Author Archives: Nancy Scannell

Virtuous Golf

Last week, I played my first rounds of golf since last summer – 50 holes in three days. On day four, I could barely move. Golf is humbling – in every way – and it’s good for the soul.

Humility – need I say more?

Hope – each tee brings a sense of anticipation. “I’m going to figure this out on this hole!” A fresh start on a new tee – a Bridie, Par, Bogie, or Double Bogie. I love when a hole gets a name.

Acceptance – I stink. It’s okay. I’m getting better.

Truth – cheat and you’re dead to me unless you confess it. Mulligans are fine – just fess up. Wiffs don’t count in my game. I toss balls out of bunkers. Until I get another lesson in the sand, I am not wasting your time.

Tenacity – stick with the mantras: stay in the barrel, head down, arms straight, wrists firm, follow through, power from the hips, low and slow and watch it go, trust the club, open the club face, close the club face, mark your ball, don’t bring the club too far back, don’t sway.

Overwhelm – is that a virtue?

Tact – anybody who golfs with me is a master of diplomacy.

Wonder – on day 3, on par 3 hole 16, I chipped my little pink ball into the hole. Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! I could barely speak! Nobody witnessed that Bridie but me . . . and my father. I know he saw it.

Faith – the Gospel of John states, “In my father’s house, there are many dwelling places.” Well, my dad dwells on the golf course – even though he passed in 1988 – in his 70’s golf garb of bright polyester pants and collared shirt, white belt and shoes. His light blue eyes twinkle beneath the rim of his round yellow hat. When I hit into the rough, I hear him say, “Grab a club and blaze away.”

Beauty – look around.

Orderliness – look around again.

Consideration – golf etiquette is training for life. Last summer, a direct (and loving) friend murmured, “Get your shadow out of the line of my putt.” No messing around there. I was horrified. I had shirked on my other-golfer-centeredness. I learned as a twelve-year-old that as long as I don’t hold people up, I can be a golfer. To this day, I break out in a sweat when I lose my ball. When I put my club back, I grab my next one. My pockets are full of spare balls – just in case I play like me.

Honesty – tell it like it is. See above. Period. Let others know what annoys you; otherwise, it will screw up your game. I told my son that he should pull the cart of up the right side of a right-handed golfer. I blamed my unsolicited advise on my father. My son said, “Your dad is not God.” I thought, “Humph!” My son pulled the cart up to my right for the rest of the round.

Patience – self-explanatory.

Imagination – my husband told me that he has a client who looks at the ball, looks at the desired destination, shuts his eyes, and opens them right before he swings. He imagines the ball going right where it’s supposed to go. I’ve tried this a few times, and it worked. Some call it creative visualization. I call it a miracle.

Forgiveness – if you can’t forgive yourself, don’t golf.

Self-discipline – no tossing clubs allowed. And if it happens, loop back to forgiveness. You get a double whammy of mercy.

Joyfulness – no matter who makes the long put, all celebrate! I brag about my friend’s Eagle, and I witnessed my dad’s on the 18th hole in Long Beach in 1976. Yes, I still remember! After looking for his ball, he shouted, “It’s in the cup!” Miraculously, I am now part of the “chip-in-the-cup joy club” thanks to last week. Did I already tell you about that?

I get why my dad loved golf, a respite focused on distance, green pitches, angles, slopes and friends all wrapped in an afternoon of courtesy, comraderie, presence. Game on!

Where are you, Mindfulness?

Breath. Sit with the discomfort. Be courageous. Embrace acceptance. Be compassionate. Change starts with awareness. Slow down. Sense the shift to ease.

But what if you’re late? What if the server is taking too long with the bill? What if you may miss the play you’ve been wanting to see?

On Thursday night, three of my adult children and I went to the Italian Village for dinner before seeing Come From Away at the Cadillac Palace Theater. Apprehension slowly crept into my bones as we waited and waited and waited for our meals to be delivered to our booth. Thirty-nine minutes before the start of the play, I said to the server, “We have to go.” I failed to say, “Now.”

Our plates were delivered, and for me, mindfulness went out the window. I wolfed down my whitefish in butter sauce without savouring each bite, without putting my fork down between chews, without noticing the colors, scents and textures on my plate. Default behavior ruts run deep.

I looked up and marveled that the others had not finished half of their meals. I asked if we should get boxes for the homeless and secretly worried that might take too much time.

I paid the bill, and raced out of the revolving doors like a bat out of hell. I could have told the kids that I was speeding ahead to save a place in line, but I didn’t. I left them in the dust of my 13-minute mile pace as I bolted north on Dearborn to save us a place in line to get our vax cards, ID’s, bags, and tickets checked. I was a mom on a mission. Meanwhile, the kids got smaller and smaller as I looked back. I tried to text when I saved the spot, but they were too busy trying to catch up with me. They did not know where I went, the ticket holder and keeper of the keys.

When we regrouped, it was not pretty. I could feel the familiar quivering of I goofed. And I knew it. I was so disappointed in my inability to reach enlightenment. I was so mad at myself. There are lots of simple could’ve, would’ve, should’ve’s in this story. They – along with my love for my kids – kept me up all night.

There are simple solutions. Don’t be late. Arrange your plans to allow for plenty of time. I live like this now. But I slipped into an old mode on Thursday night, a get ‘er done mentality.

And I was so mad at myself when I saw the emotions in my kids’ faces. I speculated on what they were, and I concluded that they would not want to go to shows with me again. Where does that fear come from?

Reflection is valuable, yet rumination can smother the human spirit.

I have learned to be be aware, compassionate, thoughtful, loving, and present – except when I am in a state of over-drive – like when I’m late. This is the new challenge. I say bring it on. I’m ready for next time.

I’m proud of my kids. They are not like me. They don’t seem to suffer from the tumultuous tension of trying to reconcile the tick of the clock, the quest for kindness and patience, and the fear of being late.

I forgot that the rest of the world cannot walk super fast. I know the frustration of not being about to keep up. I used to work out with Ironmen who circled back for me on long bike rides. I hated that feeling. And I hated that I made my kids feel that way.

My body took over on those Chicago sidewalks. Vroom! I apologized to the kids, but I am working on forgiving myself. This post helps. I don’t know why.

As a proponent of laughter, there was no humor in front of that theater marquis. Instead, I felt an old sense of not getting it right, not being aware or thougtful. it made me so sad. There was enlightenment – enlightenment of failure – failure to communicate, to take on the perspective of the other, to put the kids’ needs before the play, to let it go. The event didn’t matter. The kids do.

Readers may think I am making a big deal out of nothing – my modus operandi. But I learned something big, not only from the choices I could have made, but from not making the best ones. I learned that I must forgive myself, be grateful for the learning experience, and carry on. I am not always going to get it right, and this makes me more grateful for when I do.

I feel like I want a clean slate. The reality is that I have one, right now. And I know I will still slip up. Humanity is so damn humbling.

Next time, we dine after the play.

New Year’s 2022

I used to love to plan. These days, I’m weary of commitments. And the hesitancy puzzles me. I’m a planner, a doer, a scheduler, a lover of anticipation. I used to take great pleasure in plotting my calendar, filling it up with meetings, classes, yoga, coffees, and lunch with friends. I find myself hedging when it comes to saying, “yes, I’ll go.” I’m done with that. 

What about a year of yes? 

We booked two trips for 2022. I’m excited about them, but there’s some lingering disenchantment with the cancellations in the past. Will the trips happen? Do they matter? This existential question is scary. Why do I think about being somewhere else when where I am is just fine? 

Because travel opens my world up to new people, new experiences, music, food, culture, nature, beauty. Staying put feels safe. If I don’t plan, then I won’t be disappointed. 

I choose to leap over this hurdle.  

I now rest in not knowing and not being sure. Yesterday, I bought tickets to Celtic Thunder. The show may be cancelled. But my show – my life – will go on. I will continue to listen, coach, read, write, walk, feel, and ride my Peloton when I need a burst of someone else’s enthusiasm. And believe me, those instructors deliver. 

Whether something planned happens or not does not define satisfaction. Insisting that something happens is called control, and I don’t have it. Nobody does. 

I’m used to cancellations – flights, dinners, visits. Nothing is for certain. It never was – I was just under the illusion that things could be set in stone. I’m glad they’re not. There’s much more flexibility now, less judgment, more understanding, more openness. 

I used to go overboard in hosting at our home. Not anymore. I’m not sure if the gathering will happen. It feels lighter, a lessening in wanting things to be just right.   

There is freedom in shifts. The lack of commitment is disconcerting. We expect others to do what they say they will do, to show up. And then a cough or a headache throws the plans in the dumpster. It’s okay. It used to matter. There’s that existential question again. What matters? 

Love. Forgiveness. Joy. Pain. Understanding. Empathy. 

What matters is goodness and addressing suffering with kindness. Nobody said when we were born that we would not be disappointed, would not fail, would not suffer, would not make mistakes. That was never part of the life plan. 

I now accept what is. And I’ll tell you what is consistent – God. And God is good and in us. The good is in the divine exchange we have with each other, with the beauty of nature, with animals, with humor, with the teachings of great writers and thinkers who have carefully crafted their insights just so we can consider them. Such generosity of spirit! And such vulnerability and openness to scrutiny! 

The good is in this moment. The good is in being right where I am even when someone I love dearly is missing. 

I just have to pay attention. 

And that’s what I’m going to do in the new year – pay attention. 

Bear witness to beauty, suffering, wisdom, wit, love, inspiration, miracles, others. I’m going to pay attention to my self-centered urges to have others see through my lens, and I am going to practice something different. I’m going to seek to understand. Others have their own lenses. I can marvel at them, share mine if they are open, and not judge. 

“Seek and ye shall find.” Seek disappointment, and yes, it’s there. Seek humor, and it’s there in the absurdity of our expectations. Feel pain, sit with the inevitability of suffering, and let it dissipate into what lies underneath – love. 

There’s so much gratitude in love. 

For 2022, I’m going to pay attention and embrace what I feel, probably in the privacy of my own room if it becomes too much for others! I’m going to open myself up to the source of my longing and share it with my trusted vault of loved ones. I believe it is the ticket to joy and connection. I believe the source of my longing is profoundly beautiful. And it fills my heart with gratitude.    

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.