“Where do you take space for writing?” begged the writing prompt. I had promised myself at the beginning of the month to journal more. I even paid for the advanced version of an online journal, thinking if I could type my journal entries, I might dedicate time to processing my thoughts. I really should know myself better by this point in my life; I do not always do what I know is important.
This morning, I actually opened the journal on my laptop, but then emails distracted me. Before I knew it, an hour had slipped by, and I had answered emails and moved onto reviewing teaching applicants in preparation for a meeting this morning. My journaling intentions had dissipated as quickly as my first cup of coffee.
When this week’s online writing community’s invitation popped up in my email, however, it gave me pause. Where do I take space for writing? Writing often occurs in my head, and the best pieces of my craft emerge when I am on my daily four-mile walk, listening to podcasts that affirm my untangling of myself, my journey of self-excavation. The passerby often glances at me nervously if they hear my verbalized comments to the podcast guest speaking in my ear.
Ideas swirl in my head, and often, they course through my veins, exciting me because words offered by someone else connect deeply with me or challenge me to think differently about myself – my experiences – my life passage. This unraveling of understanding takes space in my mind, and while many of these narratives never make it to the page, they occupy my thoughts, and ultimately, they nudge me closer to becoming a better version of myself.
I promise myself I’ll be better at journaling – at writing on my blog – at outlining and even writing a chapter of the book my mentees often encourage me to write, but the words I write in my mind’s eye are the words I need to digest. These are the words that take up the most space until they are absorbed by my heart – by my actions – by my reactions – by my vision for the future. #MakeRoomForJoy
“She believed she could so she did” – a mantra one can find on signs throughout my house or posted on my social media platforms – is an ideology in which I fully believe. This statement propels me towards being the best version of myself, and these seven words empower me in indescribable ways.
Recently, a good friend of mine used this phrase with the female athletes he coaches. Listening to him use the expression with these young women gave me pause; in fact, it unsettled me. My heart pounded. Hearing someone say these words out loud to young women made me wonder if his audience truly understood the virtue of the statement or even what the mantra looks like in action.
In that moment, it occurred to me that the lesson may be lost as we rush to understanding, or worse, to application. Too often, we use an important statement such as “She believed she could so she did” as if it magically happens – as if saying it makes it true.
As they sat in their locker room, I asked the team which word was the most important in the phrase. Almost immediately, they uniformly said “believed.” My response shocked me. “No. It’s she. She is the one who believes in herself.” Since then, my quick reply has been sitting loudly with me – not because I don’t believe it, but rather because it revealed clarity to me I had not anticipated.
I imagine most people would respond similarly as the young women. On first glance, believing seems to be the key, and yet, without the subject – she – the action doesn’t take place. She must be the one to do whatever she knows will transform her life or the life of others. She takes ownership of the action. It really has nothing to do with believing; it has everything to do with the doing.
What does this mantra look like in action?
She took control of her health, focusing on her mind, body, and spirit.
She has maintained a 120 pound weight loss for nearly six years.
She empowers young people to understand their own influence.
She ended a 31-year marriage in order to live an authentic life – to honor her spirt.
She helps her daughter navigate living with stage four brain cancer.
She works with educators to change the world for children.
In the end, the message is not about believing. The power fully rests in the the action she takes. She does not need to believe she can; she needs to do what she says she can.
On December 28, I posed a challenge to my Facebook friends. Along with with Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote “Do one thing every day that scares you,” I asked “Who’s in?” It wasn’t important if I had others join me; after all, the post was more for me – a declaration – a promise to myself. If I intend to continue on this journey of untangling myself, of living an intentional life, of being present, then I really must understand the importance fear plays.
In a few of my previous posts, I have talked about helping my daughter navigate stage four brain cancer. Over the past year, I have faced the greatest fear of any parent, the fear of losing a child. Before she was born, I loved Elizabeth with an intensity I had never experienced. Watching her grow into an independent, driven, intelligent, compassionate human often took my breath away.
Parenthood, I confirmed with the birth of my second child, is indeed breathless moment upon breathless moment. The thought of losing either of my children can still choke me with trepidation, but this is nothing new. I found myself in deep conversations with myself convincing myself not to follow them on their first solo bike rides around town, and I often held my breath as they sauntered to the idling car which held their waiting friends.
Elizabeth’s diagnosis with a brain tumor just after her 21st birthday forced her to wrestle with her own mortality, and in turn, it begged me to do the same. The gift in this obligatory introspection shifted the way I think about fear; it invited me to embrace fear. Over the course of a few years, I recognized that if I allowed fear to paralyze me or if I chose to live in fear of what loomed on the horizon or hid in the shadows, then I would miss important moments. I would miss life.
Not long after this epiphany, I ended a 31-year marriage to an amazingly loyal man, an intelligent, kind-hearted human. I had spent nearly a decade feeling lonely in the marriage – disconnected – unfulfilled. Fear had restrained me in an unsatisfying marriage – fear of hurting our children – fear of disappointing my family and friends – fear of looking like a failure – fear of living independently – fear of the unknown.
As family and friends found out about my divorce, I was often taken aback by their response. While I am sure many hid their disappointment or disapproval, overwhelmingly, the response “you’re so brave” caught me off guard. In retrospect, I had not considered the courage it took to end a marriage. For so long, fear had held me hostage. When I embraced fear as a natural element of life, I freed myself in so many ways.
“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it,” wrote Nelson Mandela. “The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” As I began to practice facing my fears, or at the very least peeking around the corner at them, I understood Mandela’s insight. Whether the future involves figuring out how to winterize the house or take ownership of my finances or it demands conversations with my daughter about living wills or life celebrations, if I acknowledge the fear, i take a great step towards courage.
My advice: start small. Choose something in life that creates anxiety: shopping for a car on your own, eating dinner out alone, calling a friend with whom you haven’t connected for some time. You decide which fear you want to play with, and then chip away at it. As you practice acknowledging what scares you, you take its power. And then, before you know it, you are standing boldly in the midst of what scares you most: courageous, brave, upright, and resolute. #MakeRoomForJoy
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.
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
“The whole point of being alive is to evolve into the person you were intended to be.” ~Oprah~
A few months ago, one of the young women I mentor reminded me of something I had told her – something she had taken to heart and had put into practice. I often don’t remember specifically what I say when I’m having coffee or lunch, Facetiming, or walking around campus with a student; instead, I speak from my heart, knowing that when I speak my truth, and use my story to help them navigate their own journeys, I can’t go wrong. After all, when you love someone, you allow yourself to be vulnerable – sincere – real. And love comes easy for me.
In a long, two-part text, my young friend mentioned advice I had previously offered her: “focus on things you CAN control” and “find your yellow,” a reference to seeking and spreading kindness and love. Something else she observed, though, gave me pause. Regardless of whether I was the team mom, she reflected, and regardless of whether or not she was a softball player, she is confident I was put in her life for a reason. The text continued with reminding me that I had told her I try to be the woman I needed when I was a young woman trying to figure out adulthood. She wrote, “you told me to be the person I needed,” and “that hit home. Changed my whole view on my future. I WANT to be that person.”
What this young woman doesn’t realize, though, is that she already IS that woman. She is recognizing her own worth – her own power – her own influence on herself and others. As a rising college sophomore, she takes the time to check on me, someone with whom she had no connection prior to this year, because she understands the need for human connection, for nurturing, for loving people she considers family, for building community.
Mentoring young people, gives me energy, and fills me with such a clear purpose it is palpable. The clarity of my life’s purpose echoes in what I know is my soul. My parents divorced when I was ten, and while I always felt loved and nurtured, I also spent a lot of time seeking answers – affirmation – and connection. With a single father whose focus was on putting food on the table and a mom who lived over 400 miles away, I was pretty much left to my own devices to figure things out. Fortunately, I had an incredible group of friends, adults in my community who nurtured me from the perimeter, and an etermal optimism and grit that have both served me well.
Early in my life, most likely through the countless hours I lost myself in the pages of a compelling novel, I learned the power of words – of creating my own story – of being the author of my life’s adventure. As a reader, I discovered characters who encountered conflict, and sometimes trauma, and emerged slightly or dramatically different. I learned the liberating effect of being a dynamic character. If I keep that realization at the center of my attention, then I can be the woman I need her to be. I am a dynamic character, ever-evolving.
I can truly be the woman I needed when I was twelve, thirty-two, or fifty-three. She is as incredible as I need her to be for myself, and, ultimately, for others. My sweet, young friend is learning that lesson as well. What a gift to realize the cotnrol we have over who we become – what a gift.
“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
A silhouette defines my space on the verdant soybeans,
A tender crop moving gently at the hand of the too still breeze.
She tugs at my wrist, whispering loudly
Look. Pay attention.
Do you see?
I walk alone beside generations of seeking sojourners.
The perfume of the humid soil tickles my nose,
Unnamed birds offer their friendly chatter, and
The rhythmic cadence of insects propose an accompaniment
As nature sings me its anthem.
This hymn, this spiritual manifesto for love and life,
Offers a deep melodic thread to the earth – to understanding
A path generations of feet have traveled
Listen – look – the answers are here.