January 16, 2021

Lessons in gratitude

We must find time to stop and thank the people who make a difference in our lives.” ― John F. Kennedy

In keeping with the Thanksgiving holiday, I’ve been reading a lot about gratitude – how to express it, what makes it most meaningful and the true meaning of living a grateful life.

Last week, I suggested being listing two or three things/people/experiences that you appreciate and including the reasons you are thankful. In other words, if you’re thankful for your home, what about it makes you happy?

This week, I want to add a few other thoughts on the subject.

Thank you notes

When I was a kid, my mother taught me to send thank you notes for gifts and other favors. It’s good manners, she said.

It’s also a nice way to let friends and family members know you appreciate them and don’t take their generosity for granted.

I’m also reminding myself to express gratitude in everyday situations – to the grocery store clerk who sacks my food, to the neighbor who offers a helping hand, or the driver who lets me into a crowded lane of traffic.

Give thanks for more than things

Being thankful for the people in your life can be more meaningful and have more emotional impact than being grateful for possessions. I’m not discouraging you for appreciating your home or your car or for living in a free country.

I’m just letting you know that when we take time to appreciate friends and family, verbally and in a journal, it enriches our lives all the more.

One more point. I’m told that if you develop a habit of being grateful, of being on the lookout for the gifts of life, it can lead to a greater sense of happiness and well-being.

Take it a step further

Earlier, I mentioned being thankful for a place to live. My home is on my gratitude list often because it offers me safety, comfort, friendly neighbors and a haven for writing.

But so many don’t have all the gifts that come with having a home. Just down my street under an overpass is an encampment of folks who have nothing but a tent as a dwelling.

If I want to act on my gratitude for a home, I can support efforts that seek to provide housing for people living on the streets. My husband and I have worked at a homeless drop-in several times and have given monetary support. I expect our focus on serving the homeless will continue.

Writing spark

Consider with your journal:

  1. Is there someone you need to thank either with a note or an e-card?
  2. Write down the people you are grateful for and why you feel that way about them.
  3. What on your gratitude list motivates you to reach out and have an impact?

“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.”
― Marcus Tullius Cicero

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

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.

 

 

Learning to read

“Everywhere I have sought peace and not found it, except
in a corner with a book.
” ― Thomas a Kempis

A not so funny thing happened to me on the way to getting a bachelor’s degree in journalism. I learned to hate reading. That’s right – I hated it. Here I was, a person who supposedly loved words and loved to write, but I didn’t want to read.

There was a good reason for this sorry situation. In college I had to read so many tedious textbooks and spend endless hours at the library poring over boring research materials. The result was that reading became a chore. It wasn’t fun. It was drudgery.

In my young adult years, I read lots of newspapers and magazines. If I read a book it was usually nonfiction. I’d been burned by too many dull pages of stuff I had to pound into my head so I could pass some exam.

My awakening

Now, to me, this should not be. I think an essential part of the educational process should be instilling in people a love of all kinds of written works – fiction, nonfiction, history, current events, etc.

After all, there is tremendous knowledge to be gained from this one simple thing. If we want to keep learning and growing after we complete an education, one of the best ways is through reading.

Fortunately, my aversion to reading dissolved when a friend invited me to his book group. This bunch picked some great books of a wide variety and I had a blast reading and discussing them. A whole new world opened up to me and I haven’t looked back.

Making up for lost time

Nowadays, I’m known to have at least two books going at once – sometimes three or more. I listen to audio books when I walk, read my Kindle every night before I go to sleep, and turn the pages of a paperback whenever I can.

Many of my friends are avid readers and I’m forever pestering them for book suggestions.

I’ve shed my ill-gotten distaste for reading and now I can’t get enough of it.

It’s a good thing, too. I call myself a writer and devote myself to the craft. How can I expect to be good at writing if I don’t read?

I just have one rule, though. If I don’t like a book, I put it down. My days of reading something that bores me are over.

PS: A corollary to this rule is that I can read whatever I want. Right now, in the midst of a pandemic and general worldwide chaos, all I want to read are detective mysteries and courtroom dramas. Thank God for Michael Connelly and John Grisham.

 

Writing spark

Consider keeping a book journal. You can keep one online at Goodreads.com or do it the old-fashioned way in a notebook. The advantage of a website like Goodreads is that you can connect with friends and find out what they’re reading. You can also write book reviews and keep a record of what you’ve read.

 

Defeating the cowardly lion

The Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz

I’m afraid there’s no denyin’
I’m just a dandy-lion
A fate I don’t deserve
I’m sure I could show my prowess
Be a lion, not a mouse
If I only had the nerve

 

Years ago, I made one of the most courageous decisions I can recall. It may not sound like a big deal, but for me it was a huge step. I decided to join Toastmasters so I could overcome my fear of public speaking.

At the time, I was deeply shy, overly introverted and struggled mightily in social situations. I did okay one-on-one and in small groups. But put me in front of an audience and my heart pounded, my mouth went dry and my voice hushed almost to a whisper.

Anxiety about public speaking is not unique, of course. It often ranks high on top ten lists of things that people fear most. One such list ranked fear of public speaking above fear of death. So I wasn’t alone in my dread.

Why I did it

I didn’t become a Toastmaster just so I could conquer one of my demons. At the time, I was a budding speechwriter. I felt I needed to learn everything I could about the art of public speaking so I could write topnotch speeches. Plus, I could market my speechwriting business by making presentations and talks.

Joining Toastmasters was a game-changer for me. I spent five years in that small and close-knit club, got two Toastmasters certifications and even won a public speaking competition. One speech I gave turned into a book – My Father’s Eyes.

But the best part of the experience was that it freed me from my shy little shell. I became more self-confident and comfortable in social situations.

BT and AT

It’s been 25 years since my Toastmasters days and since then I’ve given countless speeches and conducted many writing workshops. I now talk to total strangers in the grocery store and my husband has even accused me of being an extrovert!

Becoming adept at something that once terrified me was so pivotal that I sometimes look at my life in terms of Before Toastmasters (BT) and After Toastmasters (AT).

But like the cowardly lion in the Wizard of Oz, I found I had more courage than I thought. I just had to grab hold of it and hold on for the ride.

 

Writing spark

It takes courage to live fully and overcome our fears. It takes courage to live, period – especially in this chaotic time. This week’s writing spark is about courage – big steps and little ones. You may want to focus on a momentous act of courage in your life or think about the daily acts of courage that get you through. Here are two thoughts to get you thinking and writing:

 

What is the most courageous decision you’ve made or the bravest thing you’ve done? How did it turn out and how has it impacted you and your life?

What small acts of courage can you identify in your daily life?