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

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.  

Sunday, September 28, 2014


“As I get older I try to love the uncertainties more than I do the certainties.” 

(Sue Monk Kidd) 

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Adventures in Online Dating: A Rant

I’ve recently reentered the world of online dating (after about a 10 year absence), and having not made it past the initial message stage, am again skeptical this will work for me.  Am I too fussy? Maybe.  Ten years ago I wasn’t getting any messages, now I’m getting lots but they’re not “quality” ones. 

First of all, many of the guys don’t even bother to write a profile of themselves but just put “send a message” in that space.  Who am I sending a message to and why would I do so just on the basis of a photo (if indeed they’ve included that)? Besides the missing profile, all the info you get is a half dozen questions (do you like to cook? read? go to theater?), only maybe answered, which while interesting do not constitute a way to learn about someone’s character or personality. 

Most of the messages I’ve gotten from remotely interesting men are just that—remote.  Iowa, California, Michigan, Indiana. My profile says I specifically am looking for someone in my area. They often urge me not to be put off by the long distance, that they’ll move for love, but I just can’t see putting the effort in on these. I have a friend who found a true love online, but he’s several states away so they’ve decided to keep an open relationship, and she’s still dating online to find more geographically desirable partners. 

She, some 10 years younger than I, is having a whole different experience online dating than I am, by the way.  Her latest message came from a 19-year old who complimented her on not looking as old as she is.  She’s getting guys with professions like exotic dancer and librarian (the latter’s the one I was jealous of, though she sure enjoyed the former, too), while I’m getting, well, guys with professions like dump truck driver.  Fortunately said driver was also out of state so I could rationalize I wasn’t engaging with him because of that.  One dating site also thought I’d be a good match for a cross dresser; but I got no message from him, sparing me thinking of a response.   

Based on my non-online dating experience in the years since I’ve divorced, I’m also looking for a man who doesn’t have young children, especially if they live with him. Don’t get me wrong, I love kids.  But children should be the number one priority of a single dad and if they’re not, I can’t respect him.  And if they are, he doesn’t have enough time and space in his life for me or is looking for a second mommy for them, and I’m done with that period in my life.  So bring on the men with 20+ year olds making their way in the world, or older kids who’ve made them a grandparent, but I’m gun shy on dads with younger children.

I’m also not interested in guys whose profiles are full of spelling and grammar errors. (E.g., they “do not take things for granite”…)  I’m looking for someone who’s my intellectual equal, and his being articulate is a turn-on.  Plus I think half of those butchered entries aren’t because the guys can’t really spell or write but because they’re too lazy to do anything but throw down a stream of consciousness rant without going back and, oh, I don’t know, putting the apostrophes in contractions.

To be fair, if I were a certain kind of woman I’d be a better match for some guys the site has offered up as matches.  “Outdoorsy” is the key word, and the tell tale signs are photos hiking cross country, white water rafting, rock climbing, and other nature-based pursuits.  Sorry, but my idea of camping is staying at a nice motel and while I enjoy walking, it’s not with a backpack across rocky terrain.  Guys seem to be able to tell this from my profile so none have sent me messages yet asking me to go paragliding. 

What does this leave me with?  I want a compassionate, intelligent, articulate man with a good sense of humor, and good chemistry.  I’m not asking too much, am I?  This online dating may still not be for me, but I’ll keep trying for at least a while.