The calm before the storm in the San Juan Islands
Do you ever feel like quitting? Throwing in the towel?
I found myself feeling that way at the end of a three-day sea kayaking/camping adventure earlier this year. It had been an extraordinary couple of days on water and land, filled with unforgettable encounters with nature, when it suddenly wasn't fun anymore. On the final stretch of the journey from our island paradise back to civilization, we encountered a 20-knot headwind. For those of you who are wondering, that's about 23 miles per hour. (And if you're curious what that's like, I found this video of similar conditions: http://bit.ly/170e1V2
Knowing that rest, a hot shower and clean clothes awaited us when we reached shore, we fought furiously, our paddles plowing through the water. But our efforts yielded minor forward progress. After about 45 minutes of nonstop paddling against the unrelenting wind — and our destination not yet in sight — I contemplated giving up. I was tired. The wind was winning.
But I knew that giving up was not an option. Stopping would mean falling even farther behind, blown backward by the wind. And so I kept paddling, my eyes scanning the shore for the takeout spot. Even when we could finally spy the far-off parking lot where our van awaited, I knew it would still be a while before we reached it. I kept paddling and stayed focused on the target. After about an hour and a half of fighting the wind, we finally reached our destination. When we stepped on shore, it was almost euphoric. Such relief after all that effort.
My experience that day reminds me of how we sometimes feel in life. Relationships end. Job searches yield no results. Friends disappoint. Work is rejected. Dreams go unfulfilled. Sometimes it seems like our hard work is for naught. Sometimes it just feels easier to throw in the towel.
If you find yourself ready to give up or give in, I encourage you to just keep paddling. Or, as Dory would say: "Just keep swimming." It may be difficult. It may seem like you're getting nowhere, that you're never going to reach your target. Just remember the journey of life is filled with ups and downs. That sea kayaking trip also yielded sightings of bald eagles and starfish, as well as beautiful sunrises and evenings around the campfire with friends. I even held a small (safe) jellyfish in my hand. I wouldn't have had those experiences without the struggle against that headwind. They were a package deal.
If your life has you feeling like you're fighting against a headwind, don't give up. If you stay focused on your target, you will weather the storm and reach shore eventually. And, believe me, it feels really good when you step out of the boat. Do you recall a time when you had to keep going, even when you wanted to give up? Please share your story or thoughts in the Comments.
Do you ever feel like you're swimming upstream? Does it ever seem like the universe is against you?
If so, you might want to consider that you're taking the wrong path. That's not to say that your ultimate goal is ill advised, just that you may be taking the wrong path to get there.
Life, God and the universe don't operate on our human time table. So if you're trying to force something, maybe now just isn't the time. But you want to have a baby now. You want that new job now. You want to move to your dream city yesterday.
Stop wasting your energy trying to force it to happen. Do your part and allow the rest to take care of itself. Allow events to unfold in their own time. You'll be less stressed, more calm and at peace. And isn't that what you ultimately want anyway?
Whether you're a devoutly religious person, a spiritual person or someone who practices Eastern philosophy, tap into that side of yourself and rely on God, your higher power, the Universe — whatever gives you guidance and solace — and trust that things are moving to get you where you're supposed to be. The pieces on the chessboard are being strategically moved into place and the path is being laid before you. You just need to trust and follow.
Years ago I read a heartwarming litte book that I recently re-read. It's called The Tao of Pooh
. The book takes a unique perspective on the principles of Taoism, using the characters from Winnie the Pooh to explain the life principles expressed by the ancient philosopher Lao Tzu
in the Tao Te Ching
. While I don't profess to be a Taoist or an expert on Taoism, I am struck by how Lao Tzu's words still ring true today.
Tao means way or path. An important concept of Tao is "wu wei," which means to act without acting (non-doing or non-action). Mind you, non-doing doesn't mean you do nothing, it just means that once you've done what you can ... you let it go. Don't fight. Don't struggle. Just take the steps to get where you feel you ought to be (or want to be) and allow the rest to fall into place at the proper time.
The concept of wu wei is also described as "going with the flow." I find peace in the calm imagery of my life as a stream flowing on its intended path while I allow it to run its course. No fighting against the current. No struggling against rocks and obstacles. Just enjoying the journey.
Remember that control is just an illusion. We never truly have control, no matter how much comfort we find in thinking that we do. So, the next time it feels like you're fighting an uphill battle — STOP! Don't fight. Don't force. Don't struggle. Just go with the flow. Allow things to happen in their own time. You know, enjoy the ride.
Have you been struggling and trying to force things to happen in your life? Or have you found peace in letting go? Please share your story or thoughts in the Comments.
I know that's not a jolly title, but it wasn't a very jolly Christmas.
The year was 1986. It was the week of Christmas. In the early hours of Dec. 23, my mother awakened me, having discovered my father’s lifeless body on the floor of our home. He had gotten up during the night and suffered a heart attack before returning to bed.
At that point, our holiday plans for last-minute shopping, wrapping, exchanging gifts and sharing Christmas dinner were replaced by choosing a casket, scheduling funeral arrangements and making sure dad’s best suit was cleaned.
Unwilling to hold the funeral on Christmas Day, we scheduled it for Dec. 26. In those days, and in our town, families didn’t host a brief visitation window of a few hours — they spent most of the day and much of the evening receiving family and friends.
And so it was, that on Christmas Day, I found myself sitting with family members in the kitchen of the funeral home. Dreams of turkey and dressing no longer danced in our heads. We would spend the evening greeting friends and loved ones and snacking on sandwiches and doughnuts.
But then, something unexpected happened.
As I sat in the kitchen of the funeral home, I saw a long-time family friend walk through the back door carrying a large box. She was followed by others carrying more items. As they placed containers of food on the kitchen counter, I walked over to thank them.
The family matriarch took my hand, looked me in the eye and said that one should go without Christmas dinner. Therefore, she had brought the meal to us. In addition to providing Christmas dinner for her own family, this woman had cooked a whole hen, stuffing and a variety of down-home Southern favorites so that our family could have some semblance of the holiday comforts being enjoyed by much of the planet that night. It was still Christmas Day at the funeral home, but our sadness was now tempered with joy thanks to the kindness of others.
For years I've had the notion that some day I would return the favor for a random family. You know, pay it forward. This week, I contacted a local funeral director, but the unpredictability of what will happen in coming days makes it difficult to carry out my plan. He will keep me apprised — and as much as I'd like to finally carry out this random act — I hope there is no need. I hope no grieving family will be receiving friends at his funeral home in the days just before Christmas. But illness and suffering take no holidays, so a local hospital is my backup plan.
Grief will touch many families this Christmas season. While the sting of death affects those left behind regardless of the day or time of year, grieving during the holidays is especially difficult. It carries the added weight of witnessing joy all around you but not being able to participate. My heart grieves for the families in Newtown. Conn. — families that will find little joy this holiday season. Perhaps some random souls will perform random acts to touch their hearts and restore their faith in the good of humanity.
Recently, NBC journalist Ann Curry coined the #26Acts hashtag on Twitter in honor of the victims in Newtown. There's also a Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/26acts
) dedicated to the random acts movement. Today, on the 26th anniversary of my father's death, I bought a Christmas bouquet and gave it to the sweet lady who does the cooking demonstrations at my local grocery store. I handed her the flowers and a card with "#26Acts. For Emilie Parker. For Newtown." Her face erupted into a huge smile. She almost cried and gave me a big hug. I wished her a Merry Christmas as I headed out with my grocery bags. It felt GOOD. I felt good. She felt good. It's exponential.
I hope we'll all look for ways to spread cheer to others this Christmas season. (And every single day!) We are all sojourners here together, all facing our own struggles. When we lift up each other, we lighten the burden for all. Your act of kindness doesn't have to be big, just heartfelt. Believe me, it can be the glimmer of light to someone surrounded by darkness.
Here's to many random acts of kindness — at Christmas time or any time. Have you received a totally unexpected gift that touched your heart? Have you performed a random act of kindness for someone else? Share your story in the Comments.
My Brother typewriter. Yes, I still have it.
On a cold Christmas night, a young girl sits eagerly waiting to take her treasured Christmas gift for a trial run. She inserts a sheet of paper and winds it around the cylinder of a shiny new Brother typewriter. It's the gift she had hoped for since her adolescent eyes first spied it during a visit to the local Western Auto store.
She stares at the piece of paper. What should she type? A letter to a friend? A list of her favorite Top 40 songs? A birthday wish list? Perhaps a short story?
Slowly, her fingers carefully begin to tap on the keys, pecking out the title to her first work: A Christmas Story. Soon, a holiday vignette — written with the wide-eyed innocence of a 'tween — emerges onto the page. The story sets a brief scene about gift giving, Christmas decorations, falling snow and sharing the joy of the season with loved ones.
* * * * *
"A Christmas Story," reads the title on the faded sheet of notebook paper that I have gingerly removed from a small box that sits on my bedside table. As I unfold the creases to reveal the short story inside, I recall the night that I tapped it out on the keys of my brand-new typewriter.
I like to take out the piece of paper from time to time, unfold it and read it again. It demonstrates to me the power of words. Each time I take in those words, I am taken back to a long ago winter night when a little girl used her Christmas gift to create what would become a gift to her older self. And each time I read that Christmas story, I find a sense of comfort in my life choices and the inspiration to keep practicing what I love.
Why did I want the typewriter? I don't clearly remember. Perhaps I fashioned myself a budding writer even then. I remember viewing episodes of The Waltons and wistfully watching as John Boy, the aspiring writer, sat at his window in the evening light putting pen to paper. Back then, I had no way of knowing that writing would be my unique gift and become my life's work. Perhaps my mother saw a gift in me then that I had not yet realized myself.
Recently, I was flipping through TV channels when a familiar face caught my eye. It was John Walton Jr. himself, after all these years, come to visit me again through the medium of television. Even now, I can hear the familiar refrains of the Waltons wishing each other sweet dreams.
When I turn out the light on this December night, I will say a silent goodnight to the woman who gave me many gifts, including one that impacted my life in ways I could never have imagined. She was an angel then and is with the angels now.
Goodnight, Mama. Goodnight, writers. Goodnight, readers. Goodnight, everyone.
Is there a Christmas memory from your childhood that still takes you back in time? Did you receive a special Christmas gift that impacted your life? Please share your thoughts in the Comments.
I stood by the campfire, holding a mug of hot tea and looking up through the trees. The sky was clear, and the stars were out ... twinkling like tiny sparkling diamonds flung across the night sky.
And to think, I almost missed that moment.
It was my husband's semi-annual Beginners Backpacking Trip
, an event designed to give those who've never backpacked the chance to learn more about it. While I frequently come along for these outings, I almost sat this one out. I'm too tired. It'll be too cold. I just want to relax at home.
A check of the weather forecast on Friday night predicted mild temperatures and a slight chance of rain early on Sunday. Still mulling my final decision, I began (somewhat begrudgingly) to drag out my gear and clothing. In the end, I packed my bag and hit the road with my beloved on Saturday morning to meet up with our fellow hikers.
At the trailhead, we eagerly set out on our journey, hiking past creeks, over suspension bridges and through colorful fall foliage before arriving at camp. After pitching our tents, gathering firewood and collecting water, the four us sat talking as the evening light began to fade. I kept an eye on the horizon, waiting patiently for the sun to sink just low enough before I started a fire.
At last the time seemed right, so I retrieved one of Michael's handy homemade firestarters and got to work, carefully arranging small sticks and twigs of kindling. Shortly, the fire was blazing, the sky was growing dark and the stars were coming out. It was a beautiful night.
We made dinner and treated ourselves to hot tea and cocoa. After dinner, we sat chatting and laughing by the campfire until at last we decided it was time to turn in. We set about cleaning up, tamping down the fire and putting away the food before making a final visit to the nearby facilities. (Yes, that means outhouse.) As we returned to camp and prepared to douse the fire, we heard a sound and stopped to turn an ear.
"Is that rain?" asked one of our companions.
We realized it was and laughed as we said goodnight and made a mad dash for the tents.
Minutes later, snuggled and settled in our sleeping bags, Michael and I lay there listening to the raindrops hitting our rainfly. It was like nature's music, a little lullaby to send us off to dreamland.
As I lay there listening to the rain before I drifted off to sleep, I was grateful that I didn't miss this opportunity.
Grateful that ... I saw stars. Made fire. And heard rain.
* * *
Can you recall a time when you challenged yourself to do something you really didn't want to do? Have you recently had an encounter with nature that made you stop and think? Share your thoughts in the Comments below.
As much as I love social media and the connections it can bring, sometimes I grow weary of the cacophony of noise coming at me. I find myself wondering if the posts I send out are just contributing to the noise or providing meaning to those who read them.
Sometimes I fear that my words are just being cast in a sea of loud voices that are all crashing to shore at the same time ... with no one hearing them over the thunderous noise.
One person who did hear through all the noise contacted me recently to say that she missed my voice
during my periods of blogging silence. That person, who happens to live in the same city that I call home, reached out and invited me to chat over coffee. I accepted.
It was evening, so we opted for herbal tea instead of coffee. Over that cup, I encountered a delightful person whose thoughts and opinions brought value to my life. We chatted like two old friends for more than an hour and met again some weeks later for more spirited conversation. Those discussions have compelled me to think deeper about who I am and my purpose in life.
Which brings me to the purpose of this blog. Some people blog to promote their novel, others to draw attention to their professional services. These are noble and honorable pursuits. But I'm not selling anything (though I do promote my services as a freelance writer and editor).
So, why do I blog?
On my grammar blog
, I offer practical tips to help others improve their writing. At Musings on Life, my goal is simply to tell stories, and through them to touch people with words in a meaningful way. I guess I just like connecting with others and being a source of encouragement and inspiration.
If only one reader heard my voice and found value in my words, it would all be worth it. But there are many others out there across the miles who have read my words and answered back. Please know that I enjoy your voices, whether in person, in Comments, on Twitter, on Facebook or on the telephone. I appreciate the ties I've made and the virtual friends I've met through this blog. I hope that one day — just as I have with my new Nashville friend — that I might sit down and chat with you over a literal cup of coffee (or tea).
Here's to our myriad voices and reasons for blogging. I challenge you to hold fast to your own unique voice and keep speaking the words in your heart. Together we can be a wave of positive words washing over the world. And words matter. Because even when they only offer coffee, they can always lead to so much more. If you're a blogger, why do you blog? Have you made meaningful connections on the Web or through your blog? Have you recently been touched in a positive way through someone's words? Please share your thoughts in the Comments.
What makes you smile?
It's easy to get caught up in the things in our lives that disappoint us. The project that gets scrapped. The job offer that doesn't come through. A serious illness. A financial burden.
Sometimes all we have to hang on to are the simple things — the little moments in daily life that can bring simple pleasure. Enjoy them. Relish them. Here are 10 of mine. 1.
The smell of freshly ground coffee early on a weekend morning. 2.
The sound of rain softly hitting the roof. 3.
Riding in the car with the sunroof open and my favorite music blaring from the stereo. 4.
The feel and smell of freshly laundered towels just out of the dryer. 5.
Holding hands with my husband. 6.
The intoxicating scent of lavender. 7.
The sound of wind gently rustling trees and grass. 8.
Watching rabbits play in the backyard. 9.
Cooking a hot breakfast (or any meal!) while listening to cool jazz. (Dave Brubeck's Take Five
is like heaven for your ears.) 10.
Getting lost in a good book. What simple pleasures bring a smile to your face? Please share them in the Comments. Let's get a list of hundreds of simple pleasures to share!
St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin. © Diane Hughes
The crowd sat eagerly waiting as the college president stepped to the rostrum to address a gathering of faculty, students, administrators and guests. This convocation was not only the beginning of a new school year but a new beginning for the president as well; he had just assumed his duties as president over the summer.
As a member of my alma mater's alumni advisory council, I was invited to attend this event. Being there brought back memories of my days in that same auditorium, of sitting in the quiet foyer of the building to study before my next class. And it reminded me of how proud I felt to be there, how inspired and motivated I was to succeed.
As the president spoke, I was inspired all over again. He began by telling the story of three bricklayers building a cathedral. Perhaps you've heard it — I had not. The story goes something like this:
A man happened along three bricklayers busy at work. He asked the first bricklayer, "What are you doing?"
"I'm laying bricks," the first bricklayer said.
The man asked the second bricklayer the same question.
"I'm putting up a wall," was the reply.
The passerby then posed the question to the third bricklayer.
"What are you doing?" he asked.
"I'm building a great cathedral," the third bricklayer replied.
The president then suggested that each employee at the college should be engaged in their work and focused on the big picture. Whether their job is cleaning restrooms or filing records or teaching a class or selling a textbook, they should realize that each of those acts plays a part in shaping and aiding the education and future of a student.
Last year, I contacted my alumni association with the hope of finding a way to volunteer — to give back to the institution that had done so much for me. Recently I met with other planning committee members to stuff envelopes for invitations to our fall fundraiser. While that act itself may seem small and insignificant, the money raised at that fundraiser will mean everything to the scholarship recipient who is able to graduate from college. That's the big picture I try to focus on. That's my proverbial cathedral: a student beaming brightly while wearing a cap and gown and going on to a successful life.
Yes, the bricks are important; they are the building blocks, the foundation of whatever work we do. We just need to see beyond the singular brick, the isolated act, and realize that it's a part of the whole. Just imagine a brick wall riddled with empty spaces where bricks were left out. Those missing bricks would compromise the strength and integrity of the wall. Each brick, each person, each job is an imperative part of the whole.
If you can't see your cathedral for the bricks, maybe it's time to look for purpose in what you do — or dedicate yourself to doing something different. Determine to look at the big picture and recognize the importance of what you do each day. Don't lay bricks; build a great cathedral.
Are you laying bricks today? Or building a cathedral? Please share your thoughts in the comments.
Where do you find peace?
I sat quietly in the well-worn wooden pew of the sanctuary at St. Paul's, desperately seeking solace for the soul. The past week had been stressful and overwhelming. Too many house projects and not enough progress. Too much work and not enough play. Too much to do and too little time. Too much worry and not enough peace. You know, just too much ... stuff.
From my perch on the pew, I saw a mother approach with two children, a son and a daughter. I smiled as I looked up and then slid to the center of the pew to allow them entry. The mother sat down beside me and introduced herself. Almost immediately, though, she thought better of this seating arrangement and opted to sit between the children to separate them. A fortuitous choice, it turns out, as it placed her lovely daughter right beside me.
The service had not started yet. The little girl, who looked to be about age 10, smiled at me. I smiled back. "You look beautiful today," she said. "Why, thank you. So do you," I told her. "My name's Mackenzie," she announced. "My name is Diane," I told her. "It's very nice to meet you, Mackenzie."
Before the service began, Mackenzie politely peppered me with questions. "Are you married?" she asked. Do you have children? Do you work? I answered them all, happy to satisfy her childish curiosity. During the service, Mackenzie offered money for me to put in the collection plate. "That's ok," I whispered to her and winked. "I have my own." At one point, Mackenzie lightly leaned her head on my shoulder and smiled. "You have a pretty smile," she whispered.
Before the final prayer and dismissal, Mackenzie, her mom and brother exited the pew and were gone. Gone before I could say it was a pleasure to meet her and that I hoped to see her again.
The innocent smile and kind words of a child had melted my troubled heart. I was smiling broadly as I joined my fellow parishioners in a stream from the sanctuary and into the bright sunlight. The priest's message for the day was still echoing in my ears: Peace, be still.
And so I was. And so I am as I write this. And so I will be ... until the next storm comes along to toss me about. And then I will look for another lifeboat. Another small miracle. Another random act of kindness. Another Mackenzie.
Just as Mackenzie passed the peace to me last Sunday, I now pass it to you: Peace be with you.
Do you let the small storms of life get you down? Where do you find peace? Please share your thoughts in the Comments.
Spring, summer, fall and winter are more than just seasons on a calendar. We can also think of them as the seasons of a life well lived.
In Write for the Fight: A Collection of Seasonal Essays
, 13 writers reflect on where they've been and where they hope life life will take them before they leave this mortal coil. In this anthology, each writer offers a unique perspective on the seasons of life: Spring:
Reflecting on what life was like at age 5Summer:
Offering advice to their 20-year-old selvesFall:
Considering what remains on their bucket list Winter:
Imagining what folks might say about them on their 80th birthday
As editor of this anthology, I had the opportunity to read each essay and interact with the authors who wrote them. Some of them made me laugh. Others made me cry. Still others left me pensive and reflective about my own life. These stories forced me to think about where I've been and where I hope to go in life. It's an incredible journey that I invite you to take with these writers and then apply the seasonal questions to your own life.Write For the Fight
is currently available from Amazon
and Barnes & Noble
, but I'm giving away a copy to one lucky reader of my blog. All you have to do is leave a comment on this post
and your name will be entered in a drawing to receive a soft-cover copy of the book. (To make it interesting, feel free to include a personal observation that addresses one of the four questions from the book.) If you share this blog post
(via Twitter, Facebook, etc.), you will earn an additional
chance to win. Don't forget to first leave a comment here
on the blog. The winner will be selected by a random drawing. (For Facebook shares, please see this public post on my Facebook page
and share it. For tweets, please use the hashtag #freeWFTF.) The deadline to comment or share is Tuesday, June 12, at 5 p.m. The winner will be announced by the end of the day on Wednesday, June 13.
While it's not a condition of accepting the book, those of us involved in this labor of love would appreciate a book review on Amazon, Barnes & Noble or your own personal blog. I also want to mention that proceeds from the sale of this book benefit breast cancer, so if you don't win the free copy, please consider purchasing the book. It's for a good cause.Please leave a Comment below for a chance to win your copy of
Write for the Fight. You can learn more about the book through one of my earlier posts: Write for the Fight: A kaleidoscope look at life — past, present and future.