Gratitude begins in our hearts and then dovetails into behavior. It almost always makes you willing to be of service, which is where the joy resides. It means that you are willing to stop being such a jerk. When you are aware of all that has been given to you, in your lifetime and the past few days, it is hard not to be humbled, and pleased to give back.~Anne Lamott in Help Thanks Wow
I think about death a lot. That is probably not the way you expected an after-Thanksgiving post to begin. But it’s the truth. Though it’s difficult to recall my mindframe pre-near-death-exeperience, I’m pretty certain I did not think about death as much back then. Perhaps these more frequent thoughts are related to some residual post-traumatic stress. But maybe not. Perhaps it’s because every which way I look there is something reminding me of our mortality as human beings. From recent public conversations about the young woman who opted to end her own life rather than allow her inoperable brain tumor to run its own course of cruelty, to an episode on Grey’s Anatomy, there are reminders of death every single day. Maybe the increase in thoughts is simply a reflection of aging. After all, the older we grow the more loss we are likely to encounter.
About six weeks into my recovery from Briella’s birth, I drove to work for the first time. I was initially surprised by how natural it felt to be heading back to work, driving the vehicle I’ve spent much of my life maneuvering around. Just as I was about to turn onto the off-ramp from the highway, I was assaulted by an imaginary image of the car in front of me being flung into my windshield. My brain registerred the possiblity of another car being struck and sky-rocketing into my direction and apparently thought it was something I needed to be prepared to handle. The imagined and envisioned scenario jolted my heartrate and left me breathless, but it was not the first indication of my post-traumatic stress. Up until that point, I had also been experiencing dreams almost every night where I was unexplainably draining fluid out of every pore of my body. The dreams felt so real that I would wake up and ask Brian to check to see if there was anything dripping down my back. Considering the amount of blood I lost in both surgeries, the retention of nearly 50 pounds of fluid that my body shed over the course of the two weeks following, and the tubes I had coming out of my body to drain urine while both my bladder and my ureters continued to heal, it wasn’t that difficult to discern what my brain was trying to process in the late hours of those restless nights. But this new fear of cars flying through my windshield was not as easy to explain away.
Thoughts of flying cars have morphed into far more horrific scenarios of which my children or husband are the primary victims. It’s as if living through trauma, an experience where I came face to face with my potential finality in this bodily form, caused a breach in the protective armor many of us live encased within throughout much of life. I think the armor is constructed by equal parts of denial and hope. Denial keeps the inevitable reality of our end and the end of those we love the most at a safe enough distance to function relatively unfazed. Sure, we all know that we will dies someday, but knowing by way of an idea is a very different thing from knowing by way of experience. Hope sustains our life as it compels us to travel further and further down a road we trust will lead us to joy even in the midst of potential tragedy and sorrow. Denial and hope, the two are very different things…or so I’ve learned over the past couple of years.
In my case, denial took the greatest blow in the aftermath of my trauma experience. I’m not sure I will ever be able to live in bliss with that psychological defense mechanism again. I now have an intimate knowledge of how quickly and unexpectedly my own life or anyone’s can come to an end. So how do I function in the midst of this new knowing? My capacity to function now directly correlates to my capacity to live in gratitude. It was gratitude for my life that sustained me during the months of painful recovery. It is gratitude that comes upon me like a wave knocking me off my feet when I’m sitting in the theater watching the production of Once next to the love of my life. It is gratitude that welcomes the tears shed after hard conversations with my oldest daughters about life and love and sex and beauty and shame and struggle. This gratitude thing isn’t about just feeling lucky. It’s about feeling like EVERYTHING is a gift. EVERYTHING. Every day. Every moment. Everything. I am not always able to live out of this place of gratitude – hence the days I don’t function as well. But learning how to practice saying thank you to the source of life daily has been my saving grace. Thanksgiving has moved its way up towards the top of my favorite holiday list over the past couple of years because it’s a day that simply invites us into the practice of gratitude. Let’s hope the spirit of Thanksgiving carries us all through the rest of this holiday season.
Check out our pinterest page for gratitude practices.
As I have mentioned in recent posts, I am currently in a period of transition. Sandwiched in the middle of the good-byes to being a student for five years and the hellos to the professional life of a private practice therapist, I hover; squished between the grief of loss and the unknown of the future. Friends and family have bid me to relish this time of uncertainty for its absence of assignments and their deadlines, governing boards and their requirements. And yet, having operated at 100 mph for the last five years it is nearly impossible for me to downshift so abruptly to a 40 mph coasting speed or even to where I find myself most frequently these days, at a complete stop. So, I toil with days of no appointments, obligations, or responsibilities, wondering what to do, how to make use of my time, where to be needed and where to serve. Blessedly, the district court answered my call for duty and summoned me to be a juror.
I did not approach my civic responsibility with dread as I have often heard many citizens do when they hear they have to report for jury duty. I was actually excited to be invited to learn about a process I knew virtually nothing about. It felt meaningful to be asked to sort through contradictive material, while using discernment and analysis, in order to arrive at a decision that would have significant impact. I felt important entering the courthouse – on a mission to see justice served.
When I googled what to expect from a day of jury duty, I was warned that there would be a lot of sitting and waiting and was advised to come prepared with something to occupy my time. So, I packed lots of snacks, a water bottle, two books, my laptop, headphones and of course, my cell phone. For the first part of the day we waited in a large holding area while the courtroom was preparing for the jury selection process. My time spent there was productive. I listened to music, caught up on emails, ate, drank and was relatively merry. When we were called up to the courtroom to begin answering questions in regards to our fitness for being a responsible juror, all snacks, drinks and activities had to be put away. Additionally, we exchanged the comforts of office-type chairs with cushions for hard wooden pews that were probably a part of the original 1916 construction.
It was after sitting in those particular seats without snacks, drinks, books or anything else to keep my mind occupied where I began to curse, rather than bless the district court and their call for duty. Although the curious answers that came from 75 different jurors in response to questions like, “Do you have any memories, good or bad, in regards to encounters with law enforcement?,” were both fascinating and often amusing, my body was no longer placated by my mind’s optimism that this opportunity might be fun. My legs were restless, my bladder was full; my back was bowed and my shoulders were slumped over in what can only be the result of sitting still for half the day on a wooden pew. Growing up, I sat in long church services several times a week and learned to tolerate tedium; listening to ideas that were over my head or being bored with nothing but the back of a receipt from my mom’s wallet to doodle on. But at least the church pews I sat on had cushions.
By the end of the day, I was hurting and my body finally communicated a message that my mind needed to hear. Pain brought my previous lack of gratitude into sharp focus. I’ve been complaining about having too many empty days without direction or purpose or meaning. But were I to be chosen as a juror, I would have been in that kind of pain and discomfort daily for a month (the projected length of that trial). While I was grateful for a chance to learn how our justice system operates, the greater lesson was the call to practice gratitude for how I spend my days. This life transition phase I find myself currently in is not comfortable for me. It is unfamiliar and directionless and open-ended. Yet, I realize now, that this time is a gift that I have never had before, and imagine I won’t likely have again. For the first time in my life, I am not in school, or working full-time, or at home everyday with babies, or having to meet requirements put upon me by someone else. How in the world have I not responded to this particular time in my life with anything but gratitude?
I’m sure the reasons are myriad. But since I got excused from serving in the jury box for the month-long trial (it helps to be number 65 out of 75), I now have more than enough days to practice thanksgiving for multiple reasons – only one of which is never having to sit on a wooden pew ever, ever again.
As I mentioned last week, this summer I am taking time to reflect on what it means to say good-bye. Summers have always been a season of transition for me and this year is no different. This summer marks five years since I moved from my hometown of Denver and relocated with my family to Seattle. This season is also the end of many requirements such as a master’s degree, internship, externship and thousands of clinical hours necessary to become a licensed therapist in the state of Washington. For the first time in five years I have no one that I must answer to for a grade or for a signature of approval. And while to some, that may feel freeing, to me, it is terrifying. It means that the constant state of someone else being responsible for my fate has now shifted to me being responsible to create my own assignments and requirements for what it is I want to achieve.
I’d like to illustrate this contrast more clearly anecdotally.
On our recent family vacation, we visited two separate water resorts. One was Glenwood Hot Springs resort and the other was Denver’s epic Water World Outdoor Family Water Park. Going to both locations was a treat for me to share with my kids the places that I frequented when I was a child. And each experience was markedly different from the other.
Dipping into Glenwood Hot Springs was like sinking into one’s personal bathtub. The water is a balmy 93 degrees naturally and its presence on my skin felt like a hug over every inch of my body. If the pavement all around the pool was positively blistering, the water was its salve. In fact, I had gotten two large scratches on my arm earlier on the trip and had put ointment on them daily to try to prevent both scarring and infection. But after my time in the magic sulphur spring my wounds closed perfectly and looked better than they had since the initial puncture.
Even before we swam in the pool, when we exited the I-70 tunnel out of the canyon and into the town, I felt a sense of ease and peace and knowing. I had been there many times before and memories of youth trips and diving contests and steam off the hot water in the winter filled me with consolation and giddy elation. It was like coming home from college for Thanksgiving dinner. I was met with the sites and sounds of the familiar, of tradition, of knowing and being known and I was comforted.
My experience at Water World was vastly different. We went there in the afternoon because the astronomically priced tickets were half off. We knew this meant that we wouldn’t get to do everything we wanted to do, but Lucy and Peter are still young enough that a full day might have been too much sun and water for their little bodies to handle. Since we only had a few hours at the park, we chose our rides carefully, because we knew we would be waiting in line for at least an hour. Neither of our kids had been to water parks that had the caliber of rides that Water World affords, so they were wide-eyed and mesmerized from the time we entered the gates. So, even though waiting in line for an hour was less than ideal, we kept telling them that it was worth the wait. And after we rode on the spiral spinning cavernous Journey to the Center of the Earth, they agreed.
Next, we chose to wait in line for a ride where all four of us were seated in a large raft that would take us plunging down a steep incline and dump us into a toilet-bowl like structure where we would swirl around and around and around and finally be dumped onto another landing that slid us through a waterfall and out to the finishing pool.
One of the best moments of the whole trip was the look on Peter’s face when we approached the initial incline of the “toilet-bowl” ride. I had shifted in the raft to where I was heading backwards down the incline and couldn’t see where we were going. Peter, to my right, was looking dead ahead and saw what awaited us all. As I felt myself fall backwards, I looked at Peter. With goggles over his eyes and his mouth wide open, he screamed a sound that was a mixture of terror and delight while his face expressed the notion of being both scared and excited at exactly the same time. It was priceless. I would wait at least another two hours in line if it meant I got to see that expression again. In an instant, he captured for me what it feels like to be in a place where what awaits you is inextricably both exhilarating and absolutely terrifying.
Lest I digress into more dreams of time gone by, let me circle back to my initial paragraph. [The natural problem with using anecdotes is that they only illustrate the point if they’re not so long that one forgets the initial point meant to be made]. What I meant to demonstrate was contrast. The two water resorts were very different experiences of very much the same thing – water fun. One was comforting, soothing, even healing. The other was exhilarating, terrifying and unnerving. These are the two states that I currently find myself between. I am saying good-bye to the familiar of the last five years and awaiting the unfamiliar of the next five. One has been a source of consolation and healing, will the next be terrifying and unnerving, even if exhilarating at the same time?
Perhaps what is at the core of saying good-bye is that one is leaving the familiar and heading into what is unfamiliar. Who really ever wants to leave the cozy, warm and containing presence of knowing and being known into what seems to be the cold, stark and steep dive into the unknown? And yet, when I really think about it, if I had my choice, I would choose the experience of Water World and witness Peter’s face of exhilaration and delight over the comfort of the hot springs bath any day of the week and twice on a Sunday.
Our family just got back from a nearly three-week long vacation. We drove from Seattle, through Idaho, Montana and Wyoming down to Colorado. We swapped cars at my parent’s house and went on to Kansas to be with Karl’s dad before he went into open-heart surgery. After his dad made it successfully through the surgery and was in recovery, we drove back to Colorado for a relaxing week of visiting friends and experiencing some of what I know and love about my home town: Water World, Beau Jo’s Pizza, Casa Bonita, Colorado Mills, Heritage Square, the Renaissance Festival, The Market on Larimer Square, Lucille’s Creole Café, Snooze and much more. When we left Denver, we headed west to go through the ski towns of Keystone, Breckenridge, Copper Mountain, Vail and Beaver Creek and on to Glenwood Springs where we stopped off just long enough to introduce the kids to the natural sulphur hot springs the town is known for. We finished our trek through Colorado by driving through Grand Junction where I spent my freshman year of college and there I was also able to show Lucy and Peter the grand glory of the Colorado National Monument at sunset.
Next, it was on to Utah to travel through Moab near Arches National Park down to the corner of the state to re-enter Colorado again briefly to see Mesa Verde and end up at the Four Corners National Monument where we could all experience being in four states at one time. Afterwards, we drove along the outer rim of the gorgeous Lake Powell and ended up in Cedar City, Utah to stay with my dear friend Hope for just a day – long enough to visit the ranch where she works and catch chickens, feed horses, let baby calves suckle our fingers and scout out lizards and beetles. From there, it was a quick sprint back through Idaho and the corner of Oregon and into Washington to get home as quickly as possible as we had already spent nearly eight days driving.
The 10-state adventure was one we won’t likely make again in the near future. One generally doesn’t drive multiple hours to stand for mere moments at the Four Corners, which is out in the middle of virtually nowhere. So, we made sure to capture as much picturesque beauty and wonderful national spectacles that western America has to offer, even if only briefly.
The process was an interesting juxtaposition of saying hello and goodbye at the same time. I was introducing many things to my kids that I hadn’t seen since I was their age. And at the same time, I was saying goodbye to all that had been my familiar home for nearly 32 years, not knowing when we would be back to visit again. There were moments of nostalgia and downright glee, and also moments of pause to acknowledge that what was familiar to me as a child will be different from what is familiar to my own children. They will have different memories – ones of the Pacific Northwest. Instead of dry, desert climate attractions like Glenwood Springs and Mesa Verde, they will remember lush, damp forests of the Cascades and fresh, cool dips in the Puget Sound. I am excited at the new prospects of discovery for our family in an unfamiliar territory. And I am also saddened by the reality that what I now call home is no longer the mountainous, colorful terrain of Denver, Colorado.
I have been pondering what it means to say good-bye. I wonder about the value and significance of those two little words. They seem to hold great meaning by the sheer fact that many people do not like to say them. So, as I am finishing several chapters at once right now in my life, I will be reflecting more on endings and what they mean to me now, and perhaps what I’d like them to mean to me in the future. I hope you’ll join me as I embark on a new journey – the journey of saying good-bye.
It was one of those Chamber of Commerce autumn days in Colorado – the kind that makes you know God loves you so much to allow you to live here. The skies were crystal blue and there was a slight chill in the air. The park near our house had a big open field and I thought it might be perfect to try out the new kite my 4 year old son had gotten from his Dad. So I bundled up my son and his 2 ½ year old sister and we headed to the park, a short walk from our house.
Having arrived with everything , I proceeded to explain to my son that he had to run real fast so the wind would catch the kite and the it would lift it high in the air. The work of running had to be done first to get it to catch on the air. This required help so after watching him try so hard to create the lift, I began running beside him and letting the tension of the string loose at the right time.
Finally, the kite caught on the air and up it went into the heavens, circling and dipping on the air currents. A little thing brought such great joy to the little boy.
The perfect day was even better as we 3 watched the kite sail. With a little persuasion from me, he even relinquished the string long enough to allow his little sister to hold it.
It’s funny how certain times stick in your brain and bring a smile to your face, 34 years later. As I watched him continue to hold the end of the string and look with wonder at the kite caught on the breeze, God brought a thought to my mind. My little boy was the kite, I was the string holding on to the kite, and God was the wind that lifted it into the air. It was very necessary for God to hold my little boy up, to help him grow into a good man. Running alongside him that day, I realized we were a team, God, me and the little boy. What a joyful thought!
Psalm 127:3: Children are a heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from him.
Submitted by LaRue Fleming