Saturday, December 31, 2016

Fast away the old year passes...

"Fast away the old year passes...hail the new, ye lads and lasses!" There are many who would join me in happily shutting the door on 2016 with hopes that 2017 will prove itself to be a much happier year. 2016 was the Year of Juxtaposition for me. Success and failure. Joy and sorrow. Achievement and loss. Collaboration and conflict. Birth and death. Each tempered the other. Abundant stress is detrimental to good health - even too much good stress can play a part in causing damage, flooding the body with chemicals like epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol. When it's already battered from bad stress, this flood does no favors. This must be where Nietzsche developed his famous quote regarding what doesn't kill us makes us stronger. Some stress will indeed strengthen us, it keeps us alert, it helps us focus. Too much knocks us off our feet and beats us down like hail on a Dakota wheatfield.

Of course, I'm hoping (unrealistically) for a 2017 to be a year of minimal stress. 2016 saw me completing my master's degree in education, getting a job teaching 5/6th grade at a great school, teaching classes at an awesome fitness facility, building my credentials as a certified fitness trainer by completing CEUs to up my game from instructor to cycling master practitioner, yoga master practitioner and kickbox practitioner. It's hard to fully enjoy all of that wonderful good stress, all the hours, weeks and months of hard work for which at any other time I would have felt intense satisfaction. All that personal success and growth - it pales in comparison to the loss of Patrick.

The eight days spent in the varying levels of cardiac ICU were by far longer, and more arduous than any other time I can remember. Those who know me have heard me discuss my views on the viscosity of time. Time is fluid, but I believe it is chameleon-like. Sometimes it flows like water, racing past; other times, it sluggishly oozes along with the consistency of pudding. A million variations, all leading up to 10 seconds that feels like a minute, 10 hours that feels like a lifetime and a lifetime that passed by in a blink. Every moment of those 8 days watching him fight for his life was slow, painful and horror was juxtaposed with hope as time seemed to hold its breath. And then WHOOSH, the sand ran out, the timer was flipped and the pace became startlingly speedy in comparison. Here I stand, almost suddenly, at the cusp of the new year, nearly six months out from that fateful day in July.

I gained two beautiful grandchildren who just light up the world and they, along with my other grandchildren, are healing beacons of hope. Death and loss I think, are the greatest diminishers of one's ability to ability to be fully exuberant. I say to fight the melancholy, Fight the urge to sink into the depths of grief, claw and scratch your way back if you have to, but somehow get to a place where you can delight in the smile of a baby, the first time a toddler says your name, the sounds of grandchildren telling you they love you and that feeling of their small hands embraced by yours. Hold onto these moments and create mental talismans that you can use to ward off the dark.

Ecclesiastes tells us there is a time and a season for every purpose under heaven. This year the times and seasons were a jumbled, chaotic blur. So hail the new! Here's to a zephyr instead of a maelstrom.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Let next year be Kansas...

Long ago, I drove through Kansas
Flat highway stretching to the horizon
Round sky-bowl, deep blue and containing
I felt small and I felt safe
No peaks, no valleys
A level, certain beauty
Ah, I was always one who sought the
Glory of mountain sides
The rich depth of ravines
Beauty needed to be  a wild thing to me
Full of exertion and
Sharp intakes of breath
This year, I've had my fill of wild landscapes
Of hilly climbs, of precipices
And all that effort to catch a view
I've gone too deep down
In the dark, earth of the glen
Stubbed my toes raw
Falled over too many a twisted root
This year, give me Kansas
Give me great plains
Gentle undulations
Let the topography of each day
Lend itself to travels over arrow-straight roads
Surrounded by golden wheatfields
Smiling sunflowers and meadowlarks
Let me feel small and safe
Once again

(A work in prgoress - December 29, 2016)

That piece of paper doesn't represent brain power...

It blows my mind that there are still people who judge others' intelligence by the pieces of paper they hold. Many of the most intelligent and sharp individuals I've met in this life do not hold a "degree." (And, truthfully, some of the densest and less savvy, do). My own grandfather was brilliant, an amazing writer and deep thinker, and yet he had an old-school 8th grade education. Bravo if you have been able to afford a college-education --- but if you haven't had the time or wherewithal to pursue such, don't let anyone ever try to demean you or degrade you for not holding a slip of paper. NEVER let them tell you that you are "uneducated" because you can't wave a degree in their face. Smart people don't confine their learning to some prescribed "program" of study that someone else devised. They read, they research, they listen, they study the world around them. They never stop learning. Some of the greatest minds in our world were autodidactic. The Nobel Prize in various disciplines has been handed out to numerous individuals all lacking a college degree.
Also, do not let them judge your brain-power by their personal disdain for your occupation of choice (or necessity). I know homemakers, carpenters and janitors who could provide a more intellectually stimulating conversation than many "professionals."

I went ahead and got the paper and I can guarantee you I'm not any bit more or less intelligent. It's just a token of completing certain prescribed learning. The achievement degree is all dependent upon the availability of time and money, but you and I both continue to learn, think and grow in diverse subjects.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Long lay the world in sin and error pining...

It's my first Christmas Eve in 34 years spent without my husband. I was busily wrapping presents, stopping to run to the store for more tape and things I forgot, back to wrapping, starting to bake, washing laundry, etc. It occurred to me - without bitterness, without sadness - that Christmas at that instant, on this day, was really not any different for me than all those other years. I laughed at this thought because it was true - Pat didn't help much if any with these things. I could count on him for a run to the store to get some odd or end that I'd forgotten, maybe to run to Sheetz for coffee (always better not made at home), but his usual holiday behavior was to nap somewhere quietly and out of the way. If I broke down and began to freak out about "no help!" and "I always have to do it all myself," he might come out of hiding to very, very slowly wrap a present or two and then escape only to come out to check on any baking that was going on and steal a cookies or two. So in God's tender mercy, He has reminded me that this Christmas isn't so very different for me than other ones.  I found myself very comforted by that thought and once again, knowing where Pat gets to spend his time now.

While I busily wrapped, I had a fake fire going with holiday instrumental music. "O Holy Night" came on several times in different arrangements and I found myself singing the words in my head. I think this is the first time I've ever really thought about the words to O Holy Night:

Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Til He appeared and the soul felt it's worth
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn
Fall on your knees

How beautiful!  And so true -- I see the world in "sin and error pining" daily and sadly, the world doesn't even realize what it is pining for. The unhappiest people I know have either rejected God outright or live in a tenuous place where they try to justify themselves by works while they remake God in their own image.  They try to downplay sin or even deny it is sin at all, calling good evil and evil good. (The magic word is "love" - not the kind of love and obedience God demands, but a licentious kind that says "anything goes" and masquerades as the real deal in society today). Their unhappiness, their lack of satisfaction, their need for "things" and self-gratification/justification speaks volumes to the pining in their hearts. Their souls don't feel their worth; they may not even acknowledge having a soul. They don't recognize that thrill of hope or they have shut it out entirely. No matter what they do they can't fill the yearning because it can only be filled by Christ. There is indeed a new and glorious morn, readily available both here and now and in the beyond we can't see yet (but Pat is surely rejoicing in); it requires nothing but faith on our part. "For it is by grace you have been saved through faith, this not of works lest any man should boast." The pining can end - we can have that joy *now* and forever. It's in His Name that all oppression will cease - falling on our knees is every much a gift to us as it is an act of worship.

I'm so thankful for that thrill of hope and that while I'm "in" this weary world, I'm not "of" it. It is my prayer that those souls who don't know their worth will find it in Him this holiday season and in the coming New Year.

1 John 5:19 We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one.
1 John 4:4 You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.
John 15:19 If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.
John 17:14-16 I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Looking back, looking forward and looking somewhere in between...

This is the time of year when we start looking back on what we've accomplished, left undone, discovered we had darn well better do, and needn't have bothered with. It's no surprise that as a Type A I am very fond of resolutions and SMART goals.  Over the years I've had a lot of goals - to successfully homeschool my kids, to become a certified personal trainer, to get my associates degree in business, to get my bachelor of science in business, to land a management job, to do a U-turn and got back to teaching, to get my Masters in education, to get a teaching job. I threw in getting those degrees "with a 4.0 GPA" and I did it. Caregiving happened. Death happened.  I kept plugging away, checking off boxes and moving on to the next goal.

 I've probably mentioned a hundred times that my favorite poem is "If--" by Kipling. Different lines have always held varying levels of significance to me with "fill the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds worth of distance run" being my favorite.  I've certainly done that but now other parts of the poem have challenged me.  For the past few years and this one in particular, these portions have become prominent aspirations within me:
 "If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same"
 "Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,  And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools"  and
 "If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,  
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’"

The juxtaposition of Triumph and Disaster was undeniable this year - I earned my Master of Arts in Secondary Education with a 4.0 and my husband died right at the start of my final, benchmark class. I finished on time, didn't place anything on hold, chin up and upper lip stiff.  But the triumph was bittersweet because it was so deeply marred by the disastrous loss of my companion of 34 years. All the plans we had to celebrate - gone. Goals and plans for our future? Gone. It was by his bedside that I learned that I had been selected for the teaching job I love -- while he couldn't talk, I think he was conscious enough to understand. Normally we would have celebrated together but instead I was holding his hand and watching him transform into a cyborg.  It was hard, very, very hard - hence holding on when there was not a thing in me except that will which said, "Hold on."

So here I am, at the end of 2016. Building a new life, sometimes exhausted - definitely with worn-out tools, but pressing forward. Pat's been in the ground for five months now and for five months I've been learning how to navigate the world without the comfort of his presence.  Faced with the thought of making new resolutions for next year, I think my goals this year are going to be far different than my goals of past years. “It's the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top.” ― Robert M. Pirsig wrote in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. My objective then is to work - and just "be" -  on the sides of my mountain.

Pirsig's full quote of this is even better: "Mountains should be climbed with as little effort as possible and without desire. The reality of your own nature should determine the speed. If you become restless, speed up. If you become winded, slow down. You climb the mountain in an equilibrium between restlessness and exhaustion. Then, when you're no longer thinking ahead, each footstep isn't just a means to an end but a unique event in itself....To live only for some future goal is shallow. It's the sides of the mountains which sustain life, not the top.” This is so very much the opposite of me - I guess it is time I learned to put away some of my Type A tendencies in order enjoy where I am (although it is wise to always be aware of surrounds and have a map).

So I resolve to be more fully present in the present this year. Psalm 118:24 "This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it." and Matthew 6:34 "Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own."  I'm very thankful for the happiness that God is giving me in the present moment and for the people He has chosen to place in my life.
Philippians 4:4-7
"Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!  Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.  Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Balance, baby, balance...

"In art and dream may you proceed with abandon. In life may you proceed with balance and stealth." ~Patti Smith

An oft neglected part of physical fitness is BALANCE. Those who have been to my workout classes know this is something I preach about often. Do you want to resist falling and breaking things as you age? Do you want strong joints via strong ligaments? Balance! In your nervous system are special cells called proprioceptors. These cells tell your ear lobe where it is in relation to your big toe, or your left shoulder in relation to your right thigh. Every moment thousands upon thousands of micro corrections are happening as those neural synapses are firing. This keeps you upright and stable. You need to work these synapses - those you don't use lose ability to rapidly fire. Remember as a child how you balanced on curbs, stood on your head, hopped on one foot? You need to do these things in order to maintain the ability to do them. As you do them, you are maintaining your ability to do things like safely navigate stairs when you are 80. Stand on one foot and see how long you can hold it. Do the other foot. Balance whenever you can. This will workout your proprioception, and it will also strengthen the joints and the tissues that support them. Don't stop there. Do things that require coordination. Brush your teeth with the "wrong" hand. Learn new dance steps. Don't say, "I don't have coordination!" Say, "Wow, I will work on coordination!"

(Once you work on that a bit, start jumping up and down. Be happy. Start small. Hop on one foot, then the other. Work your way up. Don't lose the ability to jump because of age. You never know when you'll need it. I certainly want to be able to leap for joy for a long time!)

Grief control vs. controlled by grief...

"The best thing you can do is MASTER the chaos in you. You are not thrown in the fire; you ARE the fire. " ~Mama Indigo.  I identify with this so deeply. It is extremely tempting to wallow in grief and drown in memories, especially during the holidays. I refuse to believe in the idea of allowing grief to consume me as a "romantic" notion, "proof" of my love for my husband, or a socially necessary pity session. His word says I'll walk through the waters and not drown; that I will walk through the flames and not be burned. Believe me, I see the waters rising up, I feel the licking of the flames. BUT I am awake, alive, and I choose to counteract the wildfire of this year with a controlled burn or the backfire set to stop total destruction. After all, my God is a consuming fire.

I refuse to let grief own me or defeat me. I have the reality of the loss but also an awareness of the necessity of survival. For me, I know that I know that I know that no amount of crying and self-pity will bring my husband back (or my father, my mother, my sister, my beloved nephew...). There is no point for me to allow myself to feel like I can't go on because I must go on. I choose not to go on half-heartedly but with hope. Things certainly won't ever be the same but I can't change that. The sooner I accept and find the new normal, the less the sense of unreality becomes. After all, this *is* now the life I must live. Accepting redirection makes me a little bit stronger every day. Time is relentlessly marching onward - we never know when our time is up. Therefore, I intend to make the best use of that time, cherish it as best I can instead of wasting it letting sorrow master me. I cry, but I actively seek reasons to laugh. I get choked up by memories, but I fight live with contentment in the now I have been given.

See, I don't see it as ever getting "over" someone as if they or their memory are an obstacle. I see it has moving forward in the new reality, however sucky it may initially seem, because realistically and pragmatically there is no other choice. Everyone is different but I have seen people broken by grief, their future laid to waste by the inability to overcome it. I won't do that, especially when I am completely confident that he is *not* dead but alive with Christ, simply beyond my present ability to reach.

Knowing the reality of where Pat is, that there is no sorrow, he is with the Lord - that is truer comfort than anyone can imagine. Romans 8:18 "I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us." Pat is there at the big reveal. I choose to fixate on his joy, not my sorrow.