Thrust Into Stillness

Be still.
I wrote those words in my journal in July 2012, four months after my husband died. I’d been writing daily for weeks, frantically and feverishly. I journaled, blogged, wrote articles and essays. I’d sit on the couch, surrounded by piles of papers, pens, notebooks, and dozens of books written by authors who’d walked this path before me. My children called that end of the couch “Mom’s nest.”

Then one morning, I woke up and couldn’t write a word. “Be still,” I heard, and I knew where the prompt had come from. I’d allowed for quiet, contemplative time, but my mind had not been still. Anything but…because as long as I was writing about David, love, and marriage, I could keep him alive. God knew if he took away my writing, I’d have to face my loss. I’d have to turn to Him. “Be still.” But there’s more to that Bible verse. Psalm 46:10: Be still and know that I am God.

Know that I am God. I was still discovering how to have a personal relationship with God, was just learning to recognize his voice. God doesn’t shout out commands. He doesn’t force us to follow. No, God is found in the stillness, in a whisper.

1 Kings 19:11-12: The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.

– That whisper was God.

Because of this virus, self-isolation and social distancing, many of us have been thrust into a state of stillness. Events have been cancelled, large groups forbidden- we might be experiencing a less hurried and busied lifestyle. Others, like those on the frontlines, working those essential jobs of medical professionals, workers in care centers, grocery store workers, truck-drivers- and God bless each and every one of you- are seeing the opposite; longer hours, a busier schedule.

But if you are one of the many who are self-isolating, staying home, know that YOU ARE NOT ALONE. God is right there with you. Be still. Stop everything right now. Breathe in. Breathe out. Listen. Is God speaking to you?

Stillness brings you into the present moment. The Now. If we are so worried about what is going to happen, we will miss the now.

I live on Rush Street, appropriate considering I always seem to be in a hurry…Rushing to accomplish more, do more. Be more. While I’ve learned many lessons in the past eight years, I’d reverted back to my ‘keep busy’ mindset. Working from home the past week, when I needed some fresh air, to get out of the house every day after my work was done, I began taking daily walks. I used to enjoy walking with my husband or sister because it meant time talking to them. When I lived near a store or library, I enjoyed a walk to one of those places. But walking just for the sake of walking without a companion for conversation or a place to head to, or even nature to wander in seemed pointless…a waste of precious time…just another “should” to add to a long list of things I should be doing.

I see other people walking; couples, families, pet owners with their dog…they keep their distance, I keep mine, though I admit, when I’m not crying, I meet their eyes, smile, and search their faces for a human connection.

Yes, I sometimes cry on my walks. I was surprised, and quite irritated, the first time it happened, but those quiet moments away from my house, away from work, and my teen daughter, the tears come unbidden. I cry for those workers on the frontlines, for friends prevented from visiting parents or grandchildren, for my family, myself…loneliness exacerbated by isolation, missing my children, my workplace, co-workers, my uncle’s funeral, my granddaughter’s 7th birthday.

I realized one day, when unwelcome tears threatened to spill down my cheeks yet again, these walks are the perfect time for meditation, and that tears can be a form of prayer, a call out to God. I was kinder to myself then and cried less.

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I began noticing things on my walk; buds of flowers rising from the dirt in yards, beauty I would not have noticed before. Christmas lights that appeared on someone’s house overnight, obviously put back up to brighten dark days, an inspiring message written on a sidewalk with chalk. sidewalk

When I stopped to admire the artwork, a little boy in a nearby yard cried out repeatedly “Hi! Hi! Hi! Hi!” His mother tried to shush him- to not bother the lady. I called out “No! I feel the same way, getting out. Hi People!” We both laughed. A spot of grace. A soul connection. I smiled all the way home.

Today, it was hearts on the doors of many houses.

Are you seeing hope in the buds of spring? Feeling joy from the boisterous greeting of a little boy across the street? Are you being the hope in writing inspiring messages on the sidewalk, hanging out your Christmas lights? Taping hearts to your door? I see God in you.

Be still. Listen. Do you hear it too? The sewing machines of women creating masks instead of quilts. Factories suspending usual production to make medical equipment. Music and stories being shared, on porches and online. Art being created.

That’s hope you hear, in the background of despair.

Watch my Monday Morning Meditations for my workplace, Shalom Spirituality Center in Dubuque Iowa.

 

 

Stockpiling and Saving the World…one letter at a time

In these uncertain and turbulent times, our reaction to the threat of illness is one of the few things we do have control over. Washing our hands does little to stem the contagion of fear and panic, however. Like many people, I’ve been doing some strategic shopping, preparing for the possibility of being at home for an extended period of time, though my recent trip to Staples may look slightly different than what you might expect. My paper products aren’t of the variety you see disappearing off the shelves.

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I have friends who have isolated themselves by choice and know others who live in care facilities that are on lock-down and not allowed visitors. Many of us will be facing the same sort of situation in the weeks ahead. One thing I can do is reach out to others through cards and letters.

One way I’m handling the heightened anxiety is by journaling more, reading a daily devotional, and writing more letters and cards.

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Until there are restrictions on mail delivery, a possibility that concerns me even more than a shortage of toilet paper, reaching out to others through the mail is a way to stay connected while following the social distancing mandate. Here are some simple ways to begin your own snail mail campaign:

(Condensed from Called to Be Creative, to be released by Familius in September)

Debbie Macomber quote

“In this era of texts and e-mails, a handwritten letter might seem an outdated practice, but what if a simple piece of paper and a pen could make the world a better place? Research has demonstrated there’s something beneficial to our health and happiness when we put pen to paper. Writing a letter can be a mindful practice, serving as a way to organize and calm the mind. In one study, Kent State professor Steven Toepfer discovered that having students write three letters a week, spending fifteen to twenty minutes on each letter, decreased depressive symptoms and increased happiness and life satisfaction significantly.

When your letter-writing includes gratitude, the beneficial effects were heightened. A study at the University of Pennsylvania found that when participants were assigned to write and deliver a letter of gratitude, they immediately exhibited a huge increase in happiness scores, an effect that could last up to a week.

Of course, the letter-writer isn’t the only one who benefits from the exchange. Who doesn’t get a little thrill when they see something other than bills and advertisements in their mailbox? And while we’re unlikely to print out an e-mail and save it, handwritten letters can be treasures in years to come. I recently spent several cold winter days organizing my mother’s letters written to her mother in the 1960’s and those she’d written to me thirty years later into archival-safe sheet covers in leather-look binders. Reading through them was like visiting with her ten years after her death.

Whether you’re a new fan of the old art, or a seasoned letter-writer like me, here are some ideas to help you get started on saving the world, one letter or handwritten note at a time.
#1) Write a thank-you note to someone who doesn’t expect it, but certainly deserves it. Pen a thank-you missive to a former teacher, the nurse who did such a good job caring for your spouse during their cancer treatment, or the barista at the coffee shop who never fails to smile. There are unsung everyday heroes among us who are rarely acknowledged for the difference they make in other’s lives. Your accolades might just make their day, maybe even their week.
#2) Send a letter or card to someone in the military. The website “Operation We Are Here” includes a listing of organizations that receive cards and letters to distribute to the military community, including deployed military personnel, wounded warriors, home front families and veterans. http://www.operationwearehere.com/IdeasforSoldiersCardsLetters.html
#3) Support a cancer patient. Sign up to be a volunteer “Chemo Angel,” becoming a buddy to a cancer patient currently undergoing treatment. https://www.chemoangels.com/ You choose what type of angel you want to be: someone who sends notes and gifts throughout treatment, a card angel who commits to sending greeting cards, or a prayer angel. Another group is Girls Love Mail, sending letters and cards to women newly diagnosed with breast cancer. https://www.girlslovemail.com/
#4) Send cards to children in the hospital. My grandson was five when he was diagnosed with cancer. Over the next three years, as he underwent treatment, he ended up in the hospital for days, weeks, and even more than a month after he underwent a stem cell transplant. Greeting cards, small toys, DVD’s, and handheld game systems were invaluable to making his hospital bearable, for him and his mother, who slept on a couch in his room. Ask your local children’s hospital how you can help brighten a child’s stay. This group collects cards for hospitalized children: http://www.cardsforhospitalizedkids.com/
#5) Send gift cards to the parents of hospitalized children. When you send greeting cards to children in the hospital, consider their parents, too. While my grandson had meals served to him, my daughter had to eat food she brought, utilize the vending machines in the hospital, or go to a nearby café. The cost of gas to get back and forth to his many appointments and treatment was exorbitant, too. Generous donations of gift cards for local coffee shops, fast-food places, and gas stations were invaluable.
#6) Write to your children or grandchildren. When I left home for college, I’d always check the mailbox at the dorm. My parents and a couple of my sisters did not disappoint; that first year I received at least one letter a week. I still have those letters, some forty years later. Even when I lived a block away from my grandchildren, I’d surprise them with a card in the mailbox occasionally, or splurge and have a cookie bouquet delivered. Now that I live an hour away, it’s even more important to keep in touch. I’m not one for face-timing, but I like to have something in their mailbox from Grandma Mary.
#7) Mail a postcard to Postcrossing. Like postcards? If you want postcards in your mailbox, you can register with Postcrossing http://www.postcrossing.com/ When you send a postcard, you’ll receive a postcard back from another participant somewhere in the world. With nearly 800,000 members in 210 countries, approximately 350,000 postcards are traveling to mailboxes right now in this manner.
#8) Have a secret? Share it with PostSecret. http://www.postsecret.com/ Whether it is a secret regret, fear, betrayal, desire, confession, or childhood humiliation, you can reveal anything, anonymously, on a postcard, briefly but creatively. This is a group art project and shared postcard secrets can be viewed at http://www.postsecret.com, where you can also find the current address to send your secrets.
#9) Get creative with envelopes and stamps. You can find envelope templates online, or take apart an envelope and lay it on an old map, decorated scrapbook paper, or even a page from your favorite magazine to cut out your own envelope pattern. Fold, and glue the edges shut. Use blank white address labels or a black marker to write the recipient’s address. As for stamps, ask at the post office what designs are available and purchase those that add a little fun to your mailings. I purchase vintage unused postage stamps on ebay for a discount. My last order was for $50 worth of 32-cents stamps for $34, a significant savings for this avid letter writer. I’ve used Vietnam Wall stamps to send letters to a Vietnam Vet and cartoon stamps for letters to my grandchildren. Since I’m never sure what I’m going to get in these lots of discounted postage, I wonder what the recipient thinks when they see a “Stop Alcoholism” or a 1972 “Family Planning” stamp on their envelope.
#10) Find a snail mail pen pal. “The Letter Exchange,” https://letter-exchange.com/index.html is a forum that includes a print magazine, pen-pal connection listings and fun articles for fans of letter-writing. Another forum for letter writers is
Letter Writer’s Alliance:https://www.letterwriters.org/

 

Remember the Best. Erase the Rest?

eraser pencilSorting through my vintage pencils yesterday, I came across this interesting specimen that sports an eraser as long as the pencil itself. What a novel idea, though I’m not sure how the length would fare with actual use, the rubbery tip giving with any pressure. Surely it would break off? My first thought was to search eBay for more of the same, to give out at writer’s workshops. “Erase the Rest. Go with the Best,” is perfect advice for writers. Rough drafts are…well, rough… They aren’t meant to be submitted. I always advise edits and revision. Reading pieces out loud to hear rough spots. Making sure the final manuscript is well-edited before submission, and even then, setting work aside until morning and looking it over again. Good writers only submit their best work.

But what about memories? Should we attempt to erase bad memories, concentrating only on the good? At first glance, that seems sound advice. It stands to reason that if we only think happy thoughts, we’ll be happier. Science supports this platitude. I discuss the elements of happiness and creativity in my upcoming Called to Be Creative

“More grief?” someone commented two years ago when I shared I was working on another book. She didn’t attempt to hide the derisive tone or the eye-roll. The words stung, long after her quick apology.

For the record, I’ve written about couponing, refunding, saving money, friendship, and caregiving. I’ve had hundreds of articles and human interest pieces, unrelated to grief, published in magazines and newspapers.

But, yes, it does seem that grief sneaks into my everyday conversation.  Thanks to this morning’s Facebook’s “Memories on this Day” app, I can say with some assurance that it was eight years ago today we discovered my young grandson’s cancer had returned. According to a heart surgeon later that month, it was also the date my husband’s evening shoulder pain indicated the first in a series of small heart attacks.

Those aren’t pleasant memories by any means, and some might wonder why I even address their “unpleasantness” on my blog.

Those memories are part of me. I am who I am today because of them. As much as I wish my husband had not died that March, or my grandson the following year, they did. I can’t erase the truth, nor should I, considering how those losses changed me.

“Interest in how trauma can be a catalyst for positive change took hold in the mid-1990’s, when the term ‘posttraumatic growth’ was introduced by pioneering scholars Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun. Posttraumatic growth occurs when a person utilizes hardships and life trauma to grow in their interpersonal relationships, spirituality, appreciation of life, personal strength, and yes, creativity. This proved true for me on all fronts. I’m no longer the person I was before I lost mother, husband, and a grandson in the space of three years. In the seven years following my husband’s death, I signed six book contracts, coordinated an annual grief retreat, became a public speaker and workshop presenter, established a large network of mentors and friends, and developed a personal relationship with God in the process. My husband foresaw the professional achievements, but no one who knew me just ten years ago could have predicted either the spiritual or the relationship changes, least of all me.” — from “Called to Be Creative”

While it’s true my next book is about creativity, loss and grief do make several cameo appearances. How could they not? The death of my mother in 2010 prompted the idea for the book. If a woman raising ten children in a poverty-stricken household could manage to create, wasn’t there hope for the rest of us? If she left behind a creative legacy in a masterpiece of a well-lived life, how could we do the same? For two years, I delved into research, interviewed people who were living a creative life, and formed two different creativity groups to test my jumpstart activities on. The result is a book that is meant to educate, inspire, and ignite the latent creativity we all carry within us. Grieving my mother was the impetus to write the book.

“The creative process is far too often inspired by our most painful experiences rather than our most inspiring ones. It would not be a stretch to say that for many artists, authenticity and tragedy are inseparable,” Erwin Raphael McManus writes in The Artisan Soul: Crafting Your Life Into a Work of Art.

If I could erase the bad memories; the moment the doctor closed the door after informing my daughter her five-year-old son had cancer, the sight of my husband in a hospital bed after stent surgery, the five long seconds of disbelief when I discovered him unresponsive in his chair— would I? Would I delete those moments? After all, it is those vivid memories that bring a piercing ache to my chest, a single sob choked back, the threat of tears in a public place.

Perhaps my latest creative project answers that question. When I decoupaged the top of an old desk, I chose photos, newspaper clippings and words that inspired and lifted me. I glued the word Miracle next to my grandson’s photo, not because we were given a miracle healing, but because his presence in our life, however short, was the miracle.

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God was there in all of it…in every single moment. While I thought my heart was breaking in two when my husband died, it was actually breaking wide open, allowing me to become a different person. In those dark months that followed, I knew instinctively what I needed, and I turned to God. He walked before me and with me.

I revel in the good memories of those people who have gone Home before me. I am grateful for the loved ones who are still here. I count myself blessed.

But no, I would not erase a slew of bad memories to risk losing even one good moment. Those memories made me who I am, they are a part of me, and I will not apologize for mentioning them.