Exploring life experiences through words and their definitions.

By Jiminy!

I was reminded of a really important concept about life one day last week, the secret to happiness which has been described by so many people for hundreds of years. It’s a classic that can be boiled down to pat phrases like, “thoughts are things” or quotable quotes like these that I’ve encountered in my reading recently:

There’s this one from Marcus Aurelius, an ancient Greek writer/philosopher: “Our life is what our thoughts make it.” I’m not actually reading his work but heard him quoted in a book-on-tape by Dale Carnegie.

Vasavi Kumar, author of “Succeeding in Spite of Everything” was quoted by P.M. Forni in “The Thinking Life”: “We create everything in our lives… you create the relationships, situations, and circumstances in your life.”

And we have choices, right, about the thoughts we have? That’s the key to this secret of life, I think. Our thoughts ultimately create our reality, but we have control and choice over the thoughts we think; we just forget that power sometimes.

In a book with a great title, “The Art of Choosing”, the author Sheena Iyengar says, “When we speak of choice, what we mean is the ability to exercise control over ourselves and our environment. In order to choose, we must first perceive that control is possible.”

So on with my story and the reminder of my own power inspired by a cousin of Jiminy Cricket.

My office at work is in chaos right now, too similar to the sorting, clearing, organizing and packing frenzy going on at home. My wall-mounted bookshelves had to be repaired recently, requiring me to empty the four bottom shelves, lining up binders and books on the floor along one wall.

On Tuesday morning, early, I discovered that I had acquired an addition to this clutter. A cricket had taken up residence, somewhere in the vicinity of the books and binders still decorating my floor instead of my newly reinforced bookshelves. And he was singing away, loud, clear, and obliviously cheerful.

He sang almost non-stop for the next hour at least, attracting attention from people passing by in the hallway. When I would step away from my office, two or three different people informed me, “You have a cricket in your office!” I would reply with some version of, “I know! Isn’t it awful?”

My first reaction was a kind of bug-phobic “EW!” There was a critter hiding in my office and I knew I wouldn’t be able to find it and “eliminate” it easily. So I tried to ignore it, with a hope in the back of my mind that it would just stay put and not jump on me.

But then, eventually, I remembered, “Wait a minute – I have choices about how I react and respond to anything that happens. My thoughts are powerful. Instead of being upset by having a cricket in my office, or worse, being freaked out and nervous, why not look at it differently?”

The cricket’s chirping song WAS loud in the small office space, but it was clear, rhythmic and cheerful-sounding. If I paused and thought about it, the sound really did remind me of a peaceful, cool evening. I relaxed into this image, deciding that I could pretend to be by a beautiful lake, enjoying a cooling breeze after a hot day. And since this was my fantasy, there would not be a single mosquito to mar the moment, just the song of the cricket reminding me that I always have choices.

I left my office on an errand, proud of being able to take control of my negative reactions and flip them to something positive. When I returned, ready to welcome the cricket’s background music to my work, ironically it had stopped singing and I didn’t hear a peep for the rest of the day. He had taught me his lesson and must have needed a nap!


Storing Memories

My spouse and I are moving to a new house. Unlike many people who move in order to gain more space, we will be downsizing. We’ll be gaining lawn service, snow removal, and wider, wheelchair accessible doorways, something we might need in 20 or 30 or 40 years. This will be our last house, the one we grow old in together.

We know that we’re losing a lot of storage space as a result of this movement to a new chapter in our lives. We have begun the process of sorting through the years-long accumulation of books, papers, and “stuff”.

Each day as I attack another corner of my space in our old house, I encounter memories from the past. Old work notes that I felt were important to save, from one and two jobs ago. Do I really still need them? No. So into the trash or recycling bin they went, along with both good and not so good memories.

I sorted through old letters the other day, most of which I didn’t take the time to re-read, not right now when time is of the essence to get our house cleaned and cleared. But I’ll be coming back to those letters, especially the ones I wrote to my family when I was in London for a college semester, which they saved for me. I also have the letters they wrote to me, my connection to home when I was so very far away. I also found a few letters from a caring mentor in college who continued to correspond with me after he finished his pastoral internship and left the campus. And most heart-warming of all, the funny and sweet notes that my spouse mailed to me during our dating days. All of those things I am keeping, with a determination to find a place to store them in my new, smaller, home and to read them when I have more time.

Letting things go has been an interesting experience. Some objects are easy to put in the giveaway pile. Other objects have stronger memories attached to them. Books from childhood that I have managed to save when my parents went through a downsizing move. The toy Fisher Price circus train, certainly an antique of sorts now. But do I keep it? What in the world would I do with it besides keep it in a bag (for dust protection) that I then tuck in a box and forget about until the next cleaning binge? I can’t see an 85 year old me getting down on the floor to “play train”!

So I decided to take my childhood train toy to my place of work, a wonderful school for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. The group of two year olds, whose teachers I support and supervise, are intensely interested in transportation vehicles of all kinds – trucks, airplanes, trains. They sometimes hear train whistles in the distance when they play outside and pause to comment on them. The teachers readily took the train, composed of four cars that link together, with a long piece of string on the front of the engine so it can be pulled and a button on top that can be pushed to make a toy-sounding “choo choo” whistle sound. There’s a great resonance to that sound, not at all electronic sounding like modern-day toys.

My office sits right next to this classroom, with observation windows that parents occasionally use to peek in on their children. I can hear some of what goes on in the classroom, right through the windows. After giving my childhood train away the other morning, I was seated at my desk. “Choo choo…. choo choo!” I could hear the toy train’s whistle through the window. The sound, suddenly, was so familiar to me. In that moment, unspecific memories of playing with that train and blowing the whistle, or hearing a sister blow the whistle, moved into my awareness.

The memories were vague but positive and happy. Tears came to my eyes as a two year old next door continued to sound the train’s whistle, “Choo choo…. choo choo!” I had made a good decision. The train was already bringing pleasure to someone. I would store away my memories, especially of hearing the whistle through my office window, instead of storing the object itself.

A Different Perspective

At 5:00 o’clock one recent evening, as I was leaving work for the day, the sky was filled with dramatic and amazing layers of fluffy clouds, most looking like miniature thunderheads. It was a blue sky, not an about-to-rain sky.

At 7:00 o’clock I made my way outside to my deck. I pulled a chair right up against the house with the purpose of leaning my head back in order to look up at the clouds that were still dotting the sky. I was attracted to them because they were moving, visibly moving, from west to east and the soon-to-be setting sun was lighting them up, each cloud lit up in its own way, depending on what other clouds were around it and where it was in the sky at that moment.

As I sat there, I noticed a spot in the sky, about halfway down to the horizon, where the clouds were very thick and heavy and a bit gray in color, but in a formation that had also resulted in a small opening, like a window, revealing very bright, light blue sky, dotted with tiny white clouds that looked far away. It felt like a window to heaven, a peek into a very faraway place.

I didn’t sit very long with my head tilted back before making an impulsive decision. I spread the towel that I had with me, onto the deck, and using the pillow I had been sitting on for my head instead, I lay down on my back to watch the clouds move by.

Immediately I gained a new perspective of the sky. If I tilted my head back and up, I could see clouds that were in essence behind me as I lay with my feet pointing south. I thought, “Oh, they’re upside down now.” And then I told myself, “That’s OK, I don’t think it matters. You can still see them and appreciate their movement across the sky and the way the sun is lighting them up.”

I noticed that the sky was actually several colors of blue, a very light blue to almost white near the horizon and gradually becoming a dark, deep intense blue straight above me. There was more of a contrast in color between the clouds and sky straight up. That’s where my attention stayed, for the most part.

I lay there and breathed, just watching and noticing. To my left, in my peripheral vision, was the house, rising up like a triangle with the top point being the roof. To my right, peripherally, was a deeply green and fully-leafed maple tree. I think it seemed extra green because of the contrast with the dark blue sky. There was a breeze blowing and I was occasionally aware of the sound of leaves whisper-rustling and the feel of the air moving across my bare arms.

I began to notice that there were two layers of clouds in the sky. The lower layer, closest to me, was formed by big and medium size fat and fluffy clouds, most with the blurred edges of a watercolor or pastel rendition. This layer was moving from west to east at a speed that was very noticeable. Above those clouds I saw a higher layer of wispy, smaller cloud formations, much fewer in number and scattered in the sky; they didn’t appear to be moving.

At one point, with a sort of suddenness, I felt like I was in an airplane, looking down on a layer of big, fluffy clouds, with a view of tree-covered but snow-capped mountains visible below. The wispy clouds had begun to look like the snow, with the dark blue sky seeming like mountains blanketed by pine trees. The first time I had this upside-down perception it startled me a bit and my mind quickly reversed it, telling me, “No, no, YOU are on the ground, looking up.” But I let myself breathe back into that sensation and perception several more times, fascinated.

I also discovered that if I fixed my attention just a little bit on the side of the house, then I would experience the sensation that the house was moving rather than the clouds. This also felt a bit startling and disconcerting but I let myself return to this perception also. At one point the peak of the house felt like the prow of a boat moving through water, with me on that boat. Later when I turned around so my feet were pointing north, I had the maple tree on my left, with a peripheral view of green branches reaching into the sky. If I fixed my attention ever so slightly on the tree, I realized, I could have a similar sensation that the tree was moving, receding away from me… and yet never really moving at all.

In another moment I found my attention fixed on the darker blue sky in between some large clouds. I discovered that I didn’t want to keep my attention there for very long because the sense of the vastness of the sky and the far-awayness of the Universe was a bit overwhelming… and a bit scary. Refocusing on the clouds helped ground me again.

When I first lay down on the deck, the clouds in the sky were pretty thick, covering most of the sky. They had contours and shadows, so it wasn’t just a purely cloudy sky. And as they moved along, headed east, the clouds began to break up, forming more individual clouds and cloud strings, with wispier accompanying clouds either expanding or contracting while also moving to the east. After about half an hour, the sky was mostly clear, with small clouds visible in the far distance, just above my horizon of trees, and lit from behind by the lowering sun.

I’m glad I followed my impulse to lie down, to view the sky from a completely different perspective.

“I’m IN the Painting!”

I love the sky. I love pausing to gaze at it when it has interesting clouds of one sort or another. One of my favorite times of day is that nearing-sunset time when there are clouds in the sky. The setting sun lights the clouds from a lower angle and they take on beautiful colors. I sometimes feel like I’m looking at a painting, a scene that a talented artist has captured, something I wish I could do also. The clouds might be fluffy, with soft cottony borders, a bit blurred and lit from behind by the sun. Or there might be dramatic-looking clouds filling the sky, thunderheads dotting the paling blue sky and suggesting the possibility of rain, but still lit up by the setting sun, with some of their edges brilliantly lit up, sharpening that piece of cloud. The colors that clouds can take on at sunset and the blurred nature of those clouds at their edges remind me often of watercolor paintings I have seen.

I was traveling by airplane recently, returning home from a meeting in Chicago. It was early evening and the Chicago sky was filled with tall thunderheads and fluffy clouds. It had been raining that day, but the skies had partially cleared by the time I got to the airport. The air had been warm and humid all day and many of the clouds were blurry and soft-edged. Due to delays (no surprise when flying), my plane didn’t take off to head west until about an hour before sunset in the area. I had a window seat and as the plane angled steeply upward, my view was of the sky, of wispy clouds lit up by the sun to create a view of blue with orange and pink highlights. It looked, in that moment, like a watercolor painting. As the plane continued to rise, we were in the midst of those clouds. I was suddenly IN the painting, in the clouds that were lit up by the setting sun. It was a different perspective to have and lasted only moments.

The plane leveled off for a few minutes, giving me a view of suburban neighborhoods with plenty of trees, blurred ever so slightly by a misty veil of cloud cover. When the plane rose again, going higher, it became enveloped in cloud, my view briefly turning gray and fog-like. And then we burst up and out of those clouds, suddenly above them. It was now a whole new world, the tops of fluffy thunderheads looking like a snow-covered landscape, looking solid enough to walk on. Glints of the setting sun shone on the horizon and reflected off this cloud cover, now visible from up above.

A Fleeting Moment

On my way home the other night I saw something that I thought was one thing but as I got closer I realized it was something else. It left me reflecting on how quickly I can form an impression and even make some assumptions and judgments based on that impression.

I was driving up a long, gradual hill, on a three-lane road that was not very busy at 6:30 p.m. Up ahead on the right was a 2-3 story building and parking lot that I pass every day. The parking lot is bordered by a retaining wall and I saw a man sitting on that ledge, facing in my direction. In front of him but to the side just a bit was what looked like a large dog, a rusty red color like an Irish Setter with longish wavy hair. My impression, all occurring in just a few seconds, was that the dog was sitting, but sitting tall, alert but calm. My impression, from a distance, was of a man sitting comfortably with his dog next to him, companions at ease together waiting for something or just sitting and watching the world go by. I felt a fleeting moment of appreciation for their companionship and maybe a little bit of envy too.

My car kept moving me forward and I got closer to the spot where the man was sitting. In the next seconds, then, I realized that what I had thought was an alert, proud dog sitting loyally near his owner was actually a rust colored metal post, about a yard tall and maybe 4-5 inches in diameter, lodged in the ground in front of but a little to the side of the man sitting on the ledge. As I got closer still, I could also make out the features of the man’s face better. He was staring straight ahead, hands loose in his lap.

My initial impression of warm man-with-dog companionship changed instantly. In this fleeting moment I suddenly sensed or perceived – or assumed – loneliness, aloneness, a situation so different from my initial impressions and assumptions.

This fleeting moment left a feeling impression on me. There was such a stark contrast between my assumptions and the reality of the situation. I drove on, feeling sad for this man but intrigued by this few-seconds long experience.

A Moment with Many Definitions

WARNING: This Blog essay probably contains too many definitions of words. This could seem very boring. But there’s meaning in the meanings; please bear with me.

I recently re-read a Journal entry from April 11 in which the word “inundate” sparked a reflection and a safari of sorts through the dictionary.

Safari, noun

– An overland expedition, especially in East Africa [From the Arabic word for journey]

Expedition, noun

– A journey undertaken with a definite objective

– Speed in performance (hmmm….)

Expedite, verb

– To speed the progress of; facilitate

– To perform quickly [From the Latin word expedire, make ready]

Expeditious, adjective

-Acting or done with speed and efficiency

[A fun word to say out loud, actually.]

On April 11 I was still experiencing feelings of being overwhelmed by my many responsibilities and perceived obligations. The word “inundated” came to mind.

Inundate, verb (Inundation, noun)

– To cover or overwhelm with or as if with a flood

I didn’t realize the direct connection to water with the word “inundate”. When I feel inundated and overwhelmed by the experience of life in the current moment, with my sometimes intense awareness of all the things I need to do, I think the image of waves can actually help me. I can take some deep breaths, acknowledge the flooding feeling, the experience of feeling overwhelmed, but keep breathing and imagining the wave subsiding again. The rhythmic, soothing (and yes, powerful) nature of waves can be tapped into and used as a positive image. I can use the power and momentum of waves to propel me forward. I can use the rhythmic nature of waves to soothe and relax me. The feeling of being inundated can ebb, flow back, ease, moving from a crashing sound to the quiet of the flowing-back moment.

Overwhelm, verb

– To submerge; engulf

– To defeat completely

– To turn over; upset

Engulf, verb

– To swallow up or overwhelm by or as if by overflowing and enclosing

As I sat with my smallish pocket dictionary (“Over 70,000 entries“!), finishing my notes for the word engulf, I noticed the words on either side of that word, all verbs.

                                           Engross                                         Engulf                                 Enhance

Engross, verb

– To occupy exclusively; absorb Synonym: monopolize

Enhance, verb

– To make greater, as in value, reputation, or usefulness

[From the Latin inaltare, heighten]

When I am feeling overwhelmed or engulfed by all the perceived things I have or need to do, it always helps if I focus exclusively on just one thing at a time. “Uni-tasking”, becoming engrossed and absorbed in just one task at a time will help quell the feeling of being flooded to overflowing. This will most certainly enhance my overall sense of well-being, of calm and I will be able to handle my experience that much more effectively. AND expeditiously!

Spider Lessons

I can’t remember now when I first encountered the idea of Totem Animals. It’s been a few years and the first animal to present itself to me with symbolic meaning was the giraffe.

In Native American traditions (and others), animals can be considered to hold symbolic meaning. Specific animals may appear in your life with both messages and lessons for you and for your life’s path. If you’re curious to learn more you can search on the web with the key words “totem animals” or “(animal, insect, bird name) as totem animal”. My favorite book on the subject is by Ted Andrews, titled “Animal Speak”.

So the Spider as a Totem Animal has come to have quite a bit of symbolic meaning for me and she has taught me or reminded me of many important life lessons, after I did the work of making the connections. It does require pausing and reflecting to allow the significance of a totem animal to emerge. (I think of spiders as female, due partly to the fact that Spider is considered in some traditions as the Grandmother of words and the queen storyteller, and because of the children’s book “Charlotte’s Web”.)

So recently Spider came to mind, when I had a button hanging by a thread and when I was feeling out of balance, pushing myself at work to accomplish many things. The sensations of responsibility and obligation that I was experiencing were both internally and externally driven. I was pushing myself into a workaholic state of mind and the expectations of my job were contributing to the sense of urgency.

The spider’s “thread” is a magical thing, seemingly so thin and fragile but in actuality extremely strong and resilient. A spider can enjoy the sensation of a free fall and then catch herself so effortlessly when she has gotten to her destination. A lesson in letting go, as completely as possible. “Just release and relax…. breathe, release some more, it’s safe, your threads will hold you….”

I want to clarify: I’m not actually a big fan of creeping and crawling things. The idea of Spider as a totem animal, as being somehow significant in symbolic ways to me and in my life all started when I had a Daddy Long Legs on my shirt sleeve; it had moved from some dusty files I was carrying onto my shirt. When someone pointed it out, I was lickety-split quick to brush it off, with a startled exclamation of “Ew!” or “Ugh!” So I keep spiders at a distance, but oh how many inspired moments they have engendered in my mind.

I keep a quart size jar with a lid in my bathroom, a place where I seem to encounter a lot of spiders. It is labeled “Bug Jar” so no one else will use it or take it away. When a spider appears to remind me gently about my writing or my creativity in general, I will try to catch it carefully in my jar and then I “invite” it to go outside. One morning when that happened I didn’t take the spider out right away, but finished with my morning routine.

When I turned my attention back to the spider in the jar, I had to pause and consider the symbolic nature of the situation. This spider had lost control of her independence and free will (temporarily, and thanks to me). When I first caught her in the jar, she froze in a self-defense reflex. But while my attention had been diverted away from the spider, she had reverted to what she knows best. She had created just a few strands of web, invisible to me, from one side of the jar to the other and was hanging, suspended, in the middle, just waiting patiently for whatever might happen next.

Suspend, verb

– To hang so as to allow free movement

– To support or keep from falling without apparent attachment

– To cause to stop for a period; interrupt (a kind of pausing)

This was one of Spider’s lessons for me, a simple reminder to pause when faced with a dilemma or a situation that seems to be out of my control. I can do what I know to do to keep myself safe and then I can just pause patiently, suspending myself in the here and now of the current moment, waiting to see what will happen next.