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Earlier this year I enrolled in a Tai Chi class at Vanderbilt’s Osher Center of Integrated Medicine. I’d had no experience with Tai Chi. I had, however, seen the physical art portrayed on the silver screen. I thought it was beautiful. Each movement flowed into the next without pause, the bodies synchronized and in constant motion. I’d also read that Tai Chi is a gentle way to combat stress, improve mood, increase aerobic capacity, increase flexibility, balance, and muscle strength, and manage or improve joint pain.

Genetically, I have a high probability of developing arthritis as the years progress. I have the frame and the constitution of a great aunt who spent a good part of her later years confined to her rocking chair and bed. My mother’s activity is greatly limited due to the pain of arthritis. I would rather not follow in their footsteps.

When I discovered the Osher Center offered Tai Chi classes, I was definitely in. So, there I was in one of the early sessions, trying to follow the instructor’s lead when she suddenly stopped all movement for a teaching moment.  I cannot remember most of what she said because I got stuck on one sentence: “You don’t always have to be strong.” She continued to explain. When we refuse to recognize our limits, we invite injury. She emphasized that it is not just okay, it is preferable that we respect our physical limits. She then invited us to sit or make adjustments to the movements as needed.

I understood the intent of her words, but they traveled into my heart as something more pertinent to me. Unlike many of my classmates, I was not there based on a doctor’s recommendation. I self selected the class as preventative care. In the context of the class, I was not pushing my body beyond its capabilities. I had, however, recently been powering up against fragile emotions. When her simple statement of permission caused tears to well up unexpectedly, I knew it was time to “sit down” emotionally.

In her Mission.org post titled “What to Do When You are Feeling Fragile and Broken,” Jennifer Underwood describes this sitting down as “walking on eggshells around yourself” Quite simply put, it is choosing really good self care. How this is acted out will vary with each individual, but the goal is the same — to return to homeostasis emotionally.

Incidentally, it seems I was in the right place for sitting down emotionally. It is suggested that the “active relaxation and relaxed action of Tai Chi slowly dissolve and release emotional issues within.” If this is true, Tai Chi is giving me an unexpected gift, an extra tool in my tool belt for self care.

Tai Chi may not be for everyone, but everyone needs to sit down from time to time. We all need to pause and take a moment, an hour, a day. — we don’t always have to be strong.

Have you had your dose of self care today?

My husband and I are building a small house on a bit of acreage north of Nashville, TN. Ten years ago, this land was a jungle of oaks, pines, cedars, and lots of briars and kudzu. My dad came in with an eye for beauty and his tractor, a high end commercial lawn maintenance machine, and has tamed the jungle into patches of light filtered woods and open meadows. Dad is a true land artist.

With Dad’s increase in years and decrease in energy, his distance due to my parents’ permanent residence hundreds of miles away, and the transfer of half the land ownership into our possession, much of the job of maintaining his masterpiece has fallen on us. Fortunately for us, his tractor has been left in the shed for our use. Unfortunately for us, we know nothing about maintaining this tractor. In as much, when the mower deck belt broke last weekend after only three rounds with the tractor, we began a crash course in mower maintenance.

Because there are no dealers in the greater Nashville area, and it is a unique lawn maintenance product, we felt a bit like we were up a creek without a paddle. So started our journey, a journey that resulted in a day of trial and error, five days of waiting for the specialized belt that was sent from the company, a day of rain, and four hours of infuriating experimentation and guidance via phone from Dad.

There was one crucial moment when all possibility of installing that belt could have been lost. It was the moment when I got angry—not angry at Dad. I was angry at the machine and I was angry that the instructions made absolutely no sense to me; they seemed mechanically impossible. Then, I realized something very important. We needed to get our terminology right.

Dad was giving the correct guidance. I was interpreting the words correctly, but there was a problem. We were working from the tractor side of the deck and therefore had established left and right accordingly. We had that established, but we were mis-communicating on the terms front and back. When he said front, I understood it to be moving from front to back from the side we were working on, the way you would enter a front door and go out the back. However, his front and back were from the opposite side — the front of the mowing deck, not the tractor side. Once we discovered the breakdown in communication, it was a matter of minutes until the job was done.  

Now, the belt is on, the mower is cutting the tall grass, and the work of protecting Dad’s masterpiece from reverting back into jungle has just begun. I do not doubt for a minute that this is just a first in many lessons in regards to maintaining this tractor. Hopefully we learned a valuable lesson. Clearly establish each directional term as it is presented.

As I was thinking about this first lesson in mower maintenance, it occurred to me that our lives are a constant barrage of opportunities to get the communication right. Marriages disintegrate and fall apart because the partners are not speaking the same language. Young children are wounded in their formative years by parents whose greatest desire is to love and protect, but sometimes words and actions or misinterpreted. Teens/young adults and parents alike are wounded as the individualization process takes place and new worlds and old ways collide.

These are examples limited to the family. There are countless examples that could be cited — in work and worship, in communities and country, and in international affairs. Paying attention to our communication and getting it right is paramount to positive outcomes.

Proverbs, a book within the collection of books known as the Holy Bible, is full of wise one liners. One such nugget of wisdom is found in chapter 18, verse 13.

If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.

English Standard Version

A modern rewrite of the same is: “Spouting off before listening to the facts is both shameful and foolish.” 

How much time would have been saved? How much frustration eliminated, if we had actively listened to Dad, and Dad had actively listened to us? In the case of our mower repair the cost was minimal — a few hours of time and a measure of frustration. When we do not listen to really hear in our marriages, our families, our work places, and beyond, the cost can be devastating. Whether the cost is minimal or great, it is truly a shame.

I wonder. What kind of world would we live in if we all learned to actively listen. I hope lesson one in mower maintenance is a lesson that has far reaching effects in my life. I hope that I will listen more carefully when listening really counts.

My Dad and Mom on his tractor.
They must be doing some active listening to still be together after 65 years.

I also hope my story sparks an interest in you to have your hearing checked. For a bit of help getting started, check out these best books lists.

Note: These are suggestions, not recommendations. I am definitely going to check out some of these titles, but I have no experience with any of them.

During a recent conversation with someone I care deeply for, I was confronted with my inability to make all things right in the world. I’d initiated the conversation because I was working on a project that required a bit of assistance from my friend. He was not late in getting his response to me. I was simply trying to push the project along, and I’d sent out a quick text in the hope of receiving his input sooner rather than later. 

The response was apologetic. The initial project request had come in at a bad time for him. In his vulnerably honest reply to my follow up text, he wrote, “I’m sorry. I was gonna do it. I’ve been feeling pretty ground down lately . . . in most every way one can be ground down.”

Almost immediately after that text came another — a photo of a break room refrigerator message. Below the photo, he added, “I didn’t write it, but it encapsulates my feelings right about now.”

All Work, No Play Equals Frustration

The photo above is a cropped version of the original photo. The original was an entire page of this one liner. Sometimes the words were misspelled, sometimes letters and words were scrambled, and at the end, the words were typed, over and over again, in all capitals. The words did not change, but the tone went from matter-of-fact to stress induced spelling errors, then frustration, and finally to anger. 

The back story is that this young man is caught in the injustice of extreme pay disparencies. A few at the very top in his industry are earning solid six figure incomes while he and his contemporaries are struggling to get by, picking up 2nd and 3rd jobs to make ends meet. These lower- middle of the totem pole workers embrace the why of their work — educating young minds for a better future — while they struggle with their own realities. They are over worked, underpaid, and losing hope for their own future. 

I lay in bed that evening thinking about my friend and longing to have the power to make all things right in his world. The truth was, I could do very little. I could remind him that there are others even lower on the totem pole of annual earnings. Little consolation that would be. I could send him a small cash gift (working in the same industry has not made my husband and I wealthy), but that would be a bandaid on a gaping wound. The best I could do was what I’d already begun to do — take his part of a project I’d initiated off his to-do list and hold on to hope for a better future at a time when his hope is wearing thin.

How do I hold on to hope for my friend?

I know that life has an ebb and flow. The picture may seem bleak now, but things do change. There is certainty in this.  Several weeks ago I wrote a piece titled “Lily’s Wedding Dress”. Lily and other survivors of the German concentration camps believed there would be an end to the war. They believed in the possibility of new lives beyond their losses. They found hope in the certainty of change. 

There is also hope in community. When we share the tough times with others the load seems lighter. We recognize that we are not alone. Community does not take the source of unhappiness away, but it does put it into a bearable context. Lily and Ludwig had been victim’s of pure hatred, but the unjust and cruel treatment they’d suffered and their resulting circumstance would not define their future. In the context of community, they created a wedding out of next to nothing. They determined to build a life together and raise a family. Their wedding set off a chain reaction of weddings. With each new marriage celebration, hope was ignited, and the hatred that had stolen so much lost its power over them.

There is one thing I could possibly do for my friend.

When the time is right, when I know I am not attemping to fix things for him as a salve for my feelings of helplessness, and if he asked for my help, I could remind him that he is living and working as an advocate for change—in his own life and in the world. He is bound to get tired and discouraged. A pay raise would make his life easier, but it wouldn’t erase all of the challenges world changers face. Then I would ask him to describe to me what he does to sustain energy and optimism. After his description, I would ask, “When was the last time you gave yourself permission to do these things?” In my experience, when I am succumbing physically, emotionally, and spiritually to the wear and tear of this complicated life, invariably, I have slacked off on self care — the activities and practices that heal and rejuvenate me.

I can not make all things right in my own little corner of the world. How could I possibly make all things right in my friend’s corner? I can’t, but I can believe for him that better days will come, I can walk beside him and hold him tight in community, and, if he asks for my help, I can encourage him to inventory his present level of self-care for the purpose of making necessary adjustments.

All work and no play does make Jack a dull, discouraged, defeated, depressed boy. Remembering that change is inevitable, recognizing that he is not alone, and being intentional about self-care can restore his shine.

It can restore your shine and mine as well when we are becoming work weary.

Lily’s Wedding Dress

I recently listened to the audio recording of Cokie and Steve Roberts’ book From This Day Forward. It is half memoir and half history lesson. The chapters alternate between their story and various stories of marriage in America — from Colonial times to present day. There are many interesting stories, both theirs and those of others, shared in the book; however, one story touched me more deeply than all the others.

The story was titled The White Wedding Dress. It is the story of a woman named Lily Friedman. At the time of the book’s printing, she was 75 years old and still working in her tiny jewelry shop on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Lily was born and raised in a small Czech village. It had been her families’ home village for many generations. Life had been good for this small Jewish village. However, the occupation of Germany’s Hungarian allies in 1939 changed everything. Lily was quoted by the Roberts’ as saying the occupation “made our lives miserable.” 

1n 1944, Lily and her family were put on a train for Auschwitz. At the camp, Lily’s father and brothers were separated and she never saw them again. She, her two younger sisters, and a cousin were put on work detail. Lily believes the girls survived for one reason — the Nazi’s needed workers. The girls were strong and healthy.

In January 1945, due to Russian advancement, the Germans retreated, taking their workers with them. It was a cold, hard winter walk to the new camp. Most of the survivors were half dead by the time they’d arrived at their destination. When relief came on April 15, in the form of British liberators, the girls were so sick they could not walk. After receiving emergency medical care and enough food to regain their strength, Lily and the other survivors were transported to a displaced person’s camp. It was here, among other survivors, that Lily fell in love.

She and her beau, Ludwig, wanted to get married, but pulling off a wedding in a displaced person’s camp with little to no resources seemed impossible to Lily. Ludwig was more optimistic. He said that Lily would have the wedding she wanted, and he kept his word, right down to a white wedding dress. Ludwig purchased a white German parachute from an English supply officer he’d befriended. Lily took the parachute to a friend who was an accomplished seamstress. The result was a gown that stood up to this young girl’s dreams.

Lily and Ludwig’s wedding became the catalyst for more weddings. The dress was first passed on to Lily’s sister, then it began to make the rounds. Lily stopped counting the brides for which the dress was altered after the 18th wedding. The Roberts’ quote Lily as saying, “Boys and girls started to date, to go out and get married and live again and not think about what happened to us. Because if you thought about it, you couldn’t go on with life.”

To Lily, the dress was symbolic of a new beginning for the survivors. Hitler didn’t beat them. They built Jewish homes, and they raised their families.
Four generations later, where is the white wedding dress? One of Lily’s nieces told a curator at the Holocaust museum in Washington about the dress. It is now a part of an exhibit detailing the history of the displaced persons camps in postwar Europe. Lily said, “This was our most important thing. To tell the story that happened, so that it shouldn’t happen again.”

Lily’s Wedding Dress; photo found at: https://collections.ushmm.org

The white wedding dress is a story of hope. It demonstrates that when we choose hope, even under difficult and unjust circumstances, there will be a ripple effect. A first wave is inspired to move forward in hope with us. This inspires a second wave of hope. One can never guess how many waves will ripple out from one act of hope? In the case of Lily’s wedding dress, four generations later, it is still inspiring others.

What act of hope can you choose today?

A Worst – Best Birthday

Sometime ago I was introduced to the Enneagram. The Enneagram Institute website describes the Enneagram as a personality profiling system “based on a modern synthesis of a number of ancient wisdom traditions.” The Narrative Enneagram website describes it as “a powerful tool for personal and collective transformation. Stemming from the Greek words ennea (nine) and grammos (a written symbol), the nine-pointed Enneagram symbol represents nine distinct strategies for relating to the self, others and the world.” 

There are 9 numbers (profiles); each is described as a range of healthy, average, and unhealthy ways of relating. Through The Road Back to You, a podcast I’ve been following, I have learned that we can fluctuate in this range on any given day and through out our lifetime.

On recommendation, I took the Riso-Hudson Enneagram Type Indicator (RHETI® — a tool for determining your number. The questionnaire indicated that I am a FOUR. Since then I have tried several other diagnostics with less clear results.

My intent in sharing the little I know about the Enneagram is not to whet your appetite for more, though I wouldn’t discourage it. I believe the more we understand about ourselves and others, the more compassionately we can live in this world. Rather, my goal is to target in on one particular bit of best advice I came across as a result of my journey into the Enneagram. I believe it is great advice for us all. The advice? Get a hold of your powerful emotions and you will live your best life.

Get ahold of your powerful emotions and you will live your best life. 

–unknown

Emotions can hijack anyone’s day, so I took the thirteen words to heart and fixed them firmly in my memory as a warning. Now, when my emotions are about to strong arm my sensibilities, I recite the advice as a mantra. Then I ask a question, “Do you really want this emotion to control your response to what is happening in the moment?”

Most of the time this little exercise is all I need to calm the storm. However, there are days I forget. There are days that I fall back into the trap of allowing my emotions to control me rather than me manage them.

My most recent birthday was one of those days. I woke up out of sorts — a highly stressful evening prior, several disconcerting dreams in the night, and a few life changes that have left me feeling disconnected came together into a perfect storm. I felt an immediate and powerful rush of loneliness. Unfortunately, I did not hear the warning bell.

“Birthdays are supposed to be happy,” I told myself, ” I cannot be lonely and sad.” I went to battle with the emotion. Do you know what happens when you battle with emotion? The emotion fights back. It gets physical. The body tenses up, blood pressure rises, the stomach churns. In my case, there are tears — lots of them.

All this was taking place when a text from our son, who always remembers my birthday, contained no birthday greeting. I felt forgotten. I went from low grade loneliness to total abandonment in 1 second flat!

“This will not do! I am stronger than this ridiculous spiral,” I reasoned. So, in an effort to fend off the emotion, I made an adjustment to my day. I planned an art day at the Frist Art Museum with my private homeschool student. We toured the galleries, ate lunch, and hung out at the Martin Artquest—a hands on art experience for the young and young at heart. We stamped, cut, pasted, drew, designed, made animations, and we enjoyed every minute of it. Yet, later, when I settled in at home, the unrest of the morning flooded back over me. A new wave of sadness threatened.

The intense emotion which I had tried to put behind lock and key was determined to break out. The more I fought it, the more it fought back. It was a knock down, drag out fight, and I was losing. To make matters worse, every wish for a happy birthday was like iodine in an open wound—the application stung. It was not turning out to be a happy day!

The thing was, my birthday had the makings of a wonderful day. I had the flexibility of schedule for the unplanned museum adventure. I received beautiful cards, loving texts, and wonderful greetings on social media. My husband brought home yellow roses in the late afternoon and was ready to whisk me off to the restaurant of my choice. Yet I was unable to revel in all the love. I’d developed a killer headache from the emotional battle. In the evening, I ignored my phone; I was too afraid I would burst into tears if I answered calls. As a result, I not only missed phone calls from our sons, I also robbed our granddaughter of FaceTime with Nana. My son told me the next day she had been very excited about wishing me a happy birthday.

This news was fuel for two subsequent emotions: embarrassment and shame. Fortunately hindsight is a great teacher. I’d been reminded of something valuable the day before. Fighting one’s emotion is not getting a hold of it. It is dishonoring and unkind.

Our emotions come from deep within. They are a God given gift, a thermometer of sorts. They deserve to be respected. When we listen to them, we are able to manage them, I knew the embarrassment and shame originated from the previous days’ failure, so I reminded myself that failure is also a wonderful teacher. I told myself that I am stronger than one bad birthday, strong enough, in fact, to make something good from it. This is the good — I offer my story to encourage and to teach.

A Better Way

A great first question when a strong emotion hits is, “What is this emotion trying to tell me?” There are many ways to invite answers. My favorites are:

  • journaling
  • going for a walk
  • listening to calming music
  • creativity / artistic expression

Sometimes I find that calling a trusted friend can be helpful. Verbalizing the emotion in a safe place erases much of its power. Additionally, a good friend may be able to hear negative self talk or thoughts that are attached to the emotion. They can provide valuable feedback and alter my perspective.

It is also important to remind oneself of the following.

  • We are not our emotions.
  • Our emotions are not our reality. They are simply a response to our reality — a response that can be altered if we dig below the surface and listen to their voice.

In hindsight, this worst birthday has become, in a strange sort of way, a best birthday. The day was not the happiest day of my life, but I can chalk it up as a victory. It is said that practice makes perfect. This worst-best birthday was valuable practice. I’m more prepared for the next time strong emotions threaten to steal a happy birthday — or any other happy day, for that matter. Additionally, I intend to approach every subsequent birthday prepared. I have already scheduled an emotional inventory on my calendar for the week before my next birthday. If there are signs of distress, I will plan accordingly.

How about you? How would this best advice benefit you? Consider printing the above photo or get creative. Make a graphic reminder of your own. Then, post it in a prominent place until you internalize it.

We can live our best lives!