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Found in a Christmas Cookie

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Over the weekend, my sister texted me a photo of my mom. It seems the two had gathered to bake Christmas cookies. The photo was simple: my mom sitting at my sister’s kitchen table, a smile on her face, decorating cookies. I burst into tears at the sight of it.

This year was a hard one. My mom was sick – really sick – twice. There was more than one moment when I thought, “OK, this is it. I’m going to lose my mom.” By the grace of God, she is still here with us. That photo, her smile, reminded me in one simple second how close I was to losing her.

One of the things I’ve been reflecting about all year – even before my mom got sick – was how she and my dad are both aging; how I am aging. That process – the process of aging – is a weird thing to try and understand. It’s as if you are slowly peeling off a band-aid, revealing some version of skin that resembles your own. That skin, however, is a little less resilient, a little less vibrant, a little less able to take a blow and fully recover.

What I came to realize this year is that I am already grieving the loss of my mom as I once knew her. It’s hard to truly describe, but I miss her, even though she is still here. The things we once connected over are often not the things that tie us together now. And her physical limitations often call on me to demonstrate more patience than I think I really have. But I am trying. I am trying to maintain patience when I have to repeat a sentence for the third time. I am trying to remain calm when she falls and I have to help her back up to her feet. I am trying to preserve the loveliness of our relationship when she’s slow to follow or comprehend. I am trying to remember that she did all of those things (and more) for me once – when I was unable to stand on my own, make my own way, or understand the world. In the same caring way that she parented me, I am now trying to care for her.

There are days when I really miss the mom I had before. Most days, though, I am really grateful for the mom I still have here with me. Despite the challenges that come with her aging, I know that she is still teaching me valuable lessons – lessons that challenge me to grow in new ways, to develop qualities I wasn’t sure I had, and to become the kind of woman she has always been: full of strength and love.

My mom is different now in many ways. Perhaps so am I. But in a simple picture, I saw the smile I have known my whole life. And, I am reminded of how she is still the same in so many of the ways that really matter.  She is my mom. And I am lucky to have her.

The Art of Conversation

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let's talk
There are a bunch of studies that claim the secret to a long, happy life is found in the relationships we have with other people. A study published in Harvard Medical School’s online newsletter, for example, says that “Dozens of studies have shown that people who have satisfying relationships with family, friends, and their community are happier, have fewer health problems, and live longer.” The article goes on to say that, “Conversely, a relative lack of social ties is associated with depression and later-life cognitive decline, as well as with increased mortality…an effect on mortality risk roughly comparable to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, and greater than obesity and physical inactivity.” And yet, we are a society spending more and more time on our smartphones, increasingly tied to technology, and overwhelmingly hooked on social media. I guess my question is whether or not these ways of communicating will, in the long run, produce the same results. My guess is no.

I was at a restaurant recently with a friend. When he excused himself for a moment, I couldn’t help but notice another couple at the bar. The couple was engaged in conversation – but I use the word “conversation” loosely, as it was more a shared experience over something the man was showing the woman on his smartphone. Why did I notice this? And, so what? Well, the reason that I noticed was that in the 10 minutes my friend was gone, the man never put down the phone. In fact, when her eyes would wander away – perhaps to observe something happening in real time – he would pull her back to the tiny screen. I don’t know what they were watching, but it was clear from his reactions that he had seen whatever it was before (and found it funny). She obviously had not. And since the bar was noisy, I doubt she could hear a lick of it.

My observation of this couple led me to look at others around the same bar. Of the 10 people there, seven were doing something on a smartphone. Only one of those seven was at the bar alone. It is certainly reasonable that some of the folks were responding to a sitter who was texting, or to an email that couldn’t wait. But increasingly, we are a society losing our ability to actually have a conversation with others.

If I think about this topic on a broader scale, and think about my own use of technology to stay connected, I am guilty too. I very often feel “in touch” with someone because I’ve read their Facebook status, or shared a simple text back and forth. But if someone were to ask me how that person is – like how they are really doing on a day to day basis – I’m not sure I’d be qualified to answer that question. I could guess based on the photos they’ve posted, or the emoji they chose to send. But I’d be simply guessing.

The art of conversation is just that: an art. It takes effort and energy to generate a conversation that is enjoyable and meaningful. Moreover, it takes a genuine interest in the other person. A conversation that gets past the weather and into something more personal requires that each person is willing to engage, that there is a mutual trust or willingness to share, and that some kind of connection exists or is possible. It is much more complicated than sharing a status or posting a picture, or even watching TV together.  Sure, we can watch TV, but if you want to use that experience to generate a connection, you’d better ask me what I thought of the show when it’s over, and then share with me what you thought. Otherwise, I could be watching alone and feeling a lot less unfulfilled when it’s over.

My point is this: the world is full of everyday possibilities to connect with other people. We share experiences and opinions that provide that opportunity. Just being in the same place at the same time is a conversation starter, if you are willing to use it. Does it take energy? Yes. It maybe even takes a little creativity. But in the end – if all of those studies are right – the work (and the connections they foster) just may be a lifesaver.

 

Source: https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/strengthen-relationships-for-longer-healthier-life

Priceless lessons from an empty pocket

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helpLast weekend, I was sitting on a train platform waiting for my ride when a seemingly homeless man approached. He was cheerful and friendly and when he smiled, his broken teeth paled in comparison to the light that came from his eyes. Some might argue that he was high or even crazy, but he was honestly the friendliest person I encountered on my walk to the train. As I talked to him, others moved away. Some were probably annoyed that I even entertained the conversation. It was, after all, designed to solicit money from me. But it was also something else: it was an opportunity.

After about five minutes of joke telling and shallow compliment giving, the man finally told me that he hadn’t eaten in three days. He knew a place just upstairs in the train station where he could get a three-sandwich deal. He said that if I could help, he would buy one sandwich for himself and then take the other two to the shelter to share. Who knows if he was telling the truth? Maybe he was.

Here’s my point. I had three dollars left in my pocket from the weekend. I had taken the train into the city, had dinner at a nice restaurant, saw a show, stayed in a comfortable hotel, gone out for breakfast, and purchased a ticket home. And I still had three dollars in my pocket. Before me stood a man in torn clothes, whose teeth were rotten from neglect, who said he hadn’t eaten in three days. He had nothing in his pocket.

Please know that I am not naive. I know that some people who say they are homeless are not. I know that some who are on the streets live there because of drug use or addiction. I know that a series of bad choices often puts people in their place. But I also know that one bad break can be devastating and that not every person is blessed with the opportunities or supports I’ve had. I know that sometimes – despite all the best intentions – people just can’t seem to get it together.

I gave that man my three dollars.

A friend who was traveling with me commented that she couldn’t believe I did that. To those of you who are thinking the same thing, here’s what I offer in response:

Think about the money in your pocket or bank account. Think about the people who love you, who care for you, who make sure you’re ok. Think about the opportunities you’ve had and the blessings you enjoy. And then think about three dollars. Will you miss that three dollars when you go to bed tonight?

My answer to that question was no. In fact, in a day or so I probably won’t even be able to recount all the places I spent my money over the past week. I am lucky to say that three dollars doesn’t make a difference to me. But three dollars? It made a difference to that man.

In my opening paragraph, I mentioned that I was given an opportunity. Some may be thinking that the opportunity to which I refer was a chance to help. It was. But it was also so much more than that. My interaction with that stranger – a man I will never see again – gave me the opportunity to count my blessings. It was a chance for me to further train my brain to be more thankful. At this time of year, that seems especially important. But a happy person is one who cultivates an attitude of gratitude all year long.  Three dollars seems like a bargain for that reminder.

Oh … and for three dollars I also got a pretty funny joke. Feel free to share it at your holiday parties.

How do you know Will Smith was out walking in the snow? You could see his fresh prints.

Merry Christmas, friends. May good blessings be obvious to you in the new year.

 

 

Not waiting for the eulogy

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883DE4FF-0D2B-4219-AE3A-C55918267876Earlier this fall I attended a funeral. The mother of a dear friend had passed. In typical fashion, time in the service was dedicated to recalling parts of her life; things about who she was. But as the priest began, he said something that’s been prompting reflection now for several weeks.

In preparation for the eulogy, the priest reported that he had asked the family about their departed loved one. “But don’t tell me the things I would read in an obituary,” he said to them. “I can read those things. Tell me about the special things – the things that made you love her; the things you admired about her.”

As I listened to the remainder of the eulogy, I heard so many wonderful things about my friend’s mom. Her qualities and positive traits were highlighted and celebrated in the most beautiful way. Her heart and soul were alive in the comments. But as I listened, I  also couldn’t help but wonder if anyone ever celebrated those qualities with her while she was alive. Did she know that people felt that way … that those parts of her personality made such an impact?

It is quite possible that my friend’s family told their mom how wonderful she was all the time. It may be true that they shared their admiration with her or even thanked her for certain things she did to routinely make a difference in their lives. I have no doubt that she knew she was loved. But what I wonder is why it often takes something like death for us to think about – and acknowledge out loud – those characteristics that we admire in another.

I had another friend who used to be the best at sharing reasons for loving someone with them. In the middle of a conversation, she would easily find a way to deliver a compliment to point out something she admired in me. Now that she’s passed, I so often remember the things she praised. And because she was so specific, she helped me to further nurture those qualities in myself.  I not only knew that she loved me, I knew why. What a gift that was.

Why is it so hard for us to be specific about our love? Why does honest expression so often feel awkward or embarrassing?

As Thanksgiving and the holiday season approach, many of us take extra time to reflect on our blessings. Perhaps what I am suggesting is that instead of privately counting the things for which we are grateful, that we make an effort to share that gratitude with others. Say out loud what you admire in a friend or loved one; maybe even write a note to call out a quality you find inspiring or refreshing in another. If someone makes a difference in your life, maybe tell them how or why. My guess is that your sentiment may be the greatest gift they get this year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Moment of Impact

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impactI was recently talking with a friend of mine who is an avid golfer. He loves the game, practices religiously, and is committed to bettering his skills. As we talked, he educated me a lot about the various clubs in his bag and about the essential elements of his swing. But he said one thing, in particular, that sort of stuck in my head. He said, in relation to the initial drive, that he’s seen a good number of golfers who position themselves into what appears to be a very strong drive. They have the right stance, the right arm and body position, and know how to hold the club. But, he said, for some reason, they slow their swing right at the very moment the club is set to hit the ball. That single moment of hesitation leads to a less than desired result.

In golf or in any other endeavor, I am led to think about how we respond right before any critical moment; that moment when the club hits the ball, if you will. That moment is the last of its kind. After it passes – and depending on how we respond – the future is shaped. That moment of impact is a defining moment. It sets our course.

If we move off the golf course, I think we see life moments like this all the time. Anytime we’ve invested ourselves into something, there comes a moment when our commitment and follow-through are tested. Can you think of a time when you second guessed something for just a moment and lost momentum? Perhaps a quick hesitation in an answer or an action changed the course of your life? I can certainly think of more than one time where I stepped up to hit the ball – and I mean I was really ready to whack it – and then, in that critical moment, I choked.

I’m not casting any judgement on moments of hesitation. Certainly, there are times when something just doesn’t feel right. The universe sort of sends signs about a need to slow down or change course. What I am wondering about, however, are those moments of hesitation caused by fear. How often do we come fully prepared for something after giving it lots of thought or practice and then fail to deliver on our follow-through? How often do we maybe not commit to hitting that ball as hard as we could because we are afraid?

I guess that’s the “think-about.” In the critical moments, do we let fear slow us down or somehow alter our potential? Or, are we able to position ourselves to take the swing with the original impact we intended? I think the answer probably offers us something really meaningful to consider.

Letting Go

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I’ve been thinking for several years now about getting a tattoo. Now in my 40’s, I still worry about what my dad will say. But my delayed ink is more the result of being unable to commit to something that will be with me until the day I die. Funny, actually, since I have real trouble ever truly letting go of anything. Why would a permanent mark on my body instill such hesitation?

I think the answer to that question lies more in the fact that I just get bored too damn easily. I’m afraid that I’ll choose something, look at it every day, and in time grow to hate it because it never changes or evolves. I’m afraid it will bore me. Last month, however, I purchased and wore a temporary tattoo that I think will finally inspire the piece I get inscribed on my skin. The design is a somewhat ornate depiction of two simple words: “Let Go.”

After a decade of more of just thinking about the idea of a tattoo, why would two simple words speak to me so clearly and convincingly? Perhaps it has something to do with a quote by Shannon Adler that I recently read and loved: “Your heart’s strength is measured by how hard it holds on. Your self-worth and faith is measured by finally letting go.”

Lord knows my heart is strong. I have held on to ideas, to things, to people – in many instances – much longer than they held me back. And with that deep urge to hold on, I have maybe sacrificed pieces of myself that I will never reclaim. It’s ok. They have made me who I am. And I believe my capacity to love is stronger and greater than it has ever been.

But it’s time to reclaim my faith and to remember my self-worth. When I pause to think about the things I’ve held on to for so long, I am prompted to question what motivated me to do so. I think in situations like that, we often romanticize the reason for holding on as love, as some once-in-a-lifetime connection, or as some duty we have to an idea or person. But fear is probably the more accurate cause for holding onto something that no longer serves us well. What if we let go and aren’t any happier? What if things change and I make a mistake? What if … what if … what if?

Instead of the viewing the “what if” as a negative and scary thing, I am motivated to take a good look at the “what if” as a completely positive possibility. This means, as the author of my quote suggested, taking those leaps of faith, diminishing my need to control every single thing, and being ok with not always being ok. Every chance we take is the beginning of something new; a chance to learn more about ourselves and the world around us. The greatest beginnings – as they say – are often found in the endings of something else.

What things have you been wanting to let go of? What chances might you take if you could relinquish the need to control what would happen? How much more satisfying might your life be if you could just “let go”?

 

 

The Habit of Love

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Like many, I am a huge fan of the show This is Us. More often than I could say, a line from the show causes me to pause, to think, to reflect, to wonder. Last night’s finale was no different. But before this turns into a blog about a TV show, let me shift my focus to the line that prompted this blog. One character to another said, “Next time you tell me that you love me, make sure it’s not out of habit.”

People who love me have heard me ask, “Why do you love me?” I don’t ask that question because I want to hear a list of things someone else admires in me. Nor do I want to hear the person go on and on about the qualities they see in me that make me outstanding to them in some way. Rather, I ask the question for the very reason the line in the show was stated. That is, because I believe it is important to know why you love someone. After all, if love is an active verb (as I’ve often written it is), shouldn’t we be actively aware of what it is in a person that makes us love them?

I have to wonder how many people are in relationships where the cause of their love is somehow lost. Certainly, as people grow and change, some of the qualities we fall in love with in the beginning of a relationship may also change – in both good and bad ways. Therefore, instead of simply getting in the habit of routinely saying “I love you,” day after day, month after month, year after year, I think it is important to reflect on our love for another person from time to time. I believe that reflection is an act of love in itself. It gives us a much greater awareness of why we love someone well beyond the reasons we fell for them in the first place. And then, when we say “I love you,” it is a confident statement rooted in the present, instead of something buried in habit and obligation for which the cause may no longer even be known.

Lots of people stay together or even get back together because they share a history. And certainly, those shared experiences bond us to another person in a meaningful way. But like the character on the show, I don’t want someone to stick around because times were once good or because they once saw something in me worth loving. Love simply cannot be that complacent. Moreover and perhaps even more importantly, I believe that active reflection about love leads to gratitude. And so when I feel annoyed because he forgot to call, or because he left a spoon in the sink, my active reflection about why I love him reminds me that the spoon wasn’t that important after all.

Three words said casually between people who’ve been together for a while can often feel routine. We get in the habit of saying them almost mindlessly. But I’d argue that the words “I love you” probably make us more vulnerable than anything we say to another person. When we say them, I believe they should be said with intention and without doubt that love is an action, promoted by something we can identify and appreciate. So tell people you love them. But once in a while tell them why. That why is a celebration not only of the love that exists, but also of the people who make it come alive.