I don’t typically take “selfies” at all, but certainly not in a hospital gown. This afternoon I did.
During the writing workshop I taught Monday night I remember saying something like this:
“Why would we write about things that embarrass us? Or make us look foolish, or petty? Why be so transparent? Why would I write about crying in the peanut butter aisle and bolting out of the grocery store to sit in the parking lot and slam my fists into the steering wheel? Because I am not helping anyone if I am not transparent. I cannot help another griever if I don’t share the messiness of grief. Because if I admit I bolted out of a grocery store or sobbed in a dentist chair then someone else who has lost a spouse can read that and think ‘Oh, I’m not crazy. She did that too.’ I’m not helping anyone if I hide behind a perfect Facebook façade.”
How many times have I stood in front of a room full of people in an Expressive Writing class explaining how every single cell in their body holds memories: cellular memories. That even if they didn’t want to think or write about the trauma and sadness in their life, their body would find a way to express it; through headaches, stomach upsets, generalized anxiety, or other physical ailments.
Which was why I woke up crying on June 2, 2012. Though I wasn’t consciously aware of the date; even in my sleep my body remembered that it was the first wedding anniversary without my husband. It’s likely why I ended up in an emergency room three times in six years around the month my husband died.
Make that four times in seven years.
When the chest discomfort began six days ago, I dismissed it, thinking about all the snow I’d been shoveling. When the discomfort was joined by pain between my shoulder blades, it kept me up at night, as I moved from chair to bed and back again. Then nausea joined the symptom ranks, followed by an upset stomach and a nagging headache. After confiding in a couple of my children, they encouraged me to see a doctor. Except a doctor didn’t want to see me, I discovered when I tried to make an appointment. “We’ll make an appointment for you after you go to the emergency room and they rule out a heart attack,” I was informed.
Three hours and several tests later, I was informed my heart was fine, and handed a prescription for anti-anxiety medication I might never take.
The look you see on my face is one of sadness and resignation. The thought uppermost in my mind; is this how it will always be?
Seven years after the March we discovered our little Jacob, my grandson’s cancer had returned. Seven years after the month my husband had a heart attack and stent surgery. Seven years after the March my husband died. Seven years, with a job I love and many exciting things happening in my life, my body still remembers.
“God never gives us more than we can handle. When we see each joy and, yes, sorrow that comes to us as a gift, and we greet both with gratitude, that’s what makes us stronger people. That gratitude is what helps us build our faith and gives us purpose while we’re here. Otherwise, so much would be unbearable.”
That was just one of the nuggets of wisdom I jotted down as I read John Schlimm’s Five Years in Heaven in May 2015.
“I want one,” I thought as I read the 31-year-old author’s story chronicling his unlikely friendship with an 87-year-old nun. “I want an old nun friend who can teach me with her wise words and gentle tone.”
Theirs was more than a friendship~ it was two quiet souls connecting in a world that sometimes seems to have gone mad.
My daughter, whose eight-year-old son had died a year and a half before, loved the book as much as I did. Not every author would reply when a fan contacts them, but John did. When I told him two wounded souls in Iowa loved his book and asked for personalized autographed copies, John sent these:
We treasure our personalized piece of art on the end pages of a book that contains passages like this:
“These days, people are so caught up in a world that’s competitive and full of temptations. Everyone wants something bigger or more than their neighbor has. A bigger house, a bigger job, more money, more clothes, more gadgets, more popularity, more things. Everyone tries to outdo one another. It’s rare to hear of someone who wants a bigger heart, a bigger faith, or a bigger sense of gratitude for what they already have.”
Clarke University and Shalom Spirituality Center have collaborated to bring John Schlimmto Dubuque in March, where he will appear at several events. On Monday night, March 11, celebrating the 30th anniversary of Shalom, a 6:00 pm dinner will be followed by facilitated discussion related to John’s friendship with Sister Augustine, their mutual connection to Saint Francis, and matters of heart and soul. Cost is $25.
On Tuesday, March 12, at 6:30 pm, a Participatory Art night will be held at Shalom. Attendees can contribute to three projects; an art piece similar to John’s THE SMILE THAT CHANGED THE WORLD (is yours) that is displayed at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, flower paintings on canvas that will be taken to a Dubuque area nursing home or retirement center, and a Compassion planting project with letters of compassion printed on recycled paper that contains flower seeds. Cost is $15, which includes materials.
A book club discussion of Five Years in Heaven will be held in the Shalom library on Thursday, March 14 at 6:30. Copies of the book are available at RiverLights Bookstore in Dubuque. Offering is $6, plus the cost of the book. Contact Shalom Spirituality Center, 1001 Davis Street, to register for these Shalom events. 563-582-3592 or Info@shalomretreats.org. Contact Mary Potter Kenyon at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Clarke University is hosting John for a discussion of his varied pursuits on Wednesday night, March 13, at 7:00 in Jansen Music Hall on Clarke campus. The event is open to the public. Contact Hunter Darrouzet at 563-588-8192 or email@example.com for more information.
On Friday, March 15, Convivium Urban Farmstead, 2811 Jackson Street, is hosting a Vegan Cooking demonstration and discussion with John Schlimm, followed by an optional meal. See convivium-dbq.com/events for registration, or contact Leslie Shalabi at 563-557-2900 for more information.
“Think back to your childhood. What did you enjoy doing? What were you naturally drawn to? When you were a little girl what made you happy?”
“Take your time. Dig down into the deep recesses of your mind.” I continue, noting a few furrowed brows in the room full of women.
“Some of us will have to dig deeper than others,” I add with a smile, and good-natured laughter erupts from the corner of the room where two women in their seventies sit.
“Did you spend hours outside poking anthills with sticks? Follow your mother around as she cleaned house, begging to dust the furniture? Love working with your grandmother in the garden? Were you a voracious reader, devouring books like the chips in a Pringles can?”
A younger woman looks up from the sheet of paper in front of her. “I’d almost forgotten! I used to spend hours making Barbie doll clothes! They weren’t very good; just quilt scraps my mom gave me that I cut holes in for the arms.”
A single woman in her thirties, the Barbie clothing designer sports spikes black hair, a ring in her nose, and arms covered with colorful tattoos. She looks the part of a creativity group member, but the truth is, all of the women belong; something about creativity appealing to a restless stirring inside them.
Thirteen women attended the inaugural meeting of the inelegantly dubbed “Lifelong Learner’s Creativity Group” I began at the library where I was employed in 2017. Forming the group made sense for a librarian. A 2015 Pew Research study revealed that adults who use libraries are more likely to consider themselves to be lifelong learners, actively pursuing learning opportunities. The group was consistent with a library’s mission to engage learners and inspire thinkers, but organizing it was not simply a job-related, altruistic move. It had been months since I’d experienced the kind of creative energy that ignites in a room full of people interested in the same thing. I’d seen it happen in writing classes I’d taught and at writing conferences I’d attended. I missed the passionate exchanges about writing and the rush of adrenaline that came with speaking and practicing one’s passion, the camaraderie of being in a room full of people that shared that passion. Those women needed what the creativity group could offer.
So did I.
As we took turns introducing ourselves, it soon became apparent we all had one thing in common; we wanted to add creativity into our lives and suspected that doing so would make us happier.
We were correct in that assumption. Scientific research demonstrates that practicing creative pursuits results in a happier, healthier life. The activity can be as simple as journaling, playing an instrument, or spring gardening, so long as it has meaning for the individual.
I didn’t make friends easily for most of my adult life. I was too busy raising eight children. That changed in 2011, when I attended my first writer’s conference, connecting with women and men interested in writing and publication.
A year later, I’d discover the value of friendship when my husband unexpectedly died and some of those writers attended his funeral, becoming a support system of sorts. I made additional friends outside of that writer’s circle through a workplace setting, classes I taught, involvement in grief ministry, and by forming both a Bible study and the creativity group.
“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with,” entrepreneur and motivational speaker Jim Rohn once said. The Longevity Project, which studied over 1000 people from youth to death found that the groups you associate with often determine the type of person you become. If you want a stronger faith, become part of a faith community. If you want to be more interesting, spend time with interesting people. To be more creative, hang out with creative individuals. Find your tribe.
It wasn’t long after I traded in that library job for one as a Program Coordinator at a Spirituality Center that I began a similar group there, aptly named “Artisan Souls.”
Something extraordinary happens when I facilitate groups and conduct workshops. I’m so exhilarated by the energy in the room, I’m hardly aware of the passing of time, and I leave those meetings deliriously happy, a soaring feeling that can last for hours, even days. Researchers call this joyful state “Flow,” the loss of time and self-consciousness that happens when we’re completely absorbed in an activity, whether it’s intellectual, professional, or physical. Flow can be achieved through activities such as running a race, playing the violin, or writing a book, as long as the activity is voluntary, intrinsically motivating, requiring skill, and challenging in some way. A growing body of scientific research proves that flow is positively correlated with happiness, and that people who experience a lot of flow also develop increased concentration, performance, and a higher self-esteem.
I enter the state of flow when I write or conduct workshops, but I’m open to experiencing it through other avenues, which explains one of the tenets of our creativity groups; to try new things. In these two groups I’ve painted on canvas, designed Vision Boards, practiced hand lettering, and made jewelry.
One month, a member of our Dyersville library group brought ukuleles for everyone, insisting we’d be playing a tune by the end of the evening. As my fingers fumbled clumsily with fret and chords, my cheeks flushed with embarrassment. I wondered why I wasn’t catching on when the women on either side of me made it look easy. Then I happened to glance up. A woman across the room was having just as much trouble as I was. Our eyes met, and we both laughed. I didn’t have to worry about failure or looking foolish. I was there to have fun, not to become a musician.