Saturday, May 26, 2012

Living An Unexpected Life

Affirmation: I let go of regret.

What did you dream your life would be like?  Do you still have dreams and expectations about how your life will be in the future?  It seems there's been so much written about "bucket lists," things people always wanted to do but never got around to and so they are making an extra effort to do it now before it's too late.  There's been a movie by that title and there's a country-western song about it too.  I certainly have a list.  Mostly it involves places I'd like to see before I die.  My husband bought me a book called, A Thousand Places to See Before You Die. I immediately started going through it to see where I had not been.  He was looking at it too but he was noting all the places we'd already been, two very different perspectives.

According to my Ennegram type, type 7, I am always looking for the next experience, the next adventure.  My "type" is not easily content.  I am always on the lookout for what I might have missed.  In some ways it makes life exciting but in other ways it can prevent me from relishing the present, always looking forward.  For me, dreaming and planning for the future lead me to feeling optimistic.  I like believing there will be a future to plan for.  But, I believe it's also important to let go of things we imagined might have been.

I once mentioned to a woman that as a young woman, I had dreamed of living and working in Manhattan.  She told me it was never too late to pursue a dream.  I believe that but I think sometimes it's better to let go of some dreams.  I expected to graduate from college and head off to NYC.  I never dreamed of being on Broadway, I wanted to be on Wall Street.  But, my life took me in another direction.  No, I made decisions which led me to suburbia and even further out into rural America.  I've lived in several states but I've never lived in "the city." Sometimes, I found myself fantasizing about the life I had dreamed about.  It was very different from the life I had.  Boy, was I good at imagining all the wonderful experiences and adventures I would have had.

I attended a retreat once with a woman who had six children.  She also had a sister who had become a cloistered nun.  She told us she was much younger than her sister and was very confused and saddened by her sister's choice.  She said she could only go visit her once a year and it was so quiet and seemed so lonely.  Then, she shared that after being married for twenty years and raising six children, she'd had many moments when she wished she'd joined the convent.  I know she was teasing us but there was also an element of truth in her statement.

The story in the cartoon UP, revolves around a married couple who had a dream about moving to an exotic country and living above the waterfalls.  Every year they saved for their travel and every year something came along that derailed their adventure.  When the wife dies, the man who is now quite elderly and very depressed decides it's finally time to give it a go.  He attaches hundreds of balloons to the top of his house and he floats away to find the waterfalls.  Once again, he's derailed but this time he has a new friend, a young boy who has hidden away in his house, who helps him see the world differently.  In looking over his wife's "dream journal" he realizes she had added pictures to the album that had nothing to do with their ultimate goal of moving to the exotic location, she's added pictures of their life together.  She's added pictures of the adventure they'd had, pictures of their life's journey.

There's a study that shows people age better when they can let go of regret.  Carol Klein addressed this issue in her book "Overcoming Regret." What happens when we hang onto regret is that we idealize a situation that may have turned out completely different from our imagination.  Once we realize that we don't have a clue how something would have turned out, perhaps if we could even imagine how horrible it might have been rather than some fantasy we've been clinging to, maybe then we can let go of that regret and fully appreciate the life we have.

The title of Queen Noor's book is, A Leap of Faith, Memories of an Unexpected Life. I wondered when I saw that title how many people have lived an expected life.  I took a small survey and asked several friends if they'd lived an "expected life." I only had one person say "yes." What is your answer? I can tell you right now, I never dreamed of the life I've lived and am now living.  Never, never did I imagine myself living in North Carolina surrounded by my family.  I never thought I'd travel to China or Ecuador or some of the other amazing places I've been.  My life has been a series of adventures and mysteries and it's been great!  Once I was able to let go of the "what might have been", like the man in UP, I was able to appreciate what has been.

Perhaps the secret is not let go of our dreams, even our "bucket lists" but to let go of expecting life to be exactly as we imagined and to embrace it as it is, to relish all we have experienced, all we have learned.  Perhaps the secret is to treasure whatever life has afforded us, the expected and the unexpected. 

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Love is Your Only Job

There are many asanas (poses) in yoga that are designed to help one open their heart.  For example, any sort of back bend will put you in a position where your chest is raised towards the sky.  Even a slight back bend opens the heart as in Fish pose.  In the book Eat Pray Love, Liz Gilbert tells a story about a man she meets in the ashram in India who shares he's been seeking an open heart.  She asks him what motivated him to come to the ashram and he tells her he kept asking God to "open his heart." One day he had a heart attack and his heart was literally opened.  One need not have surgery to create a more open heart.  There are many more gentle ways to accomplish this worthwhile trait.

Many years ago when my children were younger I found myself struggling with one particular incident.  I felt very hurt by this episode and was sharing it with a good friend.  It really wasn't such a big deal looking back on it but at the time I was upset and I felt I was justified in my complaining.  So, there I was moaning about the situation.  She listened and then gave me some of the best advice I have ever had in my whole life.  She said, "Remember, Jean, your only job is to love."

As a journaler who has written three pages every morning for the last 20 years, I have many many journals boxed up.  Every time I begin a new journal I transfer a few things to the front paper pockets and the beginning pages.  I transfer my intentions for the year, my daily prayers, my list of people I am presently praying for and my positive affirmations.  I also write on the inside of the front cover, "Remember, Jean, your only job is to love." 

I believe that with all my heart.  It's the main message Jesus Christ came to give us.  When he was asked; Mt 22:36 “[Jesus], which is the great commandment in the law?” He said to them, '’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.” 

Why do some people seem to have a greater capacity to love than others?  Do you think it's because of their DNA or is it because of their upbringing?  Is it "nature" or "nurture"?  It's probably like most of our traits, it's a combination of both.  But, can we learn to love more, love greater?  Can we be people who can love no matter what?  You've heard the stories about people who forgive their worst enemies.  Can you learn to love an enemy?  Can one learn to separate the sinner from the sin?

I've been very lucky in my life.  I married a man who has a huge heart.  I believe he was genetically predisposed to being a loving, kind man and then, he had the additional advantage of having amazing parents who showed him by example exactly what unconditional love is, especially his mother. I have never heard my mother-in-law say anything, ever, that was derogatory about another human being, and especially about someone in her family.  My husband teases that if we had a bank robber in the family his mom would say, "He's the best bank robbed ever!"

On my travels through Ecuador, I was kissed in three weeks more times than I have been kissed in three years.  Almost everyone I met gave me a kiss on the cheek and a warm hug.  One day we went to the soccer practice of my consuegra's (my daughter-in-law's mother) granddaughter.  Six of us sat in the bleachers watching her practice, her three grandparents, her aunt, my son and myself.  When the girls were finished practicing the entire team came up to the stands to greet us.  I watched these teenage girls start down the row kissing and greeting all the grandparents, then they kissed the aunt.  I thought they'd stop at that point and was amazed when they continued on to kiss my son and then me, two people they "didn't know from Adam."

I know it was a cultural response to greet us all in that manner but at thispoint in my travels I'd been greeted like this for several weeks.  Greeted and welcomed into people's homes, lives and in some cases into their hopes and dreams.  As far as I could see these people in this culture responded with more affection and respect than I normally experienced.  I had the honor of being hosted by my consuegra and I can share with you that the hugs and warm daily greetings and goodnights were freely shared with anyone who happens to be in her home.

When I first received the directive to love no matter what, I remember thinking, "I can do that." But, I must admit it is easier said than done.  There are many in my life that I find very easy to love and there are some I struggle to love.  Some days I feel like my heart is closed and hard.  When I am aware of that state, I engage my breath to help me open up.  I take several deep breaths and visualize my heart expanding in my chest, like a red balloon.  I've also done many other "open heart" mediations.  These mediations usually involve inviting loving thoughts and feelings into one's heart.  First, you invite those who you find easy to love, then you invite someone you may be struggling with and finally, you invite yourself.  You take the time to allow each person to rest within the warmth of your bosom and then you release them and yourself out into the universe, full of light and warmth and wonderful energy, a release that blesses you, them and the world.

I believe we can learn to love more fully, more deeply, unconditionally.  But, I think there's a secret.  I don't think we need to be born into a family of warm blooded Latinos or Italians.  It's nice if we're born into a loving, affectionate family.  It probably makes it easier but the secret is to learn to accept love, to believe you are worthy of love, to believe that you are truly loved, loved for who you are because you are and not for any other reason.  We need to believe we are loved, loved first and foremost by God.  We need to know without a doubt that we are amazing wonderful beings who deserve to be loved.  Once we can fully embrace that concept, we can open our heart to receive and then to give that which we have received.  If we don't accept it, we can't, it is impossible, to give it out.  It's like filling up the car with gas.  If you don't open the gas cap and let the gas flow in, you won't be able to go anywhere.  You'll be stuck in one place, empty and dried out.

What if you approached everyone in life with the thought, "Remember, (your name), your only job is to love."? What kind of an effect would that have on your relationships, on you, on your life?  What kind of an effect would that have on our world? 

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Faith or Fear, You Choose

Affirmation:  I let go of fear and anxiety.
The paper the technician handed me read, “We are pleased to inform you that the results of your recent mammogram show no evidence of cancer." I had dodged another bullet.  I had escaped death once again.  I could breathe a little easier for another year.  It had been over a decade since I was treated for cancer but somehow it didn't matter on the morning I had my appointment.  It's usually been a very early appointment.  I have an hour's drive and I have trouble getting out of the house.  I know why.  I have the same trouble getting to the dentist on time.  I was afraid.  I was nervous.  Mind you, I am not planning on getting cancer again.  Of course, I wasn't planning on getting it the first time.  I know a lot of people who carry around the worry of a cancer diagnosis, especially if there's a family history.  My elderly aunt had breast cancer and my father died of a brain tumor at the age of 62 but I took really good care of myself.  You know, I ate right, I exercised and I monitored my thoughts.  I never dreamed I'd have breast cancer.  I was truly shocked when I was told the diagnosis.

I have since discovered it's not an unusual reaction.  Many many people are simply rolling along when they receive this diagnosis.  The truth is we should be less surprised to not receive some sort of health challenge at some point in our lives rather than the other way around.  One man who is a patient at the Preston Robert Tish Brain Tumor Center told a group of us that he had a headache and surprisingly woke up from it in the hospital.  He was a very robust man with an abundant amount of energy and a big personality.  He heard them saying, "You have a brain tumor, a glioblastoma."  He laughed and said, "You're talking to the wrong person.  You've made a mistake." But, they hadn't.
These diagnoses are like terrorist's attacks.  One day you're walking down the street and BOOM, a bomb goes off.  There might have been a warning sign but many times there is not. One of my physicians graciously told me that the cancer wasn't anything I did or didn't do; it was a "random act of violence."  In one way, that gave me a lot of comfort.  I didn't need to find blame either within or without but it meant that I was vulnerable to the whims of the world and with that thought, I found I felt unsafe.  It left me fearful.  I wondered what else was going on inside my body that I was totally unaware of?  And, I was afraid.
Fear can be a debilitating disease.  It can rob us of our joy, of some of our happiest moments.  It can steal our whole lives from us if we let it but how do we deal with it?  When I was invited to join my daughter-in-law on a trip to Ecuador, I didn't hesitate to say yes but I want to confess I was afraid.  I have read many stories of people being abducted in third world counties and taken off into the jungle, or worse and being held for years and years.  I knew this fear of being kidnapped was irrational but was it?  Maybe I simply wasn't listening to my spiritual guides who were telling me not to go?  But, I wasn't going to miss this opportunity, so my guides and angels had better step up and protect me.  I was also extra vigilant and extremely careful.  As I sat on the steps of the Virgin de Panecillo at the top of Quito looking out over the evening lights of the whole city, I cried.  I thought, "Fear might have kept me from having this experience.  How horrible that would have been." It wasn't the first time I shed tears on that trip and it wasn't the last.  It was an amazing journey. 
So, on that early Friday morning when I was heading off for my yearly mammogram, I recognized the visitor who had arrived with the ringing of my alarm clock.  Fear was here. I recall the first time I heard the phrase; Faith or fear.  It was in a sermon at a church I was visiting.  It was one of those moments when I felt a light go on.  I knew exactly what the priest was talking about.  I had a choice.  How was I going to live my life?  Well, I decided right then and there, I was not going to have my life's choices dictated by fear.  And, I have been deciding that every day, ever since.  I have had to make it a meditation.  There are days, like on that early Friday morning of my appointment when I had to decide moment to moment to stay centered and calm.  Deciding was the easy part; making the choice, putting it into practice, well, that's a whole other story. Once again, I was faced with finding a way to live with Faith and to let go of the fear.  That's when I created the affirmation:  "I let go of fear and anxiety."  It's evolved over the years.  I now not only focus on the letting go of those emotions that don't serve me; I now focus on strengthening my Faith.  I have several affirmations that I say to increase my sense of well-being; to make me believe that no matter what is happening, I am alright because my Faith is strong and helping me stay in a good place.
I am now officially a "cancer survivor." You actually get to claim that title whenever you want.  There are no hard and fast rules.  A few years back my breast oncologist approached me with the concept of creating a Survivorship Clinic which women like myself, women who were out of treatment for several years and appeared to be doing well, would visit for their yearly appointment, instead of seeing him.  I agreed.  My visit at Duke this Friday morning was to be in this clinic with a physician's assistant who specialized in breast cancer treatment.  It included an hour group session, the mammogram and a full exam.  Well, I really didn't need a group session.  There wasn't really any more information I could gather.  I was fine.  Right! 
There I sat with six other people, only three patients and a nutritionist, a breast oncologist and the PA.  The topics quickly turned to how to stay optimally healthy, what effect a breast cancer diagnosis and treatment has on one's long term health and what our best choices might be.  It was a delightful morning, informative and empowering.  The other people in the group were very interesting.  The information they shared was extremely helpful. I invited a dear friend to join me for the mammogram appointment.  We had a nice visit.  Actually, I had a really good time.  I was given that wonderful paper announcing my cancer free breasts, I learned some new things, I had a wonderful exam and I visited with a dear friend and met a few really interesting new people.
My daily affirmation to deal with the uncertainties of life focuses on my faith in God.  One, I tell myself that, "When I stay focused on the present, my life is peaceful."  And, along with that I tell myself, daily, sometimes moment to moment that, "Because of my relationship with my Lord Jesus Christ, I can let go of fear and anxiety and fully trust in His loving care for me." 
I made it back from Ecuador without being kidnapped.  I made it through my yearly breast appointment without a cancer diagnosis.  I know I will experience other challenges in my life, things I may not even be able to imagine but with my focus on Faith, by letting go of the fear, I hope that whatever life brings, I will have at some point in the experience tears of joy and be saying to myself, "Fear might have kept me from having this experience.  How horrible that would have been."

Sunday, May 6, 2012


Affirmation:  I expect to be treated the way I treat others.

While traveling through Ecuador I observed a family on the side walk.  There appeared to be two couples one much older than the other.  The eldest woman was in a wheelchair and the younger woman kept reaching out to hug the older woman and pat her head and give her a kiss periodically.  The traffic in Ecuador is horrific, worse than any city I have ever visited or lived in and I was born in New York City where the Long Island Expressway was referred to as "the world's largest parking lot." Because we were stopped for so long, I had the opportunity to watch this family for several minutes and I was quite taken with the love and kindness they were showing to the elderly woman. 

Life in Ecuador for the elderly appears to be much different from what I've seen and experienced in the United States.  Life for most families revolves around the whole family.  Many homes consist of residents who are multi-generational.  My husband's family was like that when he was a very young boy.  He comes from an Italian background and tells stories about the large gatherings they had at least once a week and for all the holidays.  When his maternal grandmother was 42 her husband died leaving her with 11 children, her mother and her father-in-law all living in the same house.   My mother-in-law tells how the older children stepped in to help the family.  They lived in an area that had a huge mafia influence but the children in her family never became connected to that world.  The older brothers kept a very close eye on them and on her.  When the children were grown, her mother never lived alone.  One son and one daughter dedicated their lives to her care.

I know there are many subcultures in the US where this kind of "village approach" is still in existence.  Several years ago I was lucky enough to do a yoga presentation to a hospital that served a huge minority population.  The day was designated as a "spa day" for breast cancer survivors.  One of the young women I found myself chatting with had taken the day off from work to accompany her mom to the event.  When I commented on how nice that was of her, she stopped me dead.  "All my life my mom has cared for me.  It has been my dream to be able to care for her one day and now I can.  We live together and she helps me with my children and I would do anything for her."

I love my mother and I love my mother-in-law.  I love my children and love my grandchildren and we spend a lot of time together.  But, we don't live together.  Truth to tell, it's not part of our culture.  Somewhere along the way, we changed that.  I think our family still forms "a village" but it's more of a virtual village. 

One of my favorite shows ever was The Golden Girls.  Do you remember the jingle, "Thank you for being my friend."?  The Golden Girls was an American sitcom created by Susan Harris, which originally aired on NBC from September 14, 1985, to May 9, 1992. Starring Bea Arthur, Betty White, Rue McClanahan and Estelle Getty, the show centers on four older women sharing a home in Miami, Florida.  The Golden Girls won several awards, including the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series twice. It also won three Golden Globe Awards for Best Television Series Musical or Comedy.  All four stars each received an Emmy Award throughout the series' run and had multiple nominations. The series also ranked among the top ten highest-rated programs for six out of its seven seasons. (

I must admit to this day when I hear that jingle I tear up.  I know it wasn't a real life situation.  In my mind it represented an ideal.  Four very different women sharing their lives:  their dreams, their challenges, their stories and their flaws.  Over the years they went through every type of situation imaginable.  They laughed, cried, argued, hugged and loved.  I know there have been many other sitcoms that have stirred the emotions of many of us.  Fictional people who seemed to become our family.  This, for me, was a prime example.  I wanted to tell them if the day ever came when I was left alone, I planned on moving in. 

After having the opportunity to spend an extended period of time with my daughter-in-law's mother (three weeks), I think if I find myself alone, I would thrive in such an environment.   When my son's in-laws first came to visit they stayed for three months.  I was quite concerned about how stressful that might be.  I had always been told company and fish had the same shelf life.  At the time, my son and his wife lived in a one bedroom apartment and the parents were not renting a car.  I am pleased to tell you that not only was my daughter-in-law sad to see her parents leave but my son was sad.

In the United States today a relative who is visiting is restricted to three months.  I've spoken with many people whose relatives visit from other countries.  When they come, if possible, they come for the whole three months.  Interestingly enough I've never heard anyone complain.  I can tell some are not too fond of the extended visit but it is not part of their culture to complain about or criticize their family.

My husband and I have had several opportunities to go to The John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, NC.  It is a school dedicated to creating community through crafts.  It's over 75 years old.  It's such a treat to be there.  Every aspect from Morning Song to family style eating is about community.  Many of the teachers are octogenarians and older.  It's one of the few places I have been in the United States where the wisdom of the aged is honored.

Whether there's wisdom or not, it's awe inspiring for me to see how some cultures respect and honor the generations before them. I think many in the US feel the senior citizen is a bother and a nuisance.  For me I want what Aretha sings about "R E S P E C T." That's what I want and if that's what I want, it's what I need to give.
There's the story about the indigent farmer who has made a box for his elderly father.  He encourages his father to get in the box and then quickly closes the top.  He begins to push it towards the cliff.  He's had it!  He's finished!  Then, he hears knocking from inside the box.  "What! What do you want old man?" His father says, "Son, let me out.  You can just carry me to the cliff.  Your son will need this box for you."