Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Gratitude Journal #257

Today, I am grateful for sixth-grade band concerts. Jack's band teacher is doing an amazing job with about 200 students, who played Jingle Bells quite nicely after only 4 months of lessons. I wouldn't have his job for the world, but I'm so very glad he does!

Today, I am grateful for my Stephen Ministry friends and the fun we had at our Christmas party last night.

Today, I am grateful for Christmas decorations. It's been such a joy to transform our house into a holiday haven!

Today, I am grateful for George and my boys and their enthusiasm for Christmas, to George for his delicious cooking, and to Daisy for being happy all the time!

Today, I am grateful to my sister-in-law for her delicious buck-eyes and to my mother-in-law for her gingerbread cookies, scotcheroos, and Susan Food (a.k.a. Chex party mix). Yum!

Today, I am grateful for my family member's health. I've heard of so many people diagnosed with cancer in the past few weeks.

Today, I am most grateful to my sister, who has managed and taken on full responsibility for our mother's care through her knee surgery and rehab. Thanks, Lisa.

What are you grateful for today?

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Mindfulness, Perfectionism, and General Weirdness

As part of my ongoing effort to reduce stress, I've been studying mindfulness.

I know this post just got started, but let's take a break and explore this opening sentence, shall we?

As part of my ongoing effort to reduce stress, I've been studying mindfulness.

If I'd typed this sentence 15 or 20 years ago, here's what it would have looked like. I would have realized that my permanently tense shoulder muscles and frequent headaches were not normal and set about looking for solutions to the problem. After talking to the doctor and friends, and reading around at the bookstore or library, I would have uncovered about fifty different solutions to muscle tension, each of which would have required thorough research into the evidence.

To research mindfulness specifically, I would have purchased five or six books on mindfulness because the interwebs were barely invented for common use and I hated technology back in the early to middle 1990s. I then would have read the books cover to cover with highlighter in hand and taken notes on index cards. These index cards would have been arranged and rearranged and rearranged again on my large breakfast table into categories and sub-categories and sub-sub-categories...until I knew everything those five or six books could tell me about mindfulness.

And within six months I would have forgotten most of what I'd learned about mindfulness (it's all safely preserved on note cards, right?) and wouldn't be practicing it at all because I'd still be researching the 49 other solutions for stress and seriously, how much information can one brain hold without going completely cuckoo?

"She's cuckoo. Bat-crap cuckoo."

I hear you. Oh, yes, I hear you.

These days, I'm much less obsessive, which just goes to show you can teach an older dog new tricks. I blame motherhood and maturity for my kinder, gentler approach to problem-solving. After all, who has time for index cards and sub-sub-categories when you have to keep track of your son's minutes of trumpet practice and nightly reading, create lesson plans for small-group studies you've agreed to teach, read books for book clubs you've joined, and write riveting articles for your church's monthly newsletter every single month? Laundry, anyone? Grocery shopping? Dishes? Cooking meals to take to people going through chemo? Making cards for the troops? Perfectly wrapping each and every perfectly chosen Christmas present? Writing and addressing Christmas cards? Decorating not one but three Christmas trees because ohmygosh one just isn't enough?!?!?!

Index cards have fallen through the cracks of my busy life.

Good riddance.

Mindfulness, however, should have grabbed my attention long before now; though if I'd heard about it back then, I'd probably have dismissed it as granola-munching nonsense. "Where's the evidence?" I would have asked.

Guess what? There's actually a LOT of evidence that mindfulness is really, really good for you and even helps people reduce muscle tension and stress. From news stories on NPR and interviews by Diane Rehm, to extensive and frequent articles in Scientific American and Discover magazines to book displays at Barnes & Noble, mindfulness pops up all over the place these days. So now I'm paying attention, but in ways I never would have paid before.

First of all, there are no note cards.

Second, there's just one book, and I'm not devouring it in a frantic, manic rush to transform my life and relax my shoulder muscles permanently in three easy steps. My life doesn't need transforming (it's pretty awesome, all things considered), and getting rid of 48 years of tight shoulders won't happen quickly or easily.

What does need to transform are some bad lifestyle habits I've picked up (little exercise, fatty diet, negative attitudes, absentmindedness), and mindfulness can help me change those. And let's face it, when we try to change, we need all the help we can get.

For now, I'm just trying to notice my muscles. How often do you think about, let's say, your hip muscles? Pay attention to them right now. Are they tight? Mine are. Think about relaxing them. Stand up from your computer and stretch them out while thinking about relaxing them. If you need ideas, check out this website. A little mindful attention paid to one muscle group makes a difference.

Mindfulness, at least as I understand it and am trying to practice it, is about noticing the Now. The Now? I'm not familiar with this territory, despite knowing all the words to Jimmy Buffett's song on the subject. My brain likes to travel all over, into ADD rabbit holes full of twists and turns and ups and downs and creativity and problem-solving and the past and the future. I'm a reader, people! I go places in my head, places authors invite me to go. I'm really good at it, too.

And it's fun. FUN! I love those rabbit holes so very much!

But too much time in them makes my shoulders tense and my hips tight. Balance. That's what I'm seeking in mindfulness. I'm not looking for gurus or easy fixes or fads or perfection. I'm looking for ways to slow down, savor, and notice, to stop being so absent in my own mind. I'm never going to be one of those calm, always-present-in-the-Now people, but paying attention to what my brain and body are doing, being more conscious of the Now...well, it sure can't hurt.

If you've stuck with me this far, you're probably nodding in understanding and appreciate how hard it is to change the mental and physical habits of a lifetime. But change is coming. It's a process, slow and uneven, full of setbacks and progress. I started with paying more attention to people when I'm out and about running errands. I used to insulate myself in my own little world, where ideas and thought experiments and creative flights of fancy swirled around me like Pigpen's cloud of dust and dirt, keeping people away and making it hard for me to see them anyway.

Now, I strike up conversations...quick little ones, designed to elicit smiles or laughter...with baristas or check-out clerks or librarians. I know which clerks at Kroger are chatty and which need just a sincere smile. It seems such a small thing, to pay attention and be grateful for the people who make my life easier by their service. Those small moments of attention have added up to my being more mindful.

And that attentiveness has helped me to be of service. I've helped people lift watermelons into their baskets and returned their carts because I'm paying attention to what's going on around me. I've smiled at moms whose kids were melting down at the library and who were pumping gas into their minivans at Speedway because I've noticed them. I've caught myself singing songs while ironing George's shirts or humming while scrubbing a toilet...instead of thinking of all the other things I'd rather be doing with that time. My prayer time is richer and more focused, too.

I feel a little more connected to the people around me, more a part of a community, more invested in this place and this time, more invested in my own life. This small improvement in mindfulness shows me just how very far I have to go to achieve balance, but the process feels good spiritually and emotionally.

If you're feeling disconnected and distracted, tense and stressed out, I recommend sticking your big toe into mindfulness. Take your time getting used to it. But don't bother with the index cards. You really don't need them.


Friday, December 5, 2014

A Little Cloud of Joy

Today's weather has been gray and misty, and occasionally downright wet. I had to gas up my car, and as I stood outside watching the numbers go up on the pump, my breath turned to little white clouds.

Do you remember when those little clouds brought you joy? Do you remember standing at the bus stop, early in the morning, pretending to smoke, striking a pose, and dissolving in laughter with your friends? Do you remember breathing extra hard to make the biggest cloud you could, just because you could see your own amazing breath?

Breathing deep for joy....

We should do that more often, don't you think?

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Gratitude Journal #257

Today, I am grateful for a delicious, relaxing Thanksgiving.

Today, I am grateful for the support, love, and encouragement of my church family...especially the Stephen Ministers and Pastor Suzanne.

Today, I am grateful for weather and the fact we have it.

Today, I am grateful for space heaters.

Today, I am grateful for Christmas lights, garland, and stockings.

What are you grateful for today?

Monday, November 24, 2014

Gratitude Journal #256

Today, I am grateful that I was born 48 years ago. I'm grateful to be back in an even year...although 47 was a pretty good year considering it's odd and even a prime number! (I'm also grateful that I don't take this number stuff seriously.)

Today, I am grateful for my birthday buddy: Aunt Linda. She's my mom's sister, and I've always appreciated that she calls me the best birthday present my mom ever gave her! She taught me how to drive a manual shift car, and she has amazing talents in most everything she turns her attention to...woodworking, decorating, horseback riding, cooking, quilting, you name it. Love you, Linda!

Today, I am grateful for tasty rib eye steak and the man who grilled mine to perfection. Thanks, George!

Today, I am grateful for greeting cards. My birthday cards from friends and family continue to give me joy.

Today, I am grateful for Thanksgiving week, for Junior High show choir Christmas performances, for lights going up all over town, for good smells and happy faces!

What are you grateful for today?

Friday, November 21, 2014

Looking Sideways at Thanksgiving


We all know the clich├ęs of Thanksgiving: "Thank you, God, for my family and friends, my great country, my health, this delicious turkey, yadda, yadda...."

No doubt we are thankful for these things, unless of course your family has taken the fun out of dysfunctional or the turkey is dry. Then, you're thankful for the moisture cranberry sauce adds to the turkey or for the fact that your family is complaining about dry turkey in another state.

Let's shake things up this Thanksgiving by looking under the surface of our gratitude and examining those under-appreciated things that make life pleasant--or perhaps even possible--moment to moment. Let's look closely at our lives and figure out what we're neglecting that really deserves our gratitude.

For example, I'm grateful for the little white cardboard box that Jack used to bury his dead betta early this week. I'd purchased the box for pennies years ago with vague crafty plans for it but never got around to using it. Jack absolutely didn't want to flush his fish down the toilet, the box was just the right size and easily buried. Jack's visiting the grave each day after he comes home from school. Putting the fish in the box gave some closure to Jack as he learns how to mourn. That cheap little box has value I'm so grateful for.

I'm also grateful for the many customer service people I've encountered lately. No one has been rude or short with me in a very long time, and now that I think about it, I've noticed more smiles lately. The pharmacy tech I saw Tuesday gave me a smile that positively blew me away. I've been blithely taking their good service and attitude for granted. Shame on me! I've got to smile more myself and show more of a positive attitude, to pay the blessing forward.

This morning on the ride to school, we were stuck behind a bus so the car filled with diesel exhaust. Nick said, "Whatever that is we're breathing in, it can't be good for us." Probably not, but it made me think how much we take breathing fresh air for granted. If you live in Beijing, however, you probably don't take fresh air for granted at likely want to bottle that gaseous ambrosia and sniff it hourly in a formal worship service.

Which brings up a good point. One person's taken-for-granted blessing is another's precious desire. Don't worry if your sideways look at Thanksgiving yields up results that might seem silly to someone else. Look for things that bless you in unexpected ways or strange places, and then let gratitude fill you up. Your gratitude might even move you to act in some unusual ways, but so be it. Go with the flow.

That's why I'm going to buy a bunch of sanitary napkins to donate to our local food pantry.

Are you up for this Thanksgiving challenge? Will you spend these days leading up to Thanksgiving searching your life for those things you're taking for granted?

Actively looking for things to be grateful for...let's give it a try!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Gratitude Journal #255

Today, I am grateful that fifteen years ago, Nick was born. He weighed 6 pounds, 15 ounces and measured 21 inches long.

Now he's taller than I am.

Oh, how I love this young man!

What are you grateful for today?