Saturday, January 07, 2012

The Top 3 Things I Learned in 2011

Okay, I'll be honest. 2011 sucked for me.  Big time.  As I said when I called it my Year in the Burn Unit, it was spent careening from one unpleasant experience to another.  However, as I try to make sense of it, three lessons emerge.

Lesson Number One:  Breathing is Important
As the year wore on, I found myself literally and figuratively holding my breath, waiting for the next bad thing to happen. This was not a good thing.  For one, breathing is fairly essential to life.  The brain needs oxygen to survive.  Without it, one's thinking gets a bit screwy.  But more than that, when you hold your breath figuratively, you fail to live in the present moment. You are either dwelling in the past or attempting to live in the future.  In any event, you aren't fully present in the present. And the only place you can actually live in is the now. So in this year, I am focused on trying to remember to keep breathing, no matter what happens.

Lesson Number Two:  One Moment at a Time
This is definitely related to Lesson Number One.  When things were really tough I realized that if I just took things one minute at a time, I could get through it.  Sometimes I literally had to say to myself, "You are okay right now.  You are okay right now.  You are okay right now" to manage.  I learned that no matter what is happening, as long as I am still alive, I am okay in this precise exact moment.  Now there may be an individual moment sometime in my future when I won't be okay, but so far I haven't found it.  So even when I am feeling panicky or fearful or despairing, as long as I take a step inward and remember that I am okay at this minute minute, I really am okay.

Lesson Number Three:  I Can Control My Reaction
I suffered under the illusion that I could control things for many years.  This past year, I realized that I can't control squat.  Maybe even less than squat.  The only thing I can control is my reaction to what is happening.  And along with that, I finally figured out that I do have control over my reactions. They don't just happen without me. In fact, events themselves don't have any inherent goodness or badness attached to them (most of the time.  Genocide, murder, etc are a different category.)  For instance, if I spill coffee on my blouse in the morning, is that a bad thing? Only if I think it is so and allow it to ruin my day. It can be anything from a minor blip to a big honking's all in how I look at it and how I react to it. So after last year, I'm trying to be in control of my reactions and not let them control me.

Interestingly, in researching Facing Adversity with Grace, these lessons are some that I realized the saints applied to their own lives.  Saints aren't all that different from you and me in what happens to them.  The differences come because they have learned to live in the present (while considering, but not worrying about the future or trying to relive the past) and in controlling their reactions.  In the midst of everything that happens to them, they are able to make their reaction one of thanks IN and not FOR.

Which probably should be Lesson Number Four:  Remember to be Thankful IN all things. Maybe that's the most important lesson of all!

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Small Change(s) and Many Magi

I don't do change well.  People who know me say that I cling to the status quo until my fingers turn numb.  Now I don't think I do that...exactly...but I will admit that I don't approach change with anything resembling enthusiasm.

However, today, on Epiphany, there is one change that intrigues me.  In November, religion scholar and expert in ancient languages, Brent Landau Th.D, provided the first English translation of an ancient Syriac manuscript that was in the Vatican library about the Magi.

The manuscript, discovered in Turkey and written on vellum (a kind of parchment made of animal skin which I had a chance to see when I visited Turkey last fall), had languished in the Vatican since the 18th century.

What's interesting about the account is that instead of the traditional three Wise Men, the new research indicates that there might have been as many as 40 and instead of coming from some nearby Middle Eastern country, they may have journeyed as far as from China.

The USA Today story on the topic reports:

Landau's book, Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men's Journey to Bethlehem (HarperOne) describes the Magi as an ancient mystical sect descended from Seth, the pious and virtuous third son of Adam and Eve. From Seth they inherited a prophecy of "a star of indescribable brightness" someday appearing and "heralding the birth of God in human form." This same star had initially hovered over the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden.
Among the book's other revelations:
•The Magi are described as coming from a land called Shir, "located in the extreme east of the world, at the shore of the Great Ocean." In other ancient texts, Shir is referred to "as a place where silk comes from," says Landau, suggesting that the references were to China.
•In Syriac, the word Magi means "to pray in silence." Landau says it has no relationship to magicians or astrologers, sometimes cited in stories today.
•The text names 12 Magi, not three, while other parts of the text suggest that "a group the size of a small army" traveled to Bethlehem, says Landau.
Gives a whole new slant on the Christmas story, doesn't it?

5 Ways to Practice Gratitude

One of the things I learned during this past year was that gratitude doesn't come naturally to me.  Perhaps just as some people are filled with the milk of human kindness, others are filled with the wine of gratitude, but I'm not.

However, I have discovered 5 ways to learn how to be more grateful each day.

1.  Be attentive
When I drift through life, not really paying attention to what's going on, I miss many of the small things that make up daily gratitudes.  For example, as I sit here this morning, the sun has emerged from hiding, something it does frequently in Oregon winters, and is illuminating the yard with gold.  If I didn't stop and look outside, I would have missed this moment for gratitude.  And trust me, it won't last long in Oregon, land of the grey drizzle.

2. Write it down
I always think that I'll remember from day to day, but once I go to bed, I promptly forget everything I might have been grateful for the day before.  I have to write down what I've noticed or it will evaporate forever.  So each night, before I turn off the light, I simply jot down two or three things in a simple journal.  Nothing fancy, no elaboration, just "Sunlight on the deck this morning" or "Call from a friend."

3. Think small
I don't always have big, huge, ginornous things to be grateful for each day and I doubt you do either. After all, we can only get our dream job, take a once-in-lifetime trip, fall in love now and then. However, every day has something in it that can create long as we are willing to think small.  A cup of coffee with just the right amount of cream.  Clothes fresh from the dryer.  (No trying to dry on a rack in front of the heater.) A cuddle with the cat.  If you shift your focus from the macro to the micro, there is always something to be grateful for.

4. Keep looking
There have been times when I honestly didn't think there was anything to be grateful for.  Those were the days when I didn't allow myself to go to sleep until I found one thing, even if it was just that I had survived another day.Through that process I learned that there is always something, no matter how minute, that I can be grateful for, even in the midst of the worst times.

5. Make a commitment
If you want to find things to be grateful for, you need to find things to be grateful for. In other words, you need to commit to making gratitude a part of your daily life. It's a little like brushing your teeth. You have to do it every day,

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Thankful IN, not FOR

Yesterday I said that I felt 2011 was my year in a life burn unit. As I reflected, I realized that it was very much like having my entire life debrided of those things that weren't authentic, weren't on focus for my purpose in life.  I had spent many years, too many, putting aside and putting off those things that a small still voice had encouraged me to do.  Instead I did things that I thought were expected of me...and, to be honest, a lot of them were expected of me and a lot of them were actually good things to do.  But I had buried that little voice so deeply I could no longer even recognize it when it was shouting. So that's why I think I had to have my life debrided.  All the things I thought I could count on, that I had taken for granted (and not necessarily in a good way) had to be painfully scraped away until I was left, raw and bleeding emotionally and psychically. I learned what it felt like to stand on the brink of what used to be called a nervous breakdown, and it was not a place I would wish on anyone.

But somehow, through a combination of grace and friends and prayer, I have managed to step back from the edge.  It's still close, but not as close it was just a few months ago. I knew things were getting better when I finally sorted my socks.  Now that might not sound like a big thing, but for months I just stuffed the socks in a basket, and searched for pair or something that appeared to be pain-like when I needed socks.  When I actually took the time to find the mates and put them back in the drawer where they belonged, a mundane act if ever there was one, I realized that maybe things were improving. (No, this isn't my drawer, but I think I have that many socks.)

As I said, I'm still en pointe a lot of the time, but with the new year, I'm feeling the touch of "the thing with feathers That perches in the soul," as Emily Dickinson calls it. One of the things that has helped is to make a concerted effort to tell a friend about the abundances, the blessings that have occurred each day. Even when the day was at its worst, I knew that I had to find something to send her in an email, even if the something was as simple as "I made it through another day without feeling like panicking."

It wasn't always easy because, for a long time, most of my life to be honest, I misunderstood 1 Thessalonians 5:18 (in everything give thanks; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus).  I thought it meant that we were supposed to be happy about everything that happened.  Woo Hoo, I got a flat tire!  Yippee, I was just fired.  YES!! I've just gotten really sick.  YEAH God, this is so cool!

I couldn't understand how anyone was supposed to feel floods of joy and happiness resulting in an outpouring of thanksgiving when bad things were happening. In the course of writing about saints and adversity, I came to realize that even the saints weren't always tickled to death about bad things.  And I realized that I had been misreading the bible verse all these years.

We don't have to give thanks FOR all things...only IN all things.  Big difference. God doesn't expect us to be all starry-eyed with joy when life batters us with pain and suffering.  God would be sadistic and we'd be masochistic if that were the case.  What we are asked to do is to find the good in the bad, the blessing in the midst of the pain, the happiness in amongst the sorrow. It's sort of like seeing the flowers amid the weeds.  Or maybe seeing that the weeds themselves are flowers.

It isn't easy to do, but I've found it is possible. Take last year, for instance.  It began in January with the axle breaking on my car---while I was driving it.While I certainly didn't give thanks for the break or the repair or the inconvenience of it all, I am finally able to be thankful that I noticed something was wrong just as I was driving by the dealership repair shop.  I turned in and had they look at it right that moment.  Had I driven even a few more yards--or attempted to get on the freeway--I would have been in a serious accident with a high potential of injury or death.  So now, looking back, I can say that I found something to be thankful for in the midst of it all.

It's taken me some time to absorb the lessons, but as I wrote in the introduction to Facing Adversity with Grace:
I firmly and absolutely believe that God does not want us to suffer, but wants us to live abundant lives. While we all will experience some pain on our life journeys, becoming entrenched in suffering is not honoring God and it is not living abundantly. So my hope for you is that as you read how the saints used their suffering, you will discover, not just words of spiritual consolation, but genuine, practical measures that you can use in your daily life in order to eliminate unnecessary pain and to claim the abundant life God has promised each one of us. After all, this life in the “vale of tears” may not always be easy, but it is always good!
So what have you found to be thankful for IN this day?

And for your Nefer/Basti update, I think Basti is channeling Spiderman here. He is one determined cat. He promises me that when he comes down, he'll resume his Dispatches from the Front.  God save us all!!!

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Debriding Life: A Burn Unit Kind of Year

As many of you know, 2011 was probably the worst year of my life.  As I was going over my daily planner in preparation for filing it away, I found myself mentally careening from one awful thing to the next.  I thought about composing a sort of anti-Christmas letter for the New Year since I didn't send out Christmas cards, but it was just too depressing and negative to recall all the horrid events.

However, some of the lowlights included having the axle break on my car as I was driving it, Nefer destroying my laptop, my mother falling and breaking both legs, killing my beloved cat Hati by hitting her with my car, financial problems, illness, a second fall for mother, more financial problems and lack of free-lance work, visit to the ER with chest pains, house repair issues, the new laptop from January having its hard drive crash totally in November and finally to cap off the year, massive sewage problems over Christmas.  Not to mention a few classic panic attacks in there...hence the visit to the ER.

This could just have been a series of unfortunate events a la Lemony Snicket, but there were so many this year wouldn't have been believable even as fiction.  So I concluded that there must be some reason behind them all, something that I was attracting into my life and that God was permitting.  In other words, I thought that the events might not all just be random, but there might actually be a purpose behind them.

As I reflected on my year, there were several times when I thought that death would be preferable to going on. But deep down, I knew that death really wasn't an option.  Not only would it be incredibly selfish and unfair to those who care about me to prematurely opt out of life, I had a deadline for a book on facing adversity with grace.  How would it look if someone who was trying to encourage people that suffering had meaning would give up on her own suffering.  Very bad form, indeed. (Incidentally, the amazon page has the first cover.  The new cover is much better and reflects the intent of the book much more clearly.)  So I trudged through the year, feeling a bit like Dave Berry, who thought that 2011 was the kind of year that makes an oil slick look good.

That's when the  image of a burn unit sprang to mind.  I know that in order for a burn victim to heal, the wounds must be painfully debrided, a process that is, apparently, among the most excruciating procedures in medicine. All the old, unhealthy tissue has to be cut, scraped or chemically removed in order for new, healthy tissue to grow.  Even with heavy-duty narcotics, the pain is almost unbearable.

And the really hard part is that the tissue that must be removed isn't necessarily infected.  However, its mere presence makes it harder for the body to fight infection and creates pockets where infection can develop. So all the tissue has to be removed in order for the person to recover.  It is literally a case of going through the pain or dying.

So, in order to try to make sense of what happened to me, I'm doing what all words-people do: write about it.  For the next few days, I'm going to talk about some of the things that happened and try to share whatever lesson I might have learned from it with you in the hopes that perhaps my journey might lend you some insight into whatever adversity you might be going through in your own lives.  Beginning tomorrow...there's only so much visiting adversity that I can face in a day.

One last thing--last year I followed the sad case of Fr. Corapi with what probably bordered on prurient interest. I just learned via Patrick Madrid that The BlackSheepDog has vanished from cyberspace.  With all the scandals the Catholic church has faced recently, I hope that this story has a happy and holy ending.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Touching History

I edit the Archaeology Audio News for the Archaeology Channel and one of the funner (yes, that's a word.  I may have just made it up, but it's now a word.) aspects is when we have the occasional story that deals with biblical archaeology. 

was likely used by Temple officials approving an object for ritual use — oil, perhaps, or an animal intended for sacrifice. Materials used by Temple priests had to meet stringent purity guidelines stipulated in detail in the Jewish legal text known as the Mishna, which also mention the use of seals as tokens by pilgrims. 

What makes this seemingly insignificant piece of play so amazing is that it is one of the very few objects that can be traced to the Temple that Jesus attended since the Temple was thoroughly destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. 

In another life, I would have been an archaeologist.  I love seeing artifacts that link us concretely and really (in the sense of being real) to the past. Knowing that someone who lived and loved and fear and prayed and laughed and ate and did all the things that we do made this little seal 2000 years ago compresses history into something I can actually grasp.

That's why one of my greatest treasures is an exact museum copy of the Venus of Willendorf given to me by a professor friend. Granted, she's not much to look at,

but what amazes me about her is how she fits in the hand. When you hold her, she cradles into the palm and your fingers fit precisely in what would have been the wet clay of her back.  But not just any hand fits. Venus fits comfortably in a small hand, like the hand of a woman. No man who has picked her up says she nestles within his fingers, but every women holds her and for a moment, there is a flicker of recognition that this figurine was probably made by another woman.

That's the sort of thing that I find extremely cool...and yes, funner!