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Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Fight to Excavate Joy

There's a difference between joy and happiness. Happiness tends to be a fleeting emotion triggered by something external: a promotion, a surprise gift, an Auburn victory, all green lights when you're late to work. Joy, however, is a state of being that exists even in the presence of worry, stress and conflict. It's a condition of your heart that allows you to find peace and gratitude in the hardest of times.

In my life, I've experienced so many happy times. Moments of elation that bubble to the surface because of what's happening around me. When I got my driver's license, when I graduated from Emory, when I met my husband, at my daughter's first birthday party, when my puppy greets me when I walk in the door. Happiness feels like little bursts of laughter in your heart. It's wonderful but fleeting in the next moment.

Joy is what sustains us. Yet, it's the most difficult to cultivate and hold on to. Joy requires being in an abyss and finding the flicker of light. It requires closing your eyes not to shut out the world and what's happening but to instead force you to look inward for strength.

How do you cultivate joy? It's not easy because you can only cultivate joy by understanding pain. It's like love and hate. Two extremes that require you to experience one to have the other. It's riding the waves of life that push you down under the engulfing tide, requiring you to hold your breath and fight for the surface, so that when you reach it the breath of air that fills your lungs is the finest breath you've ever taken.

Unfortunately, joy can get buried sometimes. It exists deep within us having been built over time from our experiences. But sometimes life is relentless and throws brick after brick, situation after situation, moment after moment to the point that we throw up our arms for protection. Pull into ourselves in an attempt to deflect the bullets. And our joy gets covered in the rubble of our circumstances. There but covered in so much pain, guilt, shame, anger and hopelessness that it's quieted.

But if we close our eyes, take a deep breath, and look inward. Focus on the flickers of light that brought us to the surface before, we can push ourselves out of the rubble and back into that place where we can breathe. That's joy.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

How Do You Exhale?

Last night, someone asked me if I've been writing. It's been months since I've tapped  into that part of myself. The creative who can put fingers to a keyboard and effortlessly put thoughts down on paper. Often subconscious musings that I didn't realize were brewing inside my mind until I saw them written down. I replied, "No, I'm not writing." And I realized in that moment that I've neglected a part of myself that is essential to who I am. I see the world differently when I'm writing because, ironically, I look outward instead of inward. Writing is vital to me. Like breathing.

When I look back, I remember writing poetry as a high school student after my brother, Derek's, tragic car accident. Poems about pain, faith and grasps at figuring out what the future could possibly look like. I didn't write prose until law school when my poems morphed into free-flowing expressions of existentialism, fueled by my reading Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Nietzsche.

When I left the intellectual cocoon of Emory and started working six-hour days as a young attorney in Miami, I continued to read books by Milan Kundera, Kahlil Gibran and Daniel Quinn. But I didn't write down the thoughts inspired by them. Over time, I stopped expressing myself through words and simply absorbed those of others. I didn't know why at the time, but I now realize that writing is a catharsis for me and not simply a form of expression.

I didn't write anything of substance again until we lost our daughter, Abby. Her death sparked a need to capture her short life and I achingly did so by writing a memoir. In that memoir, I renewed my intensely vulnerable and personal expression of poetry by peppering it into the book before each chapter. In looking at it now, 10 years later, I see the chapters as filled with memories and emotions. But the poetry reveals the raw pain that simply telling the story couldn't express.

After Abby, I lost my little brother to an overdose and my mom to her battle with dementia. My novels In Search of Solomon's Wisdom and The Beauty of Grace allowed me to process and come to peace with those loses. Exhaling the pain through my fingertips.

Over the past couple of years as I've faced yet another crisis, I've neglected writing. I've blogged sporadically about other things but by not allowing myself to just sit, process and write about this crisis, I've bloated my heart with pain that keeps forcing its way to the surface. I realize that the reason I've felt lost and unrecognizable to myself is because I've been stuck. Frozen. Holding my breath.

It's time to exhale.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Last Sunday, I hiked the Turkey Hill Overlook Trail with my daughter, Peyton.
As we started the hike, the initial ascent didn't require much effort. We chatted and she pointed out things along the way. But as we climbed higher, the pitch of the trail grew steep forcing me to lunge up it. It also became littered with rocks and slick inclines that caused me to lean over and secure my hands on the ground so I wouldn't slip. The trail became narrow and these precarious areas edged along drop-offs.

I found myself focusing only on the very next step I had to take, negotiating my footing and exerting myself. At one point, I had to stop to catch my breath. When I did, I looked up and out and saw a beautiful view. The sun leaked through the trees and cast an incredible hue over the woods and the colorful foliage. I realized in that moment that I'd allowed the difficulty of the climb to shift my focus from the beauty of everything surrounding me to putting one foot in front of the other, pushing myself forward, and trying to literally catch my breath. Instead of navigating the trail at a pace that allowed me to not lose sight of the beauty of where I was and who I was with in that moment. I'd seen the trail as the means to an end (the Overlook), rather than a beautiful journey of its own.

Recently, life has felt like a series of footsteps. Days upon days of putting one foot in front of the other, trying to push forward, without pausing to look up and realize the beauty of my life. Problems and situations can quickly consume our energy, our conversations and our thoughts. We shift into an emotional survival mode that causes us to see each moment as something to merely survive. And sometimes, that's necessary. Sometimes, we live in days, weeks or even months where survival--mentally, emotionally, spiritually and even physically--is the singular goal we confront each day. But even as we're living in those times, we need to stop and catch our breath. Even in those times, we can pause--however briefly--to look up and remember the beauty of everything else in our lives. To remind ourselves that these steps are only a few on our journey and that, no matter hard they might be, we will keep moving forward. We will reach the Overlook. And that the journey along the way has beauty and breath if we're willing to look up from the struggle to see it.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Pokemon Go and Perspective


In the past two weeks, we've all seen them. If you're a gamer, you've seen Pokemon--lots of them--everywhere. On street corners, in grocery stores, at churches and even on people's shoulders. You've stopped whatever you're doing--some even driving, talking or working--to focus solely on trying to capture these imaginary and illusive characters. There are mere seconds to concentrate all your efforts  on grabbing them.  At work, I've seen grown men walking around holding their phones in the air. In my neighborhood, I've seen people walking around with their electronic devices and spinning in circles. Conversations that span generations discuss strategy.

I won't begin to dissect the magic that is Pokemon Go. It's genius. It's captivated so many, created its own language and imposed virtual and fantastical characters that interrupt our everyday lives.

Such is creativity. Those who write, paint, sing, sculpt or otherwise put pieces of themselves onto display for others to interpret, criticize or relate to can all appreciate the fleeting moment of inspiration. We listen to conversations and hear intentions. We see beauty and think of the layers of creation and change. We hear songs and become overwhelmed with the spectrum of language and chords. And in doing so, creativity is sparked. Whether it's simply a few words, a design or a note. We see life spinning around us, taunting us to capture tiny inspirations. So we move. Attempting to capture something that will be gone in seconds.

But in seizing our muse, we can't be blind to the other things happening around us or wish to fast forward through a moment to one in which we can focus on our inspiration. If we do, we miss moments we'll never experience again. Last night, I had a flash of inspiration and wanted to sit and start writing. My husband and son were on the couch debriefing his golf game and watching parts of the Open. My folks, who are visiting from Alabama, were wading through documents we'd discovered in my grandfather's old briefcase. I found myself irritated that I didn't have the quiet in that moment to sit and write.

Yet, as quickly as my irritation rose, it subsided because I realized that I sat in the middle of a rare moment. My boys sharing time together over something they love while my folks reminisced about my grandfather. How could I want that moment to pass?

In the past couple of weeks, people have run cars into trees and children have been hit in traffic while stepping out to catch a Pokemon. Being outside in July is no longer about enjoying the summer but, instead, about catching a virtual character. In life, as in Pokemon Go, we must be self-aware to what is happening around us rather than focusing on pursuing what we want. Passions feed us. They bring life to us. And they birth incredible advances in technology, systems, works of art, writing, music and even ministry. But becoming singularly focused and not creating balance in our lives can hurt those around us. Those we love most. And, quite possibly, cause us to metaphorically run our car into a tree.

Embrace your passion. Allow it to feed you and bring you life. But remember that those closest to you are sitting on the outside of your screen and need you to look up from it.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

One Word, Two Letters Can Change a Relationship

A couple of weeks ago, my honey and I went to talk to a friend of ours about something personal. Because of the time of day, it happened to interrupt a critical 15 minutes of her work day. When I asked if she was sure she had time, she answered in a reassuring way that it was fine. As soon as she spoke, I asked myself what she'd said. Because one word changed the tone of our interruption and her involvement.
She spoke quickly so I wasn't sure if she said, "There's nothing going on over there that's as important right now." Or if she said, "There's nothing going on over there that's very important right now." One word interchangeable, "as" or "very." I paused in that moment not to dissect the intent behind her words because I know her heart. It's big and giving and open. Instead, my dorky, literary self sat in the magnitude of what one single word in the same sentence can do to change not only its meaning but how it's received by those who hear it.
Our friend's use of the word "as" tells us that whatever we need to share with her is more important than anything she is doing at that moment. To use the word "very" implies that whatever she is doing isn't important and she can spare a moment.
In a sentence of simply eleven words, a single word can change its meaning. Whether someone you care about hears that you have a minute because you simply do or you have a minute because they matter most.
Words are incredibly powerful. We tend to use them superfluously and not appreciate how they can affect another person. Alter their sense of reality, understanding or belonging. I live with and love a lot of "verbal processors." People who need to dissect situations by talking through them. But in doing so, they often create situations or exacerbate emotions in their need to understand. But for those of us who don't process this way and believe each word carries a reverency of truth and vulnerability, we ingest each word instead of hearing it as a single link in a process.
Words carry weight and emotion and revolution. We must always keep this in mind. To some, you can be hyperbolic but with others you need to be literal. Remember the power your words carry. Speak with love. With grace. With life.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Whispers

Our lives are filled with whispers. Some are quiet and some are loud echoes in our souls. Like a whimper in a canyon that reverberates and multiplies beyond its original source. While some are spoken and hidden in a cocoon that never allows them to go beyond the tight walls that encase them. Others have no walls and echo infinitely.
Everyday, we encounter things we perceive as truths by those around us and by those closest to us. We take steps each day toward being a better person, toward making the space around us better, toward helping someone else be more. And in that mess, we encounter pockets of insecurity, ineptitude and sheer inability. But we keep reaching and trying because we are all in this together. Trying to make one another better.
The whispers might tell us that we aren't enough. They might tell us that we don't matter. They might point out our inadequacies. Or they tell us that what we're doing matters. Like faint reminders that echo beyond today and into the future that our lives matter. Because isn't that what we all want? To know that our lives affected someone? Made a difference? Potentially set in motion something that changed the world?
A whisper that echoed...

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Truth in "Paper Towns" about our perceptions of people

Today, I finished reading "Paper Towns" by John Green ("The Fault in Our Stars" author). Admittedly, I started it yesterday. That's the thing about John Green novels, once you begin them, you're compelled to finish them not only because of the story they tell but the kernel of truth revealed through that story.

"Paper Towns" is a Young Adult novel about a group of high school Seniors, one of whom, Margo Roth Spiegelman, is a legend and embodies the idea of a Paper Town. Her classmates hear her stories of adventure and freedom. Road-tripping to Mississippi to hang out with an old musician and learn guitar or getting backstage access at a concert by convincing security she was a girlfriend of a band member. Her next-door neighbor, Quentin, loves this idea of her to the point of obsession.

Then, one month before graduation, she disappears. Following clues left for him, Quention embarks on a journey to find her. In doing so, he realizes that she isn't what he'd imagined. She is, in fact, someone completely different.

When he finds her, she explains how we're all "paper people," two-dimensional to one another when we look from a distance. Isn't it true? We look at those we encounter everyday through the lens of our own imperfections. Whether it's the seemingly flawless relationship of another couple, the economic stability of another, the social charisma or emotional intelligence of that person who always knows what to say and melts seamlessly into any situation. The family who posts amazing vacation pictures where everyone is smiling and happy, never grumpy or whining. The mom with the pictures of her child's birthday party that are Pinterest-worthy with their creativity. The mirror-selfie of your friend whose body has transformed because of Les Mills, Crossfit, Nutra-system or marathon training.

We see these and measure ourselves against these snapshots that are actually highlights of a much longer stream of film. The best of a multitude of moments. And when we look in from afar, we can feel happiness for them simultaneously with inadequacies in ourselves.

But those images--snapshots--are the Paper version. It isn't until you allow yourself to be vulnerable and embrace others while sharing yourself that these paper versions fall away. Like cardboard-cutout Avenger superheros. It's the broken, cracked parts of ourselves that let us see inside one another's hearts. See our humanness. Our imperfect perfection.

This freedom allows us to be truly accepting of others by allowing them to be themselves in their imperfect brokenness. It also allows us to breathe in the knowledge that we can be loved and accepted for who we are and not who we're expected or envisioned to be. The paper becomes clay. And in that, we can stop focusing on the image projected and, instead, focus on the person being molded daily by all that challenges us and limits us in our own humanity.

From "Paper Towns":
"Each of us starts out as a watertight vessel. And these things happen--these people leave us, or don't love us, or don't get us, or we don't get them, and we lose and fail and hurt one another. And the vessel starts to crack open in places...Once the vessel cracks open, the end becomes inevitable...But there is all this time between when the cracks start to open up and when we finally fall apart. And it's only in that time that we can see one another, because we see out of ourselves through our cracks and into others through theirs...Once the vessel cracks, the light can get in. The light can get out."