Paying For My Sins

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I spent most of January recovering from the parade of birthdays, anniversaries and holidays that actually began with my husband Mike’s birthday way back in September. For whatever reason our family has very little to do for most of the year and then we go into overdrive in the fall. The temptations that come from celebratory occasions overtook us during the last few months, making our sensible diets only a memory and pulling us from our exercise program with a vengeance. The result has been terrible backsliding and an increased girth around our midsections. Never to be undone by anything or anyone I have found myself working hard for the past several weeks to recuperate from my sins of indulgence.

I teeter between guilt for my inability to look the other way when temptations of cookies, wines and other delights continually passed my lips during the many weeks of revelry and the thought that life is short and I should grab every second of enjoyment while I am able. Still, I do feel better when I am kinder to my body and it always seems worthwhile to have a bit of control over my impulses. Surely there is a nice compromise between total abstinence in the face of goodies and a bit of imbibing in the name of having a good time. Sadly walking that very thin line is not as easy as it may seem and while I expended a great deal of effort doing so, I found myself failing to maintain control time and again when faced with cornucopias of delight .

There’s a commercial for something or another in which a woman is preparing for a dinner party. She is cooking a multitude of dishes to accommodate the dietary preferences of her expected guests. There’s this one on Keto, that one on Paleo, and so forth. I’ve lately experienced the same frustration in putting together a meal so I know the feeling of attempting to make everyone happy. It results in having mountains of different kinds of food at the ready just in case. Being a hostess is becoming ever more complex which is why I try not to foist my own food preferences on others whenever I am invited to gatherings.

As a child I was taught to be satisfied with whatever was offered. My mother suggested that if I wasn’t sure that I really wanted to eat some item I should either take none of it or just choose a small dab of it until I was certain that I would actually be able to eat all of it. Never was I to make comments about what I preferred or disliked. I’ve remembered my manners well over the years and self police myself when out and about rather than regaling others with long descriptions of my current eating needs or preferences. I always find something that works for me or I eat small portions so that nobody is aware that I am on a different sort of diet.

I appreciate that there are many different reasons why some people need certain types of food. My father-in-law is diabetic so I always prepare items that work for him. I have a nephew who has food allergies and his mom, a pediatrician, brings goodies that he can eat so that the rest of the children can have their cakes and cookies while he enjoys his own. I’ve begun to cook with mostly spices rather than salt due to my husband’s heart disease so I always keep a shaker of salt on the table for those accustomed to a bit more punch. I have started to include more roasted vegetables in my menu but I have many fans of my macaroni and cheese as well whom I never deny. In other words I try to create a variety of foods that will take almost every person’s preferences into account.

I love the traditions of our family celebrations but because there are so many one after another I am piling on the calories in a regular succession from September all the way through the first week of January. Each year I have to spend the next many months trying to recoup the progress that I had made with diet and exercise. Like the sinusoidal graphs of trigonometry I go up and down in a regular pattern each and every year. Some call it the yo-yo effect and I am subject to it’s unhealthy effects. I go down and then I go up, down and up, over and over again from year to year. My only small defense of my actions is that I always get myself back in shape. Nonetheless, I often dream of having so much self control that I breeze through the holidays with my healthy intentions thoroughly intact.

I’m like a monk these days, eating mostly vegetables and fruit, avoiding salty, sugary, fatty foods. I’ve closed the rings on my Apple watch for many days now. I make walks and trips to the gym a top priority. My progress is slow but steady and perhaps by next September I will have recuperated from my self inflicted overindulgence. I make resolutions to have more self control when the season of joy rolls around again, but I do love my brother’s pecan pie and my own pumpkin variety. Surely it won’t matter much if I yield a little here and there as long as I don’t overdo. Perhaps if I’m a bit better at measuring just how much turkey and dressing to put on my plate I will be okay, but it’s just so yummy that I want to go back for seconds.

I have made a vow that if I show signs of living as long as my one hundred eight year old grandfather did I will follow his example. When he turned ninety he threw all caution to the wind. He did and ate exactly what pleased him laughing at the idea that something was most surely going to take him out of this world so he might as well enjoy the final ride. He eked out eighteen more years while feeling no guilt when he ate cake and donuts. I like his thinking.

For now I am recuperating from my sins and I have to admit I am also feeling good. I’ll continue my self imposed restrictions and think about how to deal with future temptations tomorrow. Maybe this is the year when I finally learn how to be good and stick with my resolve. 

Alarms

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For most of my life I was ruled by alarms. I literally began each week day with a ring of some kind rudely awakening me from slumbers. Each morning I would struggle to drag myself out of the warmth and comfort of my bed and I felt sluggish and churlish for hours as I prepared for my duties either as a student, an employee, or a mom. I dreamed of a time when I would no longer be ruled by an ever demanding clock. I fantasized about mornings stretched out past nine or ten in a state of blissful sleep.

Ironically now that I rarely have an early morning appointment or deadline I find myself waking up well before the sun has even risen without the aid of any bells or whistles or buzzers. My body clock is all that I need and it happily pushes me from my bed with a kind of eagerness that I never experienced when outside forces were demanding that I leave my home before the sun had even arisen each day. It now only takes a few sips of my morning tea for my brain to begin working in tiptop form. I have created a new routine for the start of the day that is blissful because it is of my own design. My first few hours are packed with rather quiet activities that strengthen my soul, my mind and my body. Retirement now allows me the time to heal myself and ponder more on others. I have no need of an alarm to notify me that it is time to leave the comfort of my bed because I am excited about the quiet possibilities that lie ahead of each day.

I am an inveterate introvert. I gain strength from quiet contemplation, time to meditate on worries and concerns and determine solutions for them. I suppose that my big city lifestyle of rushing here and there each morning before I gained my present independence worked against my need for time for myself. Somehow I made it work but there was an underlying anxiety lurking inside my soul that made me chronically tired. I suppose that I wanted to stay in my bed each morning as a kind of refuge, an excuse for contemplation, a reason for not having to enter the rat race before my mind felt strong and uncluttered. Now, like Thoreau, I have my own Walden Pond in the comfort of my home. I have simplified, simplified, simplified the demands that used to keep me running on a kind of endless treadmill from one responsibility to another. It is so lovely to be able to finally be the master of my calendar and the captain of the structure of each day.

There is indeed a time and season for all of life and most of us spend so much of it in a rush from here to there, attempting to meet the demands of caring for family, work, community. We like what we have to do, but there is just so much of it that we rarely stop the cycle completing one task after another. Our calendars and day planners are filled with appointments that barely allow us to linger over a thought or a meal or to even notice a sunrise. We use alarms and warning messages to keep us on track. Even one deviation from our plans can throw us into a dizzying tizzy. We grow tired and out of sorts, out of shape. Something has to give if we are to be all things to all people and so we often choose to neglect ourselves rather than disappointing everyone else in our lives. We need those alarms to keep moving and we resent their nagging sounds.

Now that my alarm is my own voice I do not resent it. I allow myself the time to consider my own place in the universe. I have belatedly realized that I must care for myself first if I am to be of help to others. I have learned to slow my pace by saying the tiny word, “No!” whenever I begin to once again feel overwhelmed. It is a glorious luxury that I can now afford thanks to retirement but I wonder why I did not allow myself the time that I needed during all those previous years. I see young people managing to have it all simply by taking command of their lives and carefully parceling their time to include self care. They have already learned what it took me decades to discern.

I suppose that if I were to create the perfect alarm it would not be one pushing me from my personal refuge, but rather one reminding me of my duties to allow moments for myself. It would prompt me to mediate or pray. It would urge me to keep a balance between work life and home. It would sound whenever I was taking on more than I should try to handle at once. It would gently provide me with support for the things that I need to do to thrive as my best self.

I see young people rushing and pushing themselves just as I once did. They express frustrations over not being able to do all that they need to do. They shove their own needs farther back into promises of a future that never seems to come. They grow more and more out of shape physically, mentally and spiritually. The alarms bark at them as they wearily wander through routines that sap their strength. They want to just run away or hibernate or scream. They feel guilt and anger and a host of negative emotions that they cover with brave smiles and a veneer of false strength. They know that one last thing may make them break but they do not know how to make those bells and whistles stop.

I would tell them to consider what they really want or need and then begin to make the changes that will leave them excited about the dawn of each new day. The first step is to define themselves on their own terms, not on what others believe they should be. Then they can begin to declutter their daily schedules, leaving space for the unexpected and allowing for personal care as surely as they do for the care of others. To do this they must learn to set alarms to warn them whenever they need to pause or ask for help or just snooze a bit longer.

Life is short and unbearably uncertain. Our goal should be to make the most of each moment. Our alarm clock needs to go off anytime that we are in danger of neglecting what is most important beginning with ourselves.

Lean On Me

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We’ve all had those moments when everything changed in a flash, those traumatic times when it doesn’t seem possible to ever feel happy and optimistic again. Such events fashion us into new people, sometimes more courageous and determined and sometimes defeated and cynical. Always we feel the wound on our hearts that ultimately becomes a scar reminding us of our vulnerability as humans and of the vagaries of living.

While virtually everyone is able to describe such an event, some seem to have a Midas touch that keeps harm away from them for most of their lives and others appear to be chosen as the continual targets of tragedy. Coping with our fates whether they be few or seemingly never ending is always a struggle and while some may appear to be better at enduring the horrific, everyone is hurt by them in ways that burrow deeply into their hearts. We should never judge or underestimate the impact of bad news on anyone.

My own defining moment was of course the death of my father. I was young, only eight, and shy to boot. I tried to be brave for my mother so I went deeply inside my own psyche and rarely spoke of how devastated I felt. I pretended to be little more than a child who was ignorant of such things but my unspoken anxieties would haunt me for decades. We often forget that children have emotions as powerful as adults, sometimes more so. Ultimately my own story helped me to be intensely understanding of the problems that my students faced. I knew how greatly they were affected by the most intense moments of their lives because I had walked in their shoes.

I will always remember those battle scared children who had developed reputations as troublemakers when in fact they were driven by fear and anger over what they had experienced. There was the little tyke who had been set on fire by his mother when he was three, the teen who had watched his father murder his mother, the adolescent who felt unwanted because he was passed from one adult to another throughout his childhood. I grieved for them but also shared my own story with them and began a healing conversation that helped them to understand that they need not be defined by the tragedies that had so engulfed them.

As grew older I began to identify more and more with my mother. I realized the fear and the loneliness that she must have endured after my father’s death. She was brave to the point of stifling the deep feelings that swirled in her head. She set them all aside to care for us, but they were still there and would come back to haunt her again and again. People in her generation rarely spoke of their challenges. They had been taught to be like soldiers guarding their words lest they appear somehow broken. Being that way took its toll on my mother in the most horrific ways. I only wish that she had been able to talk with someone honestly about the trauma that never quite went away. Now I know and understand how important it is to allow anyone who has endured a shocking event to let their thoughts out knowing that they will be safe and without judgement.

Each of us should learn how to become a compassionate place of refuge. It is not an easy thing. It means setting aside our own concerns, avoiding platitudes, suspending judgement, just permitting someone who is hurting to describe the contents of his/her heart. Knowing that it is okay to voice even the most terrible of thoughts is a beginning in the process of healing.

All too often we humans tend to tell people how they should feel about certain things. We fear displays of emotional weakness because so often they get very close to touching the most fragile parts of our souls. We prefer to see someone smile through their troubles because it makes us feel better when we should be more concerned with how they are dealing with the reality of what has happened to them.

If we are very lucky we each find a person or persons to whom we might reveal our innermost thoughts without hesitation. Such beautiful souls allow us to express ourselves honestly. They gently drain the poison from our hearts. Perhaps we should each strive to be that kind of individual for someone, a haven of understanding and compassion. We call such people our brothers, sisters, best friends, partners. They know us as well as we know ourselves and love us “warts and all.”

Someone that you know is suffering right now. Reach out to them. Be the person on whom they can lean. Allow them to be however they need to be in the moment.

Glorious Mornings

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Mornings are generally slower than they were when I was still working. Back then I arose before the sun was out and hurried to get on the road as soon as possible. I absolutely despised the early hours of the day back then because they were filled with so much stress that I was already feeling tired before I even arrived at my job. I always imagined that when I retired I would sleep in every single day and just do wherever the spirit led me to do once I left my bed. Surprisingly I actually look forward to the new day now that I don’t have to hit the crowded freeways anymore. I’m awakened with great regularity at about six thirty or earlier each morning without setting an alarm. I hear the sounds of neighbors gearing up for the new day and I quietly arise to enjoy the slow pace of my own design.

I have developed a comfortable routine that is quite satisfying. I prepare some tea and a light breakfast and retire to my sitting room where I spend time reading the news, wishing friends happiness on their birthdays, checking my email, meditating or praying and writing my weekday blogs, all in the comfort of my pajamas. I am rarely in a rush, so it may be ten or even eleven before I finally get dressed depending on the weather. If it’s a cold or rainy day I am never in a hurry. Instead I enjoy the quiet and the opportunity to be alone with my thoughts, luxuries that were denied for decades. I have to admit that I check the calendar each morning just to remember what day it is. It’s nice to be free to be me rather than to have to answer to the schedule of someone else.

I so despised the morning rush when I was a student and then an employee that I thought myself to be a night owl rather than someone who actually preferred the early hours of the day. I always felt sluggish and out of sorts as I sat in traffic jams on the beltway nervously watching the clock tick as though mocking me because I was running late. Houston traffic is notoriously bad and I became a maniac as I fought it on the way to work. My generally quiet demeanor became full blown rage as I witnessed the craziness of the freeway. I had to fight myself to keep from flipping off every other driver. I’d think of my warm and cozy bed and wish that there were some way for me to stay there instead of being a daily gladiator of the road.

Once I got to work I was generally so full of vinegar that I did my best to avoid human contact at all costs until I was able to get control of myself. I tried to sneak into my classroom from unfrequented entrances. I’d close the door and even leave the light out lest someone notice me and attempt to engage me in a conversation. I craved silence and calm.

I still don’t appreciate noise or conversation in the morning. I love the sound of children waiting for the bus but I don’t want anyone calling me on the phone or coming to my door until after nine. By the time the caffeine in my tea has fully awakened me and my brain is working well enough to enjoy other people I’m as pleasant as can be. Once my brain adjusts I no doubt talk way more than I should with anyone willing to listen to my babbling.

I would have been a great candidate for working at home. I am disciplined and willing to set a keep strict adherence to a schedule. I like having meaningful things to do. The one thing that I hate is having to rush from home soon soon after I arise each morning. I’d work until I am one hundred years old as long as I would not have to leave my house until the afternoon. It was never the work that bothered me but the fact that I had to face the thundering herd on an early morning journey.

I don’t get anymore sleep now than I did when I worked. In fact, I may get less, but being the sole determiner of how to spend my mornings energizes me. I don’t want to languish in bed because there are so many wonderful moments in the morning, not the least of which is the opportunity to meditate and pray. I do love the feeling of serenity that now defines my mornings. I see the seasons. I hear the birds. I feel closer to my friends. Life after work is rather remarkable and certainly refreshing.

I used to feel sick all of the time. I seemed to continually be afflicted with some bug or virus. I was rundown, sluggish. Just being in command of my routine has changed all of that. I’m filled with energy and I rarely catch the diseases that send people to their beds. I actually feel younger than I did when I was working. Sometimes I think that I’m in such good shape that I should go back, but I suspect that I would be dragging within a week. I’d hate losing the calm of my mornings. I’m not willing to trade the most wonderful part of my day for a spot in the rat race. I’m glad I don’t have to care which highways are plagued by delays. Life is now simple and good.

I know I’ve earned the magic of my mornings. I get to do the things that I love. Writing is a joy, reading is glorious, listening to my thoughts is sublime, just being in the quiet is like an elixir that heals both my body and my soul. I had no idea that it would be this grand. 

Real Heroes

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I tend to be ever the stoic, quietly taking whatever life throws at me. I adjust to circumstances as needed. I’ve learned how to survive over the years without drawing attention to myself. I let emotions run free in the quiet of night inside the privacy of my own mind and then I appear to bravely carry on. It’s a routine that I adopted as a child whenever fears or sorrows threatened to overcome me. It’s not exactly a perfect way of adapting but so far it has worked for me. Still, there have been moments when I had to cry, “Uncle!” or literally lose every sense of calm that I possessed. I learned that it is not just okay to admit to hitting a wall, but quite necessary for survival to know when enough is enough.

The conclusion of 2019 and beginning of 2020 turned into a kind of nightmare beginning with the death of a dear cousin and an aunt and concluding with news that two longtime friends had suffered very serious strokes. During that time I also grieved for a special and dear woman whose favorite aunt lost a battle with cancer. As I pushed on in my usual fashion I watched those closest to my departed family members struggling with the reality of loss while juggling demands from jobs and irritating challenges like broken appliances and even sickness. I observed the loved ones of my hospitalized friends spending long hours at the hospital attempting to keep a spirit of optimism in full view. I witnessed their suffering with a sense of frustration because I had no magic words to soothe their hearts or heal their wounds. Nonetheless I continued moving forward one step at a time.

I put away my Christmas decorations and attempted to find a bit of normalcy in the raging sea around me. I brushed up on some Pre-Calculus so that I might help my grandsons master concepts of trigonometry. I kept writing and writing, one of my favorite forms of therapy. I invited my niece over for tea and went to visit my ninety year old father-in-law and mother-in-law. I found solace at church and falsely began to feel as though I had weathered the emotional storm without no scars. Fortunately my body had other ideas. It set me straight by falling apart quite suddenly and forcing me to stop long enough to consider all that had happened.

My tongue and my lips broke out in sores. My throat and my chest hurt as my sinuses filled with congestion. My head felt as though it would crack open and my teeth seemed on the verge of falling out of my mouth. My knees ached to the point of forcing me to lie down. That’s when I finally faced the pain that had been slowly building in my heart and admitted to myself that I was not made of steel. I was as ordinary as any other human.

Our heroes are all too often characters with superhuman strength. They save lives, are supremely virtuous and seem capable of acts that defy our own abilities. We walk around with wooden smiles in times of distress and pretend that all is well when in reality we want to let out primal screams. If we are truly lucky we find a more real kind of hero, someone willing to admit to their weaknesses and ask for help.

My sweet cousin who had spent weeks watching her mother die was willing to publicly acknowledge her own breaking point. She was not whining but simply stating the fact of her exhaustion, frustration and sadness. Her truth was a kind of gift to the rest of us because she is generally so perfectly put together. Knowing that even an icon like her has moments of profound distress reminded us that being human is a complex venture.

When my friend who lost her aunt proclaimed the depth of her emotional pain it was difficult to hear, but also a beautiful form of trust that those of us who love her would not turn away. She was able to vocalize the feelings that each of us endure at one time or another in the most loving and beautiful way. It was as though she was helping us to know how to react to her loss.

I suppose that there is nothing innately wrong with putting up a brave front when we are in reality ready to fall apart and sometimes it is the only sensible thing to do, but for our own sake and those around us we also need to know when we have to surrender to the feelings bearing down on us. Being brave often means admitting that we are not as unbreakable as we may have thought. Like fine glass each of us has a point of fragility. Knowing when we are approaching that moment and pausing to mend our bodies and minds is a very good thing.

Just as we must put on our own oxygen masks in an emergency on a plane before attempting to help others, so too should we know when we need a break, a hug, a moment to let out our feelings. Sometimes the very bravest thing we might do is to openly face our weaknesses and our fears. That’s what real heroes do.