Monthly Archives: December 2020

The Thrill of Hope

“O Holy Night” is my favorite Christmas carol. I used to play it over and over again on my parents’ living room console while I wrapped endless gifts for my mom. She would bring streams of white boxes out of her bedroom with names written in the corner in her perfect nun-like penmanship – Maureen, Tim, Sue, Mike, Therese, Frankie, Bobby, Eileen, Nancy and Danny. I never opened a box because I wanted to be in on the surprises. I can’t remember anything that was inside, but I remember the warmth and peace of the simple task of wrapping. My sister Therese was a wrapper at Marshall Fields when she was in high school, so I was taught by a pro. I loved the rhythm and the privilege of being in the dining room, a room reserved for special occasions. And I had a perfect view of the Christmas tree in the living room window while I cut, folded and taped.

Christmastime is the only time that I remember music being played in our house. It was magical to me. I’d lift the lid of the clunky stereo and repeatedly replace the needle on the ridge before “O Holy Night.” I willed the praise and glory to soak into my soul as I tried again and again (very quietly, mostly to myself) to reach the high notes. I think it was my first shot at Karaoke.

My daughter Katie knows I love “O Holy Night,” and although Mariah Carey, Carrie Underwood, and Celine Dion have made big hits out of the hymn, I have no idea who sang the version on my mom’s Christmas album. It didn’t matter.

The only singers we paid attention to in our house at Christmastime were Perry Como, Bing Crosby, and Frank Sinatra. I was good with that. My dad loved music, and December was the only time he took a break to listen. He’d call us into the tv room to watch the Perry Como Christmas Special, and his whole being would exude joy from his dominion in his La-Z-Boy recliner, a wacky name for a chair for a man without a lazy bone in his body,

Katie gave a canvas print of the lyrics to me for Christmas in 2019. The lyrics have never held more meaning as we move into 2021:

Mind Your Moods

28 Dec. 2020

Today has been a rough day – not because I have a lot to do or I’m stressed or I’m riddled with deadlines. In fact, I’m home alone and have had an empty calendar all day. I’m used to having scheduled meetings, and today my husband Tim returned to his 12-hour work days after the long Christmas weekend, and my sons returned to their homes in LA and Chicago. I woke up feeling . . . off.

Tim and I were up by 5:00am, and as he made his coffee, he asked about my plans for today.  I said nothing except to write. Then I reminded myself that writing is something and that writing is hard and that writing takes discipline. But I had no plan in my writing, so I struggled with the point. This is a huge problem. Without purpose, why bother? 

So I ordered New Year’s cards and deliberated about the wording in the message. The pursuit of perfection in phrasing is a curse. The words would not flow. How do you write a chipper happy 2021 card after 2020?

My attempts at creativity fell flat. There’s nothing funny about not being about to visit your 93-year-old mom in the nursing home or having had a child in a psychiatric hospital for over ten weeks only to be told there is no relationship with us. There’s nothing cute about the illness, death, isolation, loneliness, and loss of employment caused by the Coronavirus.

And there was nothing exceptionally wonderful about a Zoom-filled holiday. We were troopers, and troopers we will always be. It’s in our blood. And we laughed, chatted, played games, and opened gifts via the screen. We made the best of it, but nothing replaces real-life bear hugs, shared kitchen blunders, and being together. I’m so glad that the boys came home, and I realize now that it’s not fair for me to burden my kids with my happiness. Christmas joy is always there – in each of us, not in co-dependency.

I decided to be honest in the New Year’s card and write about cultivating awe, generosity, gratitude and growth in 2021. I believe that inspiration is everywhere and can be experienced through paying attention to goodness and beauty and through bearing witness to the examples set by small children. Reading, listening, learning, and great movies help, too.

I ordered the cards, did laundry and avoided the keyboard. I washed sheets, towels, and Christmas placemats. I packed away Christmas dishes and probably would have taken the tree down, but Tim hates when I do that too early. The looming Peloton enticed me aboard. For the first time, I wanted the instructor to stop talking. I just wanted to hear the music. I was seeking something unknown, and I’m still not sure what.  

I finished the ride and took a bath. Who takes a bath in the middle of the day? That’s when I realized that I was in trouble. I meditated on what I was feeling and did not like it one bit. I felt lost, untethered. So I toweled off, cleaned the bathroom and reached for a small booklet published in 2017 by the Harvard Business Review entitled Emotional Intelligence: Resilience. You’d think I was a business owner or CEO or military leader with my enthusiasm for the topic.   

In the first chapter “How Resilience Works,” Diane Coutu argues that resilient people are realists who find meaning in what’s happening and then improvise solutions. Many say the pandemic has helped us determine what really matters in life. Zoom and other technologies have been much-needed innovations to help me cope. I now even resort to actual phone calls once in awhile. Deep down, I know I need to find deeper meaning in terms of my vocational calling, but I’m saving that for another day.  

In “Resilience for the Rest of Us,” Daniel Goleman argues that mindfulness is the key to resilience. Like other advocates of meditation, he recommends pausing, breathing, and letting thoughts go. I did this today in the tub until the water got cold. It worked to a certain extent. 

Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone write in “Find the Coaching in Criticism” that when faced with unwelcome commentary or negative evaluations from others, we should see the input as opportunities for growth. They also recommend taking what we can learn, experimenting with small changes, and being aware of the personal choice to embrace or disregard the suggestions. They say resilience is boosted when requesting one single recommendation from others. An onslaught of ideas is overwhelming. Believe me, I get this. I have lists upon lists of things to do better, things to change, courses to take, etc.  

Jeffrey Sonnefeld and Andrew Ward’s article “Firing Back: How Great Leaders Rebound after Career Disasters” is incredibly inspiring. They list CEO’s from Ford, Bank One, Coca-Cola, Citicorp, Home Depot, and Apple (guess who?) as leaders who do not blame themselves for the past but look to the future. I’m no CEO, but I did raise five children, and Sonnefeld and Ward’s advice applies. I cannot look back, nor can I turn back time. I can look to the bright future including 2021 and pray like crazy that my kids share their gifts with the world, a simple key to happiness in my own book of resilience. 

The last chapter “Resilience is How you Recharge, Not How you Endure” by Shawn Achor and Michelle Gielen assured me that my mid-day retreat today does indeed add value. Never again will I tease Tim about his Sunday naps. We all need to refresh, rest, relax, and unplug to generate creativity and spaciousness. We also need those breaks to foster presence and happiness. 

And here I am inspired – butt back in chair – giving this writing thing another go. I’ve not spoken to a soul in over ten hours – not my norm, thank goodness – but an invaluable small experiment in pausing to ponder. Perhaps that will be my innovative 2021 resolution. It beats the usual lose five pounds.  

Covid Christmas

In today’s Action and Contemplation post, Richard Rhor asks what we need to liberate ourselves from and what we need to liberate ourselves for in order to best serve the world. As a mother of five and champion Christmastime Marshall’s, Costco, and Outlet Mall shopper, I am free from that craziness this year. I do not think this is what Richard Rhor had in mind when he wrote his beautiful, insightful blog, but it struck me today that I have spent forty years consumed with selecting gifts, switching items from pile to pile, wrapping, card sending, decorating, thanking, recipe searching, lunching, partying, cooking, and trying to bake (that slipped by the wayside during particularly crazy years).

Nine years ago, one of my kids told me that I make Christmas about me. This dagger of truth struck like no other. I proudly watched each Christmas morning as my children came down the stairs to piles of brightly wrapped presents. Each Christmas Eve, I created a scavenger hunt for each child to find a gift, and I gloated at my creativity and wit as they read the clues. They loved the game until the revelation hit one of the kids that I was indeed full of myself as I witnessed the fun.

This post is not about self-flaggelation, remorse, or regret. It’s about self-awareness, and sometimes it is exremely painful when someone sheds light where I have been blinded by ego. Usually when I learn something new, I’m fascinated, grateful, and energized. Not so in the case of revealing an ugly aspect of myself. Yet that is exactly where growth occurs.

This Christmas is different – for all of us. I’m liberated from seeking out the perfect stocking stuffers, the just-right gift for a loved one, the ultimate Christmas playlist on Spotify. I’m free from driving from mailbox to mailbox behind the mail carrier as I deliver Christmas cards addressed too late to make it on time via the post office. I’m free from hours of wrapping, worrying about equal piles, and trying to make this Christmas extra-special just because it is this year.

We will only have one or two of our five children home this year. It has been many years since we have been all together for Christmas. I got over the debilitating vision of the perfect family snuggling around the tree ten years ago. Love prevails through distance, estrangement, mental illness, and loss. I’m free to really contemplate that love this year.

I’m also free to focus on gratitude – for my husband, my family, my friends, my faith, my home, my history, and my hope-filled future. But mostly, I am learning to focus on the present – not the kind wrapped in paper in bows – but the gift of being where I am and with whomever I’m blessed to spend time with this Christmas season. Our pod is small, but mighty powerful in love, laughter, understanding and joy.

And our FaceTime with our grandchildren and children across the miles is precious. I long physically and emotionally to hug them, and I believe by giving the beautiful gift of attention through the screen, they feel it. I am liberated to go beyond acceptance of what is to embracing the present with thankfulness and joy.

I can curse this Covid Christmas, or I can accept the lessons it brings.

Judgment vs. Curiosity

Disdain. It is rearing its ugly head everywhere – in families, in communities, in organizations, in grocery stores, and emphatically in social media. 

Disdain is the feeling that someone is completely unworthy of respect. In essence, it is the enemy of humanity, the antithesis of compassion and understanding, and the destroyer of relationships. 

We have three basic needs as humans: safety, belonging, and dignity. When you communicate disdain, you trash your companion’s humanity. And when you feel someone else’s disdain, you may want to bolt from the relationship. You may also have to work on patching your quilt of self-worth.   

Or maybe you have so many defense mechanisms that you don’t care. Apathy is a scary coping mechanism for pain. 

Or maybe you think up crappy, painful things you want to say to your attacker. I’ve done this. I want to retaliate, “Oh, yeah! You did this and that!” I know how to combat disdain with more of it. I’ve done it in my head, and it makes me feel rotten. Negative rumination is such a waste of energy and creativity. 

There is another way. I’m sure of it. 

One of the most frightening things about Covid (besides death, illness, poverty, unemployment, isolation, and the plummeting global economy – to name of few) is the perpetuation of ego-centric perspectives. People are not spending time with people who think differently from themselves.  Our secure pods are typically filled with trusted people who think like ourselves – unless you have teenagers or adult children. (I am not going there now.)

What will the ramifications be of this Covid-controlled close-mindedness? 

Even on Zoom meetings, when you disagree, your Brady Bunch box can remain quiet. You can seeth inwardly and clandestinely. Unlike in a face-to-face conversation where another’s humanness softens hard hearts, the screen does not necessarily warrant the same empathy. There is no touch, no hand on the shoulder, no compromising hug with a loved one when you agree to disagree. We can click the red rectangle to leave the meeting, sit at our desks and judge.  

But we don’t have to choose that path. We have a choice in how we respond. Yes, we have knee-jerk reactions, but they do not control us. We all have conditioned tendencies that have somehow served us in our quests to discover safety, belonging, and dignity. But these habits may no longer serve us and need not prevail. We can change. It starts with awareness and desire. Ask yourself what is happening. Sit with it and sort through it. Reflection, like negative rumination, takes time, but practicing self-awareness in light of a desire to show up differently often leads to peace and greater understanding. Hate-filled loops do not.  

Emotions are contagious. It is a neurological fact. We mirror the emotions of others because we feel them. What do you want others to see in your mirror? What do you want to see in others? What energy to do want to contribute to your environment? What do you want your presence to bring to others?

Does it bug me to see a shopper without a mask? Yes. Do I steer clear of the person? Yes. Do I internally view the person with disdain? No, because I get to choose. 

I have no idea what baggage people are carrying around. I don’t know if the person left the mask in the car or is oblivious. Does the person suffer from dementia? Did the elastic break, or does the customer have COPD and can’t breath behind a mask? Does he think Covid is a big farce or simply not that big of a deal? I can create all kinds of explanations in my head. None of it matters. It’s all in my head. But if I treat him with disdain or even radiate a lack of respect, it is out there, and I am adding to the suffering in the world. A scoff hurts – big time, especially when people are going through a rough time. Aren’t we all struggling with something? 

I am trying to be curious and kind. If someone cuts me off on 80/94, I can wonder and then let it go. Maybe the driver is late for a critical appointment. I can hope she gets there safely. Maybe she’s had a rough day. I hope it gets better. With loved ones with differing political, faith and fundamental values, I can choose to be open and respond, “Tell me more.” I can choose to learn. I can choose to love those who disagree with me. It’s called unconditional love, and we need more of it. 

My friend Maria recommended that we watch Ted Lasso on Apple TV. She said she needed some feel-good programming and sensed that I did, too. There’s a great scene where Ted does a monologue about judgment vs. curiosity. It sticks with me. I’ve needed Ted in my life – his optimism, his goodness, and his humor. 

We’re lucky to have so much choice in what we read and watch. To quote my friend Kathy,  “Garbage in – garbage out.” We get to choose what permeates our souls – our thinking and  feeling – and our presence radiates that choice.  

People sense disdain, the great destroyer of feelings of worthiness in human beings. It’s considered one of the seven universally interpreted emotions. In light of the current societal polarities, maybe it’s a good thing that we’re wearing masks. 

We take them off at home, and our loved ones get to really see us. What do you want them to see? How do you want to show up in the world? You get to choose. Imagine if we all chose to  live with such positive intentionality.  This is not some Pollyanna placebo. It’s a decision to contribute authentically and wholly without fear. That takes guts.  

December 1, 2020

It’s a new month, and many of us wait until the new year to create resolutions – essentially commitments to a new way of living. If you’re like me, you commit each Jan. 1st to drink less, eat less, and lose weight. I usually spend the holidays gathering with lots of people – our children, grandchildren, Chicago southsiders, twenty-year book club friends, neighbors, brothers, sisters, in-laws, dozens of nieces and nephews, co-workers, running friends, fun couples, new acquantances – all bearing bottles of wine, delicious dips, fresh-baked goodies, and delectable appetizers. Hence, my annual new year’s resolution is to take off 5-8 holiday pounds and be healthy.

None of that is happening this year.

So I opted for a December 1st resolution this year. It’s the third day of Advent, and I opened a tiny little book – Sacred Space – written by the Irish Jesuits. The book is designed to lead readers through reflections for Advent 2020. The passages started two days ago, but I was not on top of my December One game on Sunday. I was obsessed with rearranging furniture in an effort to create a new life.

Today, my plan is develop a habit of beginning my day with inspirational reading. There’s no time limit or end goal other than to deepen my relationship with God and the world. I don’t know about you, but this Covid thing has left me lost, confused, uncertain, and unsure of myself. When I’m invited somewhere, The Clash lyrics “Should I Stay or Should I Go” play in my head. I’m not sure what I’m doing or if what I’m doing is something I should be doing. I know I’m safe and keeping others safe by my actions. I wear a mask, and I carry it when I walk outside and cross the street to avoid being within six feet of others, but there is always a hint of doubt. Should I have used that bathroom at the Dunes?

In seeking groundedness, I opened Sacred Space and got a glimpse of it. The passages are super short – perfect for people on the go. I’m not on the go, but I used to be. As I settled in with my coffee and warm blanket, I was struck by the few paragraphs committed to Nov. 29th, so I flipped to Nov. 30 and today – Dec. 1. Like a good student, I am caught up.

Being caught up does not mean transformed. I struggle with the simple ponderings in the text. For example, the readings are followed by a section called “Conversation” which challenge me to imagine Jesus sitting next to me. What would I say to him? So I turned to the chair next to me (bear with me here), and I pretended he was a patient, listening friend. I was completely tongue-tied. This does not happen to me very often. Believe me. My synapses fire pretty quickly, and for three years, I’ve been practicing pausing before I speak. (I need more practice.)

My gut instinct was to feel completely unworthy of having the Lord in my living room. (I really got into this exercise.) I was in awe of Him and could not speak.

So I got up, emptied the dishwasher, made my bed, sorted a load of laundry, and thought about the conversation that did not happen. Then it hit me. He’s always there – always. And I bet it bums him out that I feel so unworthy. I had twelve years of Catholic education in the late sixties and thoughout the seventies, and we were taught that Jesus is our friend. How did that not sink in? I think I just doubted it because there is no way this guy who gave up his life would want to hang around me.

I have always turned to my family and friends for support, understanding, guidance, and love. They have kept me from being untethered. This year, we don’t get to spend much time with our loved ones, but they are always there for us. Many of us have a deeper understanding of the value of connection during this time of Covid. The Jesuits write that one definition of spirituality is “the art of making connections” (Sacred Space).

I’m striving to connect to what matters most – my faith along with my family, friends, nature and the beauty and needs of humanity. I’m hoping I can do that more through my December 1st resolution and through you. Like the Little Drummer Boy, I genuinely feel like I have nothing to offer. I’m not a great, profound writer, but for some reason, it fills my cup, at least temporarily while I’m in the Zen zone, a state of mind that is most often fleeting.

I’ve been awol for months, and I’m not sure where I’ve been. I’d like to emerge from 2020 feeling closer to God and to my vocation, my purpose for being here.