The Dragonfly

Dragonfly

I have a friend who lost her baby boy shortly after he was born. It was an incredibly sad and gut wrenching time for her and her family, but she somehow managed to find great courage and a noble spirit from deep inside her soul during the frightening time when her child fought to stay alive. Her acts of love in the little boy’s final moments were touching, inspirational and heart breaking to all of us who know her. In a beautiful act of remembrance this devoted mother has never forgotten her baby boy who would have been six years old had he lived, a child who might have been entering first grade and embarking on educational and athletic adventures. With each passing year the family holds a celebration of his brief life with a visit to his gravesite and a birthday cake marking the passing of time during which they have never forgotten the blessings that he brought them with his very condensed life. This year was no exception, and my darling friend recorded the tradition with photos on Facebook and a lovely story that seemed to make the occasion even more special than ever.

This woman is a school administrator, and this is a very busy time of year for her thus she had waited until the last minute to purchase a little birthday cake to commemorate her angel son. When she went to the bakery at the grocery store that she frequents the cake decorators had all gone home for the day. The only available cakes were generic and she wanted so much to have her little boy’s name written on the confection. When she told her story to the employees they went into action determined to grant her request, even though none of them had ever written with icing before. They scurried around until they had found the frosting and the tools that they needed, and practiced scribing before finally feeling confident enough to place the baby’s name on the cake of remembrance. It was a moment of shared love and respect between strangers who had come to understand one another all because of a little boy whose life, however brief, had somehow transformed his family and friends.

Life can be glorious if we open ourselves to it, and my friend has certainly done that. She understands perhaps a bit better than many of us that we have to embrace and experience every possible second of the beauty of our existence. She has turned her hurt and pain into a model of compassion for everyone that she encounters. Her caring spirit is so apparent that she impacts people wherever she goes. She has learned through tragedy how truly important people and relationships are. She cherishes each precious second of every day, and turns her world into a moveable feast of joy.

We humans sometimes have a tendency to lose faith and bathe ourselves in anger and jealousy. We compare our lot to others and often find ourselves lacking, so we brood over our desire for things that we believe that we too should have. Rather than finding ways to enjoy what is present, we seek more and more. Sometimes that quest actually binds us to a never ending search for satisfaction that makes us anxious and unfulfilled. We somehow never stop long enough to take stock of the most wondrous aspects of our lives, and so we fret and worry and become convinced that we have somehow been battered by unfairness.

Our real riches are always found in those profound moments when we are able to connect in an almost spiritual manner with the people around us. The Sunday afternoon visit of a grandchild delighting us with her uncomplicated curiosity and discovery is worth more than a bag of gold. Hearing her laugh and observing her openness to the world reminds us of how we too should live. We feel the innocence and love that she radiates so unconditionally and we know that there is still great hope for the world, even in the darkest hours.

I suspect that those employees who went out of their way to help a mom who had experienced one of the most difficult losses that anyone must endure left work on that day feeling as though they had been given a special gift. They understood that somehow they had made a difference to my friend and her family, and that kind of feeling is the stuff of which our greatest joys are made. At the end of any day each of us needs to know that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, so we should always be open to the possibilities that are always there. The way we choose to react from moment to moment provides us with the opportunity to truly embrace life and the people that we encounter. If we smile rather than frown, strive to help rather than hinder, love rather than hate we make the changes that will ultimately bring us the happiness that we seek.

My dear friend has taken great sadness and disappointment and turned it into an act of supreme love. She has shown us all how to value and remember even the briefest moments of joy. She might have been bitter and enraged over the loss of her beautiful child, but she has instead transformed her hurt and pain into a beautiful lesson for all of us. the dragon fly has become her personal symbol of her angel child. Like that graceful and delicate insect, little Jhett was not long for this world, but in his brief time on earth he gave so much joy to those who loved him. Because of the realizations that came to my friend as she held that tiny baby in her arms she has gone beyond the superficialities of life and understands its deeper meanings. With elegance and grace she dazzles all of us with the clarity with which she has learned to view life by living so fully in the moment and appreciating every second of every day. We might all learn from her and begin to treasure what has always been all around us without our ever noticing. 

   

Escape from the Rat Race

ratrace1The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat. – Lily Tomlin

I was a full fledged member of the rat race for most of my life. I’d leave home before sunrise and often did not return until after dark. I would hurriedly throw together dinner or maybe even bring home burgers or fried chicken if I was really tired. Most evenings I graded papers and did lesson planning until nine or ten while running loads of wash and getting my daughters settled with their homework. My husband Mike was engaged in a similar whirlwind of work activity during the week. On weekends we cleaned, mowed and repaired and somehow managed to find a bit of time for visiting with friends and family. So it went year after year until we one day ended our labors and retired.

We were not unlike most of the people that we knew. Everyone was seemingly rushing somewhere, part of that great rat race that consumes so much of our lives. Little wonder that at the end of our toil we had grown fat and out of shape. Being healthy takes time and attention and we were barely able to fit all of our responsibilities into our calendars. The prospect of spending time that we didn’t have to shop for healthy foods and then prepare them was overwhelming, and so we often opted for frozen items that allowed us to just pop our dinner into the oven without additional effort. The weight came on us in such small increments that we hardly noticed the real expansion of our girths.

Now and again we resolved to do better. We joined Weight Watchers online or paid for membership in an exercise program or a gym. We’d do well for a time and then a rush of activities would overtake our best intentions. Those night time meetings at school or the big project at work stole away yet a bit more of our time. We were exhausted from juggling so many balls and running so constantly. It was easier to set our personal goals aside and just go with the flow that always felt so hectic but was at least familiar.

I’d get a routine of weekend meal preparation going and my mother would become ill. I’d have to tend to her needs rather than spending time in my kitchen being a nutritionist. I’d try again and again but there always seemed to be something that was more demanding of my attention. I’d just keep running on that little hamster wheel telling myself that one day I would finally find the time to do the kinds of things that would make me a stronger, healthier person. Of course that day never really came, at least not until I was face to face with a life and death situation. At that point I understood the folly of my ways.

I’ve spoken of my new found efforts to concentrate more on the well being of my body and that of my husband. His stroke has shown us that a lifetime of running at full tilt and ignoring the warning signs that we were abusing our health has lead to conditions that need not have occurred. We may be a day late and a dollar short, but now we are changing our ways in earnest. Still I have to wonder why we ignored this incredibly important facet of living for so long. In the name of being good employees, faithful family members and loyal friends we time and again put our own needs behind everyone and everything else. In retrospect it was a foolish choice.

I am reminded of the instructions for flying in which the adult passengers are always told to put the oxygen on themselves before helping their children. The reason is quite simple. If the adult passes out, he/she is of little use to the youngster. In other words it is up to each of us to prioritize the healthful habits that we need so that we will then be able to take care of everything else. If only our society emphasized this important idea regarding our health as well as the airlines do with respect to oxygen perhaps we would all be better. Sadly we openly encourage participation in the rat race as the ultimate goal of life.

I have worked for many different organizations and bosses. Some of them understood the importance of maintaining a healthy balance between work and personal needs. They were compassionate with employees who required time to heal themselves and even encouraged everyone to take care of home life first. On the other hand I have been employed by people who seemed to believe that the best workers were the ones who were willing to sacrifice home, hearth and family for the good of the firm. They voraciously ate up most of the hours in the day and chastised anyone who dared to suggest that the work was not their main priority. I watched the employees in such places fall apart both physically and mentally. Unfortunately it is not all that uncommon for people to find themselves in situations that slowly but surely begin to beat them down.

I know all too well how difficult it is to be an exemplary employee, an outstanding parent, a good daughter, a devoted wife and also someone who cares for herself. I have been a bonafide member of the rat race and I know how debilitating it can be. In the midst of the daily run it is often difficult to even know where the pack is leading. We just follow out of habit and tell ourselves that it is the right thing to do because we have been taught from birth to follow that old ethic that we achieve success through hard work, discipline and sacrifice. The trouble is that we  misinterpreted the idea when we set aside the aspects of living that make our bodies and minds function more efficiently.

One thing that I appreciate about the younger generation is that more of them appear to understand the importance of good nutrition and regular exercise. They create blocks of time to take care of themselves and that is a very good routine to develop. I have a grandson for example who schedules his time in the gym just as he does his college classes. Exercising is a regular part of his day that is as important to him as eating, sleeping and studying. If he maintains those kind of habits for a lifetime I suspect that he will have fewer health problems later. He is quite wise to set his priorities now so that they become second nature.

I suppose that it is never too late to change and I am certainly in the process of doing so. I’ve learned from my own mistakes and I don’t plan to turn back. If I were to give a single bit of advice to those of you who still find yourselves being torn asunder by the stresses of daily living, it would be to jealously guard  the special times devoted to the sole purpose of making yourselves healthier in body and mind. You may have to learn how to say no to some of the multitude of requests that come your way, but stand tall and don’t let anyone intimidate you. Step away from the rat race and you will finally see the road ahead.   

Stubby

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Who knew that a tiny gecko was capable of bringing so much joy? No, I’m not speaking of the Geico gecko even though he is a rather dashing fellow. I am referring to a resident of our backyard whom we have named Stubby.

Stubby lives underneath a potted hibiscus plant that sits on top of two bricks on our patio. We first noticed him several weeks ago when he found the confidence to come out from the safely of his abode to sun himself while we ate dinner. Part of his tail was missing and not even the passage of time has remedied his affliction like we thought it might. He’s a rather ordinary fellow all in all but he has a charisma that draws our attention to his antics. Since we eat outside most evenings we now look for him, and so far he has not failed to greet us.

He is quite fond of entertaining us by climbing onto the seat of a wrought iron chair near his domicile. Once he reaches his perch he celebrates by puffing up his mouth until it reveals a brilliant red color. He’s a bit of a show off but that’s actually what makes him so much fun to observe. He’s quite a character with a penchant for being a star. We’ve noticed a number of tiny offspring wandering not too far from him and wonder if he is their proud father.

I suppose that it may sound a bit sad or even crazy that we derive so much joy from Stubby, but our interest is easily explained. We’ve had quite a round of trauma of late. We’ve had to change our lifestyles as well as our outlooks. We’ve come to appreciate the blessings that we have, and one of them is having a remarkable creature like Stubby right in our own backyard. We are actually quite happy that he has so graciously accepted our hospitality. I suppose that his antics are one way that he demonstrates his gratitude for our largesse.

I worried a bit about Stubby when our grand dog Cooper came to visit recently. I didn’t know if the little pup would chase or harm our resident gecko. Luckily Cooper is a bit overweight and as a result slow on his feet. If he even noticed Stubby he didn’t let on. Instead he ran straight for the fence where our neighbors’ dog greeted him with a bark. He proceeded to mark his territory and let out a warning salvo. After that he simply went in that direction every time we let him out just to see what was happening next door.

Cooper is quite fun in spite of his lack of athleticism. He is a very polite and laid back dog so he doesn’t perform any daring feats like Stubby, but he has the warm heart of a lover. He likes to sit next to my husband Mike and only requires a little scratch or two now and again for thanks. I suspect that he is still pining a bit for his brother dog Shane who recently crossed the Rainbow Bridge. We try to be very accommodating to Cooper’s every need in this difficult time for him. Mostly he’s willing to placate us as long as we feed him at the correct time.

It is little wonder that even soldiers with PTSD are often advised to get a service dog for companionship. Pets have a way of diffusing stress in the most amazing ways. They make us laugh and fascinate us so well that we forget the cares and woes that may be demanding our attention. They are actually as good at making us feel better as a cocktail of psychotropic drugs. I don’t advocate eliminating medications in favor of a pet, but I think that adding them to the pharmaceutical mix is a powerful antidote to anxiety and sadness. I know that it works quite well for me just to allow myself to be almost hypnotized by the things that they do so well.

Birds also have an incredible capacity to  bring us peace of mind. We have a single hummingbird that flits from one side of the yard to another. His speed is so remarkable that sometimes it’s difficult to keep up with him. I never fail to smile when I see this wonderful creature, but my favorite among the feathered friends is a dove who perches on our roof and sometimes dares to get rather close to us as he balances on the rim of our fountain preening himself and partaking of a drink. I like hearing his cooing which is as soft and comforting as a lullaby. He has a mate that has been absent of late. I wonder if she has been busy nesting or raising her young. I long for her return because the two of them are so much more magnificent together. I hope that she has not run afoul of some terrible injury, but for now I have no way of knowing what has happened to her.

We’ve got a rather impressive colony of bumblebees in our yard contrary to the thinking that they are almost extinct. I managed to step on one a while back and learned that I am allergic to its venom. I got quite dizzy and my tongue began to swell. Sadly I suspect that my attacker didn’t do so well either. I felt guilty for walking around without shoes and causing the demise of a worker who was only doing the job that came naturally. Now I am more careful as I stroll through the grass. I know that the lovely flowers that adorn my garden are enhanced by the bees who spread pollen even as they enjoy the nectar.

I’ve often thought that I might have enjoyed a lifetime of interacting with animals. ( I can hear my teaching colleagues laughing as they think that maybe I did work on an animal farm now and again. Of course I’m just kidding.)  Nature’s creatures can be so very interesting and I think they actually teach us a bit about ourselves. They remind us to enjoy the beauty and variety of the natural world. They demonstrate how much bounty is to be found in the plants, the trees, the sun and the rain that we all too often take for granted and don’t even notice. They invite us to slow down and live a bit in the moment so that the scales that are blinding us from seeing our blessings fall from our eyes.

I know that Stubby will one day reach the end of his days on our patio. I’ll be a bit sad when he no longer joins us for dinner. He’s helped me to deal with situations that are so difficult with a much bigger smile on my face than might otherwise not have been there. He’s adorable and I’d like to believe that he likes us as much as we like him. Of course I understand his anatomy and realize that he does not have the capacity for such feelings, but I guess that if a gecko can become a television celebrity, so too is it reasonable to think that maybe just maybe Stubby knows that he is bringing us happiness. Either way I’m just glad that he is here right now. He’s the right guy in the right place at the right time.

The Very Best Way

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There are so many things in life over which we have little or no control. Rain may ruin the outdoor party that we planned. A loved one may die leaving us feeling alone and bereft. We may not get the job that we so wanted to land. The candidate that we worked so hard to get elected loses. Someone we thought was a friend betrays us. We may be diagnosed with a life threatening disease. A criminal steals from us or even worse murders someone about whom we care.

Each of us will face terrible moments throughout our lifetimes that have the potential to leave us feeling devastated and powerless. We will find ourselves wanting to whine or cry or rage about our bad luck, but the truth is that we are not alone in facing great challenges. It is part of the human journey to encounter difficulties. It is our reaction to such things that determines how we will feel about ourselves and the people around us. If our only thoughts are of anger or self pity we may be continually whining that life is unfair. If on the other hand we accept that everyone faces disappointments, we might instead think less about our misfortune and more about what we might do to deal with the realities of the situations.

Last fall I learned that one of my favorite cousins was dying. He had battled heart disease for decades and had tried multiple medications, surgeries and life style changes. His doctors told him that he had run out of options. His heart was failing and there was nothing anyone might do to change that reality. He was sent home to spend his final days. Amazingly whenever I spoke with him he kept his ever present sense of humor and made me laugh in spite of wanting to cry for him. He spent his last days saying his goodbyes to the people that he most loved. He prepared for his passing in every possible way, and made it clear that he was ready for what was to come.

I always loved my cousin. We had shared our childhood together and had so many stories of the fun times that we had experienced. I knew that he was a very special person, but I found myself nonetheless in awe of his faith and the way in which he so unselfishly gave so many of us the gift of peace and comfort. He had taken what might have been a horrific time and somehow transformed it into something beautiful and inspiring. In the process he had actually seized control of his life rather than allowing his circumstances to dictate his reactions.

My own life has been disrupted on so many occasions. Losing my father was life changing, but my mother demonstrated so much courage and determination to keep our family safe that I was able to keep moving forward with a sense of security. Later when she was overtaken by bipolar disorder I was  given a role that I did not want. I was put in charge of her care by default. I made a number of mistakes, but ultimately learned how to get her the help that she needed and how to monitor her progress. It was neither fun nor easy to spend four decades watching her go up and down again and again, but I knew that I would always be able to get her back on the right track if I did what I had to do. Eventually my brothers joined me in keeping her as healthy as possible. As a result our memories of our mother are filled with far more happiness than sorrow. We found a sense of accomplishment in knowing that we never let her down.

Now I’m faced with a new challenge. My husband had a stroke that was quite serious. My first instinct was to cry and feel quite sorry for myself, but ultimately I understood that the only aspect of the situation that I might control is my own attitude. I’m doing whatever I can to encourage him to adopt a healthier lifestyle, and I’m determined to enjoy each minute of each day. I’ve quickly learned that true joy comes from within myself, and I am finding ways to bring it into the open in the very simplest of ways.

We all get those terrible blows that seem to be so unfair, and it is only natural for our first reactions to be negative. Sometimes it appears to us that other people have it so much easier than we do. The truth is that when we begin to learn more about others we generally find that everyone is dealing with pain, illness, problems. The people who seem to be the happiest are often that way mostly because they have chosen to smile rather than to wallow in negativity. They understand that they have choices about how to live, and they choose joy.

At the end of her life my mother had little of material consequence. She kept her life quite simple  often out of necessity. She had lost her husband at the age of thirty. She battled mental illness for decades. She was told that she had lung cancer that was too far advanced to treat. A lesser person might have felt beset upon, but she continually spoke of how blessed she had been throughout her life. She was proud of her accomplishments that included raising three children alone all of whom had advanced college degrees. She loved the members of her family and was confident that they would always stand beside her, and she was absolutely correct in that assessment. She spoke of her adventures and travels with a big smile. She felt that hers had been a full and remarkable journey. She was as satisfied and content as she might have been if she had accumulated vast amounts of power and wealth. She had all that she ever needed, because she had chosen to be the mistress of her thoughts.

I have a friend who is attempting to simplify his life. During the month of July he began to remove many of the possessions that seemed to be occupying far too much of his time and attention. Each day of the month he donated the number of items that corresponded to the date. By the end of the cycle he was scrambling to find thirty one things that he no longer needs. It was such a freeing experience that he plans to repeat the process in August and until he no longer feels as though possessions are impeding his happiness. I think that his is a delightful idea that all of us might consider, and we might also begin to apply it to our attitudes as well.

If we feel as though life is terribly unfair and that we are continually on the wrong end of luck, then maybe it’s time that we begin to change the way that we think about our situations. We need to ask ourselves what we might adjust or do to reorient ourselves. Perhaps we might begin with small steps and then slowly accelerate our efforts as time goes by until our attitudes begin to lean toward the positive exponentially. To do that we will need to be as good to ourselves as we are to the people around us. We have to be willing to extend our sphere of kindness to everyone.

It may take time for the dividends to pay off, but when we begin to see that we really do have the power to determine our own destinies everything becomes more beautiful, even in the midst of trouble. We will learn how to refocus our fears and our pain and our anger in ways that make us feel good about ourselves. We will begin to view the world from a perspective that makes us feel powerful rather than powerless. Those who have mastered this art will tell you that it is the very best way to live.

Honesty

deep-sorrowI do my best to maintain an optimistic outlook on life, particularly in public. I often write about how to enjoy the simple aspects of existence and speak of the positive effect that my faith has on me. Recently my husband had a stroke that has profoundly changed our lives. He has a seventy percent blockage in his brain that is not treatable, so the possibility of his having another stroke is strong. In his first foray he was lucky enough to be in the company of our entire family and was near a great hospital. There were no residual effects of the attack, so now he is driving again and performing most of the tasks that he did before the incident. Still, his doctor has warned us that the possibility of a second stroke in the ninety days after the first one is very high. All in all this news has left both of us floundering, but determined to do whatever it takes to keep him healthy.

With the support and love of friends and family we are attempting to carry on and enjoy each moment of each day with a new appreciation. I am not one to surrender to challenges and so the fighter in me has come to the fore. So many people have mentioned how wonderful and inspiring I appear to be. This worries me just a bit because I imagine that other folks who are also struggling with horrific situations may misunderstand my strength and wonder why they don’t seem to be able to muster the courage and hopefulness that I demonstrate. I suspect that in my quest to never surrender to the dark feelings that creep into my mind, I may have inadvertently presented a picture of myself that is not complete. Because I strive to be honest and to help those who are really hurting I think that it is important for me to unveil some of the angst and horror that has stalked me since the day that I saw my husband lying helplessly on the floor.

I’m not nearly as brave as I sometimes appear to be. I’m about as human as they come and as such I have been shaken to the very depths of my soul. There have been moments when I had never ending conversations with God in which I was generally begging Him to lift the burdens from my shoulders. Eventually those prayers became less and less demanding and finally led me to ask for the strength to do whatever I need to do. First, however, I had to rage at the heavens. Thankfully I believe that God is quite understanding about our weaknesses. Before I was able to hand myself back over to Him I went through a very dark period of doubt and fear. It is what most of us do. It is part of our makeup to question and falter. He waits patiently for us to trust Him once again.

I have spent quite a bit of time inside my closet feeling very sorry for myself as I wailed in grief for all that I thought that I had lost. My confidence was shaken. My plans were dashed. I was afraid and angry and confused. I felt as though I would not be able to take another breath. I also felt guilty for being so selfish at a time when my husband needed me so. I chided myself for even considering my own feelings. It took me quite a long time to sort things out in my mind and compose myself once again.

I have always been a control freak. I abhor situations that are uncertain. The specter of a future that I cannot plan is unnerving and for a time it paralyzed me. I thought of my life as being over in a sense. I felt that the joy that I had shared with my husband in our travels would be a thing of the past. I imagined us living in a chronic state of panic. I was intensely jealous of family and friends who had the luxury of continuing their lives as though nothing had happened. I felt very alone and vulnerable.

I knew that it would be impossible to continue along such a path of despair. I slowly began to use my talents and resources to regain a semblance of control over our lives. I know that I can’t repair the occlusion in my husband’s brain, but I am able to create a diet that will help him to lose weight and keep his blood pressure low. I have the power to support him as he takes his medications and to keep our home as happy as possible. I have had to remind myself of my own belief that the best moments in life are actually the simple pleasures that come our way. I have begun to rejoice over dinners in our backyard, times with family, pleasant moments with friends. I try to find something upbeat about each day and mostly I have learned to express the loving feelings that I have for people as soon as I experience them.

One thing I know for sure is how very much I love my husband. I feel almost as though we are dating again. I like holding his hand and smiling at him. I find that spending time with him is what is most important  right now, no matter where we go or what we do. It’s funny how just sharing a joke or walking together makes both of us incredibly happy. A trip to Walmart can be as much fun as an extravagant trip.

I count my blessings literally every second now. I try not to let the inevitable irritations that come my way bother me, but now and again I lose my cool. I still find myself worrying more than I should but I’ve learned to be kind to myself. I am far more conscious of other people and my empathy for their suffering has increased a hundredfold. I spend my time controlling what I can and letting go of the rest. For now I need so little. All of the things that I dreamed of one day owning seem rather inconsequential. On some days I feel as though I am floating aimlessly in shark infested waters, and I try not to be fearful. A bit of bad news here and there has the power of sending me back to my closet to cry, but I know now that I will somehow somewhere find the strength to come back out and face the demons that stalk me.

I am no better nor any stronger than anyone else. I make the same mistakes and have the same questions that have plagued humans for eternity. I try to think less of myself and more about others. I rein in my tendencies to overthink the future. Right now I am fragile but I am also strong. Thus is the irony of the human spirit.

I appreciate the compliments that my friends shower upon me. They really do help me to keep going. The people who truly care about me have been indispensable. They have encouraged me and helped me to understand that we are never as alone as we might imagine. There is much goodness in the world if only we ask. Sometimes we need that helping hand and most people are only too willing to extend it. We just have to be willing to admit that none of us are capable of being perennial towers of strength.

I am fine for now, but I am quite certain that something will come along to shake my resolve once again,. I will try to remember that it is okay to lose one’s way from time to time. The important thing is to face the emotions that work to bring us down. In admitting our weaknesses we actually become stronger, and we learn how to overcome the feelings that are holding us back from being our best selves. As for me, I am choosing to find the beauty in my new situation and to grab whatever joy I might find. Time slips by far too quickly to spend it in a state of dread or pessimism, but we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves when we temporarily fall victim to an horrific case of the blues. So long as we do our best to cope with whatever situation we are facing, we will make it again and again.