Learning to Breathe

learning to breathe

I have been learning to breathe again.

I’ve been practicing breathing for a few months now. You know, the kind of breathing that requires a concentrated effort to simply listen to the sound, the sound of your breath.

No thoughts allowed. Just create a small wind tunnel in your throat and focus on that sound for twenty minutes. It’s supposed to be healing; a meditative exercise in calming the brain and body.

‘How does one not think thoughts?’ I wonder in my head as I try to listen to my breath. The sound reminds me of ocean waves on the beach in some small town along the Gulf of Mexico, and I picture myself on the sand, and, oh, I could use a week at the beach and–oops, there I go thinking thoughts again!

Letting Go of Tension

When I do this practice, I usually lie on my back on the floor with my knees up on a chair. This creates a release for my lower spine and gives me the best chance to not use a single muscle. Except for my breathing muscles.

I hold a lot of tension in my body, even when lying in this completely relaxed position. My neck is tight and my feet and hands slightly clenched. Honestly, when I roll out of bed every morning, I have more tension in my hips and back than when I rolled into bed. How does that happen? Do my muscles ever loosen their grip? If not in sleep, then when?

That’s why I am re-learning how to breathe, how to tell my brain that all is well. Then maybe my brain will give my muscles a vacation. Take a few days off, go to the beach, ahh the beach, the ocean, oh my thoughts are running off again and I was supposed to be just breathing, just listening…

Learning to Die

Have you noticed how an exhalation makes your torso collapse a bit? The rib cage shuffles down and the shoulders drop as the diaphragm forces the lungs to let go of their air. If I push all of the air out of my lungs, my entire body drops more deeply and more heavily toward the floor. Pausing between that full exhale and the next breath in, I lie in stillness like a corpse.


This place between breaths feels like a kind of death. When I empty myself of the breath of life and hesitate before the next inhalation, I am in liminal space. Between rooms, I pause on the threshold and take the time to examine where I’ve been, before moving on to God-only-knows-where.

As I understand it, the autonomic nervous system is divided into two parts: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. When I inhale, I engage the sympathetic so that my body is ready for flight or fight. My heart rate increases and my bladder is more than willing to empty itself.

When I exhale, my heart rate should drop as the parasympathetic system kicks in for calming and relaxing my body. In this state, I should be able to digest food and lose some anxiety. The bladder holds on and the bowels loosen up.

Not so much for me.

One Breath at a Time

My sympathetic system seems stuck on hold. Hyper-vigilance might be a good word: ready for anything all the time. It’s as if my body is saying, “no way, José, I’m not letting you die!”

Maybe I learned hyper-vigilance as a child, lying in my bed at night hoping Dad would come home so Mom could relax. Perhaps it was later when we were hoping he wouldn’t show up drunk to wake us up in the middle of the night. Possibly, I learned to be on high alert because of my personality, hyper-sensitive or something.

Let’s face it, the unpredictability of life presents a case for staying on the watchtower, no matter how safe your castle may seem.

What I want to know is: how do I let go and live now? Forget the past; who knows the future?

This very moment is what’s happening!

So, back to the breath.

Learning to Live

When I practice my twenty minutes of doing nothing but breathing and listening, I am learning to live in the moment I’m in. Trust the present being, let the doing take care of itself.

I’m not supposed to be thinking but here’s what I’m thinking:

  • The very first breath we take as humans is at birth. Our life in the womb suddenly opens up to the flow of air through mouth, throat, and lungs.
  • Then comes our first exhalation–a tiny death as life immediately shakes our bodies and creates fear and insecurity. We feel untethered. No wonder most babies start out with a good cry.
  • The next breath in is a tiny resurrection: Oh, I’m still here and I’ve been here before. I’m alive.

Something in Me Just Takes Over

And so it goes. Every breath a birth, death, and resurrection.

If it weren’t a mystery, we’d have stopped thinking, talking, and writing about it by now. But Life is wild. The daily-ness of each day, the normalcy of each creature, the magnitude of every morning. Why shouldn’t every breath we take be as astounding?

As I lie here learning to breathe, my shoulders settle for a better situation. A connective tissue clicks loose in my spine. An electric tingle sizzles on the tips of my fingers and toes. Small signs of change and movement towards release. I’ll take them.

I’m alive, I’m dying, I’m alive again. My soul longs for eternal life even as my flesh lies encumbered by the tension of suffering and death. With all of that to think about, I’m glad I don’t forget to breathe.

(Oh, and here’s a song about breathing: Love, Like Breathing)

Making Connections, Not Projections

Walking with my daughter, Carina, on a lakeside trail recently, I happened upon an epiphany:

I project when I don’t connect.

What I mean is, I create mental projections on the wall of my imagination if I do not have real-life interactions and conversations.

Like when a friend has not called me in a month, I might picture all the ways in which I have probably offended her. Another example is how I will tell myself a tale of rejection to make sense of an unanswered message I’ve sent with the sincerest of emoticons.

By creating a movie on the screen in my head, I can come up with all kinds of fictions explaining why someone hasn’t called, texted, emailed, “liked,” or otherwise given me a thumbs-up to acknowledge our relationship. When real-life conversations have fallen away, my brain works overtime to fill in the blanks.

making connections

For instance, while side-by-side with Carina on the trail, I was explaining to her how I had been feeling disconnected from my brother who lives in another state. I admitted to her that I hadn’t called him because it was clearly his turn to call me. Way past his turn, actually, because I had been doing all of the connecting in the past year or so it seemed. I felt a bit hurt and had listed in my head all of the ways in which I deserved better.

Also, I had projected on the broad screen of my skull a colorful parade of the reasons he’d been neglecting, avoiding, and even rejecting me. I had come up with some scary scenarios and worst-case worries.

Maybe some of my mental projections were true. My feelings were definitely real. But I had gone too far. You see, I had left the mainland where the wires and synapses fire at the sound of human voices. I had crossed over to the island of extended imagination where weak signals send scrambled messages at best.

staying connected

My phantom brother, in that far-off country without communication, had become a flickering kind of figure. Like Princess Leia’s holographic image projected from inside R2D2, he was trapped like an apparition in my memory. I could only tell myself stories about what was going on between us for I did not have the facts.

“Carina,” I said, “I finally just decided to call the guy, whether it was his turn or not.”

making connections

I had pressed the green icon on my smartphone. When he answered, I told him immediately what I’d been thinking and feeling. My throat got a little choked. He said, “wow, you got to that pretty fast.”

I did. We talked for a long while. He told me about how busy he’s been with his job and family. We laughed about some of the tales I’d been telling myself.

Thank God for smart phones with good connections. When we pressed our red icons good-bye, I felt so much better. I remembered my little brother. The kid he was and the man I love. There’s nothing like an honest conversation for dispelling hallucinations.

With Carina it’s easy. Together on the path, we connect before there’s a chance to project. With others I love, there’s just more distance to cover. It can be done though. All it takes is making connections.

Henceforth, I will remember this lesson: don’t project–connect!

Instead of playing old movies on my wobbly mental screen, I’ll shut off the projector and use that modern machine. Just press green.

 

Vulnerability’s Voice: See Through Me

As a grubby little tomboy climbing trees, I longed to be seen. vulnerability

“Watch me, Dad!”

He didn’t see me because he wasn’t around. My mom was always there but the “Bad Dad” impact seems to override a lot of the “Good Mom” effect.

Once when he was there, I had run crying to him because my kitten was trapped between two tool benches in the basement. As I remember it, (sorry, Dad, if my recollection is wrong) he rushed with me back downstairs to rescue the trapped cat. When he saw how she had gotten her head caught and was not hurt, he laughed and lifted the poor little thing up and out, showing me how easily I could have done it. I had made a stupid mistake and he teased me about it.

I think I dimmed the light in my heart a little that day, afraid to risk the feeling of exposure and vulnerability. After that, I grew smaller, wanting to be invisible for awhile.

Then came middle school and high school and I cried ‘watch me!’ to all the boys willing to look my way. Exhilarated to be noticed, I clambered up the pedestal which displayed the gold plate inscribed: “talented, pretty and smart !” I got good at balancing up there. Whenever I came crashing down, I climbed back up and fell again many more times.

What Women Want

Have you seen the movie called What Women Want?

I like it because it’s about how people, how women, hide their vulnerability, their true selves. It’s a story that makes us imagine what would happen if we could read each other’s thoughts.

vulnerabilityMel Gibson plays a typical male chauvinist (do we use that description anymore?) who runs an advertising firm. After a strange event involving a hair dryer, nail polish, and lightning, he wakes up able to literally hear women’s thoughts.

One of the minor characters in the film is a mousy office worker who gets stepped on and ignored all day long. She is nondescript and sad but no-one notices. Mel Gibson’s boss character doesn’t even know she exists in his workspace until he hears her thoughts in passing. Her perspective of life in the office surprises him as he recognizes her mute cries for help. She wants to be seen.

Her scenes, including the one where the boss discovers she’s been missing and goes looking for her at home, remind us to be attentive to those overlooked people in our lives. People so unassuming and ordinary that we see right through them, like an old shower curtain just doing its job. This actor made me think of all the quiet characters in my periphery whose thoughts might shock me if I could overhear the stories swirling there. Their vulnerability is hidden by invisibility.

What We All Want

On the other hand, we all know those other characters who stand out and rarely get missed. The confident, beautiful women who seem to have what every woman wants. The men with unquestioned charm and confidence. Picture the models in fashion magazines displayed on every page. Imagine the actors and artists and entrepreneurs interviewed before the camera. The powerful ones unafraid to voice their thoughts, able to stand tall in front of us all.

We put these types on pedestals and tell them how much we love them. We do it because we hope their fairy tale lives are true and we want to believe in them.

Of course, it’s not all castles and happy endings. When their worlds come crashing down, the surprise lasts only a moment because we know these posed and powerful are just like us…fragile, unsteady. Their vulnerability is hidden by the brave part they’ve been playing.

What I want

I want you to think I’m smart, talented, and pretty. But I also want you to see through my masks and tell me you really see me and love me.

What’s funny is how we do a disservice to one another by refusing to see through the masks both types wear: the hidden characters and the pedestal people. Vulnerability is scary.vulnerability

I am always worried about what they will think of me. How can I imagine that they are not more focused on what I will think of them? Crazy.

Every once in a while, I glimpse a freedom in which I am completely vulnerable and unselfconscious. Sometimes when I walk my dogs in the neighborhood or meet friends at a restaurant, I forget to care how my hair looks or what my clothes say. Other times, I don’t worry about saying something dumb or being less than special. In those moments, I am neither magnificent nor unremarkable. I am alive and loved in the world.

So Ordinary

I still want to be seen.

As a not-so-young-anymore person, I do not want to get lost in the crowd.  Yet I also sense there’s a peculiar freedom that comes with being ordinary. Have you felt it?

Aging teaches lots of lessons about being ordinary. As I have gotten older, I realize I can hop down off of all my pedestals. I can stop posing to be noticed.

On the other hand, I can step out of the crowd wearing some crazy outfit and wave wildly to my family and friends. I am becoming free to be exactly me!

See Through Me

I wrote this song, See Through Me, because I can relate to being in both positions of vulnerability: the invisible girl and the pedestal girl.

When others see through me as just another face in the crowd, I trust those who love me to notice everything about me.

When I’m feeling proud and tall, I trust those who love me to see through all of my posturing and love me for who I truly am.

When I do fall, I know they’ll gently lift me up again.

When I say, “watch me,” they do!

See Through Me

Look at me, I’m oh so ordinary

Just a face to lose in the crowd

Can you see me clearly unremarkable

Like the shadow of a passing cloud

      I’m paper thin, light as a feather

See through me

 

On this pedestal I look so steady

See my skin, the finest porcelain

Should you dare to shine a light my way

See the shadow of the shape I’m in

      So paper thin, fragile as glass

See through me

 

Another song I sing related to this idea is Closer to Free, also found in my new 5-song EP, Closer to Free.

How To Be A Great Parent

parenting

3 Parenting Essentials

parenting essentials
Simon Matzinger
Did you have a great father growing up? Was your mother perfect?

Are you a good parent, intentional and aware of how you’re raising your kids?

 — If you are like me, your parents were far from perfect.

 — If you are like me, you’re realizing that you have much less control of how your kids turn out than you thought.

When you’re in the middle of raising kids, trying to provide food and a roof, not to mention an education, how do you do it well?

All the parenting books you read can’t get under your skin enough to scrape out some deeply ingrained flaws. Will you transmit them to your kids? Are there any parenting essentials you’re missing?

You probably already know this but here goes:

Great parenting begins with the parents’ relationship.

3 Relationship Essentials

You can do a lot to become a great parent and mitigate the effects of your imperfections and ignorance about child-raising. You can:

  1. DEAL with your history
  2. WORK hard on your marriage
  3. Make GRACE the guiding spirit of your home

Take an honest look at the baggage you’ve individually brought to the marriage relationship.

 After that, share with each other what you’ve discovered.

 Now that you’ve acknowledged what you’re both dealing with, let grace find its place in the center of your relationship and home.

Short Story

parenting essentials
Mohamed Hassan

Let me tell you a very short story. I recall one tender moment when my dad hugged my mom and she hugged him back.

I was maybe 8 years old. My heart wanted to explode with joy and a sense of well-being in that moment. It had nothing to do with me but I still remember them in the dining room doorway more clearly than many other memories I have.

It was a rare show of love and acceptance between my parents. If they had cared for each other this way on a daily basis, my childhood would have been a completely different story. Their broken relationship impacted me more than the hundreds of parenting mistakes they made.

But where did their brokenness come from?

Short History 

My mom grew up with some family dysfunction which she never dealt with as a child or as an adult. My dad had his own traumas and personal impairments which he tried to drown in alcohol. They brought these hidden forces to their marriage, which was a train wreck waiting to happen.

At the start, Mom and Dad had very few tools for maintaining their relationship. With 3 kids in quick succession and Dad’s desire for autonomy not going anywhere, their break-up 13 years later was inevitable.

Forty years after the fact, I am still feeling the effects of that crash.

Long Story Short

If you are like me, you’ve seen a lot of marriages going off the rails. Maybe yours is one of them. You may think the kids in these situations are too young or too busy to be affected by carefully hidden flaws and faults. We may hope they don’t notice the broken parts of us driving us toward total derailment.

But they did. And they do.

From the outside looking in, others sometimes spot the problems in the relationship long before the parents do. Hard to miss the disconnect between the story they are telling and the way they are living. Their body language says more than their words. Likewise, his extra drinks and her bitter jokes make us want to brace for impact.

parenting essentials
SeppH

Children riding on this crazy train know something is wrong, too. They may be too young to register in cohesive thoughts but their bodies and souls know it. Their cells vibrate in the fear and anger frequencies of Mother simmering in the kitchen. Father’s baloney smells up the house whether he’s selling it on the phone or right there in the living room.

History Lesson

If you are like me, you’ve had or have a few blindspots of your own in parenting.

My husband and I have 3 grown-up kids who’ve told us what it was like to be on board when Dad and Mom were conducting their lives like crazy people.

Some of the disconnects? Too much fear in the decision-making. A little too heavy on the helicopter parenting. Not enough practicing of what we preached. Just a couple of dumb thirty-somethings acting like we knew everything.

As a homeschooling mom, I’d thought my nurture plus their “perfect” education would equal all kinds of easy for them. Turns out they borrowed some of my baggage and even added some pieces of their own. No magic formulas.

Notwithstanding the personal flaws we must own apart from our parents’ influence, what hope do we have with so much history to overcome?

1. First Parenting Essentials: Name and Release Your Elephants

parenting essentials
Larry Li

Your number one priority is to DEAL with the forces that have shaped you. Each marriage has two individuals who bring some baggage to the bedroom, living room, and kitchen.

When we acknowledge and name the elephants in the room, they begin to shrink and find their rightful places. Then we can send them on their way to a sanctuary for worn-out animals.

My husband and I each lumbered into our relationship encumbered with our fathers’ alcohol addictions and our mothers’ anxiety. It took us awhile to begin dissecting and dismantling their effects even as we were raising our three children.

Recovery groups, counseling, bravery, and honesty gave us the traction we needed for growing up as grown-ups.

(I offer a small disclaimer: our work is never done. I think I will be working on growing up until the day I die.)

2. Next Parenting Essentials: Get to Work on Your Marriage!

The saying goes, if you are coasting, then you’re going downhill.

How parents relate to each other is of utmost importance. If kids know Mom and Dad are solid, they walk their own paths with a bit more confidence. If kids can trust the love Dad and Mom have for each other, they are likely to trust in their own ability to love and be loved.

But we married people know that stress and time can jangle the nerves and loosen the love we once had for each other. We are going to have to work at it if it’s going to last. No matter what the movie stars say, I say we’d better get some good tools for the long haul. Gotta keep the wheels greased because the friction is inevitable.

Get counseling. Ask hard questions. Tell hard truths and don’t be so defensive!

You’ve got this because people have been making marriages work for a long time. Find those people and ask them how it can possibly be done! Put lots of tools in your marriage tool box and then use them.

Read more on how your relationship impacts your kids

and the ways our parents affect our relationships.

3. More Parenting Essentials: Grace is a Superpower

parenting essentials
Mohamed Hassan

GRACE is essential for any lasting relationship. It is impossible to have a good marriage and solid family life without that 5-letter word for getting more than you deserve. Gifts for the bratty. Kisses for the prickly people.

The reason for hope even if you think you’ve already done too much damage:

 — Grace is a superpower.

 — Grace works forwards and backwards, bending and softening the boundaries of space and time.

 — Grace hangs out with other commendable characters like Mercy and Humility.

I’m sorry,” “forgive me,” “I forgive you,” and “I love you” are their constant conversation.

These 3 characters can mend a multitude of wrongs. Their love steps back over time boundaries and transforms what once was bad into the shape of a blessing. They move magically through space, waving wands that heal wounds and turn scars into touchstones for others.

True Story

I have a friend whose 25 year marriage should have been history 10 years in. Her name isn’t Grace but it should be. Her response to his adultery, after her initial shock and anguish, was an attitude of “let’s start over from here.”

Instead of condemning him and leaving, my friend stayed. She offered forgiveness and grace in huge quantities. She began to look at her part in the mess. And together, they began the slow and painful work of sifting through their baggage in the wreckage.

 Grace, mercy, and humility permeate their home to this day because together, they found — and still find —  a way to stay. This has had an immeasurable impact on their children.

End of Story

If I had refused to look at the sickness I brought to my marriage 30 years ago, would I be married today?

If I had refused to compromise and not let my husband’s needs and desires soften my hard edges, where would we be now?

 If I had let resentment and un-forgiveness simmer in my kitchen, would the smell and stench have overwhelmed the entire household?

Yes, our kids did get some of the brokenness their mom and dad brought to the relationship. However, the honesty we brought to our struggles, the work we did separately and together, and the grace we gave each other on a daily basis were like fresh layers of blacktop. They smoothed over some of the roughest bumps on the road.

It’s OK if you are already in the midst of parenting. Even if your kids are grown, there’s hope because it’s never too late to work on relationships. Being honest and humble with our grown up kids keeps the door open for unexpected graces to drop by.

Here’s what I’m saying: Great parenting is not easy, pretty, or tied up in a lovely bow. But it’s good, solid, and strong. Like a sturdy train on a steel track with a gentle grade.

  1. DEAL with your history
  2. WORK hard on your marriage
  3. Make GRACE the guiding spirit of your home

(related post: Closer to Free)

I’m Worse Than You Think!

finding freedom from judgment

Finding Freedom from Judgment

I heard a Christian pastor announce that he had decided to stop worrying about what other people thought of him. He needed freedom from judgment. He chose to be honest with himself and say,

“Yeah, if they are judging me, they’re probably right. Not only that, I am actually worse than they think I am.”

finding freedom from judgment

My friend, Cathy, once lamented about her selfish and judgmental thoughts rearing their ugly heads in one of her college classes.

Her impatient and mean thoughts about some of the other students surprised her.

I said that’s why it’s a gift that we can keep our thoughts to ourselves. If everyone could hear what everyone else was thinking, the world would erupt in all our private wars made public.

“Fake it till you make it” makes a lot of sense in this context. This has worked for me many times.

Or has it?

Maybe my faking it is like a teenager who cleans up her trashed house after her illicit party but before her parents get home. They don’t see the breach in trust but the lie hovers in the house and does some hidden damage of its own.

Perhaps finding freedom from people’s judgments of me AND freedom from my own judgments of others is going to cost me more than a hurried house cleaning.

Is there a better approach to finding this kind of freedom?

My Ugly Underside

I was walking along with a crowd of typical American families recently — judgment alert— and noticed the many overweight people around me, their soda straws pressed between their lips and the french fries pouching on their hips.     

I pulled my husband Scott aside.      freedom from judgement

“I have a really mean joke that I just thought of,” I giggled.

“What?” He grinned, warming to this rare confession of my judgmental cruelty.

I said, “imagine a T-shirt for kids that said, ‘Destined for Greatness’ only the ‘Greatness’ is crossed out and below it is scribbled, ‘Fatness.’ Ha! Get it? All of these fat American parents are raising their kids to be fat!”

He was shocked. It really isn’t funny. It is quite mean and arrogant of me. Easy for me to laugh when I’ve done the parenting and nutrition thing perfectly—NOT!

Hear My Confession

The next week we were hanging out with friends and Scott began to tell this story. Midway through, he realized he was about to confess my sin. Giving him a sideways glance, I picked up where he’d left off and finished the story in all its gory detail.

I’m not sure if any of our friends thought it was funny. But if they had any lingering doubts about my proud and  wicked heart, I certainly dispelled them.

That night, I lay awake regretting the revelation of my depravity. A vulnerability hangover of sorts. BUT—was I sad about my judgmental heart or just embarrassed to be outed?

The next morning it dawned on me that I could be glad that the blackness of my heart had been laid bare. Especially to friends that, I think, love me.

No more pretending. I am free to be me. I had a taste of freedom from judgment. Yum!   

freedom from judgement 

What’s The Point?

  • I write this for people like me who long for freedom from pretense, long to tell the truth—show the truth about themselves.
  • I write for Christians imprisoned by the belief they have to present a picture-perfect, “what would Jesus do” kind of life.
  • I write to encourage self-righteous or shame-filled people to find freedom by telling the truth about themselves.
  • I write at my own risk of losing (or gaining) a reputation, friends, acceptance, and love.

The ugly underside that we try to hide is actually the key to finding freedom from judgment.

When we stop pretending, we can also let go of the judgments we make and the ones we fear from others. 

 

freedom from judgement
https://www.thedailymind.com/quotes-2/14-quotes-judging-judged/

Finding Freedom From Judgment

I have spent a lot of my adult life trying to look good—be good—when in fact I am not all that good.

Some of my sins I can keep between me and Jesus. He says He loves and forgives me unconditionally. Not every confession need be public. 

However, other transgressions are painfully obvious so I’d better get honest with myself and others.

Pretending has created lots of space between me and would-be friends. I have presented myself as a whole-grain-cookie-eating, Bible-reading, clean-freaking woman.

  • Why would someone want to come under my radar?
  • Why should I be surprised that people think I’m better than I am?
  • Do I really think my friends don’t smell my baloney from a mile away?
  • Am I afraid they won’t love me when I’m not awesome? 
  • Will they love me because I’m not perfect?

Will you love me even though you know the truth?

Now that I am not pretending and defending my own righteousness, I can look at you without condemnation. Admitting my own mess frees me to have compassion for your struggle. 

It’s true: I am judgmental, proud, and mean sometimes.

So if you are judging me now, you’re probably right.

In fact, I’m worse than you think!

 

other related posts from me: Making Pretend and Closer to Free

I Wanted My Dog Dead

sweet white dog

“But I’m Finding Compassion Instead”

I’ve threatened to kill Luna.

I’ve cursed her name. I’ve smacked her on the butt a few times in her life. Oh, and maybe kicked her lightly once as she went out the door.

Luna is the family dog. Throughout the 13 years of her life with us, she has deposited pee, poop, puke, and piles of her white fur on every inch of my floors and carpets. Her fur is woven into the upholstery as well as into my clothing, especially my favorite black polar fleece jacket, a magnet for her stiff white hairs.

In the family we like to say that Luna has been everywhere we have been, all over the world, really. Her hair is in our suitcases and guitar cases, on our coat sleeves and the soles of our shoes. I have had a hard time finding compassion for this animal. As far as I go, try as I may, I can’t get away from Luna.

finding compassion learning lessons for graceful aging from my dog
Young Luna with my youngsters

We all loved her from the start. She was so sweet and shy when we rescued her as a puppy. The kids and I thought her shyness would melt with our love. The people at the shelter said she’d been found in a ditch, possibly abused and abandoned. We all showered our cream-colored pup with affection as we brought her up in the safety and security of our family.

Thirteen years later, she still flinches at quick-reaching hands and threatens to bite those hands that have fed, petted, and thrown countless tennis balls across the lawn. She’s an emotional wreck when any family member comes home — doing her weird whiny throat yodel — as if she’s surprised we haven’t abandoned her. Lunacy! Her defensiveness and neuroses are mysteries we may never understand.

All The Rage

Now that she’s older, she’s decided to potty-train in reverse. I am finding fresh pee stains on my new shag carpet. She can’t hold it as she used to, and she seems confused by body signals that used to tell her to go outside.

So it’s back in the kennel at night and when we go out, the one we used for potty-training when she was a puppy. I’ve even purchased some doggy diapers at the pet supermarket. As I run the vacuum, I realize that her fur accounts for 85% of the dirt I’ve sucked up for 13 years. Why do I even have dogs in my house?

And as I watch her age, my rage grows. It’s not just the fresh pee or the perennial fur. Luna is the embodiment of all that I cannot control.

We’re both getting older. And we’re both wearing out.

We spend a lot of time together now that the kids have grown up and out of the house. In the mornings, she’s a little leg-stiff. Me, too. We both hobble out of our beds and head outside to scan for life on the lawn. Squirrels and birds scatter as we step onto our mossy grass and sniff the wind. We find a comfortable seat and settle in, staying out there under the trees all day when it’s warm. We like to go for afternoon walks in the woods with our other dog, sweet (non-shedding) Josie. We keep moving even though it would be easier to sit still.

 

finding compassion learning lessons for graceful aging from my dog
A walk in the woods with Josie and Luna

Graceful Aging

Luna was a great athlete in her youth. Her sport of choice: Tennis Ball. She awed everyone with her soaring mid-air catches. Our joy was in recognizing her joy, the embodiment of doing exactly what she was created to do: run, leap, land, and loop back to do it all again. And again. And again. And again.

Perhaps too many rough landings led to those shaky back legs of hers. I admire how, even now, she’ll surge after a squirrel, though she’ll pay for it in pain later.

I can sometimes see her attributes:

  • She stays clean and white and doesn’t smell bad.
  • She cleans sweet Josie’s eyes and ears.
  • She accepts each day as it comes and lives in the moment.
  • She doesn’t seem to worry about what the future holds.

I’m trying to learn from Luna. Soon enough, one of us will die, and the odds are against her.

My brother’s dog, Annie, died last month. He and his family are heartbroken. She’d been a part of their family for a long time. I think I would miss Luna if she died today.

Finding Compassion

She has become a mirror for me. After years of our love/hate relationship, I have reached a new awareness: If I can learn to find compassion for this dog, perhaps I can find some for myself.

Luna teaches me to get creative with aging. Some new tricks I am learning:

  • Bending over again and again to clean her mess offers me a constant choice of cursing versus gratitude.
  • Scratching her favorite spot behind her ears gives me pause to recall the years of walking this dog with my husband, kids, grandma, and neighbors.
  • Pondering the love she accepts and gives prompts me to remember the love I get and give away, too.
  • Finding compassion when she flinches for no good reason helps me acknowledge my own flinching fears, still with me after all of these years.

Something tells me I’m never going to get control of all the chaos in my life, whether it’s dog crap or my own crap. In fact, I suspect I will have less control over normal things, the older I get.

Strange how we often end the way we start: a little unsteady and needing a close eye. Like infants and the elderly, dogs like Luna often just want a little love, patience, and compassion.

I had never intended to kill Luna. I guess I don’t really want her dead.

She’s out on the porch now, barking at me through the glass, demanding to come in. Today, I will open the door and scratch her ears as she enters, offering an extra dose of love. She’ll thank me with a grunt and a shake, depositing a fresh sprinkling of her lovely white fur on my freshly-vacuumed rug.

Read next: Closer To Free

Get Out of Your Head and Into Health

emotional mental health

“3 Unusual Ways to Move Toward Emotional & Mental Health”

I sometimes totter on the edge of despondency. Especially in winter.

If you are like me, you get stuck in your head and need help moving toward emotional and mental health.

Do you have a secret sadness? Maybe a shapeless grief you can’t explain?

What if some unique and creative activities could alleviate melancholy for people like us?

I have found 3 unusual ways to keep despondency at bay. I’m not suggesting changing anything your doctor has prescribed — just bringing a little color to the palette.

These 3 exercises are not easy — but they are good!

1.  TELL YOUR STORYmental emotional health

When I was in my twenties, I had an eating disorder called bulimia. Looking back, I wonder at how much of my story I kept stuffed inside, rarely sharing the hidden parts of myself. Fresh out of childhood, my feelings were trying to surface but I didn’t have an escape hatch for them. This disorder kept me from dealing with the story of my past.

Then I met Scott, who later became my husband. He helped me take an honest look at my life and begin to tell my story. When I told him about my bingeing and purging, it was like a tiny shaft of light broke into my cellar. My heart felt less heavy and I began to let the truth about my childhood come out.

There are many ways to tell your story:

  • Talk to a friend, spiritual advisor, or counselor to pop the lid on bottled up emotions. Our negative emotions have a way of dissipating when they decompress and spread their weight across other shoulders.
  • Journal. Pen on paper helps disentangle the jumble of thoughts and feelings in our minds and bodies.
  • Pray. Our creator knows our weaknesses and fears. He listens well and won’t be surprised by anything we have to say.
  • Form a fictional tale from your experiences or current turmoil. You don’t have to be writer to create a character that acts as a mirror. Can you create a short story to represent what’s stirring deep in your soul?

2.  WRITE A SONGemotional mental health

I am the kind of person who spins and spins inside my head until I make myself dizzy and sick. Songwriting has helped me work out a lot of sadness, confusion, and anger in my life. In the process, I found a lot of hope and healing.

Years ago, I wrote a song called “Tell Your Story.” As a recording artist, I had the luxury of writing and recording my kind of crazy. Call it music therapy.

Writing a song can be tricky but it’s not as hard as you think. You’ve listened to countless songs in your life and even followed the lyrics on a page as you listened to a favorite artist. What if you grabbed one of those song lyrics you love and used it as a model, a template for writing your own lyric?

  • Try to write and sing your lyrics to the same rhythm and melody as the song you are using as a framework. You’re not trying to plagiarize and publish here.
  • Connect to the emotion of the song you love and write your own words and music.
  • Build on snippets from your journal or a poem that connects to your soul.
  • Create a tiny soundtrack with your own melody. Go with the flow of emotion that comes from listening to a favorite song.

See if songwriting is therapy for your soul. If you want to go deeper, here are 10 more unusual tips for songwriting.

3.  SING OUT YOUR SADNESSemotional mental health

As a teenager, I belted out a lot of Linda Ronstadt ballads. Singing along with her soulful voice, I found a connection to my own soul. These days, I don’t sing a lot around the house or even in the car. I stay too much in my head and must remind myself to sing.

  • So sing in your shower, house, or car!
  • Join a band or choral group which can be especially healthful and uplifting.

Time Magazine explained the reasons why singing can lift the spirits:

“The elation may come from endorphins, a hormone released by singing, which is associated with feelings of pleasure. Or it might be from oxytocin, another hormone released during singing, which has been found to alleviate anxiety and stress. Oxytocin also enhances feelings of trust and bonding, which may explain why still more studies have found that singing lessens feelings of depression and loneliness.”*

I let go of the bulimia when I learned to find words for my feelings.

Can you bring your hidden insides out to help lift the weight of those heavy emotions?

When I find myself wearing winter blues or spinning inside my head too much, I get to work on one of these 3 ideas. Let me know how it goes for you!

If you want to hear the song I wrote and recorded with my husband as Out of the Grey, check it out here: “Tell Your Story.” (lyrics here)

If you want to learn more about songwriting and singing, my handbook/workbook, The Singer and The Songwriter can help.

Clap, Follow me, and Share if this gives you a lift!

Every Day the Dust Comes Back

dust cover

“Finding Mercy in the Morning”

woman in frustration at dust
Every day the dust comes back. I see it first thing in a slant of sunlight. The dust has returned despite yesterday’s efforts.
Grabbing my cleaning supplies, I begin again to remove the thin film on furniture and floors. The hood over the stove is the worst. Grease mixed with the stuff of dust makes paste. It would rather smear than disappear.
I think about Sisyphus pushing boulders that in the end will crush him if he doesn’t get out of the way. Live to find futility another day. Why do I bother, knowing that the clean won’t stay?

Beaten by the Peanut Butter

It’s like being beaten by peanut butter.

 

Once, when full swing into raising kids, I was making the PBJ sandwiches with that organic stuff. You know, the jar of peanut paste which has a layer of grease on top. Evidently, healthful eating means you’re going to have to work for your food. Thanks a lot, Eve and Adam.
So I began to wrestle the all-natural peanut butter into submission. First, I tried stirring in the oil which immediately heaved itself out of the jar like a rolling ocean displaced by a giant rudder. Undeterred, I slashed my knife deep into the unwieldy bog of organic matter, coaxing some of the oil to sink and soften the clay. Alternately stabbing deep then pulling up, I started to lose my grip. The jar slipped with the force of my efforts and shot to the floor. Of course, the oily mess went everywhere.
After some cursing, I reached to salvage what was left in the jar and dug out a chunk. I transported it to the slices of bread lying open and expectant like a hungry bird on the plate. Only this was no ordinary bread. It was organic whole wheat with a few other grains thrown in for mom satisfaction. Most likely the kids would complain about the grit but I refused to acknowledge it.
I began spreading the semi-greased peanut silt. I saw that even this hearty bread possibly made by peasants from another era was going to disintegrate with the force required for spreading. Like paste, the peanut butter grabbed the bread and held on, lifting and digging holes as it went.
I surrendered, cursing my first ancestors again.‘You win,’ I muttered and I found the hidden jar of Jif. I sighed as I spread its sugary smoothness across the bread. I had tried to do right, being choosy and fighting the good fight. But the wider world of disarray and futility had beaten me. Utility won the day.

Ground Hog Day

Think about entropy and the second law of thermodynamics. Gradual decline into disorder is the house rule. Increasing disintegration runs the universe. Why do I try to sweep up the pieces and put them back together again and again?
Because of the movie starring Bill Murray in which each morning takes him in a endless time-loop of the day before:Ground Hog Day.
After freaking out at first, he begins to use his new time-prison to express the worst parts of his nature. As each new day dawns, the same scenes repeat and he is mean, lustful, and gluttonous.
He eventually works within his confines to improve himself. Piano lessons and poetry reading begin to win him the woman he wants. Shockingly, even these cosmetic changes are not enough to fix his bad character which confronts him at the end of the day.
Still, as the days roll out in monotony, our anti-hero begins to try simple kindnesses for their own sake. Caring for others has a transformative effect on him. True love wins the day and breaks the spell. Time moves on and we recognize the grace of these recurring days in which the Patience of the Universe gives him space and time to become our hero.

Mercy in the Morning

 

dawn on a beach

There are Bible verses in which Saint Peter reminds his antsy flock that the Lord is not slow in keeping His promises. With Him, one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years are like one day. God’s not slow, He’s patient, wanting us all to turn and head His direction.
We get a new chance every morning. For most of us, it will probably take a lifetime of repeats until we get a clue.
Every day the dust comes back. But so does the dawn. And I begin to see it in a different light.

My Moment at the Well

finding life

He startles me as I walk up to the well. I hadn’t seen him sitting there under the trees. I turn around to face him as he begins talking to me. He says he wants some water to drink. I think it strange that he is alone. We are in the middle of nowhere. In the heat of the day. He has no way of getting to the water. No jar and such a deep well. He’s obviously parched. What is he doing here all by himself?

 People come from all over to sit and drink where Jacob himself once watered his flocks. He and his sons had walked these surrounding fields. This place is holy to us even if it isn’t to the Jews.

I mess with him a little. “You’re asking me for a drink? A woman of Samaria?” I know Jews don’t want to have anything to do with us. With me. Yet here he is, needing my help because he’s worn out. Thirsty. He is depending on me. How funny.

He answers me, saying something about if I knew who he was, I’d be asking him for a drink of ‘living’ water. He seems a little crazy. Well, I’ll take the bait.

I say to him in my sweetest voice, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?” I’m smiling at him like I do when talking to a little kid who tells me that the stones he’s holding are real gold.

Who does he think he is, anyway? This well has been here for thousands of years and probably took months to dig. Out of nowhere he’s going to produce this so-called living water and I’m going to beg him for it? I don’t think so.

“You’ll never be thirsty again,” he is saying. If I drink the water he could give me, he says it will become in me a spring of water welling up to eternal life.

Wow, that sounds fantastic. Water that just wells up in my body. Exactly what I need so I don’t have to come back again and again to this damned well just to stay alive and keep my dishes clean.

I’m so sick of trudging up and down this path alone with an old container that empties as fast as I fill it, with no kids to help, no man who cares to lift a finger for me, and flocks of women moving aside when they see me coming. Sure, fella, I’ll take some of that living water.

Of course now he tells me to go get my husband. Always turns out this way: women need a man to speak for them. A man to head the household. A man to stay around and do what he said he would do. I haven’t had any men like that in my life since my first husband died. After that, the others left or divorced me as soon as they realized they weren’t getting any sons and daughters out of me. Those liars are long gone.

“I have no husband,” I tell him.

“You’re right,” he says, “and the man you have now isn’t even your husband.”

His accusation is right. But how could he know that? He hasn’t been in town or hung around long enough to hear the gossip. And gossip they do, those heartless witches. No compassion- only judgment for a girl who tried to live by the rules but got stepped on and left behind by those rules instead.

He must be a prophet or something. This is getting interesting… and a little too personal. I wonder what he’ll say about those rules for living God’s way. If it is God’s way. So many rules that I can’t seem to keep to satisfy anyone around here.

“You Jews say we’re supposed to worship in Jerusalem even though our fathers worshiped God here on this mountain.” That’ll get him talking about what all men want to talk about: religion and politics.

He’s looking at me with a sweet smile on his face. “Woman, believe me…”

The way he called me ‘woman’ just now almost made me cry. Like I was someone he cared about. Someone he knew.

He’s saying that the time is coming and is even now happening- that it won’t matter where we worship God. He says true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth. He’s even saying that the Father is looking for those kind of people.

I’ve never heard anyone talk religion like this! It feels like he’s just toppled over a rock wall inside of me. I’m tasting the dust of fear and freedom at the same time.

I mumble something I’ve heard all of my life, something about the messiah someday coming to tell us everything we need to know.

“That’s me,” he says. And I know he isn’t lying.

All of a sudden, some guys are coming up to him, looking shocked that he is talking to me.

I don’t care. My insides feel like churning water. My legs are weak as if I’m ripe wheat, just cut down and gathered up into the arms of God. Something in me wells up and I begin to run for joy. I float and fly into town. Suddenly I love everyone and want to hug them and tell them about the man who knows my story better than I do. The man who saw right through me. The man who saw ME and still smiled as if he loved me, cared about ME!


That day they all followed me back out of town and down to the well. I must’ve sounded like a crazy person. But I must’ve looked like a prophet because they followed me and for some reason, they believed me. Like I was somebody that had tasted something they were thirsty for.

I don’t know what life is gonna be like around here now that Jesus has come through. He only stayed a couple of days. That was long enough to make believers out of a lot of people in this place. They said they know that he is indeed the Savior of the world.

Everybody’s talking about him. They feel the way I felt.

But I met him first. I got to talk to him alone when no one else even knew how awesome he was.

Now, every time I go to that well, Jacob’s well, I remember the man who gave me a taste of living water. Sometimes that visit seems more like a dream than a memory. But I know it’s real. I remember how he told me about my crazy history. How he said that he was the Christ. How he looked at me and loved me.

I don’t worry now that I can’t get to Jerusalem to worship. I don’t just hope that the Father knows I want to worship him the right way, because He already knows. Because even though I’m way out here in no man’s land, He came through once, looking for me.

Read next: Everyday The Dust Comes Back 

 

10 Tips for Better Songwriting

piano/ organ in amber glow

Whenever I hear the intro to Steely Dan’s song Ajajoy wells up in my chest.

Back when I was a student at Berklee College of Music, Steely Dan became one of my favorite bands with their perfect mix of pop and jazz.

In one songwriting class, my teacher Pat Pattison drew attention to the lyric from another song of theirs titled, “Deacon Blues”:

Learn to work the saxophone
I play just what I feel
Drink Scotch whiskey all night long
And die behind the wheel

To the young wanna-be songwriters in that classroom, that ambiguous line about dying behind the wheel was a puzzle and a revelation. Does the singer mean literally dying because he’s drinking and driving?

Or is it metaphorical for being in control all the way to the day he dies? Or both?

Steely Dan’s lyrical and harmonic complexities sparked my desire to write songs with depth. I wanted my audience to discover a new layer with every listen. For those like me who are still students of songwriting, I offer these ideas:

1) Listen before you write.

You can’t write a good song without hearing a great one first. Find some inspiring music. I like to set the bar high and get my creativity pumping with some Billy Joel or Joni Mitchell.

Maybe a song from my teenage days that connects on a hidden plane.

Joe Walsh’s “Indian Summer” gets me every time. I find myself back on our family boat, cruising the Susquehanna River near Pequea, Pennsylvania. It’s September and I’m 13 years old. The longing and loss of innocence and freedom wash over me like the wake of a waterskiing fall. I’m ready to write that song now.

2) Write every day.

Yes, schedule your muse and expect her to show up. She might be groggy. Feed her some coffee and get to work.

Let all of your jewels and your drivel out in the privacy of your writing room. You are practicing a habit. Later, you can pick and choose which ideas get to go outside and play. The rest of them will be your sad and sappy little secrets.

Consider it your job to produce Quantity.

Quality will emerge in spits and spurts. Sometimes pieces of one song actually belong to pieces of another song. Puzzle it together.

3) Spill your guts.

Pour your heart out and let emotions lead the way. If your heart and gut are connected to your song subject, you’ll be able to go with the flow for a long time. Stay slippery and don’t let the inspiration dry up before you’ve caught and landed all of your choicest ideas. I have a few exercises for doing just that in my Singer/Songwriter Handbook.

4) Start with a title.

Have you written some pithy lines and ideas in a notebook somewhere?

Do you have a few titles that make you want to sing?

Start with one of these and see where they lead.

“He is Not Silent” is one of my songs inspired by a book titled, He Is There and He Is Not Silent by Francis Schaeffer. I got all fired up while reading so I headed straight for my piano, pencil in hand. Borrowing ideas like “we are not quiet, we are not listening,” I came up with the chorus first. My creative burst followed closely on the heels of an inspiring title. Catch any thread you can and don’t let go!

5) Tell the truth.

Honesty is appealing, like the song with that title by Billy Joel. We’re all human and we love vulnerability in others (even though we hate to reveal it in ourselves). Show some brokenness, a chink in your armor. The Chainsmokers have a cool song called “Honest.” They sing the truth about life on the road and on the radio. Their candor draws me in to their artistry.

Read my short blog here about vulnerability in songwriting and recording new music.

6) Play with plagiarism.

What am I saying? Plagiarism is a dirty word. Don’t do it!                                                                                                             But, hey, we are all imitators. None of us comes up with a completely new song idea.

All creativity is derivative except the original Creator’s stuff. Everybody copies His work. So celebrate your influences.

Borrow–don’t steal– a few ideas from a good song you like. Then get to work making it your own and making sure there’s no direct copying.You know what happens when you infringe on a copyright, right? Write!

7) Be relatable and relevant.

No one gets a pass in this life. Hard is part of living. If you’re like me and you struggle with faith in God every day, then say so.

If you want to write a song about living with pain, go for it, but I might beat you to it.

If you want to sing about how staying in love is not easy then write that song. I did just that in “To Keep Love Alive.”

Teens love Taylor Swift because her music is relatable and relevant to their lives, like in the song “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.”

8) Run with scissors.

Take some risks. But only if you’ve got a point.

Controversy for the sake of drawing attention and outrage is not legitimate artistic expression.

However, there will always be blurred lines. From Randy Newman’s “Short People” to Madonna’s “Papa, Don’t Preach,”artists often try to shine a light on an important topic. Certainly, we write at our own risk. Everyone in the crowd won’t be jumping up and down. But some may be getting the message for a change.

9) Make every word count.

Should I use “the” or “and” in this line? It is a solid question when writing a pop song. The nuance of such little words affects the song’s meaning.

Also, pop music doesn’t give you time to spread your ideas out. They’ve got to be short, sweet, and carry a lot of meaning. Like poetry, each word can have a well of eloquence beneath it if you take the time to dig in.

10) Hunt and Kill your throwaway lines.

Admit it, you’ve held on for dear life to some crappy lyrics.

You wrote them on the fly and they fit.

  • They came so easy.
  • They made a great rhyme.
  • They’re so clever you can’t bear to snuff them out.

But they’re so predictable, so done already. Get more creative!

Much of modern worship music, for example, has lots of cliche´and little imagination. Many mainstream pop songs, too. Boring.

They can be placeholders but eventually erase you must. Hire someone or cover your eyes and take a stab.

Kill those darlings because you know they’re just no good.

11) Bonus Tip: Be an Expanding HuMan.

Learn to work in a new way, try something you’ve never done in your songwriting.

  • Sit at the piano instead of with a guitar. 
  • Find a co-writer.
  • Learn a few new chords, would ya?

You are not gazing through the glass anymore.You’ve bought the dream.

Remember, songwriting is the privilege of sharing the things we know and love with those of our kind.

PS If you want more Tips and Tricks and Techniques and lots of exercises to improve your songwriting (and singing), check out my book: The Singer and the Songwriter Handbook and Workbook on Amazon or my store.

PPS If you want other posts like these, sign up for my newsletter on the right side of this page and I’ll let you know when my next blog posts. CHEERS!

Top