Three Things I Learned From Travel Abroad

There are two types of people in the world – those that love to travel and those that don’t.  I represent the latter. Perhaps this is because of my family’s history of disastrous vacations.  Think on the scale of flooding on the famously dry island of Aruba; visits to emergency rooms with infants; and violent storms that shut down major theme parks for the first time in their history.  When one spends savings on an adventure, only to be disappointed by unforeseen detours, the travel spirit dampens. Nonetheless, I decided to join Principessa on a service trip to Peru.

This would be just another notch in my 20-year old daughter’s international travel stick.  I, on the other hand, had never used my passport and wasn’t entirely confident that I wanted to for aforementioned reasons.  But I’m a sucker for an adventure and knew that the benefits of a trip like this would outweigh any potential travel snafus.

When locals commented with mystified shock at the rare occurrence of rain and fog covering Machu Picchu during the dry season, I tried not to look guilty, knowing that somehow the aberrant weather pattern resulted from my personal traveling curse.  

Disappointment was great but the commitment to rise above it was even greater.  Principessa and I pulled out every inspirational phrase we could muster to keep our spirits up.  This proved to be easier than keeping our cameras dry.

 

‘Blessed are they who are flexible, for they shall not break’ became a theme for our trip and paved the way for other valuable revelations to surface.  Following are the top three.

1.Wherever you go, there you are.

There’s no escaping yourself.  We may refer to travel as ‘getting away’ but the only thing we leave behind is the landscape.  Yes, we halt our daily tasks and forget our worries for a time, but we take ourselves, our essence, with us.  What we fear at home will continue to plague us. What we love will comfort us.

2. Everyone has something to teach you.

Everyone we’ll ever meet knows something we don’t.  It’s up to us to seek out the lesson.

  • The taxi driver in a chaotic city may teach you how to trust and release control.
  • Dependence on your travel companion to interpret the language may teach you humility and patience for those who struggle to communicate in your own language.
  • Observing your humble host family who gives freely despite their meager earnings may poke at your pride and make you reassess your consumerism.

3. We’re all the same

People may look different and sound different, but behind the costumes and customs, we’re very much alike.  We all feel the feels of life and speak the universal language of emotion – fear, worry, happiness, hope. We each, no matter the culture we originate from,  try our best, help each other, hurt each other, and dream.

 

Going out of your comfort zone is a must if you want to become more than you are – more aware, more humble, more fulfilled.  One doesn’t need to travel far from home to expand, of course. We can find these growth opportunities in our own backyards if we’re open to them.  But travelling to unfamiliar places ripens us for change.

In a literal or figurative sense, I saw myself in every person I encountered in a faraway land.  The beggar and the shopkeeper, the wanting child and the providing parent, the student and the teacher.  The more I allowed my thoughts of separateness to blur, the easier it was to see that we’re all one. And the more important it became to me to practice and promote tolerance in a world that seems so very fractured.

 

The Language of Dis-ease

UnderwaterTreasure2Illness and injury get no respect. They are the pariahs of the human experience, cast off and despised as adversaries or at the very least, inconvenient truths. If we took the time to acquaint ourselves with these repudiated occurrences, we’d not only lessen our misery but also emerge as victors who have captured an extraordinary prize.

My career allows me to work with the infirm on a daily basis. As such, I am privy to the language of dis-ease, which, I would claim, is one of the richest and most complicated languages of any I’ve heard.

Dis-ease speaks in unlimited dialects unique to each person – a language unto itself that can only be fully understood by the person to whom it is being spoken. The problem and the blessing is that most of us aren’t fluent in this language. Even those, or especially those, who suffer chronically, struggle to understand the messages of their dis-ease.

A young woman has cancer but is in denial. Months past her diagnosis she won’t let her thoughts attach to the idea that her body is under siege and could inevitably succumb. To do so would feel too vulnerable – like opening the front door and setting out a welcome mat. She pretends that she is the same woman now as she was before, fiercely self-reliant and insanely productive.

As many do, she mistakes denial for survival mentality and thinks that if she refuses to let cancer change the outward appearance of her life, it will not change the inner.

“Good idea.” we agree. “Think positive. Don’t give in.” We look on dis-ease as the ultimate enemy – the criminal who robs us. But dis-ease is not the enemy. Our resistance to it is the actual thief.

A man has had surgery after an accident and will be out of commission for weeks. He has felt angry and impatient. He berates himself for the imagined avoid-ability of it all. This is akin to thinking that one could skip 7th grade if only one had been more careful.

There are lessons to be learned from difficult times that simply cannot be passed over. Setbacks are perfectly-placed opportunities for learning. How would we learn true patience if we weren’t frustrated beyond sanity? How could we know the depths of compassion from others if we weren’t ever desperate for help?

In my children’s elementary school they set aside an educational block called WIN – What I Need. During this time, the students break off into groups tailored to an area of deficiency. Life School has What I Need. Naturally, we’d rather go to recess than to WIN. But on that one day, perhaps a very difficult day when we’ve all but given up, something clicks and we GET IT. We get that we need to:

accept help
face mortality
learn how to prioritize
ask for what we need and want
shed vanity
learn how to channel anger and jealousy
surrender our agenda…….

The lightbulb turns on and we realize what life, our teacher, has been trying to teach us all these years. We have seen this problem before – back in ‘Relationship Breakup Class’ and in ‘Becoming a New Parent Class’, and in ‘Loss of a Job Class.’ It took another crisis for us to see it, but it all makes sense now. Life, the best teacher ever, refuses to give up on us. It keeps presenting us with new opportunities to learn.

Sister found me half-asleep, curled up on a couch in a quiet room away from the other partygoers for whom I had been pretending to be well. Ever so tenderly, she covered me with a blanket then silently crept away. A single tear materialized and a relaxed rush of emotion spread through my aching body. This one simple gesture was an enormous gift of caring that moved me and saddened me. How long had it been since someone had mothered me? How long since I allowed someone to try? Sickness was the circuit-breaker that blew my fuse, presenting the darkness I needed where I wouldn’t otherwise choose to shut down the overload.

If illness is knocking at your door, you can pretend you’re not home but it won’t go away. It’s there FOR you. Everything that happens TO us happens FOR us. Perhaps, instead of cursing dis-ease, we could thank it. Even if we don’t clearly see the lesson plan, we can be assured that there is one and can be grateful that this teacher has shown up to present it.

If we refuse to stretch our awareness and refuse to relax our grip on our incomplete understanding of life, we risk becoming bitter and fear-filled. Anxiety reigns in those who believe in ghosts. Dis-ease doesn’t want to hurt us and leave us empty-handed. It’s not looking for a fight, this sheep in wolves’ clothing. It wants us to grow.

Sometimes dis-ease brings us to the brink of death and dysfunction in order to see. Don’t be afraid. Open your eyes. Look with your heart. Let your mind expand. Find the gifts that are hidden beneath the surface like buried treasure.

There is beauty in dis-ease. I insist. I’ve seen it. Not in the person who ‘survived’ for the sake of living and returning to a premorbid state of being. The real beauty is found in the vulnerable one who dares to surrender to the message. The one who says, “I accept this poker hand and I raise the bet. I bet that even if I don’t win the pot at the end, I will still have learned something about playing the game. And I am content with that.”

Halfway – Reflections From a Birthday Girl

twin peaks with flagI’ve reached an imagined halfway point – halfway between birth and death.  Research tells me that barring fatal accident or illness I could live to 90 years old, which sounds like a long time but it’s tricky to resist the ‘getting old’ mentality when wrinkles and joint aches pile up.

I’ve flirted with the idea of death and decline before, as have an increasing number of my middle-aged friends thanks to the ‘Big C’ and other cradle-robbing diagnoses.  What I’ve discovered is that if you marinate in fear of aging you’ll turn sour and ruin any chance of enjoying a delicious life.

I’m not the first philosopher to uncover the revelation that what matters is not how long one lives but rather how.  How have I lived? In themed decades, it seems.

In my teens I worried a lot. (About being popular and pretty and smart.)

In my twenties I dreamed a lot. (About success and family)

In my thirties I did a lot. (Bore children, cared for a house and a career.)

And in my forties, so far, I’ve learned a lot. About life.

Mainly I’ve learned that the older I get the less I know. In young adulthood I was so sure of everything.  The sky was blue, personal safety was my birthright and friends would be friends forever.  But maturity has a way of blending black and white certainty into a canvas of gray.  Losses and disappointments pile up alongside victories – twin peaks of the same mountain – and blur what once seemed so clear.  One day, maybe on a birthday, you stand atop the mountain and gaze across the horizon wondering, ‘what’s it all about and what happens now?’

In many ways I am at my peak.  I suspect I’ll spend some time here enjoying the view from the top. But I already feel the pull to begin my descent.  Life calls me to finish my journey in forward motion and not squander it with wishful thinking, refusing to budge from this sweet, sweet spot.

I know I won’t travel the same path down the mountain that I chose on the way up. I’ll bypass the gullies of naïveté and ambition and stop more frequently to cherish a loving gesture. I’ll be in less of a hurry to reach my destination and more willing to put aside my agenda in favor of lending a hand.  And I will love every step and misstep because it will remind me that I am still living.  Not just alive, but living.

In a sense I’ll be un-learning all the things that sustained me on the first half of my journey; gracefully (I hope) unraveling the knots of the rope that I climbed on the way up.  When all is said and done and I return to my starting point, I hope to look back with satisfaction knowing that no matter how many travel this way again, the mountain will never be climbed exactly as I climbed it.  No one can do or see or be exactly like me.  Each of us is unrepeatable.

 

“And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.” – Abraham Lincoln

Thank You For This

With my 43rd birthday in sight, I feel like I’m approaching a finish line.  As I gaze at the month ahead of me, the home stretch, I realize that I am no more immune to death now than I was when I first experienced my premonitions of death at age 42.  I am acutely aware that if Heaven wants me, it can grab me off the race track of life whether I’m thirty years from the ‘finish line’ or thirty days.  There are no rules, no fair and square, where death is concerned.

Read more please……http://wp.me/p1tP7y-2s

Playing Small

A friend, sitting by the community pool with several other mothers, listens with increasing irritation to their animated conversation which resembles a verbal contest.  The main theme: busyness.  The object of the game: one-upsmanship.   Who can claim the prize for the Most Overworked Mother?

Each mother in succession pipes in her list of parenting woes expecting sympathy, horror, or dare I say, admiration from the others.  The group serves as a collective listener though one is not convinced that they actually hear each other.  Rather, each is distractedly plotting her own strategy.

One woman, wearing busyness like a badge, pulls ahead in the game.  She has multiple children in multiple sports and activities.  None, of course, are grateful for what mother does to enhance their lives.  The conversation takes on a dramatic volume and pitch as this mother concludes with sweeping gestures to enhance her case.

Who will be crowned the winner?  Which poor, selfless, overworked mother has ‘it’ the worst?  Like a typical round of Monopoly, there is no end to this game.  The only real winner is the one who chooses not to play.  This is the mother who knows that complaining and blaming equal playing small.  This mother knows that an over-scheduled child does not make the schedule.  Mother does.

The pattern of giving too many yes’ and no enough no’s is one I’m familiar with.  In the blink of an eye, the family calendar fills to capacity and begins to bust at the seams, leaving mother in a puddle of exhaustion at the end of a day.  And always, though I forget sometimes, I am in control.

The desire to give children the world can obscure a mother’s judgment.  It can trick her into attempting to juggle flaming torches and spin plates on sticks while walking a tightrope.  When she tries this stunt and fails – because she will – mother may fall to the ground and, without thinking, blame her child for pushing her off the rope.  Silly mother.

Instead of egging her on with ooh’s and aah’s like a crowd at the circus, mother’s friends could say these words:

Get down here before you hurt yourself!  Your children need you in one piece.  You don’t have anything to prove.  There is no prize for scaling tall buildings in a single bound.  Your prize is here on the ground.  It is waiting for you to stop running around long enough to pick it up and hug it and tell it how much you love it.

 The prize will understand, eventually, if the love words include a ‘no’ here and there.  It may even thank you some day for setting limits in order to preserve sanity and closeness and family time.  At the very least, you will have prevailed in the Game of Life because you chose not to compete.  Instead of playing small, you kept your eye on the prize, your feet on the ground, and your heart in a grateful place.

I. Need. Help.

(Dedicated to ShaZam)

In my twenties, I practiced extreme independence and self-sufficiency.  I didn’t need anyone.  I could handle myself, thank-you-very-much.  From changing the oil in my car, to teaching myself how to sew, there was nothing I wouldn’t take on.

This fierce ‘hear me roar’ persona is one of the qualities that attracted my husband, I’m told.  Looking back, I must have appeared to be quite a catch – a girl who wants to be with a man but has no intention of depending on him.  Husband, bless his thick skin, wasn’t even put off by my frequent declarations of independence.  Me: “I don’t need you, you know.”  Husband: “Yes, dear.  You’ve made that clear.”

To my husband’s amusement, I would throw my 110 pounds into impossible tasks like loosening lug nuts on a tire or carrying roofing shingles up a ladder, refusing to accept help.  He only offered unsolicited help once.  His genuine concern over my safety was met with a Hulk-like reaction.  I didn’t quite sprout muscles or turn green, but my voice did deepen as I spit venom in my husband’s direction.

It’s comical now – my staunch opposition to assistance.   I naively equated dependence with weakness.  My black and white thinking saw no middle ground between complete independence and helplessness.  I wouldn’t let anyone help me for fear that I would be surrendering my power to them.

This supremely invulnerable alter ego continued into motherhood.  I tried to do it all – with a smile.  When number two baby came along seventeen months after number one,  and husband left for a business trip one week later, I finally fell off the scaffolding.  Cradling a colicky baby and a screaming toddler I cried into the phone, “I can’t do it.  I. Need. Help.” …..and the walls of the city crumbled.

The image of invincibility that I had built up was, ironically, as delicate as glass.  What looked like strength was actually weakness.   An attempt to cover up fear.

These days, I hand my husband a jar before I try to open it.  I take my car to the mechanic for an oil change.  I ask a child for help with the computer.   And yet, I feel stronger than ever.

I’ve learned that I do need people to help me through life.  And they need me.  We are inter-dependent.  Us people, we are gifts to each other.  When we wall ourselves off, we do so at our own peril.  And we rob each other of the gift of being able to help.

I still pride myself on my ability to care for myself.  I like being independent.  But I also enjoy knowing that I can ask for, and accept, the love and kindness that others have to give.

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