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A Blessed Life

 Affirmation: I enjoy every moment of this blessed life.

The conversation revolved around the needs of the poor and destitute and what we are capable and willing to do to alleviate their sufferings. The news stories revolving around the excitement of the 2016 Summer Olympics were in a sharp contrast to those of the sport stories. They were grim and horrific.  The photo on the front of the August 14th Wall Street Journal was that of a little toddler, Omran Daqneesh, 5, who was rescued after an airstrike in the Syrian city of Aleppo. Within hours, this photo of his dust and blood-covered face captured the world’s attention.  You can google it if you like.  It was taken by Mahmoud Raslan.  It has been compared to the photo of the little girl running from the napalm blast during the Vietnam War.  It’s a single image that brings into our homes and hearts the complete devastation caused by hate and evil.

The question, however, always seems to remains the same, “What can I do?” What can I do?   I know I’ve written about this before and as you might know I do volunteer and raise money and send money to different charities especially those that help children.  I do pray daily for “those most in need of God’s mercy.”   It’s a part of my morning ritual and part of my Rosary but is that enough?  Yes, I would like a magic wand to wave. I’d like “all the money in the world.”   I’d like to be a mini Mother Teresa but I do not have those gifts and some days I simply feel helpless in the face of such suffering and agony.

As you probably know. I live in North Carolina.   I think it’s one of the most beautiful parts of the states, if not the world.  We have the ocean at one end and the mountains at the other.  We have Carolina blue skies and when you fly into this area all you see is green green green.  If that isn’t enough we have flowering bushes and trees that dot the landscape wherever you go.   Most days I am in awe of living here.  How did this happen?  Why am I living in this paradise?  Did I “do” something right?  Did I “do” something to deserve this?  Am I a favorite child of God and so She/He placed me here in the midst of Shangri-La?  Why do I get to live this life of abundance and comfort when so many are making do with so little or perhaps nothing at all?

I know some would tell me that I chose this experience before I was even conceived, smart me.  Some others might say that this is karma, what I did in a previous life earned me this life I now have.  Good job, Jean!  I, however, do not have an answer that makes any sense to me.  Maybe you do?  I know my Christian faith tells me I am called to give much because I have been given much.  I’m not even sure I understand that.  How much is enough?  I have heard many religious people talk about how everything we have is a gift from God.   I don’t really get that either.  I’m grateful for everything I have, even those things I didn’t think I wanted but received anyway but really did God bestow those on me?  Does God really look down and say, “There’s little Jean Anne and I think she should enjoy a piece of chocolate, a good husband, wonderful children, a beautiful sunset or a stunning vista?”   I don’t think so!  I do believe, however, that we get to choose how to view whatever it is that comes into our lives and we can choose to be grateful to a God that can create the beauty and pleasures and even the challenges of this life. That’s what free will is all about; we get to choose how we perceive whatever is or has occurred in our lives, especially those of us who live a life of comfort and privilege.

I am re-reading Christiane Northrup’s, Goddesses Never Age, with my study group, The Seekers. The chapter on optimal health revolves around the concept of finding pleasure.  I know it sounds hedonistic but the lesson Dr. Northrup is teaching is about fully embracing the joys and gifts of our lives.  It’s not just about the concept of pleasure but of how to affect a healthy response to what we enjoy.  She’s not telling us to simply notice those aspects of our lives that bring us joy.  We are being encouraged to not only be grateful, which I know for many is a challenge in itself; we are being called to savor those experiences, to taste them, to feel them, to let them raise us up beyond our wildest dreams and fill every cell in our bodies with tingling sensations.  She is suggesting that when we have that piece of chocolate or see that sunset or hold the hand of a loved one, we take the time to fully embrace the feelings of the experience. What happens when we allow ourselves to completely experience such pleasure?  There is a physical reaction where our bodies emit Nitric Oxide and NO has healing properties that cause all sorts of wonderful effects including a delicious sense of well-being.

I believe God does care about us. I believe God loves us beyond our wildest dreams and that He/She will and does intervene in our lives in a very personal way but we have to ask and we have to be open to those gifts and then, the most important part is that we must fully appreciate our gifts, even those we didn’t think we wanted.  The conversation I was having about the poor and destitute and our responsibility took a completely different turn than I had expected.  The wise woman across from me said with emphasis, “Well then, Jean, you must fully enjoy every moment of this blessed life.”  That felt like quite a challenge.  I had another person tell me they thought when we arrived at the pearly gates St. Peter’s question would be just that, “Did you fully enjoy every moment of your blessed life?”  I’m working on having that answer be, “Yes.”  Perhaps with an attitude of gratitude my healthy healing body and spirit will in itself spread out and make a difference in someone’s life that is less fortunate than I.  Perhaps part of my giving back and sharing my bounty doesn’t lie in only giving time, talent and treasure.  Perhaps it also requires unconditional love and bringing hope and joy into every part of our lives and therefore, the world.

Claiming Your Power

Affirmation: I Did It!

Isabelle and her brothers, Sam, Joe, & Owen and sister-in-law, Arden 

Graduations of all type have taken place at this time of year during which this is being written; celebrations of milestones, accomplishments and dreams come true. My oldest grandaughter, Isabelle, graduated from the Raleigh Collaborative High School. It was a tiny school, only twelve children. There were only four students graduating. Our whole family attended the ceremony. It was a wonderful event. Two of the three teachers spoke, the principal, Doctor Anderson, spoke and each family had a family member (Isabelle chose her grandfather, my hubby) speak. Then, each student showed a slide presentation of their life and also gave a short speech. All of them were very nervous. There were about sixty people in the audience.

Isabelle was gracious in her talk, thanking her entire family for their support and including us and stressing how blessed she felt to be a part of such a loving family. My heart almost burst. We are all so very proud of her.  She was the first presenter. The last student to speak was a young man, a man we knew to be twenty years of age, who was slight in stature and appeared very timid. He read his speech, hesitating over the pages and stumbling through several of the phrases. He ended and then he began to walk off the stage when he suddenly stopped and said, “Oh, I forgot something.” He returned to the dais, looked out at the audience and especially towards his family and raising his fist shouted, “I did it.” I wasn’t the only person there with tears in my eyes. As I write this I still feel weepy with the joy of his accomplishment.

My friend told me that when we arrive in heaven she thinks the question Saint Peter will ask us is, “Did you appreciate and celebrate all God gave you. Were you joyful and grateful?” Was I? Have I been? Really? I began to journal. How many times in my life have I shouted, “I did it!” I have not, I have not claimed victory. I have downplayed my accomplishments more often than I have celebrated them!

Right now I am in the process of preparing for an outward bound type of trip to the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska. Isabelle has been accepted to the Savannah College of Art and Design. It’s the only school to which she applied and she will be attending as a photography major. It is her passion. I am providing her the opportunity to photograph a part of the world which with neither of us are very familiar. I am anxious. I’ve been gathering all the gear necessary for this expedition, things I have rarely packed, if ever. I recognize I am blessed and lucky to be able to do this and to share this time with one of my favorite human beings but it is way outside of my comfort zone and so I have been quite nervous.

Recently I finished Christian Northrup’s book, Goddesses Never Age. Don’t miss this book. I truly believe that any woman over the age of eighteen, maybe even younger, should be required to read this marvelous guide for a woman’s life. If you don’t get it and you’re a woman reading this, at least turn the title into one of your affirmations and claim it! Towards the end of her book, in the middle of this trip’s preparation, she writes about the healing effects of being in nature.  Isabelle and I will be in the thick of nature and Dr. Northrup’s advice helped calm me.

Several of my readings lately, including Dr. Northrup’s book has stressed the life changing practice of letting go of our own agendas and attempting to live a life within the Divine flow. You’ve probably heard it, “Let go and let God.” It’s a life long practice. It takes patience and quiet and setting aside our egos. For me, I feel like I’m right there, following the “path” God seems to have laid out and then I’m off doing my own thing again, taking back control of my life and truly believing I have control of it. Ha! What if, however, because of my time with the Lord, my prayer time and my meditation time, I am actually being led to this Alaskan experience? What if this is a place where I will learn and grow and heal in a way beyond my wildest dreams? If I could truly believe that would I still be anxious or would I be excited?

After graduation and pondering the accomplishments of these four young people, I sat with my journal and wrote down several things in my life of which I feel very proud. I began with my education and then listed this wonderful family my husband and I have created. I went on to list several charity projects I’ve spearheaded and the positive, joyful manner in which I went through breast cancer. It wasn’t a long list but I felt good about it. Then I sat back and I read it over. I read it again and I thought, “If I didn’t know this woman and I read this list of accomplishments, I’d say, ‘Wow, this is a remarkable woman. I’d really like to meet her.'” Then, I thought of all the people in my life who, like myself, don’t always see their amazing selves as others might see them. There are so many who don’t really claim their accomplishments, especially the women.

My experience has led me to believe that most of us try to be humble and it’s not always to our benefit. Just recently a young friend was sharing her accomplishments at work. She’s effecting amazing changes in her work place by guiding people towards a healthier life style. She had engaged more people in this project than anyone else in her organization. She went onto explain why she was so much more successful than others. It wasn’t because of her passion and knowledge. It was because the other counsellors were at some sort of disadvantage. “No, no, no,” I said. “Claim it! You did it!” “You are using God’s gifts to be the change people need. You are a remarkable woman.” My other friend chimed in and said, “Don’t bury your coins,” or as Marianne Williamson says,

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

What if each of us took some time to write down several things of which we are proud? I encourage you to do this exercise. Then read them like it’s about someone you do not know. I’ll bet you’ll find yourself saying, “Wow! This is a remarkable person. I’d really like to meet her or him.” I’m expecting to add my Alaska outward bound trip to my list when Isabelle and I return and with great joy and gratitude I hope to shout from the dais of my stage, “I did it.”

Throwing Away the Trash

Affirmation: I freely forgive myself and others.

The topic of the NPR story was about the abolition of the death penalty. What type of response do you have to the phrase “death penalty?” You must have given it some thought. The Old Testament promotes, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot.” (Exodus 21:24) Then, Jesus came along and promoted a whole new concept, forgiveness. Even at the end when He had been unjustly toured and crucified He prayed for His executioners, for all of us, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:24)

I think of this quote often. Someone once commented to me that He did not say, “Father, I forgive them for they know not what they do” or even “Father, I forgive them even if they know what they are doing.” I’m sure there are many biblical scholars who have dissected these last words of Christ that are much more qualified to fully explain all the implications of His petition; I am not one of them. I am simply trying to absorb the lesson that even after Our Lord was put to death because some people did not approve of Him healing the sick, raising the dead, and protecting and promoting the care of those who most needed love and care; He refused to hold onto the burning coal of hatred. In His final moments He was teaching us His greatest lesson.

As I drove along that day the story being discussed on the radio was about the death penalty in China and the tradition that allows a family member of the victim to actively participate in the execution of the offender by removing the support from under the person who is to be hung. The narrator told of a young man who had been stabbed to death by another young man and the mother of the victim had chosen to perform the execution. She approached the condemned, reached up and slapped him and then reached out and helped him down from his perch. She then went over and took the hand of the mother of the condemned man. The story resonated throughout China and now it was being shared with the rest of the world. Because of her action, the Chinese authorities were reconsidering their tradition. Because of her act of forgiveness, some of the world’s conscience was being awakened.

Why do most of us find it so difficult to forgive, me included? I am not normally angry. I’ll get hurt before I respond with anger. Perhaps that’s just another form of anger. Sometimes, however, I’m angry at institutions, authorities or systems. Sometimes I’m angry with individuals. I can be angry with strangers, friends and worst of all, with people I love. Some small injurious word or behavior and I can feel the resentment building. Most of the time just when I think I’m “over” something that has happened, I don’t even realize I haven’t let go of the perceived injury or intentional slight or harm but then some reminder comes along and I’m back with my sad response. I can recall events from decades ago that still cause my body to tighten up but most times I don’t even recognize the emotion. Sometimes when the anger arrives the feeling puzzles me because it is so rare for me to respond in an angry manner. The point is, however, whether or not anger or hurt feelings come quickly or slowly, responding appropriately and then releasing it is not only to your benefit, but to the world’s.

The question that sometimes comes to my mind is, “What do I know to be true; what do I believe absolutely with all of my mind and my heart?” “The only important thing in life is to love and to forgive.” This is a quote from a wise older woman who was from my Small Christian Community. I believe with all my mind, body and soul that the above statement is absolutely true. Richard Rohr, one of my favorite spiritual teachers explains the Beatitudes in this way, “Jesus seems to be saying, our inner attitudes and states are the real sources of our problems. How we live in our hearts is our real truth.” When I can carry only love in my heart and my body and when I can release myself from any resentment, my life is rich and rewarding and peaceful. My life is then filled with hope and joy and I am able to take those emotions, those qualities with me out into the world.

One of my morning meditations took me into a subway station. What am I doing here, I pondered? On the station were 6 briefcases evenly spaced along the edge. The train came and five people picked up a case and boarded. I went over to the sixth case and looked down. It had my name on it and so I opened it. It was filled with trash. It was filled with the resentments of yesterday, perhaps of my whole life? I carried it up out of the subway, found a trash can and threw it away. Perhaps like most of the garbage in my life, I need to gather those resentments up periodically and toss them out. Perhaps with practice, I can throw away all those resentments and other junk that interfere with the love and joy with which I want my life to be surrounded.

The Chinese woman in the story was changing the world because of her ability to forgive. I believe we are called upon to do the same and that with the softening of our hearts; we too will change the world.

Focusing on the Positive

Affirmation:  I have the power to choose the positive over the negative.  

Father Richard Rohr, prolific writer and teacher, has a daily e-mail missive that is published by him and his organization, The Center for Action and Contemplation.  One of my daily practices is to read something motivational in the morning and inspirational in the evening.  Sometimes, actually many times, one reading can prove to be both.  Father Rohr’s writings often fall into the dual category. Father Rohr is a Franciscan friar and much of his theology and philosophy stems from the writings and practices of Saint Francis.  I have also been told his approach to religion can be somewhat controversial.  He has a very inclusive approach to God and spirit; you wouldn’t think that would spark any controversy but it does.  He doesn’t follow all the rules.  His focus is on one rule, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  He speaks a lot about non-dualistic thinking and the non-dualistic mind.  He encourages his readers and followers not to judge.  He encourages simply observing, not labeling.  I find his advice to be so very refreshing, also quite yogic, also very Zen.  

One of his exercises in The Naked Now directs one to focus his or her attention on a single object and just to observe it.  What purpose could that possibly serve you might ask?  A dear friend of mine is part of my church study group and we are presently reading The Naked Now.  She wasn’t too enamored with Father Rohr’s teachings but she is a good student and followed his suggestion.  She found a chair on which to focus in a doctor’s waiting room.  Her eyes settled on it and she shared that her first thought was, “That is the ugliest chair I have ever seen!”  She’s quite a remarkable woman, a searcher, looking to increase her faith and grow to know God better.  She shared how powerful that moment was for her.  If she couldn’t even focus on a chair without judgement, how was she approaching the really important things and especially the people in her life?  It’s a very challenging practice to learn to simply observe and not to judge.  It may be even harder according to some studies to judge something in a positive light than a negative light.  

Today’s reading, this February 19,2016, from The Center for Action and Contemplation, Father Rohr wrote about how important but challenging it is to focus on the positive.  
Dan O’Grady, a psychologist and Living School student, told me recently that our negative and critical thoughts are like Velcro, they stick and hold; whereas our positive and joyful thoughts are like Teflon, they slide away. We have to deliberately choose to hold onto positive thoughts before they “imprint.”
Neuroscience can now demonstrate the brain indeed has a negative bias; the brain prefers to constellate around fearful, negative, or problematic situations. In fact, when a loving, positive, or unproblematic thing comes your way, you have to savor it consciously for at least fifteen-seconds before it can harbor and store itself in your “implicit memory;” otherwise it doesn’t stick. We must indeed savor the good in order to significantly change our regular attitudes and moods and we need to strictly monitor all the “Velcro” negative thoughts.”

No matter what I read or hear about concerning the mind the message is the same; we have the God given free will to control what we think.  We get to choose our thoughts.  It’s a gift.  It’s given freely.  Maybe the power we have over our thoughts is another phrase for “grace.”  Grace, freely given to whomever requests it.
I heard a story about a man who was traveling through the South in the US and ordered toast and eggs for breakfast at a local diner.  When the breakfast came there was also a white looking “cereal” on the plate.  He said to the waitress, “What is that?”  she explained they were grits.  He told her he hadn’t ordered grits.  She said, “Honey, you don’t have to order grits.  They just come.”  The story was being told to emphasize that grace is just like grits in the South.  You don’t order it, it just comes.  I loved this story but, I thought, you still must choose whether or not to eat the grits.  I believe Grace is like that too.  We must decide whether or not to accept the Grace.  We must decide whether or not we are going to focus on the “fearful, negative or problematic situations,” or if we are going to focus on joy, hope, peace, love and gratitude.  

This is one of the reasons I write in my daily journal three joys from the previous day and one joy to which I am looking forward for the present day.  It forces me to concentrate throughout the day on those things that bring me joy so that I can remember them for the next morning.  Today a Blue Heron swooped as I sat to begin my mediation and then a Pelican came along and finally before I closed my eyes one of the two Osprey that seem to be nesting close by soared above me.  I just sat and absorbed the awe I felt as these amazing creatures flew by.  If you assumed I am somewhere close to the sea at this time, you would be correct.  

My husband and I chose to spend some time in Florida for one of my significant birthdays.  We went online last year to Vacation Rental By Owner (VRBO) and chose a home.  We got a larger than needed home with the hope that our children and grandchildren and as many friends as possible would come and stay with us and would celebrate with us.  This was our first VRBO rental and it has been quite an adventure.  It began before we left home when a friend warned me of potential scams; people advertise proper that’s not theirs or doesn’t even exist.  I did my due diligence and alleviated myself of that worry.  The house did exist.  We arrived and there it was.  It looked like an estate located somewhere other than the United States, maybe somewhere in South America or some island somewhere.  The first thing we noticed was an abandoned car on the side lawn.  The garage portico was filled with all sorts of plastic chairs and tables, heaters and who knows what else; stuff that would be used for a very large event.  
The owner met us at the front door.  She and her family had been cleaning all day.  We took a deep breath and entered.  The furniture was very dated, beyond antique status and there was a huge Christmas wreath still hanging over the fireplace.  The wires for the lights were hanging off of it.  I think we were so stunned we didn’t have any words.  We had rented this place for a few weeks and I’m not sure what recourse we had other than to suck it up and make the best of it.  Does it sound like I only focused on the negative?  Well, it’s true.  The tale becomes even more bazaar but I’m not going to go into any more detail at this point.

Now comes the part where I have to decide if I’m going to focus on that abandoned car and Christmas wreath or the fresh flowers and chocolates the owner put everywhere or the heated pool out back or the views from the windows out of the back of the house, the views that allowed me to sit quietly and watch the Blue Heron, the Pelican and the Osprey soar gloriously through the air and bring me one or maybe three of my joys to record for the next day.  Dan O’Grady is right.  That negative stuff stuck to me like Velcro.  It took quite a few days to get it off of me and to come to the point where I could focus on the positive, on the joys that were available to us in this VRBO adventure.  It’s good we have the power to choose.  It’s good I’ve been practicing for quite a while.  I chose to find the joy, the grace and the blessings of a husband and a family that wanted to celebrate this life of mine of which I’ve been so blessed to live.