Reflections on Life's Journeys & Joys, Books & Other Blessings

Friday, April 10, 2015

Fear in a Flat-Screen

Intellectually I know I watch too much television.  But I’ve always rationalized that it’s okay because I’m a ravenous reader, as though they somehow cancel each other out. 

Now I’m realizing an evil of TV that goes beyond the over-sedentariness of the pursuit and the inaneness of much of the content.  Commercials.  Not just an annoyance and a symbol of the over-consumerism in our society.  No.  They are pits of fear and danger that people like me with free-floating anxiety at the best of times are reactive to.  You may not notice it, but these commercials will have your anxiety meter inching up and up and up.

Yes, I’ve had my flu shot, alright already!  But what is the age I’m supposed to start worrying about a pneumonia shot, and is a regular pneumonia shot enough or do I need that one I think has the number 13 in it that’s extra special?  And what about a shingles shot?  I know a few people who’ve had shingles and they sound horrible, I get prickly and pained just thinking about it.  What if I get shingles, am I the age to get the shot? How do they calculate the odds on what age to give you those things anyway; are there 50 year olds out there getting shingles but they tell you only to get the shot if you’re 60 or older?

And speaking of Big Pharma, what about all those side effects they have to publicize in their drug commercials?  I know you’re supposed to just watch the pretty pictures of people driving down the road together and ignore the fine print at the bottom of the screen and the voice that drones the side effects orally and almost cheerfully, but I can’t ignore them.  What if I got this disease?  How could I take what is clearly the best, most state-of-the-art drug for it when the side effects range from nausea to actual cancer?!

And what if I slip in the tub and I can’t get up! I should have had Bath Fitters come out and install a walk-in shower with bars and should wear a Lifeline necklace with a button to push, right? Scary stuff!

It’s not just health scares that get you on commercials.  What if a tech-savvy malicious hacker gets hold of my identity?  How can I risk identity theft in this day and age? They’re advertising a service to protect my identity, should I pick up the phone and get the service? Do I need the service, should I get the service?!

Car commercials dominate the airwaves, urging consumers to ever shinier, faster, smarter, and more eco-friendly vehicles.  For those of us of limited means with cars whose odometers have pushed north of 100,000 miles, though, even car commercials can be a fear trap.  Should I just drive my Subaru into the ground and expect it to last another 10 years or to 250,000 miles? But then it’ll have no trade-in value. More importantly, where will my income be in another 10 years, will I be able to afford another car then?  Can I afford another car now? Well, my financial adviser says no and I like to listen to her.  But isn’t my income now likely to be higher than in the future as I creep (and believe me, I’m creeping as slow as I can) toward my next milestone birthday?  Each shiny new car advertised (over and over and over again) taunts me; heck, a dull used car ad would taunt me at this point!

Finally, I can’t address the topic of commercials and fear-mongering without pointing a finger at local news.  Their “teasers” for upcoming newscasts all too often are in the vein of “predator stalks area neighborhood tonight—more at 11!”  If they really wanted to help the commercial would tell you what neighborhood then, not wait ‘til 11 o’clock! (Wait; is that a police helicopter circling my community with lights ablaze?)

I’ve got to spend less time watching the scary box, where between shows lurk illness, death, predators, and fear.  Because clearly the main thing for vulnerable saps like me to fear is fear itself.  

Friday, April 3, 2015

Today's Gem of Grace in the Gray Areas

"We cannot insulate ourselves from our own unhealed places and expect to assist others in healing theirs."

                                                                    (Edie Crane)

Monday, March 9, 2015

Between the Dark and Daylight

I’m not embarrassed to say that many of the new (to me) spiritual teachers I find come from watching Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday on the OWN cable TV network.  Oprah’s interviews with these luminaries send me scurrying to Amazon where I find wonderful books by these authors I would have otherwise missed.

My latest find is Benedictine nun Joan Chittister and her book Between the Dark and Daylight: Embracing the Contradictions of Life, the title of which of course intrigued me with its Grace in the Gray Area connotations.

In short but eloquent essays Chittister tackles life’s paradoxes and contradictions with an expert eye. She takes as her starting point,

The great truth of early monastic spirituality, for instance, lies in the awareness that only when life is lived in the aura of the transcendent, in the commonplaces of life, where the paradoxes lie, can we possibly live life to its fullness, plumb life to its depths.   

Chittister exposes the security and certainty we strive for as shielding us from risks that can take us to being our better selves.  Calamity, upset, change, the crash of a wave against our beach, all can open us up to new possibilities. There are two essays on what she calls “The Poverty of Plenty,” the epidemic of consumerism and marketing and the smothering of our lives with our stuff. Our stuff makes us perpetually insecure, needy, and unable to experience gratitude for what we have, when, as we surely all know, it is what Chittister calls “the things of the soul” that really nourish us and make us rich. We must look inside.

She also tackles failure and success (“Without failure all we have is untried ability.”), energy and exhaustion, rest and rush, guilt and growth, creativity and confusion (the marriage of which “is the beginning of new life.”) Her essay on rationality and irrationality endearingly evolves into an ode to the wonders of having pets and what they can teach us. The masculine and the feminine (each of which must be able to claim the other’s freedoms), the liberation in loss, the loneliness of love, the fullness of separateness and the emptiness of crowds (not to be confused with community) receive thoughtful looks.  

Among the many more examples of life between darkness and daylight are the certitude of doubt (she says life is about possibility, not certainty), the light found in darkness, the challenge of hopelessness (“What breeds hopelessness is the failure to pursue the possible in the imperfect.”) and The Place of Tsunamis in the Ocean of Life (“Life is the way we deal with it as well as the way we look at it.”)  The most insightful quote I found was on The Delusion of Frustration: “Frustration is something that does not exist—except within the self. It translates my world to me through the filter of my own need to control it.”

We cannot avoid the contradictions in our lives but must explore them.” For as Chittister writes, “Confronting the paradoxes of life around us and in us, contemplating the meaning of them for ourselves, eventually and finally, leads to our giving place to the work of the Spirit in our own lives.”

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Most Selfish Wonderful Thing You Can Do for Yourself

I’ve been reading Anne Lamott’s latest and, as usual, brilliant, book of essays, Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace.  I am always inspired by her writing and it always puts me in a contemplative mode.  One of the themes that keeps coming up in the book is forgiveness, and I remembered I’d been thinking about the very same thing recently.

I harbored anger and resentment to two people in my life for years: one of these people knew it and the other would have been surprised to hear it.  But little by little my anger and resentment have been slipping away, until all of a sudden one day I realized that I had forgiven them both.  Oh! How about that…

Now, for a long time I didn’t want to forgive them, but as I’ve proceeded slowly along my lifelong spiritual journey I have realized the benefits of forgiveness—though yes, I admit I’ve thought about this from a purely selfish, not altruistic perspective.

There’s a great Buddhist parable about two monks walking through the woods; they come across a woman who is unable to make her way across the river in front of them.  They eventually decide to carry her across, then they part and proceed through the woods.  The younger monk agonizes about having broken the rules, for the monks were not supposed to touch women, and he asks the older monk why he isn’t more bothered about this.  The older monk replies, “because I left the woman at the shore but you’re still carrying her.”

So I was sick of carrying around this burden of all the energy I was expending feeling hateful, and also remembered the saying attributed to Nelson Mandela that resentment is like drinking poison and then expecting the other person to die.  I decided to put my money where my mouth is and try some of the compassion I’m always spouting off about.  One thing that happened was I recognized that a lot of the negative emotion I had was based on wrongdoings on the two people’s parts that it’s very possible I was projecting onto them as much as they were actually responsible for.  The other wrongdoings were objectively on them, but I realized they were not done out of malice but rather were just individuals being who they are, doing what they do, oblivious to the deleterious effects on others (in the case of one person, I used to think that they had ruined my life).

Anyway, all this contemplation and these revelations began to mellow me, and I stopped engaging so angrily with these people at first, then deliberately tried to engage with them in positive ways (which admittedly started out as “fake it ‘til you make it”). Until the recent moment that I realized I had forgiven them, and in doing so released myself.

As Lamott puts it in Small Victories, “[T]he choice is whether you want to stay stuck in being right but not being free.”

Monday, January 19, 2015

Beating Those Gray Winter Days

I don’t know about you, but these gray gloomy days of winter are really kicking my butt.  Sun, please come out!

I, like as many as 20% of Americans, have Seasonal Affective Disorder, with the apt acronym SAD.  It’s winter depression caused by the shorter days and lack of sunlight, and according to the American Academy of Family Physicians affects women four times as often as men.  It can cause fatigue, low energy, weight gain, and other symptoms including not wanting to go out as much as usual. 

So what to do besides power through the inevitable yearly darkening?  I beat back my SAD with light therapy.  There are a number of companies selling special full spectrum bright light boxes, everything from standing ones to table ones, from ones that look like iPads to visors you wear on your head. We are lucky to have the original light box company, Sun Box (, right here in our area, in Gaithersburg, Md.  I’ve got two of their boxes, one a kind of utilitarian tubular thing I use at home when I’m eating breakfast, another a clever one that looks like a regular gooseneck desk lamp for the office. You only have to use a light box for a half hour a day. I know light therapy works because of the difference in the way I feel in September if I forget and haven’t started using the light by then. 

My light boxes met their match when I lived in Tianjin, China more than a decade ago.  It was one of the top three most polluted cities in the world at the time, so even when the sun was out, the days were gray and you couldn’t get any sunlight.  My SAD became entrenched and year-round and ultimately it was part of the reason I came home early from our Tianjin stint.  I know I could never live in a part of the US with more gray days than where I live now in the mid-Atlantic.  (I’d probably do well in the southern states, but I like my four-season climate.) 

Now my Sun Boxes keep my energy level up and my spirits, too, in winter, though I won’t lie to you, it’s still not my favorite season. I also toss back some extra vitamin D in the winter.  If you think you suffer from SAD don’t blow it off or just tough it out; you can get help.  You should see your doctor, and definitely consider light therapy. It can make a significant difference.    

Friday, January 2, 2015


I went to see a movie at a theater for the first time in about a year over the holidays.  Wild is based on a book by Cheryl Strayed that was launched to fame by attention from Oprah Winfrey.  The movie, pretty faithful to the book, starred Reese Witherspoon as Strayed, a woman walking the Pacific Crest Trail for three months as a road to redemption from some hard living following the death of her mother.

I liked the movie well enough; it was just ok—the same way I felt about the book.  I have to give Strayed credit for her unflinching exposure of some very bad behavior that among other things led to the dissolution of her marriage.  But, well, I didn’t really get what all the fuss was about with the book’s and now the movie’s popularity.

Until, that is, the middle of the night as I tossed and turned myself to sleep, which is when I do some of my best thinking.  The reason Wild resonates with women is that it’s the classic hero’s journey à la  Joseph Campbell.  Though books and tales with men at the center are many, there are really not all that many books about women’s adventuring in the wild or unknown, facing down various foes and adversity, contemplating their lives, and returning home better for the journey.  This is why Eat, Pray, Love was such a hit, again an Oprah phenom. Now I get it, and can appreciate both books more on that level. (Thanks, Oprah, for keeping an eye out for women’s heroic outward and inward journeys for us.)

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Doggie Desire

I had a dream last night about a dog—just a nice vignette of me playing with what in the dream was my pet dog—except when she turned into a chicken, though I treasured her even then. 

Transmogrification aside, I’ve been thinking a lot about dogs recently.  I want one very much, but currently am living in an apartment whose landlord forbids pets.  I’ve reached out to try and change his mind but there’s been no response. 

My last dog, Gavin, was a sweet mutt—perhaps part Cataloula leopard dog and part Corgyi--I had for a year or so before having to give him back to the rescue league where I got him.  He was just too much for me, a working dog, which I didn’t know when I rescued him, and in insatiable need of attention and especially activity.  Five hundred dollars of training didn’t do the trick, nor did the vigorous extra walking he got from kind neighbors who loved him as much as I did but ultimately didn’t think they could take him on full time, either.  He was a love, whose nightly habit was to get in bed and walk all over me on the comforter kissing me before bouncing back off the bed to sleep on the floor at my side.  Yes, I know this could be interpreted as his thinking he was the alpha, but I had done my best to prove otherwise, honestly I had.

Before Gavin, there was the best, sweetest dog in the world, Molly, a Yellow Lab who my son and I had for eight wonderful years. She was eight years old when we got her from a close friend of mine who was going to live overseas.  Giving us both much joy and unlike her successor causing no damage to our home, she was my constant companion as I worked from home all day and she nursed my son through his parents’ divorce.  Molly passed at 16 in my arms with my friend (who I jokingly refer to as her birth mom) and my mother at my side as I read a Navajo poem over her in the sunny front hall of my home as the vet put her to sleep, my son having come home from school at lunchtime to say goodbye to his beloved pet.

Since Gavin, for a long time I was afraid to get another dog, afraid I might have another adoption failure.  But I love dogs and have had one since I was a child, so inevitably the desire to rescue again grew and grew.  There was also that embarrassing word we don’t like to talk about in public—loneliness. A dog is a pretty terrific cure for lack of companionship in one’s home and there is nothing like their unconditional love.  I moved a few years ago to an apartment building where no neighbors happen to have dogs, either, so I can’t get my doggie love outside my door as I used to be able to in my old townhouse by the lake. 

I bared my soul in an email to my landlord about my loneliness and how a dog would greatly improve my quality of life.  I promised I wouldn’t get a puppy (thus reducing the likelihood of youthful exuberance leading to damage) but rather at least a three- or four-year old, and that I’d get a small dog and was willing to pay a pet deposit.   I’m pretty surprised I haven’t gotten some kind of a response yet, even after reaching out again.  So I wait with unfulfilled doggie desire, for a wet nose to nuzzle me, for soulful eyes to watch my every move, for slurpy doggie kisses and a canine to pet and walk and feed to share my love back.  Dogs really are a girl’s best friend and I hope I can have one again soon.