Category Archives: Uncategorized

Stay in the Ballroom

My dad passed away in 1988 when I was 26. I did not know how my extended family would survive without my dad. He was our king who called his Lazy Boy chair his throne. He was our rock.

I gave a very short, inadequate eulogy at his funeral. I was young and had no language to describe this loving father, business owner, Chicago Bears superfan, Blackhawks enthusiast, avid golfer, faith-filled Catholic, and when the fareways were frozen, Sunday breakfast chef extraordinaire. Every line of that brief tribute rang hollow, generic, lacking the vividness of his life – except the first sentence: “It has been a privilege being Frank Neylon’s daughter.”

I clung to the tiny spark of light in the deep grief that it was a gift to love so much. My sadness was the consequence of having a wonderful father whom I adored.

This morning, Marilynne Robinson’s insight arrived in Karl Duffy’s blog post:

 “The ancients are right: the dear old human experience is a singular, difficult, shadowed, brilliant experience that does not resolve into being comfortable in the world.

The valley of the shadow is part of that, and you are depriving yourself if you do not experience what humankind has experienced, including doubt and sorrow. We experience pain and difficulty as failure, instead of saying, I will pass through this, everyone I have ever admired has passed through this, music has come out of this, literature has come out of it. We should think of our humanity as a privilege.

I’ve used the mantra “this too shall pass” many times as if plowing through, toughing it out, and keeping busy will promote healing. Not so. I now keep my head up and look around to see what’s happening in the dark tunnel, to let myself feel it, to ask how I want to show up in this circumstance, to check what is consistent with my values as I face difficult situations.

Trusted friends often walk with me through fear, worry, sadness, gut-wrenching grief. I intentionally strive to get a grip on self-regulation of my emotions because I think it’s time for me to grow up, to quit falling apart, to be an adult, to be a rock like my dad. I’m better, but I still struggle to speak or squeak out a word when strong feelings hit me like a tsunami. I tumble and reach for someone to pull me out of the undertoe.

By Grace, I am miraculously patched back together through prayer and the loving presence of God and others. I feel better, more loving, more loved – and sometimes a bit embarrassed. Marilynne Robinson reminds me of the blessing of being alive. There is no shame in being true to life. There’s no judgment in authentic compassion and attention. I’m grateful every day for those who exude such presence and unconditional love.

Heartache and darkness are often the consequence of great love, loss, disappointment, and unspoken expectations. Brilliance is the radiant light that dwells inside and around us – fueled and cultivated by compassion, gratitude, wit, and faith.

I suffer and rejoice because I love and am loved. According to Cynthia Bourgeualt, there is a place where we can free ourselves from our desires of affection and affirmation, to be one with Christ and the universe with all its comlex dynamics. I’m not there yet, but I’m working on it.

Humanity is a dance between polarities, darkness and Light. I keep dancing. And the ballroom is full of wonder and awe.

When my granddaughter Eileen was born, Katie asked me what I wanted to be called. I replied, “Grandmanance who loves to dance.” It seemed so obvious.

The Other Side

We are almost there. Friends are vaccinated – they got their tickets to freedom. Nursing home residents got their shots, their passports to visitors. Conversations are lighter even as they consist of reports of what has not been done this past year, affirmations of good citizenship and pats on the back for not being superspreaders. Stories of not seeing loved are badges of honor. Tales of garage gatherings, backyard bubbles, and pod participants prevail. We should have invested in portable fire pits, bicycles, and adult snowsuits.

We are almost to the other side. I wonder what will change, how we will be different. I see it in others. My next door neighbor is now a champion sourdough bread baker. His culinary creations marvel any found in San Francisco. My sister Eileen, a Bon Appetit aficionado, has mastered buttery confections worthy of any five star restaurant. My friend Shannon – who in the past could care less about cooking – is now a recipe guru, including holistic, naturalist cures for simple ailments like heartburn and sleep loss. Family members have moved or are moving, concrete evidence of lifestyle shifts.

The pandemic facilitated change. When we’re in the midst of normalcy, autopilot is a mindless, easy course of action. We do what we always do because we’ve always done it. We’ve involuntarily stepped away from the norm, and many of us now we have time to reflect on the way we live, to consider alternative journeys, to shift and intentionally choose a new path, or hobby, or job, or home, or approach to life.

Last month, I opted to have a major surgery done on my right ankle due to posterior tibial tendon dysfunction, a degenerative disorder previously treated with shoe orthotics, creative taping, and loads of Ibuprofen. I wanted to put off the surgery for a year or two when my friend Teresa asked, “Why don’t you do it now? There’s nothing else to do during Covid.” So I did.

I’m four weeks into being cast-bound, surrounded by books on this couch – Ann Lamott’s Stiches, Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism, Amanda Blake’s Your Body is your Brain, The Arbinger Institute’s The Outward Mindset, Five Minutes with the Word for Lent 2021 (how ironic), The Gospel According to John (my Lenten focus), Northouse’s Leadership, Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, and Winnie the Pooh’s Storybook Collection – in anticipation for Eileen and Charlie’s next visit. I also just unpacked my latest delivery – The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker. I’m ready to host! I’m trying to figure out how to hoard all this great stuff into being a better me.

Then I reflect, see a new way, shift, and feel tremendous relief. It’s not about me. Thank goodness. There is collective growth. We are all indeed in this together. 

The mandate of being transformed by a year of lockdown is like a command to be different at Easter. We don’t have to do it. We get to choose. I don’t have to figure this out. I can rest in unknowing and in the moment-by-moment soaking up the insight of great writers, the loving voice on the phone or smiling face on Zoom, the marvel of the white snow chef’s hat on our outdoor grill.

We don’t change because we have to; we change because we want to, because it’s fun and interesting and fascinating and inspiring. And sometimes the personal tweak is so subtle, we can’t articulate it. But we know there has been a softening, an opening. Complacency is like sludge or plaque, flow inhibitors in our hearts, literally and metaphorically. We intentionally strive to move toward a more grateful, creative, loving vision of ourselves and our world. We stumble, we get up, and we keep going. There’s no quitting allowed. 

We are almost there.

In the meantime, we’re here – just where we’re supposed to be. I rejoice in that awareness. I’m not waiting until I’m vaccinated to dance in the joy of being right here – casted during Covid. Viktor Frankl got it right when he said we get to choose our attitude. We may be frustrated by the pace of the vaccine rollout. We may see injustice in the distribution.  But we are not victims. 

Dance. Do it in any way that makes you feel the aliveness of your soul. Friedrich Nietzche wrote, “Those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.” 

We get to stop, lean in, and listen to the rhythms that set us free.   If you can’t hear the notes, ask a friend for help. Mine help me all the time. 

761 Days

That’s how many days Anne Frank spent hidden from the Nazi’s from 1942-1944 when she was captured, sent to two concentration camps, and died of Typhus. She was given a diary on her 13th birthday, and she filled pages with observations of her 2 years and 46 days in the Secret Annex, her warehouse attic shelter in Amsterdam. I wonder if high schoolers still read The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, a collection of haunting reflections of the day-to-day mundacity of being sheltered from an ever-threatening world.

I studied abroad from 1983-1984, and at Christmastime, my friend Martha and I traversed Europe on a Eurail Pass. We traveled from London to Brussels (most noted for the fountain produced by a young boy’s urine) and then to Amsterdam.

Most college kids who’ve been to this amazing city tell drug and Red Light district stories. Not us. We focused on our list of must sees. After staring at Rembrandt’s Nightwatch in the Rijksmuseum, we ventured to the Anne Frank House where I was captivated by the descriptions of the Franks – Anne, Margot, Edith and Otto – and those invited by Otto Frank – Hermann, Auguste, and Peter van Pels along with Fritz Pfeiffer. We learned about those who helped them, those gutsy enough to supply food, toiletries, reading material, and updates on the War. Martha and I spent half a day studying every nook and cranny of the minimalist space as we tried to imagine adolescence in complete confinement with limited connection to the outside world.

My life has always been one of liberty. My parents were strict, but I could come and go – as long as I was home for dinner by 5:30. Today, with below zero temperatres and a casted ankle, I read what I want, sing my heart out, noisily wheel around from room to room, and hoist my cast upon ottomans strategically placed for elevation and icing. All just for me. I do not share a rigid bathroom schedule with seven other people. My days of living with six other people are over. My kids are grown. Through large windows, I revere daily sunrises and sunsets – very confident that I’ll be around for the view tomorrow. I’m visited by our usual critters – turkeys, raccoons, possums, deer, and other unidentifiable four-footed friends.

Anne Frank had no such visitors and no glimpse of the subtly delightful shifts of nature and weather. Technology consisted of hushed, crackly radio broadcasts. Silence-filled hours tolled the passage of the day. She wrote that she longed to be outside, to be free from the entrapment of the attic, to scream, to talk loudly, to tell her mother what she really thnks, to fall in love.

I think about the last 335 days – give or take a few days – of the pandemic, and I wonder what Anne Frank would say about Covid-19. Would she write about her desire to get back to school? To be with her classmates? Would she note the rhythms of the seasons and the infected number count, the pulse of the newsfeeds, the bravery of frontline workers, the perseverence of the vaccine researchers? Would she see this as a chance to deepen relationships that matter most? Would she consider this a time of deep reflection, a time of hope for what unfolds, a time for societal change? What would she document?

I suspect she would speak her truth. What is yours? Do you have the courage to share it like she did?

And I wonder what advice Anne Frank would give us from the grave.

Ankle Lockdown

Nine days ago – Jan. 27th – I had ankle surgery. I have not stepped outside since. I witness the weather through the window as emerging orange sherbet clouds slowly light up the world. Normally, my friends Maggie, Teresa, or Molly and I would be running and navigating our route for the best view of this spectacular sunrise. 

Instead, I zip around the main level of our home on my borrowed knee scooter, I hop to my yoga mat, stretch, kick my legs, and try to find the familiar peace of flow from all limbs in motion. 

I rediscover Broadway through Spotify – Godspell, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, the Phantom, Beautiful!, Jesus Chris Superstar, and now Les Mis. I relive the moments, the people I was with, the weather that day, the energy of the bustle of Chicago. I scooter dance, sing, weep (yep), and rejoice. I take on the characters’ personas – Master of the House! And I want my grandchildren to know every lyric. 

I go nowhere. I have no commute except the scoot to the bathroom. Loved ones have prepared amazing meals, soup, stew, sausage and peppers, sourdough bread. The refrigerator is stocked. My day stretches ahead of me with terrifying freedom. I feel like a cat curling into niches depending on the warmth of the sun. Yes, I have Zoom meetings, enrichment workshops, classes, but my life lacks the normalcy of accountability.

I think of my mom turning 94 in a few weeks who has not seen the sky in many months. Her heavily blinded window blocks the light, and she assures me that she is “a good sleeper.” This fiercely strong mother of ten lost her husband when she was 61, and she carries on with humor and grace. Life simply unfolds in moments because that’s all she has. No technology – no cellphone, no laptop, no internet, no Broadway tunes. The television remote is too complicated. Her joy comes from her caregivers’ kindness. She glows in the photos they send. She doesn’t want to cause any trouble, doesn’t want to be a bother. She doesn’t understand why we don’t visit. “There’s a terrible virus, Mom.” She can’t grasp it. I don’t blame her.

Oh boy. As I type, here it is – “I Dreamed a Dream.” I sob for my mom and force myself to sit with this compassion. My mom dreamed a dream that she would be with my dad, and that they would spend retirement together in Long Beach, Indiana. It didn’t happen, and she persevered, traveled, maintained great friendships, and enjoyed visits with her children and grandchildren. After the passing of two sons, she slipped into a grief we could not reach. She just wanted to be alone with her own thoughts, or with a son or daughter or her sister Mary Agnes. No more crowds. She is done with that. Now she has cheerful Annie and Mary Kate at Mercy Circle to check in on her. I hope she feels their love. As always, she accepts her lot in life. 

I relive the dramas on my wifi speakers. I pray for friends who are sick, a friend who died of Covid yesterday, parents of friends who have passed, our country, frontline workers. I read, write, seek inspiration, contemplate my faith, listen to TED Talks, create assignments, grade papers, talk to friends, look at flights to anywhere, plan trips that may or may not happen, write thank-you notes from the depth of my heart, crawl up the stairs to do laundry, crawl back down, and scoot to my laptop. I research the opening of theaters. I dream of taking Eileen and Charlie to see a play or twirling them to Donny Osmond’s rendition of “Any Dream will Do.”

Yes, any dream will do. That works for me, and I’m filled with gratitude.  

Still Practicing

Two years ago, I was consumed with writing, revising, rehearsing, and rewriting my TEDx Talk called “The Power of the Pause.” To say that I was obsessed would be an understatement. When I look at my notes from the talk (which is less painful for me than watching it), I’m struck by the simplicity of that fifteen minute synopsis of a very complex concept. The message seems so clear and straightforward: If you want to change, follow these steps: pause, feel what’s happening in your body, check the validity of your narrative, consider alternative interpretations, shift to other options, and choose a desired response. Awareness leads to choice and a decision to change your way of being in the world. Piece of cake.  

Two days before the Feb. 1, 2019 taping, Chicagoland experienced what we refer to as the “Polar Vortex.” Wind chills plummeted to -40 degrees, schools were closed, stores were shuttered, and streets were empty. Little did we know that those two days would be nothing compared to the pandemic. I used these 48 hours to rehearse, rehearse, and rehearse some more. I taped my notes to the kitchen cabinets and practiced walking while delivering my life-defining speech. I posted my outline on a bulletin board in the basement, climbed on our elliptical, and projected my message to the concrete walls. 

I nailed that talk – ten hours before it was filmed. That final rehearsal on the morning of the event left me feeling empowered, knowledgeable, and confident. 

That evening, as I sat and witnessed the other presenters, sick quiverings of self-doubt invaded my gut. I was slated last on the docket, and as each speaker finished, my hands got colder and colder. When I was called backstage, my nerves were shot. I was not prepared for the full-blown panic attack that hijacked my nervous system. I honestly did not expect it. I speak in front of groups all the time.

I did not deliver the best presentation of my life that night, but I would not take back the lessons learned from my experience.

I learned – and continue to learn over and over – that life is humbling. That is a good thing. 

I learned that there is no ready-made formula for presence. I learned that mindfulness is a commitment, not a ticket to transformation. After immersing myself in numerous workshops and courses, dozens of books and lectures, and numerous certifications over the past two years, I now know presence is not something to be studied – it is to be lived.  

Presence is a lifelong journey that takes you to this moment. I’m working on staying here. And when I find myself going elsewhere, like ruminating about past disappointments or fretting a forever uncertain future, I try to bring myself back to now.  

Yesterday, I took a break from reading Caroline Welch’s The Gift of Presence: A Mindfulness Guide for Women to switch a load of laundry to the dryer.  As I pulled out one of Tim’s dri-fit shirts, I was amazed that the shirt could be completely dry after a wash cycle. I thought, Wow, these new synthetic fabrics are amazing! Then I pulled out a pair of bone dry underwear. I had put the dirty load in the dryer instead of the washer – a loud wake-up call from the presence conductor that I had veered off course.  

My instinct was to judge myself for being an idiot, and even worse, for being someone who doesn’t practice what she preaches, someone who just cannot figure out mindfulness. Thankfully, one of the key concepts of meditation is non judgment of thoughts. Non Judgment let  me off my own hook. 

I have also learned that there are ways to calm my nervous system, and I can indeed settle my racing heart and harried breathing. I wish I had known this two years ago when I paced backstage and sought ways to bolt to my car.

I’ve learned about the parasympathetic system, the Polyvagal Theory, the neuroplasticity of the brain, and the emotional, psychological, and physiological benefits of meditation. I have great friends who meet with me on Zoom to discuss the potential, positive impact of brilliant thinkers, writers, and researchers. 

Often, I have no idea how I can help make this world a better place. As I ease into 2021, I pray for a world filled with peace, presence, forgiveness, compassion, gratitude and joy. I’m reminded of the hymn “Let There Be Peace on Earth” which concludes – “let it begin with me.” 

Gandhi’s words resonate with all of us – “Be the difference you want to see in the world.” 

What do you want to see?

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.