New Year’s Resolutions

As 2016 as left us and 2017 has rolled in, I have been contemplating my New Year’s resolutions. New Year’s Day seems to be a good time to reassess your life and set some new goals, or so the world seems to be telling me.

I agree. It’s good to re-evaluate your life once in a while, and New Year’s Day seems to be as good a time as any, but I have learned that I need to be doing this on a continuous basis. I can set a goal, but then I need some steps to achieve that goal. These become my signposts along the way. It’s not just goal setting, it’s goal building. If I don’t have these mini-steps along the way, I’ve learned that I probably won’t achieve my main goal in the end.

Even at that, with a guiding map with significant stops along the way, life will probably throw some curveballs into it that threaten my steady progress. That’s when I stop and re-assess. Perhaps there’s a major storm happening, perhaps the road has crumbled or is under construction, and I have to choose another path. But if I hold true to my chosen destination, I will find another way. It may mean just a short respite from my travelling or I may have to choose a whole new path to circumvent the problem but if the goal was worth setting, it’s worth finding another path to it.

I lie to myself. I realize that there are different ways to try to meet my goals. One way to achieve a goal is to express it as a ‘hope’ – “I HOPE to feel better in my body.” But said this way, it really comes down to me saying to myself, “I INTEND to meet this goal.” These kind of goals have a built-in ‘out’ to them. I’m not committed to anything. I just hope I will achieve it. As the saying goes, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

I admit it. I ‘intend’ to continue to feel good in my body, which means regular exercise and good dietary choices. This is something I have been working on in the past, but I realize that I can do better. In fact, it seems my body is telling me, I must do better or suffer the consequences. I will go to the gym today and continue to hold this goal in front of me so that I feel better. It seems I have a million interests and obligations that continuously try to sidetrack me from meeting this goal. I need to bring my goal to the forefront and adhere to the regular steps along the way to achieve it fully. That means getting out and exercising at least 150 minutes every week. I need to set the dates and do it with full commitment. If something diverts me from fulfilling that commitment then I need to find another time and day to do it.

Another goal I have set is to give myself a new learning opportunity. It’s a short term goal, the kind I prefer. I tend to be a sprinter in life, and less like a long distance runner. It’s easier for me to fulfill a goal that has an end in sight. I have registered and paid for a week long getaway to attend an international dance camp. In a totally unique way I am looking with interest to improve on the skills I already have in dance, writing, travel and spiritual growth. I see it as the next step in my self-development. This is a goal that will improve me without necessarily knowing where it will lead to next. That’s okay. I’m going to enjoy doing it and I know I will be applying my new-found experience in future projects.

Another way I use to meet my goals is to work backwards and set a final date and goal and claim it publicly. When I set a goal like this, I don’t really know the path it’s going to take to meet it, but by publicly declaring it, I am assured that I will meet it. I am committed. It puts pressure on me. Without asking for it, I have enlisted the help of my community to ensure that I get the job done. For if I don’t meet my goal, I have not only let myself down, but all the people that believe in me. I’ve done this many times in the past by setting dates for future performances and it works well for me. This year I have done it by co-authoring a book called “Good Grief People” and we have set the date of February 28, 2017 as the probable launch date. I say ‘probable’, because we did set this goal before we knew the absolute route it would take to get there but we are aiming for February 28, 2017. I know we will reach our goal. We’re going to do it together.

So, my 2017 goals of ‘feeling good in my body’, ‘building my dance skills’ and ‘writing a book’ are well underway. I hope you have set some goals too. Good luck to all of us.

Christmases Past

maegan-046-001There are those who are facing difficult circumstances this holiday season. It’s not easy being surrounded by cheery music, glittering decorations, party-makers and celebration planners when you feel your world is falling apart. It all looks so joyful and we can’t help but feel isolated by the merriment that we’re not feeling ourselves. The whole world seems to be a part of some great coming event that we just don’t look forward to.

Six years ago today, just before Christmas, my husband Tom passed away and he was gone forever. That first Christmas I was numb. I hadn’t truly accepted the fact that Tom was no longer with me. I had bought gifts and stocking stuffers for him and he had bought gifts for others that were still arriving by parcel post and courier. I chose gifts for his family, wrapped them, and wrote personal notes on Tom’s behalf as if he had given them himself. The Christmas card I had bought for him said it all: “Life gives beautiful gifts. It gave me you. Merry Christmas (our last one).” In truth, the Christmas the year before had been our last one, but I wasn’t ready to accept that reality. Family helped me wade through the grief of that first Christmas with love and understanding as we celebrated together.

The next Christmas was actually harder to go through without him for he was no part of the preparations. For the first time since I had been with him, I wasn’t choosing a gift for him, I had no need to fill his stocking or buy a special Christmas card. Any gifts I bought for others were from me, not us. What I did do is light a memorial candle in his memory. It sat beside his framed photo on the mantel of the fireplace. With the help of family, I made it through that holiday season.

I continued to light a memorial candle each Christmas. He was still with us. Family celebrations continued to be a part of all my Christmases and stories and memories of Tom were always encouraged from family and friends. His memory lived on. Christmases got better.

This Christmas will be the sixth one without Tom as a living presence. But he continues to be with us in our hearts and minds. Special decorations, food, drink, so many things still bring back memories of our lives together. We still share the stories and our fond memories of him. For us, he lives on, just in a new way.

The black grief of that first Christmas is gone but I continue to feel melancholy at times. How could I not? We had a great love. I will always love him. But life moves forward. There have been weddings and new births and grandchildren growing. Reaching out to others has helped. I have cried with those who miss their loved ones as they pass on and I have laughed with delight holding a newborn baby in my arms. We share our lives; the joy, the grief, the celebrations and the losses. I continue to live in hope and faith for all that life offers me.

I made it through that dark valley. I wasn’t afraid to feel the shock and the grief. I accepted all the dark feelings and let them run their course as the tears flowed and turmoil reigned. I reached out to family and friends for support, encouragement and even distraction. They helped me laugh again. I stayed an active participant in life by continuing to work, joining clubs and making new friends. I am stronger for having gone through it all, and can now reach out to others to help them through their difficult times. Together we can make it.

Stay hopeful. Stay strong. Better times are ahead. Believe that Christmas will once again be joyful for you. I wish you a Merry Christmas. Even if it doesn’t feel like it. It will.

Christmas in the Classroom

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One year in my classroom, as we approached the winter holiday season, I asked my gr. 1’s what ‘Christmas’ was all about. I got a variety of answers. I said to them, “It’s somebody’s birthday.

Do you know who?”

No one knew. So I told them the original Christian story of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus visited by the wise men and shepherds and angels.

Later I was reading them a story about the nativity scene and Cameron asked, “Who is Jesus Christ?”

“Well, Christians say he’s the son of God,” I answered.

“Does that make Joseph the step-dad?”

“Well, in a way.”

“Well, if God’s his real father, what does he look like?”

“God is a spirit. God doesn’t look like people.”

Lily piped up. “God isn’t a he or she. God’s a spirit.”

“What’s a spirit?” asked Ashley.

“Well, a spirit is kind of like a ghost…”

“Like Casper?” asked Cameron.

“…or maybe like the tooth fairy,” I fumbled, trying to think of images that they could relate to. “Or, perhaps more like Mother Nature. In some magical way, the sun comes up, the sun goes down, the seasons change and seeds grow and animals are born. God’s the energy that makes all that happen.”

“God created us,” Lily said.

“Yes, Christians say that. And they say God created Jesus Christ magically inside Mary’s belly or womb.”

Nathan, still puzzled, said, “Well I know who Jesus is but who is Christ?”

“Jesus Christ is one and the same person. Just like you are Nathan Wood, Jesus has two names, too.”

“Oh,” he smiled, happy to understand. “Mr. Christ!”

 

A Search for Peace

This week has been an eventful week with the election of the Republican Donald Trump to the US Presidency. I thought, “How could that be? How could a man who campaigned on hate, racism, and division of classes and cultures, be voted into power by so many?”

A few days later, I attended my Writers’ Club where a group of seniors gathered together to share their stories. What I heard were stories of war and its casualties. I began to realize that it wasn’t just those who died in battle that suffered. Those who returned with lost limbs, broken hearts and minds, those who grieved loved ones lost, and those who lived at home with fear, separated families and hardships suffered too.

The next day, I attended a Remembrance Day ceremony in my local community. Those who spoke so eloquently, spoke not of the glory of war, but of its cost to families, communities and nations in frightful memories and shattering repercussions that carried on for a lifetime. It was a cry of gratitude for those who died, but even more so, it was a call for peace.

This week on social media, there has been much discussion and rhetoric about the political future of the US and predictions about future decisions and policies. I have come to realize that the reason Trump was elected to power is because there is a large group of citizens that are not happy with the status quo. Most citizens who voted for Trump want only their fair share of the economic pie and a call for honesty that ‘tells it like it is.’ It seems statistically a lot of them were from the working middle class. They don’t want to be rich, they don’t want to be poor. They just want enough. Enough to live comfortably on. That means food for their families, a home over their head, a secure job and future, enough money for a few luxuries now and then, maybe a family vacation once a year. They just want peace and contentment in their lives.

With all the voices I have heard and read this week, I have come to realize that all any of us wants is peace in our lives. We have the right as human beings to it. Sometimes we feel we need to speak out for that right, vote for that right, or fight for that right. Sometimes the repercussions of our shouts for peace are greater than we thought. Sometimes our actions in our quest for peace are not peaceful methods.

I pray for peace. I pray that we each can find peaceful avenues to seek that peace. I pray for ways and means that bind us together in peace, rather than divide us. I pray for leaders that use peaceful means to bring about equality and justice for all. I can start with myself. I can do it by searching for my own inner peace, encouraging and building peace within my family and other relationships, and generously contributing to peace-making, life-building efforts in my community, nation and planet.

All we want is peace. Consider carefully how you can find that peace for yourself.

 

Robin in My Tree

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There’s a little robin in my Japanese Cherry tree out front. He seems to be living there. I think he stays because it is protection and the cherries are a source of food and every once in a while, other birds come for a visit. He watches me through the window while I work on my computer.

But I worry about him. Winter is coming, temperatures are dropping. We have had frost and even snow further north. He needs to go. He needs to head south. I’m afraid he may die if he overstays his visit.

There are times in my own life that I have stayed too long. We can get caught up in feeling too comfortable or familiar with a situation. Sometimes we are too afraid of the new and the unknown to move on. Perhaps it seems like too much work. “Why change? This isn’t so bad,” we say. Until it is.

Choose your timing well. But it needs to be a decision that is carefully thought out and assessed fully. Step back and look at your life with a bigger picture than just today. And then make your decision. Take full responsibility for your life.

 

Gratitude

Gratitude – a deep, heartfelt thank you and appreciation for what you have – can transform your life. It can change despair into hope, fear into love, and sorrow into joy. With gratitude, we realize that it’s less about your life circumstance and more about your attitude to it. Focusing on what you do have rather than what you don’t have, or what you can do, rather than what you can’t do, is the simple secret. It’s a matter of free choice. You decide. No matter how difficult or taxing your situation is, there is always something to be thankful for. And it’s usually the simple, everyday things that mean the most – the roof over your head, the supper before you, the sunshine, the raindrops, the smile of your best friend, or the laughter of your child.

Gratitude, practised daily, brings an unexpected life change. Try it. Close your eyes and focus on the benefits, the good you have in your life. It doesn’t have to be outstanding or unique to be appreciated. It’s often the things we take for granted. Do you have your eyesight? There are those who don’t. Can you breathe freely without assistance or drugs? There are those who can’t. Do you have a home, food, family, or friends? Freedom of speech and movement are basic rights for us in Canada. There are those who are denied these simple human needs or comforts and yet, even they can find something to be thankful for. Perhaps it is their health, their families, or the simple gifts that are there for all of us – clean air to breathe, water to drink, sunshine to warm our bodies and spirits.

Focus on what you have today. Don’t let worries about the future affect your thoughts. Choose what you are thankful for and then say it out loud, or write it down in a daily journal or on slips of paper for a gratitude jar. If you do this every day, you will soon have a host of things. Doing this every day begins to change your world view. Instead of negative thoughts, you become focused on positive thoughts. You begin to feel good about yourself and your life. You begin to look for the benefits of every situation rather than the trouble it brings you. You begin to feel good about others and look to their strengths rather than their weaknesses. You choose daily activities that build you up, give you enjoyment, and add to your life, rather than take it away. This is something we all can do. But we have to practise it every day. Let feeling good about yourself and your life become a habit.

I have a friend who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. At first, all he could think about was the negative effect it would have on his life as he envisioned losing more and more of his taken-for-granted strengths and abilities. He began to fear the future. Bit by bit, he began to realize that he still has many capabilities and circumstances. He owns his own home, his family live close by and want to help in any way they can. He has begun to write his life story. He bought himself an adult-sized three wheel bike. He began to take dance classes. He joined support groups to meet with others who were also facing this life-debilitating disease. He still has much in his life. The last time I spoke to him I was impressed with his calm, inner acceptance of his disease and the enjoyment he has in his everyday life.

A family member has been told his cancer is at a palliative stage and that no more can be done for him to regain his health. He has accepted that, withdrawn from all his drugs except those that relieve difficult pain, and has made the choice to begin to live, rather than just curl up and die. He has been honest and up-front with his family and adult children and still partakes in family activities, weddings and other celebrations while he can. His family have gathered together in love, letting their father know how much he truly means to them. Too often we hear these words of praise at our loved one’s funeral, after they are gone. The children assist their father in any way they can, using their own strengths to help him begin to close his life. This involves selling his cars, reviewing his paperwork, cancelling his subscriptions and memberships, and delivering fresh-made meals on regular visits. He still has much to be thankful for. He still laughs everyday, his loud boisterous one-of-a-kind laugh that is his unique signature sign.

Start practising gratitude in your daily routine. You will be happier. It will enhance your life. It won’t have the power to remove negative conditions and experiences from your life but it does have the power to lift you up and give your life meaning and purpose, in spite of those difficult circumstances. Why not start today? What are you grateful for?

A Murmuration of Starlings

In the fall, the starlings begin flocking in daylight hours. You can see them in black clouds, rising and falling through the fields and forests. At night they roost in high trees and each sunset finds them searching for their night-time resting place.

We had a big cedar forest beside our former home and it was exciting to see them veering in as a flock, circling the area, landing, only to rebound into the sky, initiated by one unsettled bird, and sweeping around once again. After several of these wheeling episodes they finally settled and the noise began – chirping, screeching, chittering, and chattering, from a host of black starlings. Looking up at them from below, all we could see was the occasional bird as it hopped from branch to branch. It was amazing to think that there were hundreds of birds hidden in the leaves above our heads.

Finally, they settled with the coming of darkness. We had some fun going under the trees and suddenly letting out one loud “Whoop!” The birds ruffled up their wings in one sudden outburst, which upset the birds beside them, and then the birds beside them, and so on and so on in a giant ruffling wave that radiated out through the entire forest, like a giant wave in the crowd at Roger’s Centre.

But the birds got us back for upsetting their sleep. Early the next morning, as the sun began to rise, so did the birds. Once again they began their chirping, screeching, chittering, and chattering in a noisy clamour that woke even the most difficult morning riser. Then once again, off they went, wheeling and circling, gathering all the late stragglers, until they were gone. Silence reigned once again. All that was left was a forest floor littered with white bird droppings and the occasional feather.

 

A Butterfly Visitation

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Yesterday, under blue skies and fluffy white clouds, our family attended a tree-planting ceremony put on by the local funeral home in honour of those who had passed away in the last year. For us it was our beloved Bill, father-in-law to my daughter and grandpa to my little grandsons.

The event couldn’t have been more perfect. Everything had been considered and was perfectly coordinated from the beautiful natural setting at the local conservation area, to the ample parking area and organized crew, to the large white tent set up with folding chairs and picnic tables under towering mature trees. A local choir and talented musicians provided beautiful heart-felt music and inspired speakers provided us with thoughtful messages.

One tree, symbolizing all of the over 300 trees that would be planted this season for our loved ones, was planted just outside the tent allowing us a visual reality of our loved one’s memorial tree.

As a final tribute to those who had passed, live Monarch butterflies were released by the planted tree. We were all invited to come up close and witness the event first hand. A hat box filled with the butterflies was placed on the grass and children and adults were encouraged to reach in, take out a butterfly and enjoy the experience of a living jewel in your hand before it took to the skies.

Butterflies have always been special to me and my second husband, Tom, who took me to the local butterfly conservatory for our first date. We released twelve live butterflies at our  wedding five years later. On our first anniversary, Tom and I released one in our back yard to celebrate our love. Four years later, Tom passed away with terminal cancer. Since his passing, I have had several unique experiences with butterfly visitations. My family and I have acknowledged that perhaps these butterflies are Tom visiting us and we often say, “Hi Tom” when we experience these intimate encounters with these lovely creatures.

I was eager to get as close as I could to the butterflies but it was very crowded as over a hundred people encircled the box trying to get a glimpse. It took some time for me to get close enough to get some photos with my camera. Finally I was able to snap some pictures as smiling children and parents held living butterflies in their hands and then watched them as they flew up and over our heads into the sky.

One of the last butterflies to be released flew from a hand to a woman’s head beside me landing in her hair. Within seconds it made the short flight from her to me, settling on the crest of my ear where it decided it wanted to stay. For several minutes, the crowd around me marveled at this special moment as all the other butterflies had taken flight and were gone.

I decided to try and walk to my family’s picnic table to share this amazing experience with them. I didn’t know if the butterfly would still be there as I started to move. As I sat down at our picnic table it took a moment for my daughter and family to notice the beautiful orange and black ornament that was still in my hair. Liam called out, “Gramma, you have a butterfly in your hair.” We all laughed and I said, “I know. Say hi to your Grandpa Tom.”

The butterfly lingered for a lengthy period of time. We were able to get many pictures of this unique experience and share it with others around us. We actually finished our luncheon before the butterfly quietly left unannounced about 20 minutes later.

How special this moment was for my family and me. Thank you to Dods & McNair Funeral Home, Orangeville for making this special event even more memorable for us.

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Treasure Your Memories

This day, as loved ones around me face loss and grief, I was reminded by Facebook Memories of a video I had posted three years ago, sent to me by my daughter Maegan. It’s about a 96-year old man named Fred Stobaugh, who had lost his wife after 75 years together.

Fred wrote the lyrics for a song about his beloved wife, Lorraine, and Green Shoe Studio helped him bring it to life. The song and video went viral as the world embraced Fred and his love story.

Now there are six videos on You Tube about Fred and his song “Oh Sweet Lorraine.” I am including the first video here. I had time to watch the other five videos and it is a beautiful story about love, and relationships, and the memories we cherish.

In the 4th video, a 7th grade student wrote in a letter to Fred about his song and his life with Lorraine and how it had impacted her. She wrote, “You should treasure what you have as long as you have it, and then treasure the memories you have of it.”

Some things in life we can’t change, we can only accept them, and accept them with deep gratitude and love. The simplest, most basic moments, shared with someone we love become the most valued as precious memories. As I felt with my Tom, it didn’t matter what we did, but that we did it together.

Choosing Beauty

In my present research and writing for a book I will be a part of dealing with grief, I have read Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning.” In it, he often quotes Nietzsche with “He who has a WHY to live for can bear almost any HOW” as he explains that it is not the circumstances of life that give us meaning and purpose, it is our attitude and choices we make that give us meaning and purpose. We cannot stop suffering in our lives, but we can choose not to suffer. We can choose to be responsible for our lives, even in taxing circumstances, and seek out the beauty, the small moments, the sensory gifts, that make the moment not only bearable, but even glorious.

Dr. B. J. Miller, in this Ted Talk video, speaks of dying and death. We can’t stop dying. But we can choose how we spend our last days. We can’t solve for death, but we can design towards it by making the life we have left more wonderful, rather than less horrible, He states, “You can always find a shock of beauty or meaning in what life you have left. If we love such moments ferociously, then maybe we can learn to live well, not in spite of death, but because of it.”

Frankl and Miller speak of the same things. Living and dying well is our responsibility. Rather than becoming a victim to our circumstances, we can direct the quality and beauty of our lives to the very end. Frankl quotes the Jewish scholar Hillel the Elder with:

“If I do not do it – who else will do it.  And if I do not do it now – then when?”