Purpose: A Resolution

With New Year’s Eve upon us, many of us will flirt with making resolutions, a 4,000-year-old practice once employed with hopes of pleasing the gods. Regardless of the purpose, making resolutions on the cusp of a new year requires reflection, purposeful identification of our mistakes or debts, and determination to make amends – changing our behaviors to pursue the best version of ourselves.

As 2020 concludes, with deep intention or fleeting interest, many of us will identify a resolution (or resolutions for the more ambitious among us) for the upcoming year. We will secretly or publicly declare our intentions, even though we know we will most likely abandon our goals within a few weeks . After all, it takes at least three weeks for a behavior to become a habit, and three weeks is a long time even for the most resolved.

And yet, commitment or making up one’s mind to make changes can and does happen. Towards the end of 2014, I made a promise to myself to reclaim my health. At that point, I weighed over 125 pounds more than I do today. I had been too wrapped up in caring for my family, my students, my friends, and I had neglected myself. In 2014, the universe had offered me what felt like insurmountable personal challenges, as well as the realization that if I continued to ignore my health, I would be unable to care for those most important to me. Over the course of several months, I began a life altering transformation of mind, body, and spirit.

Looking back on that pivotal year, I now realize its gift. 2014 forced me to intentionally focus on unresolved issues – to prune parts of my life that sucked my emotional energy – to seek counseling for untouched wounds – to understand that living is a gift that requires action not passivity. 2014 also taught me the depth of my strength, and it mandated, yes mandated, me to shift how I understand my purpose. And ultimately, 2014 prepared me for 2020 and what awaits.

While a resolution is “a formal expression of opinion or intention made,” it also includes “the mental state or quality of being resolved or resolute; firmness of purpose” (dictionary.com). Firmness of pupose. Firmness of purpose. As I read this definition, my mouth first whispered the phrase, and then I heard my voice say it out loud.

Firmness of purpose is not a one and done resolution, but it is a way of living – an intentional step into understanding, and it requires grace, reflection, and definition. So for 2021, I will continue to whisper, shout, sing, dance, live these words: firmness of purpose. Firmness of purpose.

#MakeRoomForJoy

I’m joining an open community of writers over at Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog. If you write (or want to write) just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join us. #sosmagic

To read more about the history of making New Year’s resolutions, begin with this article on the History Channel’s website: https://www.history.com/news/the-history-of-new-years-resolutions

A Good Day

Earlier this year, I listened to a 2017 episode of the On Being podcast in which Krista Tippett interviews Dr. Atul Gawande, a practicing physcian, Harvard professor, and writer. The title of the episode, “What Matters in the End,” indicates why I might be drawn to a conversation with a doctor. In my quest to live intentionally, I find myself obsessed with reading and listening to how others make the most of their “one wild and precious” lives (“The Summer Day, Oliver, 1990).

Today, Gawande’s medical practice and writings are based on the question, “What does a good day look like?” – a question he now asks both terminally-ill and healthy people. This important question allows him to treat the whole person, and it makes a difference to his patients. Good days, after all, are moments we seek.

In the interview, Gawande recalls the pivotal moment when his philosophy of healthcare shifted. A patient, who would die less than 48 hours later, told him she was going to take her family to Disney Land. In that moment, he realized as a care giver, he had missed a critical moment. He realized the importance of asking earlier, “What does a good day look like?” With that important information, he could have helped her achieve that wish a month earlier.

This conversation reminded me of the quip I often say or post on Facebook: Today is a good day for a good day. While I often tweak the statement to reflect my own spirit with “today is a great day for an excellent day,” the message is important. Live the day you have in front of you. Don’t wait to live.

Dr. Gawande’s question is one we can, and should, each ask ourselves. If we start our days with “What does a good day look like,” we remind ourselves of how fleeting time is, and how important it is to fill our days with things that make us happy – people and events that fill us with joy.

Too often, the narratives that run through our heads or the messages society offers us force us to feel obligated stay in relationships or positions we don’t enjoy. We stay in social circles that don’t excite us, we continue to work in unfulfilling jobs, or we continue in unsatisfying marriages without fixing or ending them. Days slip by, and we crawl into bed unhappy, or worse, without emotion.

I am not advocating we bail on our friendships, quit our job, or end our marriages. Each of us has our own journeys and way of approaching things that do not fill us with joy. What I am urging us to do, however, is really rather simple. Before we get out of bed in the morning, we should consider envisioning what a good day looks like. What is on our agenda for the day that will make it a good day or even an excellent one? If there is something on the day’s schedule that doesn’t serve a specfiic purpose or will not contribute to our overall happiness, can it be removed or modified?

If we take a few minutes to ask these questions and monitor our progress towards creating a “good day,” we will experience a shift in the way we think about our lives, about the people with whom we interact, and about the world around us. The time to ask ourselves “What does a good day look like?” is now, while we still have time to make all of our days good ones. #MakeRoomForJoy

Readers can find the podcast on which this post is based at the On Being web site: https://onbeing.org/programs/atul-gawande-what-matters-in-the-end/

I’m joining an open community of writers over at Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog. If you write (or want to write) just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join us. #sosmagic

I am a Writer

“Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depth of your heart; confess to yourself that you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

13 years ago, my son came bounding off the bus and ran to me waiting in the car at the end of the lane. Eagerly, he thrust his black-and-white marbled notebook at me, and announced, “I am a writer! I’m not a great speller, but I AM a writer.”

As a mom, some memories are etched so deeply, they are indelible. This sunny, fall afternoon exchange between mother and son was more than a fleeting moment. For someone who fell in love with reading and writing as a child, this moment felt like a kiss on the forehead, a deep bow to the universal human connection through words.

You see, I, too, am a writer.

Recently, one of my writing mentors invited us to consider ourselves as writers, to describe our writing selves. Immediately, I began to think of the type of writer I am not. Primarily, I am not dedicated and focused. I write in bits and starts, often in the early morning when I first wake up. I have grand intentions of writing essays and books that unveil the beauty of life – the magnificence that exists even in the ugliness and heartache of it all. These grand intentions are reflected in the numerous journals and writing notebooks half-filled and the several unfinished essays and book outlines I have saved on my laptop.

But the invitations asked me to consider the type of writer I am, not my self-defined shortcomings as a writer.

I am a writer of uplifiting posts, for I believe words are better spent lifting and guiding others than wounding and tearing down. I am a writer of intentional tweets sent into the universe – hopeful one human will think a little differently. I am a prolific writer of personal notes – notecards sent to current and former students, left on the doorstep of a friend with a box of her favorite tea, or carefully tucked into a box of cookies and taken to the post office for someone I don’t get to see often.

In my own home, I have boxes of notes my family, friends, and students have written. Cards from long-gone grandparents with their careful handwriting telling me about their days, expressing guinine interest in my own. Handwritten letters from my parents, and numerous one-of-a-kind, handmade cards crafted by my father in his studio. Hundreds of notes, store-bought and handmade cards from students who have learned the power of words.

I am writing because I am a writer. Someday, I may actually write a book or have an article published, but then again, I may not. And whether I write over multiple sittings or whether I ever really finish a piece is not of importance. What matters is that I come bounding into the world eager to announce I AM A WRITER. #MakeRoomForJoy #SOSMagic

I’m joining an open community of writers over at Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog. If you write (or want to write) just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join us. #sosmagic

Seeking a Joy-filled Life

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to learn to love the questions themselves.” Rainer Maria Rilke

The universe has a cruel sense of humor, constantly reminding us we are not in control. To underscore this lesson, life is filled with moments of intense pain – physical pain that reminds us of our own mortality, and emotional pain that aches so badly we can’t breathe. Fear and sadness, anger and frustration, as well as disappointment and angst, weave themselves through our days sometimes so tightly we can’t move.

And yet, as conflicting as it sounds, when we lean into these darkest moments, we have the opportunity to find joy. Yes, find joy. Some spiritual practices believe that when we embrace the gift of suffering, we gain a heightened ability to delight in even the most simple moments in our lives. Within this recognition, joy, in its purest form, occurs.

Arriving to this space, though, and not getting hung up on the suffering or even the joy, requires patience and practice; when we finally achieve this balance, we are truly in the moment. It has taken me quite awhile to figure out this secret, and I certainly have not achieved some sort of euphoric state where I transcend all emotions. Instead, I have shifted my perspective to sincerely seek joy in even the most unimaginable moments of life. It isn’t easy, but it is important.

Search for the lesson: For six years, I have worked on living intentionally, on living an authentic, present life. These six years, as well as the decades that preceded them have been filled with traumatic moments, disquieting moments that have filled me with fear and uncertainty. Since December of 2019, though, some of the darkest moments in my life have occured as I have helped my daughter navigate stage four brain cancer. To say this has been my greatest test as a human is a gross understatement. It has, however, taught me a lot about who I am as a woman.

Sitting by Elizabeth’s bed in the neuro ICU at the Ohio State James Cancer Center, I repeatedly asked, and honestly, I sometimes begged, “What am I supposed to learn from this experience? How will these moments make me a better person?” If I’m not careful, I miss the lesson, distracted by the emotion of the moment: fear, angst, sadness. To live authentically, I have to intentionally seek the lesson.

Understanding often comes in snippets, when I least expect it. I may be talking to a college student working through his or her own journey, and my own experiences offer them solace or steps of action. Sometimes clarity emerges while I’m listening to my pastor deliver his weekly sermon, and my experience connects on a much deeper level. If I focus on the lessons, the difficult moments in life serve a distinct purpose.

Feel the emotion in its purest form: One of the hardest steps in seeking a joy-filled life is recognizing the emotion as it occurs. For someone like me who would rather support others as they experience their own emotions, identifying my feelings, especially in the moment, is hard. For example, if I feel lonely, I often fill that moment by finding people with whom I can connect. Instead of feeling the loneliness and identifying the root of the loneliness or my fear of feeling lonely, I fill it quickly.

Over the last few years, I have made strides in recognizing and feeling my emotions, even the ones that scare me or make me extremely uncomfortable. This has been one of the hardest exercises in my personal journey of untangling myself. Often, the emotion from which I run has a negative memory, or memories, associated with it. However, with practice, I am learning that every emotion is fleeting and based on my perception. Understanding this, and feeling the emotion as a fleeting emotion, is liberating.

Give thanks for the moment: Regardless of what is happening, giving thanks for it is important. Gratitude for even the most difficult moments reflect a life of presence – of living in the moment. As humans, we often don’t stop to think about each moment, and as a result, we end up feeling like life is happening to us. By giving thanks for what is happening, even the moments we wish would simply slip quickly into a bad memory, we are recognizing the power of being alive. Gratitude for each moment allows us to experience the emotion and to see the lesson the universe is teaching us.

Living a joy-filled life is not impossible, but it really takes intentional work. I often fail in this quest. I get caught up in the emotion of the moment. I forget to breathe – to see a purpose – to acknolwedge the natural ebb and flow of life – to embrace the biological rythm the universe offers us. With practice, experiencing joy most of the time, even in the hardest of seasons, is possible. #MakeRoomForJoy

I’m joining an open community of writers over at Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog. If you write (or want to write) just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join us. #sosmagic

Cooking with Purpose

For most of my childhood and adolesence, I spent nearly every weekend at my maternal grandparents’ house. Besides traipsing around outdoors with Grandpa, hours were spent sitting at the kitchen table talking with my grandmother as she cooked. Often, I would join her in snapping green beans fresh or try my hand at frying hamburger to stir into her chili. On holidays, I would lie in the spare bedroom next to the kitchen and listen to Grandma hum as she stuffed the turkey in the early hours of the day, long before we would sit down as a family around the kitchen table.

I learned a lot from my grandmother, much more than how to cook for a large family on a blue collar budget. Perching on a chair pulled up to the counter was eventually replaced with standing next to her, chopping onions or assembling monkey bread, watching, listening, soaking in her kindness. Her lessons extended beyond knowing when the fried chicken was done. Much later, long after my weekends with her had morphed into raising my own family, I realized the moments in the kitchen were not intended to teach me about food.

As Grandma Mitchell patiently showed me how to cook, often without a recipe, I knew I had a frontrow seat with a master story teller. I held onto the stories that unfolded, stories of growing up in the Great Depression, of tire rations, of outhouses, of working a factory job, of selling crickets for the bait shop in my grandparents’, of my grandfather being stabbed, of burying her third child as a toddler. Through her stories, I learned the joy that accompanies a life well lived, regardless of the circumstance. Her cooking held great purpose.

My grandmother’s feet no longer kiss the earth, but she is always with me. For the last three decades, gatherings, especially around food, have served as a foundation for my home. My siblings and their families often gather around my table for holidays or celebrations, and when my children lived at home Friday nights found the basement filled with basketball or football players, always hungry. In these familiar moments, I draw deeply from Grandma’s genuine love for others.

As my two children have moved into their own adult lives, my house is still filled with young people: first year students, softball players, women’s basketball players, students needing a home for difficult discussions about race, or sometimes just two or three who need someone to listen. Just as it did in my own childhood, food brings people together, and amazing conversations happen long after the meal is removed and the dishes are piled in the sink.

Currently, cooking has a different purpose for me. The purpose has a more immediate need – higher stakes. As my daughter battles stage four brain cancer, part of her speech therapy includes following writen directions. Following recipes feels like a natural way to meet her therapist’s request. Each night this week, we have selected something for Elizabeth to make. I write out the items she needs as well as the steps she must take to assemble the dish. Because of the location of the cancer, language processing is hard, but like my grandmother, she is kind, gracious, and humble.

As the Gautama Buddha says, “Your purpose in life is to find your purpose and give your whole heart and soul to it.” My grandmother filled me with a sense of purpose one dish, one story, one song at a time. Today, my love of cooking offers a physical way through which I can express my purpose: deeply loving others – those who are biologically mine and those who are not. Bellies are filled. Hearts are filled. In my book, that’s a win-win! #MakeRoomForJoy

My suprehero making roasted potatoes. Grandma Mitchell would be so proud.

I’m joining an open community of writers over at Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog. If you write (or want to write) just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join us. #sosmagic

We Belong Here

“Active Hope is waking up to the beauty of life on whose behalf we can act. We belong to the world.” The wisdom of Joanna Macy, a woman who has lived a lifetime of applying her religious scholarship to six decades of activisim, speaks to my heart – to the spiritual connection I feel with the universe. She doesn’t just whisper her message. Instead, she claims it boldly. Active Hope is waking up. It requires an action – a realization – a call. It demands I listen. My ears, my heart, my soul are hungry for her wisdom.

Because of Active Hope, the vocation of teaching chose me. Because of Active Hope, I build deep freindships with others who also often want to change the world or at least seek to be the best versions of themselves. Because of Active Hope, I mentor young adults outside the classroom. Because of Active Hope, I actively participate in my communities at the local, state, and national levels. Because of Active Hope, I have am deeply connected to and incredibly proud of my adult children.

I AM awake to the beauty of life.

At face value, my interactions with others may seem selfless. I am loyal, and I will do anything to ensure another’s safety, sense of self, and growth. I almost always put my needs aside for another’s. Yet, if one listens carefully, I admit the benefits I receive from these relationships. I often respond to gratitude, “It’s a win-win.” Yes, my familial roots urge me to remain humble, and yet, the “win-win” statement captures the balance received from this Active Hope.

As I lose myself in the service, in acting on behalf of others, life really becomes more beautiful – more joyful. Even amidst the most difficult times of life – the ending of a marriage, the cognitive and physical decline of an aging parent, the magnitutde of the cancer my oldest child battles – Active Hope empowers me with a spiritual understanding. It gently unveils a picture so much larger than myself. In that masterpiece, Active Hope offers me joy in the connections I have with humanity, and ultimately the universe. It reminds me that I belong. It reminds me that we belong to one another.

#MakeRoomForJoy

I’m joining an open community of writers over at Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog. If you write (or want to write) just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join us. #sosmagic

#MakeRoomForJoy

No one ever said life is fair, my father repeatedly reminded me every time I moaned about the fairness of household chores, the demand for excellence on my schoolwork, or having to spend my own hard earned baby sitting money to buy my first pair of leather Converse shoes. After all, didn’t he know how many hours I had to watch the neighbors’ three children at $1.00 an hour to buy those coveted shoes?

At thirteen, life really did not seem fair.

Decades later, my adult life continues to remind me of this deeply rooted childhood lesson. In that apparent “unfairness,” though, I had developed a resilient, bulldozer mentality – one that has served me well. With his matter-of-fact observation about life, my father had relayed expectations that I would do what I needed to overcome obstacles – no matter the magnitude of the roadblocks.

More importantly, my early, pre-adolescent understanding that life is never fair, and that it actually contains disappointment and even heartache, has instilled in me a great desire to celebrate the goodness that does exist – even in the midst of unfairness. When I take time to appreciate the wonder of each day, life doesn’t seem so unfair after all. That philosophy, however, isn’t always easy.

In 2014, my oldest child, Elizabeth, endured a 10-hour, awake craniotomy to remove a benign tumor in her left temporal lobe. Since then, frequent MRIs have monitored the small remnant of the tumor the surgeon had to leave behind. At the end of 2019, though, the neurologist gently, yet firmly, informed us the MRI revealed a new, aggressive tumor that seemed to come out of nowhere. Within a month, my 27-year-old shifted from planning her wedding to fighting for her life.

Diagnosed with stage four brain cancer during the holidays, the past five months have thrown massive hurdles in front of Elizabeth, and as her mother, I have had to reach deep inside me to remember my father’s lesson – life IS not fair, but how I encourage my daughter to take on the opponent of cancer is making a difference. I see it in her drive – in her smile – in her desire to make sure others remember to not let life slip by unnoticed.

At the time of her diagnosis, our pastor delivered a sermon entitled “Make Room for Joy.” As I began to use my bulldozer, get-out-of-my-way personality to help Elizabeth navigate the twists and turns of living with stage four brain cancer, this sermon gave me a lifeline.

This sermon asked me to make room for joy- to be grateful – to delight in the moment. Since then, the sermon’s message has become my rally cry. Even in the midst of watching my child bravely battle cancer, I have much to celebrate. I have had to shove fear aside to make room for joy.

Publicly, I use the hashtag #MakeRoomForJoy to celebrate all of the good that has emerged from my child’s experiences with cancer. Yes, in fact an overabundance of good has emerged. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of people have shown up to offer support; skilled and patient hands of the healthcare professionals at the James Cancer Center in Columbus, Ohio, sustain her life; and the strength and resiliency I see my daughter so graciously draw on every day inspires me.

Never once has Elizabeth uttered the words, “This isn’t fair.” Never once. And, she could have. No one would have blamed her. That’s not Elizabeth, though. She, too, knows that she wasn’t promised a trouble-free life. She would rather celebrate the joyful moments than dwell on things she cannot control.

And so there it is. Even in the midst of the ugliness of cancer, I have so much to celebrate. Because of that, I will always #MakeRoomForJoy. My dad was right. No one ever said life was fair, but how I lean into that apparent unfairness makes all the difference.