Jean Anne Costa
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Outward Bounds

Affirmation: I embrace stepping outside of my comfort zone.  
I’m a
huge fan of the TV show Dancing with the Stars. I’ve been a fan since the very
beginning. I jokingly say it’s because there’s no sex, violence or foul
language. I can watch it with my grandchildren or my mother. How many shows are
out there that meet those qualifications? I also love to dance.

On the show, about a dozen celebrities learn to dance different ballroom dances with a professional dancer. They get to wear these sparkly, colorful, fun costumes and learn a new dance or two each week until the final week when one of the couples is declared the champion for that season and they get the famed Mirrorball Trophy. It’s such fun to see the people progress. I find it very inspirational. Sometimes there are celebrities who have serious disabilities but they don’t let that stop them. In 2011 TJ Martinez won the title. He was a wounded Iraq war veteran with serious burns to his whole body, including his face. He actually lost an ear in the explosion. Did that keep him from giving it his all? When I watched him dance and saw the joy that emanated from his whole being, I completely forgot about his disfigurement. I obviously wasn’t the only one because he was that year’s champion.  
On
the show, about a dozen celebrities learn to dance different ballroom dances
with a professional dancer. They get to wear these sparkly, colorful, fun
costumes and learn a new dance or two each week until the final week when one
of the couples is declared the champion for that season and they get the famed
Mirrorball Trophy. It’s such fun to see the people progress. I find it very
inspirational. Sometimes there are celebrities who have serious disabilities
but they don’t let that stop them. In 2011 TJ Martinez won the title. He was a
wounded Iraq war veteran with serious burns to his whole body, including his
face. He actually lost an ear in the explosion. Did that keep him from giving
it his all? When I watched him dance and saw the joy that emanated from his
whole being, I completely forgot about his disfigurement. I obviously wasn’t
the only one because he was that year’s champion.

Sherri
Shephard, from the TV program The View was one of the contestants this year,
2012. She was determined to do well. She wasn’t a little lady and I could only
imagine how mentally and physically challenging it was for her to learn those
dances. She really wanted to win. She was traveling between the show she
regularly hosts in NY City and the Dancing show in Los Angeles. It must have
been a grueling schedule. I know she had all the advantages that money can
provide but it doesn’t lessen the hard work she had to put forth. She was
eliminated in week four. She cried and cried. But, before they could say
goodbye, she had something she wanted to share with the viewers. “If you don’t go towards the thing you fear, you won’t be
able to say you lived.” She went on to say that you should run towards that
thing you fear because what you’ll find on the other side, is simply amazing.
I mentioned to several of my friends that I was somewhat afraid
of my upcoming trip to South America. One of them said, “Oh, Jean, that’s
great! Because when you come home, you’ll feel so good about what you’ve done.”
I know she’s right. Her comment gave me a sense of optimism and excitement,
instead of dread and anxiety.

My husband and I did an Outward Bound in 2000. We spent 5 days
canoeing through the Everglades. Now, I want to share that I am a city girl. I
was raised in Queens, New York. Our home was on Grand Central Parkway. I mean,
right on it. I was riding the buses and the trains by myself by the time I was
10. The “country” was the property fenced in around the hospitals that bordered
our three block neighborhood. And now, I’ve been invited by my husband (born in
Brooklyn) to go on an Outward Bound. He was on the Outward Bound board and
thought this was a good idea. I got a tape about the Everglades. There were
snakes and alligators, not to mention other creepy crawly things. But this was
the year after I finished treatment for breast cancer and I figured if I could
go through that, I could probably canoe through the swamps. I invited a friend
to go with us and she was shocked, “What is the purpose of this excursion?”
Well, if you needed to ask that, I figured you really didn’t need to come
along.

So, we went. We brought along our son who was in his twenties
and our teenage daughter. The good news when we arrived was that we weren’t
going to be in the swamp, we were canoeing through the Thousand Islands. Whew!!
On our first night we had to create an island. We took boards from the bottom
of the canoes and lashed them together on top of the canoes. This was our
“home” for the night. My first night to ever sleep outside, outside under a sky
that had more stars than I had ever seen before. I learned a lot during those
days. I learned that my daughter was an amazing person. She never complained.
She just did whatever was needed, my son too. My husband was as kind and
gracious in the wild as he is in civilization and I learned that I could be an
indian or a chief. I could both follow and lead, whatever was required. And, I
learned that I could survive in a situation I never even imagined. Now, when
Sandy and I find ourselves doing something that’s challenging, outside of our
comfort zones, we refer to it as an “outward bound experience.” It’s funny how
often we find ourselves in that kind of a position. The purpose of going
outside of your comfort zone it to empower you, that’s the purpose. Life is
challenging, there’s no two ways about it. The only way to bolster your
confidence is to do those things that frighted you, “to run towards them” as
Sherri said. You not only receive the gift of empowerment, many times you find
joy and fulfillment from making your way to a whole new place.

Fear is a debilitating disease. I believe we make more decisions
based on fear than any other reason. It needs to be recognized and overcome.
There’s a wonderful tale about a guru who treks all over the land, sharing his
wisdom and compassion. One day, he decides to return home. When he walks into
his house, he is met by several huge ferocious monsters. They are drooling and
their fangs are bared. He looks at them and asks, “Why are you here? What is it
that you need?” and half of them disappear. He then asks the others, “Why are
you here? Is there something I can do for you?” and they disappear, all except
one. He is the biggest and the most frightening of all of them. He is growling
and hissing and drooling but the guru is calm. He goes up to the monster and he
puts his head into his mouth and with that, the monster evaporates.

This is the challenge; to face our fears with love and
compassion, to put our heads into the monsters of life. Sometimes we get to
choose our outward bounds and sometimes they are thrust upon us but if we have
faced those events that take us out of ourselves and we’ve survived, we will be
as prepared as possible for those events that we never even imagined.

You Only Live Once

Affirmation: Because I am open and accepting, I am invited by family and friends to join them in fun experiences.

YOLO! YOLO! YOLO! My teenage granddaughter chanted when I told her I’d go to scuba diving lessons with her. It’s so great having most of my family close by, especially my grandchildren. My granddaughter is a beautiful “child” inside and out. I’m very proud of her and of her mother’s consistent guidance and influence. It’s fun and educational to have someone her age in my life.

“What does YOLO mean?” I asked. I was told it’s an acronym forYou Only Live Once. This is not the first time she has brought me the gift of a new word or concept. She keeps me “in the loop” of current events and modern happenings. It’s certainly not essential to my well being but it’s nice to have some knowledge of present day fads.“Grandma, would you go into a shark cage? “Sure,” I replied, “as long as it’s not in the water.” “You got me!” she smiled, and then we discussed small steps towards her goal of swimming with the sharks, “Maybeyou should learn how to scuba dive first,” I said. “OK, will you go with me and learn too?” 

Well, I’m somewhat claustrophobic I must admit. I remember being in a tiny crowded elevator going up to the top of the Empire State Building and not being able to catch my breath. So, the thought of being strapped into a scuba suit and plunged into water is not very appealing. But, I’ve just been invited by my teenage granddaughter to join her on a great adventure. What would you say? “Sure,” I replied and that’s when she chanted “YOLO! YOLO! YOLO!” She went on to explain that it comes from a rap song done by someone named Drake and that I wouldn’t like the rest of the song. (I’ll take her word that’s probably true.) But, I love my new acronym and I love her.
 
I was also invited by my favorite (and only) daughter-in-law to go with her to see her family in Ecuador. I have many reasons for not wanting to be in a third world country where the economy is unstable and I don’t speak the language but I love the idea of immersing myself in the Spanish language and culture and I love my daughter-in-law. So, I said “yes” to that invitation too.

I met a group of women many years ago all of whom were widows. They had traveled to the United States from Europe. They informed me they never turned down an invitation. “If you stop saying yes, people will stop inviting you and life can become very lonely.” I listened and made up my mind right then and there that I wasn’t going to wait until I was a widow to accept the generous invitations of friends and family to join them in fun events.
I know we need to be discerning about our choices. We don’t want to be human “doings.” We want to weigh and carefully choose our options but if you’re not open to the invitations you might find there aren’t that many choices out there for you. I’m speaking here about healthy choices, not about choosing activities that are detrimental to your well being. I’m not speaking about saying “yes” to anything offered, like drugs or alcohol or other unhealthy activities. I’m talking about making your world smaller and smaller by letting fear or laziness or judgement keep you from trying new things, meeting new people and having new experiences. I have had so many experiences where I was hesitant to say say yes but did and had some of the best times of my life.

The family was once invited to a friend’s lake house for a weekend and I didn’t want to go. The thought about the amount of work it would take for me to prepare for the trip almost exhausted me before I even began. You’d think I would have already learned it’s all about the journey, not the destination. It’s about enjoying the moment, not trying to predict the future or ruminating over the past. But, I knew, I truly knew I would need to pack, buy food for ten people for 3 days, pick up the grandchildren and my mother and do all the driving for almost two hours. Then, I’d have to unpack the car and make the beds, cook dinner and then try to sleep in a strange bed in a strange place, not to mention balancing all the personalities: four grandchildren ranging in age from 11 to 16, and my mom who was in her late 80s at the time and Sandy, my husband, who hates the water or at least has a much greater respect for its dangers than I.

For heaven’s sakes, at the time I was 63 years old. I should have known by then what I wanted to do and didn’t want to do, what would make me happy and what wouldn’t. Just say “No thanks, I don’t want to do that.” I have friends that wouldn’t even consider taking on such an outing, but the invitation had come from some very dear friends and we don’t get a lot of invitations to spend time in someone else’s lake home. In fact, we’ve never gotten an invitation like this before. “Come” they said, “bring the whole family.” I felt an obligation to accept their generous offer.

I did it all, all the preparation. It wasn’t nearly as daunting as I’d imagined. We arrived right after sunset. I walked out onto the deck and there was the full moon, so big it looked artificial. My heart and soul soared and tears filled my eyes and for the next two days, I had moments of the most exquisite joy. I felt like I was on drugs, the drugs of life. I was living life to the very fullest. It brought to my mind the poem: Life said , “Come to the edge.” And I said, “No, I’m afraid. I’m weary.” And, life demanded, “Come to the edge!” and so I went and life pushed me and I flew!
 
My husband, friends, and grandchildren windsurfed, kayaked, laughed and played. My mother laughed and overcame her fear of riding in a speedboat for the first time. She was made to feel special and she loved being with everyone. Me? I was filled to the brim with gratitude and joy!
 
When I lived in Cincinnati I met some amazing people, people who became life long friends but I also met a lot of people who kept their world as small as possible. I remember a native of Cincinnati telling me they had new neighbors. When I asked if they had gone to meet them, she told me “no” she didn’t have room in her life for any more people. Oh my! I was truly floored. It never entered my mind to close the door on the possibility of meeting someone new, someone who could become a wonderful new friend.
One year my then six year old grandson went to away camp. He was so excited about going. I asked him why he was so excited and what he was most looking forward to. He told me he was excited about his new best friend. As far as I knew, he didn’t know anyone else who was going to this camp. I asked him, “What new best friend?” “The one I’m going to make.”

That’s how I want to live life. I want to believe because I am open and accepting, my new best friend is out there waiting for me to meet, or that new adventure is out there waiting for me to experience. My granddaughter is right, Drake (whoever he is) is right. YOLO! YOLO! YOLO! This is it! This is our once in a life time opportunity. Don’t let it pass you by. Say “yes.” Yes to life, yes to new experiences. Yes, yes, yes!!

Keeping Out of the Cave of Phantoms

Affirmation:  When I stay focused on the present moment, my life is richer and less stressful.
A trip looms in the future, a trip to another continent, a third world country.  I know how lucky I am to have this opportunity and I am excited about it but if I am I not vigilant I walk into the “cave of phantoms” and it is both dark and frightening.  
I am no stranger to fear and anxiety.  I can clearly remember the first time it raised its ugly head and entered into my life.  I was an older student returning to UNC to do a Masters in Social Work.  I have never considered myself to be a gifted student.  My accomplishments come more from a gift of perseverance and perhaps even the naive assumption that I can do anything if I decide to do it and stick to it.  So, I took a bunch of baby steps to arrive in this Master’s program.  
My first step was to sign up for a GRE review course.  Other than the fee, there was nothing intimidating about it.  I was simply going to see what I might learn.  It was fun.  So, I thought, “I’ll take the exam.  Why not?”  And, to my amazement I did pretty well.  “Well, I might as well apply to a program.”  I had a dear friend who had just gotten her MSW and the subject was of great interest to me.  I filled in the application for the part time program and within a short period of time, I was accepted.  I later learned they had hundreds of applications.  They accepted 23 people and I was one of them.  There I sat that first day with 22 other people all of whom seemed to have been in the field before.  I had been a math major and a teacher.  What was I doing here?  But, I believed God had a plan for me.  I didn’t have a clue what it was but I was willing to be His/Her tool and it appeared a door had opened and I chose to step through.  It took me five years to complete the degree but I did it.

But, being back in school with all the tests, assignments and internships (62 credit hours) and final exams, took its toll on me.  I would have days when I felt like I’d had ten cups of coffee but I hadn’t.  I’d awaken shaking inside and all my tools that I’d developed over the years didn’t seem to help in anyway.  I actually experienced several anxiety attacks but lucky for me, I was studying exactly what I was dealing with and so I could easily diagnose myself and get help.  Since then, anxiety had visited me on (and luckily) off many times.  I see it.  I know it but so often, I can do nothing to alleviate it except to know, it will pass.  Then, I saw a television commercial about the end of the world.  

The rumor is the world is ending (again) when the Mayan calendar ends, December 21, 2012.  The commercial was for retirement insurance and it pointed out that if the world was ending as predicted, you didn’t need insurance but just in case it isn’t, you might want to still be prepared.  
I fully recognize that I am mortal.  Besides being a cancer survivor and being an active part of both the Duke Cancer Patient Support and the Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Advisory Boards, I was a Hospice patient care volunteer and did my first MSW internship with Hospice of Wake County.  I lost my father when I was 36 and all of these factors have combined to create in me a heightened sense of awareness that I may be only one breath away from the next life.  I try to keep that thought with me at all times for both myself and for my loved ones. 
So, when the insurance commercial came on it really made an impact on me.  I don’t know why perhaps it was simply the way it was portrayed; it was whimsical and silly but it also presented a very real possibility.  We are spinning through space on one of billions of planets among billions of solar systems.  We’ve all seen the disaster movies about comets hitting the earth, or the sun getting too close or too far or our axis slightly tilting and sending us all floating into outer space.  It’s true.  Any day now, the planet could implode or even more likely, we could die in a car crash or some other common accident. 

If you ever get a chance, go to the Newseum in Washington, DC.  It is six floors of everything pertaining to the news as it was and as we now know it.  It’s filled with fascinating exhibits and interactive experiences.  On the main floor is the antennas from the top of the south building of the World Trade Center and on the wall are the front pages of all the major newspapers announcing the events of September 11, 2001.  There’s a reminder that we don’t have a clue what’s facing us from moment to moment, no less far out into the future. 

The Buddhist tells us to “imagine the glass broken.”  He reminds us that life as we know it is fragile and temporary.  It’s not morbid.  It brings us a greater realization of the preciousness of what we have.  We need to treasure it.
Now, whenever anxiety arises I think only of the present moment.  I completely let go of the unknown or perhaps dreaded future.  Why should I be anxious or worry about something that may never take place.  Not that I will necessarily die and my future will end but I can only plan for whatever it is I want to happen, after that my future, my days are in the hands of God.  I haven’t got a clue what they will bring and because of that thought, I find myself at peace.  The anxiety seeps away.  I recall Shakespeare, “Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.”  Yes, I may be here for another 30 years or more.  The world may last for centuries to come but none of that is any concern of mine.  The future is just that, a world unknown and I will not allow myself to be afraid of the phantoms I may never meet. 

Attachment-The Third Klesha

Affirmation:  I love unconditionally, non-judgmentally and without attachment.
The homily was from John 12:20-33, “(25) whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.”  I must say I was a little worried by this scripture.  I love my life.  Does that mean I am destined to eternal hell?  I’ve worked really hard to reach a place where I can claim that.  I haven’t always felt that way and personally, it feels great.  According to the priest I was in deep trouble.  I really wanted to put my hand up and say, “Father, I don’t believe that.  Can we discuss this a little further?  I have a few ideas and I’d like to open this whole concept up for more discussion.”  Unfortunately, or perhaps, fortunately, that is not an option that I’ve ever seen claimed in the middle of mass.  Oh, I’ve seen people get up and walk out when they disagreed with what was being said but I’ve never (and I’ve been going to church for well over half a century) seen anyone ask for clarification during a sermon. But, that gave me the opportunity to look at this closer and to examine what I think Christ was telling us.  Most of His message is about one thing, Love.  So, how would this scripture be interpreted in the light of love? 

Have you noticed that we are creatures of habit?  Speaking of church, have you noticed that people always tend to sit in the same section, some in the same pew and others only in one specific seat?  Someone sat behind me one day and I heard her say in exasperation, “Someone is in my seat.”  Now, I’m not familiar with all the places of worship in the world but in the churches and synagogues I’ve been in, I’ve never seen a nameplate on the seat of a bench.  I am fascinated by this desire for certainty.  The gym I belong to has several types of fitness classes and there too people seem to need to be in the same place every time they attend a class.  One day, I watched a gentleman set up his equipment in an area he wasn’t aware “belonged” to another lady.  She came into the class and went over to him to tell him he was in her spot.  I was dumbfounded and I must confess I judged harshly even though it had nothing to do with me.  I was curious how this interaction would go and was charmed when the usurper apologized for not paying closer attention, thanked her for informing him and picked up his stuff and moved over.  I’ve also been in a similar situation in a dance class and couldn’t figure out why this woman who came in late kept stepping on my toes as we bounced across the gym floor until I finally realized I was in her spot. 

My main concern with this type of attachment is for my own well-being.  I’m afraid if I stay in the same place whenever I’m in a familiar locale, my mind will stop expanding, my neurotransmitters will get smaller and smaller and so will my whole world.  I know the importance of stepping outside of my comfort zone.  If I’m aware of my desire for routine, even small ones, like eating at the same place in the kitchen every morning or choosing the same food for lunch every day, and choose differently periodically, I know that adjusting to larger challenges will be easier and not only will my mind not shrink but my world won’t shrink.  I don’t want to live in a small world;  I’m all into keeping “green.”
There is a tale about a Buddhist monk who was being threatened by a civilian soldier.  The soldier shouted at him, “Don’t you know who I am?  Don’t you know I can take your life?”  The monk looked at him calmly and said, “Don’t you know who I am?  Don’t you know that I don’t care?” and then he slowly walked away.  That is not being attached.

Patanjali, the grandfather of Yoga claimed that by practicing the eight limbs of yoga one would be helped with conquering the five human afflictions that cause suffering (kleshas):  ignorance, egoism, attachment, aversion and possessiveness.  The third klesha, raga, attraction, creates in us a pattern of acquisition: we began to pursue human relationships, knowledge, wealth, status, power-anything which might be capable of enlarging and protecting our fragile individualized existence. But because change is the nature of creation, all objects within it are impermanent, and thus subject to loss at any moment.   (http://www.physics.udel.edu/~bnikolic/klesa.html)

In the March 1993 issue of Guideposts Magazine there was a short article by Catherine Marshall called Prayer of Relinquishment.  In it, she tells the story of Mrs. Nathanial Hawthorne, wife of the famous American author. Mrs. Hawthorne wrestled in prayer in the city of Rome one day in 1860.  Their oldest daughter, Una was dying.  As she urgently prayed for thier daughter’s healing a strange thought arose in her, she decided to let her go.  She prayed to God to take Una, if that was best. “I give her to Him.  No, I won’t fight against Him anymore.” According to the story, an even stranger thing then happened, minutes later she went back to their daughter’s bedside and found the girl sleeping naturally, without temperature or restlessness.  She was healed.

When I begin my yoga practice, I do three sun salutations.  In the first one I thank God, out loud, “for the beautiful new day” and as I reach for the ground, (uttanassana) I say “and I relinquish it to You.”  In the second one, I thank God for “this amazing life and I relinquish it to You” and in the third salutation I pray, “Thank You, Lord Jesus for this amazing, healthy, healing body and I relinquish it to You.”  Oh, yes I take it back over and over during the day but each morning I begin anew. 
This is the message I believe Christ was sharing with us.  We must die to self.  We must let go of all the stuff that we think we possess, because in reality it possesses us.  We are being called upon to believe in the goodness and ultimate care of a loving God, someone whom we can trust will care for all of our needs.  We don’t need to be in charge.  We don’t need to hold on tight.  We are being called upon to recognize that everything in our life, except God, is temporary and we are being told that when we can recognize and accept that principle, life will be more meaningful, we will be lighter and freer.   

Finding Your Calcutta

Affirmation:  I have searched and found my “Calcutta.”
“I can’t believe they pay me to do this.  I feel like I should be paying them.”  This was the statement my friend, Oie Osterkamp, made to me about his new position.  He’s the Executive Director of The Ronald McDonald House in Durham, NC (www.ronaldhousedurham.org).  He’s also the founder of a non-profit organization, Sharefish, whose title is taken from an adage his mother use to say to him, “It is better to be a Sharefish than a Selfish.”  His organization fights to reduce the cycle of poverty in Honduras by promoting better living conditions and education.   You can check them out at www.Sharefish.org.
What would you do regardless of whether or not you were paid?  Have you found your passion?  Have you been looking?  How many people have you met who know what that is?  I have several artist friends; painters, writers, designers who are very clear about their passion.  It’s something I’ve envied over the years.  I’ve also been envious of people I’ve read about who knew at an early age what their gifts were and were able to channel that into their life’s work.  One of the women who works at the North Carolina Food Bank once told me when she took her first job, with them, she had no idea she was finding her passion.  She’s been there over twenty years now. 
I’m not speaking about addiction here.  I’m talking about things that help light up your soul and your world.  You know what it’s like when the conversation turns to something that interests you.  All of a sudden, your heart is beating faster and there’s this sense of wonderful excitement that you may not have felt in a long time.  You know something wonderful is being brought forth.  All of a sudden, time stands still and you don’t care about what happened earlier or what you’re “supposed” to do later.

I often think of Mother Teresa when I think of finding my passion.  I know it wasn’t easy for her in any way to step outside of the box and head into the poverty and disease of Calcutta but she knew this was her mission in life.  She had listened carefully to what some may call “that little voice” but which she knew to be her God and followed her heart.  And, she changed the world.

I believe whenever we are doing something positive that brings us joy, we are changing the world.  It’s great if it’s something humanitarian but just by existing in a joyful state I believe we change the atmosphere of the universe. 
Last night I took part in what we lovingly called “The Sandy Summit.”  My husband gathered a group of amazing people for dinner and conversation to help him fine tune his passion, helping corporations and businesses become more humane.  He asked everyone to share their story with each other “and don’t be modest.”  It was wonderful to hear the accomplishments of these men and women.  It wasn’t about bragging; it was about being proud of the work they had done and were continuing to do.  Each person there was passionate about their work.  Many of them were out in the world making it a kinder, more compassionate place.  Sindy Martin, a dear friend, shared she had been asked by one of the local colleges to coach three young women who were being interviewed for PHD programs at prestigious universities and that all three had been admitted to their desired schools.  Everyone applauded!  It’s her passion, she said, to help others become the best they can be. 
I keep a little Hallmark calendar in the back of my journal.  You know the type, the little pocket calendar that people use to use before smart phones.  I separate each square with a diagonal line and in the top I write what I did the day before that gave me joy and in the bottom, I write what I did to help another.  When I don’t need the line, when the top and the bottom entry are the same, I know I lived a day filled with my passion.  I lived that day joyfully giving of myself, of my gifts to make another’s life better. 
That’s how I want to live every day.  I, personally, don’t believe I can do that without God’s guidance.  I’ve been listening very carefully for many many years and I believe on those days when I don’t put a line, those are days when God’s voice has come through loud and clear.  My passion is helping people reframe their thinking so that they believe their lives can be full of love, joy, hope, gratitude and compassion.  I believe if we practice directing our thoughts towards the things that nurture us, when we are faced with the severe challenges that life will bring, we will be able to withstand the evil energy that could penetrate into our souls and minds.  Joel Osteen says “What the world has meant for my harm, God will use for my good, if we believe.”  Believe God only wants our best, trust in that and create and meditate on your positive affirmations and you too will find yourself living a life of passion.  You too will “find your Calcutta” if you haven’t already!

Hope is a Choice

Affirmation:  The best is yet to come.

“Can you get to a place where you believe your best is in front of you?”  This is the question John Ramsey was asked by a friend years after the death of his daughter, JonBenet Ramsey.  He has a book out about his years of grief and recovery, John Ramsey’s Journey from Grief to Hope.  His young six year old daughter was a child beauty pageant queen and she was found dead in the basement of his home in Bolder Colorado in 1996.  The murder has never been solved and there has been an enormous amount written about the case.  He and his deceased wife and family were the target of the investigation for quite a while and were eventually cleared of the charges but doubts still linger. 

I don’t normally follow the sordid details of such stories but just by being alive and keeping up with current events, it was impossible not to know something about this sad story.  I’m not here to pass judgment.  Certainly, I know only the hearsay evidence to which I’ve been exposed and in my heart I want to believe in his innocence.  What I was struck with during his interview with Robin Roberts on Good Morning America was how very sad and tragic this entire story is.  It made my heart ache. 

But, back to the question, I’m sure it’s a question many of us could ask ourselves at many times in our lives.  We have or are going through a really difficult time, a challenging experience and we can’t see any light at the end of the tunnel.  We think this is it; life will always be this grim and difficult.  What does it take to find the ability to turn that around?  Hope, it takes practicing the characteristic of hope. 

Oh, there have been times in my life when hope was missing and who’s to say that that won’t happen again.  But, it’s so wonderful to be with people who give and share their hope when everything looks so dark.  Have you had that experience?  My father and father-in-law died of brain tumors, the same rare type, twenty years apart, a glioblastoma.  I had hope with my dad.  I knew so little.  When my father-in-law was diagnosed, I gave up immediately.  I knew the results.  I’d already experienced them.  But, Joe, my father-in-law was treated at Duke by Drs. Henry and Alan Friedman. (They are not related.)  And, the motto of the Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center is “At Duke there is hope.”  It was inspirational to be with the people who worked there.  They really believed they could cure him.  They believe they can find a way to eliminate this disease and while I must tell you, Dad died, so many more have lived.  They have lived and they have thrived.  There are many stories of people who are living long and wonderful lives because there are people at Duke who believe that they can make a difference and who have made a difference.

Hope is a feeling of positive expectation.  How can one go from despair to hope?  Can one go from despair to hope?  Yes, I believe they can.  Sometimes we may need others to help us.  I remember a woman who was going through breast cancer treatment telling me that if her friends hadn’t pulled her up out of the dark pit she was in, she didn’t think she’d ever have gotten out.  But, also hope is something we can develop, like a muscle.  We can practice it when we’re not in such dire straits.  We can practice believing “The Best is yet to come.”

There’s a book out about The Emotional Life of Your Brain.  It revolves around what is being called “The New Science of Feelings.”  One of the examples of the neuroplasticity of the brain talks about virtuoso musicians and how the part of the brain that involves the movement of the fingers, is larger for them.  It also refers to a study where adults were asked to pretend practice the piano for several weeks and they found they too had enlarged that part of the brain. 

So, as adults we can still change the condition of our brain if we choose.  I know with the epidemic condition of Alzheimer’s many of us are concerned with the health of our brains or those of our loved ones.  It was once believed that adult brains were fixed, permanent and change could not take place.  It’s nice to know they were wrong.  And, once again, it shows the power of choosing and creating our thoughts.  We get to expand those parts of our brains that support our desires to live more positive lives. Remember that which you think about, you bring about.  We can choose to tell ourselves “The best is yet to come” and rest in the knowledge that our brains are receiving that message, our bodies are responding and our innermost desires are being completely supported.

The Fabulous Female

Affirmation:  I treasure and celebrate my femininity.

I was in my late twenties when I read The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan.  I remember being stunned to find out there were other women who felt the same frustration I felt.  I was not alone.  I was already married and had one child and had left my teaching position and the only area of New York I had ever lived in and had followed my husband to a small town in upstate New York so that he could pursue his career.  It seemed like a logical move.  I had worked for a few years to help support our tiny family while he went to school and finished his pharmacy certification.  We now had a new baby and he had a new job and I was ready, I thought, for a new adventure.  I didn’t have a clue what I was getting myself into.  Oh my!  There I was in a new town and I knew no one, No One!  And, I had a new baby, I was unemployed, my husband left every morning for his job and it was snowing.  It snowed all the time, 110 inches on the average every year. 

It was the 70’s and the woman’s movement was in full bloom but I was off in my own little world wondering what the heck was going on in my life.  And then I met a few other women who were wondering the same thing and we began to talk about it and read about it.  Oh, we didn’t burn our bras or go out and picket the legislature but there was a growing sense of awareness about where we now found ourselves but that we never had before explored.  One of the elements of this self discovery was how many choices we now seem to have and also a certain sense that it wasn’t enough to be “only” a wife and mother.  This raised a lot of questions in my mind and also brought on a life-long struggle to find the best place for me to fully express myself; a place of balance between motherhood, wifedom and self-sufficiency.  I’m there now, 40 years later.  It’s been an interesting journey but finally, I’ve arrived. 

March 8th of every year is International Woman’s Day.  March has now been officially declared International Woman’s Month.  I celebrated this year’s day with over one hundred other women and at least one man.  Sister Mary Margaret and Sister Judy from A Place for Women to Gather threw a party and what a wonderful event it was.  There were all ages, races, sizes and shapes and we had all come together to give thanks and praise for being a woman.  It was a reminder of our grace and beauty and also of the price so many brave men and women have paid for us to live the lives we are able to live today.  Oh, let’s never forget the cost of the freedom we have.  It wasn’t that long ago that even here in the United States women couldn’t vote, had limited availability to education, didn’t receive equal pay for equal work and weren’t valued for their contributions to society. 

This was a time to acknowledge and remember the abusive treatment of women that still exists in the world today.  It breaks my heart and makes my skin crawl when I read of and am told about the atrocities that so many women are subjected to in so many parts of the world.  And, don’t think because you may not live in a third world country that it isn’t going on in your part of the world.  It’s going on around the corner, down the street and maybe as close as next door.  But, as far as we need to go to eliminate such abuse is as far as we have come.  This month is our special time to create awareness and to celebrate our femininity.  Don’t forget the rights and privileges we have earned in such a short period of time and the price so many have paid to bring us to this place in time. 

In my study group one of the questions we asked ourselves was, “What other time and place would you have liked to live in and would you prefer to be a man or a woman?”  Think about it.  What is your answer?  We then had the opportunity to discuss what it was like to grow up as a woman in our families.  I am the oldest in my family and my father desperately wanted a son.  He didn’t get one until twelve years after I was born.  I remember his joy.  I was glad it took me so long to fully realize how important it was to him to sire a son.  Up until then, I simply felt like the favored child and for some reason I felt I could do anything.  But, societies restrictions were very heavy and I fell into the role somewhat expected of a young woman.  The saving grace was St. Agnes Academic High School for women.  The women there didn’t know about limits.  Many of my teachers had masters degrees and doctorates and many of my fellow students were looking at careers in medicine and government.  I remember looking around and wondering why I wasn’t pursing a college education and then, because of their examples, I did just that and without any help or guidance from anyone applied and was accepted to St. John’s University.  And, because I didn’t know any better, I applied to the Mathematics program.  There were five women in that program; five women and about fifty men.   

I’m a lucky woman, a very very lucky woman and I don’t want to forget it.  I am my own person.  I get to choose all things in my life, All Things.  I chose my path in life: educations, religion, spouse, career and my government officials, all because of the brave men and women who went before me.  And, now, it is up to us, all of us to pave the way for the rest of the women in the world.  What is the first step?
We must recognize and celebrate our gift of femininity.  We must bring that feminine energy and spirit fully into our world and into the world.  Claim your feminine power and beauty.  Embrace fully your precious wisdom and sensuality.  Know you are an amazing creation.  You can bring forth life for heaven’s sake!  You are a miracle.  Let all the earth shout with joy, “This is woman, honor her and love her.”

Worry and Anxiety

Affirmation:   I avoid all thoughts that weaken me.

Do you ever feel anxious?  Do you ever wake up in the middle of the night with so many things on your mind you can’t get back to sleep?  If you don’t you must already have developed a system that keeps you calm and centered.  It’s not something you can develop when you’re in the throes of what is or appears to be a crisis.  It must be something, some tool you’ve created and use regularly when you are calm.  Then when you are not feeling calm, you use that tool and your body responds with the conditioned reflex, relaxation.
I had a friend tell me that he had a mantra (a repeated phrase or word) he used every time he was at the airport (one of his most stressful environments) but it really didn’t seem to make any difference.  He didn’t see what purpose it served.  He never felt any calmer.  I asked him if he used this tool at any other time and he said, “No.”  Can you see the problem with this?  Every time he found himself stressed, he repeated the same phrase.  He conditioned his response to anxiety.  He needed to practice his mantra when he was feeling calm and centered. 

People I know use meditation to create this sense of peace, others use prayer.  Many in the catholic faith say the Rosary, a set of Our Fathers and Hail Marys that are repeated over and over while moving one’s fingers along a set of beads.  Many meditators finger beads called mala beads while they repeat their mantras. 

When I was going through radiation, it was an extremely stressful situation and I was very anxious.  I also didn’t feel too well so that added to the anxiety.  One of the Duke Cancer Patient Support Counselors set up an appointment with a nurse practioner named John Seskavitch.  In my experience John was a unique nurse.  He focused on healing the whole person; mind, body and spirit.  He had already created several meditation tapes and sponsored many mind-body workshops.  He sat with me and asked me about my faith, my practices and then suggested I repeat the Hail Mary during treatment. 

My walks take me around Apex Lake, a beautiful path close to my home.  I’ve walked it for over twenty years and often use the quiet time to say the Rosary.  I dedicate each decade (a group of ten Hail Marys and one Our Father) to a specific group of people; my family and friends, my church group, the support people in my life, all those special intentions I have in my heart, our military and their loved ones and our world leaders. (I figure they could use all the help they can get with the condition of the world today.)  As soon as I lied down for my radiation treatment after that first session with John, I was no longer anxious.  I was on that path around Apex Lake!  The sun shimmered on the water, the geese and ducks called out, the great Blue Herons stood perfectly still in the water, people nodded and said, “Good Morning!” and I was calm and all was well.

I once read about someone who kept a “worry box.”  All week long, if something came up that he was concerned about, he would put it in the box and he’d tell himself that he’d worry about it on Friday at 5 PM.  Each Friday, he’d go to the box and lay our all his concerns.  What do you think happened?  Most of his concerns had been addressed, had been resolved.  Part of my journaling practice is to look back each month and do a general review of how my life went.  One of the questions I ask myself is, “What was something I worried about that I don’t worry about now?”  There’s always an answer that reflects something that’s been resolved or even more profound, something that never even came into reality. 
George Burns the famous comedienne once said he never worried; it was a useless waist of his time. “Why would I worry about something I can do something about?  I’ll just go do it.  And, why would I worry about something I have no control over?”  Really, isn’t that a futile exercise in self-absorption? 
Not worrying takes practice.  If you’ve developed the worry habit, you can develop the habit to not worry.  You can find some tool, some process that will effectively help you control your anxiety.  One of those tools is affirmations.  “I avoid all thoughts that weaken me.”  Turn your thinking around.  Use your quiet time to assure yourself that all is well, all is well!  Take God’s peace and love and your sense of well-being with you out into your life and into the world.  It’s the work of a life-time but it’s well worth it, don’t you think?   

Manifesting True Dreams

Affirmaion:  I am always manifesting, I manifest to my highest and best.

This week, the third week of February 2012 marks the opening of the new Cancer Center at Duke University Hospital and my husband, Sandy and I were invited to a couple of the ceremonies marking the occasion. 

The new center was the dream of Victor Dzau, the chancellor and CEO of the Duke University Hospital system.  Many people told him it was a crazy idea, an impossible idea for many reasons but especially because of the economy but he refused to believe them.  He had this vision and he set out to make it come true.  This week it became a reality.

I love to see dreams come true.  It’s one of my daily prayers for my children and my grandchildren.  It’s great when I’m a part of it but even if I’m just the observer and can be present for the event, I am thrilled.  Sandy and I went to Nashville for one of my significant birthdays and for part of our trip, we toured the Ryman Auditorium.  It’s the home of the original Grand Old Opry.  We were on the tour with one other couple.  They seemed like simple people.  They were farmers from somewhere in the south.  When we reached the dressing room that use to be Johnny Cash’s the man from the other couple became very quiet.  His wife leaned over to us and said, “Being here is his dream come true.”  To this day I can remember the feeling of honor I had at being present when this man’s dream came true, even something as simple as a trip to the Ryman Auditorium.
It’s been twelve years, almost thirteen that I’ve been out of cancer treatments but I can still feel, with every one of my senses what it was like to walk into the old cancer center.  It filled me with dread.  It was dark and overflowing with people and it had a strange odor.  If my husband had not been at my side, I’m not sure I could have remained standing.  After the visit with the doctor, we then toured the infusion center, the chemo room.  If the hospital seemed to me like a foreign country, the chemo room seemed like an alien planet.  I couldn’t breathe.  And, I knew this was my future, my destiny and my hope.

Fifty thousand people came to be treated at the Duke Cancer Center in 2011.  They came from all over the world. One of the speakers at the ribbon cutting called cancer “the scourge of the 21st century.”  I am sure it has touched your life either you personally or someone you know and love or worse yet, knew and loved.

When I finished treatment, I had an End of Radiation Celebration and invited anyone who had helped me along the journey: family, friends, doctors, nurses and technicians.  I took the opportunity to accept donations toward the Duke Cancer Patient Support Program.  They had helped me so much through some very difficult stages and I wanted to give back.  A friend and I made an appointment with the then head of the Cancer Center and gave him the donations and told him something needed to be done to make the place softer, more comfortable, less frightening.  He said he understood our concerns and he agreed but it was an issue with money and it probably wasn’t going to happen.

Yesterday when I walked into our new building and then into our new Self Image Boutique, I cried.  I know I’m not the only one.  One other survivor was there with me and she too had tears in her eyes.  It’s a beautiful room full of light and soft colors and hope.  The lobby of the new building has a fireplace and a piano and light pouring in from cathedral like windows.  The floor has inscribed in it word of faith and hope that came from the book Finding the Can in Cancer written by four women cancer patients who worked and volunteered with the Duke Cancer Patient Support Program.  The infusion center has small private rooms with TVs and recliners and looks out over a roof top garden. 

I know people who come there for treatment will still be frightened, confused and overwhelmed.  Cancer creates those emotions in the patient and their loved ones but maybe now with a softer, kinder environment and state of the art technology, people will know they will not just be cared for but as the Duke Cancer Patient Support Program mission statements says, “they will be cared about.”

Victor Dzau looked at me that evening and said, “Jean, you have been a big part of this happening.”  I thought. “He’s such a nice man and so good at his job.  No wonder he’s accomplished this amazing feat.  He makes everyone feel important and valued.”  But, that’s not fair is it?  It’s not fair to me and it’s not fair to him.  Our program which began twenty five years ago by Rachel Schanberg at the bequest of her young daughter Linda has been working for compassionate care of the whole person since its inception.  It began in a closet with eighteen volunteers.  Now, they have over two hundred and fifty volunteers and four counselors.  All of their services are free of charge. 
I’ve been a part of the program for over twelve years giving time, talent and treasure.  My husband Sandy has been right by my side supporting me and my efforts in their mission.  We have been working towards creating an atmosphere of love, nurturance and compassion for the whole person, mind body and spirit.  “Treat the whole person, not just the disease!” we’ve shouted.  “Listen to me!  Listen to us!  Listen to all those who have had this disease!  Hear us!”  I’ve shouted it with all of my being, every cell, every way I know how and last night I was told by a gracious visionary, “I listened.”  Thank you.  Thank you from the bottom of my heart and from all of us who have worked so very hard to create a place of true healing.  Let the healing begin.

Ingratitude

Affirmation:  I let go of ingratitude.
Lent is almost upon us.  Ash Wednesday is next week.  Lent in the Catholic faith is the time to prepare for the death and most importantly, the miraculous resurrection of the Son of God, Jesus Christ.  Wow!  What a story!  And, we are called to travel with Him on His journey.  We are called to stay present to the time, the season, the death and the rebirth.  It’s a time that takes many of us out of the depths of “winter” and into the fullness of “spring.” 
One of the challenges offered to us during Lent is to make it a time of Sacrifice.  We are encouraged to deny ourselves and to do works of mercy.  Oh, I don’t think it has to be any great effort but we are called to do something so that we are more aware of the 40 days; so we stay more present to the Lenten season.  It’s a gift we give ourselves.

How can denial and service be a gift?  Well, it takes 40 days to develop a habit and this type of exercise can be seen as an opportunity.  I know many people who use the Lenten sacrifice as a time to diet.  I can’t count the number of people who have shared with me that they have given up chocolate or sugar.  Maybe that’s worked well for them.  Perhaps every time they have that craving, they find themselves more present to Christ and his sacrifice.  But, besides a restrictive diet, we need to take up the badge of service, find something we can do for another.  There are so many in such dire straits right now.  How can I be of more service than I already am?  Maybe I need to go through the house and give up a few coats and other items of clothing.  One of my dear friends is always reminding me that someone else could be using the items I have left untouched for months and in some cases, years.  Perhaps, it’s a time for me to be a prayer warrior.  How can I add more prayer to my daily practice especially for those most in need?  Maybe I can send a note or make a call once or twice a week to friends I haven’t touched base with in a while?  I can pray for them, offer up a day for them, send them a visible sign of my love, like a note or a care, even an email might work.  I’m sure you can think of many other ways you can give back.

And, what can I give up?  What new habit cans I develop over the Lenten season that won’t simply reduce my waistline but will add to the quality of my life, my life and hopefully the lives of all those I touch?  I have decided to give up ingratitude.  Ingratitude is defined in the dictionary as “forgetfulness or poor return for kindness received.”  A synonym is “thanklessness.” 

I live a life full of abundant blessings.  I am a very lucky woman.  I am loved by my family and have many wonderful friends.  I need and want nothing.  I am beyond lucky and extremely grateful.  I have hit the jackpot of life.  I am safe, secure, and healthy.  But, every so often envy slips into my psyche.  I’m admitting it.  I can still find myself listening to or watching others and wonder what I did wrong.  Why didn’t I make that choice; why didn’t I travel that path; why do their lives appear so easy, so full?  Sometimes it’s little things that I find myself dwelling on and other times, it’s some major issues.  But, that doesn’t serve me or anyone else.  Whether I credit to God, to fate or to my own hard work for the life I now live, being ungrateful is plain wrong.  With my newest affirmation; “I let go of ingratitude” I find myself noticing when I am undermining my own happiness and I stop and let it go.  Perhaps by practicing letting go of ingratitude for 40 days, I’ll develop a new habit.  Maybe by the end of Lent, I will rise too, to a new awareness, a new way of thinking about my life; a way that brings me and those in my life, a sense of greater peace and joy.