November 24, 2020

Remembering a Saint on All Saints Day

“To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.”
― Thomas Campbell

Today is All Saints Day in many religious traditions, a time to remember those who have crossed over to the next life. It’s a time to reflect on and honor loved ones and friends who are no longer here.

I’ve always liked this particular day, recalling my parents, my brother, my Uncle Melrose and others whom I miss very much. This year, there’s a very special person to add to my All Saints Day remembrance.

Her name is Nancy Lamb, and I know for a fact that she got her angel wings long before she died in August. She helped me through some of the toughest times of my life when I was taking care of my aging mother.

A life well-lived

A gerontologist, Nancy was an expert on issues of aging and death and she advocated for caregivers and those facing end of life issues.

She was also a therapist who helped caregivers cope with the stress and difficulties of looking after aging loved ones. Since we were friends (we met at church), she listened to my woes and refused to take payment.

We would meet for coffee and I would confide in her the pain I felt watching my strong as steel mother slip away. I told her about how agonizing it was to finally have to move Mom to a nursing home, something I never wanted to happen.

A wise counselor

She helped me figure out ways to navigate the health care system and work with those who were involved in Mom’s end of life care.

Through it all, she gave practical advice and listened with compassion and understanding.

I didn’t know much about Nancy and her life until I read her obituary. But I wasn’t surprised at all her accomplishments. She was the first volunteer at Hospice Austin and she helped found two other nonprofits that support seniors.

She was a giver

Giving was at the core of Nancy Lamb; that’s just what she did. I could write at length about all she gave to the community, to schools, her church and many other organizations.

The last time I saw her she was in an assisted living facility, facing her own end of life journey. I will always regret that I was unable to see her during her final months because of the pandemic.

But I am grateful that I knew her and could call her my friend. Today, I sing her praises and remember the grand lady she was and still is, even though she has slipped the surly bonds of earth.

Writing spark

Who have you known and lost and wish to remember on this All Saints Day? A family member, a friend, a teacher or mentor? Recall the gifts they gave you and memorialize them in your journal.

“There is no death, daughter. People die only when we forget them,’ my mother explained shortly before she left me. ‘If you can remember me, I will be with you always.”
― Isabel Allende, Eva Luna

My “wrong turn” turned out to be right

“You wouldn’t believe the power that a little kindness can have on people.” — Mary Jo Copeland, director Sharing & Caring Hands food kitchen, Minneapolis

From my coloring pad

The other day I was on my way to a department store when I took a “wrong turn” and ended up at an intersection I had planned to avoid – mainly because I hate waiting for traffic lights.

There was a man carrying a sign that said “Homeless veteran, Will work.” I thought about ignoring him but the light was slow to change. A few days before, my husband had put some small bills in the car’s console just for moments like this.

So, I rolled down my window and the man approached me. “God bless you,” he said before I could give him the money or say a word. It was a chilly morning and he had on a light coat. I asked if he was warm enough – I’m not sure why. I didn’t have anything but a few dollars to give him.

He was a handsome fellow and he had a kind look on his face. We talked for a few seconds and then the light changed. I had to move on, so we said goodbye.

For some reason that encounter touched me and has stayed with me, in part because homeless people are everywhere these days. They’re camped under the overpasses near our house – their tents and shopping carts and belongings scattered around.

Before the pandemic, my husband and I volunteered at a drop-in center for people experiencing homelessness. I worked in the kitchen preparing food and Tom, a licensed clinical social worker, spent time talking to our guests. We both felt like we were making a tiny but meaningful contribution to the folks who visited the drop-in.

But since March, we have been hunkered down because of underlying conditions that make us vulnerable to the coronavirus. Still, as the pandemic takes its toll and more people lose their jobs and end up on the street, I see the problem of homelessness getting bigger.

It bothers me a lot and I feel powerless to do anything about it – at least right now. Yet I am reminded of a verse from the Talmud: “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.” I didn’t save that homeless veteran’s life, but maybe I helped salvage a few moments of it.

I can still do small things like talk to homeless people on street corners and donate online to causes that benefit folks without shelter. I look forward to the day when I can roll up my sleeves and get back to that drop-in center kitchen. For now, my tiny gestures will have to do.

PS: That “wrong turn” I took – it turned out to be the shortest and most direct route to my destination.Writing

Writing spark

There was an article in the newspaper recently by a woman who wrote that she feared the Serenity Prayer (“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change”) might give us permission to become complacent – especially during the pandemic. She has a point.

She offered up what she calls the Courage Prayer. “God grant me the courage to change the things I can no longer accept.”

What small gesture of kindness can you offer to a friend, neighbor or stranger? How can you be of service to others when you are overwhelmed with staying safe and dealing with the pandemic’s impact? Write down in your journal one thing you can do to help others in greater need. I’ll say it again. If you write it down, you’re more likely to follow through with action.

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.”
― Plato

My gratitude list is shrinking

“Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.” ― A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh

Lately when I make a gratitude list in my journal, the items I write are smaller. As in once seemingly insignificant things/events now are cause for celebration.

My “foolproof” indoor garden

Example: Now that the weather has cooled, I can open the windows and get fresh air. I like listening to the sounds of the city in the background.

Or

I am grateful for the leaf shadows from trees flickering through the windows and onto my floor. The image is dreamlike, soothing.

Also

I’m thankful for my indoor garden. Now I can have fresh basil (my favorite herb) year-round. I’m also grateful that my new garden is supposedly foolproof. That’s cause for a grin because I don’t have a green thumb.

I’m grateful that my book group was able to meet this weekend. We’ve been on hiatus since the pandemic began. What a joy to be sit with friends and talk about books.

My book club buddies

I can’t tell you how grateful I am to get a good night’s sleep. With all that’s been going on in my life, in our country and the world, sleep is a precious gift. I don’t do well without it.

The pandemic has reduced our lives dramatically – activities, travel, shopping, eating out and dozens of other things we once did routinely are now rare, infrequent or gone altogether. It’s kind of like we’ve all been forced into minimalism. As a result, gratitude lists are more likely to focus on what once was mundane or taken for granted.

There are some big things on my gratitude list, too. I’m thankful my husband has felt better for the past few days as he recovers from back surgery. He’s cracking jokes again!

I’m grateful for the feedback I get on this newsletter from Free to Write subscribers.

And I am so happy with the progress I’m making on my first novel. The end is in sight!

Writing spark

What are the tiny things you can be thankful for? A cool, fall breeze. A good book you are reading. And engrossing movie on TV. The way your cat purrs in ecstasy when you scratch his neck. How happy your dog is just to sit by your side. Write down five little things to smile about.

PS: Have you ever tried being thankful for the bad stuff? The things that go wrong in life? It’s tough to do, and I’m not suggesting being Pollyanna about life. But if you can include the negatives on your gratitude list – even some tiny aspect of a bad experience — sometimes you can open the door to a new frame of mind. This works especially well if you keep journaling about it. I challenge you to try it.

“Be thankful for everything that happens in your life; it’s all an experience.”
― Roy T. Bennett

I’m not the listener I thought I was

“It’s important to tell your story. It’s important to listen.”
― Francesca Lia Block

Wheat (from my coloring book)

I’ve always prided myself on being a good listener. Afterall, I spent 12 years as a journalist listening to other people and writing stories about what I heard. Never once was I accused of misquoting someone. Maybe I did and they never told me. I sure hope not.

Lots of people have told me I am a good listener. Some talked and talked and talked and I stayed quiet. But that’s not really a two-way conversation.

And then there were the times I tape recorded the speaker. And even though I listened carefully, when I played the recording, I realized how much I missed.

Reality check

But as so often happens in life, you really learn some things about yourself when you live in close proximity to another person. You learn that you’re not as great as you thought you were.

The other day my husband and I were having a conversation about a stressful subject. He was venting about the topic and I interjected with a comment. He objected and said he just wanted to be heard.

Tom spent many years as a therapist and he told me that one of the most healing things he could offer his clients was just to listen to them. The world is full of people who just want to be heard. It’s kind of sad they have to pay someone to listen.

The difference

It’s a lot harder to really listen to someone when you’re in a close relationship and you’re emotionally involved. When what they’re saying affects you.

It’s different from listening to a politician make a speech or an artist tell you how he creates a painting. It’s different from having lunch with a friend and hearing an update on her life.

So I’ve started journaling about this topic. I’ve already gotten some wisdom by writing about it. There’s probably more to come if I put my pen to the page and listen to my own inner voice.

Writing spark

Consider in your journal whether you are a good listener. Do you really hear others when they are communicating with you? Are you formulating a response while the other person is talking? Do you pay attention to signals from body language and tone of voice? How can you give others the gift of being heard?

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a
listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all
of which have the potential to turn a life around.”

― Leo F. Buscaglia

The news that’s fit to print

Good advice (from my coloring book)

“If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own.”
― Wes Nisker

Not long ago I had a telephone conversation with my pastor in which we were commiserating about all that has gone wrong this year. The pandemic, illness, her house flooding, deaths of two of her loved ones, no in-person church services. The list was long.

I remarked that I can’t wait until January 1 so I can look at 2020 in the rearview mirror. She agreed.

I don’t think I’m alone when I say I’ve felt bombarded this year — by the need to quarantine, the division and racial unrest in our country, the political turmoil. Add to that my husband’s surgery and difficult recovery and the results are overwhelming.

TV news blackout

The stress really got to me last week and I had to promise myself I would stop watching news on television. This is a huge deal for me, a person who spent 12 years of her life as a journalist. I admit I’m news junkie and I’ll probably need a 12-step program to ween myself off the day-to-day drumbeat of local, national and world events.

I subscribe to three newspapers and until I made my recent vow, I watched 1 ½ to 2 hours of television news every day. That’s not counting listening to the news on the radio while I’m driving.

Aside from my background as a journalist, I feel it’s my duty as a citizen to stay informed. If I care about my country, it’s my job to know what’s going on.

I’ve made a deal

Here’s the deal I’ve made with myself.  I can still read newspapers, but TV news is out – at least for the time being. Watching newscasts seems to be more stressful than reading news.

I may have to cut back on newspapers, too, but I’m hoping my current prescription will help me keep my sanity.

January 1 is a long way away and who knows what 2021 has in store for us? And forget New Year’s resolutions. I have another October resolution that I hope will help me maintain calm. Meditation is going to become part of my daily routine.

I’ll let you know how that works out.

Writing spark

In presidential races, there is often talk of an “October surprise,” some event or development that can affect the outcome. How about an “October resolution?” We’ve lived through seven months of the pandemic and all the uncertainty it has caused. Write down one thing you can do to help yourself cope with these troubling times. For me, I’m trying meditation. For you, it might be taking a walk, gardening, some artistic endeavor, playing a musical instrument or reading some escape fiction. Then do your best to keep your October resolution. Let me know how it works out.

“The good news is you survived. The bad news is you’re hurt and no one can heal you but yourself.”
― Clementine von Radics, Mouthful of Forevers

Ode to Thunder

“Such short little lives our pets have to spend with us, and they spend most of it waiting for us to come home each day. It is amazing how much love and laughter they bring into our lives and even how much closer we become with each other because of them.” — John Grogan, author of Marley and Me

Have you ever known anyone who has mischief written all over? You just take one look at them and you know they’re thinking something funny or planning some craziness.

For me, a couple of people come to mind. The comedian and former Senator Al Franken looked that way. Especially when he was on Saturday Night Live he exuded humor and offbeat antics, even when he wasn’t doing anything.

I have a friend in San Antonio named Ken who has the same look on his face. This guy smiles all the time and has a bright light shining in his eyes, both indicators that he finds life a fun and hilarious adventure.

He could have been in show business

And then there’s Thunder, our cat. He’s an old boy now – 17 years – but in his heyday he was a great entertainer.

I could just look at him walking around a room, his white-tipped gray tail pointed straight up, and I’d laugh. I knew it would be no time before he did something ridiculous or funny or outrageous.

You know – cat stuff. I’d open a suitcase on the bed to start packing for a trip and immediately Thunder would climb in and plop down, ready to join us on our journey.

The disappearing cat

Or I’d open a cabinet to retrieve something and Thunder would slip inside when I wasn’t looking. After a while he’d start meowing and it would take us a few minutes to find him.

I had to be careful when I opened our front-loading dryer or he would hop in and go through a heat cycle with the towels.

In addition to being a comedian, Thunder has been a lover boy. He’s spent a good part of his life sitting cross-legged on my husband’s lap.

The other day, I colored a picture of a cat that looked like Thunder and gave it to my husband. It was a big hit, especially since our little boy seems to be near the finish line of his time with us. I imagine we’ll frame that picture and keep it as a reminder of our dear Thunder cat, the born comic.

“What greater gift than the love of a cat.”
― Charles Dickens

Writing spark

I’ve had more dogs than cats through the years. My first dog Daisy, the miniature poodle, was a constant source of entertainment for me and those we knew. She had many adventures and after she died at 16, I wrote her biography – 30 pages of her antics.

Have you had a pet who has brought meaning and laughter to your life? Take a few minutes and write down your memories of them. I hope the exercise brings a smile to your lips.

Candy kiss

“When we lose one blessing, another is often most unexpectedly
given in its place.” ― C.S. Lewis

The last few weeks have been really tough. My husband had major surgery in July and his recovery has been beyond difficult for him. As his partner and best friend, I have been helping him regain his strength, but it’s been a hard road.

There have been times of despair – that our struggle will never end, that my husband will be in endless pain, and many other gloomy prospects.

On top of our personal situation, there is the pandemic and fear that one of us could come down with Covid 19, especially since we are in and out of doctor’s offices and hospitals. The isolation of the past few months hasn’t helped our outlooks either.

The beat goes on

Wait. There’s more. We have two elderly cats, one 17 and the other 18. The younger one howls with great regularity and for no apparent reason.

Cat #2 hasn’t been that high maintenance, but I accidentally struck her with my car the other day. Miraculously, she was not injured. Our cats don’t have 9 lives; they have 39.

I’ve been trying to take care of myself in this trying time – exercising, eating healthy foods, journaling and doing some of my favorite things (coloring and reading.)

Unexpected blessing

Still, it’s been hard to avoid feeling hopeless and to forget the good that is in my life.

And then, out of the blue, a blessing. My niece Caroline and my sister Kathryn sent me a box of Nestle’s Crunch bars – my favorite. I felt so loved and encouraged by this generous, simple gesture.

I think there are 40 candy bars in the box. I tell you that because in the next few weeks I’ll be gaining about 100 pounds. And I’ll love every bite.

Writing spark

What unexpected blessings have you experienced in the last difficult months? How have others shown they care about you? Have you been able to offer encouragement and hope to anyone? My sister has written letters to 50 people, missives of caring to many friends from the past and present. A friend on a long road trip called me unexpectedly to check on my husband and me.

Take a few minutes to write down the blessings you have received and what they mean to you. Consider, too, what you might do to pass on the good wishes.

“When you wish someone joy, you wish them peace, love, prosperity, happiness… all the good things.” ― Maya Angelou

Listen and learn

“Part of doing something is listening. We are listening. To the sun. To the stars. To the wind.” ― Madeleine L’Engle

I’ve always thought of myself as a pretty good listener. After all, as a journalist for many years, my profession required me to listen intently to others and to accurately report the information they provided.

Being able to listen has been a help in my personal life, too. Really listening to my spouse, my family members and friends makes for better communication and closer connections.

Taking listening skills to another level, I find my journal is another great way of listening. I use it to hear the guidance of my inner voice. I use it to hear God’s wisdom and direction. I use it to pay attention to all the thoughts and feelings swirling around inside me and make sense of them.

Two ears and one mouth

You may have heard the adage that God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason. Maybe it’s corny and worn out, but it has a certain wisdom to it.

Listening is powerful. As Leo Buscaglia, a motivational speaker otherwise known as “Dr. Love” said, something as simple as providing a listening ear can turn a life around.

Sometimes, people just need to be heard. That one simple act is a life-affirming gift.

So give that gift to yourself. Confide in your journal. It will never judge you or talk over you or shut you down. It’s always there, ready to listen.

 

Writing spark

Write a letter to yourself expressing your deepest fears, your greatest challenges, or your highest hopes – or write about all three. As you do, listen for nuggets of guidance or wisdom. Sometimes they just come to mind naturally once you’ve fully expressed yourself. 

 

 

Which one(s) are you?

“There are only four kinds of people in the world. Those who have been caregivers. Those who are currently caregivers. Those who will be caregivers, and those who will need a caregiver.” ― Rosalyn Carter

I’ve never been very good at caregiving. I find it draining and limiting and yet it’s an inevitable part of life, as Rosalyn Carter so clearly expressed.

My earliest brush with “caregiving” was many years ago when I became acquainted with a visually impaired man at church.  He was fascinated with my work as a journalist and wanted me to escort him around on Sunday mornings so we could talk.

I was okay with it for a while, but I had other friends I wanted to be with, too. I wasn’t really a caregiver, but more of a helper in this situation. And even that was hard for me.

Uncle Melrose

And then there was Uncle Melrose, who had an intellectual disability and lived in a state institution, then a group home and finally a nursing facility.

It wouldn’t be accurate to call myself a caregiver here, either. It was more like I looked after him.

I made sure he was taken care of, that he had some companionship and was his advocate when he needed medical attention.  The staff at his various residences did all the hard stuff.

Mom

And then there was Mom. She lived to be 95 and the last eight years of her life were tough, especially for her. She was in the hospital so many times I lost count. She had four hip replacements and multiple other surgeries.

The last two years she was in a nursing home. I hated that she had to live there, but there were no other options. Fortunately, she was close by so I could visit her several times a week.

Again, I wasn’t her first-line caregiver, but I was very much involved in her everyday life – making sure she got the attention she needed and being her companion.

My turn is coming

Now I have to face the fact that my husband and I are “seniors” (I hate that word) and that sooner or later I likely will be a real caregiver – one who has the day-to-day responsibility of taking care of my spouse. And/or, my spouse could be taking care of me.

I’d rather not think about it and be an ostrich, sticking my head in the sand and pretending that life will never come to that place.

Yesterday, I did some journaling about this reality and that helped some. I expect I’ve got a lot more to write on the subject in my trusty journal, which has become my friend, companion and sounding board.

“It is not the load that breaks you down. It’s the way you carry it.”
— Lena Horne, singer

 

Writing spark

Which one are you? A former or current caregiver? Someone who be a caregiver or will need one in the future? Set a timer for ten minutes and write about your experiences in the role of caregiver. How does this aspect of life affect you?   

Taking care

“Self-care has become a new priority – the revelation that it’s perfectly permissible to listen to your body and do what it needs.”
― Frances Ryan

My first “work of art”

Frances Ryan (as noted in the quote above) must have a hidden camera on me. Because self-care has become my new priority.

I discovered it while journaling last week. Sounds trite, I know. But that’s how it happened. I was feeling really drained and depressed. The pandemic, racial strife, a struggling economy and worldwide chaos are enough. But I’m facing some health and family issues that are weighing on me as well.

Life seemed gray and listless. I was in a foul mood and had to keep a tight rein on myself so I didn’t lash out at the cats or my husband.

My journal to the rescue

Sometimes when you get like that it’s hard to do anything to help yourself. So I stayed in that unhappy place for a while.

And then I journaled. I just wrote down everything I thought and felt – I was hopeless, empty and in need of nurture.

In the past, I’ve often looked to others or to God to nurture me when I’m down. And to some extent, there’s nothing wrong with that.

But this time, through journaling, I realized that there are ways to take care of myself.

Feeding my soul

Last week, I wrote about the joys of reading. And right now, that’s pretty much all I want to do. I splurged and bought John Grisham’s newest hardback. I scoured the library online for mindless and fun ebooks. And I gave myself permission to read as much as I want. What a luxury that feeds my soul.

And then I stumbled on something at Costco that was a real answer to my need for nurture. It’s a coloring book! It has colored pens and a tablet of designs with inspirational sayings. I am now onto my second “work of art” and I find it absorbing, relaxing and yes – nurturing.

I’ve always told myself I wanted to learn to paint when I retire. I’ve taken painting classes in the past and loved it. Maybe this is a baby step in that direction. Who knows? Whatever it is, I’m loving it.

Just doing these two things – reading and coloring – have hoisted me out of my pit. Hallelujah.

“Be you, love you. All ways, always.”
― Alexandra Elle

Writing spark

Sit down with your journal, take three deep breaths and write down one thing you can do to take care of yourself. If you can think of five, go for it. And then follow through. Make time to do something that feeds your spirit and gives you a boost.