Sunday, December 29, 2013

Year End Review

Affirmation: I examine the past with an eye on my best

The conversation revolved around how different generations use technology.  Adam, my daughter's fiancé spoke with me about how those over 50 had to learn about social media; how for those in their late 20's and 30's it was simply an extension of the computer skills they learned as children and how those in their teens today have grown up with social media.  It's an integral part of their life, like radio or TV is to some.  He then went on to tell me that my 16 year old granddaughter will have a complete photo history of her life not because we have been photographing her since birth, which we have, but because she posts photos and everyday events on the social media sites and has been for several years.  She has been carefully schooled by her parents about the dangers of sharing too much information or about sharing inappropriate information. So far, so good. After our discussion I found myself thinking how nice it would be for me to have a complete record of my life.  The older I become, the more there is to remember and the more I seemed to have forgotten.

For me, recalling the past can sometimes be quite a challenge.  Unless, the event is tied to a significant emotional response.  I have at least one friend who can remember the names of all her teachers from elementary school through high school.  My sister can recognize people she hasn't seen in years and my husband's ability to remember where we've traveled and what we've done is amazing.  I on the other hand really struggle with those skills.  I do, however, remember holding my oldest daughter's hand as we walked together to her pre-school. I remember when my youngest crawled into bed with me early in the morning to hug for a while before she went off to school and I can recall every one of my son's projects and there have been many, because of the excitement he generated as he took them on. 

The TV show Sixty Minutes had two separate programs about memory issues.  The first was about people who cannot remember faces, not even the faces of their loved ones.  They are not ignorant by any means but that part of their brain simply doesn't hold that information.  The same program also looked at people who had no directional skills.  They were lucky to get out of their own homes.  That part of their brain didn't provide that skill.   On the second program they interviewed people who could recall every moment of their lives as if they had a file cabinet in their brains and they could access whatever information they needed whenever they needed it.  At the time of the show, there were only about a dozen people known world wide with this skill.  I am pleased to say,  I do not have any of these issues or skills.  My memory is selective and challenging but I can easily recognize my loved ones and many others and I have a fairly strong sense of direction but whereas I would like to more clearly remember my past, I would not want to carry every one of those memories with me throughout my life.  I think that would be overwhelming and exhausting. 

It is, however, very important for me to review the past. It's probably why I keep a journal and a little pocket calendar where I write the day's past events. For me it's like looking in the rear view mirror of the car before changing lanes because them I am aware of what's going on around me.  I have found it to be very helpful to put together a yearly family photo calendar.  Going back over the year's significant events really helps me to recall that which was important to me and what brought me joy.  Otherwise, the year all blends together.  Then the years all blend together and those highlights I so enjoyed and those lessons I learned get lost.  It's the difference between living a life of many different colors and tastes and living one that's gray and bland.

I have a monthly and a yearly practice of asking myself 10 questions that I feel will improve the quality of my life going forward. I gathered these several years ago from a newspaper article by Sharon Randal from Henderson, Nevada.

1. What was the hardest thing I had to do this year?
2. What was the most fun?
3. What were the milestones?
4. What was my biggest accomplishment?
5. What's something I wanted to do but didn't?
6. What was my biggest surprise?
7. What was the best thing I did for another?
8. What was something I worried about that I don't worry about now?
9. What made me proud?
10. Describe a moment I want to remember.

I feel the only reason to review the past, is to find a way to live better in the future. Look it over, learn the lesson and then let it go. The last part may be the hardest lesson of all.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Christmas All Year Long

Affirmation: I possess the Christmas spirit all year long.

My favorite holiday movie is The Bishop's Wife with Cary Grant, David Niven and Loretta Young.  It was made in 1947.  I know many people have a favorite holiday movie.  My nieces and nephews like A Christmas Story.  Many people watch the classic It's a Wonderful Life with Jimmy Stewart.  Then to name a few others there's the Grinch Who Stole Christmas and Miracle on 34th Street.  Recently, the AMC channel did a whole special about all the different Christmas movies.  Even watching the small clips they showed warmed my heart and made me smile. I love a corny movie, especially the Christmas movies.

Do you have a favorite?  Do you have something that you and your family like to sit down and watch once a year during the holidays?  Why?  What is your choice?  What appeals to you?  Is it something funny or touching?  Is it a classic or is it something new?  In The Bishops Wife Cary Grant is an angel.  The bishop doesn't believe it but he's so desperate for help that he withholds judgement and so for a brief period of time Cary Grant settles into their lives.  Henry, the bishop is very consumed with trying to raise the funds for a cathedral and he thinks Dudley, the angel is there to help him with that project but he's so wrong.  Dudley has come to help Henry rediscover what's really important to him.  It's a similar theme as the one in It's a Wonderful Life.  An angel has been sent to earth to guide the suffering hero to value those aspects of his life that he has failed to treasure, his friends and family.  It's something we'd probably all like to have an angel come and remind us of periodically.

There are a lot of expectations around the holiday season, those we believe others have of us and those we take on ourselves.  I want to remember, no I want to luxuriate in the season.  I want the tree and the red ornaments and the twinkle lights to stay on always, not just for the few weeks labeled "the holidays."  I want to have every day include the word "Christ" not just those days when I get to say and write and hear "Merry Christmas."  I want to possess the Christmas spirit of love and joy all year long.

This year, as for the past three years, my Small Christian Community adopted two families for Christmas.  We do this with the help of Rachel Monteverdi.  Rachel is responsible for the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Franklin County Family & Consumer Sciences program.  I have tried adopting a family on my own and found it to be a very daunting experience but once I discovered that I could bring together a group to make a difference for another family I was excited and motivated and what a group we are!  My SCC has been together for over 25 years.  We have a core group who has been there all along and then we have about twenty five other people who have joined us over the years.  Like all groups we have different levels of commitment but the one constant is their generous, compassionate nature.  We are connected by a very strong common bond.  We all believe in our Lord Jesus Christ and we all believe in answered prayer.  We have an ongoing prayer list that everyone covers in prayer at all times and if there's a special request, it can go out to the group and I for one find comfort knowing I have this group of Prayer Warriors lifting my concerns up to God.

We had two families this year.  The first one was a grandmother and a seventeen year old girl who had been homeless last year and didn't have any Christmas.  The other family was a widower and his three young sons.  They needed shoes and gloves, blankets and cleaning supplies.  They wanted some games, perhaps a CD or a few books.  Our list includes their first names and ages and I simply send out the list to the SCC and to my daughter and son and ask for whom they'd like to buy.  After all the gifts arrive I fill in anything that is missing from the list, divide the gifts by family and put the gifts into black garbage bags (for safety reasons.) The people in the SCC went over and above in making this holiday special for these families.  They wrapped everything and made sure there was not only the needed items on the list but the wanted items too and if they thought of something special, like a bracelet with a little "bling" or a remote control car for the boys, that was in there too.  This year my car held ten bags.  It was filled to the brim.  My heart was filled to the brim.  I am so very grateful to be a part of a group that so willingly and generously reaches out to help others.

We won't know how our efforts affect the families.  We won't hear anything.  We have to trust that our efforts have made their holiday and their lives richer and more joyful, perhaps even more hopeful about their futures and about how they see the world.  I know in our giving efforts it made me feel more joyful and more hopeful.   It made me feel the same way those corny Christmas movies make me feel.  It made me feel like the world can be a kinder, gentler, more compassionate place.  The world can be a place filled with peace and love.  Jesus Christ was born over 2000 years ago for just this reason, to guide us to creating a world of peace and love.  If we can hold that concept in our hearts and minds not only during this holiday season but for the whole year, Christmas won't end.  I may have to take down the tree and the red ornaments and the lights but I don't have to put away the love and the peace that makes our lives and the lives of all those we care about, richer and blessed and neither do you. 

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Searching for Service

Affirmation:  I pray daily for those who most need God's mercy and open myself to be of service to whomever She sends me. 

Pope Francis, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, has inspired the world.  He was elected pope in April of this year following the historic resignation of Pope Benedict XVI.  He didn't want to be Pope.  He didn't expect to become the Pope.  He had already purchased his return ticket for Argentina.  Immediately after his election all sorts of tales began appearing in the news.  It appears he is a very newsworthy person.  One of the first stories was about him paying the bill for his hotel room, himself and then taking a taxi back to where he needed to be.  Now, I've done those things many times in my life as I'm sure you may have, but no one ever thought it was of so much interest that they announced it in the media!  The behavior and words of Pope Francis have since been announced and scrutinized.  He is both applauded and criticized.  He is unlike most world leaders and yet he is subject to the same scrutiny as all of them.  He comes up short for some but it appears as of this date, he is mostly being hailed as a man of humility and wisdom, two qualities we all should strive to possess but which if possessed by our leaders make for a kinder, more compassionate society. 

This month Pope Francis was named Person of the Year by Time Magazine.  It appears the criteria for this acknowledgement is who Time believes has had the greatest impact on society during the year.  It is not always someone who has had a positive effect on our world. The opposite is true for Pope Francis.  They named him because of his philosophy or a better word would be theology.  His mission is to provide care and dignity for all human beings.  Mother Teresa also had that mission. It's what Jesus Christ's mission was when He walked on this earth and according to our Catholic tradition Pope Francis is His representative here, today.  He is the 266th pope and so far he has shown himself to be quite unique in his role as Pope.  There's been a photo circulating on the internet that shows Pope Francis in one half and Pope Benedict XVI in the other.  It says "Can you see the differences?"  Unlike the Sunday cartoon quiz which makes it difficult to pick out the different character, this "quiz" is very easy.  Pope Francis has abandoned the fancy trappings used by the pope's of the past.

The latest picture being circulated is of Pope Francis kissing the head of a severely disfigured man.  There's a rumor that he goes out into the slums of Italy and provides solace for the populace.  It is a fact that he did this when he was in Argentina, so it's not too farfetched to believe he's continued this practice.  His first encyclical addressed the distribution of wealth throughout the world.  He doesn't believe the system most countries, including ours works to the benefit of the neediest.  Conservatives who only focus on economics aren't very happy with the Pope's message but the Pope isn't concerned with their opinion.  He is only concerned with how society will respond to the needs of the most poor and the most suffering of us. Yes, I said us. 

In my daily reading Spiritual Insights the focus for the month of December is unity.  Each day I am reminded that we are all one.  Once you begin to believe that, you will recognize that if one of us is suffering we are responsible to find a way to alleviate that suffering and the world is suffering of this there is no doubt.  It takes very little awareness to recognize the distress of this world.  Sometimes when I hear some of the stories, I am completely overwhelmed by what's going on.  I am horrified by the cruelty.  I fully recognize that I don't even have a clue of the horrors that are taking place in our world even as I write this and to be honest, I really don't want to know the details.  I only know they exist and as the year has passed I have found myself called to step up and to be more aware of the poor and suffering and to reach out in a way that alleviates their suffering, perhaps even brings them joy and peace. 

It's the message I have been receiving these last few months.  It began before Pope Francis was even elected.  It has been here all along as all important messages are but I wasn't ready to fully embrace it.  I mean what can I do to help those most in need?  The second part of that question is, what will I be called on to do and am I ready and willing?  The clearest message came from Albert Haase's book Catching Fire Becoming Flame.  He says that focusing on Christ  "leads us right into the heart of a suffering, needy world where we are sent to respond lovingly to the unmet need or required duty of the present moment."  It is our mission in life.  It is our reason for existing, to make the world a kinder more compassionate place.

As my friend and I walked around the lake we talked about how we can help change the world.  It was a good walk!  What can we possibly do to aid in the conversion of hearts to bring them to a place of love and peace?  We can begin with ourselves.  The first place where the transformation must begin is within our own hearts.  Luke 1:68-79 says "Let there be peace on hearth and let it begin with me."  After that the soul is open to the flame of transformation.  If you take some time every day to connect to the Divine, you will be led to opportunities to ease the suffering of another, of others.  The opportunity is there.  There are so many ways to be of service if one is asking to receive them. 

A friend of mine once stopped to talk to a man who looked quite deranged and was obviously homeless.  She asked him how he was doing and engaged him in a very nice discussion.  The rest of us had walked past, quickly.  Afterwards I asked her why she had done that.  She told me she asked God every day to send people to her who were in need and to whom she could respond.  She told me she never knew where they would appear and she couldn't take the chance of passing someone by that might be an answer to her prayers.  Do you think her kind words made any difference?

A study that took place in NYC had two groups of people passing by pedestrians on a busy sidewalk.  One group would nod and smile at the stranger passing by them.  The other group would ignore the stranger.  The researchers then asked the stranger a few questions about how they were feeling.  (How they got someone in NYC to stop and chat with them was amazing to me but they did.) The people who were smiled at had a higher level of contentment than those who were ignored.  If just a simple smile from a stranger can add to the joy of this world, what a difference we can make if we are making an effort to ease the suffering and pain of whomever we meet and hopefully, whomever we are holding in our prayers. 

Trust me, just like my friend, once you ask God to allow you to be of service, opportunities will present themselves and once you open yourself up to caring about the marginalized and suffering of this world, not only will you make a difference in other's lives, you will make a difference in your life.  Your heart and this world will be transformed.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Strengthening Our Spirit

Affirmation: I have a healthy spirit because I pay attention to those practices that strengthen it.

As I write this the United States is passing from celebrating the holiday of Thanksgiving to preparing for Christmas.  Every year the space between Thanksgiving and Christmas gets smaller and smaller, actually there is not any space unless you claim it because retail begins Christmas right after Halloween.  Recently there was a very sad cartoon in the paper.  An older couple was standing at the head of an empty but fully set dining table.  They had the roasted turkey on a platter and were ready to serve but no one was there.  The wife's comment was "We should have known what to expect when they announced the sales would begin on Thanksgiving Day."  My good news is that except for my youngest daughter who lives in England, our table held the entire family including my grandson's (Joe) fiancé.

My husband and I love Thanksgiving.  We love any occasion that brings our family to our home and to our table.  Sharing time and stories and our lives with the people we love the most is the highest blessing of our lives.  It is heartwarming that our family responds in kind.  They did not leave early to start their shopping or to go to the movies or to escape for any other reason.  We shared the meal, had coffee and dessert and then our grandson, Sam played and sang three original songs he has written.  My heart overflowed.

Madonna, the singer, prophesied what has become reality.  We live in a material world.  I am as guilty of liking and wanting nice things as anyone else.  I love it when the house is all pretty inside.  I like a new pair of shoes or a new outfit.  I love a gadget or two.  I like my comforts and my security but my age puts me closer to the end of my life than the beginning and I recognize that the material things of this world are not where my ultimate happiness lies.

As you know if you read this blog my mother is in assisted living.  She's a strong 91 but I see her becoming more and more frail. I visit there often both to see her and to bring communion to the Catholic residents in the entire facility from the independent living to the Alzheimer's unity.  It's a gift to me to share the lives of the residents even in such a small way.  It makes me very aware of my phase of life and very grateful for the stage I am in today.

"I worked on my external well-being in the early part of my life and recognized I needed to work on my internal well-being for the later part of my life."  This was the statement from an older woman I know who hosts weekly gatherings at her home to examine different spiritual concepts.  About fifteen women attend each week and if she's away, someone else has her key so the group can still gather. What are you doing to work on your internal well-being?   What steps need to be taken so that when you may no longer be able to do all you want to do, you will still feel safe and comfortable and alive!

It's a fact that we all age differently.  I've written before about one of my heroines, Eleanor Cioffi, my mother's best friend.  She still lives alone and yesterday there she was at the gym working out on the weight machines.  She'd adjust the machine, put her cane down and then do her reps.  One of the aerobics instructors recently told me she was shocked to see Eleanor's age on a form, "She's 94." she claimed.  I asked her to go back and redo the numbers.  I knew that Eleanor has a birthday this month.  She'll be 99!  I want to be an Eleanor.  I'm doing all in my power to stay as healthy as possible and I know I am in charge of some of my physical well-being but not all of it.  I know too that fate can be a life changing influence, so I am also working on strengthening my spiritual and emotional well-being.

I am always open to opportunities for inner growth.   My yoga practice is an excellent exercise in being open and flexible.  I often have people tell me how they "can't do yoga."  They tell me they are not flexible enough." Yes, if they think yoga is about standing on your head or twisting up like a pretzel, they are right but if one can breathe, one can do yoga.  As the body changes, the practice can change.  It is not a competitive sport.  It's all about connecting your mind, body and spirit.  At one time you may have been able to do a hand stand (or not) and that's nice but now your practice may have a softer, more gentle feel.  You're still breathing.  You're still being aware.  You're still connecting the three major elements of your being: mind, body and spirit.  The same may be true of your life as you age.  You're still breathing.  You're still aware.  You can still connect the three major elements of your being.  You just may need to do it in a different, perhaps a more gentle way, than in the past.

Life is about growth and learning to adjust to change, not just adjusting but also thriving within it.  Another one of the gentlemen I visit at Woodland Terrace bemoaned his physical limitations but then he told me he had a new toy; he'd bought a computer and was learning to use it.  He was excited by this whole new aspect to his life.  It was helping him with his physical limitations.  I am always inspired by those who adjust their life poses to accommodate their new circumstances and find joy and even excitement in their new position.

So, I now not only do physical exercise, I also do spiritual aerobics.  I actively seek those practices that strengthen my emotional and spiritual muscles.  I look for community that nurtures and inspires me.  One of my favorite groups is a study group where we discuss different self-help books.  We meet twice a month and have done so for years.  I'd like to think we have years to go.  When recently discussing this topic of physical changes, one friend reminded me "We can always talk."  It's a gift for me to have the support of these friends in a safe, nonjudgmental environment. We are working on our "internal well-being" and I do feel stronger and healthier because of our sharing and camaraderie.

Some of my other spiritual "push-ups" consist of prayer time, journaling, reading, connecting with friends and family and always being open to new experiences.  Whatever life throws at me, I am hoping and yes, praying that I will have developed the strength and fortitude to pull myself up above the fray.  If faced with an emotional marathon I am hoping to have trained well enough to be able to cross the finish line regardless of my physical limitations.  What nurtures your mind and spirit?  Whatever it is invest in it.  Put your time, treasure and talent into those practices that will enable you to be internally strong and powerful.