Gag me, right? People have been writing about spring since Shakespeare. “April hath put a spirit of youth in everything.” Well, he was right. I am getting old, but after a series of cloudy, rainy, cold February days, a sunshiny not-quite-March day that’s warm enough to put on a sweater and sit outside soaking it up is enough to make anyone ready to tackle anything.
Especially since I did my yoga this morning.
I’m a little further south than Shakespeare, so it’s March that sings to the soul, sprouting daffodils and crocuses and spring beauties, the little frogs singing at night, robins hopping through my yard looking for the grubs my dog already dug up and ate. Hakuna matata. I have a box of plants purchased on an even earlier sunny day, waiting for ADOLF (average date of last frost) to get potted up, but I brought them out to enjoy the sun, too.
Shakespeare has advice about gardening, too. “Now ‘tis spring, and the weeds are shallow-rooted; Suffer them now and they’ll o’ergrow the garden.” I don’t know if I’ll get to gardening today, but I’m pulling weeds here, writing. And planting. And hoping something will grow that’s not weeds. This might not be it, who knows? This seems more journal entry than anything, but I have to start somewhere. It has a tone that is not the same as a journal entry, so it might grow into an essay. Sometimes you have to suffer the weeds until you know what they are. That’s Jesus, not Shakespeare.
Tarot said to fill my well this morning. The uplifting music in my headphones, my fingers on this keyboard, the sunshine (the sunshine, the sunshine!) are filling it. The friend time I have planned tonight will fill it.
Janus looked backward and forward at the new year, but for me, spring, this last day of February, feels backward and forward. I look around. Some things make me sad. A few days ago was the anniversary of the death of one of my best friends. My good neighbor has a sign outside his house that says it’s for sale, he’s leaving and I’ll have to build a new neighbor friendship. I haven’t even met the new neighbors on the other side, but I’m outside, I guess I’m ready for new friendships. That’s backward and forward. Is there a forward to friends that are gone for good, besides new friends? You can’t just put a Band-Aid on it and look for a replacement, not even three years later. You can’t only look forward to spring days. You have to honor the winter days behind, at the same time. I think this is my yoga practice talking, a practice of holding tension in two different directions at once, grounding and reaching for the sky together in my one body.
I’m counting down the twenty-one days on my fingers and toes, as of tomorrow, till it’s spring for real, but I’m not waiting for it. I have a sweater and the sun is shining.
This sermon was given at Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Cookeville on December 15, 2019.
Last year, for our Yule sermon, I talked about rest. Several people have mentioned to me that they really took that message to heart and have started to rethink how they spend their energy in the winter. But that’s not always easy. Our Christmas Carols talk about hustle and bustle, and that’s often what this time of year is like.
There’s a list of demands placed on us. I can’t not send Christmas cards, grandma gets upset when she doesn’t get an update about the kids. I can’t not wrap all of my presents, everyone loves tearing into the paper on Christmas morning. I can’t not bake, I always bake. I can’t not participate in the office gift exchange, what would people think? I can’t not put up a tree, what’s Christmas without a tree? And, unfortunately, it’s pretty common that a significant portion of the mental, emotional, and literal work of the holidays falls on the women in the family.
So, let’s back up and reevaluate. Instead of having Christmas photos taken for cards, maybe pick a few that are on your phone to email all at once instead of addressing dozens of cards. Maybe put your presents in pretty boxes that don’t need wrapping, or gift bags. Maybe let someone else bake this year. Maybe don’t worry about what you coworkers think. Maybe let the kids put up the tree. The point is to figure out what parts of the holidays bring you and your loved ones joy, focus on those, and let the other things go. And, instead of telling this story: “I just don’t have the energy this year,” which sounds like you failed somehow, tell this story: “I thought about what was important and what brings us joy, and I’m giving my energy to those activities.” Because why are you spending your energy on expectations of others that don’t enrich your life?
We talked last year about how we are, ultimately, human animals, and animals’ instinct drives them to reduce their activities and conserve their energy at this time of year. Yet, because of the fact that we have artificial light, we extend our working time way past what nature would dictate for us. Sometimes we feel guilty doing things that aren’t productive. If you go to sleep at 10, then there are five hours of darkness between sunset and when you allow yourself to rest. Think about that. Nature says, “go to sleep early,” and we decide to put in almost a full workday after that.
So let’s do a quick visualization. Feet on the floor, eyes closed or relaxed gaze. Take a nice slow breath. Another. Think of yourself as a human animal, and think of the coziest place in your den. The sun has gone down, it’s barely 5:00. What does rest look like? It doesn’t have to mean sleep, though it might. It might mean curling up with a novel, or snuggling on the couch with your pets, spouse, and/or kids to watch some TV, or sharing a homey meal with some special people, or spending some time alone, crafting, or making art, or journaling, or whatever activity fills your well. Imagine the coziest, homiest hibernation time you can think of indulging in, and picture yourself doing it ……… Also pay attention to how you are feeling when you think about this. Are you feeling guilty for not checking things off your to do list, or getting more stuff done? Are you enjoying yourself? Where in your body are you feeling what you’re feeling? …… And, gently come back to the room and open your eyes.
So, what does rest look like for you? What about “self care”? That’s a word that gets throw around a lot, often to promote some kind of product. The concept has been around a lot longer than the term, as a part of commercialism. Remember McDonald’s jingle, “You deserve a break today.” “Calgon, take me away?” Maybe I’m dating myself, I bet some of you have no idea what I’m talking about. The point is, companies know we’re tired, and use it for marketing.
But self-care isn’t really something you can’t buy. It’s the old advice from your stewardess about putting on your own respirator mask before trying to help someone else put on theirs. If your well is empty, you won’t have reserves to serve others. And a bubble bath or a special chocolate or a bottle of wine might be part of self care, but it’s not all of it. Let’s take a look at something most of you are really familiar with: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
So these are our needs, according to psychologist Abraham Maslow, and they’re structured in a pyramid like this because the ones toward the bottom are foundational. So we can’t meet our need for safety until our basic physiological needs are met, and we can’t meet our need for love and belonging until we feel safe, and we can’t build esteem until we feel we belong, and we can’t meet needs for self-actualization or personal growth until we’ve built our confidence, so each one builds on all the ones below it.
So how’s the bottom of your pyramid? I’m guessing your need for air is being met or you’d look a lot less calm. If you currently have a need for food or water you’re definitely Invited to partake of ours. But most of us have municipal water, and we’re not starving. Since you’re all currently clothed, I’ll assume that you have clothing, and probably also shelter. If you don’t, that’s a crisis, please ask for help. We’ll do whatever it takes to help you find resources.
That leaves sleep. Rest can be taking a break from activity, but friends, if you’re not getting enough sleep, you’re harming yourself on all these levels above the base of this pyramid, and you don’t have enough to give anyone else, and you’re probably a lot less fun to be around than you are when you’re well rested. Whatever other stress you have in your life is compounded in exponents. How’s your sleep?
If you’re anything like a typical American, frankly, it sucks. We are bombarded with this message that we have to be constantly more productive, that if we’re not pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps 24/7, we deserve what we get. We have popular phrases like “You snooze, you lose,” and “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” When we feel like there aren’t enough hours In a day, and who of us doesn’t, the first place we cut is those precious rejuvenating hours of sleep that fuel our days. The Protestant Work Ethic, which I intend to give an entire sermon on at some point in the future, is alive and kicking. And it’s not serving us.
If you type “Why am I” into a Google search bar, the top result is “so tired” and the second one is “always tired,” which means that’s the most common thing typed into that bar after those three words. If you type Sleep into a search bar on your iPhone App Store or Google play, you’ll come up with FIVE THOUSAND apps that are meant to help you sleep. If we were to type a relationship status with sleep Into our Facebook profiles, most of us would say, “It’s Complicated.” We have a love-hate relationship with sleep. It feels so good sometimes, and at other times, like SUCH a waste of time, when time is so precious. Hardworking students study until late hours. Struggling working parents squeeze in a few precious moments of alone time after their little ones have gone to bed. Housewives remember one more thing they have to do before they finally sleep. We get home late, and find that it’s really hard to wind down enough to sleep after a day full of activity pushes almost up to bedtime. Then when we finally collapse into bed, exhausted, some of us find we’re staring at the ceiling unable to silence the whir of our thoughts or the to do list for tomorrow already tapping on our shoulders. Sometimes the problem with sleep isn’t that we are forsaking it for the sake of some work or much-needed me-time, but that we literally cannot fall asleep. It’s not something you can force, and a large percentage of us struggle with it.
So, I want to spend some time talking about healthy sleep habits and what we can do to improve the quality of the sleep we get. Most of us need around seven hours, and few of us are getting that much. So, a couple of tips to help us get more and better zz’s, some of which you probably already know, but some others maybe not:
1. Reserve your bed for sleep and snuggles. Don’t read in bed, don’t look at your phone in bed, don’t watch TV in bed, especially If you struggle at all with insomnia. If you can’t sleep, get up, do something that is relaxing, and try again. I know this Is really difficult advice because I don’t listen to it myself.
2. Turn the temp down in your room to around 65 degrees. This is another Instance of imitating nature… the temperature drops at night, our bodies think it’s time to sleep.
3. A couple of hours before bed, turn off your overhead lights and turn on bedside lamps and table lamps, preferably with warm hued bulbs, not cool white or daylight bulbs. Excessive light suppresses melatonin secretion and can make it hard to get to sleep. And, when you’re ready to actually go to sleep, have It as dark as you can comfortably stand it in your bedroom. Related,
4. Also limit blue light a few hours before bed. This, I’m afraid, includes almost anything with a screen. TV, computer screens, phone and tablet screens. If you’re having trouble sleeping, this is ground zero in the battle for sleep. If you must use your phone or tablet before bed, most of them have a nighttime mode that limits the harmful blue light, so check your settings or Google how to set that up on your particular device. A 2015 survey showed that 71 percent of Americans sleep with or next to their smartphones. Blue light Is a stimulant. Best case scenario: buy a regular old-fashioned alarm clock and ban your phone from the bedroom entirely. Definitely put it on Do Not Disturb if you choose to keep it in the bedroom.
5. Exercise. There’s a direct relationship between exercise and the ability to sleep.
6. Skip caffeine and limit sugar. We’re often dragging ourselves through the day caffeinated and sugared, but studies link both to inability to sleep. It disrupts our circadian rhythms. On the other hand, some kinds of herbal tea can be a great part of a bedtime routine.
6. Speaking of routine, it’s good to have one. Turn off the phone, read for half an hour, meditate, take a hot bath, sleep. Or whatever works for you. But having a routine where you do the same series of things before bed each night can signal your brain that It’s time to wind down.
7. Avoid sleeping pills, drugs like Benadryl that are meant for other things but have side effects of drowsiness, and alcohol to help you sleep. All three can actually help you fall asleep, but they affect the quality of your sleep and some of them have other serious side effects. One thing that my doctor recommends for difficulty sleeping is supplemental melatonin, but I suggest you talk to yours about what’s good to take and what’s not, if you struggle with insomnia.
8. You knew I was going to say this… meditation is great for sleep. Since I talked pretty extensively last week about how meditation is good brain training for when you’re overthinking at night, I’ll leave it at that. If you use an app for meditation, all of them have tons of sleep tracks, both guided meditations and just music, meant to help you drift off. But, of course, that means keeping your phone in your room, so use with discretion.
9. This Is something that helps me but might not help everyone, and that’s a planner. If I know I have everything written down that needs to be done, I don’t have to mentally rehearse everything on my list when I’m ready to drift off to sleep. And, I’ve added “7 hours of sleep” to my habit tracker in my planner so I can pretty readily see where I’m short-changing myself.
But as Americans, we are getting this mixed message: science shows that we desperately need rest, and our bodies are telling us the same thing. Even religion gives us mixed messages. That Protestant Work Ethic again. And, as Unitarian Universalists, the roots of our theology are Calvinist. We rejected strict Calvinist theology a long time ago, but its message lingers. Our first principle — the inherent worth and dignity of every person — that principle tells you more than just ‘welcome every person and treat them as worthy.’ It tells you than you, I, and everyone else, are inherently worthy. That means, by implication, that we don’t need to EARN that worthiness by doing anything at all. Some of us are still struggling to earn that worthiness through right works and through working. Are we doing enough for social justice? Are we working at self improvement often enough? What “shoulds” are you flogging yourself with in this regard? What guilt are you Inflicting on yourself because you are not doing enough in one respect or another? We have this narrative about our heroes, “He worked tirelessly for the cause,” but no one works tirelessly. My friends, do what you can, and then rest.
We don’t observe a Sabbath as UUs, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t consider rest as sacred. We are built for rest, and honoring the way we are made is sacred attention. For me as a Pagan, honoring this portion of the wheel of the year as a time of rest is sacred time. Honor the call of your physiology. Working counter to it, forcing yourself to work past your capacity, actually decreases your productivity.
Author Saundra Dalton-Smith wrote a book called Sacred Rest. In It, she focuses on 7 areas of rest: spiritual, physical, mental, emotional, sensory, and social. Rest isn’t one-sided, It doesn’t mean only sleep, and it doesn’t mean just stopping. It’s many faceted. Her book is Christian-focused, but I thought I’d adapt those seven kinds of rest a bit so that we can figure out exactly what kind of rest we need.
1. Spiritual rest. This includes practices like prayer, meditation, mindfulness, and worship.
2. Physical rest. This means sleep, eating what your body needs and stopping when your body doesn’t need any more, and keeping our bodies active so that when the time comes for rest, we’re ready for it.
3. Mental rest. The practice of unloading my to-do list on paper is mental rest. Sometimes we need to give ourselves permission to stop striving for self-improvement, and Indulge in activities that we call “mindless.” There’s nothing wrong with watching or reading or listening to things purely for entertainment. Give yourself a break, but don’t get stuck there. Mindless activities can be addicting when we’re not fulfilling our other rest needs.
4. Emotional rest. A gratitude practice is a good way to give ourselves some emotional rest. Journaling, or therapy, or confiding In a friend, are good ways to find some emotional rest. Knowing what activities fill your well, and making time for those things, can be emotionally restful.
5. Sensory rest. We’re so bombarded with sensory overload. I remember when my local Wal-Mart started putting little screens all over the store with ads talking at me from nearly every aisle. I felt deeply resentful. The practices I mentioned earlier about turning off devices before bedtime can give us some sensory rest. Some experts recommend doing regular device-fasts In which we turn off and tune out for a day or a weekend. Another way to get some sensory rest is to try to do more monotasking. We’re a multitasking addicted society. We eat while we watch TV or read, we text while we drive, we juggle three things at once. Pay attention to how often you are doing more than one thing at a time, and try dialing it back. Try just listening to the birds when you go for your morning run instead of listening to a productivity podcast, try tasting your food, try listening completely to the person you’re having a conversation with. Try ONLY watching TV. You don’t always have to fold laundry at the same time. And finally, my favorite mode of sensory rest, go outside. Nature is the 100% antidote to sensory overload. Go for a walk, watch a sunset, hug a tree. You’ll feel better.
6. Social rest. This one is tricky because typically, extroverts thrive on social interaction and introverts recharge their batteries best alone. So, know yourself. I know when my fuse is short, it’s time for Introvert Hibernation Time. I need alone, and I need quiet. If that’s you, that’s a basic need, and learning to honor it is the way to sanity. If you’re an extrovert, know the kind of social that energizes you, maybe coffee with a close friend or a movie night at church, or family time. Maybe combine another kind of rest — like your nature time, or your spiritual fellowship — with time other people who get you.
My blessing for you today is a poem by my favorite blessor, John O’Donohue, titled, maybe al title ironically, For Work:
May the light of your soul bless your work
with love and warmth of heart.
May you see in what you do the beauty of your soul.
May the sacredness of your work bring light and renewal
To those who work with you
And to those who see and receive your work.
May your work never exhaust you.
May it release wellsprings of refreshment,
Inspiration, and excitement.
May you never become lost in bland absences.
May the day never burden.
May dawn find hope in your heart,
Approaching your new day with dreams,
Possibilities, and promises.
May evening find you gracious and fulfilled.
May you go into night blessed,
sheltered, and protected.
My gift for you today is a little book of Gratitude. If you carry your book of gratitude with you, maybe when a delight or something to be grateful for strikes you, you’ll be moved to write in it then and there.
The science is really clear: having a regular practice of gratitude is really good for our mental health. It increases a sense of well-being and happiness, and decreases symptoms of PTSD, anxiety, and other mental illnesses. Studies have been conducted on well people and on patients seeking counseling. A Berkeley study showed that the effects weren’t just the immediate good feeling that comes from thinking nice thoughts. Using fMRI technology, the brain scans showed more activity in the medial prefrontal cortex when people were feeling gratitude, and these changes lasted up to three months after the practice was begun.
In another study, scientists asked one group of people to write down the things that they were grateful for on a weekly basis, while the other group recorded hassles or neutral life events. The folks who kept gratitude journals exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were generally more optimistic about the upcoming week—compared to their negatively focused counterparts.
This seems to be borne out among my friends. I asked on Facebook whether my friends had a regular gratitude practice. Those who responded that they did reported that it makes them feel closer to God, more empathetic, not as quick to anger, a better life, closer relationships, better outlook, and “reduced grump-butt levels.” My friends exist on a wide religious spectrum, and I know that these answers came from Christians, pagans, and those who don’t subscribe to any particular religion.
In my own experience, I’ve found that knowing I’m going to be looking for something to write in my gratitude journal has the effect of making me more present to notice things to be grateful for or finding delight in. What about you? Do you have a regular practice of gratitude?
Surveys show we WANT to be more grateful. One reported that 78% of Americans had felt strongly thankful in the past week. That number is so high that it seems likely that there’s some social desirabaility bias going on – we want it to be true that we feel deep gratitude on a regular basis. Diana Butler Bass, author of the book Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks, comments on this statistic and compares it to another study in the same year, 2015, and has this to say:
That sounds great, but those numbers also point to a problem: that of a gratitude gap. They reveal a disparity between our private feelings and our public attitudes. Social scientists have extolled gratitude as a personal path to peace, health, and contentment. Giving thanks, however, is more than a private practice; those same researchers insist that gratitude is socially beneficial and strengthens communities. Gratitude is about ‘me’ and it is about ‘we.’ Where is the gap? A week after the Pew survey on the gratitude question, Public Religion Research Institute posted a very different study regarding American attitudes as we moved into a Presidential election year. That study discovered that Americans were more anxious, less optimistic, and more distrustful than ever. Subsequent political events made evident a surge of rage, revealing a toxic level of anger, fear, division, and intolerance in the American electorate.
The survey puzzled me. Did the same people who felt grateful also express these negative emotions? Had they divided their lives into personal thanks and public rage?
She says further on, “our understanding of thanks is polluted by our toxic dissatisfactions.” When I read this, I immediately thought of Thanksgiving. It’s a holiday not only based on toxic cultural fables that literally whitewash our history, and it’s becoming a holiday of gluttony with a thin veneer of gratitude that seems to be thinning even more. Even further, in recent years, Christmas has encroached on our supposed thankfulness more and more to the point that Black Friday now starts at 6 pm on Thanksgiving Day, and peoples “toxic dissatisfactions” have them running out of houses full of turkey so that they can do battle for the best prices on the commercial madness that our American highest holy day has become. I wonder at how many tables this week thanks will be expressed for families, while failing to express thanks to family members.
Christmas itself often brings anxiety about the equivalency of our gifts.
For me, and maybe for you too, a practice of gratitude might feel a little messy if you don’t believe, as the Bible says in James, that “every good gift and every perfect present comes from above.” If your practice of gratitude incorporates expressing your thanks to God, I think that’s a beautiful thing. But I also think we need not forget those through whom those gifts come. Let me ask you this: if you believe in a benevolent deity, what would make them happier – if you spent every night on your knees pouring out verbal thanks to them in prayer, or if you shared your gifts, your blessings and your thanks with others? If all good things come from god, then your sharing – whether that’s your love, joy, gratitude, or material things – means you get to be part of the divine distribution process, and how cool is that?
And if you don’t believe that all good things come from god, then finding the source of your good things becomes maybe even more important. It makes me think of this meme I’ve seen before:
Gates was going to be my service coordinator today but couldn’t. She shared with me this video that I wanted to share with you:
What jumped out to me in that video is that this exercise in gratitude drew Mr. Jacobs’ attention to what is our 7th principle of UUism: respect for the interconnected web of existence of which we are all a part. I think the heart of gratitude lies in this principle, and maybe also in the principle of democratic process.
Our society has roots in feudalism. Under that system, and systems before it, you do something for your lord – give him part of your livelihood – and he does something for you, namely, lets you live in his territory. This equation, where a benefactor bestows something upon a beneficiary, and the beneficiary is expected to be both grateful and often also to cough up something of value in return, is a societal more, and we’ve had a couple of centuries to shake it, but we’re not doing a great job of it. Your parents probably taught you that when someone gives you a birthday or graduation gift, you’re expected to say thanks. Even before that, when a stranger gives a child a piece of candy, we say to the child, “What do you say?” I’m not saying that this is a bad thing, it’s valuable to teach children to express gratitude. But, as this author says, “obligatory gratitude rarely has a heart.” It’s part of maturity to grow and express gratitude not only when it’s expected. When you express gratitude the way Mr. Jacobs did, to people who are underappreciated for making the world work successfully, then your thank you becomes a gift.
It’s important to separate the emotion of gratitude from the intentional focus on the present moment. It’s also important to have perspective, because from a mature vantage point, we can see that things that felt really awful in the moment were really, ultimately, something we learned from and grew. When you can be grateful for that painful event in your life, and see it from a new vantage, that’s a mark of maturity.
I think it’s also important to be careful, in our practice of gratitude, that it doesn’t become a kind of prosperity gospel. This is essentially what prosperity gospel teaches: God wants you to be materially wealthy and personally happy. Therefore, your wealth and your privilege can be considered evidence that you are blessed by God. This isn’t exclusive to Christian teachings. In the video The Secret the idea was popularized that the Universe wants your highest good and therefore, if you just ask in the right way, all good things will come to you. This is really just a non-Christian prosperity gospel.
Do you see the danger in this kind of thinking? It leaves everything else out of the picture. You have “stuff” because God likes you and he hands it to you. If that “stuff” comes at the cost of child labor or environmental damage or other people being disadvantaged, or any number of other societal ills, well, if it was the will of the universe, who are we to argue, right? And then, if we’re not being financially blessed, what did we do wrong, why have we lost the favor of God or the Universe?
If gratitude is only about the good feeling we give ourselves about counting our blessings, then it will help us cope with a dysfunctional system. But if we still carry around a structure of gratitude as a debt or obligation that requires payback, and if we find in our gratitude practice that the blessings we are counting are primarily first-world material things, then “it serves to reinforce hierarchical structures of injustice and spiritualizes gifts and blessings while offering only heavenly rewards to those lower down the system.” In other words, those who are well off see their blessings as evidence that God cares about them, while people who don’t have these privileges will, if they’re good, get some nice things when they get to heaven.
From Rev. Bass’s book:
We might be grateful persons, with thankful hearts, and be fanatical about gratitude journals and intentions, but as soon as we walk out our front door or turn on the news, we are confronted with a world of payback, quid pro quo, corruption, and ungrateful neighbors. […] If gratitude is built on a myth of scarcity and imperial hierarchies, it has been corrupted. If gratitude is privatized and collaborates with injustice, it is not really gratitude… Gratitude begins with a profound awareness of abundance and builds communities of well-being and generosity. Gratitude opens toward grace.
True gratitude, not transactional gratitude but transformative gratitude, cannot be quiet in the face of injustice. The sort of gratitude that changes our individual lives will also revolutionize our lives in community and as citizens. Gratitude as an ethic moves us from the kind of private thankfulness that comforts us to public practices that push us out of our comfort zones.
“The ‘me’ of gratitude must extend to the ‘we’ of gratitude as an ethic, a vision of community based on habits and practices of grace and gifts, of cultivating a wide field of vision and deepening our awareness of humility and blessing, of setting tables and sharing food for all. Gratitude is not merely resilience. Gratitude is resistance too. It is time for all of us to join in the resistance.”
You know, when Donald Trump won the presidency, as I told you a couple of weeks ago, my reaction was activism. But as my friend Angela said to me, we engaged in a sprint, and I’ll be honest, I didn’t have the endurance to keep going, calling my representatives every day and showing up for every rally, or, like her, running for office. I burned out. I felt kind of guilty because I had bought shirts and pins that said “Nevertheless, she persisted,” and “Resist,” yet I was not persisting. Maybe you’ve had this experience too, the constant barrage of more and more ridiculous news from the White House has just ground me down over the last three years. I started to wonder, what can I do that matters? My phone calls to Diane Black do not matter, not at all.
But over time, I started to realize that my best service to the community and the world was within these walls. I could find people who were similarly discouraged and be with them and make them feel maybe for the first time in a week that they weren’t alone. I could use the church’s voice in the community, put on my golden swarm shirt and show up for a rally to say “I will not forget the victims of this shooting,” or “I do not support children being locked up at the border.” The work of this faith community is small, but with networking with other liberal orgs in the community and with your support, it can grow. We don’t have to resist alone, because we’re together, and together, we’re making things happen. In the last few weeks our church has received a grant to help increase early childhood literacy in the area, and we can do that in a way that promotes inclusion and acceptance, because that’s our vision. Some of our friends have a vision even bigger than that. There’s a lot more our little church can do, and it starts with us. When I think of the things I’m most grateful for, this church is at the top of the list, right after my family. You’re at the top of the list. So I would encourage you to consider that in your thought process on gratitude, and if you haven’t made a pledge to help support the work of this growing church in our community, to contribute to having this little haven here in Conservative Cookeville, there’s still time to do that.
My blessing for you this week:
May you give thanks
May you express thanks to those who have blessed you
May you look at your blessings a little differently than you have in the past
May you see through the lens of interconnectedness.
May we have courage to resist when resistance is needed
May we as a community build within these walls an ethic of gratitude
May we model the kind of thankful world we want to see outside these walls
Hawaiian Volcano. Photo by Marc Szeglat, volcanoes.de
My meditation this morning left me with tears streaming down my face. It was a practice called Ho’oponopono, a practice of indigenous Hawaiian healers and shamans, and something I want to work with more. Here is the practice, a sort of mantra:
I’m sorry. Please forgive me. I love you. Thank you.
In the version I practiced, as part of Davidji’s 30 Days to Rebirth course on Insight Timer, the meditator imagines themselves as a child. I’m sorry. Please forgive me. I love you. Thank you. Then as a young adult, an adult, recently. Then imagining another person. I’m sorry, Please forgive me. I love you. Thank you.
When I arrived at the last portion of the practice (which I think I will expand to make it more metta-style when I do it myself, maybe more on that later), my mind went immediately to my brother Anthony, who committed suicide in 2016. I’m sorry. Please forgive me. I love you. Thank you.
I cannot ask his forgiveness any longer, and even if he was alive, I don’t think it’s a conversation he would have wanted to have. But it’s a conversation I can have with him now. I’m sorry that when you needed me, when everyone you loved was cutting you off, that I said okay to that practice and hurt you. They told me it was the loving thing to do. How can cutting someone out of your life ever be the loving thing to do? I’m sorry. Please forgive me. I love you. Thank you.
And back to myself, for doing the cutting off: I’m sorry.Please forgive me. I love you. Thank you.
There’s so much to process here.
And as I journaled about this, I have shifted my practice of gratitude to a practice of delight. What, in this heavy but necessary moment, could I call a delight? I wrote this:
Delight: How about this? Crying. It is a thing I have always hated. I hate the not-in-control-of-myself feeling, especially in front of other people. But my grief — for Anthony — taught me that catharsis is important and needed, that repressed tears will weigh down your soul to the point of sickness, even to the point of death. I promised myself then, grieving, that whatever comes, I will let it come, and then let it go.
Did I ever see my adult brother cry? I remember when he was really little, and he would cry. My grandfather told him ‘Toughen up, be a man,’ and mom got mad. He’s not a man, she said, he’s a little boy, and there’s nothing wrong with tears. Which message did he internalize? Which one did I?
My Aunt Betty was famous in my family for her ability to cry gracefully. It was, mom and I said, because she didn’t bother trying not to cry, she just let the tears flow, and we (mom and I) would say she was beautiful, crying, and wish we could be beautiful crying too, and not resist it.
This morning in meditation I was beautiful crying. I did not resist it. In meditation — alone — I can let the tears flow, feel them drip from my chin, and feel deep gratitude for the way they wash through me like a summer storm and leave me feeling cleansed and purified. A little more whole.
Last week I gave a sermon entitled, How Can I Be Joyful When Everything is Awful? In it, I highlighted a book of essays by Ross Gay entitled The Book of Delights. He made a simple, even obvious practice of noticing things to be delighted in, and writing a mini essay every day about something that delighted him. I’ll post the sermon here, or somewhere, later. But I’ve been dipping into this practice myself, in place of my Gratitude practice (3 things I’m grateful for each day). Gratitude implies reciprocal obligation, but Delight requires nothing but presence, and for that reason I love it. So I thought I would also make a practice of sharing some of my delight here, so that you can find yours too.
Most people don’t like spiders. They fascinate me. I think jumping spiders are adorable (and I once adopted one), and orb weavers are queens. Last month I noticed a web in my bushes that looked like an upside-down, 2-layer parachute. I posted it on Facebook and a naturalist friend of mine told me it was the web of a Bowl-and-Doily Spider. They catch prey in the “bowl” and lie in wait in the “doily” underneath. Damn, that’s cool! Anything that builds things is cool, even if I do a crazy dance after smacking into them while hiking.
This morning, I went for my simple half-mile walk around the block with Bandit, after skipping several days. It’s been hard to get up (allergies? grief?). There were spiderwebs everywhere in the wild places along the road, gem-studded with sparkling dew snagging rainbows from the slanting rains of the early morning sun. I am struck by how often my delights are contained in this 12-minute morning walk, and how much I struggle to do it, despite that.
I drowned in my dream last night
in a tidal wave that
over me, and I can remember
every vivid sensation
I woke, gulping for air,
wandered to the bathroom and back,
And in the strange manner of dreams I
replayed the tidal wave,
only this time I saved myself,
and isn’t this a metaphor for life?
This is the transcript of the introductory speech I gave for my Communications class at Motlow State Community College, March 19, 2019, on being a polymath or multipotentialite.
I’m 48 years old and I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. When I graduated high school in 1989, I was at that time a Jehovah’s Witness and I thought I knew what I wanted to be. JWs don’t encourage their young people to go to college, so despite being a very good student with a 3.65 GPA, after high school I became what they call a pioneer, spending 90 unpaid hours a month preaching, and for a while I even went to help with less-served congregations in rural areas.
As it turned out, a pioneer was not what I wanted to be, and in fact a Jehovah’s Witness was not what I wanted to be. Since then I have had many different jobs — I’ve done cleaning jobs, worked in retail, I’ve been a veterinary technician, a medical transcriptionist, a mom, a homeschool teacher, a vacuum cleaner salesperson, and I now make my living creating artisan wire jewelry and some other kinds of art. I don’t want to give you the impression that I can’t stick with a job; some of those things I did for 10 or 20 years. And, of course, here I am in college after 28 gap years, embarking on a new journey entirely.
I struggled with not being able to focus on one area of expertise, for years. Partly, life got in the way. I got divorced at age 27 and found myself the single mom of a 3yo. In those situations, you do what you have to, to pay the bills. But also, I struggled with anxiety when I thought about anything big. I considered going to vet school for a while, and for a while I thought it might be fun to be a history teacher and teach history in a way that students would actually enjoy. But those things involved college, and money, and that spelled COMMITMENT. If I spent thousands of dollars learning how to do something, I really ought to make it my LIFE’S WORK. I wondered what was wrong with me. Why couldn’t I settle down and pick something? I’d been convinced in high school that I should be a writer, because I’m pretty good at it. It felt like a calling. I wrote a lot of poetry. I got some of it published. And then I realized that poetry pays in copies of the magazines it gets printed in, and I got depressed. In our society we tell young people that they have to pick something, starting at around age five. What do you want to be when you grow up? Not only do you have to pick something, but once you get to a certain age you’re judged on the respectability of whatever you’ve picked. This felt like a life crisis to me, and a terrible weight.
As it turns out, I’m not the only one who gets fascinated with one thing after another. Some names for this have been around a long time: Renaissance man. During the Renaissance it was expected that you’d have a wide range of interests. More recently we’ve been called Jack of all trades, master of none, which is not very flattering and reflects the Protestant work ethic we have now that says, pick something, show up every day, suck it up. Today Renaissance people are speaking up, and you can find self-help books and TED talks and the endless information the Internet provides. The names for people with a wide variety of interests include scanner, polymath, multipotenntialite.
Polymaths continually get distracted by learning or trying a new thing, getting bored as soon as a new thing is mastered, struggling to choose a major or a profession because you hate the idea of being stuck doing the same thing for the rest of your life. But, I’m really good at picking up new things because I do it constantly. When my husband and I were taking a pottery class he said I was good at everything — not true, I’m just good at faking it at the beginning — and he also tells me if I could just pick one thing, I’d be amazing at it. Maybe. I’m sure I’ll never find out.
Twenty years ago, I met a man at a craft fair who made furniture for American Girl dolls. He excitedly told me about all the things he’d done and shared his list of things he still wanted to try, at age 70. Something resonated in me. I wanted a list, too. And when I heard the voices of other people who feel the same way I do, I settled down, and I started looking at the positive aspects of being the way I am. Trying to fit yourself into someone else’s mold for you never works. I decided I had to find my own strengths and capitalize on them.
Not only is there nothing wrong with being a polymath, but it’s a unique way to be wired that really is a gift if you embrace it. I have learned a wide variety of skills from my various occupations and interests. According to polymath Emilie Wapnick, who gave a TED Talk a few years ago titled Why Some of Us Don’t Have One True Calling, polymaths have 3 superpowers.
Idea synthesis. When you have skills in a variety of fields, you make connections that people who specialize deeply in one field may not see.
Rapid learning. We are used to being beginners, and we get really good at it.
Adaptability. We have the ability to take on different roles in different situations because of our broad list of skill sets.
Last year I stopped working for someone else, took a chance, and moved to doing my own business full time. I make Chainmaille and wire-wrapped jewelry, and I often incorporate other skills into my work. I love watercolor painting, so I painted tiny original watercolors on bisque porcelain and wire wrapped them. I wanted to learn glass working, so I took a couple of workshops on that and made my creations into jewelry. My years as a pioneer have been very helpful in being able to talk to people at craft shows. My work as a transcriptionist has given me computer skills that I regularly use in marketing. My passion for writing means I can write convincing item descriptions when I sell online.
I passionately believe that no learning is wasted. My bucket list isn’t a list of places to go, but things to learn. I’m sure you’ll be shocked to know that I haven’t definitely picked a major yet, but I’m so thankful to have the opportunity to fix the biggest regret I had, not going to college. If you are young and don’t know what you want to do yet, I say, do a little of everything, look for the connections between the things you love and use them to create something new. And don’t let them tell you that you can only be or do one thing.
Given the scope of my Truth
and the fact that i have been getting to know it
all these years,
I wish for a promise
that I cannot fall,
but here I am
in infinite Space
and I have been falling for years.
Not only is there no safety net,
but there is no ground.
At first you panic, flailing,
looking for ground that you are certain
will be The Death Of You
but it spins out of control.
There is no control in this
Nothing to push off of,
no orientation, no trajectory.
When you realize that,
when you settle into the space
between Beingness and Unbeingness
and enjoy the ride,
you realize that this
is not a fall to your Death
but your First Flight.
I’m a social introvert. I love people, and overbook my social calendar all the time. And then, I hit a wall and I absolutely have to shut down. I call this Introvert Hibernation Time.
I love you. Go away.
If you’re a introvert I know you’ll relate. Introverts aren’t shy, necessarily; the difference between introverts and extroverts is that extroverts get energy on interaction with other people and introverts get energy by being alone, or with one (rarely more than one, but few at most) very special people.
I hit the wall this week. Stress from my husband’s illness, stress from college assignments, and I found myself with little or nothing to give and wanting to lock myself in a room and… what?
How do you fix this?
The answer, of course, is time, and being gentle with yourself, but I have a few other tips I’d like to share.
1. Know your limits and put them in writing. I can look at my jam-packed calendar and know I’m going to need to schedule IHT (Introvert Hibernation Time, remember?) afterwards, and I will literally put it in my planner that way, with SCHEDULE NOTHING at the top of the day(s). And hey, if you surprise yourself and feel great that day, then you can always dial up the social interaction to exactly where you want it. Coffee with your bestie? Snuggle time with your love? Go for it. Hopefully both of those people will understand if you don’t.
2. Know what drains you. I can do a whole lot of church stuff and it doesn’t drain me, but one craft show will usually knock me out for a few days. Phone calls drain me if they’re important, or full of conflict, or something I’m dreading. Settings where there’s a lot of noise and chaos drain me, even if I’m having a good time. If there are bodies in my personal space, especially in a crowd, my reserves are leaking like a sieve. Consider making a list in your journal, if you’re a journaler.
3. Know what re-energizes you. This is a much more fun list to make. Here are a few ideas: Spending time in nature. Doing something creative. One on one time with someone who is awesome. Spending time with animals — taking my dog for a forest hike is a double whammy for me, and if I add in a creative thing like taking wildflower photos to paint later. Ooh, that’s bliss. Finding QUIET. If you have to go somewhere away from home to get that quiet, find a corner of the library, or hit up that forest again. Music can fill some people’s wells. Indulging in a good novel (be careful here, sometimes lying around in your pajamas bingeing Netflix can be well-filling, and sometimes it can just make you feel like a bum and more depressed). Chances are, if you make a list of things you absolutely love, you can go back and highlight the things that are also well-filling, it’ll be most of those things. For me, a social introvert, they don’t match entirely, but it’s a good start. Definitely make this list too. In fact, consider making the list anew every time you’re feeling burned out.
4. Schedule a play date. Setting up a couple of hours of just-for-me-time/self care on a weekly or otherwise regular basis is good preventative medicine.
5. Know the signs of introvert exhaustion. Sometimes, we’re getting irritable, or depressed, we don’t realize it’s because we need a little alone space. We introverts can often get very deep into our own heads, with thoughts swirling endlessly, firing judgments at someone who is getting on our last nerve, without knowing that it’s really not them, it’s us. We lose touch with our actual feelings. It’s different for everyone, but here are a few that should make warning bells go off:
Noise drives you insane and you feel overstimulated just listening to someone talk.
You’re tired all the time even though you’re sleeping.
You’re uncharacteristically irritable.
Tough to get motivated.
Your eyes glaze over when you try to focus and you find yourself staring into the middle distance and shutting down emotionally.
Psychosomatic symptoms. You hurt somewhere even though you don’t remember hurting your back, your knees, your neck. Even of you understand that you have chronic pain in this place, did you ever injure it? If not, please do some research on Tension Myositis Syndrome and see if you fit this picture. Finding out about this changed my life.
6. Get mindful. This kind of links to the above, but if you’re zoning out and you’re not aware of your own feelings, you need to bring yourself back and be fully present. If you’re currently totally overwhelmed, retreat, and then get mindful. Sometimes we get so much in our head we can’t even feel our bodies. Meditation is the best training for this. If you have a hard time doing sitting meditation try walking meditation, or coloring, or Zentangle, or another meditative activity. Connect with your breath (hey, you’re alive, yay!) and sort your own feelings out.
7. Don’t make IHT a habit. I know this sounds contradictory to what I said above about scheduling IHT days. But what I’m telling you is, you need social interaction. If you find it incredibly difficult to socialize with any people at all, you might consider getting help for depression, because while introverts need their alone time, we need our social time too, even when it’s a struggle. Find a buddy, preferably another introvert, to help you with this. Get out sometimes and get social. Find a safe space/group or at least a safe person where you can be yourself. It doesn’t have to be in a crowd.
8. Love who you are. You’ll never change what gives you energy. What you can change is your level of confidence and the people you surround yourself with when you are ready to surround yourself with people. Choosing your companions is a form of self care. Find some who get it when you say you need a break, people you don’t have to lie to in order to get your alone time. Introverts are amazing people! We are the thinkers, the creators, the poets and songwriters, and often, we’re sensitive people who are so very good for others when we pop our heads out of our shells. We get people, we just don’t want to be in the middle of them all the time. It’s only a matter of finding a balance between social and alone, and you can use both of them to make the world a little better.
Someone asked me a while back, what’s the best advice you’ve ever been given? And I said, “Don’t be afraid.”
The advice was given years ago by this lovely lady, Karen Walton. She was my painting teacher. It wasn’t something she said once in the course of my instruction, she said it rather often. She had a sense for when that “oh no.. what do I do now?” feeling was coming up. If you’re an artist of any kind, you know what I’m talking about. It begins with the fear of the blank page, and comes up again when you’re not sure what’s wrong with the thing you’re working on but something’s wrong, or when you’re not sure what the characters are supposed to do in the next chapter or whether you’re finished with the drawing or not. Fear, it seems, is part of art. The more attached you are to the final outcome, the more the fear paralyzes you. This happens to me every time I accept a commission.
“To require perfection is to invite paralysis. The pattern is predictable: as you see error in what you have done, you steer your work toward what you imagine you can do perfectly. You cling ever more tightly to what you already know you can do — away from risk and exploration, and possibly further from the work of your heart. You find reasons to procrastinate, since to not work is to not make mistakes. Believing that the artwork should be perfect, you gradually become convinced that you cannot make such work. (You are correct). Sooner or later, since you cannot do what you are trying to do, you quit. And in one of those perverse little ironies of life, only the patterns itself achieves perfection — a perfect death spiral: you misdirect your work; you stall; you quit.”
— From Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Baylee’s and Ted Orland
Maybe fear is preventing you from making art at all. Maybe you wish you could make art, but ever since Mrs. Smith the art teacher in elementary school told you that your work was not good, you’ve told yourself you “can’t draw a straight line.” But you love to create, so you make regular trips to your local hobby store and do “crafts,” by which I mean follow someone else’s instructions for creativity. Don’t misunderstand me, I am a crafter and I am not downplaying crafting, which is a vehicle for the artistic spirit, but if you limit yourself to paint-by-number and adult coloring books and step-by-step Pinterest projects, you will never discover what you can do, and you will never learn to trust yourself.
So, back to my story about Karen. She would say this, “Don’t be afraid.” When I was working on my second painting, the portrait of a horse, I meticulously painted a highly detailed and perfect eye on it… and then realized it was in the wrong place. And then I froze. Karen came over with her paintbrush, dabbed it in my paint, and then painted out my carefully crafted, wrongly placed eye. That’s the glorious thing about oil paints: at any point you can paint over the thing and start over. I did. I was so proud of that painting.
I don’t know when I realized that this was a lesson for life, too. I journal every day (I will talk more about that later), and I thought about how fear paralyzes us in doing The Thing, whatever the thing is. We marry ourselves to the outcome in our minds, and it’s much nicer as a fantasy than it is as a dream that failed, so we take the safe route and don’t try The Thing. In our minds, we could have been amazing at it but life got in the way. It’s not life that gets in the way. It’s fear.
So I’m telling you this: Do The Thing. Don’t be afraid. And when your first efforts get painted out, treat it as a new blank canvas to start fresh, whether you had to paint over a tiny aspect of your project or the whole damn thing.
The world needs people who believe in themselves this much.