Category Archives: Self-Improvment

Gratitude

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Ah, gratitude. I’ve written about this before. Often, and – I think – recently. So recently, that I’ve wondered if I should bypass this word, this time. But, I just recently finished my A to Z blog-writing challenge, and returned to my long list based on the Table of Contents in David Whyte’s book, Consolations. It’s too early to start changing the plan. So, gratitude.

I have, finally, thoroughly embraced a daily gratitude practice. I write, every single day, a list of things that I am thankful for. The habit alone makes me happy. I have, for most of my life, traveled through my days by the seat of my pants, ad-libbing everything from waking and sleeping times to whether the dishes would get done, or pile up in the sink. I’ve lately embraced habit as a way to make life easier.

I used to smoke. When I decided to quit that habit, about twenty or so years ago, it was really hard. In addition to the addiction, which is real, I had the habit of smoking, Now that I am a non-smoker, I don’t wonder, after a big meal or when I pick up the telephone, whether I should light a cigarette or not. It doesn’t even cross my mind. My life is easier as a non-smoker for many reasons, but one important one is that I don’t have those decisions to make all through the day.

Because I was giving up rather than adding a habit, it didn’t occur to me right away just how much habits make life easier. We all have daily habits that are such a natural part of our lives that we don’t even think about them. Forming a habit takes time. Some studies say two weeks; others suggest thirty days or even longer. Once it’s there, though, it comes easily. With this awareness, I’ve incorporated quite a few new and helpful habits into my life in recent years. I’m proud of every one of them.

So, writing down things that I’m thankful for is a good thing, all on its own. I know it would please my mother, and it adds another bit of discipline into my disorganized life. Beyond that, the gratitude habit has opened my eyes. It would be easy to write a simple, rote list of blessings in my life: my family, a roof over my head, and food to eat are always things I’m grateful for. Repetitive, but true. Since I try to write sincerely about things that please me, I am more observant, and more aware.

When I’m forced out of bed at two in the morning to let a dog outside, and the moon is bright, or the sky is full of stars, I think, “thank you,” and the next day, “last night’s bright moon,” or “that beautiful sky full of stars” will show up in my gratitude-writing. If it rains when we need rain, or the sunshine raises my spirits, I take note. A phone call or a message from a loved one will surely make the list. I’ve become more appreciative of the small pleasures in my life, as I pay more attention to them. Gratitude is a habit. A simple, eye-opening, life-enhancing, happiness-inducing habit. I highly recommend it!

Giving

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I enjoy giving much more than receiving.

I think that’s how most people are. Giving opens my heart; receiving intimidates me.

I can hand out compliments all day. I try, in every single interaction, to find something honestly positive to say. I’m good at it. When I’m given a compliment, however, I freeze. My first instinct is to deny it. No, I don’t look nice, I’m not that talented, and I’m not so smart. I worry that the compliment-giver is just being patronizing, that their words aren’t sincere, or that they are speaking out of pity. I have to force myself to accept their words, and to voice a simple “Thank you.” The same dichotomy is present in gift-giving and gift receiving

In The Mirror Has Two Faces, Barbra Streisand says, “I want someone to know me…to really know me!” Choosing thoughtful gifts for others based on their interests is a way to show them that they are known, and understood. It can be as simple as remembering a favorite color or a hobby.

Shared interests make giving even more fun. My daughter Kate and I are both avid readers, and we often share similar taste in reading material. Lately, we’ve both been working to expand our knowledge and awareness about race relations in this country. We have lively discussions about books we’ve found, and give each other suggestions about what to read next. She told me about The New Jim Crow; I sent her a copy of Caste.

Even when I limit myself to buying books as gifts (because shopping for and shipping out other things can be hard to do from this location, and because I love getting books as gifts, so I assume everyone else feels that way, too!), I work hard to match the book to the recipient. I know that both of my daughters share an appreciation for the works of Stephen King, and that my grandson Michael always appreciates a book about Beaver Island. It’s more of a struggle to find the “perfect” book for my other grandchildren, but I’m always up for the challenge.

Gifts that are given to me are, first of all, just too much. Too generous. Either too big and too expensive, or too many small, thoughtful things. They are so thoughtful! So timely! Immediately, I feel shame that I have not met the gift-giving standard. Did I even send a card? What measly or cheap gift did I give, to now be receiving this wondrous thing? What did I ever do to deserve such kindness?

Of course, if I voice these doubts and concerns out loud, I am generally reassured with compliments…which are equally difficult to accept. Receiving is just plain hard. Giving, on the other hand, is easy!

What In the World??

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What is going on? Where are the stars and planets? It seems, according to my life, that something must certainly be out of whack. What in the world?

Usually, my life rolls along on a pretty even keel. I have good days and bad days in a fair balance, in between the majority of days that are just routine. Which is fine with me.

The last couple of days, though, have brought a string of unfortunate events, one on top of another.

First, the weather. Is it wanting to be spring…or fall? Rain turns to snow, then, along with cold weather and whipping winds, it turns back to rain. The weather affects my ability to get a good walk in, which makes it harder to get rid of a sour mood.

It seems like I often come home from work with a poor frame of mind. I get so tired of all the machinations of just getting through a day. But, I’d need much more room than I have here, to do my grumbling about that!

Yesterday, my bathroom ceiling developed a serious leak. Water dripped into the bathtub for hours, as the rain came down outside. The drywall on the ceiling sagged, and felt spongy. Where is that water coming from? My bathroom is on the first floor of a story-and-a-half house, with an inaccessible space above it. The roof is a 12-12 pitch; there is no plumbing up there. It wasn’t raining that hard!

Then, while I was cooking dinner, the panel of indicator lights on the back of the stove started going crazy. There was a humming sound coming from it as the clock flashed on and off, with numbers on display that made no sense. The indicator lights for “Bake,” “Broil,” and “Clean” flashed on and off, too. After several minutes of that, it all went dark. I have no oven, until I get it fixed.

Today, for the first time this month, I didn’t have a blog written ahead. No problem, I was up early enough to write. I had it started, even. The title was “Waking Up.” Then, in helping Blackie Chan get down from the bed, I wrenched my back. Blackie Chan is my smallest, lightest dog! I’ve made that maneuver hundreds of times before. Today, I put my back out! So, the rest of the morning was spent alternating hot compresses and ice packs, so that I could go to work.

And, once again, work was a strain of swallowing my pride, accepting my station, and just continuing to do my job. By the time I got home, the rain was pouring down (and still dripping enthusiastically into the bathtub inside, as well), and the temperature had dropped. No walk. I’d make a nice dinner.

No oven.

Okay. Dinner would be leftovers warmed-up on top of the stove. I decided to treat myself to dessert. I had a box of no-bake cheesecake, and all of the ingredients I needed to put it together. With the crust nicely formed and chilling in the refrigerator, I mixed up the filling. Nice and thick. I pulled the beaters out of the bowl. Then, in a moment of idiocy, I pushed the button that I thought (because that’s how it was on my old mixer) would release the beaters. On this new mixer (that I’ve had, and used, for at least five years, mind you) that button is the “burst of power.” Pushing it sent the beaters madly spinning, coating everything with sweet filling. From the floor to the coffee pot to the entire stove top to the overhead cabinets to last night’s dishes still in the drainer, everything is spattered.

What else could possibly go wrong? What in the world?

Vaccine

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“I got my first one!”

“Have you gotten your vaccination?”

“You’re going to get vaccinated, aren’t you?”

“Which vaccine did you get?”

“We’re all vaccinated up.”

Never in my lifetime, until now, has there been such a preponderance of talk about vaccines, and vaccination status.

As a young child, I knew what vaccinations were. I grew up in a time when death or disfigurement from childhood diseases was a real fear. Though I hated getting shots, and would run to close myself in the bathroom to hide when Doctor McBride came to the house, I knew they were for my own good. I watched the progress of the blister caused by the Small Pox vaccine, and was proud of the scar it left behind.

When the polio vaccine came out, the doctor handed the paper cups, each holding a sugar cube that held the vaccine dose, to my mother, so that she could do the honors. “This won’t hurt,” she told her three or four children gathered around, “It tastes sweet!” And each of us put the cube on our tongue, and let it dissolve there, as my mother nodded approval, and the doctor and my father grinned.

Of course, at the time, I didn’t realize how important that moment was. I didn’t think of it much at all. Even later when I went to school, always with one or two children who, it was pointed out, “had polio when they were little.” It was just normal life, that there were children who limped and wore braces on their legs, or who had a withered arm, or who were wheelchair bound, because they’d had polio. Even in high school, when we learned about the polio wards, and iron lungs, and the devastation the disease had wrought, I didn’t think much about it.

It was only much later, when I had my own children, that I realized the importance of that event. When I knew, first-hand, the overpowering urge to keep my children safe, and the constant, underlying fear that something beyond my control could happen to them, I understood the smiles and nods that accompanied the dispensing of those sugar cubes. During that time in my life, vaccination talk was a thing: appointments had to be scheduled, paperwork filled out, and boosters given on time. Still, they were small asides, not major conversations.

When my children were getting their vaccines, for Measles, Mumps, Rubella, and other childhood diseases, Small Pox vaccines were no longer given. The danger – which was miniscule – of dying from side effects of the vaccine was greater than the danger of contracting the disease! That’s how successful it was! So, when the controversial possibility that vaccines contributed to autism started making the news, I was unwavering in my position.

I felt then, as I do now, that the benefits of getting vaccinated far outweigh the risks. So, now that Covid-19 has made vaccination a major talking point, I’m happy to join the crowds in announcing: I got my first vaccination; mine was the Pfizer vaccine; I’m scheduled for my second; side effects were minor; and it’s a big relief!

Rest

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When my “To-Do” list is long and overwhelming, I have to remind myself to rest.

When deadlines loom, and time seems short, it’s not easy to take time out, but that’s when it is most necessary.

Sometimes a few minutes is enough. I step out the door, breathe in fresh air, and take a moment to admire what’s budding or sprouting or blossoming. Or, I sit down in the comfortable armchair, where I almost never sit, beside whichever small dog has settled there, and open a book. I might make a cup of tea and page through a magazine. Sometimes, I just allow myself a few moments of stillness.

Other days, a longer break is in order. The dogs are always up for a walk, no matter the weather, and it is a welcome break for me, too. Or, I might call a daughter, a sister or a friend for a few minutes of conversation. Or, I gather a book, a beer, my camera and my sketchbook. I load everything – plus three dogs – into the car for a run to Fox Lake. There, I’ll sit at the picnic table while the dogs enjoy the brand new smells, and change of scenery.

Sometimes, simply changing from one activity to another is enough. When I’m struggling with tax documents, writing a blog can seem restful. When I’m feeling overwhelmed by a blogging challenge, shaking out the rugs gives me a break. As a master procrastinator, I recognize these things for the diversionary tactics that they are. Still, if something productive is getting done, seriously, what the hell.

Then there are times when the only thing to do is come to a full stop, I can feel the agitation of too much to do and not enough time. Nerves are getting in the way of any progress. I know that panic, or tears, are close. No break, whether long or short, and no alternate activity will cut it. Then, I just have to respect my need for rest. I have to be bravely careless enough to let all forward motion stop. Make soup. Watch a movie. Read something mindless. Take a nap. Save shame and judgment for another day. Just rest.

New

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Here is spring.

Winter started slowly this year, and was, all told, a pretty mediocre season, here on Beaver Island. Cold temperatures came late and only sporadically. Though we had a couple big snows and considerable ice, there were no records broken.

No matter. When the ground is finally clear, when the new green shoots poke out of the ground and the trees start to bud, I welcome spring. Though I’ve been present for the changing seasons for nearly seventy years now, spring comes as if it’s never happened before, and I greet it with surprise and wonder.

I’ve always lived in Michigan, and I enjoy the changing seasons. I don’t love everything about any of the seasons, but there are things to appreciate in each. I love summertime, and look forward to it. The ever lengthening and warming days make me happy. I enjoy summer’s energy. When the nights start to cool and the trees show their colors in the fall, I like the change. Simmering soups and long walks through the crackling leaves replace the busyness of summer. When the holidays get close, and first snow falls, I appreciate the beauty, and the quiet and introspection that the winter offers.

Just like all the other seasons, I know that spring is coming. Still, I am amazed. Did I doubt that winter would give way? Did I forget that spring arrives every single year? It seemed like a miracle. It opens up like a distant memory. This season always surprises me. In the spring, everything seems brand new.

Walking down the Fox Lake Road with my dogs, the smell of onions is suddenly present. Oh, the ramps! I’d forgotten! Looking down, speckled green leaves poke out of the dry ground cover. Trout lilies! Nearly obscured by the overgrown grapevines, my forsythia bursts into flower. Has it always been that bright? Have I seen that yellow before? The pale, bright green on the ends of the tree branches. Is that new? And the smell of lilac! That deeper, musty smell that reminds me about morel mushrooms. In the springtime, the regular seems extraordinary.

No matter how many times this pattern repeats, no matter how many times I’ve watched the seasons change, spring is always brand new!

Timeout for Art: Momentum

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Focus is necessary when starting a creative project. I’ve talked about narrowing my attention, putting away side projects, and clearing the space. The next major issue is momentum. Beginning is the hardest part.

Once again, just when I need it, the right advice comes to me, this time, in a newsletter that I subscribe to. Canadian artist, Ruth Maude regularly posts about her art process at http://www.allthingsencaustic.com. I’m trying to learn as much as possible about the encaustic process, and how it can be used in collage, painting and printmaking, and often gain helpful information and inspiration in her posts. In February, she wrote a piece titled “When it’s Hard to Make Art/Finding Momentum,” and it addressed the exact things I was dealing with.

For content, she referred to another artist who offers good instruction and advise. Nicholas Wilton is the founder of Art2Life Creativity workshops and classes. Maude draws from one of Wilton’s videos for his “Three Tips that Really Work to Get Your Momentum Back.”

  • The more you do, the more you do.
  • Little and often.
  • Don’t start. Play instead.

She expands on each of these pointers with quotes from Wilton, expounding on the importance of making time each day to show up, even if just for non-art-related activities like cleaning or planning, of giving it a few minutes each day, rather than waiting for a large block of time on the weekend, and – most crucial, in my mind – finding the fun in the project.

Maude also explains the importance of having an accountability partner, and making a plan for what you hope to accomplish in a given work session. All advise was very pertinent to my situation, and gave me a way to get started.

Hope

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“The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof.” – Barbara Kingsolver

I’ve always been a hope-er, a wisher, a dreamer, a pray-er. Which may, as I think about it, indicate that I have never been satisfied with my life “as it is.” Rather than simply being perfectly happy in the present moment, I’ve looked to the future, with a long list of hoped-for objects or occurrences that would make life better.

As a child, when prayer seemed to offer the most promise for achieving things that were otherwise out of my control, vanity dictated the direction of my appeals. “Please…” I would beg, and follow with a long list ranging from thicker lips, thinner eyebrows, lighter hair and more curves in my slight frame. Looking back, it is clear that I should have better appreciated the assets I was born with. In fact, if I were going to get deities involved in my appearance today, I’d be requesting that many of those dreaded characteristics be restored to me!

As a young mother, I became a little obsessive about my importance in the lives of my children. I wanted them to be confidant in themselves. I wanted them to be happy, and healthy, and to always feel loved. I wanted them to make friends easily. I wanted them to be polite, and to have good grammar. I felt my participation in their up-bringing was central to the success of these goals, so my biggest hope was that I was able to be there. It was for their sake that my biggest hope, beyond their health and safety, was my own safety and good health. I needed to be there, to see that they had the childhood that I wished for them.

I have a long, long list of things I have hoped for throughout my life. Many involve material things. I’ve hoped for more money, newer furniture, a bigger house, nicer clothes, a better haircut, and on and on. In hindsight, I can often feel relieved that I didn’t get some of the foolish things I wished for. And, I can see that some things, once achieved, were not as glorious or life-changing as I’d imagined they would be.

I have gotten much better, over the course of my life, of appreciating exactly what I have. Though I devote an entire page in my bullet journal to “Wishes,” it rarely has more than one or two items on it. At this time, new windows for my kitchen and dining room are the only things listed. They aren’t my only hopes, though.

I hope my children, and their children, are happy and healthy. I hope that they have goals that challenge them but that are not unreachable. I hope they manage stress and difficulty with good humor and determination. I hope they always know that they are loved and valuable. I hope they know joy.

Personally, I hope I am known, and remembered, as intelligent, kind, a good worker, and someone who always acts with good intentions. I hope to be always forgiven for the times I show temper, vindictiveness or meanness. I hope my dogs feel cherished. I hope all of the many important and influential people in my life have been aware of the difference they’ve made. I hope all the people I love know that they are loved. That the best I can hope for.

Gratitude

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After she retired, my mother regularly watched the Oprah show on television. Sometime in the 1990s, Sarah Ban Breathnach was a guest on the show. It was shortly after her book about gratitude, Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy, came out, and she was there to promote it. It made a huge impression on Mom.

That Christmas, Mom got every one of her daughters a copy of the book, and the accompanying journal. We each thanked her, and did the obligatory gushing over what a thoughtful gift it was. And maybe my sisters took it more seriously than I did, but I remember thinking, “yeah, I don’t have time for that!” Mom might have sensed my reluctance, because she took me aside and spoke to me directly.

“Just try it, Cindy, and see if it doesn’t help,” she said, “give it a chance!”

I don’t know where my hesitation was coming from, to begin with. I devour self-help books! I always think I need improvement, and that the help I need is right around the corner…or in the next book of instruction or advise. Anyway, I assured her that I’d read it and give it a try, and I did.

It certainly made sense, and my attitude surely could benefit from a little adjustment. So, I started a gratitude practice. Several times, actually. I’d begin, then forget about it, or let it fall into neglect. I’d pick up a journal to make an entry, only to find that several months had gone by since I’d last written anything.

Even when I was writing regularly about it, my idea of gratitude was pretty skewed. The “dark side” of gratitude. Entries included:

“I’m grateful that I wasn’t totally depressed today”

“I’m so glad the tire didn’t go completely flat”

“My hair looked okay for a change.”

“I did not sit home alone feeling sorry for myself tonight”

“I’m glad I left the party before I got even more depressed”

“I am grateful to have made it through the day”

“I’m grateful that I don’t feel totally miserable today”

“I’m glad the green paint doesn’t look so bad on the bed frame”

I was a pathetic excuse for a thankful person!

Then, some time last year, what had been a miserly, sporadic habit suddenly seemed important…and worthwhile! Now, I fill a whole page, every single morning, with things that I am grateful for. It has caused me to pay attention. I’ve learned to look at simple, ordinary things – a cup of coffee, a wag-tail dog, birds on the lawn, a good night’s sleep – as the blessings that they are. I’m sure I am more appreciative; I’m probably happier, too.

Last week, after a rough few days, I got out of the shower and put on my Mom’s old fishing shirt, to wear as a pajama top. The next morning, I pulled on the fleecy white robe she bought me, some other Christmas. And, when I sat down to write down what I was thankful for, I realized that, in a week when I needed a little comfort, there was my mother, her presence in the old fishing shirt, the warm bathrobe, and the gratitude practice that she’d encouraged.

“I’m so grateful for my Mom,” was my first entry that day.

Eclectic

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A donation recently came into the Island Treasures Resale Shop: a large and lovely dining room hutch. Oh, it brought back memories of years and years of wishing for one. That, with a matching dining room table and chairs, would make me feel like I had finally reached some pinnacle of achievement that I was constantly falling short of.

This obscure vision of success always revolved around possessions or, at least, things that cost money. In grade school, I thought I needed a professional haircut, patent leather shoes, a mohair sweater. When I got those things, and my life was not fulfilled in the way I expected, I thought of other things I lacked. If only our house was surrounded by a white picket fence…if our dog were a Pekinese rather than a mutt…and, oh, if only I had clothes like Dee Lynn Hathaway!

By the time I reached high school, I’d moved on to bigger and better things. Now, I was plotting my adult life. I went through the catalogs – we received them from Sears & Roebuck, J.C. Penney and Montgomery Ward – and planned my future. I picked out the clothes that would make up my adult wardrobe, the hairstyle that would flatter my adult self, and even the model (dark hair, cute, not too glamorous) that I could hope to grow into. Sometimes, even a future husband.

Then, on to the S & H Green Stamp catalog. Past the pages of wristwatches, telescopes and toys, there were photos of entire rooms full of furniture! My style, I determined, would be French Provincial, where all the pieces were light, curvy and delicate-looking. In the living room, the television would be a large console model; the sofa would be accompanied by a coordinating love seat and chair; every table would match. Room by room, I planned my future.

Of course, when I actually became an adult, and started setting up my household, all of those plans went sideways. There were the realities of living within my means, and of living with children and pets. There were lots of moves to various, odd and challenging homes.

Still, I dreamed. That matching dining room set, with a hutch for displaying fine dishes, stayed with me for quite a while. The Pottery Barn catalog replaced the others, and for years my wish list included the large, slip-covered, roll-armed sofa that I found in its pages. The Ikea catalog thrillingly offered a hundred good solutions, all within my budget. Until I learned how expensive the freight costs would be, and how daunting their merchandise is to assemble.

I came to realize that it was rewarding, in its own way, to improvise with what came my way. Accepting cheap or hand-me-down clothing and furniture, and putting my own spin on it. became my way of life. If I had managed to acquire a matching dining room set back when it seemed so very important, I may have been the one recently delivering it to the resale shop. There is certainly no room in my house – or my life – for that kind of extravagance.

My living space, now, contains a mixture: an armchair that was a gift from Emma Jean when she got new furniture; curtains that came out of my daughter Jen’s house eighteen years ago; two side chairs that came from Roy’s Erin Motel; the small bookcase that my brother, Ted, built for me in Wood Shop; dining room chairs that my friend Huey and I snatched from a dumpster at MSU. And my precious dining room table. My Dad brought it home nearly sixty years ago, from a junk sale, and set it up in the back room of our house. For the rest of my childhood, it was the clothes-folding table…and folding clothes was my job. After a roundabout journey as a party table in the family garage, it came to me after my mother died. It’s the perfect complement to my jumble of furnishings. When I was much younger, I would have judged this style “tacky;” now, I call it “Eclectic.”