The Gift

When a pair of Underoos was unwrapped at my friend’s 10th birthday celebration, she stormed away from the partygoers, red-faced and humiliated, leaving the gift-giver in shock and embarrassment.  The poor misguided giver thought her friend would enjoy wearing the fun new fashion, and had purchased it with the best of intentions.  She would have expected gratitude and hoped for joy from the recipient.  Instead, she was met with a reaction that was devastatingly hurtful.

We’re taught that it’s the thought that counts, not the actual gift.  Thus, we should muster our manners, no matter the offering, and express appreciation.  But what if we don’t recognize that we’re being gifted?  What if we think that a gift is an insult or a punishment as my young friend did?

During a difficult time, I dreamt that I was sitting with God who asked me, “So, did you like it?”

“Did I like what?” I wondered and saw God’s face fall with disappointment.

“Life,” he replied.

“Oh,” I croaked.  That was a gift?”

As images of my life flashed before me, I recognized the many times that I had failed to be thankful – namely for things that were deemed negative or worthless – illnesses and injuries, losses and unmet desires, struggles and failures – all of them cataloged and placed on a shelf below the experiences that I valued. 

Upon closer examination, I saw how each of these experiences contained other gifts within them, layers of potential stacked inside like a set of MatryoshkaI nesting dolls.  Immediately contrite, I began to understand that I had cheated myself by failing to uncover the hidden treasures. 

In every instance, bar none, there was a gem nestled into the chaos – kindness offered, love unearthed, clarity exposed, potential awakened…So many opportunities to receive and to rise up.  So many chances to bring forth a better me.  I hadn’t recognized it in the moment, having shut my eyes tightly like a frightened toddler covering her face to ward off the boogie man.

An acquaintance had lost an obvious amount of weight in a short amount of time and I wondered if he was ill.  He explained that he was going through a divorce and was quick to point out that he couldn’t be anything but grateful.  “After all, my marriage brought me many blessings over many years.  It was a success while it lasted.”  Divorce wasn’t his plan, but he intended to focus on what the relationship had given him instead of what it was now taking.

Being a good receiver is equally as important as being a good giver.  But applying gratitude in the midst of personal challenges feels inaccurate, as if we’re welcoming an enemy into our home.  What kind of lunatic says ‘thank you’ when they get a cancer diagnosis or when a loved one dies?

Perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect gratitude to arise in the moment.  But if history is a good predictor of the future, we might be able to acknowledge that Life has a plan beyond our immediate understanding.  And that the plan often brings us more than we knew to ask for.

This past year was my most challenging one yet, filled with curveballs that never could have been predicted.  Each one required me to dig deep for faith and fortitude and to summon skills that had as yet been under-appreciated.

Who knew how useful it would be to possess organizational prowess during a crisis – a gift that had been woven into my childhood by my mother.  How could I have known that I needed a catastrophe of epic proportions in order to activate a self-confidence, self-advocacy, and self-love bigger than what was previously possible?

Life doesn’t stick to a wish list when it bestows gifts.  It gives freely, constantly, and wisely.  If we endeavor to live fully, we must embrace all that it offers and avoid the temptation to curse the very things that were chosen for us with love and good intention. Only when we accept the full experience will we find the joy that we seek in this, the biggest gift of all, called Life.

Featured on Grown and Flown – Teen Friendships

I am once again delighted to contribute an essay to Grown & Flown, a wonderful website and blog about parenting teens and young adults. My current piece is about helping teens to navigate friendships.

If you’re interested, please find the piece here.

Thanks! Deb

Letter to My Elderly Father

Dear Dad,

Remember when I crashed the car and you didn’t get angry?  After you made sure that I wasn’t hurt, you laughed because the car was bent into a funny shape.  “Cars are replaceable. People aren’t,” you told me, and I instantly learned a lesson about values.

That single incident shaped me more than you know.  It shaped your grandchildren too because I adopted your parenting mantra:  ‘Don’t cry over spilled milk.’

We quote you a lot, you know.  Just the other day, when I was filling your medicine dispenser with the visiting nurse, I shared the sage advice that punctuated every task of my life, “Measure twice, cut once.”  You had an expectation of perfection and attention to detail that served you well.

Your standards perpetuate through those who have had the benefit of learning from you.  I don’t have the skills you had for building and fixing absolutely everything, but I try because you raised me to be capable and I still want to make you proud.

I suppose you were preparing me for the time when your own body declined to the point that you could no longer help me.   You wanted to make sure that I could care for myself. Now I’m caring for you. I don’t blame you for resisting my help. To do otherwise would be an admission of defeat or loss, and that isn’t your style.

It hurts you, I know, to sit out of life and let others do the work you used to do.  You want to feel useful and be productive. You want to contribute in the ways you did best.  But the body has its own plan and yours is begging for mercy.

Somewhere deep down you know that you’re losing your battle with age and illness, but you’ll fight until the curtain closes and never concede to the wishes of those who love and serve you.  I admire that tenacity (aka stubbornness) and recognize a bit of it in all your kin. It’s a signature of your culture and, perhaps, a result of your personal history.

Soon enough we’ll have to say goodbye.  No matter how much I prepare for it, it will destroy me, at least for a while.  How can it not? You were this girl’s hero.

I’ll try to be brave, Dad, like you taught me. “Show ’em what you’ve got,” you’d say, which always made me straighten up a little taller and believe in myself, because you believed in me.

I would claim to loathe the practice of sugar-coating life – of pretending, once someone is gone, that it was all sunshine and butterflies.  But now that we’re nearing the end of our time together, I’m hard-pressed to care about the ugly parts. Somehow, the struggles seem to enhance the story, and I wouldn’t want to cut out one bit.

It’s okay to be afraid, Dad.  I want to give you comfort and reassurance that all will be well.  To let you know the ways in which you are unforgettable; how much your life has meant and will continue to mean.

Every time I see a fish tank, I recall a sweet memory of you pacing back and forth in front of it to calm sleepless babies.  When I hear someone whistling, l remember how you always whistled while you worked and it makes me smile because no one whistles when they’re angry.  And when I see someone in need, I ask myself how I can help, because that’s what you would do.

As a parent, I question if I’ve done enough for my kids.  In case you wonder that too, Dad, put your mind at ease. You gave me everything you had to give, and it was more than enough.

Your life was modest but your legacy is immeasurable.  The inheritance you left us consists of intangible wealth – a toolbox of resources to build a solid house atop the foundation you set.

Thank you, Dad, for being part of my life.   I love you, and I always will.

Deb

Seeing Clearly

Clear forest in glasses on the background of blurred forest

Once upon a time, there was a girl who couldn’t see.  She had to wear glasses at a time when glasses weren’t fashionable but bullying was.

The girl suffered repeated indignities and felt shame for her shortcoming.  She would dream, as children do, and wish fervently upon stars, that one day her sight would be restored.  She knew she was hoping for a miracle and that miracles were only slightly more likely than the existence of unicorns.  But desperation never cares about odds.

Years later, doctors discovered a way to correct nearsightedness.  But the girl was too afraid to have her eyeballs sliced. The risk of a bad result horrified her more than glasses ever did.  Besides, she was older now, and the bullying had softened.

When advancing age made it difficult to hide behind contact lenses, the girl decided that the desire to have her vision corrected was greater than her fear of the sole solution.

Forty years of blurriness were erased in 15 minutes.  The girl rejoiced and paid homage, for her lifelong wish had finally come true.  She could finally see her world without a lens and it was alarmingly beautiful.

As the healing process began, the girl realized that she had recovered something more valuable than her sight.  She was able to reclaim a slice of herself that had long ago been severed – a part that she couldn’t love. Her soul smiled and inner peace was restored.

The girl could see clearly, not just outside of herself, but inside too.  She saw the way in which emotional pain can take up residence inside a person and cloud their vision, making them believe that they are incomplete, damaged, unworthy, or unlovable.  This awareness made her sad and regretful. So she promised herself that she would keep looking, keep discovering, and keep sharing all that she could now see.

Freedom at 50

It took me 9 years to get over turning 40.  It wasn’t until I came face to face with a new decade that I began to appreciate the waning vision of my 40-something self in the rearview mirror.

We can probably agree that mourning the loss of years gone by and dreading an approaching age is a colossal waste of energy.  And yet, to pretend that aging doesn’t suck to some degree seems disingenuous.

Show me a person who celebrates the onset of wrinkles and joint aches and I’ll show you a liar.  Tell me I shouldn’t mourn a gradual loss of vision and hearing and I’ll tell you to piss off. Because at 50, I’ve traded a bit of decorum for frankness and I quite enjoy feeling free to speak my mind.

This more direct/less hesitant version of me can get herself into trouble with looser lips, but fortunately, she is invisible to almost everyone – irrelevant even – which allows for some space to experiment with expanded boundaries.

This passing year has kicked my ass for reasons related to stage of life rather than age.  Some years are like that. It is this exact perspective – knowing that sometimes entire years can be clouded in darkness – that pulls me through to the other side.

A boon of middle-age is having enough life experience to know that bad times don’t last forever.  When Life has grabbed you by the ankles a time or two and shaken you upside down until your pockets are emptied, you learn to take your licks without taking it personally.

This isn’t to say that I don’t sometimes feel like a little girl who wants to stomp her feet and cry her eyes out.  I do, more than I’d like to admit. But for the most part, I’ve traded the privilege of falling apart in favor of maturity.

In fact, there are whole categories of behaviors and thought patterns that have been surrendered to decades past.  Embarrassment, for example. It gets little air time because I’ve learned that it doesn’t serve any purpose other than to make me shrink into myself.  I have no interest in becoming smaller. Besides, the foibles of life are my favorite stories to share.  

Other gifts of aging require the donning of my strongest granny-glasses to detect. The inherent desire to slow down, for instance, disturbs my hyper-productive mind.  I still want to do, do, do, but the wisdom inside begs me to just be.  This increasingly sluggish pace affords time for noticing those things that a younger model might overlook. Like subtle kindnesses, or opportunities to help a fellow human, or wonderful synchronicities.  Being slowed down, regardless of the fight we propose, allows us to reap the harvest of a different crop.

These days, aloneness is more rejuvenating than lonely.  Choices are easier and are made with more conviction. I am more compassionate with myself and others.  More forgiving. And free to experience life without wishing it were different.

Herein lies peace.  Releasing the need for everything to be perfect in order to feel joy.

As birthdays go, I’m less inclined to celebrate the year and more apt to celebrate the moments. I don’t make birthday wishes anymore, I make birthday observations.  From a distance, I can hear my 80-year-old self cheering me on and reminding me to say ‘thank you’ for the gifts that I will receive on this birthday, even if they look grey or wrinkled.

I don’t know what my 50’s will ask of me, but I do know that Life will conspire on my behalf and provide more than I could wish for.  

 

A Letter To My College Graduate

Dear daughter,

Sometimes I gaze at you – a beautiful, kind, mature young woman on the doorstep of adulthood – and I wonder what I did to deserve you.  I recall the work of child-rearing sharply enough – the disciplining, advising, nurturing and consoling.  But how it amounted to the miracle of you is a mystery. 

You exceed any dream I could possibly have had.  When you were born I tried to imagine who and what you would become, how I would support you, how I would fail you, and why life chose to put us together. But none of my predictions came close to describing all that unfolded.

I find myself wanting to reflect on our years together the way one wants to re-read a favorite story over and over.  Even the strenuous parts capture my attention in a way that they didn’t the first time around because I know where the story is headed and how crucial every morsel is to the overall theme.

I see how the world is better because of you.  I see how the future needs you.  And I see that despite my efforts to show you, you don’t fully realize how valuable you are. 

Graduation is an opportunity to indulge my desire to love you out loud.  In concert with mothers everywhere, I proclaim my pride along with my gratitude for having had the privilege of raising a child.

Life must be smiling at itself for the job it’s done in creating you, us, all of it.  Especially the love that perpetuates between us, filling the world with wonder.

As you make your way into the next chapter, far from my reach, know that there is nowhere you can go that my love can’t follow.  I will be right here, holding a space in my heart that was carved out just for you.

Try not to begrudge the loss of the familiarity that you hold so dear.  Keep moving forward in the way that you do, with a zest to experience everything, knowing that nothing is meant to last forever.

All that life wants from you is to say ‘yes’ to that which draws you out and brings you joy.  May you find what you desire, and be alert to the surprises that await you.

Love,

Mom

Stumbling Onto Mindfulness

I dreamed of a sinkhole the size of a lake opening up in front of my car,  leaving no way to get around it.  It wasn’t at all clear what I should do.  It never is when you’re confronted with a mammoth-sized crisis – which is exactly what’s happening in my waking life.

When one is in the middle of mayhem, it’s easy to feel helpless. Nevertheless, one must put on her big-girl panties and deal with the business at hand.  When she does, she may discover a secret hiding in the darkness.

Being forced to deal with an enormous problem is a crash-course in mindfulness.  The sheer size of the obstacle obstructs my view so that I am unable to notice anything else.  That which would normally distract or annoy me – the traffic, the dishes left in the sink….has no power.  I am here.  Now.

Here, in this very moment, is where peace resides.  Not in the future or the past.  Even if the present looks like a monster looming, it’s only an illusion.  There’s no need to escape – only to be still – so that the moment can show you what it has to offer.

In the past, I’ve tried to practice mindfulness but failed to achieve even a remote amount of satisfaction in the effort.  Effort is exactly where it goes wrong, I’ve discovered.  You can’t compel yourself into the present moment.  You have to allow the moment to capture you. 

One doesn’t arrive at this place without having to surrender.  You cannot be both grasping and letting go simultaneously.   If it takes a crisis to help you release into the now, welcome it.  Drop your worries like hot potatoes.  When you do, you will see that all is well.  Truly.

Eventually, life will begin to look friendly, even in its ugliness, and you will see that there is a place beyond previous perception – a place where you can’t help but become more than you were.

 

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