Do you feel like you’re being tested?

Below is a piece I wrote a few years ago when I took a class through Mary Anne Em Radmacher. She is most famous for a quote that says:

“Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day, saying I will try again tomorrow.”

I took her on-line class in a period when I was processing a number of life events: my mother had recently died, my family had made a momentous geographic change, and I was learning information about the health of my children. And to top it off, I had broken my ankle, so for six weeks I had ample time to heal myself through writing. This was occurring right before my 50th birthday.

My humorous side revealed itself. How do you use humor to help you through a difficult period?

Dear Brenda,

You have been involved in an extremely rigorous testing period known as your 49th year. This is the year that culminates all of the learning you’ve been involved in just prior to entering your Jubilee Year. You are 85 percent complete in the testing period.

Your test questions are being randomly created by a computer in REAL TIME, so there is no way to prepare for the test. It will seem as if the test is being created by some gnome living in the backwoods of Montana who has no clue of who the hell you are. This is a safeguard to ensure you are not taking a duplicate test from some previous year, which you thought at the time was a year you were glad to be finished with. It is natural for you to feel nostalgic about those years.

You are not allowed scratch paper or a cheat sheet on how to answer the questions which come your way. You may access at any time, though, a large library of self-help books, but they won’t seem very helpful to you because you’ll think the authors of those books were endowed with some special characteristic which wasn’t doled out to you. While the concept of cheerleaders is noble, the quarterback has to take the hit anyway whether anyone’s cheering or not.

You will be allowed frequent Diet Dr. Pepper breaks during the testing period. Ignore the warnings of Diet drinks being harmful. Instead, enjoy these brief moments as a way to recollect your thoughts.

After you have answered a question, you may check with your fellow classmates for their answers. But you won’t be allowed to change an answer once it’s submitted. Also, your classmates are being given a completely different set of questions, so their answers won’t apply to yours anyway.

It may seem as if others are cheating or skating by on their test. In fact, this is true. Your pointing it out to the test proctor, though, will not change the test questions for you. Instead, the test proctor may give you additional questions if you take your mind off what you’re doing and focus on other people’s test process.

Certain questions may be written in such a way as to your not being able to answer them correctly. This is intentional. Give an answer anyway and move on. You may also see some questions which you believed could be answered perfectly by you and it will be marked as incorrect. In fact, those questions will be underlined and circled in red to bring attention to the arrogance with which you answered those questions.

One other thing: the test known as your 49th year may make you feel like it is stretching you beyond your capabilities. Do not be worried about this. Answer everything that comes your way, the best way you can, and move on.

Sincerely,
Your 49th year

P.S. There will be no class survey afterwards asking you for your opinion on how we may improve our process.

courage

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What will you learn by doing?

“You learn to speak by speaking, to study by studying, to run by running, to work by working; and just so you learn to love God and man by loving. Begin as a mere apprentice and the very power of love will lead you on to become a  master of the art.” Francis de Sales

frances de salesYou learn to write a blog by blogging. You learn to sell by selling. You learn to account by accounting. You learn to counsel by counseling.

You can read any number of books or websites to learn strategies for improving your performance but the real learning comes when you actually do the work. And when you make a mistake–and you will–don’t get discouraged, keep going. A year from now, you likely won’t remember the mistake. And if a year from now you still remember the mistake, then you will have had a deep and life-changing learning which will help you develop humility and keep you teachable.

Steven Pressfield offers a free five-audio lesson on the “artist’s inner battle,” based on his book The War of Art. Listen to it, but then take a risk and practice what your “wild and precious life” is calling you to do.

women in hat

Happy Veteran’s Day to those who serve

My father, a Korean War veteran, was raised Presbyterian but he had a lot of Zen in him. He used to say things like: “if you pull a flower out of the ground, the moon shakes.”
hollis eugene perry
Hollis E. Perry served three tours as a paratrooper in the Korean War.

He served three tours in Korea. He quit high school to join the U.S. Army. The Army trained him as a paratrooper and he had a tattoo on his arm representing it. On his left hand he had the word “LOVE” tattooed, one letter on each of his fingers. He was proud military with a hint of hippie.

Ironically, after his military service he refused to ride in an airplane and he didn’t like to leave home very much. He also never owned a gun except for the last few years of his life. He bought a rifle when a drug addled neighbor across the street threatened him. But he hated having a tool used for killing in his home. But he was a realist and understood the horror of behavior that other human beings are willing to commit.
He belonged to the American Legion and served in the U.S. Army Reserves for many years, including at Fort Des Moines, when it was used for that purpose. He worked as a recruiter for the Reserves. He recruited many people because he had such passion and respect for the discipline the military taught him. Even though he didn’t recruit me to the military (much to his chagrin), he did pass along personal discipline to me and that I learned how to solve problems through him. In addition to his Presbyterian upbringing, he was raised on a farm, so he knew how to fix things. There were many an Iowa winter day he would have the hood raised on our cars working and swearing to start them in frigid conditions. Although he was Army he swore like a sailor.
He also taught me a lot about politics saying “follow the money” and that will tell you what people’s motivations are. He listened to Rush Limbaugh but he supported Democratic politicians.He owed a debt of gratitude to former Iowa Gov. and Sen. Harold Hughes who advocated for my dad to have his discharge from the army be ruled honorable. My dad had several situations in the Army involving alcohol and Gov. Hughes was a big proponent for people with this illness. War is not pretty so I have an understanding why many military people turn to alcohol to cope.
My father successfully overcame his struggle with alcohol and he gave up other habits that helped him cope with life’s stress, including his Pall Malls. He didn’t wear a patch, chew gum, or learn hypnotherapy. He decided to quit and so he did. He found the best therapy after that through gardening. He loved being in his garden and sharing his produce with neighbors.
The most important thing he taught me, though, was this: “it’s better to have nothing then a little bit of something.” It took me a long time for me to understand that koan. But  I understand now. It’s better to be on your own then to surround yourself with people who are only there during fair weather.
RIP. Sgt. Hollis Eugene Perry
flanders field

What cigarette smokers can teach us about mental health

You don’t have to give up all of your habits associated with cigarette smoking. In fact, you should keep some of them.

As a group of people who partake in socially accepted addictive behaviors, smokers tend to be the pariahs among the out right public addictions, such as overeating or drinking alcohol. Many a person who would casually drink a glass of wine over a business dinner would feign horror at the thought of smoking a cigarette. Yet, cultural and business policies begrudgingly tolerate and accommodate smokers. Legal consequences used as a deterrent to eradicate other types of addictions, such as narcotics or pornography, are non-existent for smokers. Even alcohol has a legal consequence if indulged while driving. Smoke and drive all you want without the police harassing you. In fact, the police officer passing you on the Interstate is possibly a smoker him or herself.

Instead, “if you can’t beat ’em join ’em” approach seems to be the antidote to the futile prohibition of smoking during business hours despite everyone’s acknowledged acceptance of how damaging smoking is to an individual’s health and to the health of those who ingest the chemical second hand. Even smokers joke about their “cancer sticks.”

Consequently, cigarette smokers are considered our culture’s socially accepted addiction pariahs.  And they are the most blatantly public in their addiction. After all, who stands outside their work place with their company attire partaking in other drugs? Overeaters and drinkers don’t stand in a huddle outside on their breaks to anesthetize their stress with sugar donuts and glasses of wine. Company policies are written to accommodate nicotine addictions. Other drug-related policies are written to fire you from your job if you are caught indulging on company time.

But there’s a lot to learn from a cigarette smoker as far as strategies to manage stress. Ask any smoker and they will tell you they believe it calms their nerves.  And some substances contained within cigarettes do provide a mental boost. The downside is the cost eventually outweighs the benefit. The cost is your life and it’s a slow, painful one once it’s past the stress reduction threshold. Smoking-related illnesses cost businesses about $156 billion in lost productivity and smokers $170 billion in direct related medical care.

So, what about the non-smokers? I know you’ve done the mental math. Have you worked with a smoker and wondered how long they spent on their smoke break? On average, smoke breaks for one person tally up to about 6 days out of the year, depending on the industry a smoker works in. The higher the stress of a particular career field the more smoke breaks people take.  What can we learn from people whose addiction is so powerful that complete areas outside of businesses and hospitals are set aside for them to indulge?

  • It’s good to take frequent breaks from your work. Sitting is the new smoking, after all. It would be fascinating to see how work environments changed up their stress levels if non-smokers took as many breaks as smokers.
  • Smokers walk more than nonsmokers. That’s obvious. If you work in a high rise building, for example, to take your break you have to go from your cubicle to the elevator or the stairs and walk to your smoking area and, sometimes, it’s across the street from where you work. Walking is good for you.
  • Smokers get outside more and absorb more Vitamin D from the sun. Nature is healing. You hear birds sing, feel the breezy wind, experience sunshine. And smokers are dedicated. They take their smoke breaks no matter the weather–tornadoes, hurricanes and blizzards. That is a nature break discipline the rest of us would do well to develop.
  • Smokers breathe. They also cough after awhile, but smokers know how to belly–or diaphragmatic–breathe. This deep breathing is known to affect the autonomic nervous system and calm it down to reduce symptoms of some types of anxiety, depression and reduce the cortisol–or stress chemical–loads on people. If you’re not a smoker but want to breathe like a smoker, inhale and exhale through a straw a few times.  You will notice the weight of air as it is forced further down to your diaphragm. Keep your straws from your drinks and it’s a double win. You can breathe like a smoker and save the environment.

So, you see, smokers can be a role model for the rest of us. And, maybe if smokers talked to enough non-smokers who used the same strategies for stress reduction, minus the cigarettes–it would encourage them to quit because all of us need friends.

 

 

Inches and seconds may be the only intervention

wabi sabi

For the past month,  I’ve been co-facilitating a free weekly support group for people who were affected by last year’s Hurricane Harvey. Group members recount stories of how they were rescued and the achingly slow process of rebuilding their homes because of bureaucratic red tape.

The purpose of the support group is to help participants develop a self-care routine that will help them calm down their nervous system that has been agitated because of severe stress. Losing your home because of flood waters, tends to make people anxious depressed and overwhelmed.

My co-facilitator and I were meeting at Starbucks on Monday morning to determine the approach we wanted to take at our next session. She was ignoring her husband’s phone call but because of his persistence, she took it.  He reported that her brother had been in a car accident and he was being transported by ambulance to the hospital. The anxiety and panic rose on her face and it was time to end our coffee meeting. Before she left, though, I asked her if I could pray for her. So I clutched her hands and asked God and the guardian angels to watch over her brother and doctors.

Later that day, she reported her brother was lucky. He was driving his truck and not the car, so he had the bulk of protection he needed to survive the impact of being rear-ended and thrust into the next three lanes of traffic. He was being released with minor injuries, but injuries unexpected and unplanned for on a November Monday.

Inches and seconds are often times all that stand between us and an eternally altered existence. Life continues to unfold and it doesn’t mete justice out according to who has already endured what or how charitable of a person you are. Seemingly random events interfere with our plans for the day or our life and we are forced to make adjustments.

Within an hour, life unfolded in a way for which we weren’t prepared. We expand and contract through the seasons of life as it forces events on us. If we practice it enough when life is calm, though, we will automatically remember to breathe when the day’s events are chaotic and unexpected.

 

Finding God in your Galilee

“He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” Matthew 28:7

When I think about traveling and someone has gone ahead and arrived first they take care of details that I don’t have to. If we are staying at a hotel, they register us in. They learn where the best restaurants are so we can have a good meal. They’ve had time to survey the surroundings. So, if I call them while I am on the road they can warn me about road construction and detours along the route. Their care of the details makes the journey easier.

Today, you may have a number of interactions in unfamiliar territory–new sales calls to make, interviews to conduct, groups to lead. There may be details you wish someone else would take care of.  If so, I hope you will ask whoever your understanding of a Higher Power is to go ahead of you and take care of those details. It may make the journey of the day easier.

Love and light,

Brenda

Sea-of-Galilee

 

Wait a minute M. Post(wo)man

“Imagine you are a letter traveling through time. What message do you wish to convey to your readers?”

This is the theme of the Universal Postal Unions Letter writing contest for 2018.  Winners will be announced today. All week is International Letter Writing Week, which was started by the UPU as a way to foster mutual understanding among people all around the world. Today is World Post Day.

20181009_081000(1)I am participating in International Letter Writing Week as a way to promote connection; however, it can also be an opportunity to advocate on your own causes. Below is the powerfully elegant letter that last year’s winner, 14-year-old Eva of Togo wrote  on behalf of girls who are forced into marriages against their consent. it was in response to this theme:

“Imagine you are an advisor to the new UN Secretary-General which world issue would you help him tackle first and how would you advise him to solve it?”

Her identity is concealed in the letter but Kudos to her for understanding the power of a single letter. Perhaps it will inspire you and I look forward to the announcement of this year’s winner.

UN Secretary General

Dear Secretary General,

My name is [E], I am [age] years old and I live in [City], [Country]. Just like any other young girl, I dream of the perfect wedding, with a dazzling white dress and the perfect gentleman by my side, of an unending buffet and throwing my bouquet, and of two wedding rings that are more beautiful than diamonds. I dream of the perfect wedding, but it’s only a dream as I have all the time in the world before I get married, and for that I am happy! It is just a dream for me, but for others it is a horrific reality. Every day it becomes a reality for poor young girls who cannot defend themselves. Each year, more than 15 million girls aged 15 and under are forced to marry men three times their age.

No doubt you have understood, Mr Secretary General, that today I would like to talk to you about child marriage.

Child marriage is the act of marrying a child who has neither legally nor emotionally reached marriageable age. Child marriage is the result of deep-rooted traditions, poverty, ignorance, early pregnancy or a lack of law. Underdeveloped and poor countries are often the most affected, and the victims are usually girls aged 15 and under. They are married to build strategic alliances and partnerships with other families. They are married because of tradition, which leaves their parents with no choice in the matter.  They are married because they are seen as a burden and another mouth for their parents to feed. They are married because…because…because…

The solution, the only solution to child marriage, is education. Education allows the children of today, who will be the adults of tomorrow, to understand that age-old traditions which instruct them to marry off their daughters are unfair, and that poverty is no excuse, especially when the men are far too old for them. But education is not possible without means, without money. Underdeveloped countries are often poor, lacking the means to build good education facilities and recruit qualified teachers. They settle for low-performing schools. Aid to underdeveloped countries must, therefore, be increased, so these countries can make up lost ground in terms of both their educators and their infrastructure. But for now, these countries must be encouraged to strengthen their laws against child marriage. When families end up in court for having married their child too young, they are often released without charge as they can bribe the judge or police officer. Not to mention how the legal system can often be much too lenient in these types of cases. And ironically, although it was a lack of money that drove them to marry off their daughter in the first place, parents then have to find the money to bribe the legal authorities. They are trapped in a vicious circle and only you,
Mr Secretary General, have the power to help them break free today.

Mr Secretary General, I hope that my small contribution will help you as you plan your work for the years to come, and that you manage to end once and for all the inhumane and outdated practice that is child marriage.

Kind regards,

[E]

Who will you send a letter to this week?

 

 

Letting go of the past creates a future for others

I’ve packed up  Howard Jones, Steve Winwood, Nanci Griffith, and Clint Black in the coffin of a cardboard box. And when the box arrives in Washington state, it will be opened and then their guts will be yanked out.

Their insides will be respectfully and consciously disposed of but their version of external skin will be recycled into new products, which if the owner is fortunate, will symbolize a period of their life like the original packaging of the cassette tapes did for me.

Just so there’s no mistake, I’m not Mother Earth’s best friend. I’m a pretty typical fair weather American friend as far as my lifestyle and consumption use. If you’re an avid recycler and saw what I threw in the trash, you would unfriend me on Facebook.

This cardboard box is filled with cassette tapes of a Beatles anthology, the Best of ZZ Top and a dive into international music represented by Bollywood and Rueben Blades. It is  ready to be shipped to GreenDisk, which partners with other companies who hire people with disabilities to transform obsolete technology.

I have moved this box of music personalities for about 20 years. I stopped listening to them about 10 years ago. If I could have economically replaced my music library to the current technical formats, I would have. But as it is, I have different familial interests today and my personal economy is spent more on others than myself. My reluctance to donate them to the landfill or the Salvation Army has to do with my bittersweet attachment to a more youthful period of my life then it does with any guilt associated with packing the local landfill with “unnecessary plastic objects” (Nanci Griffith on her One Fair Summer Evening tape).

If I were crafty, I would transform my symbolic life into ties, purses or lampshades.  But if I had attempted the dissection, it would have ended up as a box full of pieces of magnetic tape and plastic cases. So, this is the compromise I can make and an acknowledgement that it is time to give generous room to what is in my life now.

So, with GreenDisk this is the most respectful burial I can find for Patsy Cline, Almighty Bach, and Abba. They will go to Sammamish, Wash., where this company will outsource my symbols of dear friends to other organizations which provides  innovative work for people with disabilities. For a day, or two, someone else will benefit from the days of my youth and if all goes well during the autopsy, enough will be salvaged to be transformed into a product that will give carefree enjoyment to another life.

Finding a life worth living

September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. If you are or you believe someone is at risk of dying by suicide, please dial 911 or the Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255.

Special note: This is a story I wrote several years ago before I entered the field of mental health and didn’t know the symptoms of depression or that suicide is the second leading cause of death in adolescents and young adults.

While I was on the periphery of the story told below, the experience had a profound impact and changed how I view people who behave in troubled ways. Behavior is communication and sometimes people who are in emotional or physical pain behave in ways that provoke irritation, frustration or anger from us. Do your best to be calm in the face of another person’s internal crisis and offer what compassion you can.

be kind

Paul and Rick fought on the Tuesday before winter break and again on the Wednesday that classes resumed. The first argument was over the cigarette butts. Paul flicked the last of his cigarette on the ground even though a black metal canister was right beside him. Rick, the building’s maintenance man, walked by just as the butt landed on the ground. In a polite way for Rick, but a rude way to Paul, Rick barked that Paul should use the ashtray. Paul shouted where Rick could put the ash tray.

The second argument continued the first over the disposal method of cigarettes but was also fueled by Paul’s inattentiveness to clean spaces. Rick had just mopped the floor and Paul walked through it, rather than around.

As the full-time maintenance man, Rick walks a tight rope of self-restraint in word and action. His job is menial enough–unplugging toilets, changing lights, cleaning up vomit–without people deliberately and immediately wrecking what he just finished wiping up. On this second day of blatant defiance of common courtesy, Rick ignored self-restraint and came to our office. He complained loudly and expletively to us about Paul. He demanded we do something to stop Paul or he would.

image-from-rawpixel-id-401529-jpegI agreed with Rick and understood his frustration at our students. My coworkers and I wished Paul would quit being rude. But we didn’t know how to stop him or any of the other inconsiderate students in the Adult Learning Center. Many students ignore the rules and procedures. But for these two incidents, Paul was the student caught at it.

We told Rick we would talk to Paul. The Adult Learning Center’s director took Paul aside and said we would have to call the police if he acted this way again and, especially, if he threatened Rick. She advised Paul to avoid Rick and save himself from further trouble.

Paul is one of an endless stream of students in Adult Basic Education Centers who hope to make up in basic education skills what they didn’t learn when they were kids. So many of them, though, are missing more than just the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Dozens arrive without homes, teeth, cars, jobs, food, and hope. We try to give them encouragement, but we know the center is here because society doesn’t know what else to do with them nor does it want to do anything–meaningful at least–with them. It’s a daytime holding place. We don’t know where or to whom some students go to at night.

I understand some of the societal causes of their problems, but my critical, judgmental voice tells me that life shouldn’t be that hard for them. I don’t vocalize it as Rick does, but I’m thinking the same thing: “Use the ashtray. Walk around where he’s mopped. Learn your multiplication tables. Why do you go out of your way to make life more difficult for the rest of us? Can’t you act like you remember even one thing you learned in kindergarten?”

All these thoughts bulleted through my head as Paul walked past my desk. And after he walked by I didn’t give Paul another thought. For emotional protection, I don’t think very deeply about our students. I don’t ask them personal questions nor do I tell them about my life. And they don’t ask me either. They know what they don’t have and they don’t need me to remind them.

After I finished working I went home and didn’t think any more about Paul and Rick until I came back after the weekend. Sadly, that Friday, Paul didn’t think any more deeply about himself than what I had. He hung himself in his basement bedroom where his mother found him.

My boss and Paul’s teacher went to the funeral. Rick and I stayed behind. My boss said the minister didn’t know many personal details of Paul and didn’t have a lot to say about him in the eulogy. She shook her head.

I tried to learn more about Paul by reading the newspaper’s obituary. A professional portrait was used in it. It showed a smiling, dark haired young man wearing a suit and tie. Pictures probably do speak a thousand words. But these were words of happiness and good health that were from sometime in Paul’s past. In the weeks we knew Paul, he wore only faded blue jeans and worn t-shirts. He rarely combed his hair. My mental picture of Paul was one of anger, defiance, and loneliness.

Rick came into our office after the funeral. He consoled us, or maybe himself, with the comment, “he’s in a better place now.” He didn’t express any remorse about his feelings toward Paul. But I wondered if he regretted his harsh judgment like I regretted mine. We talked a few more minutes and then we all got back to work.

The next day I came to work and Rick, the maintenance man, was mopping the floor. This day the floor would stay clean.