Suffering and Perspective

I’ve been meditating on suffering a lot this week. While I would prefer to reserve that word for what I think of as “real” suffering, such as malnourished children and painful diseases, Buddhists use the term broadly to refer to many unpleasant experiences we have in life. I will adopt that for the time being.

I’ve also been thinking about perception and perspective, which frame life into a story with a running narrative. The narrative can be anything from joyful to persecuted and the story will fit accordingly. My perception of inclement weather can ruin my day if I choose. I can take a longer perspective, though, and remember that it doesn’t matter because 10 years from now I certainly won’t remember a particular rainy day as being terrible simply by virtue of its rain. My perception of a tough superior or teacher can be one of persecution and mistreatment, only to later understand that I learned more from that person than anyone else.

So it is that the careful balancing act of living in the moment with the awareness of the big picture is often the best place to be.

It bears saying that this is not a free pass for mistreatment of others. There is no excuse for wrongdoing and harming another, especially willfully. I have been hurt by others who willfully chose to hurt me but I can nevertheless choose how I frame that treatment and reclaim my story. I can take my power back by choosing my narrative and not letting someone else write it for me.

I taught a workshop last weekend in which I referenced the hidden gifts that suffering can bring. I referenced the death of my Grandma, three days before my wedding. There are certainly many other examples in my life but this one is very powerful. I find that many people relate to it and can feel the emotions along with me when I tell the story. It took me a year to write about it but I did eventually manage and you can read it here. While I was lucky enough to gain some perspective immediately, the passage of time is the only thing that has helped me to grow in my appreciation of the WHY. Truly, I will never know every detail until I am on the other side, but I am learning that the story grows richer with each telling. When I wrote that blog entry, I hadn’t told the story framed in that way until just then. Now I tell the story as an illustration of a lesson and I find that others are benefitted by it. This has deepened my perspective yet again to one of gratitude, a place I never imagined in the first days and months after she died.

My Sister and Nephew! Brand New Aunties, Brand New NephewOn Sunday of this week at 12:17 pm, my nephew was born, thereby ending months of anticipation of two families and becoming the first grandchild on my side of the family. If there is ever any example of suffering with a purpose and prize, childbirth is certainly one! My sister suffered through the ups and downs of pregnancy as her body changed and she made sacrifices for the good of the child she wouldn’t meet for months more. As he grew, eventually things got crowded and the last weeks of pregnancy discomfort were enough to rob her of sleep and sanity. Labor itself can’t even be described by someone like myself who has yet to go through it. I can rest assured it was intense, painful, and exhausting. And yet, there at the end? When the entire family rushed into the room to greet this new life? She was positively aglow in joy and contentment. Her son was finally here and everything else that had happened was unimportant compared to his tiny features and perfect face. She had suffered to bring him into the world but the end result was there to frame all the struggle into a success story. Instant, forever perspective.

I don’t have all the answers. None of us do. I don’t know the reasons WHY for everything that happens. I do know this: Suffering, whatever the scale, is a necessary part of the human experience in order for growth to happen. We should still eliminate poverty and hunger and find the cure to cancer. Don’t get me wrong. Those are causes I support! But even with those problems solved, suffering would still exist. We would still hurt each other, sometimes on purpose, and people would still die and leave voids in hearts. The greatest growth comes from challenges and suffering when we rise to meet the occasion and then gain wisdom and newfound perspective.

Whatever I’ve suffered in my life, I can choose to see as part of my story that created growth or I can choose to see myself as ruined by the circumstances and people involved. I can choose to be a victim forever or I can choose to draw strength, wisdom, and move forward. I can unshackle myself with perspective since I and I alone hold the keys. I can even find gratitude for the lesson, later on. My soul is powerful and fearless, my body is made of stardust, and my life is an adventure. Suffering is just part of the journey.

That Redhead, Photographer?

Well, who’d a thought. I was hired just about two weeks ago for my first gig as a photographer. I actually never asked for such a job but am pleased and not a little surprised at the results.

Let me backtrack a second. I was asked to photograph my sister’s engagement portraits. It’s not exactly like I was hired to produce the cover image for Vogue or Vanity Fair. I’m also not pretending I’m a professional photographer.

So, for whatever reason, despite my forever and ever interest in photography, photography classes, and knowledge of my fantastic camera, I had never thought of pursuing photography. Despite the fact that my grandfather was a professional photographer and my father is a fantastic amateur photographer. I’m usually in front of the camera, after all, right? I also never realized how my time in front of the camera, on set and in self portraits, would actually teach me how to direct people and frame shots. Apparently, I’m the only one who is surprised. When my sister asked, I told my husband who simply shrugged and said that that was great and of course she’d ask. Huh. So I guess I’m the last to know but hey, I’m alright with that.

Now for some of my favorite pictures of my gorgeous sister and soon-to-be brother in law. They certainly made my job easy. It’s hard to take a bad photo of them and the chemistry is unmistakeable.

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I will continue this experiment as a photographer, to be sure. At the very least, it’s certainly fun to have yet another creative outlet! Lord knows I didn’t already have enough of those! ;)

 

It’s a Crabby World

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Have you ever woken up and noticed, as you left the house, that everyone around you seems to be in a crabby mood? In Chicago, the city of ever-changing weather extremes, this happens most on rainy, dreary, and snowy mornings. Traffic is terrible, getting to work takes forever, everyone is crabby in their cars on the way there, and then everyone at work starts the day crabby as well. “It’s just one of those days,” everyone says while shaking their heads. “The weather is just terrible today,” someone else remarks. And so the crabbiness festers and infects those in its path who can’t fight it off.

Yesterday was such a day. I’m still a bit jet-lagged from our trip abroad in Ireland, as is Jim, which has made for some odd hours here at our home. I can sleep just about anywhere, anytime, but Jim has been crashing before 9:00 in the evening which has made a wakeup for him in the wee hours of the morning. It took a while to get both of us awake and ready to leave. We finally got ready and noticed that, unlike the sunny day before, the morning was grey, misting, and foggy. A little Irish weather following us home, perhaps? Jim put on his new Irish sweater and I dressed for my audition.

Lately, we have been listening to mantras and other positive influences in the car during the morning commute. I can’t recommend it enough since it starts the whole day right. We’re working through some mantras by Deepak Chopra currently and listened to them twice as Jim drove. They included thoughts about the effect of the ego. Chopra intoned about fear and anger creating tension in the body. We repeated back the mantras. As we drove, we noticed the traffic was pretty congested but consciously ignored the crabby energy rising in the cars around us. Jim yielded to a few drivers who waved their thanks. He pulled over near work to hop out and a UPS driver gave him a middle finger for pulling over, though there was plenty of room to get around. After laughing about how crabby everyone is, we parted.

The audition went well and I was off to the dermatologist for a laser treatment on a small scar (I call it “getting zapped”). I decided to get there early and make sure I found parking. Good thing I did, since the parking garage was at capacity. I got to the top without finding a spot, then circled down to the bottom. I got stuck behind a very slow and cautious driver and eventually turned around to head back up again. I stalked a lady coming out with her mother. She walked ahead and started the car while her mother slowly limped to the car. I had felt aggravation rising inside me like coals igniting a flame on this third pass for a parking space. I slapped down the fire quickly. This is a hospital  facility, Christiana! Every parking space is accounted for by either a hardworking physician and their helpers or someone who needs medical care. This is why you got here early. Of course everyone drove today because of the misting rain so of course things are full. I sent a silent prayer for the limping lady and reminded myself of my latest episode in foot pain, to be repeated this coming Friday.

The parking garage was down to one elevator. The elevator was full of damp and crabby people, some of whom were probably running late. It stopped at every floor. I eventually made it to the office. It was only once I checked in that I noticed how many people were in the waiting room. A few minutes later, a man crabbed to the receptionist that he had been waiting for more than 30 minutes to be seen. The office rarely runs behind by more than a few minutes and this treatment is quick, so I assumed the best and settled into reading tweets and Facebook comments. I was taken back to have numbing cream applied then sent back out to wait for the doctor to zap me. I settled into reading again and peripherally noticed the time pass. Eventually, I was the only person in the waiting room and had been for about 10 minutes. I realized that I had been at the office about an hour at that point so I inquired at the desk. “He’s running behind today,” I was told.

“He’s running really behind!” I responded. Now the general crabbiness was starting to infect ME! No one wants to sit in a waiting room for an hour; there are many more valuable things I could do with that time! My thoughts began to get more self-centered as the minutes ticked by. I could be blogging or responding to emails if I had my laptop. I could be reading a book. I’m getting really hungry! I have a million things to do! This long of a wait is so disrespectful! I should just leave and reschedule but I’m already here with numbing cream on and that’s almost a bigger waste of time to have to come back! ACK!

It was all I could do to listen to these thoughts and remember that they were, in the end, minor aggravations and not worth that much emotion. Yes, my time is valuable but I had nothing else pressing on the books for the rest of that morning. I could wait. Besides, who am I to know the exact reasons the doctor’s office is behind? Someone could have had an emergency. They could be short staffed. They might have had to squeeze someone in last minute who had a problem. Or, it could just be that everyone is infected with the general crabbiness that’s in the air.

The doctor sincerely apologized. He quickly zapped my scar while I imagined trying to tolerate that treatment on my face. Yikes. Finished, I checked out and left to get my ticket validated for parking. A woman larger than myself spun away from the window, bumped into me hard, sent me reeling, and nearly knocked me over. My mind rushed forward with about five snappy remarks to make but I chose stunned silence instead. Why contribute to the crabbiness? She didn’t apologize and marched into the parking garage. I caught my breath and approached the window with ticket in hand. The security officer smiled and started laughing. “Would you believe,” she said,”that someone just did the same exact thing to her? Someone just ran into her and now she ran into you. And she chewed that person out!”

Yes, I thought, I can believe that. “Well, I guess I’m just trying to be like water today,” I replied, “I’m going to move around the rocks in my path without resistance. Everyone is so crabby today and I’m determined to not get crabby myself!” The security officer smiled again and punched my ticket. “It sure is a crazy day. Hope you have a great one!”

I took inventory of my day so far. Let’s see: nice morning with my husband, mantras in the car together, misty weather that I rather like, good music on the classical music radio station. An audition that went well. A doctor’s appointment that was long but then again they aren’t charging me for it since they put that scar there last summer. That skin biopsy last summer was benign after all, too. Plenty of time left to run errands and, as the lightbulb went off, inspiration to write about. The crabbiness lifted for good.

“Thanks! I will!”

Sweaters Come To Those Who Wait

Patience is not my strong suit.

I’ve joked about it often but it remains true. And life, as it does, tests me in an effort to teach me the benefits of this virtue I’m lacking.

The only souvenir I wanted from this trip around Ireland is a knit woolen sweater. This is not an unusual choice so every single gift shop we’ve stopped in has them stocked. Some of the prices are outrageous, some are a little better. Some shops had a wide selection and others very slim. I saw a few things I liked and kept checking in with myself and Jim as well. Apart from aggravating my husband with sweater questions at every shop, I was losing patience with the search especially as our vacation entered its second half.

Every stop was the same. “Jim, what do your think of this one? Is the price too high? Is this a good style?” and so on. To his credit, Jim kept his patience and told me to continue to wait until I found the right one. In the past, I would have just bought something and inevitably chosen in haste. I was begrudgingly persuaded, mentally kicking the grass in my impatience.

Why are you so impatient? I asked myself over and over. Turns out, I had some irrational idea that Ireland would run out of sweaters before I got one or that the “only ones” left when the time came would be ones I didn’t like. Irrational, like I said. Fears can be like that.

I checked within myself and considered these fears. They are the work of the mind, not the heart. The mind is the one that worries and has to come up with all the answers. The mind frets about “how” and “why.” The heart, on the other hand, is without fear. It is trusting, strong, and wise. It’s not easy to separate the mind and the heart in life’s big situations and that’s why we are given smaller lessons for practice. Today, I am practicing patience with a sweater. Tomorrow it might be something else. I worked to untangle the two and examined their disparate voices. That’s when I found the irrational fears and had a laugh. I sent the fears packing with love and told my mind to take a vacation along with the rest of me. I detached from my mind and my desire and decided to just let things come to me. There will be a sign, I told myself.

I didn’t suspect that there would be an ACTUAL SIGN but indeed there was. Just as soon as I finally put it all to rest, and I mean within minutes, I saw a sign for a shop while exploring Galway city. “The Sweater Shop! Best prices and sales!” the sign declared. Thinking that that was just an effort to sucker tourists, I nonetheless looked to the left and saw the shop. I decided I might as well check it out.

I finally found a shop with great selection and plenty of room to spread out and consider my options. The prices were better than I’d seen anywhere else. I tried on a few things and found the sweater I wanted. Jim even found one for himself. The shopkeeper was a lovely lady who gave us a discount on top of the much better prices and took care of the tax free purchase we are entitled to as non-E.U. citizens.

Later that evening, as we sat in the middle of nowhere under the stars, the sweater kept me warm as I held a wild cat and chatted with our host. He said that when something has remained as unchanged as the Irish woolen sweater for hundreds if not a thousand years, it’s for good reason. He’s certainly right. The nights have been getting colder lately and wool has this amazing ability to keep warm but not hot, to breathe and adjust with you. I hadn’t needed its warmth until that night and the timing was, as always, perfect.

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Hugging the oldest oak in Ireland, in my warm woolen sweater.

I now have my perfect souvenir that I will wear forever. The Emerald Isle will go with me in the dark green woolen sweater I found, along with a lesson in keeping patient.

The Ireland of My Dreams

As I type this, I am sitting in a hotel room in Ireland. We are about halfway through our vacation. I like that the Europeans call these trips “holidays” since the root of the term is “holy” and “day” and was reserved for church-sanctioned festivals and celebrations. Time off of real life is sacred and important, might we even call it holy?

I did minimal research about where to go and what to see before we arrived. For some reason, and the first time ever, I wanted the trip to come to me and reveal what I was supposed to see. When we went to Paris and London, I knew much of what to expect since I had been interested in visiting those cities since time immemorial. With Ireland, at least for me, it’s a bit different. There are some very famous sites that were recommended time and again. But there aren’t a lot of major landmarks; certainly there is nothing like the Eiffel Tower that is plastered on all sorts of home decor and clothing. I had little familiarity, also, with the geography beyond Dublin and Belfast. What I do have on my side is a good bit of study in the history of Ireland and the rest of the UK. But that was about it.

So I arrived in Ireland mostly interested in seeing what I think of when I think of Ireland: rolling green hills, crumbling ruins, ancient churches, white cottages along the seaside, and lots of sheep.

It took a few days into the trip to really see that kind of Ireland. I was not surprised by Dublin’s sprawl, worldliness, and development. It is the capital city after all and I had been told it would feel much the way many big cities do. We actually shaved a day off of Dublin activities in order to move further into the rest of our plans more quickly. Belfast didn’t surprise me, either. It reminds me of many of the big cities in the Rust Belt of the United States, just with bloody civil war thrown on top. Once a manufacturing giant and more recently trying to recover and find a new identity in the years of peace in the last decade and change. I enjoyed every minute in these old cities and will continue to enjoy the other bigger cities we stop in- Galway is next on the tour.

For whatever reason, though, my heart is drawn to the never-ending green of the country. We’ve been blessed with abundant sunshine and the colors are glorious. I’ve never seen more shades of green in my life and the blue of the sea and sky stops my breath. That is the Ireland of my dreams, the Ireland that has existed before time and perhaps part of the motivation to fight to claim such a special place. From Vikings to Romans, English crown, Scottish settlers, and even Hitler, it seems like everyone has wanted a piece of Ireland. And now I wanted my part but I wanted to tread forth with respect to the past, to take what the Emerald Isle was willing to give with appreciation.

 

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A big part of the appeal of travel for me is the chance to feel connected to things that are simply beyond your previous grasp; beyond your thoughts of identity. I like feeling small, though I never feel insignificant. Standing on a mountaintop with few souls other than the sheep today, I felt at once ancient and newborn, small yet extraordinary in the role I get to play in this life. If every day is a gift because nothing is guaranteed, then what a massive gift-wrapped present to open!

I’ve heard the phrase “Erin Go Bragh” for my entire life and only in this trip have I come to understand, in a small taste, just what is meant by it. Generations of my ancestors have whispered it, shouted it in battle, and wished for their nation’s unity and peace. The Ireland of my dreams is alive and well. May she live forever.