Transitioning Into Fall

A time of change…

August is not a month noted for big national or international celebrations, or federal holidays.  But there are still over 50 lesser-known celebrations, some of which are humorous.  I’ll share just a few to give you a general idea:  According to MentalFloss, August 5th is National Underwear Day, followed on the 6th by National Fresh Breath Day. You can celebrate National Tooth Fairy Day on the 22nd, and on the 24th it’s National Hug Your Boss Day.  I’m thinking that many of you won’t find this celebration appealing, unless of course you are the boss!

I suggest we celebrate August as the end-of-the-summer season and our transitioning into fall.

Fall is a special season for me, as it is for many of you.  I love the beauty of the fall foliage, the crispness of the fall air.  While I enjoy the laid-back, less-structured summer days, there is something about the arrival of fall that is revitalizing.  We have had our vacation trip(s), done our outdoor grilling, spent time at the beach or in the mountains, gone camping, and perhaps visited our out-of-town friends and relatives.  Some of us may have traveled abroad.

This is the time when children, parents, and teachers begin to gear up for school.  August means shopping for school clothes and supplies, for selecting new lunch boxes, and wondering what the new teacher/school will be like.  It’s a time when we see some anxiety in both children and their parents. It’s a time when parents make major transitions, changing their own routines, creating a more structured environment for the family, accommodating their children’s study and outside activities needs.  Adults who are not parents may also have to adjust to a change in their routine at work and in their personal life, such as starting the morning commute earlier and possibly changing their work schedules to accommodate coworkers with children in school.  But summer’s end doesn’t have to be a depressing time.  Families can continue in some of their summer activities for a while longer, including cooking out, camping in the backyard, having overnight sleepovers, etc.

My favorite way of looking at August is to let go of some summer activities and begin to anticipate new experiences with the coming of fall.  I encourage you to make a self-assessment about what went well during the summer, what you enjoyed most, what didn’t go so well and what you would want to work on improving next time.  Then let this go while you eagerly await the fall, accepting the transitions it brings, anticipating the changes in the seasons and in your own life. Fall, like the other seasons, brings opportunities for transformation in our own lives.  Integrate this new awareness into your everyday life, and see how it changes your way of being in the world. From this new perspective, decide to add some new adventures to your life as the fall season begins.

For example, learn to play a musical instrument; take up yoga and/or join an exercise class.  Find a book club that interests you and sign up.  Learn to play bridge or other games. Join a choir.  Volunteer some of your time to a community group which is caring for the disadvantaged or feeding the homeless.  Plan to do some traveling, if it’s only short trips.  Commit to spending more quality time with family and with special friends.  Take long walks.  Enjoy the glorious fall foliage.  Resolve to find more time for nurturing yourself.  Embrace the transformation in yourself that the transition of summer into the glorious fall can bring.

If nothing on this list appeals to you, give some careful thought to compiling your own list.  There’s no end to the number of possibilities that can help you move forward into the fall with anticipation, enthusiasm, and joy.  This in turn will help you to grow mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

inspirational messages

Beyond Brokenness

Can Brokenness be Thought of as a Gift?

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” the saying goes.  This advice applies to things, not to people.  All of us share some degree of brokenness and how we deal with it makes all the difference in our lives, and the lives of those we touch.  Ernest Hemingway said “The world breaks everyone, and afterwards, some are strong at the broken places.”

Many, including myself, consider brokenness as being synonymous with suffering. Types of brokenness include brokenness of the spirit, which can lead to, among other things, depression, anxiety, obsessive thoughts and compulsive behavior. Then there is the brokenness that comes from broken relationships, causing much pain and suffering.  Dr. Richard Swenson says, broken relationships are a razor across the artery of the spirit. (On the physical level, doctors report that when a broken bone heals properly it is actually stronger at the place of the break than it was before.) 

Strong at the Broken Places by Linda T. Sanford is a classic in the literature about survivors of childhood traumas, sexual assault, physical abuse and neglect, and witnessing domestic violence.  She puts a spotlight on the severe, sometimes life-long effects these experiences can have on children and adults, leaving them scarred, broken, and vulnerable.

Sanford argues against the conventional wisdom that these children are forever doomed to being damaged goods.  She writes about those who have learned, through various paths, how to turn their hurts into assets. Think of John McCain, a prisoner of war who was tortured while in a Vietnamese prison, who came home broken and disfigured, and went on to become one of the U.S. Senate’s most effective leaders and spokespersons as well as a presidential candidate. He is not alone in the pain and suffering he has endured.  So many of our military men and women are returning from battle with unimaginable scars of mind, body, and spirit. These people are often diagnosed with PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder), a serious condition requiring immediate medical and psychological attention as well as a supportive community.  Not all get the help they need and deserve.  For those who do receive good care and loving support, healing and growth beyond the brokenness can occur and the survivors can become strong at the broken places.

Bryan Stevenson says that our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing.  Stevenson, an attorney and author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, suggests we are all broken by something.  We have hurt others and we have been hurt by others. Stevenson’s book is beautifully written, articulating the connection between brokenness, humanity, and compassion.   According to Stevenson, even when we are caught up in a web of brokenness we are also caught in a web of healing and mercy.

One of the gifts of brokenness is the joy of coming to know a higher Self and the happiness that can come from working to heal this wound.  (Think of the Prodigal son and the joy he experienced when he finally “came to himself,” returned home and was welcomed by a loving, forgiving father.) Many, if not all, of us have had experiences of brokenness.  Some argue that it is a necessary part of our journey.

It is through these cracks and holes at the site of our brokenness that the light shines through.  Leonard Cohen says it best in his song, Anthem: “Ring the bells that still can ring/Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.”

What kind of light?  The light of knowledge; the light of love and compassion; the light of sharing and being part of a community; the light of joy and happiness; the light of forgiveness; and the light that shines on us to help us recognize our unity, our oneness with the rest of the world. Suffering and brokenness have much to teach us and are invaluable tools for our healing if we reach out and embrace what they offer us.

We can experience this healing light and become strong in our broken places by making ourselves consciously aware that we are broken and accepting that this is part of who we are; by understanding the causes insofar as possible; by seeking help from family, friends, and sometimes a professional to gain knowledge and insight, helping to sort everything out; and through prayer, contemplation, and meditation.

There is no quick fix for healing brokenness.  It can take a long time (perhaps a lifetime) to get to the place you want to be, to live the life of freedom, joy, and serenity you want to live.  But it’s worth the effort we put in because this journey leads us to a place of unimaginably rich, life-changing happiness.

beyond brokenness

Fireworks and Friendships

Celebrate good times…and good friends.

July is a very special month for celebrations.  We start off with a bang – July 4th, Independence Day.

July 4th has been a federal holiday since 1870, but this historic document, the Declaration of Independence was drafted by Thomas Jefferson in 1776, as the thirteen colonies claimed their independence from England.  This eventually led to the formation of the United States as an independent nation. For more than 240 years we have paused on this date to celebrate our liberties and our freedom from tyranny.  And we honor and remember all those who gave their lives to give us this precious gift.

How do we celebrate?  Fireworks are associated with July 4th and many cities present a dazzling display of fireworks that light up the nighttime sky.  (The Hatch Shell on the Charles River in Boston is my favorite July 4th place for a concert, with breathtaking fireworks displays over the river.)  Many towns and small communities have their own parades and fireworks displays.  And don’t forget the parades and concerts shown on television.

While I enjoy these celebrations, my favorite part of July 4th is the family and close friends who gather for cookouts and backyard barbecues.  I love the casual, friendly, laid-back atmosphere, the sharing of stories and news, the quickly-organized games and activities, and the aroma of barbecue, hamburgers, and hot dogs.  For me, there is great beauty and intimacy in this aspect of the holiday.  Which brings me to another favorite celebration in July.  We’ll skip over more than 80 other July celebrations – some touching, such as Global Hug Your Child Day, some silly, such as National Raspberry Cake Day, and some perhaps a bit wacky, such as National Body Painting Day.

Instead, we’ll go to the end of the month and, on July 30th, let’s celebrate International Friendship Day.

Established in 2011, the General Assembly of the United Nations declared July 30th as an International Day of Friendship.  This was designed to foster friendships and to bridge the gaps between race, religions, and other divisions which keep us from enjoying friendships with each other.  It was designed to support communities and to work towards world peace.  Woodrow Wilson said, “Friendship is the only cement that will ever hold the world together.”  And, in studying the importance of friendships and social contacts, researchers in recent years have discovered that people with strong social relationships live longer.

We need only watch TV or read a newspaper to be aware of how little attention seems to be given to building bridges, making friends, drawing all-inclusive communities.  When we try to think of what we could do to promote friendship on a global scale, the task feels too daunting.   But, on individual levels we can do and accomplish a lot.  We can begin by nourishing our own friendships, by letting our friends know how important they are to us and that we do not take their friendship for granted.  We can organize friendship groups in our churches and communities.  We can broaden our circle of friends and offer support when they need it.  We can plan fun activities with our friends and celebrate our mutual caring.  We can reach out to the lonely, friendless people in our community, offering them support, comfort, and, whenever possible, lending a helping hand by connecting them with appropriate community resources.

So, on July 30th, call or send a card or email to a long-distance friend, thanking them for their love and support.  Arrange for lunch or coffee with a friend close by.  Look at everyone you meet for the first time that day as a possible new friend.  And, finally, don’t forget to be the very best friend you know how to be.  Be the kind of friend you would like to have in your life.

celebrate good friends

In Praise of Involved Fathers

It’s time to celebrate involved fathers…

In addition to welcoming summer, June reminds us to celebrate fathers. The third Sunday in June is Father’s Day, which celebrates the contributions that fathers and father figures make to their children’s lives.  Sonora Dodd was influential in establishing Father’s Day.  She wanted to recognize the work her father had done in raising six children by himself, after the death of her mother.  She wanted the same recognition for fathers that Anna Jarvis had been instrumental in establishing for mothers.  The first celebration of Father’s Day was in 1910 but Father’s Day was not officially recognized as a holiday until 1972, with President Nixon’s signing it into law. Several attempts were put forth throughout the years to make the celebration official but it was feared that, like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day would devolve into nothing more than a commercialized event.

Why is this day so important?  According to the U. S. Census Bureau, there are an estimated 72.2 million fathers in the U.S.  More than 39% of fathers were younger than 25 years old when their first child was born, and some 17% of single parents are men.  In other words, fathers are a vital part of children’s lives and those who take their job seriously and show up each day to be a good role model for their sons and daughters need to be respected and honored.

How should we celebrate this day?  Many people send cards or gifts to their father.  If children live far from home, calls are made to wish their father a happy Father’s Day.  Traditions also include large family get-togethers and/or backyard cookouts.

What makes fathers so important?  Joshua Krisch writes ( about The Science of Dad and the ‘Father Effect’. He notes that there are data-driven biological and psychological reasons why children seem to do better with supportive fathers in the home.  He summarizes many of the findings about the impact fathers have on their children’s lives: Children with involved fathers are less likely to drop out of school, or to break the law. Guided by close, loving relationships with their father, children disproportionately grow up to avoid risky sex, pursue healthy relationships, to hold down higher-paying jobs, and later in life have fewer serious psychological problems.

Being an involved father makes it less likely that his teenage daughter will take sexual risks, or become depressed.  It is important to remember that girls develop their sense of the ideal mate from their interactions with their father. As a result of having such a father, girls have a better self-image, higher self-esteem and less depression.  The presence of a strong, loving father improves his son’s school performance, and directly impacts the emotional and behavioral stability throughout his son’s life.

Fathers can’t get a ‘pass’ on these responsibilities, nor minimize their impact.  It can’t be said too often: dads need to realize that their children are always watching them, learning from them. Researcher Paul Amato suggests that fathers might ask themselves: “What are my children learning about life, about morality, and about how family members should treat one another, from observing me every day?”

Engaged, active, involved fathers are important in every stage of development.  The earlier the father gets involved, the stronger the early attachment to the child.  Dads living away from their children (divorce, military service, etc.) have little opportunity for enjoying fatherly interactions.  But writing letters, making phone calls, and, these days, video conferencing using the internet, let a child know that his/her dad cares and wants to be involved.  Financial support of his children goes a long way in demonstrating a form of caring and involvement.

When we speak of the impact a father’s involvement with children has, we do not mean just any type of contact.  Low-quality parenting is not helpful. Warmth is a key factor.  Krisch says that fathers who are critical, dismissive, or insulting have only negative impact.  Being verbally, emotionally or physically abusive is incompatible with being a good, engaged, loving father.

Father’s Day provides an opportunity for expressing gratitude, for healing old wounds, for making and accepting apologies for past hurts and disappointments, and for practicing the art of forgiveness.  This is not always easy, but it is important to do, and the rewards for this successful effort are immeasurable.

It is never too late to create a happier, more loving and supportive father/child relationship.  This Father’s Day would be a good time to start!

involved fathers

It’s May! Summer’s Coming…

Let’s celebrate May…

May is a beautiful month, especially for nature lovers.  May 1st is May Day, which is a holiday celebrated in many countries around the world. It is an ancient northern hemisphere spring festival. Late May marks the unofficial start of summer, and for many children, the end of the school year. Winter is long gone, flowers are in bloom, and the trees are showing off their leafy branches.  Summer will arrive in a few weeks, but before that happens, let’s celebrate this month.  Each month has stories to tell and this month has an outstanding one.

In the US, the two big days in May are Mother’s Day, celebrated the second Sunday in May, and Memorial Day, celebrated the last Monday of the month.  Memorial Day, originally known as Decoration Day, commemorates all men and women who have died in military service for the country.  It is said that this holiday originally honored the Union soldiers who died in the Civil War.  After WWI, it was expanded to include all men and women who had died in any war or military conflict. Flags are displayed and wreaths are placed on grave sites.  The day is observed in many cities and towns with a Memorial Day parade and is often thought of as the unofficial start of the summer season.

This holiday celebration and our celebration of Mother’s Day have some elements in common.  On each holiday we recognize a specific group of people; each of us seeks ways to honor, to show reverence, and to find ways to show our appreciation for those being honored, for their sacrifices for us.

Mother’s Day was the brainchild of Anna Jarvis, who, following her mother’s death in 1905, conceived of Mother’s Day as a way to honor the sacrifices mothers make for their children.  In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation officially establishing the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day.

Today, we celebrate our mothers by giving cards, gifts, and flowers.  Many mothers are taken out to eat at a special restaurant.  Many children make a special effort to be with their mother, grandmother, or mother-surrogate.  If children live far away from their mothers, they call.  Indeed, it is said more phone calls are made on this day than any other day, and it is the most popular day of the year to dine out.

If you believe that Mother’s Day has been too commercialized and robbed of its original meaning, you are not alone.  By 1920, Anna Jarvis herself had become disgusted with how Mother’s Day had been commercialized, and she actively denounced the transformation of the holiday. But, while recognizing the commercialism involved in this celebration, most of us, I think, enjoy the attention, appreciation, and affection given to us by our children.

I see Mother’s Day as an opportunity to express gratitude, to solidify our relationship with our mother, to reach out to heal any old wounds, and to forge an adult-child/mother relationship that is both healing and nurturing.  This may be easier said than done for some relationships than others, but I believe it is critically important for both parent and child.  No matter how difficult the effort, the rewards are more than you can imagine, enriching your life and giving it more meaning.

In keeping with Mother’s Day, I suggest two more holidays for May:  National Wonderful Children’s Day, honoring those little people who will grow up to save the environment, make friends with Mother Nature, and treat our planet with more respect and reverence than we have shown it.  Once that celebration is in place, I propose a National Happy Family Day, paying tribute to those families who show up every day to support and love their children, making it possible for them to grow into healthy adults, ready to face the challenges they will experience on their journey.  This is an awesome task, and when it is done well, we all benefit.

may day

It’s Spring!

Time for Renewal…

For many of us, spring is our favorite time of the year.  And the arrival of April allows us to welcome a period of re-birth or renewal.  While this is the Easter season, you do not have to believe in the resurrection of Jesus to see nature’s own transformation, re-birth, and renewal right before your eyes.  Spring is the season we talk about these terms and often they are used interchangeably. ( defines renewal as re-birth; re-generation; revival; resurrection; recharging; refilling.)

Nothing is static or unchanging.  Today, every academic and professional discipline recognizes change, development, growth, and some kind of evolving phenomenon (Richard Rohr).  Each of the four seasons has distinct attributes that can teach us something about our own personal growth and development.  Spring provides us the opportunity to look closely and see new opportunities for letting go of old habits and patterns and embracing new ways of being.  Spring tells us that the dark, cold winter is over.  Now, trees are blooming, flowers are showing off their beautiful colors, and birds are singing their joyful songs. The sunshine is brighter, the grass is greener, and we are putting away our heavy winter wardrobe in exchange for lighter garments which give us a wonderful degree of freedom, literally and figuratively.

We approach this season with openness, hopefulness, and optimism.  It is a period of re-awakening in nature and in our own lives. At this time we find courage, hope, and strength for our journey that lies ahead.

I experience a healing growth in springtime as I watch nature clearly renewing itself from the barrenness of winter. Each spring, nature continues to create and recreate itself from the inside out.

For me, renewal is also about the re-birth of the soul.  Spring can brighten your outlook on life.  It’s a good time to challenge yourself by learning something new.  If you do not observe the Lenten season, instead of giving something up, try adding something new that makes you happy, contributes to your growth, and enriches your life.

Some of you may remember the old milk commercial, “There’s a new you coming every day.” I believe that’s true.  We live, we grow, we make tiny little changes every day, leading someone to say, “At the cellular level, I’m really quite busy!” Those who do not fear change but instead embrace it as a normal part of life, can find this idea reassuring.

Spring allows us to see more clearly that every day is an opportunity to change our life.  Every morning starts a new page in our personal story.  A Buddha said, “Each morning we are born again.  What we do today is what matters most.”  Springtime helps us see and remember this.

The dramatic changes that spring brings allow us to see that the key to successful self-renewal is the willingness to let go of our existing self-image and our current outlook on life, if we desire change.  Spring can provide us with the inspiration to create, to renew, to liberate ourselves from old ideas that no longer serve us well.  It allows us to experience the gift of letting go, and making way for new life to ‘blossom.’  What we thought was ‘dead’, in the spring, shows new life.

Nature teaches us so much, if we are open to seeing and listening.  I like to think about the seasons as metaphors for the ‘seasons’ of our lives.  From re-birth/renewal in spring, to a more relaxed playful summer, with vacations to the mountains or the ocean, and backyard cookouts, to the glorious fall colors showing off their brilliance before dropping their leaves as winter approaches.

Winter offers a time of hibernation, of meditation, reflection, and regeneration.

During winter, some of us stand in awe as we look at tall, stately trees stripped barren of their leaves, presenting their nakedness to the frigid elements.  Throughout what seems like a period of darkness, these trees are preparing themselves for the green leaves and fruit which will come forth from their branches in the spring.

Out of darkness can come light.  I find lines from the song The Rose quite comforting: “…just remember in the winter/ far beneath the bitter snows/ lies the seed that with the sun’s love/ in the spring becomes the rose.”


March Madness

Let’s celebrate March!

There is much to celebrate during the month of March and I feel it my duty to alert you to some of the lesser-known celebrations you might otherwise miss. If you are a college basketball fan, you know about ‘March Madness.’  We’ve heard of The Ides of March, March 15.  This day is also Everything-You-Think-Is-Wrong Day followed by St. Patrick’s Day on March 17, ‘the wearing of the green’.  You don’t have to be Irish to participate. If you don’t want to celebrate Everything-You-Think-Is-Wrong-Day, wait until March 16 and celebrate Everything-You-Do-Is-Right-Day.

According to and/or, there are over a dozen more special days for celebration in March that you may not know about.  Some events are celebrated for the entire month, such as National Music in the Schools Month; National Frozen Foods Month; National Irish American Month, designated by Congress in 1995.  We also celebrate National Red Cross Month and National Social Workers Month, to name a few. And maybe you should be aware that the second week of March is designated National Bubble Week, whatever that means.  On some days we recognize important people such as the birthday of Alexander Graham Bell and Alfred Hitchcock.

Here are a few of my favorites:

March 1st is National Peanut Butter Day.  So, if you are a peanut-butter lover, make that sandwich in celebration, and maybe throw in a little jelly!  If you are not a peanut butter fan, maybe you’ll celebrate National Popcorn day, the second Thursday of the month.

This is the month we celebrate National Puppy Day, National Waffle Day, and National Eiffel Tower Day.

And if you’re so inclined, don’t forget to celebrate daylight savings time (March 11 this year) and/or the first day of spring, coming on March 20 this year. Extra-terrestrial Abduction Day is March 20, if you want to mark this on your calendar.  Did we leave anything out?

Yes, we did. Old-Stuff Day is March 2.  While hoarders might not celebrate this day, I’ve chosen to. I find ‘old stuff’ at least a helpful metaphor for cleaning out our mental/emotional closets, emptying some old mental and emotional files, dusting off some long-held ideas that have not served us well.  It’s an opportunity to discard some ways we do things over and over, expecting a different outcome, only to be disappointed. Think about the same ‘old stuff’ you do every day and how you can break out of these old routines.  My concept of spring cleaning is not when you clean out your closet and get rid of clothes and shoes you haven’t worn for years, or you clean out your dresser and chest of drawers, discovering things there that you haven’t seen or even thought about in ages.

Here’s my idea of good spring cleaning. I take myself off the hook by not taking spring cleaning literally but rather, seeing the concept as metaphorical.  We get rid of ‘old stuff’ in order to make room for the new – new ideas, behaviors, experiences, a new way of being in the world. If we don’t make room, it won’t happen.

If none of these days of celebration interest you, perhaps you will want to celebrate National Panic Day on March 9.  Suggestions for celebrating this day include: crying uncontrollably; tearing your hair out; indulging your deepest fears; letting loose with unbridled hysteria; or running through the streets shrieking like a banshee.

This might be a good month to create your own day of celebration, maybe National Appreciation Day, or National Day of Joy.  I especially like the idea of a National Adventure Day, when we look at our openness to new experiences, to new ideas, seeking ways to broaden our world.  I am reminded of Helen Keller’s statement that “Either life is a daring adventure or nothing.”  The nice thing about all this is, you get to choose.

From Suffering to Transformation

From Suffering to Transformation: A Spiritual Journey

Two women faced life-threatening illnesses and share how what could have been tragedy turned out to be a gift. This beautiful short story is a must-read for anyone facing illness and suffering and wanting to learn how to overcome it.

Her world was vibrant and she was an active participant in it until a life-threatening auto-immune disease changed her life’s trajectory.

Glenn came into my world at the time we were each grieving the loss of a mutual friend.  We supported each other in our grief and helped each other get beyond the loss. Through the years we have shared with each other the experiences that have been part of our spiritual journeys.  We have shared love and laughter, pain and suffering, joy and peace.  Our friendship has allowed each of us to explore who we are, to grow, to seek our authentic selves, and to deepen our spirituality.

As an adult in her 50s, my friend became deathly ill from unknown causes.  After months of tests performed by physicians in various medical disciplines, she was diagnosed with Primary Biliary Cirrhosis, a life-threatening autoimmune disease which affects the bile ducts, preventing them from removing toxins from the liver.  Glenn became aware that her life would never be the same.  For years she has endured painful procedures and been treated by several specialists in various medical facilities.  She did research on the condition and she and I attended regional and national conferences on the topic.  Glenn began to accept the serious limitations to her normal functioning.

Perhaps Glenn’s need to rest contributed to opportunities for our long, leisurely conversations. I had shared information about my childhood, including a near-death experience with diphtheria that changed not only my childhood but my entire life.  I was out of school for two years and when I returned I was older and more mature than my classmates and became the teaches’ pet.  Later, teachers mentored me, encouraging me to go to college and made it possible for me to attend.

My parents had only an elementary education, so they did not encourage college for any of us.  If not for these teachers who saw my potential, I would never have gone to college, to graduate school, and on to receive my Ph.D. From graduate school I went on to enjoy a successful career as a clinical psychologist, as a mother, and as a writer.

Glenn grew up in an educated family in Roanoke, VA, a metropolis compared to my rural upbringing.   Yet her challenges seemed equally great.

“What was it like growing up in your family?”  I asked.

“We were poor enough to need family hand-outs” she told me. Yet, my Grandmother had strong ideas about what was ‘proper’.  In my family, appearance was everything, trumping reality every time.”  Glenn went on to say, “My so-called aristocratic family did set a record of sorts.  In just five generations they produced 17 bona fide alcoholics, all successful of course because to be unsuccessful would be just too ‘common’.”

Glenn’s spiritual development had its roots in her early childhood.  Born in the 1940s, she was the daughter of alcoholic parents.  In one of our conversations she said that her parents “lived their lives in denial, pretending to be members of the aristocracy when in fact, I often heard my father called “Poor Charlie.”  After he came back from fighting in WW II, he could not hold down a job or control his rage.”

Due to her home-life situation during her early years, she isolated herself, spending much of her time alone in her room creating her own world through her vivid imagination.  Glenn developed a rich fantasy life from her ‘School for Stuffed Animals’ which she founded and served as Head Teacher, to pinning creatures gathered from her yard into a notebook  called ‘A Book of Bugs and Worms’ which she kept in her basement.  Under each specimen she included a short description: ‘Moves fast’, ‘Has long wings’. After a few weeks, a horrible smell emanated from the basement.  “My scientific experiment led to the discovery that dead bugs and worms start to smell, and that they should be left in their natural environment.”

“Creativity is intelligence having fun,” Einstein said.  I admire Glenn’s creativity which began in early childhood.  She described it as connecting her to the Divine. “Sometimes I have at least 10 creative ideas before breakfast,” she said.  Her mother, who loved theatre and had been a local sensation on the amateur stage, insisted Glenn take a role on a Saturday morning children’s TV show.

As an adult she became a gifted teacher, the creator of several educational programs at the state and national level, a successful grant writer and later a mentor to disadvantaged children, teaching them creative outlets for expressing themselves.  “I like including art, music, and drama in teaching, and in all my activities.”   I reminded her that she is also a gifted editor, making the writer’s material come to life.

“I just punch it up,” she said. “And it’s great fun for me.”

We both laughed. “Maybe this is where some of your creativity began,” I wondered.

“Maybe so, she said with a smile. “Some of this creativity comes from a period of relative isolation following a serious accident I had when I was about seven.”

“What happened?” I wanted to know.

“I was playing in the backyard and climbed on the roof of a low shed.  I fell off and ripped off part of my face, requiring several painful operations.  I was frightened, and my heavily-bandaged face made it difficult to talk.  But I managed to ask my mother, ‘What is going to happen to me?’  My mother took my hand.  ‘Don’t worry,’ she said.  ‘I have been praying all the time you were in surgery.  I have put you in God’s hands and He has told me that you will be beautiful on the inside and out.  God has assured me that you will be fine.’ I believed her. “

“Now the scars are all gone,” I said.

“Yes, physically and I think emotionally, too.  I learned a lot from this time in my life and I still think about it from time to time.”

For Glenn, a medication called Urso not only stopped the progression of her liver disease, but also reversed some of its effects.   But it took enormous amounts of time, patience, and commitment to follow the necessary steps to curb the disease.  In addition to the medication, she had to follow a strict diet:  low-sodium, no fatty or fried foods, no red meat, no alcohol, no dairy products.  “I spend so much time identifying what I can eat, shopping for it and then preparing a meal,” she said.

“Sometimes I wonder if I still have a meaningful life if all I do is follow this rigid diet and the demands of taking care of my body.  My yoga training and my exercise class help deal with various pains, soreness and stiffness.  Sometimes I feel like an old, broken-down piece of furniture.  Then I remember the Leonard Cohen line, ‘There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.’”

Following this rigorous diet, and later becoming gluten-free, Glenn’s health improved dramatically and she was no longer considered to be in crisis.  Instead, she was seen as chronically ill, but stable.  This news inspired those of us who had, for many months, watched with sadness as her health progressively worsened.  Now we all had hope.

Glenn accepted that her medical condition would require life-long constraints, but she was determined to take the best care of herself without letting this disease define who she was.  I accompanied her on almost all of her doctors’ visits and to all of the national and regional PBC conferences she attended.  It was during these stressful times that we began to talk about our spiritual journeys, in what ways our stories were similar, and how she understood her own journey.  These discussions would bring both tears and laughter, and a growing sense of the deep bond that had developed between us.

“Can I ask how you saw your parents when you were young?” Glenn curled up on my couch.   “Well,” she began, “From my perspective as a small child, the War Between the States came shortly after Jesus in order of importance.  For me, history consisted of Jesus, then something called The Dark Ages, and then the Civil War which, my parents insisted, destroyed the glorious South.  They never spoke of Daddy’s wounds or his medals from his service which I discovered in a box after he died.  To them, nothing important had happened since the South lost that other war.

“Because members of my family had served as Confederate soldiers, the Civil War conveyed upon my family their social position among the landed gentry.  The problem was, it wasn’t real.  My parents held on to this belief and insisted that we share in this charade.  My father was a broken man, increasingly turning to alcohol.  My mother saw herself a gifted, frustrated actress who gave up a budding career for her family.  She also began to drink heavily.  I can remember that when I was a child all parenting ceased as ‘happy hour’ began and continued through the evening. I lay awake in my bed, sometimes crying, too afraid to get out of bed to go to the bathroom for fear of being seen.”  Tears filled my eyes as I thanked her for telling me this story. It was getting late and we said goodnight.

As a child, Glenn was taken to church by neighbors and she sang in the choir. Later, as an adult, she joined a local Episcopal church, sang in the choir, and involved herself with church members who were community activists. “Giving up on ever having the ability to help my family,” Glenn told me, “I looked for ways to help others.  I still do.”

Her love of languages and her interest in other cultures have played a major role in Glenn’s journey.  When she was 14 she was hired by her Sunday school teacher to spend the summer traveling with the family as a nanny to the teacher’s four-year-old child.  When they visited El Paso, she met her first Spanish-speaking friends and she fell in love with the language and the culture.

Later, she spent a summer in school in Spain, living with a local family and learning the language. And she fell in love with this family’s son Damaso.  “At the end of the summer I contacted my parents to tell them I would not be returning home.  ‘I’ve sold my return ticket and I’m going to stay here, work in the wheat fields, and become fluent in Spanish.  Why should I come back there to study Spanish when I can learn it here?  And besides, I may be getting married!’

“My parents thought I was crazy.  The next week, the Guardia Civil arrived and dispatched me to the nearest American Consulate where a return ticket awaited.  Angry at my parents and sad over leaving my boyfriend, I returned home, re-entered college and continued studying languages:  Russian, Portuguese, and Italian since I had pretty well conquered my major.  I soon discovered that I was gifted in languages, and wanted to pursue a career teaching.  But alas, after graduation I did what kids of alcoholics usually do:  I married a verbally-abusive, neglectful alcoholic, whom my family embraced because he had aristocratic credentials.  It was after 13 years of marriage and the birth of two children, that, with good therapy, I finally found the courage to divorce him.

“I was a lost soul, devastated,” she said.  “I continued therapy, joined a local church, stayed busy rearing the children, all the while seeking to make some sense of my life.  I fell into a deep hole of depression that would take me years to climb out of.  I’m so blessed that both my children survived these years with my weak mothering skills to become successful adults who, along with two grandchildren, enrich my life so.

“This has been a spiritual journey for me,” she said, “taking me to the depths of despair before lifting me up and setting me on a higher path. I have used therapy several times in my life, especially during times of crises.  I worked hard during these sessions to explore and understand myself and to operate from my Highest Self. I’m still trying,” Glenn added.  “And after marrying again I have been blessed with 35 years of love and support and happiness, as well as having had someone who loved and supported my children.”

I thought of the words of Lao-Tzu, “He who knows others is wise; he who knows himself is enlightened.”

Glenn’s traveling, which has included long stays in India and Mexico, continues to enrich her life.  “From early on, I became even more aware of my language skills, and that I could communicate across cultures and belief systems.”  In each country she stays long enough to immerse herself in the lives of the natives, to study and learn from them.  She would often say that her spiritual journey had been enriched and strengthened not only by her several trips to India, but also by her stays in Mexico where she and her husband have built a home on a tiny island off the coast of Cancun, called Isla Mujeres.  She feels so alive there as she continues to teach and to support children who want to learn to speak English.  Many of these students, who knew almost no English when she began working with them now lead successful lives, working in careers of their choice.

In the 20 years we have been close friends, Glenn has invited me on many of her adventures.  We have traveled together from Biloxi, Mississippi (Where we attended our first conference after her diagnosis of PCB) to an Ashram in India, where my transformative stay included a trip to visit The Valley of the Saints, where more than 100 Muslim saints are buried.  A spiritual energy was present there that I had not experienced elsewhere. Later, our travels included a breath-taking cruise to the Panama Canal, to California and New York, and to Isla Mujeres, which feels like a second home for me.

During our times together there we snorkeled, ate too much guacamole, shopped in the little village, enjoyed authentic Mexican food, and put the finishing touches to my book, The Knack of a Happy Life.   We visited with families in the neighborhood who, because of Glenn’s fluency in Spanish and her genuine interest in them, embrace her as one of their own.  They welcome me as well.  It is a blessing to me and my spirit soared with each visit.

A few years ago, I was diagnosed with a brain tumor which could not be safely removed because of its entanglement with several parts of my brain.  After 29 radiation treatments, months of physical therapy, and finally finding a group of medications that help keep everything in balance, I am now doing well.  But this experience was terribly difficult, involving several hospitalizations, followed by weeks in rehab facilities.  Through this time my adult son Eric has been my rock, staying with me through surgery and taking me to all radiation treatments.  More than three years later, he continues his compassionate care of me.

When Glenn sensed the long road to recovery that was ahead of me, and knowing that I would no longer be able to work part-time, she began sending me a monthly check to help with medical expenses.  When I started gaining a lot of weight due to the health issues and the medications I had to take, Glenn bought and mailed new, larger-sized outfits, sending clothes for each season that fit my permanent new size.

She continues to mentor a young woman she met as an at-risk third-grader.  Glenn’s support, both financial and with compassionate care, enabled this young woman to graduate high school, attend college, obtain a job in the medical field, and begin to raise a family.

It has been more than 15 years since her diagnosis, and Glenn continues to hold her own. Medications, a strict diet, exercise and yoga help keep her condition stabilized.  Through all these years, despite many crises and near-death experiences, Glenn has never lost her faith, optimism, or her sense of gratitude.

As we shared our medical issues over the years we began to count our blessings and to see the transformative power in suffering.  We have talked about what suffering has taught us and what we are still learning.  I began one such conversation by sharing my awareness that my own suffering has transformed me.

“In what ways? “ Glenn asked.

“Well, I am more patient and loving, I think, and I have been able to switch from living a fiercely independent life to depending on others.  I have lost my ability to drive but have been surrounded with several church members who drive me to all appointments and have become close friends. My son and I have always been very close but now we have a stronger relationship and love that is so life-giving. I have a deeper relationship with the Divine, and I can appreciate the contemplative life.  And I’ve found a peace and serenity that I haven’t always known.”

“How about you?” I asked.

Glenn sat thoughtfully for several minutes.  “It’s hard to put into words,” she said.  “Transformation is both immediate and the work of a lifetime.  Here’s an example of immediate transformation. I recognize I’m saying things to myself that make me miserable, and suddenly it is laughable and not true.  I ask:  ‘How long do I want to be miserable? Only I can decide to cut this out!’  That issue never bothers me again.  In a moment there’s transformation.  But transformation comes at a cost.  For me it included years of therapy, study, travel, meditation, prayer and slow preparation.

“Motivated by panic, depression and constant misery, I began seeking help as soon as I left home at 18.  By the time I was in my late 30’s, I had learned to take responsibility for my feelings, do something about my own reactions and speak up for myself.  I did more spiritual work in my 40’s and shifted the focus of my consciousness from my head to my heart.

“I am full of laughter, and fresh air blows in my soul each day.  I’m content to do things badly and with great humor and enthusiasm.  With some short-term memory loss, I have become more creative!  Everything old is new again.  Most of all, I love with abandon and without too much concern for being loved back.  I know I’m loved.  I love my own life, my own growing self. The rich, full life I once knew has been replaced in part by an even richer one. From suffering I have learned to be less controlling, less critical, less judgmental.  I, too, feel more connected to the Divine, and I see God’s love in everyone.  I’m more about unity than focusing on what divides us.  And I know that in the end, only love prevails and I find that thought comforting.”

We often talk about not what we have had taken away from us but about what we have gained.

”I don’t want to waste time focusing on the past or worrying about the future,” she told me, adding, “I want to continue to ring the bells that still can ring.”

Recently, after one of our many talks, I asked Glenn, “How about if I write a short story about your life and your spiritual journey?  I think it could be an inspiration to others.”  She was quiet for a moment and then said with a smile, “Actually I’d be honored.  And I can’t wait to see the spun gold you weave from the straw of my beautiful life.”

spiritual journey

Optimism: Do you see the doughnut or the hole?

Let Your Thinking Change Your Life…

One of the classic definitions of optimism and pessimism is that the pessimist sees the glass as half-empty, while the optimist sees it as half-full. Many argue that this distinction is important because it affects the way we see life and the meaning we find in it.

One of my favorite examples of optimism came when my twin godchildren were young. It was the Christmas season and there was much talk of Santa Claus. My godson said to his sister, “Don’t you think it’s strange that one person can come down all the chimneys in the world in one night?”  Without hesitation she said, “No, I don’t think it’s strange.  I think it’s amazing!”  Now an adult, she continues to maintain her optimism, in the face of several losses and disappointments.

Are optimism and positive thinking the same thing?  They are similar, but positive thinking has been described as optimism plus gratitude and happiness. Let’s look at some of the advantages of optimism as described by many researchers. Some see optimism as the key to success, helping us to gain confidence, to overcome problems, and to bring positive change to our lives. It can help us see failure as an opportunity for a new start.  Optimism does not mean that we always see puppies and rainbows, but it does help us see new opportunities.

By way of contrast, pessimism doesn’t achieve much and doesn’t have any known benefits. Pessimism can make us unusually hesitant and shy, reluctant to try new things, or seek new opportunities.

Interest in this concept is not new.  In 1952, Dr. Norman Vincent Peal wrote The Power of Positive Thinking, a kind of how-to manual for finding happiness and fulfillment through thinking and acting positively. His book has sold over 5 million copies to date.

More recently, psychologist Martin Seligman (the “Father of Positive Psychology”) says these two ways of looking at situations are habits of thinking that can lead to very different outcomes.  According to Seligman, pessimists tend to give up more easily, feel depressed more often, and have poorer health than optimists.

On the other hand, optimists tend to do better in school, work, and extra-curricular activities. They often perform better than predicted on aptitude tests, have better overall health, and may even live longer. For me, optimism is not just about feeling positive, it’s about being motivated to change.

Sherrie Bourg Carter writes about the mind-body benefits of optimism. Her suggestions include capitalizing on the power of positive thinking; daily recording of positive experiences; re-framing negative thoughts into positive ones and reducing negative language from your vocabulary; avoiding negative people and focusing on spending time with positive folks.

Your body will love you for your optimism!  Why? Because research (reported by Harvard Health Publishers) shows optimism is associated with lower blood pressure, lower risk of heart disease, and can increase your chances of living longer.  DeSylva and Kern tell us in song that a heart full of joy and gladness can banish trouble and strife.  Now, scientists tell us that such an attitude can help the heart itself.  We now know that optimism helps the heart and circulation.  It contributes positively to overall health.  Such is the power of optimism!

Some say that we are hard-wired for optimism and a sunny outlook.  Others see the influence of environment as the major contributor (nature vs. nurture).  I believe that heredity can play a part, but that changing our attitudes, our beliefs, and our outlook on life rests largely in our hands; on our early life experiences; on our willingness to let go of pessimism and embrace a positive outlook, an optimistic view of our world and our position in it.

In my years of clinical practice, I have found that optimism is one of the best predictors of successful therapy. Recently, a colleague referred a middle-aged woman to me.  After speaking with me on the phone and offering several reasons why she couldn’t commit to therapy she ended the conversation by saying, “You sound like a very nice person, but my problems can’t be fixed.”  This pessimistic attitude has kept her from finding out that her problems might well be ‘fixable’.

I doubt that McLandburgh Wilson pondered such weighty questions when he explained optimism in 1915:

“Twixt the optimist and pessimist

The difference is droll:

The optimist sees the doughnut

But the pessimist sees the hole.”

Each of us has the power to change how we view our experiences.  Rather than seeing yourself as a helpless observer in your journey, see yourself as an active participant.  You can begin flexing your optimism ‘muscle’ by being consciously aware of your current prevailing attitude. Is it negative or positive?  Each of us needs an ‘attitude adjustment’ from time to time. You can practice positive ‘self-talk’ and cutting down on negative thoughts and comments.  You can hang out with optimistic people.  Optimism is contagious!  You can practice looking for blue skies; seeing the glass half-full; and always seeing the doughnut rather than the hole. It takes some work but I am optimistic that you can do it!

personal development topics

How Do I Love Thee?

From Crush to Agape: How Do I love Thee?

In Sonnet 43, Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning pondered this question.  Using space as a metaphor, she went on to say, “Let me count the ways: I love thee to the depths and breaths and heights my soul can reach…”  Browning dedicated this poem to her husband, Robert Browning.  Most of us aren’t that eloquent in our expression of love. But, can we all aspire to that kind of love in our daily lives?

For starters, we need to understand that there are several different types of love or ‘love’. These can quickly be broken down into:

  • Crushes
  • Erotic
  • Storge
  • Phileo
  • Agape

I wrote about crushes in The Knack of a Happy Life. Many of us developed crushes in adolescence and thought that was love.  This feeling can play an important role in adolescent development, but it’s not the stuff that real, long-lasting love is all about.  A crush is an intense and, usually, passing infatuation.  However, if a crush continues for too long it can become obsessive and take up more time and energy than we can spare.  At its extreme, crushes that become pathological create stalkers. Our goal is not to deny or ignore these types of emotions but to learn from them and grow into a higher form of love.

Erotic comes from the Greek god Eros, the god of sexual attraction. A love that is an emotional involvement based on body chemistry.  Eros looks for what it can receive.  If it does give, it gives in order to receive. The basic idea of this kind of love is self-satisfaction.  Though directed towards another, it actually has self in mind.  “I love you because you make me happy,” is one way to think of it.  Obviously, this is a conditional type of love.  Many of us get stuck in this phase. Erotic love does not produce a deep feeling of connectedness and/or belonging.

Storge is a wide-ranging form of love and includes many relationship types. It is arguably more a feeling of attraction for a person (or even a pet) than strictly love. When we experience a quiet, abiding feeling for someone close to us that we feel good about, we are experiencing a form of storge love. It is a natural movement of the soul towards spouse, parents, children.

Somewhat similar to storge love, phileo love can be thought of as brotherly love. This is most often seen with close friendships. Phileo is a love that responds to kindness and appreciation. It involves giving as well as receiving but it can collapse when greatly strained, as in a crisis. Phileo love is a higher form of love than erotic love because it is about our happiness, not just my happiness.

Agape love is the highest form of love. Some say agape love is the love God has for man and man for God. It can be thought of as a universal, unconditional love. For example, the love a parent has for a child. Agape love does not depend on the merit or worth of its object. This is a love that delights in giving.

These different forms of love are not to be considered static for each of us. While agape is the highest level, most of us have experienced all of these different types of love from time-to-time and moment-to-moment. We shouldn’t think of any of these levels as automatically better or worse (good vs. bad) than the others. It is a sign of a healthy individual to assess where all of their relationships fall along the love spectrum and decide if some type of movement is necessary for personal growth and a more fulfilling relationship.

February is the month we focus on love.  Valentine’s Day invites us to tell others how important they are to us; how much we love them.  It is a good time to stop and take assessment of the kinds of love we embrace and to seek the highest form, a mature love that is strong enough to run the risk of losing the person who is loved.  It’s not easy, but it’s doable and the rewards are immeasurable.

Give love a chance!

inspirational messages