a Conestoga Wagon. Shot in the leg by friendly-fire, as the wagon train defended itself from prairie pirates (Lily claimed a hostile tribe of indigenous people, but lots of predators were out and about, during the American Westward Movement). There was a doctor in the wagon train, but he declined to operate on Lily. The bullet traveled down her leg and lodged in her foot, where it was eventually removed, in California. That she survived the wound, and potential blood poisoning, was incredible, so the operating doctor said.

Annie Oakley, the Female
Spirit of the American West

Lily’s travails put my teenaged view of my family-issues into perspective. Like a lot of people, my biological tribe was a mixed bag of “Stable”, and, “Not so much”.  After my mother’s (self-inflicted) death when I was 11 years old, my college-professor father married one of his students (that’s an entire story unto itself). Lily was my new step-mother’s grandmother. So, my step-great-grandmother? Although she wasn’t in my life all that long, Lily had an impact. Even as an impatient, erratic and impulsive teenager, I instantly grasped the meaning and importance of Elder:  a sometimes tedious blend of stories, neverending advice, a few lectures (rare, with Lily), and comfort. This woman had been married at 16 (not uncommon back then) and “rifle-shot”, at the age of 17, for God’s sake. How bad could my life be, so far? It felt pretty ‘cushy’, back then.

One of the major adjustments, moving on down the road in Life, is the way in which your Elders begin falling away. (I know, important people can leave at any time, but the ones with a little extra life-experience to share seem to leave the biggest holes in our lives). And as they fall away, you suddenly realize that – for a growing number of people in your life – you are now The Elder. If you’ve had a ‘Lily’ in your life, you wonder about the quality of your own wisdom. Do your stories carry the same value (not to mention, ‘shock and awe’)?

Thankfully, with age also comes perspective, which just might be the greatest gift of living. While I may not have survived the Westward Movement experience and lived to tell the tale of Homesteading as a 16 year old bride, I do know a thing or two about ‘grit’. Most importantly, that it’s pretty much ‘relative’. Life is Good, from all appearances, until it’s not. Rare is the person who hasn’t experienced some degree of tragedy. And if it hasn’t happened yet, it just might. Even those in the Spotlight, those we worship and envy for their ‘perfect’ lives, have things going on that are messy and painful.

‘Grit’ is also called resilience, which is so much more than just ‘persevering’. I’ll confess that I’ve become a little bored with hearing about it :  the result of the hundreds of TedTalks, books, articles and Agony Aunt columns on the topic. Nonetheless, I know that it’s essential to living bravely and just can’t be praised enough. If we’re lucky, we have an Elder or two in our lives that have flourished, despite tough odds. But hearing a gritty story’s not the same as living-through and triumphing over whatever bad times or mental demons threaten us. That courage, bravery and resilience come from the heart. Even deeper. It’s the sheer, tough, Will to Survive.  It can’t be taught; it has to be lived.

I’m feeling a little lost, without a compass, now that so many of my Wise Elders have transitioned to wherever spirit energy goes. On the other hand, I continue to measure my own responses to Life against things like the perilous Westward Movement, the Great Depression and World War II. I try not to minimize my own progress, by comparing it to these ordeals. After all, each beating heart faces unique trials. They may be external, and historic; but very often they’re very personal, and of our own making. With, or without voices and memories to guide us and reassure us, we struggle and manage to find our way through dark times. If we’re lucky, we live to tell some precocious young person about our survival. They won’t really listen, or hear, of course. But, they will somehow remember.

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