Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Our complex brains

A recent article in AARP The Magazine reminds us of the three parts of the brain and how differently they function. The limbic brain controls emotions and is that part that helps us love our young and connect with others. The reptilian brain is the control center for fear and aggression and runs on negative reinforcement; it's purely physical. And the thinking brain is all about thought and words.

Interestingly, the article says that research has shown that most of the time our emotions are in the lead, perhaps because we are social creatures. Staying connected is vitally important to us. Connections used to be for sheer survival but now they're also about adding joy and pleasure to our lives. Connections with others have been shown to extend life in humans, too. And we consider it a quality of life issue.

That said, it's important that we nurture those connections and relationships in our lives and maintain them, especially as we age. Fostering connections fosters positive emotions, and that reduces stress and loneliness.

To whom can we reach out today? And which relationships need some nurturing and tending? Let today be the day to put relationships at the top of the list.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Nurture peace

I continue to hear lots of pain, angst and confusion following our U.S. presidential election. So many fears were raised, lots of insults were hurled; and most of us are wondering how we can possibly heal the divide—much less know exactly where we as a people are headed.

So when I read these words in Pema Chodron's book, When Things Fall Apart, I took notice: "Right now—in the very instant of groundlessness—is the seed of taking care of those who need our care and of discovering our goodness."

Groundlessness. That does describe what many seem to be feeling these days. If Chodron is correct that the seed is there right now, it seems to me that our job will be to nurture that seed. Our work will be to do those things that don't sow division but rather that heal. We can listen to others. We can try to understand their fears and feelings. We can speak our truth—and do so in ways that simply owns our truth rather than beats up others with it. We can reach out to others who are especially vulnerable right now. We can commit to causes, not just with money but with time as well.

The following comments appear in Chodron's book just two pages after the above quote, and they are good questions to ask ourselves: "Every day we could think about the aggression in the world, in New York, Los Angeles, Halifax, Taiwan, Beirut, Kuwait, Somalia, Iraq, everywhere. All over the world, everybody always strikes out at the enemy, and the pain escalates forever. Every day we could reflect on this and ask ourselves, 'Am I going to add to the aggression in the world?' Every day, at the moment when things get edgy, we can just ask ourselves, 'Am I going to practice peace, or am I going to war?'"

In a season in which we think about peace on earth, perhaps this is a good time to think about how we might nurture peace.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Take some deep breaths

Thanksgiving is over. The insane shopping frenzy that used to follow Thanksgiving but now overlaps it is over. All eyes are focused on Christmas—and for many, that's all about shopping and gifts. Each day we hear how many shopping days remain.

Stop. Slow down. Take some long, deep breaths. Is this really how we want to spend the last weeks of this year? Is this really how we want to prepare for Christmas? Or perhaps Hanukkah is your holiday? How do you want to prepare?

Think about what's really important to you this season. Determine what is not important—and let that go. It's all about choices, after all. And you get to decide. Where is it written that you have to kill yourself with preparations to make holidays perfect for everyone? You really don't have to do it all. It's important to think about what's important to you and put the focus there.

It's too easy to get caught up in the frenzy. Make this year different and say, "No" to the craziness and the frenzy. Make it a meaningful and special Christmas for yourself and those you love by making choices that are just right for you.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Building community

It comes as no surprise to hear that we humans are a social species. And to those who are paying attention, it is also no surprise that these days many people isolate and experience a lack of community.

A new book by Sebastian Junger titled Tribe zeroes in on returning veterans and then broadens the view to point out how we're all losing our sense of community. In this book he talks about how returning veterans miss the close bonds they had in platoon life once they return home. This makes the transition home extremely difficult. They already have seen, heard and experienced things that none of the rest of us can understand. But because their very lives depended on each other while they served, they developed an intimate bond, which they miss on their return home. What they find when they return is a lack of community and a real disconnect.

My take on all this is that we surely can have a national conversation on how to regain a sense of community and how to better care for one another—and we definitely need one on how to better care for our vets once they return home. We're only just beginning to recognize PTSD and deal with that.

Perhaps it would behoove each of us to check our own lives to see how we're doing in both asking for help and reaching out to others. How are we building and maintaining community? And second, what might we do to help vets we know and care about?

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Gratitude—every day

Today in the U.S. we celebrate Thanksgiving Day. Whether you spend it with family, with friends, with a community group or alone, it's a good time to reflect on the gratitude you feel for your life and blessings. And while it's good to use today for gratitude, I invite you—and all of us—to make gratitude a part of everyday life. It truly can change our outlook.

I try to tend to the practice each day. But there are many days when I start out running as fast as I can—and never take the time to reflect. And, really, it doesn't take long. But I simply lose sight of it some days. Even spending two minutes each morning thinking about gifts and blessings—perhaps even just listing three to five of them—can change our attitude for the day.

Before we go to sleep at night is another good time to think of five of the day's blessings or happy moments. It will make sleep come more easily.

What's on your list today?

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Adding love to the world

There are so many ways we can add a touch of love and humanity to our world. Just look around. Opportunities abound in our homes, our neighborhoods, our wider community, in our schools and public institutions, in our country and across the globe.

I just read in the AARP Bulletin of one such effort, begun in 1948 when Air Force chief of staff Gen. Hoyt Vandenberg and his wife, Gladys, realized that some of the funerals at Arlington National Cemetery were attended only by the military chaplain. They felt someone else should always be present, too. Now each of the service branches has wives' groups that make sure others attend the funerals. They also reach out to families of the fallen in various ways.

Sandra Griffin, retired as a major after 23 years in the Air Force, writes sympathy notes to Air Force families she hasn't even met; and she attends funerals. "It's a way to still serve. It's a comfort to the families," she says. "Some reach out to hold your hand and say thank you."

Yes, it really doesn't take a lot. What needs are you noticing around you that might be calling to you? Sometimes even smiles to strangers in the public sphere can add joy to someone's day. So many possibilities. What will you choose?

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Wake up—just BE

I often forget to live in the present moment. I'm busy looking toward the future or dwelling in the past. Perhaps you do that, too? Or I'm so focused on my to-do list that I miss the wonder of now. I don't see everything around me—only the tiniest of things.

I want to move more toward living in the present. I want to stay awake and aware. I want to notice what's going on around me (and in me, too)! Perhaps this is a place where incremental progress is the best for which we can hope. As author Mark Williams says, "For most of us, a typical day involves hurrying from task to task, forgetting that there are other possibilities for us. Even a tiny bit of mindfulness, brought to any moment, can wake us up, thus subverting the momentum of doing for at least one moment."

So even if we can stay awake and aware for a few moments at a time, it's a good thing. And we can become human beings rather than merely human doings.

Monday, November 21, 2016

We have choices to make

In these days following the presidential election, I'm thinking about the choices each of us makes about how to respond. I've been thinking a great deal about what I will do to lift up the values I hold dear. What action will I take? What cause or causes shall I embrace? To what shall I commit?

I'm reminded of a quote from existential psychologist and author Rollo May: "A man or woman becomes fully human only by his or her choices and his or her commitment to them. People attain worth and dignity by the multitude of decisions they make from day to day. These decisions require courage."

These days as we sift through the debris left after months of angry rhetoric leading up to the election and that which is now accumulating because of multiple incidents of discrimination and hate crimes, we do well to think about the choices we make. To what shall we commit?

Let's take our time and think deeply about this. Who shall we be? What shall this country be?

Friday, November 18, 2016

Change and survival

Many of us resist change so strongly. And yet it's such a normal part of life. Perhaps change would be easier to handle if we were more able to take it as it comes and flow with it.

A Charles Darwin quote comes to mind: "It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change."

Perhaps each of us would do well to examine our thoughts and feelings about change—and be willing to make some adjustments in how we view it and face it. If you constantly struggle against change and fight it, think about all the energy you spend on that—especially if the change is inevitable anyway. See if you can approach it in another way. See whether you can lean into it and possibly even embrace it. Think about what might even be gained by the changes rather than simply focusing on what's lost.

I'm reflecting these days on what this means for me. What about you?

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Stay flexible

It's been one of those weeks—bobbing from one extreme to the other. I've spent time trying to process what last week's election means for the country and for me. I don't know about your thoughts and feelings regarding that election, and I don't wish to cast aspersions on anyone's party loyalties or votes. But I will just be open and honest and say I have been grieving the Electoral College's decision. I do so because to me the election was about more than the two candidates. To me, it was about who we want to be as a people and what we want to be as a nation. I hope and pray we can call on our higher selves to win the day despite the examples of discrimination that have followed.

Then on the other side of the spectrum from election results, I had two fabulous experiences. One was my annual "Thelma & Louise Road Trip to Tennessee" with my dear sister, Cheryl. Each fall she flies into Chicago, and the two of us take a road trip to the area where she and her husband have a retirement home amid the rolling hills of northern Tennessee. We had such a good time together—punctuated by those times of grieving and processing what just happened. And the weather was fabulous!

Then last Sunday she and my three sons really surprised me with an early birthday party at which they gathered family and friends. I really felt the love, and we all had a fabulous time. So my past week has gone from low to high to low to high. And isn't that how life often is? It's not often that we stay on a flat-line path for long. We generally have high moments, low moments and all the in-between ones that create the pattern of our days. It's good when we can stay flexible and go with the flow, knowing that those are all part of everyday life.

If you're having a bad day, know it isn't forever. And if you're having a fabulous one, savor it and stay in the moment. Keep the glow for those days that aren't so good. It's all in our attitude.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Let your journey unfold

Have you ever been in a place of just not knowing where you're going or what should come next in your life? You feel directionless and confused.

No doubt, each of us has been in this place at one time or another. Some of us have perhaps been there more than one time! Perhaps you're there right now.

I like what Melody Beattie says in her daily meditation book, Journey to the Heart: "Trust. Let go. Stay as peaceful as you can. Stay right here in the present moment. Sharpen your tools—your intuition, your inner voice, your consciousness, and your awareness. Do the little things, the small actions that appear right, the things that are right before you. Feel your feelings. Move through the fear. Wrap up in self-love. Then let the journey unfold. Trust that you are being guided and led."

That sounds so simple. We know it isn't. Still, it is good advice. And I like the image of a journey unfolding. That's typically how it happens. New directions don't often come in a great burst of energy. More often, they do unfold—little piece by little piece, in an incremental fashion. Just be open to the possibilities. And stay aware. Trust.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Broken hearts open to love

Yesterday I wrote about Parker J. Palmer's idea of the "tragic gap"—the gap between the way things are and how we know they could be. I mentioned the tension between reality and possibility, too.

In his book A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward An Undivided Life, Palmer says that people can "let the tension between reality and possibility break their collective heart open to justice, truth, and love."

I like that idea of hearts breaking open—open to learning and loving. When our hearts are open, so much more can get in.

Palmer tells about an old Hasidic tale that explains that: "The pupil comes to the rebbe and asks, 'Why does Torah tell us to "place these words upon your hearts"? Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?' The rebbe answers, 'It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks, and the words fall in.'"

That needs no explanation. Enough said!

Monday, November 14, 2016

Between reality and possibility

Author and educator Parker J. Palmer speaks of living in a "tragic gap"—"a gap between the way things are and the way we know they might be."

I've read his thoughts on this and many other things before, and he makes so much sense. Somehow following a difficult presidential election cycle, the idea of a tragic gap is surfacing again for me. There most definitely does exist a gap between how things are and how we know they could be—or at least how we hope they might be. Sometimes we simply accept the way things are in a resigned ay, never believing that change is possible. We disengage, believing that nothing will ever change.

However, as Palmer says, " be in the world nonviolently means learning to hold the tension of opposites, trusting that the tension itself will pull our hearts and minds open to a third way of thinking and acting." Further, he says, "If we want to live nonviolent lives, we must learn to stand in the tragic gap, faithfully holding the tension between reality and possibility in hopes of being opened to a third way."

I like that image: holding the tension between reality and possibility. And I like the idea of a third way. You, too?

Friday, November 11, 2016

Examine your anger

Many people think that we simply shouldn't feel anger. We should avoid feeling it at all costs. However, anger simply is. Anger isn't good or bad. It's neutral. What we do with it is quite a different story. It pays to examine it. It will look different from one experience to the next.

We need to learn to take care of our anger. We don't want to shut it down or stuff it down. It will find a way to emerge somehow or other. And if we don't deal with it when it first appears, it will grow and grow until it erupts like a volcano.

Sometimes we feel anger toward someone; but as we dig down, we realize we're not really upset with that person. We're angry about something quite different. Or we're angry with ourselves. But that other person was a convenient target. See what's really going on inside you. There are lessons to be learned from your anger.

For example, author and Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says in his book Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames, "When we embrace anger and take good care of our anger, we obtain relief. We can look deeply into it and gain many insights. The first insight may be that the seed of anger in us has grown a little too big, and it is the main cause of our misery. As we begin to see this fact, we realize that the other person is only a secondary cause. The other person is not the main cause of our anger.

"If we continue to look deeply, we see that the other person suffers a great deal. Someone who suffers a lot always makes the people around him or her suffer. ... One hour of watering the flower in the other person can make him or her begin to bloom. ... The moment you are motivated by the desire to return to the other and help, you know that all the energy of anger has been transformed into the energy of compassion."

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Let's work for healing

Last week my congregation held a healing and reconciliation worship service open to anyone. It was designed to try move us in a positive direction after the vitriol and hatred of a rugged presidential year. Perhaps we need many more of these—to continue on into the next several months. I was out of town and unable to attend, although I really would have liked to be part of it. But I really like the idea.

It seems we have a lot of healing to do. Divisions always have been there. But it feels as though the gap has widened during these past months as people have hurled invectives at each other in support or in opposition to one candidate or another. I don't remember when I've seen and heard such nastiness in a campaign before. I have heard of broken friendships and families not speaking to some of their members over this election. How sad is that?

We all need to be part of the healing. So let's take the time to do whatever we can to move us all forward to healing and reconciliation.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Of ends and beginnings

Where I live, many of the leaves have fallen off the trees and instead of clothing the trees, they now carpet the ground. So the greeting card I saw at Trader Joe's really speaks to me now: "The fall of a leaf is a whisper to the living. To make an end is to make a beginning."

We know that a leaf on the ground isn't the end of its usefulness. In fact, fallen leaves are nutrient-rich, soil-building treasures that contain 50 to 80 percent of the nutrients that trees extract from the soil in a growing season. Fallen leaves are a great source of nitrogen as they decompose. Interestingly, research conducted by Alexander Kowalewski at Michigan State University shows that maple and oak leaves used as mulch help control dandelions in Kentucky bluegrass! So what appears to be the leaf's end truly is also a beginning. Its usefulness continues but in a very different way.

So with us. When one chapter of our lives ends, something completely new is embedded within that ending. We don't always know what the next stage might be. Sometimes we may live in a transition time for a while—and, yes, I know all too well how uncomfortable that can be at times. But always, always, new challenges and directions emerge. We just need to trust the process, just as we trust the process of leaves falling to the ground and then adding nutrients to the soil.

What endings and beginnings have you experienced lately? Are you in a transition time right now? Let the falling leaf whisper to you!

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

What a gift to wake up today!

Something I read recently reminded me that while most of us are so busy each day focusing on our to-do lists and our problems and worries, we forget to bask in the joy of what a gift it is simply to be here. What a gift it is to be alive—to see, hear, smell, taste, feel!

That thought resonated so deeply within me. Yes, I thought, it's so true. It seems so profound, so basic and so important. You'd think we would all be reminded each day when we awaken: Wow, I'm glad to be here. I'm glad I woke up this morning and have another day of life. I'm so grateful. And yet, how easy it is to focus on everything else.

Really! Let it just soak in right now. One more day. Look around you. What do you see? As I write this in my upstairs study, I look out on trees that still retain some of their beautifully colored leaves. I see the sunshine shining brightly. And I know that the temperatures today (in November yet!) are to be in the mid-60s. I know that I'll see friends and loved ones today—and that many more are only an email, text or phone call away from me. I know that I have food in the house. I have a bed in which to sleep, a roof over my head. I have a car to take me where I want to go. And so much more.

I feel so, so blessed.

What about you?

Monday, November 7, 2016

We're better together

Last week, I was thrilled to watch on TV as our hometown baseball team, the Chicago Cubs, won the World Series ... after an 108-year drought! Fans of the Cubs are die-hard optimists and have said for years, "Maybe next year." No more next year. This was the year!

Everyone who knows anything about baseball attributes this long-awaited win to real teamwork. Even at the beginning of the season, many said that this could be "the year" for the Cubs because they saw something different in the current makeup of the team—real teamwork and less focus on individual stars. It probably didn't hurt that the game was interrupted by a rain delay, during which Jason Heyward, one of the players, had a little come-to-Jesus meeting with his teammates encouraging them and telling them how great they were. He reminded them that it was about the whole team—about everyone working together. They came out of the rain delay smoking hot and went on to finish the Series!

My point in sharing this is that the same is true for us. It's difficult to really shine when we're trying to do things solo. But when we work together as a team, we're so much better. Better together! For those of us who are vulnerability-challenged, that's a good reminder. Reach out to others. Admit what you can't do and find those who can do what you can't. Share the load. Work together. It's more fun. And it's more effective.

Friday, November 4, 2016

A giant support system on Facebook

Something powerful is occurring on Facebook these days. Again, whether you agree with Hillary Clinton's politics or not, this might be something you could applaud. A woman named Libby Chamberlain, 33, began a movement on Facebook because of Hillary's preference for wearing pantsuits. She created a special Facebook page titled National Pantsuit Day November 8. On this specially created page, I'm seeing an amazing support system develop right in front of my eyes.

What's happening on this social media site is that individual women are feeling safe enough on that page (and you have to be invited to join so not just anyone can see the posts) that they're telling their stories. Stories of abuse. Stories of threatening behavior by strangers. Stores of incest, parental denial, violence of all types. Stories of bad decisions and efforts to get back on track. Stories enough and tears enough to fill a landfill!And yet inspiring stories of courage and survival.

But here's the beautiful part: Hundreds of other women—and a few good men—are leaving supportive and encouraging comments on the site in response to those individual stories. It's like a gigantic support group where people feel safe enough to share their secrets and their pain—and in turn, they receive love, virtual hugs, support, encouragement and kudos for their courage and their ability to survive. When I scroll through the messages, I can just feel the energy flying off the computer screen and coursing through my body. It is incredibly powerful and inspiring!

This is how we should be. This is the best of human behavior. And, frankly, this is one of the best uses of social media.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Holding up half the sky

No matter what you may think of any of the candidates running for U.S. president this year, I hope you agree with me that it is significant that a woman is one of the major party candidates. It's a first. I think of the fact that when my beloved mother was born in 1911, women didn't even have the right to vote. And several women suffered greatly so we could, finally, attain that right. I think of the fact that some other countries of the world already have had a female leader, and we haven't. I think about the fact that none of us is free until all are free—and that in many parts of the world, girls cannot receive an education and they aren't free. In many places around the globe, girls are viewed as property and have no rights or voice. They are trafficked all around the globe, including right here in our own country. I think of the ancient Chinese proverb, "Women hold up half the sky" and its image of women fully bringing their gifts to the task just as do men.

Some days I just don't know what to make of all this. I rejoice in the victories women and girls attain. I celebrate with my five granddaughters that they're able to imagine and dream things I couldn't—and that my mother never dreamed possible. And yet I still carry the scars of women saying behind my back, "Who does she think she is?" as I tried to move from a magazine managing editor into the editor position. And I cringe when today I hear hateful comments such as, "Trump the _itch!" We've come far. And we have so, so far to go.

Where do we go with all of these extremes? How do we reach a point where all the world's girls and women receive education, respect and every opportunity afforded the other half of the world's population? What will it take? How might we ensure this? I am so passionate about the importance of this. I would dearly love to hear your ideas in the Comment Box below. Or if not there, send your ideas to me at:

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Don't let tomorrow steal today

Yesterday, the first day of November, temperatures reached 75 degrees here in the Chicagoland area. And today is pretty mild, too. These feel like bonus days of fall.

Some people already are grumbling about what a rough winter has been predicted. I've let my thoughts wander there at times, too. But I really don't want to let those thoughts steal the beauty that is today. I have a choice.

How often do we do that in other ways as well? If you're like me at all, you spend far too much time worrying about things that never happen. What a waste. I keep telling myself that such an exercise is stealing a perfectly good day. Worrying and looking down the road for trouble (as in snowfall!) sucks the pleasure out of the present moment.

Let's try to let today be today—and find all the good things we can in it. We can tend to those problems and issues that need addressing as they arise. And at the same time, we can live in gratitude for all the joys and pleasures of the day. Right now, I'm grateful for mild weather in November!

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Breathe out anger

I talk with so many people who search for healing from difficult relationships with parents. The relationships were painful when these people were children, and they continue to be fraught with challenges as they grow to adulthood and the parents reach old age. It is no easy matter to make peace with such a past—especially when it continues into the present. Some people continue to accept the put-downs and manipulative behavior from parents. Others have had to shut their parents out of their lives.

Still others are able to find something between those opposites—and may need to learn a variety of spiritual practices and ways of reframing so they can get through life. So I was intrigued when I saw some breathing practices in Thich Nhat Hanh's book Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames.

Hanh suggests several options for releasing anger and doing breathwork:

"Seeing myself as a five-year-old child, I breathe in. Smiling to the five-year-old child, I breathe out." "Seeing the five-year-old child as fragile and vulnerable, I breathe in. Smiling with love to the five-year-old in me, I breathe out."

Or: "Seeing my five-year-old father as fragile and vulnerable, I breathe in. Smiling with love and understanding to my father as a five-year-old boy, I breathe out." (He substitutes the word "mother" for "father," using the same mantra as well.) Another one is: "Seeing my mother in me, I breathe in. Smiling to my mother in me, I breathe out." You get the idea. It seems as though such a practice might over time bring some insight and release.