Monday, December 26, 2011

All that nonsense, done for another year

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night, and thank God that's done with!

I sit here dressed in one of my Christmas presents. It's called a "Forever Lazy." My hubby knows me too well -- he bought it. Another way to describe it is that I look like a cross between a giant Smurf and Teletubbie. (Sorry, no pictures are forthcoming!) I'm dressed in a sort of blue fleecy onesie for adults, complete with a zippered behind and hoodie. Needless to say, this outfit was made with someone like me in mind. I may actually keep it on hand to wear, year-round, after showers.

We have decided to go skiing in a few weeks (as in snow skiing -- *first time ever*), and I really wanted to wear this outfit under my ski pants and jacket, but Dwaine forbade me to. Wouldn't it be delightfully ironic to be secretly wearing a "Forever Lazy" while learning to ski?

So anyhow, I was sitting in this outlandish gear, doing my evening meditation practice (10 minutes is what I can manage, most days) and feeling grateful for how our holidays were this year. My Dad is still alive, not in the hospital, and the strongest he has been since June, when all this really got bad. (Though he does have a deep-sounding cough that he insists is getting better.) In fact, the doctor was urging him to get more physical activity, and we were talking about him getting out to walk the track at the gym just before he came down with this mountain cedar/cold. Getting out is something he doesn't do enough. I think he has a lack of energy, but also a lack of interest.

Other people we know through church have been hospitalized over the holidays, or have a loved one hospitalized or in frail health. Then, of course, there are those people in so many places around the world where there is never a sense of security, either for food or health or personal safety. Do we know how very blessed we are?

The 10 minutes of stillness has revealed quite a bit of wisdom to me. You wouldn't think it would be enough to make much difference. I had been feeling angry at Dad about things I won't go into -- now, that's a typical feeling that I have had toward him, off and on, my whole life. Somehow, I was able to get past that and also see my deep-seated need for him, and the bond we share. I realized what a terrible loss I would suffer if he died (a problem not too fantastical to contemplate, these days).

I have been able to sit with this most recent experience of cancer, the third major episode in my life where it has ravaged a loved one, with Mom being first, and my mother-in-law second, where I have seen what cancer can do to a person up-close.

Many of my thoughts over this holiday have been of Dad, and just wanting to tend to him and really demonstrate my love for him in simple ways.

I am making progress reading "The Seven-Storey Mountain" by Thomas Merton. It's sort of like scaling a mountain, reading this book. Not an easy read, but I know this is a book that I must read. I can't get by without it, anymore. He has an uncanny way of taking the spiritual pulse of whole countries, and time periods. He certainly got around in his younger days. Much of the description is of taking various freighters back and forth across the Atlantic from America, to England, to France, along with detailed descriptions of various places in each of these locales.

A note on the 10-minute daily practice: Practice is a way Buddhists describe their approach to life, including meditation. I like this description, because it implies you never graduate to something better, or best. You never have to rate yourself, and worry over whether you might get a B-, or even an F. Meditation, while simple, is not easy, and it defies easy characterization. I suspect it is a highly individual experience, just like faith in God. So you just keep practicing, forever. Like life.

Monday, December 19, 2011

A Zen moment

There's something very Zen about skimming our little pond of fallen leaves.

Skimming off the leaves is like breathing ... a task that has no beginning, no end, no concept of success or failure. It is a task that is smooth and flows gently over the surface of life.

I leave the pond, and more leaves blow in. This is not a good or bad thing, it just is.

Without the leaves, I could not skim the pond. Without this work that I can do in my leisure time, my joy would diminish. I bow to the leaves that continue to fall! May my joy be in finding them, and in all that action implies -- no urgent crisis, a pause from other work, and the desire to be outside.

(This is a manmade pond with a liner in the front yard, just to toss in a splash of cold reality. No natural pond would survive during this drought, the worst one-year drought in Texas this century, according to the newspaper.)

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Quick Survey (please take)!

How often do you think a blogger should publish a new post? A lot of serious bloggers do so every day, or even several times a day. Let me know what you prefer. What are the advantages of more posts? Fewer posts?

I, personally, find daily posts overwhelming, because I'm not here in blogland that often. I can't keep up with the dailies, although I admire their perseverance.

However, I think I need to do better than a post every few weeks, so I have developed a plan of action. For now, anyway. I pre-write several posts when I have the time, then I post them every few days. That way, you are not overwhelmed with thousands of words in one post (not to mention, hundreds of changes of subject!) Sneaky, huh? You think you're reading fresh material, when it's actually recycled from a week ago! (This one is fresh, though, I'm typing it in right now, live.) There are advantages to having a post sit for a while, one being that it is generally better edited before going to press.

I am planning to produce new posts more than once a week, for now. From January through April, though, I won't be able to be so faithful.

Update on exercise -- the holidays get everything out of whack! I didn't follow my own exercise advice very well this past week.

When I got up this morning, my hubby invited me to go see a tuba band perform on the River Walk, etc., etc. I politely declined, because I really had missed going to the gym. Plus, I don't enjoy being out and about so much when I haven't been home and the chores are stacked in mountainous piles, just waiting! It's actually rather stressful for me. I am naturally a homebody (or if not that, a gym rat, I guess). So, yeah -- which would you rather do? Go out enjoying the holiday spirit with the family and do a little shopping, or have a marathon gym session and then catch up on chores at home? Weird, right? (It turns out both boys went with Dwaine -- a holiday miracle, that!)

I hadn't exercised at all for four days, so it felt like such a gift to go to the gym for an hour and a half today. I gotta tell you, an occasional long workout session is so refreshing! Wow! I felt  limp when I was done, and could hardly walk as I finished up the third set of everything. My limbs had gone to jelly -- that's the sign your muscles have been challenged! Whoo-hoo! I oozed my way out the door, like a slug, and into my car. It was great.

We are going to a holiday potluck this evening, so I am not a total stick in the mud about getting out! I do recall, last year around this time, posting how much I sympathize with the Grinch around this time. All that madness out there interferes with my nice, organized little plans for my life.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Exercise regularly, in moderation

Here’s a post on one of the loves of my life, exercise. On the scale of my personal must-do’s in my life, exercise comes above writing and reading (which I love). Exercise is my most important leisure activity.

The holidays are a good time to keep exercising, or to add some regular exercise into your day to offset the abundance of food. Here are some rules I live by when it comes to exercise:
A short workout is better than no workout at all.

Choose a a type of exercise you enjoy!
There is no such thing as “too little” when it comes to adding daily activity.

If I am too tired after a workout to enjoy the rest of my day, then I worked too hard.
About 30 minutes, most days, of moderate to vigorous exercise keeps me feeling great. If I have less time, I make the workout strenuous (for me, that means dripping sweat by the time I finish. Forget the expression, “Women glow!”)

Do check with your doctor, of course, before starting a new exercise program!
There are some really enjoyable ways to get a good workout and get closer to your spouse/significant other, at the same time.

Don’t go all out the first day in a gym. You will be sore for a long time, you will not want to go back, and you may really hurt yourself.
Don’t compare your progress, or your exercise program, with anyone else’s. Your body is unique. One of my favorite expressions that one of my personal trainers used was, “Listen to your body.”

No excuses!
If you think you’re too busy to exercise, multi-task. While you walk, catch up on phone calls.

The more complicated it is, the less likely you will stick to an exercise routine. Ditch the special equipment and do something that is simple and fits your schedule, like brisk walking or jogging.
Use your body weight to build muscle: squats, pushups, situps, pull-ups, and planks are a few examples. These are things that we can all do at home.

Stretch after working out, when your muscles are warm. Skip the stretching before a workout unless it is dynamic (moving muscles) and also serves as a warmup.
Don’t skip the warmup! Injuries happen when you demand too much of cold muscles.

Even seasoned athletes don’t love every minute of exercise. It’s supposed to be hard, and tiring, and frustrating too. When I jog, one of my favorite activities is checking my watch – “Can I be done yet?”
Cross-train to burn more calories and keep yourself challenged. Your body quickly adapts to new workouts and becomes more efficient (thus burning fewer calories). One of the ideas touted by the insane workout, P90X, is “muscle confusion,” where your muscles never know what to expect from the next workout and don’t have time to adapt.

Cardiovascular exercise, which raises your heart rate over a period of time, is just as important as weight training. One supports your heart health and circulation. The other preserves your muscle mass as you age and helps with strength and balance.
Exercise is more important, the older you get.

You are never, ever too old to exercise! Exercise is for everybody.
Your health is important enough to make a financial investment, if that’s what it takes for you to exercise. If you have enough money to eat out, you have enough money to join a gym.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Eating mindfully over the holidays

Here is a faintly obnoxious holiday suggestion post, along the lines of eating more mindfully! I hope to add another free advice column on the importance of exercising regularly and in moderation at some point. Enjoy!

Eating mindfully
It just so happens that I am wearing a mouth appliance for the next three weeks. Over the Christmas holidays, to be precise. I am having my bite (as in, how my teeth fit together) adjusted in early January, before tax season madness, and as soon as we have a new pot of medical money available.

The particular device I am wearing is called a "deprogrammer," and it prevents my teeth from touching together at all. I wear it around the clock, except for eating and brushing. The idea is that my bottom jaw can now float freely, not bound by the fit of my bottom and top teeth, till it finally rests at its preferred place in about 3 weeks or so. It needs that time to be "deprogrammed" from its habitual position. If my jaw is happily realigned, the theory goes, it might also stop me from grinding or clenching my teeth. This all sounds a bit new-age, but it is the latest dental fad -- which is to say, it's completely new age! But I'm a firm believer in living by faith, as well as by reason.

In January, after my jaw finds its happy place, the dentist is going to gently shave off some jutting peaks on the tops of my teeth that are preventing my mouth from closing together very well, and encourage my teeth to fit together at that jaw position. As I explained to my sister, my problem right now is I am unable to bite off hangnails, or anything else in that size range, because of a small gap between my front teeth. I can still bite an apple, or carrot. Just no fine nibbling, and I do miss that.

I've decided that everyone should try wearing a mouth appliance -- a retainer, or something similar -- over the holidays. It forces you to eat more mindfully! You can't just stuff things in your mouth unaware. No food is going to sneak in, unaccounted for, when I am wearing this thing. Why? Because I have to take it out in order to chew. The procedure -- check for clean hands, reach inside my mouth and unhinge, and dig out a special container to store the deprogrammer -- is lengthy enough that I could actually change my mind, and decide not to eat whatever it is, assuming it's not a meal. (Not that it's happened yet.) In theory, it could become inconvenient enough that I would pass up some snack freebies here and there.

I've worn the deprogrammer before, this being the second go-round of dental improvements. Each time, I forget I'm wearing it when I go up for communion on Sunday morning and then have to walk back to my pew seat, juice-dunked bread in hand, and remove my mouth appliance before I can partake of the Lord's supper.

On a side note ... for possibly the first time in my life, I have experienced the bliss of eating movie popcorn mindfully. Usually I'm like most other people -- shovel it in, chew, chew, then go get a free refill! I really love movie popcorn, and I know it's absolutely X-rated food, which just makes it that much more thrilling to enjoy, in a furtive rapid-fire way in the darkened theater. (Don't think about Pee-wee Herman.) If you eat anything quickly enough, there aren't any calories!

What caused my mindful chewing was the fact that my sister and I arrived to the movie theater about 45 minutes early yesterday, in the middle of an unusually wet and dreary day. We went in and bought our snacks on autopilot, before it dawned on me that we could have dodged the raindrops to do a bit of nearby shopping. So there we were, popcorn and drinks in hand. The theater was empty, warm and dry (though playing overly loud commercials). I wanted to save my popcorn for the movie, but I didn't want it to be old and cold by the time I started eating it. The dilemma! What to do? So I took one or two kernels at a time and enjoyed the delicious, crispy, salty and buttery finish. Let's face it, popcorn is a food that is almost inedible without seasoning and some kind of fat added. (Have you ever tried plain air-popped popcorn?)  But add the gloss of fat (coconut oil is to die for -- probably literally) and salt, and wow!

Speaking of eating, I believe my hubby has our egg salad lunch almost ready to go! Time to pop out the deprogrammer and do some noshing. The hard part is remembering to put it back in again.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Happiness ... grace ... the usual smorgasbord

I finished "The Happiness Project." I feel so much ownership of this book, this project. Like it's a book I could have written or would love to write, except (obviously) I didn't. Like it was my project! I didn't have to modify it to suit my individual circumstances. Sometimes, it was like reading my own thoughts on the page. It was just the right time in my life to read this book, just the right moment for it to have the maximum effect. The last time I felt this way about a book was when I fell in love with Scott Peck's "The Road Less Traveled."

I guess the main reason for that special synchronicity is that I reached many of the author's conclusions on my own, within the past five years or so, after some deep (and ongoing) soul-searching. The most important conclusion is that it is so very important to be happy, and to show it by being cheerful! And it's not easy, let me tell you. Don't ever dismiss someone who is endlessly optimistic and think they come by it easier than those who are obviously in distress, or that they must be intellectual lightweights. This world is not made to encourage people who are thoughtful and still manage to stay cheerful.

But knowing me, I cannot quite let go of always having a finger on the pulse of the world's woes, somehow. That pulse is often weak and thready. The patient seems to be on life support, and sadly neglected.

I was listening to an old "Speaking of Faith" podcast about a monastic commune in North Philadelphia. The speaker, who was one of the founders of the community, recalled a cartoon he had once read about the "big" questions we all ask about life. One friend asks another, "Don't you ever want to ask God why he allows all this suffering and these bad things to happen in the world?" The other friend thinks a moment, then replies, "Guess I'm afraid to." "How's that?" "Because He might turn around and ask me the same thing!"

That is the point I was trying to make earlier today in a discussion with my hubby about all the tempests-in-a-teapot swirling around at church lately. One member offended (for a very long time, apparently) because people greeted her as a visitor and didn't recognize her as a member; others accusing the pastor of lying; griping about the money shortage, and pointing to decisions the leadership made over the past year as having been to blame. Postings on Facebook about wicked leaders and how people follow blindly like lemmings. Etc., etc.

Anyhow, Dwaine mentioned how he thought the wicked one was hard at work in our church recently. Just to be sure, I asked -- do you mean someone in particular, or the Wicked One, you know, Satan? He meant the one in upper case. He mentioned this to the wife of one of the higher-ups in the bigger church administration, and she rather breezily replied, "Oh, I don't believe in that."

With Dwaine, beliefs are of paramount importance, and he doesn't take well to the liberal views espoused by some in our church leadership. So I quickly mentioned there could be different interpretations of that statement. For instance, espousing belief in someone or something may give it a power it doesn't deserve. But he persisted in thinking she was sticking her head in the sand, and ignoring evil does not stop it.

From there we moved to what does give something or someone power, and I said that people's actions do. We carry out all the good and all the bad things that I've seen in my lifetime, besides natural disasters and the like. We give the power to whatever supernatural powers we throw our weight behind. (Good works, or bad)

Whereas Dwaine said, no, we are very limited in ourselves. We have no power apart from the One who has it all. (Grace)

I'm inserting our arguments from a theological point of view parenthetically. Grace, or good works -- which must we have? This is one of the great paradoxes of Christianity. There are many paradoxes, for those who have the ears to hear. See, Christians have their own koans. That's a cool word, referring to the eastern practice of meditating on an absurd riddle or parable, one that has no solution (such as the sound of one hand clapping). Gretchen Rubin mentioned koans in her lovely book that I referenced at the top of this blog post.

So, back to Christian koans. How about the trinity? Jesus, fully human and fully divine? His mom, a virgin? Look at all the parables Jesus told about "the kingdom of heaven." Some of the parables describe it thus: It's like a mustard seed, like yeast, a hidden treasure, a net to catch fish. I've never completely understood any of Jesus' parables. Some of them are more like riddles. What is he talking about, and where is the kingdom of heaven supposed to be?

My current belief about the kingdom of heaven is that it is here and now, and we bring it into being with our skillful striving together. I'm not so sure whether it is better described as a place or as a way of being.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Cry-yyy-yyy-yyy-ing

Over you! Cry-yyy-yyy-yyy-ing, over you! (Remember that song?)

I guess I have had problems with emotions overtaking me, always. One of those is anger, and I still struggle with it. It's easier to see this quality (more like weakness) in others, like my son tonight when he lost some essential college paperwork and was storming around his room, tossing things around. (He got accepted to A&M and UT! We knew he would, but it's still exciting.)

Emotions can be so powerful. Sometimes, I have the experience of being an emotional barometer for others. I can sense the mood in a room or a group of people, and it's a natural tendency for me to pick up those emotions, like a chameleon, and put them on. Does this sound familiar? Someone else is angry, so you are too. Everyone's upset -- including you. People are crying, and you feel like crying, too.

This is a universal human tendency, to be influenced by the emotions of others. I think that Type 4's (on the Enneagram) can have this ability in a more pronounced way.

Recently, I was driving home and passed a serious auto accident that was causing a huge traffic jam on the other side of the highway. There were lots of emergency vehicles, mostly fire trucks, and I could see at least one vehicle that had been badly damaged. As I approached the accident, I felt sadness wash over me, and spontaneously started crying. (Praying, too.)

This evening while taking my 12 minutes of meditation, another wave of sadness crashed over me. Extreme sorrow -- the kind that temporarily locks up breathing in its intensity, then releases. I experienced it just for a short time, and then it passed and I was at peace again.

Both these times, it felt as though the emotion was originating outside of me and passing through me. Of course, this would be a delightful fantasy for any particularly melodramatic person -- these tears, they aren't self-indulgent at all! They are expressing the great pathos of our existence, the endless sorrow that is out in the world, and serving a noble purpose.

It's hard to tell the nature and quality of tears. Dorothy Parker wrote a short story that is seared like a brand in my memory, because it described one of my lifelong habits. The protagonist of the story would read about all the terrible things happening to the poor, the oppressed, and children around the world, and she would just sit and cry so hard about all these things. That's all she ever did -- have a good cry about it all. Anyhow, I was just looking online to try to find the story I remember, without success.

I've gone through stages where I banished crying. The tears seemed completely selfish and, more importantly, useless too -- just didn't help matters at all that I could see.

But the reality is, life holds an ocean of tears. Just to dip a toe in that ocean is all I can manage, because it would be all too easy to be submerged and not come up for air ever again. How else could anyone respond, but to share the tears?

A newer quality that I have enjoyed is being overcome, completely bowled over, by joy. You're not supposed to label emotions as good or bad-- they all arise, they all have the same amount of validity (this is my friend Karen's advice) -- but some are definitely more fun than others!

The most important lesson I've learned is that being gripped by emotion does not require any accompanying action -- none at all! Wise indeed is the person who can let the emotion arise, and observe it and its causes without doing anything, at least at that moment.

In fact, a strong emotion of any kind is a warning to pause, take a deep breath, and not make any hasty decisions. Don't hit the send key, if texting or emailing! And please, please don't vent on Facebook for hundreds of "friends" to see. (It's one thing for young people to lay it all on the line on their Facebook status. This is their socially safe place to express themselves. But adults? "Discretion is the better part of valor," or some such.)

By the way ... check out the newest blog I'm following, "The Happiness Project." One thing I love about this blogger is that she posts often! (Note to self ...)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Faithfulness

I know I have been less than faithful about posting here! My creativity is being expressed in other areas of my life right now. I have really enjoyed one year of working at a mentally stimulating job, and I have learned an enormous amount of technical detail about accounting and federal income taxes. It's surprising to think of creativity in such a context, but the brain does enjoy growth in multiple directions. My brain has been very nourished and stimulated by my job. Also, the overall atmosphere of the office, though it is quiet, is also warm and friendly. People all get along with one another (it's a small office!) and everyone has a sense of humor, particularly my boss. Most of all, I have been encouraged to learn and grow professionally more than I could even imagine doing someplace else. What a gift!

Of course, I continue my quest for regular exercise and the greatest degree of fitness I can squeeze into my busy life.

Then there are my kids. Yes, they still need me, though sometimes they wouldn't want to admit it! Austin is at the point in his life where he is making decisions that have more of a long-term impact than ever before, and he really needs the guidance of both parents to move in a wise direction. (He really hates it when our advice contradicts his desires, though!)

Andrew is growing into a young man before my eyes, and also needs a lot of guidance at this critical point in his life. More than even guidance, they both need lots of love and attention from me and Dwaine.

Then there's my husband! Gotta make some time for my main squeeze. And there are the others in my family and circle of friends.

I need to become more serious and intentional about daily prayer and meditation. I notice it falling by the wayside, recently, and I am rededicating myself to a small (10-15 min.) daily practice. This practice will be helped by a contemplative prayer workshop I will be attending in a week or so at the Oblate Center in San Antonio. I feel like I am floundering, a bit, in not having a little more structure and intentionality to my quiet time with the Lord. This invitation to the workshop, from someone at church, came at a great time in my life and was actually an answer to several prayers. My spiritual guide, Cecilia, was very excited when she learned I planned to go. It turns out she has taught the "Lectio Divina" for years and her family is close to David Kauffman, the musician and speaker for the evening.

Another gift I have been given recently by someone (in my new Toastmasters group) is the book "The Happiness Project" by Gretchen Rubin. I feel that the author is such a kindred spirit, in many ways! She describes many emotional entanglements that I completely understand, and have experienced. Some of it may be the common experiences of two women and mothers. Perhaps she is also an Enneagram Type 4. She has a similar approach to her life. She stresses that the specific steps to greater happiness are individual, and I wouldn't take all the same steps she is taking, but many of them feel like the right direction that I also need to go or that I am also traveling (I am a little bit older and hopefully further along on that journey!). So rather than me having to go through all the effort to create my own happiness project, I can just read about hers and absorb some of the glow! Ha!

Here's a nice quote that she mentions in the book: "When the student is ready, the teacher appears."

I have seen several things in my life that could easily be described as coincidences, "where God chooses to remain anonymous."

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

An essay from my son

I made the mistake of asking my 15-year-old son what he thought of me. Asking a question like this is like a self-inflicted wound; nothing good will come of it. So why did I feel compelled to ask my son, a moody teen, his completely distorted view of me? Some questions truly have no answers.

He said, "Well, to tell you the truth, Mom, I think you're depressed."

Thanks a lot, buddy! I thought. "Then what about Dad?" I demanded. They didn't get along at all. He had to have some far worse comment about his dad!

"Naw, he's fine," he said casually.

What this really reveals is how hard it is to be a mom, and how hard I've tried for the past 17 years. It's not a bunch of fun and games, I can tell you! There's no user's guide, and society's attitude seems to be whatever you're doing as a parent, it is wrong! Too permissive -- too strict -- either too controlling, or not enough boundaries, etc.

My main parental technique seems to be riding the kids about something they need to do, ought to do, and should be doing Right Now, but aren't. Followed by worrying about whatever it is they are actually doing.

So one of my goals in life lately is to have more fun! (Some fun? Any?) I guess I haven't been too much of a failure in that regard. Read on to see what my 17-year-old thinks of his family, and me -- the one who is a "stress reliever" and helps him see "the lighter side of life"!

By the way, due to numerous scheduling conflicts, I quickly fizzled in the quest to write 2,000 words a day. Although -- allow me to gloat for a moment -- I apparently inspired my dear friend, Sardine Mama (there's an imaginary hyperlink here) to feverishly pen at least a few thousand words, earlier this month! (I can't vouch for her productivity since that time.)

I have several higher priorities in my life right now, listed roughly in order of the time they take: working, sleeping, doing stuff with/for my family, housework, eating, working out, meditating, volunteering, and a wee bit of reading here and there. Oh yeah, forgot that hour-and-15 or so commute every day. That tacks on some time.

I asked Austin's permission to reprint one of his college essays, which he gave, so I will run it below. Every word is completely, 100% certifiably true! (Especially the "My mom is amazing" part. Yeah!) The most amazing part of all is that this was written by a 17-year-old, yet it has simply glowing things to say about mom and dad. Hmmm, we must be terribly permissive parents for him to adore us this much right now! Let me go worry about that while you read on:

I have been blessed with an outstanding opportunity for greatness, and it is in the form of my loving family. My family is and always will be there for me. I have learned that the people that truly care about you are your family, and my family exemplifies that quality to no end.
              I have made mistakes in the past, and probably will make more in the future. My dad has shown me, though, that when I make mistakes, I can learn from them and get back up as a better and stronger person than I was before. I have been out past curfew at times before, but he sits me down and talks to me about the importance of having a time to be back rather than just restricting me. He reasons through his punishments and helps me realize my mistakes so that I can try to be better in the future.  He has looked through any wrong that I have done, because he loves me. His love is what keeps me strong and willing to continue trying, even when it seems that I should just give up and take the easy route. He is a person of character, and I am proud to say that I am growing up to be like him.

My mom is amazing. She has learned to control her emotions and always reason and give me the best support that she can while still being the best mother that I could ask for. I know that she cares so much about me and only wants me to succeed and become a great person that has class. I can always rely on her for emotional support, even though I may not show it at times. I love being able to talk to her about anything that comes up because it is a stress reliever. She helps me to see the lighter side of life and to learn to focus on what is really important to my future and me. She is an inspiration to me on how I should treat myself and others, and I will always be grateful to her for showing me the meaning of unconditional love.

My brother is the guy I can turn to, to have a great time. He and I have bonded together through years of being two wild young boys tearing through our house. He is a caring and compassionate person who never stops helping me whenever I need it most. I can spend hours just talking with him about life and any hardship that I am dealing with. We used to spend whole days together just playing imaginary and enjoying each other’s company. When I need someone to have fun with, I turn to my brother. He is a person that will never hesitate to help me in any way possible, be it money, emotional support, or even schoolwork. He shows me to that helping out people that are close to you is an experience like no other.

Surrounded by people like this, I know I can succeed at anything that I try. I have great role models that I will for sure imitate when I raise a family myself. I love my family, and they have shown me how to love others through their love for me.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Barely fiction

My sister told me about a novel writing contest, of sorts, that is supposed to begin in November. I cheated and started writing some stuff a couple of days ago. More than anything else, I wanted to see how long 2,000 words/day is (to get to 50,000 words in a month). Pretty darn long! Here's the website describing the contest:
http://www.nanowrimo.org/

My sister told me one "rule" is no editing, or minimal editing. Turn off the editor, and just write!
Here's one of the stories I wrote. I found that I didn't have a novel just waiting to be written down, as of yet, but I do have plenty of stories that I can just lift from my daily life. So I'm doing that at the moment. I must admit this has not been refined by an editor's gentle touch -- it's quite rough around the edges, so be forewarned.

She wanted to hug them all and not miss any of them, even though they were all hot and sweaty from the dancing. It had been such a fun evening, such a contrast to her first impression of this place as a fortress, seeing the tall fences surrounding the compound that was these girls’ temporary home. These fences were designed to keep everyone in. The last time she had seen such high fences was at a jail. They made her want to run away before she got trapped inside them, too.

It was the annual Halloween celebration at the Methodist Girls’ Home. Though her husband’s men’s group put it on, she always came out to give the girls a little attention from another woman, some smiles, maybe even some hope in their lives.

These girls were here as one stop in what could become a revolving-door life, where nothing was secure and no relationships were lasting, not even the crucial ones with Mom and Dad. These girls all had faced serious parental issues before being removed from their homes and brought here. Some had parents who were serious drug users. Others had been abused or neglected. Most of them had siblings who had been placed elsewhere.

Here they all were, these teenage girls, some on the verge of adulthood. What kind of prospects did they face? The chances of getting adopted were slim indeed at their advanced ages. They could hope for a loving foster family, but going down that path guaranteed that their lives would continue in an uncertain, changing direction. Others would be reunited with their families, if the potential for harm was judged to be not too terrible.

Sheila thought of her own two teenage sons and the drama that was already embedded in their lives, just from the raging hormones that made their behavior so inconsistent, and the built-in ups and downs of high school relationships. The last thing anybody needed at that age was an unstable family life.

The dancing felt so good. Everyone relaxed and just had fun trying to learn the steps of a few line dances without running over their nearest neighbor. Some of the guys in the men’s group weren’t so young anymore, and they danced – hobbled might be the more accurate word, she had to admit – on the fringes of the girls. Her husband, charming as always, was dancing in the midst of a group of girls who were all helping him learn the moves.

One young girl was clearly the best dancer of the group, and the natural leader. Sheila found herself watching her to see which direction to move, and mimicked her natural grace as she wove her body to the beat. It was a little difficult, dancing in the stuffy full-length Renaissance dress that trailed the floor and threatened to trip her at every turn. But dressing up had been part of the fun. Maybe these girls didn’t get to dress up for Halloween, but Sheila and her husband could wear costumes for them.

One girl, wearing an old gray T-shirt and sweatpants, stood aside and didn’t dance at all. No one was making her dance. Sheila noticed her, apart and alone, the only still figure in the room.

Sheila had decided to sit with the girls, earlier, when they had pizza, sodas, and hot Cheetos for dinner. What a combination! Sheila’s stomach, always rather finicky, rebelled at the thought of this greasy, spicy and sugary combination. No wonder they wound up dancing so frantically – all the sugar, caffeine, and calories gave them lots of energy.

Using her Sunday school name, Sheila had introduced herself as Mrs. Monroe. The men had stayed back in the kitchen or brought drink refills, but no one else from the group sat with the girls while they ate. The girls were clearly interested in her and asked where she lived, what church she attended, and whether her husband was the man dressed up as a swashbuckling Renaissance man, which of course he was. She told them about her two sons and their ages, then said it was a good thing that the group eating pizza wasn’t a bunch of boys – they would have had to order twice as much food! The girls giggled and said, “Oh, there are some girls here who could eat a whole pizza for themselves.” But no one did. They ate their one or two pieces, chewing slowly, some of them dipping the slices in thick gobs of Ranch dressing. They seemed endlessly grateful for the meal, saying “thank you” over and over again.

After dinner, Sheila noticed as one girl after another went to receive some kind of medicines from an attendant. She could only speculate as to what the drugs might be – anti-narcotics? Anti-depressants? ADHD or bipolar meds?

The dancing drove these thoughts away, as Sheila and her husband focused on learning the steps of every line dance with the girls. After several songs had passed, the laughter got louder and the movement more chaotic. Sheila started feeling a little claustrophobic, surrounded by so many writhing young women. Looking around, she realized that she was the only visitor still dancing with the girls. Sheila gradually danced off to one side and backed herself away from the action, watching in awe along with the men’s group as the girls burned off some energy. They looked like they were having so much fun, enjoying the moment and setting aside their uncertain futures to just dance.

Afterwards, it was as though they were all fast friends. Each girl came up to everyone in the men’s group to thank them again for coming out. Sheila quickly decided to give these girls hugs, every one of them if they would allow her to. She wasn’t a masterful hugger the way some people at church were. It didn’t necessarily come naturally to her. But at this moment, she thought the greatest gift she could give these girls was a real hug. Even if she had to grab hold of a bunch of hot, sweaty, smelly bodies to do it. It was the closest way she could think of just giving them a little bit of the love that was otherwise so lacking in their young lives. If she could have handed them some hope to go with it, she would have.

But maybe that’s what the dancing was all about.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

In a mystical groove

I am really enjoying my 10 mins daily of quiet contemplation. Amazing what a difference such a small amount of time can make. Here are things I am thinking of: bringing more awareness with me wherever I go, mysticism, presence and the spirit. Let the spirit lead, and be free to be your highest self! "I have been to the mountaintop. And I'm not afraid of anybody. I'm not worried about anything. Because I have seen the glory of the promised land!" (Dr. Martin Luther King, not an exact quote)

Did I mention both my boys will be in tuxes this weekend? It is Peanut Festival time here in our little town of Floresville, and I did not realize what a big deal it is for many high school seniors like my older son, who go to coronation and become dukes, duchesses, princes, and princesses for a short, magical span of time. Many go from there to the carnival, and we do pray that they change their outfit beforehand!

From a coronation to a carnival -- this is that sweet in-between time of being not quite an adult, but no longer a child anymore for these young people. Then they get to ride on floats or drive cars for the big small-town parade, all dressed to the hilt. Andrew is not a senior, but is attending a formal sweet-sixteen party that afternoon. I've got to take lots of pictures!

It is amazing and miraculous to see my sons, two people who are so much in the process of "becoming." I have to look closely at them each time I see them (which for Austin is not every day; he sleeps here, but we are on different schedules). I have to scan for the latest changes in their faces, their physique, their expressions of increasing maturity. The last time of such a rapid, wild ride was when they were toddlers! I believe we can all return there at any time in our lives and continue to change and grow dramatically, if that is what we earnestly desire.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

In which I am mentioned, by name, on Zen and Tech podcast!

This is my exciting moment of the day ... first, a bit of background. I recently (as in less than a week ago) emailed the newly launched Zen and Tech podcast with a suggestion for a topic for them to cover. This podcast is about making use of technology to destress your extremely busy life ... more, it's practical suggestions from a licensed therapist on how to live more in the moment and start some daily practices to slow yourself down. Actually, you don't require any technology besides whatever device you are using to tune into the podcast itself. Otherwise, I wouldn't get much out of it! Here's their intro: "ZENandTECH, hosted by Georgia and Rene Ritchie, helps you center your inner geek, deal with the stresses of a connected life, and nurture your superhero in training." The idea is that we can all be superheroes, to which I say, Amen!

Funny how several of my podcasts make use of the word "geek." There's a message in there somewhere.

My idea for the show came from Alan Watts, who I mentioned in the last post. I want you to listen for yourself, which is why I haven't revealed what my suggestion was.

Here's the amazing bit. First, I got a reply right away from the therapist who co-hosts the show, Georgia, in which she gushed about how much she loved my idea. I thought to myself, what a sweetheart! I guess she does this for everybody who submits a comment to make them feel encouraged and listened to.

Then today, I got another email from Georgia, and this time she said she used my idea for the most recent podcast, #18. Already!! I've never gotten such a quick response for anything. I guess she really did love the idea!

Here's the link. It plays on YouTube (ha, ha I was about to spell it utube; that's how much of a techie wizard I am!) but I always have it as audio on my podcast, and listen while driving to/from work. I don't know how to actually embed the image in my blog, sorry!

http://www.zenandtech.tv/category/zenandtech/

This link displays the current weekly podcast. But if you see this later and click on the link, search the previous podcasts till you find No. 18. That is, if you can figure out how! You can always go on iTunes to find the exact episode without having to subscribe.

At the end, Georgia mentions the idea for the podcast came from a reader ... "Oh, I forgot her name!" she continues. Then Rene Ritchie comes to the rescue and quickly looks up my email online. Yes, I know there are many, many Julia Smiths out there, but it was actually me, myself, moi!!

Monday, October 3, 2011

Meditation journey

Cherished reader,
I want to share with you a bit about my brief experiences meditating (10 mins a day, probably 6 days/week for the past few weeks). See, I do mean brief! Short in time, and short in experience of practice. I wish to meditate every day, but some are so hectic that it's late in the evening when I realize I didn't have that quiet time. I don't force this time on myself when I am too tired, but leave it for the next day. This is something my soul has been yearning for, like a homing device that connects me to an essential self like a tether.

I may have mentioned that my little meditation ritual is to ask to come into God's presence, and then I try to wait. And be calm. And not think. However, every time there are many things to think of, and they course through my head in a rapid, jumbled succession. That's the "monkey mind" for you. Tonight, I caught myself several times thinking of what I would write about here! Though it may be quite worthwhile, planning a blog post is not the same as meditation!

My friend Karen has been urging me strongly to meditate for a long time now, and she's of course very happy I finally started. (Did I ever tell you she is an Enneagram Type 8, the leader/boss?) She usually does have good ideas for me, though I refused her latest book suggestion. Her word of advice on meditating was not to constantly judge my experiences or think, "I'm not making progress" or "I'm not doing it right"; rather, just to have these experiences. But how can I not judge? It's the most human thing to do. How else do we know where we are, and where we've been?

What is amazing is when the meditation goes to a deeper place than I usually inhabit. One early time, I was visited by our most wonderful dog, Sandy. She came right up by my right leg, just exactly her old self, wagging her tail with her trademark grin, and that doggy smell, with the scars of the spider bites on her back still, and I could sense her there very strongly. Her presence was so loving that I started crying, and that is how that meditation concluded. This is not something I consciously invoked, because I have remembered it several times since, and recalling it is not the same as her actual presence there with me in my meditative state. (Sandy died a few summers ago, of old age.) Austin says she was the best dog ever, and she is.

Tonight, I wondered what it would be like to be in God's presence. Then I began sensing a reunion of sorts. I was in someone's arms, crying inconsolably. However, my meditative self was observing from a distance and was not caught up in the raw emotion. Thank God! I saw that God was hugging and rocking me with a full-bodied, matronly form that was large and soft, and smelled of cigarette smoke. Yes, it was Mom! She was comforting me, or some iteration of me. Mom may have died, but she has never left. She would never abandon her children.

I am reading a little book that is collected from lectures and writings of Alan Watts called "Myth and Religion." He's one of my podcast "favorites," a British philosopher, Episcopalian priest, and scholar of Eastern religions who died in 1973 or so at around the age of 57. He had moved to the USA and taught at Harvard before moving to California. Reading him is making me still less fettered to any particular belief system. It feels strange, to be so unmoored. "What do I believe?" you ask. I know less and less any answer to that question. I do know I am tired of demagogues, those who "know" what they believe, and those who would label. I shake myself free of any such associations. Watts, by the way, is relentlessly critical of the church and how it seems to have led the opposite way of Christ's example. It's all about what you believe (are you in the Christian "club" or out of it?), and moral judgment, rather than caring for your fellow human being as an equal. Did Christ exact a creed from his own apostles before letting them follow him?

Some people find the greatest comfort in thinking that they know exactly what is true. They stand on the authority of the Bible, or some other thing, and proclaim it infallible and above human questioning. I find that avenue to be a trap that prevents me from seeking and growing. In the end, there is so much more that I do not know than what I do know. As Watts proclaims, he is no guru, and his most fervent wish is for all his "followers" to find their own ways and have no further need of his advice! Every authority we have here on earth is a fellow human being, just like you and me. Therefore (again Watts), no one has any authority that we have not given to them. You choose your own authority figures, who you will trust or obey or believe.

I also wanted to tell you that Andrew and I ran a 5K at Sea World on Saturday and both took first in our division, woo-hoo! Now, Andrew came in 6th in the race overall, whereas I was about 101 of 212 participants, but still won my division of women ages 41-50 (of whom there were a total of 10). This was a fabulous opportunity; the entry fee went entirely to their conservation fund, with free parking and admission to the park all day long. We stayed for the fright-fest which got rolling at 6 pm -- my legs were so tired after walking the whole park all day long! Andrew was the trouper and wanted to stay for the Frightful freaky forest (Frightmare? It used to be the Haunted Forest), which would have been a whole lot more scary if it had been dark.

Now for the cheater on the 5K: this was designed to be quite the recreational (vs. competitive) race. Why? Sea World had a variety of animals on display throughout the race route. Most sensible people pulled over to watch and enjoy all these creatures! Two boa constrictors, owls, penguins, Beluga whales vocalizing, even a sea lion on the back of a cart! However, Andrew and I raced right on past it all, with our eyes on the prize.

The last 5K I did was in April and I have not run since (I went out about 3 times before this race just to make sure I still knew how). I have been doing the elliptical and bike and weights at Anytime Fitness regularly, which is what pulled me through. So I was totally pumped about that success. I think my time was nearly the same as in April, when I came in 7th in my division at a SAWS run!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Subtle is the Lord

Part of the homework my spiritual guide assigned me this past month was to reflect on my image of God. (The other part was to start thinking about spending 10 minutes a day in meditation.)
Aack! Maybe this is how spiritual guides separate the wheat from the chaff, or something -- weed out the faint-hearted and hold on to the true believers, or criminally insane (a fine line there). Not sure which category I'm in!

Describing God has proven incredibly difficult for me to do. Perhaps it is because "my" image of God (not to be confused with the actual Lord, as such) has been changing, evolving, becoming something yet to be defined. Maybe, never to be defined with any precision. I think I prefer God to be truly mystical and beyond the reach of human comprehension, or perhaps I just realize my limitations here.

After contemplating the state of my confusion for the past several weeks, I think I am ready to write about it.

First, I have a bone to pick with God. (Where did that expression come from?) I shared with Karen how hurt and angry I feel at God for my Dad's situation. Dad's situation is symbolic of the suffering everyone encounters in life. If God were all-powerful, S/He would not want his creation to suffer the way we do, every day. The suffering of my Dad, and my family by extension, is minimal compared to the daily brutalities endured by people in other parts of the world, who are starving to death alongside their children, dying of preventable diseases, homeless and traumatized by violence, illiterate, poor ... That is the real story. My Dad's struggle with cancer is a microcosm of the enormous suffering and groaning of this world. Perhaps in the pangs of birth; more on that later.

So my God is not all-powerful. That does not compute, because then God would not be loving or compassionate.

I also thought about trying to paint God instead, a swirl of all colors, brilliant and mystical. I'm no artist, but that is how desperate I am. Words fail me in this instance.

Einstein said, "Subtle is the Lord." I think he was thinking of quantum physics at the time, but don't quote me. I am taking more of the scientist's tack on this Lord business, lately. Sort of a skeptical view, like Carl Sagan. He seemed to recognize, reluctantly, an intelligence in every aspect of the cosmos that defied the usual secular explanations of random events. But where is the creator now? Certainly this is not the same being as God, our personal savior, God the father/mother.

That is, this Creator set us all in motion, the entire universe, and is letting us spin merrily (or not) away, without any more tinkering. God is not involved in shaping history, neither global nor personal. There is no personal intervention in our lives. Therefore, it would seem by logical extension that there is no power in prayer, which I know from experience is a false statement. Here is another contradictory feeling I have often, that certain events in my life have been planned, for me to discover or learn from. And yet it seems that God is impossibly remote and unconcerned when I see all this suffering.

Today, it occurred to me that I should try to find Biblical references to people who are in the presence of God. What does this mean to them? How does it feel? Being with God has been very much on my mind, as I begin to find 10 minutes a day to consciously spend "in the presence" of God. At the very beginning, I asked God to be present with me. But this sounded out of tune, and I realized what I was asking already was; it was I who had strayed away and needed to come into the presence of God, not the other way around. "Come into his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise," says Psalm 100.

Another Biblical passage that speaks to me while in meditation is God's exhortation to Moses at the burning bush: "Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is hallowed ground." I meditate in sock-feet or barefeet, and it bothers me that my feet may get dirty as a result. But wasn't that the point? Moses had been in hiding long enough. Time to get his feet dirty. This is one passage I had to re-enact, in part, to understand better.

Anyhow, I looked in the concordance to find other instances where people are in God's presence. This led to the delightful insight that God is often referred to as the Presence in the Bible, especially the Hebrew scriptures. I like that. The Presence.

My own inadequate attempts to meld the influences of physics and Buddhism, together with Judeo-Christianity, all together in my spiritual journey (think "Kumbaya" here), lead me to think that God, as a separate being, is not all-powerful. The power is invested in, embedded into, all of the creation. The creator apparently gave away this energy in quite a profligate way. We are all energy, and how we use the energy is what directs the universe. I mean every thing in the universe. We all share the same building blocks of energy, however poorly we may understand them. How can we as humans make effective use of our energy? By being present, fully present, in each moment. This is how we become God's agents, little pieces of God. You see how difficult this is to describe.

I think as we become more present, we also lose our boundaries and merge into a higher consciousness. Time for some new-age music here! An imaginary bell rings once -- to start meditation time -- and let's see, I am imagining some cacophony of exotic, Indian-sounding instruments playing quietly, in the background. Or perhaps we should be listening to "Kumbaya." Chant with me now: OOOOOHM, OOOOOHM, with slow, deep breaths, all together. Aaah! I feel so energized! Don't you?

The suffering of the world is the sign that the grand potential of this collective energy, consciousness, has not been fully born into the world yet. Many people, most everyone actually, are still trapped in their ego boundaries. (Me, too.) This idea of God is also consistent with Buddhism, which always makes me happy. There is suffering; there is an end to suffering. "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." Two human attempts to describe something that is wonderfully hard to describe in human terms, and harder to understand.

I need to put some pictures here sometime. First someone needs to take them! Austin's senior pics are the most current we have on hand.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Moodiness

If you are highly susceptible to emotional states (a characteristic of Enneagram Type 4's), you will be at risk of being moody on a regular basis. This is an issue I have struggled with my whole life.

Today, I found myself crying (quietly) on the way home after a long morning in Floresville. My hubby and I had worked out together, then gone shopping to HEB. Yeah, my life is pretty dull! But I haven't gotten to the really sad part yet, in case you were wondering. Somewhere in there, we had also gone to see if our 17-year-old spent the night where he said he did. We were there around 9:30 am, way too early for teenagers to be up and about yet. But no truck (Austin's latest set of wheels) was anywhere to be seen. I hate when I've lost track of one of my children, which is happening with greater frequency with my high school senior lately. I don't know what in the world I will do when he goes off to college! I'll have to write him off as permanently lost, I guess. He eventually turned up, on his own schedule, which was about 2 hours later than my nerves would prefer, driving home from a different friend's house, where he had gone sometime in the wee hours of the morning. He will be gone all day today with band, get home late after the football game in SA, and have to open at Sonic in the morning. Somehow, he will get through it all. Ah, youth!

But let me not imply that Austin's presence is not still felt back at home, even when he's rarely here. He still leaves behind a mountain of laundry and a room in permanent disarray, just to remind us that he's really not gone yet. Only when all his dirty socks, clothes, stray shoes and laptop and plugs and game controls and discs and dirty dishes and snack wrappers, no longer grace various places throughout the house, will we know for sure that he's no longer living at home. Or maybe those things will linger behind forever. Maybe the house will never be clear of the messy, smelly clutter that only a teenage boy can create. We walk by his room and notice, always, a distinct odor. Sort of like the musky animal smells at the zoo, or of a male cat spraying his territory. Yup! Must be a teenage boy sleeping somewhere in the depths of that den. Lately, it's been overlaid with a heavy, lingering smell of grease, courtesy of Sonic.

So back to my hopeless downward spiral into despair, earlier today. The alleged reason for my tears and feeling of being in a bottomless void was this recurring theme in my life lately: losing my son. (I will lose both of my kids in the next few years, but I'm focusing on one at a time here.) I cried because a cruel, uncaring God had cursed me with two sons, no daughters. The problem with sons is they can't wait to flee the nest. I know this is somewhat irrational, as my younger son has much less inclination to leave home, and in fact, we may have to pry him loose from his nest here sometime because he is so comfortable here! But as we were coming home, I was reflecting on a larger theme: the emptiness and futility of my life to date. The misery was easy to expand upon -- I had one parent in the grave and the other seemingly well on his way; children getting ready to grow up and leave me far behind; precious few friends; and a husband who wasn't even aware how upset I was. (Actually, this is a good thing, as what I hate most is for someone to be nagging at me when I'm upset -- "What's wrong?" Makes it so much worse, because I can rarely explain in a way that anyone else would understand.)

After lunch, I realized that there was another reason for my bottoming out, and it had to do with low blood sugar. No kidding! Yeah, my body got me, yet again. It's amazing how much a physical issue -- like low blood sugar -- can feel just like the world coming to an end, things falling apart, the shadow side of everything becoming dominant. It always takes me by surprise when it happens.

So, my child is still gone for the day, and still on his way out the door. I have the right to be sad about it. But I guess my world isn't coming to an end just yet. Not today, anyhow.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Saddest Story Ever

I have a small story to share from a novel I have checked out from the library with the intention of reading, which was recently featured in the SA Express News as a book that would come to life brilliantly on screen-- "A Confederacy of Dunces" by John Kennedy Toole. There's a reason that in all probability, you have never heard of him.

Here is what the book jacket says: "Turned down by countless publishers and submitted by the author's mother years after his suicide, the book won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Today, there are over 1,500,000 copies in print worldwide in 18 languages."

It just broke my heart to read this. And it encouraged me to inspire other authors. Particularly if your mother is not still alive to earn you your rightful place in history. She should have won an award, too! Poor woman. What a tragedy. Anyway, finish writing that book (Carol!) and never despair of getting it published and finally earning the global accolades you so richly deserve. Or not. But don't give up!

I may have to make "The Saddest Story Ever" a regular on my blog. You know, the story or picture that grabs you and doesn't let go, that no amount of tears could ever fix, that haunts you for days. There are so many, and they add meaning and pathos to life.

By the way, this is a very funny, quirky story. That's why I wanted to read it, something to laugh and guffaw about! His character sketches are brilliant, wacky as all get out, and completely genuine. Mr. Toole, why didn't laughter save you from despair?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Enneagram type 4; and college choices

I have mentioned my discovery of the Enneagram, a personality profiler, if you will ... similar to a zodiac or horoscope. Back in January, I went with my friend Karen to an Enneagram workshop. At the time, I thought hmmm ... not for me! But I continued to pursue it, thinking that I might be missing something important otherwise. The work paid off. A few months ago, I discovered that I was a type 4 (of 9 possibilities), and this was something of a revelation to me.

Type four personalities are "the need to be unique" or "special." Thus, the first surprise was for me to discover that there were other people out there who saw the world in a similar way to me! I still hold to the view that every human being is unique. But apparently, we are not so distinct that we can't be grouped together into common types that do describe certain qualities amazingly well.

One of the hallmarks of a type four is disavowing labels, insisting on not belonging to any stereotypical group at all. I have always approached life from the perspective of the outsider. I was the outsider throughout school, and I remain an independent outsider from religion and politics, among other things. I thought this was somewhat unique to me, because I changed schools and moved so often, so it was only natural that I would never be part of the "inside" group.

Being on the outside shaped my whole personality, so that I strongly identify with minority groups, the oppressed, underdogs everywhere. If I am a member of any group, I am one of these. It is strange to look at me, a white upper-class American, and imagine that I could support the rights of the people who are the most despised by others. It's because they are my brothers and sisters, so much more than people who are in positions of power.

I also strongly advocate diversity, starting in my own family. This has been quite difficult to practice, because I do have the human tendency to want to influence others, especially those I love. I certainly do give my share of nudges, but I insist on the right of every person to have their own (well thought out) opinion and viewpoint, even when I heartily disagree with it.

I feel a lot of conflicting emotions at the thought of Austin wanting to attend A&M University and join the Corps and the Aggie band. Gee, maybe it would be good if A&M is no longer part of the Big 12, because it would be awkward to have a big Longhorn fan (my hubby) and big Aggie fan at a UT-A&M game! Which side of the stands would we sit in, for instance? Aack!

I am glad Austin is thinking of going somewhere that is not a big party place -- or shall I say, not the biggest party place in Texas, which would have to be located in the city of his namesake? Because he certainly could get hooked on partying! But will A&M be a diverse place where he can meet all kinds of people? Do people in the Corps have a sense of humor, and do they ever question authority, or just blindly obey it? Double aack!

On the other hand (like Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof) ... I think Austin will thrive in an atmosphere of discipline, and maybe he recognizes that he needs that. He says he wants to get into shape! You know I would support that wholeheartedly.

The hardest thing for a parent to do is to get on board with qualities of their child that are totally alien to them, and figure out how to love all that anyhow. I think the best thing Dwaine and I can do for our children is to give them our blessing. This is a way of saying that we may not have chosen all the same things our children will for themselves, but it's been a great pleasure and honor having them as part of our family, and we love and support them as they make their way inexorably to adulthood.

Ooops, I wonder if it is a quality of type fours to digress. One thing I certainly embrace is that we type fours know how to feel emotions. Deeply! And we are often wonderfully creative as a result. Yeah, sometimes amazingly depressed and suicidal as well. But let me tell you about how exercise can save your life in that regard!
Tapping into the well of human emotion is deep and powerful, and an amazing gift. To me, it makes life worth living. And I guess worth dying for, too.

Speaking of emotion, I am pumped at having the chance to help out kids at Floresville High School polish up their college application essays (by email). I recently emailed one of the English teachers there, who graciously allowed me to come volunteer a couple of days in May to get juniors started drafting their essays, with this offer -- and she said all the senior English teachers were interested! I actually love writing and editing and don't get to do much of either one these days, and I've really enjoyed helping Austin make his essays better (even if he hasn't). If it helps someone get into college or get a scholarship, that would be amazing.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Good news!

I have good news: my husband found a new job! He actually had another solid job interview last week, too, but couldn't pursue it because they want him to start so quickly. Isn't that a miracle, that he had two good job prospects in this economy?
I am so happy for him and hope that this job will be fulfilling and interesting for him. Since this is a public forum, I can't go into the reasons he decided to leave his old job, interesting as that might have been.

Dwaine had actually never written a letter to resign from a job position. Ever. He was a lifelong employee of Southwest Research Institute until they had a mass layoff in 2009. The letter he wrote to his current company was exceedingly gracious and carefully thought out, and a credit to his character.
This new job involves on-the-job training for something that Dwaine has never done before. I think the position is Computer Architecture? Some fancy, technical-sounding name like that. Apparently, not too many people do this kind of thing, whatever the heck it is. The person who was in the position before knew Dwaine from SwRI and felt he had all the right skills for the job, and apparently, everyone else agreed.

We also celebrated Dwaine's birthday recently! He picked out a restaurant and delighted in being all secretive about where we were going. He printed out something (a gift certificate, I later found) and quickly grabbed it off the printer with a great flourish before prying eyes could see. Austin got increasingly anxious as the hour to eat approached. A large part of his joy in life is in eating, you see. Quantity, not quality, is what he seeks. I think he actually got both when we finally discovered our secret destination.

It turned out the mystery restaurant was an all-you-can-eat Brazilian steakhouse downtown. Austin was so concerned that we were going to a high-end restaurant with paltry portions that he actually packed a mini-box of Corn Flakes in the car, which gave me quite a laugh at the end of the meal! In fact, I was ready to dare him to try to eat ]the Corn Flakes except that I was worried his stomach might explode.

Out of all of us, Austin got the most meat for his money. I am sure that he ate not ounces, but pounds of meat. Chicken, sausage, ribs, and lots and lots of beef, prepared many ways, with different marinades, wrapped in bacon, or crusted. He rolled out of the restaurant, occasionally moaning in discomfort and making other noises that caused us to give him a wide berth. 
I chose to eat from the "salad bar" because I knew I couldn't possibly do justice to all the meat selections, nor did I have any desire to try. I put the "salad bar" in quotes because it was another huge selection of foods, heavy on protein, to include smoked salmon, shrimp, mozzarrella balls, lobster bisque, and black beans. The salad bar was a part of everyone's meal, though only Dwaine tried a substantial portion. Austin was going for the meat all the way. I worry about that boy! He is capable of overstuffing himself, from the Bud Jones full-plate chicken fried steak to last night's meat bonanza. He's putting on the pounds, too. Not overweight, yet, but nearly there. Not a good place to start off college next year.

We then walked off at least 75 calories (i.e., 10% or less of the dinner tally, in some of our cases much less) by going down the River Walk near the Pearl Brewery to see the tail end of the bat exodus from under the bridge. I love that part of the River Walk, with its native plants and joggers and bikers. It is uncommercialized and has a completely different feel from the River Walk that usually swarms with tourists and locals, closer to the mall. We actually saw a crane catch and devour a crawdad out of a swampy bypass of river, on a recent outing there. (Did I blog about that? Just got a feeling of de ja vu.)

Dwaine's new adventure starts Aug. 29. My new adventure (career) started Sept. 28, 2010. It certainly feels weird to both be working new jobs! But that is the modern economy, it seems. There isn't any reward for working many years at the same company any more, and it seems like every job is much more precarious than it used to be.

It's me!!!

I actually have a day off from work where I'm not planning to go see Dad, or go with him to a doctor's visit (though I do need to call and check that all is, in fact, well with him at the moment). He has actually been home for about a couple of weeks now, trying to rebuild his strength and get enough food in him!

I took the most lovely walk this morning, up and down the driveway. The place has been transformed by the 6/10-inch of rain we got Saturday evening. It's like a whole different world out there, with hope literally growing up anew. The trees and plants have all revived somewhat, the dirt looks moist rather than bone-dry, and the greenery is vibrant, especially in the morning when it's not ungodly hot out yet. This walk was such a treasure to me, too, because I haven't had much extra space in my life recently. I know there are many other people who know exactly what I am talking about, probably few of whom would ever read this, but anyhow -- what a blessing! To be able to walk ... to have the day off work ... to not be at the side of a critically ill parent, because he's doing better! I pray that continues.

I am reading a wonderful book by one of the great spiritual mentors of my life, Scott Peck, called "In Heaven as on Earth." The book is about his vision of what heaven is like. So this is a theme in books I've read recently, I guess! I like to go into the library at times and just browse the shelves. It seems that whenever I do, a book sort of leaps out at me and it is just the book I need to read. That's how I found this one.

Of course, I love Peck, and he thinks so much the way I do (that's a major reason I love him). He has also influenced the way I think. Nonetheless, it is interesting how unique each person's vision of heaven is -- based on the books I have read -- and how mine differs from those of others. I am struck by how important the "place" aspect is. As in Jesus's statement, "I go to prepare a place for you." Everyone's idea of the construct of this place is quite different, to the point that heaven perhaps would need to be custom-tailored to fit each individual personality. Isn't it so amazing, the endless abundant diversity of creation?

As for me, I would require a verdant and lush place, much like Earth, I think. I'm not talking Hawaii here or any exotic locale ... something like my own yard in the early morning would be beautiful. Seeing, feeling, smelling the splendor of all that life makes me feel very close to God. (Oops, sounds like I would need my senses still to function to be able to appreciate it all.) I don't think this is a clinging need. It feels more like the essential need to be as near to God as possible. By God, I mean so much more ... please don't misunderstand and insert the Christian God here, limited by people's narrow views. I mean, I mean -- the universal creative potential that binds us all together. Something that is really beyond words and thoughts, that is inexpressible at its core. It is something I long for, very deeply, and I think we all do.

I mention "place" because my friend Karen is fond of saying that heaven is not a place, but a state of mind. Well, yes and no. I don't know about you, but I can't imagine existing without being somewhere! Perhaps that is just because I (like most other humans) am so locked into these mental constructs formed from my surroundings, ideas that are fixed and temporal, and probably not very accurate in describing reality. But I have to believe the evidence of my senses while I am living here in this body.

Here are some other ideas Peck's book gives me to think about. Try this one: what we see as our own greatest flaw, could be the very thing God is using to achieve His/Her purposes. That's what the apostle Paul said in 2 Corinth. 12:9 that the risen Christ told him: "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." It's striking how often this message is repeated, I noticed while looking up this verse.

The character in heaven sees himself as quite impatient, and views that as a sin. But he is told that perhaps that is exactly how God wanted him to be, and behave, and it could be his greatest strength.

Another idea is that God's wish for our service is for us to do what we absolutely love to do. I've never been good at this. In fact, it seems like I have to feel like I am suffering in order to truly be serving God. The more, the better! In fact, I can't really be serving God unless it is quite painful. Anything that is not painful can't be serving God -- it has to be selfish and unimportant. This is one of my greatest life struggles, and I think it is because I have always assumed I know what God wants me to do -- it has to feel like work, and be time-consuming, and a great obstacle for me.

But yet God apparently led me to this new career, where everything just fell into place and feels (relatively) effortless, full of ease even.* (*It's still work -- note my delight at beginning of post about having a day off!) Could that be how it is supposed to feel to really be serving? And if this job really is the result of divine intervention, I have to admit I have no idea what God's plans are for me, after all. Why in the world would it serve God best for me to be a CPA and do tax work? Just because I enjoy it and seem to be good at it? I don't get it!

I am going to continue posting if I have time. I have a backlog of unexpressed thoughts that desperately need to be written down. However, so I don't bore you with one (just one) endlessly long and rambling post, I will draft additional posts with different subjects (still possibly endlessly long and rambling!) and try to come back and post one each day. How's that for an effort to be readable?

Friday, July 29, 2011

Did you call your representatives in Congress?

I called my senators tonight. (My representative, I'm not so concerned about.) The Washington office had a voice mailbox that was full for both of them, so I sent in comments via their webpage. I called their San Antonio office -- not sure if I successfully left a message for Sen. Hutchison, but the local numbers for Cornyn were routed back to his Washington office where --guess what? -- the mailbox was full.

U.S. Senate


This 230-plus year experiment in democracy seems to be going badly awry. Hope we can get through this self-inflicted crisis!

I like the cartoon in a recent SA Express-News. The leaders of Afghanistan and Iraq are holding an American newspaper with the headline about the deadlock over the debt ceiling, and one says to the other, "I don't think this nation is ready for self-governance yet!"

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Relentlessly positive

Quote of the day: I have to stay relentlessly positive, or life would beat me down into a quivering pulp. This thought made me chuckle, in a gallows-humor sort of way.

Walking at twilight, I watched as the leaves of the trees changed color. First they softened and became more vulnerable, less solid. Then their shrinking silhouettes took on a wraithlike appearance, pallid and yellow. Their color looked worse than my Dad's, actually. With the blue sky faded to gray, the leaves faded too. The dark of the evening revealed something that cannot be seen in the bright midday sun. Perhaps this is another description of impermanence. Sorry, I'm not much of a poet, but I like to try on occasion!

I saw a raccoon, at least it looked like one, cross the driveway ahead of me. This is perhaps the same one that visited our watering hole (pond) one evening a few weeks back and attracted all kinds of unwanted attention from us and our pets, because we happened to be outside. Tonight, I wished it well and then continued on my way, while it went on its.

Here was my inspiration for the week, a man who is active in the masons. Back story: Dwaine has developed a midlife interest in the masons and was seeking them out to join them. Apparently, the usual way to join is by invitation or bloodline, or some such. Dwaine's dad was in the masons at some point, about 150 years ago (minus a few years, I guess). But I think Dwaine's wild hair came more from reading Dan Brown (the mystique was too intriguing to pass up) and wishing to belong to a group, specifically a secretive men's group.

So we visited the Harlandale group, Austin & I along for moral support (Andrew would have been there but is gone on a youth mission trip this week). Dwaine had been in touch with one of the group's leaders, Ed, and was warmly welcomed as a visitor. They were doing the officer induction and all the new officers were wearing their special mason aprons and had their families present, from kids and grandkids to grandparents.

They seemed like decent folks, and meeting one man in particular made the whole evening worthwhile for me. His name was Ed, and a nicer man I couldn't imagine. As we got to talking, he gave us a little of his life history. He ran a funeral home along with his wife for many years, and told us the story of the time they had a big fight and he fired her. What a mistake, he soon realized. So he had to hire her back at a significant pay raise!

He lost a lung to cancer some years ago. Then recently, he came down with a cold and cough, went in for some tests, and got the news that there was cancer in his one remaining lung. So he's taking chemotherapy. He told us that he thinks attitude is really important. He said he'd go into the cancer treatment facility and see a bunch of glum faces. So he'd start telling stories and jokes, and soon most everyone would be smiling. He's serving as secretary again this year -- one more year, he insists, no more. He said that before, and wound up with the job for 20-something years!

What a great inspiration for me to hear Ed's story, at this moment in my life! I like to debate the idea that there is a personal God involved in the details of our lives. But then things like this happen, special people and life events cross my path, and God's fingerprints are all over them. I am still smiling. If Ed can go through his epic struggle and still encourage others, then what do I have to complain about? Besides, complaining never solves problems, it just adds to the misery.

Signing off as positively yours truly, Julie

Friday, July 15, 2011

Learning from suffering

One really nice thing to happen from this unfolding personal tragedy -- I'm not trying to be ironic or anything, but there really are good things that spring from bad things -- is that I'm no longer afraid of hospitals. I don't hate being in them. I have logged many hours at Methodist Hospital now, so many that I saw a number of familiar faces in the cafeteria a couple of days ago. That's the lady who takes Dad's lunch order ... the person from radiology ... the chaplain ... the PCA (whatever that means, a nursing aide).

The hospital is a happening place! Lots of life-changing stuff going on here. Lots of truly caring people helping others, from all the nurses to the doctors and aides. I feel a lot of compassion for them all, and for the people who, like my Dad, don't want to be here but have no choice in the matter. Their families and they have been sucked into a vortex and here they are, in a whole different reality from their everyday lives.

Another good thing is that Dad's Chinese wife is learning to become more independent. She is having to find her own way now, in many ways. She takes her citizenship exam next week, and I will be going with her.

I'm typing this on the hospital computer while they wash Dad's bedsores. Gotta go back to see him now.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

My sister's post

Click on the title to link to my sister's post about Dad. Poetry. Warning --- sad!!

Two wine night

You've heard of the two or three dog night ... well, this is a two wine night for me. As in two glasses of wine. I, have become, comfortably numb!

Let's see, what can I talk about that does not involve that topic that is consuming my days and everything else in my life right now, my Dad? (Pray for him if you pray; send positive energy -- he needs it all.)

Harry Potter -- the last installment is coming out tonight! Dwaine asked Andrew if he wanted to go stand in line for the midnight showing and Andrew said, yes, and Dwaine said, except I don't want to stand in line all those hours! But how fabulous for those people who are lucky enough to be able to stand in line for hours to see the last Harry Potter film. That they have the space in their lives, and the resources, and such a commitment to having fun, and nothing better to do. Wow. Do any of those people know how charmed their lives are, to allow them to fritter away hours like that? I hope they have a blast, I sincerely do. I hope all that enjoyment and positive energy flows out and touches others, too.

How sad to think that young kids now will not have any more HP books to look forward to. It's like a generation of fantastic youth science fiction is coming to a close. Although the Potter books became much too dark for my taste, too grim for the lovely spark and great optimism of youth. I don't think life is so terrible, or that evil is on the brink of winning, even now.

There are always things to thank God for. For instance, thank God I don't live in Somalia right now ... or Iraq, for that matter. Thank God I am not fighting the fight of my life against cancer, the way Dad is. (With a broken right arm, no, make that a shattered right arm! In case you weren't sufficiently impressed.)

Another top news item, voting to increase the debt limit. C'mon, folks, if you (Congress and president) can't come to a serious agreement now to both decrease spending and eliminate tax cuts, when will you ever have the discipline and motivation to do it in the near future? Certainly, nothing will happen the rest of this year or next year's big election year. I agree that Obama should veto a bill allowing him to unilaterally increase the debt limit with no substantial agreement. Our country will not survive in the long run without coming to terms with the exploding national debt. (This is not the wine talking!) Republicans cannot demand so much and make no concessions themselves. That's not how the art of compromise works, which is what our great country was founded on.

Y'know, the way things are going convinces me more every day -- it's better to swallow your pain pill and make the tough sacrifices that life demands now! NOW! Don't wait. Don't ignore and hope it goes away. Believe me, it doesn't. It only gets worse. I speak to our government, and to each one of us as individuals.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Quick funnies

For an update on my dad, contact me.

A couple of quick funnies.

Andrew went out back to pour out some pickle juice (at my request). He had only socks on. First, he was going to "borrow" some slippers he found by the back door, thinking they were mine. When I told him those were Dad's, he changed his mind (as he frequently gets in trouble for borrowing and messing up Dad's stuff.) Next he found one lonely shoe on the back porch. Not sure whose shoe -- could be Austin's, the most likely suspect to leave a shoe behind for several weeks. So Andrew decided that it would be easier to put on the one shoe and hop out back, about 30 yards. Away he went, like a one-legged kangaroo. He almost fell over when he had to unscrew the lid and toss out the pickle juice! Then he came hopping back. I should have filmed it. This, in the mind of a 15-year-old, is much easier than taking the time to find and put on two of his own shoes.

Next story. Andrew and I went shopping at Goodwill after he finished his Zoo Naturalist shift. Things have stabilized in my life at the moment, to the point that I decided to keep my commitment to play Mary, Jesus's mom, during Vacation Bible School next week. So I had to shop at Goodwill to find something to wear. This was my dilemma -- what would the mother of our Lord wear? Nothing quite measured up, of course. There were no glowing white outfits anywhere to be found, no halos at all. I finally picked two rather drab, plain long dresses that I will adorn with scarves. I'm sure Mary would think they were just fine.

While we were there, Andrew spied three classmates, all girls. When they turned and saw him, there was quite a ruckus. "Ooh, Andrew! Andrew!" they all cooed, and giggled, and screeched, for what seemed like forever. One girl hugged him. I had to wander off to hide my laughing fit. Later, I promised Andrew that this was a moment he would never live down, asked if he always had this effect on girls, and made him blush anew.

This evening, Dwaine and I dined out on the back patio. It was quite a mild afternoon, probably only about 95 degrees. Andrew remained inside, but made the mistake of leaving the table unattended for a few seconds. This was the perfect opportunity for the new kitten, Cassius (the one Austin decided to smuggle home a few weeks ago) to hop up on the table and investigate the hamburger patties there. When Andrew found him, he was allegedly sniffing the air just above the patties, nothing more.

Dwaine and Andrew decided, based on this evidence, that the hamburgers were no longer fit for human consumption. I had dined on Boca burgers, the veggie alternative, so I wasn't personally concerned about it. I didn't like throwing away perfectly good meat, though. So I took a closer look. No suspicious-looking hairs. No chunks of meat missing. So I did the reasonable thing: I put the hamburgers in a baggy and refrigerated them, for Austin to snack on when he gets off work.

The only possible problem will be if Andrew decides to snitch, but by then there will be nothing Austin can do about it.

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