30 September 2011

Gift of the Sky

Sometimes it's easy to forget just what a gift we have in the sky that is above us every day.  It's one of the most beautiful things that we have the privilege to experience, and each day it shows us a new side of itself, a new way of being, a completely new artistic achievement that far outshines anything that any human beings can create.

In some places the sky is much more expressive than in others, with amazing displays of clouds and sunsets that can make a person stop in breathless wonder just to stare at the amazing sight that the sky presents.  Sometimes it seems that the sky is boring when it's covered by a thick layer of clouds or when it has no clouds at all and simply shows us its marvelous shades of blue.  But the sky is never boring, especially when we consider its breadth and depth, its moods and emotions, its personality and its passion.

We shouldn't take such a thing for granted.  Gazing at the sky with an appreciation for the gift of its beauty allows us to keep in mind just what a remarkable world this is that we live in, just what an incredible gift we all have in all that is here for us to see and do and feel.

And the sky does all that it does just because.  It never shows a marvelous sunset in order to garner praise, nor does it send us a refreshing rainstorm with the idea of getting something in return.  There's something for us to take from that, something that we should learn from.  We all can shine and we all can allow our beauty to be on display for the whole world to see all the time, even when our beauty is seeing its darker days, even when we get no feedback or return at all on that beauty.  We can shine as the amazingly creative and incredible beings that we are, all the time, and when we do so we should be just like the sky--not looking for any return on our efforts or on the gifts we give to others.  The gift of the sky is a marvelous gift, and the gift of you that you give to the world can be an even more amazing gift, for you are an absolutely amazing being.

29 September 2011


One of the best things that I've ever learned is how to be gentle with myself.  I used to be pretty hard on myself, especially when I made mistakes or did stupid things (and there were plenty of both!).  I would be rather merciless in my judgment and harsh in my treatment of myself, especially the way I thought about myself after such mistakes.  But now I'm much less judgmental, much less liable to make myself feel awful just because I've done something I felt was bad or wrong or even stupid.  Now I try to understand how things have come to be, how I came to make the mistake or do the stupid thing.  And then I treat myself with compassion--not as someone who's stupid or incompetent, but as someone who simply has made a mistake. . . as all human beings do from time to time.

The results of being gentler with myself are very positive.  I learn better now from those mistakes, because I'm not having to deal with my own anger and frustration.  I feel better now, mostly for the same reason.  I'm more relaxed because I don't dread making mistakes nearly as much now as I used to when I knew I would have to deal with my own anger and disappointment in myself.  And because of the fact that I'm feeling better, I don't make nearly as many mistakes, either.  It's a wonderful way to go through life.

I don't let myself fall into complacency.  I'm not a person who tends to do things to hurt other people, so I know that any mistakes I make aren't a result of malice or anything like that, so I should be understanding of myself.  It's not like I'm avoiding taking responsibility for my actions; rather, I'm simply being compassionate with a person who deserves my compassion:  me.

26 September 2011

Frome the Heart

One thing I always encourage my students to do is to write from the heart.  You see, there are ways that they’re expected to write–in certain forms and styles, with a great number of expectations from their teachers.  And that way of writing is a valid form of expression that’s particularly effective across a wide range of circumstances.  But it allows for little heart and spirit.  It allows for little creativity.  It keeps people focused on topics and certain ideas, which is helpful in sharing pure information, but it doesn’t allow for much humanity to come through.

So I encourage my students to allow their hearts and souls to be expressed in much of their writing.  I ask them to explore their ideas, to trust their ideas, to present their ideas with love and passion.  Their writing should be a reflection of who they are as people, not a reflection of what they are as students, yet most students learn writing as a performance art, and they write for grades rather than satisfaction or fulfillment.

I’m not always successful in my efforts.  Many students pay me no mind, and they continue to write in their same styles, never making the effort to spread their wings and soar into uncharted territories.  But that’s okay, I guess–that usually means that they simply haven’t become ready to try something new and different, to trust themselves and their expression.

In what ways do you stick to the tried and true, rather than heeding the voice inside, the voice that tells you that there’s much more to what you’re doing than the straightforward, non-creative expectations of others?  Do you ever strive to create things that aren’t the best you can do, that don’t reflect your heart and soul and spirit, just because it’s easier that way?  Or perhaps no one ever encouraged you to allow your feelings to enter your work, to strive to make your creations a reflection of your unique, one-of-a-kind self. . . .

I know that I don’t always allow myself to put my heart and soul and spirit into everything I create.  Nowadays, at least I don’t create for other people–but I also don’t create as a simple form of expression.  If I can get one student, though, to learn to write as an expression of his or her inner self, then perhaps I’ll have helped to bring something very important into the world, even if I’m not the creator of the expression myself.

Be brave enough to live creatively.  The creative
is the place where no one else has ever been.

Alan Alda

23 September 2011

Being Helpful

Everybody needs help.  Sometimes it’s hard to remind myself of this fact when I’m surrounded by people who seem to have everything together, who seem to be completely self-sufficient, who seem to need no help at all.  Other people can put on masks that make it almost impossible to know truly what they’re feeling, which makes us think sometimes that they don’t need our help.

But help doesn’t always have to be deep and intense.  It doesn’t have to be major aid.  It can be something as simple as carrying a bag of groceries, or volunteering to babysit for an evening, or even getting up to get someone else’s coffee for them.

The most important thing about being helpful is developing the habit of being helpful.  It should come as second nature to us, and be something that we don’t have to think long and hard about.

That said, though, the second most important thing about being helpful is knowing when our help would be more destructive than constructive, knowing when our help would be more about enabling than anything else.

I want to be a helpful person, but I shy away from it sometimes, convincing myself that a person doesn’t want or need my help.  I’m much better at it than I used to be, and I’m able now to offer my help much more often than I used to.  Someday, I hope that I’m able to offer my help freely without worrying whether others will accept it or not, but I’m not there yet.  I do know that as I’m able to help more people, I feel more fulfilled with my life, and I see my personal gifts being put to greater use than they ever have been before.

You have not lived a perfect day, even though you have
earned your money, unless you have done something for
someone who will never be able to repay you.

Ruth Smeltzer

21 September 2011


I witnessed a great example of just how cooperative people can be with one another today.  We arrived at Charles DeGaulle Airport with about an hour to catch another flight, only to find the airport almost at a standstill due to a security concern.  We had to take a bus to the terminal, another bus to another terminal, and then a train to our final terminal, while passing through two extra security checks.  The lines were extremely long, and people who had flights to catch knew that they weren't going to be getting to them in time.  All the while there were no announcements about what was going on, and no indication that the planes were going to be held for the people who needed to catch them.

While I saw a lot of concern on people's faces, neither my wife nor I heard a single word of complaint.  From anyone.  People went where they needed to go only to find lines that were going to keep them from getting to their destination, but nobody was freaking out, nobody was yelling, nobody was making other people miserable with their own inability to deal with the situation.  In fact, people were extremely courteous, and there were probably more smiles shared with other people--nervous as the smiles might have been--than there would have been on a typical day.

It really was a beautiful sight.  It was a beautiful feeling, too, and it was nice to be a part of it.  All these people were cooperating with each other, helping each other out, showing patience and caring, in a situation that was charged with the potential for conflict, for stress, for cutting in line and for yelling at each other.  But that just wasn't happening.  People of all ages and nationalities and races and genders (okay, only two of those. . .) were making the best of a bad situation without making a scene, without trying to impose their own will upon other people.

It's nice to see things like this happen.  It's nice to be reminded that people can get along together, even in difficult times, and that we don't need to try to resolve all problems through conflict.  It's nice to see the potential that people have to live and work together.  Things flowed as smoothly as possible today because people cooperated with each other and didn't try to put their own needs ahead of the needs of others--after all, we were all in the same boat, weren't we, even if we weren't heading for the same plane!

15 September 2011

How Relaxing. . . .

Sometimes it's hard for me to relax.  There's something in my brain that just keeps wanting to do things, to work on things, to accomplish things.  Sometimes I'll sit down with the intention of relaxing only to find myself getting antsy after five minutes and starting to do some sort of task or another, not really honoring my original intention of relaxing.  I think it's this tendency to not honor my need for rest that concerns me most of all.  After all, the human body and mind both need rest, and they both need the opportunity to experience down time, relaxing time, recharging time.  If I don't honor that need, then what good am I doing myself?

So sometimes I simply force myself to relax.  I put myself in a situation in which I don't have access to anything that could switch me to a task.  I can go for a long run or a long walk and force myself to go a certain distance so that I can guarantee myself a certain amount of time before I can get started doing something "productive."  I often turn off the computer and sit down with a book and give myself a minimum number of pages that I have to read before I can do something else.  Usually I'm ready to do something else after five pages or so, but if I've committed to fifty, then I honor that commitment.  Sometimes I'll go for a drive and find someplace far away from home, armed with just a book--not a notebook that would tempt me to write--or even a picnic lunch.

We need to honor our own needs if we're to get the most out of this life.  Constantly being busy, constantly focusing on tasks that we have to accomplish, can lead us to frustration and burnout.  It's easy to rationalize and say "this needs to be done," but the simple truth is that not as much needs to be done as we think.  And not everything needs to be done now, does it?

When I was a kid, I knew how to relax.  I knew how to do nothing and how to enjoy it.  Fishing was great for that--when I was a kid, I could spend hours on the pier, doing nothing but fishing--which, when all was said and done, wasn't much.  I didn't have the responsibilities of adulthood, the requirements of jobs and family, and my down time was great for me.  I need to learn a bit more from my younger self, and allow myself to do nothing again.  If I can do that, then I can make some progress in this life, and stop trying to accomplish so much so often.  Relaxation is beautiful, but only when we truly can let go and enjoy it--and that becomes much more difficult as we get older.  Difficult, but not impossible.

13 September 2011

Forgiving Myself

I’m a pretty typical person, I think, in that I’m my own harshest judge.  Whenever I do something that I don’t think is right, I’m the person who takes me to task the hardest.  I’m the one who’s close to unforgiving, the one who makes me remember things that other people would forget pretty quickly.  If I forget someone’s name, I get mad at myself.  If I do something that hurts someone else, I feel awful about it.  I hold on to things for much longer than I should, which obviously isn’t the greatest thing in the world for me to do.

But I am getting better at forgiving myself.  I am getting better at realizing that I, too, deserve my own compassion and understanding.  I, too, deserve to be given the benefit of the doubt.  I, too, deserve to be shown mercy for simple mistakes.

I used to be really bad at it–I used to almost never forgive myself.  But as I grow older I realize more and more that not forgiving myself is a form of self-abuse, and that I most definitely suffered because of my refusal to show myself mercy.  I agonized over things that didn’t really deserve a second thought, I punished myself mentally and emotionally when I could have been doing productive things with my mental and emotional capacities, and I kept myself feeling miserable when I could have been focused on helping other people to feel better.

I don’t wish to do that any more, so I promise to forgive myself more readily, and move on from my mistakes rather than foolishly and selfishly holding on to them.  If I benefit from this shift in my behavior, I can be sure that other people will benefit from it, also.

As we learn to accept our character flaws and broken moments,
and as we learn to forgive ourselves for the times that
we fail and fall short in life, we grow in our capacity
to accept and forgive others.

Gary Egeberg

09 September 2011

One of My Favorite Passages

This is the true joy of life, the being used up for a purpose recognized by yourself  as a mighty one; being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of  ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making  you happy.  I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the community, and as long  as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can.  I want to be thoroughly used  up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live.  Life is no "brief candle" to me.   It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for a moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.

George Bernard Shaw

Wonderful words to live by. . . .

08 September 2011

Focus on Others

A few years ago during a cross-country meet, one of the girls who was running for our team had to drop out after two miles because of severe pain in her legs.  She started feeling the pain almost immediately, but kept going for two whole miles before she finally couldn't go on any more.  I had run over the course to find her, and when I did she was in considerable pain, so we did what we could to ease the pain and then got her back to the finish area.  I was somewhat amazed, but definitely impressed, by her major concern when I found her:  "I've let my team down," she said.

While my first concern was to convince her that she shouldn't blame herself for something like an injury that was completely out of her control, and that no one felt that she was letting them down, I was glad to hear her words.  It seems to be getting more and more rare that athletes--especially young high-school students--are more concerned with doing well for their team's sake than they are with themselves.  She let me know in no uncertain terms that her major concern was how her team was affected by her having to drop out of the race, and that's something that gives me hope in a lot of ways.

We all are part of a greater whole.  When we do something wrong, when we do something to compromise our ethics or to hurt others or to build ourselves up at the expense of someone else, then we hurt the whole team.  And while we may not think of the guy at the cash register of the coffee shop or the mechanic who changes the oil in our car as part of our "team," they most certainly are a part of our worlds--if they weren't, we wouldn't ever run into them, now would we?  I have to think now of how I might be "hurting the team," whether that be among colleagues, students, fellow residents of our apartments, or simply members of the community in which I live.  Because even though I know that I don't ever do anything on purpose that might hurt others, I also know that some of my actions may inadvertently cause damage or pain to others.

I think that I was able to convince our runner that she wasn't letting anyone down, and that she shouldn't be harsh with herself for having dropped out of the race due to pain.  But she did me a great service by reminding me that even though her pain was very real on a physical level, there was something even more important to her on an emotional and spiritual level--not letting down the other people who made up her team.  And I thank her for that.

The entire population of the universe,
with one trifling exception, is composed of others.

John Andrew Holmes