Embracing the Dark

My “brand,” for want of a better term, has been “comfort and joy,” but the truth is that I have been doing my best to load heavy on the “joy” part.  I find joy in colors – in wild, bright, nearly-neon shades of pink, orange and green.  I have teacups in every color of the rainbow.  I wear eyeglasses that are splashed with many colors.  I love color.

I’m currently listening to “Learning to walk in the Dark:  Because Sometimes God Shows up at Night“, by Barbara Brown Taylor.   The author’s soothing voice is a reminder that life isn’t always colorful.  We have spent generations filling our world with light – chasing away the darkness.  We’ve lost the ability to take comfort in dark things – dark places. Her voice came at me through several podcasts in a short time.  On an impulse, I turned in an Audible credit and downloaded the recording.  I’m so glad that I did.

I’m the first one up in the house most mornings.  I flip on every light switch I pass, filling the house with the artificial sunlight emitted from all of those high-efficiency LED light bulbs.  The author asked questions, and I pondered, “When was the last time that I truly sat in the dark?  When did I last watch the night sky and watch for the stars to appear?”

It seems that August and September each lasted about 10 minutes. Here I sit, already part way through the month of October. My beautiful summer garden has begun to turn brown around the edges.  The petunias are bearing their last blooms; the herbs are going to seed.  Winter is Coming (sorry).  With Winter comes long nights.  With my windowless office, it is far too easy to arrive at work in the dark and leave in the dark.  I must be intentional, some days, to glimpse the sunlight at all.  The vibrant orange roses I purchased a week and a half ago have finally turned brown.  I rinsed the apple-green vase and stored it away.

Emotions can be dark, too.   We can confront dark emotions without being consumed by them.  I’m amazed by the videos of dangerous creatures – night creatures – like wolves and bears and foxes that make their way into backyards and play in the pool or on the trampoline.   I find delight in watching their apparent joy.  Had those homeowners been frightened by the beasts and turned on the security light, flooding the yard with artificial sun, the animals may have scurried away into the forest.  Instead, they sat back and allowed something magical to happen, and those videos have brought happiness to thousands, like me, who will never experience the sight.

In the wake of my mother’s death last year, I pursued joy like a drug.  I purchased yarn in bright colors, hoarded away in quantities it will take many months to deplete.  I asked for (and received – thank you, darling) a room painted a yellow (called “joyful,” no less) in which I could sit and do happy things while looking out the window at happy colors.  Honestly, the room hasn’t received much use.

No, I’m not currently depressed.  I’m just coming down off of an artificial high.  I’ve never used recreational drugs, but I’m told that some so completely deplete serotin – the happiness hormone – that it’s difficult to feel happy after coming down from the high. Those same substances, administered by a professional, can be used to combat serious issues like PTSD. Like those drugs, “Joy,” I think, is best in small doses.  It’s much more special that way.  Seeking out joy is hard work.  An item is only novel a time or two, then unless it is connected to a special memory, it begins to lose its magic.  It becomes another pretty thing to sit on a shelf and dust.

Instead of running from garden to lake seeking perfect sunrises and sunsets (filled with fuschia and orange), I’m going to take a look around at all of the perfect,ordinary, taken-for-granted blessings.  There is beauty in ritual – in the mundane.

I’m not swearing off of joy – I’m just trying to find a rhythm – to get back to appreciating the ordinary.  To enjoy comfort while at the same time allowing darkness  – sadness, melancholy and longing – to creep in where I can watch them from a safe distance.

My dear aunt and uncle in Arkansas recently sent me a gift – a video of my mother and her siblings in 2009.  One sister had already taken up residence in heaven – but the rest of them sat and told stories about growing up – about Christmas and toys and the poor family who stole milk from the cows because their children were hungry.

That DVD sat on the table in the foyer for more than a week.  I was afraid of it.  I don’t know if I was afraid of seeing my mother’s face and hearing her voice.  I don’t know if I was afraid that she might say something about me and my failures as a daughter.  I can’t truly describe the nature of my fear.  I just know that I felt it.

After moving the disc from one room to another, I finally popped it into the computer, sat back with a pot of tea, and watched it end to end.  I allowed the tears to come.  I allowed the grief to come into the yard and bounce on the trampoline.  I allowed myself to laugh at the funny parts, too.

Like the wild animals playing on the swingset, though, dark emotion is a wild creature that for those of us who have found our way back from depression must be respected for the wild thing that it is.  Like the woman filming the black bears, I can watch sadness from the safety of the kitchen window, but it would be foolish to invite it into the house and give it a place at the table.

I would never go out into the yard if a bear was there, but I might brave the night to see how close I could get to a fox or a raccoon.  I would face fear of the dark for the potential experience of seeing something special up close.

If you never go out into the dark, how will you ever see the stars?

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

This Magic Moment

One in a rare while, something completely magical happens.  This weekend contained one of those moments.  My husband I bought an old beat-up camper a few years ago.  We’ve enjoyed many adventures over the past several summers as we have towed the camper from site to site and state to state.  Our youngest son is 18 now, and assures us that he can be trusted at home to tend the dogs and make sure the house doesn’t burn down.

This weekend my husband and I took the rig to a state park campground close to home.  Unlike the park we have favored over the past two summers, this park has little in the way of amenities.  Our campsite had no power, water or sewer hookups.  There is no swimming pool or fancy tile and marble bathhouse.  There is, however, an abundance of forest, trees and a beautiful lake for kayaking or canoeing (an adventure we have yet to begin).

We arrived Friday afternoon.  Our site was level, but “boring.”  Two porta potties and a dumpster were across the street instead of the beautiful river across from our “usual” favorite spot away from home.  We set up the trailer and pulled out the chairs, rug and table for our patio.

While I was in the rear of the camper, I saw a tiny weathered path leading into the trees, and I followed it.  Inside the cluster of evergreens was a clearing.  The opening was a domed sanctuary like no other, and wherever I looked inside the evergreen aviary, there were birds.  There were bright yellow goldfinches and black and white woodpeckers.  There were red feathers and blue feathers.  The sun shone in bright beams through the timbers, and as I moved through the clearing, seemingly dozens of little birds flitted about around me, filling the air with colors.  It was a scene straight out of a Disney movie.  I took a seat on a fallen log and nearly started singing songs from Cinderella.

Some time later, I reluctantly returned to the campsite, certain that I would never experience anything like this again in my lifetime.  I went for a run/hike later that evening with more magical encounters (for another blog, perhaps) and slept soundly.

The next morning I awoke early and set off for a pre-breakfast walk in the early morning quiet.  Dots of brilliant yellow dotted the ground outside of the camper.  An entire flock of goldfinches were enjoying the morning light alongside me.  As I moved along the road, so did they, lighting on the ground a few feet away and then flying ahead again.

I tried to photograph my walking companions, but the images were grainy and blurred. The image exists only in my memory.  I moved from one row of campsites to another and the birds stayed behind.  I found trees with dozens of holes drilled by an industrious woodpecker.  I climbed a staircase formed by the roots of a benevolent tree.  I wandered through an expanse of forest that I immediately deemed “the tree graveyard,” as dozens of fallen trees littered the forest floor while health trees reached up all around.

I frequently run through the woods.  Why, then, I asked myself, do I not experience this magic on a regular basis?  The answer was at my fingertips – or perhaps my earlobes.  I was walking for the sole purpose of being in nature.  I wasn’t looking at my pace on my watch.  I wasn’t listening to a podcast or a running coach through wireless earbuds.  I was exploring a new landscape.  New trails and terrain required my constant attention to avoid a nasty fall.

How often are we so absorbed in the artificial world that our technology creates around us that we fail to see the flock of birds, or to hear the crickets at nightfall? Do I miss seeing the doe and her two babies crashing through the woods just ahead of me because I am concentrating on my stride and cadence?

I pay attention to these statistics because I want to be faster.  I don’t want to finish dead last in my next race – but at what cost does the potential improvement come?  What would happen if most days I simply ran for the joy of running instead of trying to beat my personal record around the trail loop?

When we fill our ears with music and look at the device on our wrist that vibrates every 30 seconds to remind us to MOVE FASTER, what magic do we miss?  I’ve reserved the same campsite for next weekend.  Do you think the birds will remember me?

 

 

My Secret Weapon

This morning as I was preparing for a contested court hearing, I couldn’t help but miss my mom.  Mom was my “secret weapon.”  She was proud when I became a lawyer.  She always asked about my work.  I didn’t give her much detail, but I told her about the kinds of cases I was working on.  “I represent a mom in a nasty divorce,” or “I’m a guardian ad litem for 3 kids who love both of their parents.”  Sometimes it was “I have a bankruptcy hearing and my client is really scared,” or even, “the attorney on the other side yells a lot and it makes me anxious.”  Mom never asked for more details.  She just said, “that sounds like hard work, but it’s important and I know you’re making a difference.”

The night before my very first contested hearing, I called Mom and told her that I was nervous.  I didn’t really know what was going to happen.  I was afraid of looking unprepared and making a fool out of myself as well as doing a bad job for my client.

Mom asked me what time my hearing was.  She told me she was going to pray that my hearing would go smoothly.  My hearing didn’t go perfectly, but it did go smoothly.  I didn’t feel anxious or nervous.  I asked the right questions.  All-in-all it was a great success.   My client ended up with a good result, and I gained confidence.

I called mom that night to tell her that the hearing had gone well.  She answered, “I knew it would.  I prayed.”  We have had many of those “night before a hearing” conversations over the past seven years.  She said a lot of prayers for people she didn’t know, and I had a lot of hearings that went smoothly, where I didn’t feel nervous and didn’t make a complete fool of myself.

I’m not claiming to have had divine intervention in my cases – but I can’t recall ever having a hearing go badly when my mom was praying.  Mom’s prayers were my “secret weapon.”  Mom believed in me, and knowing that she believed that I was “making a difference” gave me confidence.    I want to be the kind of lawyer that my mom believed I am.  Sometimes prayer changes things from the inside.

 

Special Delivery

When you begin listening for the voice of God in your life, he speaks in many ways.  Sometimes, it is that “still, small voice” in my head during a meditation.  Other times it is looking up to see a sunbeam playing across the floor bringing just a little light into a dark moment.

When I pay attention to “living, instead of existing,” God manifests.  Perhaps you will say that these moments are simply coincidences.  I choose to view them as the breadcrumbs left behind to show me that I am still on the right path.

God sent two messages to me last week via “special delivery.”

I adopted “comfort and joy” as a little personal theme, brand or motto a year or so ago.  I post photos of teacups or flowers, bright colored yarn or even close-ups of my dogs. If it brings me comfort or joy, it’s a likely candidate for my instagram hashtag, #comfortandjoy.

I have an eye condition that makes it difficult to read sometimes.  I do as much of my reading on a screen as I can because I can tweak the contrast and the font size to make it easier to see.  As a result, I rarely look at “real” books anywhere anymore.

Last weekend I went on a little shopping expedition to two of my favorite thrift stores.  At the first, where I have never even glanced at the used book rack, I was forced to stop a moment by the shelves because a couple of people were admiring objects in a curio and blocking my way.  I turned to the bookshelves to pass the time, and my eyes lit immediately on a daily devotional about “Simple Abundance” with “Comfort and Joy” in the title.  I picked it up and paid for it.

At the next stop, I was waiting for my son to try on some clothing.  I had already checked out the dishware and found no teacups that called to me, so I walked to the book shelves.  Just the day before, I had reviewed my Amazon “Wish List.”  On it was Regina Brett’s book, “God Never Blinks.”  I’ve enjoyed reading Regina’s newspaper columns for years.  She has inspired me on many occasions.  I “follow” her on Facebook, and although I frequently have considered buying her book, I just haven’t gotten around to it.

Just as at the previous shop, the first book that I saw “called out” to me.  Its bright orange cover drew my eye, and into the cart it went.

Those books sat on my coffee table for several days, untouched.  I opened the cover of “God Never Blinks” and saw an inscription from a daughter to her mother on Mother’s Day 2012.  It made me a little sad to know that a carefully chosen gift had made its way to the Salvation Army store.

I turned the page, and saw that the author had autographed the book, and my amazement that this little book had found its way into my hands was magnified.  I turned to the Introduction section, and as I read the words, I knew that I had discovered a soul sister.  Tears streamed down my face.

I’ve been reading from these two books for a week now, with no hint of discomfort – no visual distortion.   Now, I read a lesson each day.  I want to keep turning the pages and consume the entire book in a single sitting, but it would be over too quickly.  Instead, like a box of expensive chocolates, I will savor just one each day, letting the words sink in slowly.

God didn’t just send me a message.  He sent me an autographed copy.  Thank you for your words, Regina, and thank you to unnamed “favorite daughter” who bought her mom and autographed book in 2012 that would be delivered into the hands of another mother nearly 5 years later.

 

Day 6/365: Prayer and Meditation

I spend a period of time each day in prayer and in meditation.   I set aside time each day for each of these practices.  I am not a theologian or a guru.  I have found, though, that prayer and meditation complement each other and add a great deal to my life.

I have heard it said that prayer is talking to God, and meditation is listening for the answers.  That may be an oversimplification, but I like the sentiment.

The first thing I do in the morning, before I get out of bed, is to give thanks for another day of life.  If my husband is in bed, I check if he is breathing and give thanks for that, too.  I (silently) say “this is the day that the Lord has made, I will rejoice and be glad in it,” and then I wake up my 16-year-old son and round up the dogs.

I go to sleep at night (literally) counting my blessings and giving thanks for the many people and things that bring joy into my life.  I don’t view God as a vending machine in the sky that doles out favors in exchange for prayer tokens.  I don’t spend much prayer time asking for specific blessings.  I do, however, seek answers.  I ask for inspiration, and I receive it.

I attempt to spend 15 – 20 minutes each morning in meditation.  I have some recordings that i like to use to get into a meditative state of mind.  It seems my mind is always working on one question or another, and it is difficult to reach a place where I can just “be” instead of “doing.”

I have learned to keep a pad of paper and a pen handy when I meditate because ideas just pop into my mind.  Without my mind planning projects or worrying about details, I am free to simply breathe in and out and listen for inspiration and answers – or just to relax and enjoy life.

There are many free meditation apps for iPhone and Android that are useful tools to help you learn to meditate.  Although it’s cold in Ohio as I write (1 degrees F, brrrr), when the weather is warn, there is nothing that I enjoy more than sitting in nature with my eyes closed and just simply observing the sounds of nature and the sensations of the sun and the breeze as they touch my skin.  In these moments I can truly disconnect from the wear and tear of life’s distractions and allow God to speak.

 

How Do You Love Me? (Sorry, Elizabeth)

(With all apologies to Elizabeth Barrett Browning)

How Do I Love Thee? (Sonnet 43)

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1806  1861

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

I had this conversation with a good friend the other day.  We both have spouses whose “love languages” differ from our own.  It’s so very easy to get caught up in mentally listing all of the ways that we show love to our significant others.  On a regular basis, I show love by saying it (words of affirmation), and by reaching out to rub a back or hold a hand (loving touch).  I cook dinner on a regular basis (acts of service), and I buy little remembrances (gifts).  Over time, my primary love language has shifted from “gifts” to “words” or “touch.”   (if you have no idea what I’m talking about, pick up a copy of Dr. Gary Chapman’s wonderful book, “The Five Love Languages.”  In a nutshell, we each have ways that we tend to express love.  We feel most loved when we receive love in our own “language.”

When a couple speaks different “love languages,” it’s easy for one or the other to feel taken for granted.  That’s where I think we get into trouble sometimes.  Instead of recognizing the things our partner does for us, we keep a list of the things that we do that “go unappreciated.”  Or worse, we keep a mental list of what we’ve done for others expecting them to reciprocate in kind, and we miss it when they express love in their own way.

My husband is an “acts of service” guy through and through.  He does the laundry and cleans up the kitchen.  He mows the lawn, builds things, paints rooms, and makes coffee.  There is literally nothing that I have ever asked him to do for me that he has flatly refused to do for me.  He does these things because they need to be done, but HE does them because he loves me and because they free up my time to do other things (like help run the family business, or write in my blogs).

My husband is not big on gifts, which caused a big problem early in our marriage.  I felt unloved when I didn’t get my birthday, anniversary or valentine’s gift – especially because I invariably would buy one for him.  what was even worse was that instead of getting excited about the gift, he acted like he could have not cared less (which truth be told, was often true!)  It wasn’t until I read The Five Love Languages that I realized why he didn’t “care enough” to buy me gifts and why it hurt me so when he didn’t.  We learned to adapt.  I either buy my own gift or give him a list to choose from.

How does he love me?  This weekend he hung an antique mirror for me.  He installed shelving in the pantry.  He helped me clean the house on Friday evening.  On Saturday, he went for groceries with me.  On Sunday, he worked very hard putting things away for winter and cleaning while I had fun doing some recreational shopping.  He also told me that he loves me.  He wrapped his arms around me while I slept.  He made the coffee.  The list goes on and on.

Here in Ohioland it was Sweetest Day on Saturday (for those of you in other parts of the country, that’s like a bonus Valentine’s Day- it’s a flowers and candy and fancy dinner kind of holiday).  We talked about the fact that Saturday was Sweetest Day on Wednesday or Thursday.  The conversation went something like this:

Me:  Saturday is Sweetest Day – I know you think it’s a Hallmark holiday, right?

Him:  Yes.  I do.  I will buy you something if you want me to.

Me:  That’s okay – I’ll find something for myself.  Is that okay?

Him:  That’s perfect.

My sweetest day gift consisted of chocolate and a wonderful bar of sweet smelling french-milled soap – my favorite indulgences.

Once in a while, he surprises me and picks out a gift for me, and when he does, he knocks one out of the park.  The gifts are perfect every time.  In the meantime, I will count the ways he shows me he loves me, and forget about keeping score.

A lamp for my feet – a light on my path

I just came home from vacation this week.  It was a wonderful week of activity, people watching, and enjoying nature.  I’ve been running for about a year and a half now.  I run mostly in Ohio, and mostly in an area that is very flat.  We have a few hills, but you really need to go out of your way to get to most of them.  As a result, my runs have very little elevation change.  I also tend to run in the early evening, while it’s still quite light out (and the bugs aren’t too bad).  Although summer just ended, as summers go it wasn’t terribly hot in Ohio.  All in all, it’s been a mild, pleasant summer for a novice runner.

As we were planning our vacation, I scouted for running events that would fit our timeline.  I discovered the Twilight Lake Las Vegas run and signed up for the 10K distance (they had 5k, 10k and half marathon available).

I took a very bad fall a few years back that left me with a leg broken in 4 places with a full complement of hardware installed to keep my skeleton together.  Although my balance has improved significantly since I began running and doing #DDPYoga, it still isn’t one of the strengths.

The day of the race, we started walking from our hotel of the Vegas Strip to the Avis office a mile or so away.  I stepped off a curb and landed on my knees and elbows.  While I wasn’t badly injured, it hurt.  My knees and hands were scuffed up, and I had fallen on the knees that has the worst arthritis of the pair.  We kept going and picked up the rental car.  We left Las Vegas and drove to Hoover Dam where our hotel was located.  We did some sightseeing and checked into our room.  It was 108 degrees.  I’ve heard it said that “dry heat” is cooler than the humid heat we have in Ohio, but no matter how you look at it, 108 degrees is HOT.

I spent the time leading up to the race hydrating and fueling.  My training plan fell apart in the weeks leading up to the race, and although I wasn’t concerned about being able to cover the distance, I knew I wasn’t going to be fast.  I grabbed a cooling towel and we headed to packet pickup.  We drove through the Lake Mead area and enjoyed the views, stopping at multiple scenic overlooks.  The red rocks and landscape seemed so alien compared to the lush Lake Erie landscape that I’m so accustomed to.

My husband dropped me off at the start line and drove back to enjoy Lake Mead some more.  The half marathon runners lined up first.  Their race began at 6:30 p.m.  I listened to the directions – make sure you have a flashlight or a head lamp.  The course is unlit.  I checked the lights in my trusty ball cap with “head lights.”  They functioned.  I decided I was good to go.

The half marathoners were off, and the 10K runners lined up.  The run was just starting to dim.  It was still quite hot, but not as hot as it had been moments before.  I tested the injured knee – no bad pain.  I re-tied my shoes and took a last chug out of my water bottle before recycling it.  The horn sounded and we began.

The course was paved and pretty wide.  As it wound through the desert landscape, I saw succulent plants.  I wondered if there were snakes, scorpions, or other critters out there.  I’m a “back of the pack” runner, and this race was no exception.  As I neared the 1.5 mile mark, some of the fastest 5K participants passed me.  Soon, I was all alone.  The 5K runners had turned around, and most of the 10K runners were ahead of me.

I watched the sun set, and I turned on my “high beams.”  I was dismayed.  Although that hat was great for letting people know that I’m out there on the road, it really wasn’t a great light source.  I ran off the edge of the path once and resolved to stay closer to the middle to avoid matching hardware in the other ankle.  As the course progressed, my eyes became accustomed to the dark. Although I couldn’t see well, I could at least see the path.

A volunteer told me to turn left “Everyone goes up the hill.”  Wow.  What a hill.  I wasn’t prepared for this.  I made it up the hill, huffing and puffing.  I went back down the other side and soon found myself running near a freeway.  The oncoming headlights, while a safe distance away, destroyed my night vision, and I was soon stumbling along the edge of the path again.

My cooling towel began to dry out. I got hot.  Then, I heard something I couldn’t identify and I got scared.   I began to question the wisdom of signing up for this hilly race in the desert with no lights.  I began to question my ability to run the distance.  What if there were a rattlesnake on the path enjoying the warmth?  I wouldn’t be able to see it.  What if I fell and nobody found me?

An aid station was in the distance.  I stopped for water and a volunteer asked if I would like my cooling towel re-soaked.  Gratefully, I said “yes.”  I finished the water.  I wrapped the cold towel around my neck, and I took a few deep breaths.

As I began to run again, I felt a sense of calm.  As my overheated body began to cool down, the words of a praise chorus I used to sing while playing the piano came to mind.

Although the sky didn’t get brighter (and neither did the lights on my cap), I felt a sense of calm wash over me as I sang the words quietly.  I looked out at the horizon and saw the lights of Las Vegas.  As the trail turned away from the freeway again, the quiet desert greeted me again.  The course turned downhill. The going was easier.  There was a lightness in my step.

As I passed the 5K turnaround again, I saw a woman who was laboring heavily to get to that mark.  She had a wonderful team of supporters there to encourage her.  I remembered my first tentative running steps at over 300 pounds.  I remembered the difficulty and the fear.  I tried my best to encourage her as I passed her on my way back to the finish.  Soon thereafter I encountered another struggling runner with a walker.  She, too, was accompanied by friends.  Although I was running unaccompanied, I wasn’t alone.  There in the dark, all I had to do was cry out for comfort.  My “support team” was there, guiding my steps.

I crossed the finish and collected my medal.  I grabbed some snacks and a cool water while I waited for my husband to collect me.  I don’t know if I’ll do another night time run, but if I do, I’ll have a brighter headlamp, and I’ll remember that although I may be the only runner in sight, I am never truly alone.