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.

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. 

The Balancing Act

BalancingThere it was, a meme that spoke to me more than I cared to admit. “You’re killing yourself for a job that would replace you if you dropped dead within a week.” It’s a rather simplistic thought that generalizes a bit too much, but it’s point is thought provoking. It’s main thrust might be applied to almost any situation in life with just a few changes of words. The fact is that we sometimes become so over involved in certain situations that we lose sight of what is really most important in our lives. Our work ethic overtakes us to the point of wearing us down, and then we grieve when we realize that perhaps our efforts were not appreciated nearly as much as we had thought. Finding that sweet spot that allows us to achieve balance in our lives is one of our greatest challenges, and one that is far more important than we might imagine.

We are taught the importance of hard work from the time that we are quite young. In today’s world those lessons begin earlier and earlier as very small children are enrolled in early education programs, sports clubs, music lessons and a host of activities that keep them busy from the time that they awake until they fall into their beds at night. Some tiny children have an endless round of appointments designed to develop the best of their talents. Parents and nannies help them adhere to carefully orchestrated schedules. Admittedly there are many children who thrive in such circumstances, but there are others who begin to show signs of stress in the form of crying fits, behavior changes and exhaustion.

I have seen such children hanging limply onto their parents with vacant looks and sometimes even fear. When I worked in an after school program for pre-schoolers and kindergartners it was sometimes difficult to keep them awake because they were so tired. Many of them had arrived at the school at seven in the morning and would not be picked up by their parents until six in the evening. They were grumpy and probably would have benefitted more from play time at home than the all day structure that ruled their little lives. Smaller doses of opportunity generally work better for little ones, but we all too often adopt a more is better philosophy forgetting that all of us need respite from the daily grind now and then.

As children grow older the demands on their time and energy only increase. Not only do we plan their hours, but we also introduce them to the glories of competitiveness. We expect them to perfect their skills and talents so that they will eventually become champions. Of course there is nothing innately wrong with that, but often in our quest to help them to become their best selves we over extend them so that their hours are filled, leaving them with little time to explore and create on their own. Sometimes down time can be more powerful in helping youngsters to begin to know themselves than keeping them so busy that they can’t really think, It is when they are on their own that they organically develop and learn through trial and error.

By high school the pressure on our teens can be overwhelming. Not only are they expected to do well academically in as many Advanced Placement classes as possible, but also to participate in extracurricular activities and community service. As one young man recently noted, they generally have about seven hours to themselves each evening if they stay up until midnight, less if they go to bed earlier. If they are involved in athletics or other organizations that number of hours may be reduced by two or four hours each day, leaving them only a short amount of time to study and just relax and be a teenager. Research has shown that most high school students are sleep deprived from attempting to pack so much into their daily schedules.

One of my grandsons decided on his own to remedy the trend of over extending. While he was in high school he achieved balance by carefully limiting the number of activities and advanced classes in which he was willing to participate. He realized that he was more often enriched by discussions at the family dinner table or late night intellectual conversations with his father and older brother. He understood the importance of quiet times without obligations attached to them. He saw that far too many of his peers were crashing and burning because they were carrying way too much excess baggage on their shoulders.

When we finally go to work we want to impress our supervisors as well as our peers. We are often willing to go an extra mile to demonstrate our loyalty, which is all well and good if we also remember our own personal needs. When our job becomes an obsession then we may want to step back just a bit. if we see that family and friends are suffering because we are continually absent, a real problem is beginning to brew. When we can’t even rest without dwelling on our work, we may have become over involved. 

I’m not particularly someone to give advice regarding work life balance because there were multiple instances when I became so focused on studies or work that I totally neglected those who really loved me. I have been competitive to the extreme at times, and sadly my efforts were not always noted and appreciated by my superiors. Luckily those dearest to me were always there to pick up the pieces of my disappointments. At some point along my journey I finally managed to find a kind of work/life balance that made me far healthier than I had ever before been.

I am a living example of someone who looked outward and did my best to impress people who no doubt would have quickly found a substitute for me had I dropped dead. I worked so hard to be the valedictorian of my high school that I missed many of the joys of friendship and adventure that are an integral part of growing up. My achievement was soon forgotten and I found myself having to prove my mettle again and again in real life. I strove to be that person who demonstrated a willingness to be the last woman standing in pursuit of the goals of those for whom I worked. When others went home, I stayed behind to help, sometimes even when my own children needed me to be with them. I regret that I pushed myself so hard, but I am also thankful for dear friends like Pat and Bill who gently counseled me to learn how to focus on what was most important in my life. With such guidance and the support of my family I eventually found ways to have it all. I was able to clock out from work and leave it behind while I luxuriated in the warmth of home. It took me far too long to get there.

If I had one bit of advice for young men and women who are just beginning their careers or for new parents it would be to follow the wisdom of one of my teachers from long ago. He told us that we all needed to be fully present in whatever we were doing, never allowing ourselves to dwell on other things that were bearing down on us. He emphasized that we should work hard and play hard with equal vigor. He cautioned us to adjust whenever we found ourselves too preoccupied with any one thing. Keeping that balance, he suggested, would make us both healthy and happy. His was a message that all of us would do well to hear. Unfortunately I ignored his message for far too long. I’m glad I finally got my head on straight.

Splat! Bam!

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I’m generally known for my high energy approach to life. I’m the sort who can’t sit still for long and I tend to drive folks a bit crazy because of that trait. I am the Martha rather than the Mary of biblical fame. I am a rather determined soul who gets things done one way or another. Long after everyone else has collapsed into a heap of exhaustion I tend to find that last bit of liveliness that allows me to complete a task. I’ve been that way for my entire life, but another aspect of my vitality is rarely seen by anyone other than those who are closest to me. Those are the moments when the big event is over, the exams are completed, the end has successfully arrived. That is when I hit the wall like a bird flying into a clear glass window. Splat! Bam! I become a useless puddle of goo. I take to my recliner or perhaps my bed and literally waste away an entire day recharging my inner batteries for the next big push.

I seem to do nothing halfway. I’m either blowing and going like a crazed bunny, or I’m as listless as a spent dishrag. That’s been my nature for as long as I remember. I was the kid who would be dancing around the room one minute and then asleep on the floor in the blink of an eye. I throw myself into life and adventures with so much abandon that I’ve been the butt of jokes within my family. There have even been suggestions that I may have been the model for Hermione Granger of Harry Potter fame. Others wonder if perhaps I’m a bit more akin to Charlie Brown’s friend Lucy. My daughter thinks I’m a kindred spirit to Hillary Clinton and a recent quiz on Facebook did indeed verify that I appear to be more in line with her than any other First Lady. The difference is that I am driven mostly by a need to do things properly rather than a quest for power which I tend to eschew. I am a self confessed control freak, but I have never wanted to run the show.

Then there are my limitations. Like any ordinary human I eventually run out of steam and I do it with the same level of enthusiasm that I attempt to apply to my other accomplishments. When I  rest I am all in, and on the day after Christmas this week I immersed myself into a state of total relaxation.  I was done, caput, unable and unwilling to make any unnecessary moves. Luckily it was a dreary day and nobody came calling either on my phone or at my door, so I was able to become a virtual hermit for a full twenty four hours.

I vegetated in my bedroom with no plan, no idea of how I would choose to spend my hours other than doing as little as possible. I comforted myself with leftover mac and cheese and an assortment of cookies that I had made for Christmas. I indulged in a marathon of programs on Netflix and dozed off into wintery naps more than once. I found myself longing to be a bear hibernating inside a cave and wondering what it would be like to spend the winter months resting up for the sunnier days of spring. I luxuriated in the gloriousness of unadulterated sloth, telling myself that I had more than earned the right to such an extravagance of listlessness.

Wishing that the SciFy Channel would run it’s Twilight Zone marathon on the day after Christmas rather than New Year’s Eve I stumbled upon a Netflix series called The Mindhunters. It captured my fancy so much that I watched one episode after another, transfixed by a well written story and interesting characters who were on a quest to understand what makes serial killers tick. Their research lead them to question whether individuals are born evil or made to be that way by the environment. In particular they began to wonder if there is a critical point at which deviant inclinations might be eliminated by a proper intervention. Of course the topic was fascinating to me and I became a junkie for hours as I lay in repose nursing my tired body.

I woke up the following morning with my batteries fully charged and my usual enthusiasm for making outrageous plans that will fill my days in the coming weeks. I have little doubt that I will over do it just as I always have and eventually find myself only fit for a lost day dedicated to appreciating my sluggish inclinations. Fortunately I have always understood when it was time for such an interlude and I have managed to renew myself time and again.

I feel for the souls who do not have the luxury of selfishly devoting a full twenty four hours to themselves. I know that there are circumstances that preclude such excess. Babies don’t wait for their mamas to feel better. Some jobs demand attention no matter how one is feeling. Little wonder that we often hear of a major star landing in the hospital from sheer exhaustion. Our humanity has few super powers no matter how much we attempt to push ourselves to create them. The reality is that we really do need to pace ourselves lest we wind up with more than an overwhelming tiredness. We also must be willing to accept that even our leaders require time away from the clock or they will ultimately crash and burn.

Our expectations for ourselves and others are all too often beyond mere perfection. We chide ourselves for being less than we think we ought to be even as our bodies and minds tell us that we need to stop and reconsider the abuse that we are piling on ourselves. We are sometimes too unwilling to accept our limitations or those of the people around us. When a political candidate requires a day of rest while on the campaign trail we tend to write that person off as being too weak for the task of governing. If a coworker has to miss a day we become judge and jury and find that person guilty of being too soft. We create false images of perfection that are generally impossible to achieve and then chide ourselves and those around us for their inability to be all things to all people.

The wisest among us know none of us is made of iron or steel. We have frailties which make us more beautifully human and understanding. They are not bad things, but rather simply an essential aspect of who we are as people. Now and again it is essential that we learn how to embrace our need for R and R. It is a far better tactic than waiting until we have made a big mess in the act of slamming into a wall. Perhaps we would be wise to build in days of nothingness as part of our routine just as the good Lord appears to have intended. According to the Bible even God had the good sense to rest at the end of his labors. It’s time that we all learn to do the same, so go ahead and indulge in leisure. It’s a very good thing to not do anything.

Woke Up This Morning

sunrise-sky-blue-sunlight-67832I woke up this morning. Isn’t that grand? I know that it sounds rather ordinary but there is a certain mystery and beauty about the act of sleeping and then rising at the end of our dreams. It demonstrates a total sense of trust because in truth we are very vulnerable when we are snoozing, and yet in my country we mostly have the privilege of following the rhythm of life for all of our days without worry or harm.

Some of us have insomnia from time to time. Mine comes and goes often with the seasons, the stresses in my life or the amount of caffeine that I have consumed during the course of a day. I’ve learned certain tricks to keep the sleepless nights from becoming habitual, but in truth I simply don’t doze as much as I once did. My days grow longer as a result, and I always find ways to enjoy them like watching the hummingbird in my backyard flit from one plant to another. He’s a cute little thing who’s so quick that you have to really concentrate to catch him performing his antics. He’s mostly around when the bigger birds are busy with whatever it is that they do in the middle of the day. When they return to dominate, my hummingbird takes shelter in some hidden corner of the garden.

When an EMT was rushing my husband to the hospital recently he spoke of the sleep disturbances that firefighters continuously endure. He noted that he had been out on four different runs the night before. He explained that the body begins to react to the constant interruptions of slumber. He reasoned that he would one day need a desk job so that he would be able to enjoy more regular habits. He asserted that fighting fires and driving ambulances is a young man’s game that becomes more and more difficult over time.

I’ve often heard that doctors who are continuously awakened by emergency phone calls from patients generally live a bit less longer than the rest of us. They indeed learn early in their training to exist on far less sleep than everyone else, but it has a negative effect on their overall health. We don’t often stop to think about that when we make those middle of the night requests for their services. I understand that much of the time now patients are told to go to an emergency room or a group of doctors work together to create schedules that only require nighttime vigilance now and again to prevent those constant interruptions. I suppose that they have finally quite wisely decided to do something about the dangers of getting too little sleep.

We humans have been wary of the dark since the beginning of time. Things go bump in the night. Surrendering ourselves to a state of oblivion is necessary for our health but can also be frightening. There are indeed times when we sense the danger in doing so.

I once spoke with a young man whose family was trapped by the high waters that resulted from the collapse of the levees in New Orleans and surrounding areas in the wake of hurricane Katrina. He and his parents somehow managed to get to the top of a freeway overpass. He said that other people were there as well. They took turns sleeping because gators were lurking around not to mention other people with devious intent. He recounted how difficult it was to relax enough to finally reach a state of slumber. He said that he was exhausted but unable to surrender for fear of what might happen when he became unconscious. In many ways falling asleep is the ultimate show of confidence because we just don’t know what will occur while we are out.

I am reminded over and over again of the shock that I felt upon learning that a friend’s husband had died in his sleep. When he failed to get up long after his usual time for rising, she went to check on him and realized that he was not breathing. There had been no signs that something was wrong, no warning of the impending tragedy. While it was definitely a very peaceful way of going, it actually haunted me for a quite some time and reminded me of something that my mother had always done.

She had made a habit of telling me and my brothers how much she loved us before she went to sleep each night. If we had exchanged cross words during the day she apologized whether it had been her fault or not. She insisted that loving words should be the last ones we ever heard, and she followed that way of doing things until the end of her own life. I suspect that she sometimes wished that she had been able to tell my father just how she loved him before he died in his terrible car crash. She learned from that horrible time that we can’t take anything for granted, not even that we will see each other when the sun rises at the start of a new day.

Since my husband’s stroke the happiest part of my mornings comes when he opens his eyes and walks downstairs with a big smile and a greeting. My heart literally fluters with gratitude that both of us are still here and my prayer is that we will be for many days to come. Still I’ve made it a habit of late to do as my mom taught me and express the gratitude and affection that I feel for the people who walk with me in this life.

Our rest revitalizes us and prepares us for the work to come. It should also be a time when we close our eyes confident that we love and are loved, that we forgive and are forgiven. We should celebrate the miracle of each new day that we are allowed to see. There is so much beauty in the people and the world around us. All we need do is open our eyes and soak it all in.