Every Day is Saturday

Finding Joy in the Here and Now

Our Lady of Paris

Notre Dame

Like thousands of others this week I watched in horror as Notre Dame, the grand lady of Paris, was engulfed in an inferno that I thought surely would destroy the entire building. I was so glad I had seen it in person, because it looked as if no one would ever get to experience that beautiful place again. Now we know that the building will survive and be restored, and millions of dollars have been pledged to see that done. Some of the art has been lost, but the vast majority of the structure and its contents have been saved. It’s a miracle, and a testament to the bravery and skill of the firefighters who worked so hard to protect and recover as much as they could.

So now that we know that the worst didn’t happen, I started wondering why we care so much if a building, any building, burns down? What makes us stand in silent shock as we watch an inanimate object go up in flames? Is it just that we as humans value beauty and history, and grieve when these things are destroyed?

I think that for many people walking into a structure that has stood for hundreds of years is a profound experience. It certainly is for me. I’ve had the good fortune to stand in the Colosseum in Rome, the Tower of London, and on the Great Wall of China, among many other ancient sites in the world. I am always moved by the weight of the history that imbues these places, and I feel both insignificant to the life of that place and impossibly lucky to be there.

From stone beehive huts dotted all over Ireland to grand palaces like Versailles, or the many staggeringly beautiful places of worship – St. Peter’s in Rome, Hagia Sophia in Istanbul – we venerate these ancient monuments to our shared story as humans on planet Earth. These are the places we look to to give our lives context. They are the touchstones that we can all point to and say “that has been here before me and will be here after I’m gone.” There’s a solace in that permanence. We need that somehow.

So to watch the seeming destruction of an important focal point of our common humanity disturbs our equilibrium. It makes us feel unmoored, adrift in time.

It’s also an unwanted reminder that all this, eventually, must pass – that we must also one day pass away. We saw our mortality in those flames, and it was unnerving.

But even so, my hope is that we will use this event to move forward with more compassion for each other, that this reminder of the impermanence of life serves to soften our hearts towards our fellow “travelers to the grave” as Charles Dickens put it. I don’t think that’s a morbid thought, but a hopeful one – an encouragement to live fully, now, today, that we make the most of who we are and what we have and those we love.

 

 

Leave a comment »

A Thousand Natural Shocks

ekg (2)

My mother almost died last week. At least, she could have died if the blood clots she didn’t know she had had broken off and stopped her heart. Fortunately that didn’t happen, and she’s home now, taking her blood thinners and glad to be alive, as are all of us, her friends and family. I am profoundly grateful that the clots were found and dealt with before the worst could happen, but for some reason I haven’t felt the elation at this outcome that I believe I should.

So what’s wrong with me? Why am I not jumping for joy? I certainly have shed some tears – saying goodbye to the excellent nurses who took such good care of my mother got me all choked up. Hearing her voice returning to its normal pitch and resonance warmed my heart. Seeing her laugh hysterically at a funny story made me smile and laugh, too. But that sense of overwhelming relief, that feeling that “wow, we really dodged a bullet!” and the accompanying lightness of heart – none of that has happened for me, and it bothers me.

Maybe it’s because I still haven’t stopped steeling myself for the possibility that all this could change in an instant. Even after they started her on the blood thinners and instructed her to stay as motionless as possible, there was a period of time, measured in hours, that she was still vulnerable. Even there, in ICU, with doctors and nurses all around her, the worst could have happened, and there is nothing more they could have done to stop it. Even as I arranged the stuff on her tray, and pulled her blankets up around her shoulders, and kissed her head, I knew that she could be taken from me at any moment. For some reason that tension, that fear, hasn’t left me – even though she’s officially out of danger.

Maybe it’s because I’m older, and death is closer to me and to most of the people I love. I haven’t spent a lot of time up to now thinking about death, but the certainty of it has taken up a small but definite place in my mind. So for the first time in my life I know that death isn’t far away, and I’m not sure how to adjust my worldview to accommodate this new presence in my consciousness.

Maybe it’s because I’m feeling a bit weary of life right now. In the Shakespeare play, Hamlet talks about “the heartache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to” as he contemplates his own living and dying. I sometimes feel that weight of life, that tiredness that comes from facing, over and over, the trials and tribulations that come with being a human being. It gets old, all the facing up to and dealing with and moving on. I imagine most everybody feels this way at one time or another, and probably multiple times. It’s part of the tour package.

Whatever the reason, I have felt that something fundamental has shifted in me. I’m generally an ebullient person, loud and lavish in my love of my loved ones, and I don’t think that’s changed. It’s more that there’s a new note in my song, a low, solemn tone that runs softly underneath, lending a depth to the music I make. I don’t think it will keep me from soaring, but instead, maybe it’s there to keep me more grounded. If that’s true, then that’s a good thing, even if it’s a bit sad. But maybe we need a little sadness to fully appreciate the joy.

photo credit: juhansonin AliveCor iOS screenshot via photopin (license)

2 Comments »

Life, the Universe, and Everything

don't panic

Every year since I was fairly young, 10 or 11, my father has asked me the same question on my birthday:

“What have you learned this year?”

I look forward to this annual ritual, and I usually start thinking about it some days ahead of time. Well, today is my birthday, and my Dad reads my blog, so I’m going to go ahead and answer the question now (Dad, I look forward to discussing it with you later!).

This year I’ve learned some harsh truths:

  • Hard work isn’t always rewarded in the way you hope it will be;
  • Adults in professional situations will smile in your face and lie about you behind your back (yeah yeah I know, but it still surprises me);
  • I am vulnerable to feelings of powerlessness.

I’ve also learned some wonderful truths:

  • I’ve learned not to panic when things go wrong – the situation is rarely as bad as it seems at first;
  • I’ve learned how to embrace my disappointment and move on;
  • I’ve learned that gratitude is the best defense against despair;
  • I’ve learned that what I think is a mistake may actually be just a guidepost on the way to a better destination;
  • I’ve learned that I’d rather be happy than right;
  • I’ve learned that a simple act of kindness, shown to a complete stranger, is the greatest power in the universe.

I don’t have the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything, but I do know this: if you are lucky enough to have people in your life who you love and who love you, the best use of your time on this planet is to protect and nurture that love. By all means do your work, engage in thoughtful debate, support the arts, give to the needy, explore the sacred divine, take care of your body, but – even as you pursue these good things – never forget to love the people in your life.

And never underestimate the impact you have on other people whether you know them or not. It’s a responsibility we all have, to lead with compassion, to listen in order to understand, and not to add to the conflict and turmoil in the world. This is what I’ve learned. My hope is that I am able to live it every day.

************
photo credit: Old Ben Kenobi via photopin cc
 

Leave a comment »

Lessons I’ve Learned from Jack Bauer

24

I’m not ashamed to admit it – I love the TV show “24“. I’ve watched every season since the beginning in 2001, gleefully following the adventures of the main character, Jack Bauer (played by the ever-hunky Kiefer Sutherland), as he has saved a U.S. President from assassination, stopped an imminent nuclear bomb attack on Los Angeles, and generally thwarted terrorist plots against the United States and its interests. Jack is a hero, and therefore totally misunderstood, which led to his rise to the top of the fictional “CTU” (Counter-Terrorism Unit) and, ultimately, his spectacular downfall.

I was so happy when “24” was brought back for a new (albeit shorter) season this year. As I have watched this new story unfold it has reminded me of the lessons I’ve learned from Jack; important lessons about life, survival, and self sacrifice. I wanted to share those lessons with you.

Lesson #1:  If you’re still breathing, there’s hope. If you watch the show you know how many times Jack has been tortured by the bad guys; it seems like every season he gets the ever-lovin’ crap beat out of him at least once (sometimes twice), but somehow, even after being stabbed and whipped and hooked up to a car battery, as soon as he gets free he just pops up, kills all the bad guys in sight, and gets back to the business of stopping that season’s catastrophe. He’s totally focused and completely unstoppable. I think this is a great life lesson – no matter how bad things have been, no matter how badly you’ve been hurt, or delayed, or thrown off course by things outside of your control, you can still bounce back and keep moving ahead. As long as you’re breathing, you have a chance to do what you set out to do.

Lesson #2: Whispering can be better than yelling. Keifer Sutherland gets a lot a flack about the fact that he whispers most of his lines. It’s not just a Jack Bauer character choice – if you’ve seen him in anything in the past 10 years or so, you know that it’s just how he speaks his lines. Yes, it’s annoying, but let’s look at it from a different perspective. The lesson I’ve learned here is that keeping your voice level and at a low volume can not only defuses a tense situation, it can also make people listen to what you have to say more closely than if you’re yelling at them. I’ve seen Jack about to explode with justified anger, but instead of screaming at whoever it was that screwed up, or lied, or whatever, Jack pulls it back, brings it down, and deals with it calmly. Sure, he loses it every now and then, and when he does, it’s really scary! So, save your outbursts for when it really matters – it will have a much bigger impact than running around yelling at everyone all the time.

Lesson #3: The big picture is what’s important, not your place in it. Over and over we’ve seen Jack sacrifice himself – his body, his reputation, his connection to his family – in service to a cause greater than himself. The lengths he has gone to to protect the people and situations in his charge have been extreme. At the end of the last season he found himself in a situation where he had to make a terrible choice:  he could choose to take actions that would keep the world from possibly descending into war, but if he did, he would be branded a terrorist and never be able to return to the U.S. or see his family again. Being Jack, he make the tough choice. I’m sure I will never find myself in that kind of a situation, but it’s good to have an example (even a fictional one) of a person who is willing to give up everything in service to a higher good. We should all strive to be more like that.

Lesson #4: Know when to respect the chain of command and when not to. Jack is constantly coming up against government bureaucracies that get in the way of him getting things done, and he has perfected the art of cutting through the red tape – usually with sudden violence. But at the same time, he tries really hard not to kill anyone on his “side” if he can at all help it. Why shoot the security guard who is just trying to do his job when you can knock him unconscious? Jack knows what needs to happen and how it needs to happen, and he doesn’t have any patience (less so as the years have gone on) with people who try to slow him down. However, he has a deep and abiding respect for the authority of the President, and for the democratic principles he fights so hard to protect. It’s a fine line we all must tread, the one between recognizing our personal liberty and respecting the government of the country we are blessed to inhabit.

Lesson #5: Time is on your side. This seems like a crazy lesson to have learned from this show where everything happens at breakneck speed, where there is no time to eat or to sleep or to even stop to take a breath (I don’t think Jack Bauer has had a bathroom break for 13 years). Somehow, Jack always finds a way to use the time he has to achieve his goal. He squeezes as much as he can out of every moment possible. He also understands the long game – he knows how our reactions to situations can have extremely long-term consequences, and he makes his choices accordingly. Jack has taught me that what we do every moment of our lives matters – not just now, but possibly for years to come. He has also taught me that time is a great healer of wounds, and a great counselor. What hurts us or what we don’t understand now will ultimately be healed and revealed. It is this knowledge that gives Jack the strength to do what needs to be done, the hope of future understanding and reconciliation. Sometimes, in difficult situations, making the right choice isn’t going to be accepted by everyone at the time, but if you understand that eventually it will all work out for the best, it can give you the peace you need to make those difficult decisions. That’s the wisdom of Jack Bauer.

Leave a comment »

The Less Fortunate

soup kitchen square

Over the last few years I have experienced what I would consider to be a certain amount of financial hardship. At the time I was laid off three years ago I had been making a very good salary; so good that my husband and I paid all our bills with what I made, and what he brought home was just gravy. We always had money in the bank, and we never thought twice about buying a new pair of shoes or going on vacation. Since the layoff I’ve been striving to make a living as a self-employed person, which has meant that sometimes I bring in money but most of the time I don’t. It has been an eye-opening experience to find out how much we can live without, and we have. It’s been a very long time since I thoughtlessly purchased anything, and my stuff has been wearing out – I recently had to let go of two pairs of winter shoes because they finally lost their soles. Last year we got rid of our 14-year-old artificial Christmas tree because it was falling apart; I decided we could go ahead and throw it out because I was convinced that our financial situation would be significantly better this year and we would get a new one. It wasn’t. This year, instead of a big tree, I found a 3’ pre-lit tree one at Wal-Mart and bought some miniature ornaments to go on it. From now on I will always think of Christmas 2013 as the year of the Wee Tree.

I’m not telling you this so that you will feel sorry for me. I have been through phases when I felt very sorry for myself indeed, and I was angry that things weren’t happening for me when I was working so hard. I felt like I deserved better, and maybe I did. Maybe I do. I still go through times when the fear of not having the money to pay the bills almost overwhelms me, and I have to fight to shake it off. And sometimes something happens that slaps me upside the head, and I realize how stupid I’ve been.

One of those times happened about six months after I’d been laid off. I was at the grocery store one evening when I was approached by a woman with two little girls in tow. She told me her husband was in the hospital up the street, and her car had broken down. I expected her to ask me for money, but she didn’t.  She asked if I would buy her some peanut butter and bread so she could feed her children.

There’s no way this woman could have possibly known that I was unemployed and watching every penny, and for a split second I thought about telling her about my own troubles. I thought I would say “I’m so sorry you’re having a hard time; so am I” and explaining how I would love to help, but I couldn’t. I didn’t do that, though. I looked at that woman, so desperate that she had to beg for help from a stranger in the grocery store, and I was ashamed of my initial selfish reaction. I told her yes, I would buy some bread and peanut butter for her. When she met me in the checkout line she had added some cheap laundry detergent and a couple of Lunchables – items I had not agreed to purchase. She put them in my basket without looking at me; I’m sure she was afraid I would refuse her. It reminded me of a pet who has done something wrong and avoids catching their owner’s eye for fear of getting into trouble. It broke my heart to see a human being do the same thing.

I paid for her items without comment. When I handed the bags to her she said a very simple “thank you”, and left with her girls. As I walked to my car I saw her heading towards the hospital, weighed down by shopping bags and children. And of course in that moment I realized how very fortunate I was; my misfortune was nothing compared to that woman’s. I had a home to go to and a car to take me there and a healthy husband that shared my burdens. I had nothing to complain about.

I’ve had many ups and downs since that incident in the grocery store. I go through phases where I am so grateful for what I have it takes my breath away, and then I get caught up again in the stress and the worry. Not being able to replace things that have worn out or have broken, and not being able to do even the everyday things like get the oil changed in my car or have my hair done gets really, really old. Sometimes it gets to me. I’m human. I’m sure I’m not alone.

But then I go down to the soup kitchen and serve hot food to dozens of homeless men like I did today, and my perspective clears again. I look at them and wonder how they came to be where they are. Some are obviously dealing with mental and emotional challenges, but most of seem as aware of things as I am. I wonder what decisions they made, or what life circumstances happened to them to land them in front of me, asking for a third and fourth refill of their soup bowls. I wonder if this is the only meal they’ll have today.

Some of the men come prepared with containers to take soup away with them. One guy had a stainless steel kitchen canister, the kind you’d put sugar or flour in to sit on your counter. We filled another guy’s big plastic tupperware container; he said the soup was for his supper the next day. One man came up to the counter wrapped in a blanket; he was given a coat to wear before he left. Many of the men got pairs of thick socks, something we’re told is a vital need in the homeless community. Socks.  Think about that.

I’m not telling you all this so you’ll think I’m great for spending time at the soup kitchen. What I’m ashamed to tell you is that I seriously considered not going today. Why? Because my business has picked up suddenly and I’m busy. I had lots of things to get done today and I almost convinced myself that I didn’t have the time. That would have been a huge mistake.

I’ve finally realized that I’m not helping the poor people with whom I come into contact – they are helping me. I learn from their determination, their courage, their humility, and even from their willingness to be “served” by privileged people like myself. I imagine that sometimes they must feel like animals at the zoo to be gazed at and wondered about by the visitors who come for a time and then leave to go back to their comfortable middle class lives. Some of them smile at me with their eyes and tell me they are blessed when I say “How are you?”  I feel so inadequate to their need. I spoon out soup and try to treat them with dignity and respect while inevitably comparing my circumstances with theirs and feeling profoundly relieved I’m not them.

I know now that I need these opportunities to teach me what being “less fortunate” really means.  It has nothing to do with how much money I make. I need the example of these people who can smile in the face of their difficult lives to remind me that no matter what happens it is up to me to decide if I will respond to my own difficulties with anger or with acceptance. I need them to keep my vision focused on the world around me and not solely on myself. This is a lesson that I must constantly learn, and one that I am in danger of allowing myself to forget in my newfound business. I hope I don’t let that happen.

**********

Thanks for reading my blog!  If you want to know more about me and my journey, check out my book “Everyday is Saturday” on Kindle.  The book is part diary, part memoir, about the first year after I was laid off from my dream job.  I think it has something to say to anyone who is struggling with change.

photo credit: Jeffrey Beall via photopin cc

1 Comment »

%d bloggers like this: