The gift of a flu shot

“Relax your shoulders,” the nurse instructed me as she prepared to give me a flu shot. I breathed out and let my shoulders drop. But before she could stick the needle in, my shoulders tensed.

“Relax your shoulders,” she said again. I breathed out and let my shoulders drop, and she stuck me.

“I didn’t even feel it,” I said.

“That’s because your shoulders were relaxed,” she observed.

“Wouldn’t all life be less painful if I kept my shoulders relaxed?” I suggested.

She chuckled and agreed.

All that day, I kept coming back to the nurse’s instruction and my experience of a painless flu shot. I thought of images of the flow of life and meditations inviting me to be the tree or be the river.

How many times a day do I need to relax my shoulders? To let go of my resistance? To lean into the flow of life instead of trying to stand against it?

While reflecting on those three words, relax your shoulders, I recalled a conversation from a few days earlier about “reacting” versus “responding.”  I want to respond to life events, from a place of peace—rather than reacting from fear or resistance. Staying relaxed seems key to responding.

A few hours after I got the flu shot, and after I had spent an hour and a half working on a spreadsheet, my computer crashed. I could feel my shoulders tense up, and then I recalled the nurse’s advice.

I stepped away, breathed out my frustration and let my shoulders drop. Yes, it was a wasted hour and a half, but in the bigger scheme of things, it was only an hour and a half and not worth getting too upset about.

I was grateful for the nurse’s patience with me, that she waited until I was relaxed before she gave me the shot, because her example was a reminder of how every event in daily life can hold a lesson, if I am open to it.

It seems odd that a simple flu shot could produce such a deep reflection, but isn’t that the point of mindfulness—to be present to what is happening right in front of me and to learn from everything, even those things that seem insignificant.

Mindfulness, to me, is paying attention to what catches my attention and letting deeper meanings surface. Three little words, relax your shoulders, offered a gift—the reminder that staying relaxed can make painful events less painful.

Who or what is offering you insight and wisdom today?

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Old friends far away

A few years ago, a friend sent me Gail Caldwell’s book, Let’s Take the Long Way Home, the story of a friendship between two women. This same friend later suggested I read Two Old Women by Velma Wallis, a legend Wallis heard as a child. I pointed out to my friend that I notice a theme in her book selections—friendships between two women. She responded that she is grateful for our friendship, which began in 1975.

Another friend recently sent me this quote from Henri Nouwen.

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And then last week, I heard an interview with two women about their podcast on friendship.

Friendship is a theme—and it has me thinking about my friendships and how blessed I am.

A friend once told me he thought a shared history was the most important thing in friendship. He had lots of friends from his elementary school days, and even though they had developed different interests as they aged, they maintained their friendships because of their shared school history.

My experience was different than that; I moved away after high school and lost touch with most of the people from my school years.

In my mid-thirties, I became friends with a woman who lived in the forensic unit of the local state hospital. Visiting hours were Thursday afternoons from 2:00-4:00, and I went every week for the first hour.

About a month or so into these visits, I remember thinking how rare it was to spend an hour with someone once a week—an hour with no distractions and no activities. I was not allowed to bring anything in—no games or books or food—so we sat face to face and talked.

Those visits came back to me recently when I was talking to a friend in Ireland. Pre-pandemic, our chats might last an hour, but this call went on for more than two hours.

Conversations with other friends are similar—long, leisurely catch-ups. No distractions, no interruptions—just the two of us connected over the phone or computer.

It is a gift of the pandemic, this opportunity to be totally present to another for extended periods of time.

This time of isolation has also given me the opportunity to ponder friendships that have ended.

Twenty-five years ago, a good friend and I had a difference of opinion that created a deep rift between us. Early on, there were some attempts at reconciling, but those attempts failed, and we eventually gave up trying. This person was very important to me during a particularly difficult period in my life, and I still miss her.

That is the thing about true friendship—it touches our hearts and reshapes us in a way that cannot be undone.

I feel similarly about my friends who have died— I am still changed by them, even though they are no longer physically present in my life.

How are you connecting with friends during this time of isolation? How have friends touched you and changed your life?

Unspoken

I put an empty glass jar on my kitchen table,

like the cuss jar we used to have at work.

Every time someone swore,

she put a quarter into the jar, and

on Friday, we used the money for donuts.

Instead of paying when I cuss, though,

I pay when I refuse to speak out,

when I swallow the words

forming inside me

in reaction to what someone said or did

or events in the day’s news.

Words that question,

challenge,

contradict.

Words that would tell my side of the story.

Instead of quarters,

I put a pebble in the jar

each time I keep silent,

afraid to voice my thoughts,

fearful of being told to keep my opinions to myself,

to just shut up.

Soon the jar fills with rocks, and

my throat fills with unspoken words,

choking me.           

When there is room for no more stones,

I shatter the jar and let the pebbles roll out,

spilling out onto the world my unspoken pain.

Unpacking the shadow side

One of my earliest memories is from a day when I was four years old and I found a dime in my back yard. A dime in those days was a lot of money; it could buy ten pieces of candy. In my excitement, I shouted my good news, at which point my older brother claimed the dime was his.

I probably chanted, “Finders keepers; losers weepers,” which was something we said to proclaim ownership of found items.

My brother was not easily dissuaded when he wanted something, though, and he came toward me to grab the dime, claiming, “Its mine.” And so I swallowed it. Yep, I just swallowed the dime to make sure my brother could not get it and I could keep it. (Not the smartest move, perhaps, but I was four.)

Twenty-four years later, I was in therapy, and when asked for my earliest memory, I shared this story.

My therapist said, “And you have been swallowing every painful incident ever since.”

What?

His response was unexpected. I thought I had just been sharing an early memory. I had no idea of the significance of that encounter with my brother and the dime, but I could see that it was true.

Every bad thing that had happened to me had been submerged deep inside me, swallowed like the dime, to stop the pain of whatever painful thing was happening.

At twenty-eight, this was my first experience with therapy, and I had not previously examined much from my past, the relationships and events that had shaped me.

We did not go in for therapy in my family, preferring to believe that no one needed help or had any issues. Therapy was for sissies or “crazy” people, and we could be neither. We just kept moving forward, and my way of moving forward was to swallow everything bad in my life.

I suppose all this has resurfaced now because I have been thinking about resiliency and how resiliency has helped me survive the traumatic events of my life.

From therapy, I learned about what Carl Jung called our shadow side, that place inside where I had shoved every painful experience. At twenty-eight, I started to unpack that overstuffed bag, to look at what was there, and to see what I could learn from those experiences that could help me more forward with my life in a healthier way.

Even though my way of coping as a child was not particularly effective for mental health, it was effective for survival. And when I began to unpack what was stored in the darkness, I began to see myself as a survivor and to understand how all those events had shaped me into the person I had become.

Once I brought each event from my past into the light, I could see the lessons I had learned—how they taught me to be more understanding of what others had experienced and more accepting, and how they had made me more resilient.

Speak up

How could I tell my mother

the things I saw and heard and felt?

What words could I use to

convince her I was telling the truth

and not making up a story?

You always exaggerate, she would say.

Stop lying.

Stop saying those things.

Why would I lie?

Why would I make up stories?

What kind of imagination would dream up

men who hurt girls?

I tried to speak up and

learned to keep silent.

I only want to be…

I only want to be a SPP, a priest friend used to say. SPP stood for simple parish priest.

I was reminded of that when I read that Padre Pio used to say, I only want to be a poor friar who prays.

Both of those statements got me to thinking of what I want.

Growing up, I had no idea of what I wanted to be. Teachers would suggest possible careers for me—writer or teacher being two of the most popular—but those suggestions sounded beyond my capabilities. My low self-esteem was deeply ingrained.

I was not allowed to go to college after high school, and looking back, I imagine that may have been where I might have discerned my desires.

In my mid-twenties, when I was very involved in my church and attending Mass every day, many people suggested I become a nun, and I did explore that option. But again, it was not something I had always dreamed of (although I did once have a nun doll that I rather liked).

My truth was that I never thought of myself as having a dream; I don’t remember ever saying, I only want to be.…

I tell myself that lots of people don’t know what they want to be when they grow up, and I have learned that lots of people start out as one thing only to discover that is not what they really want after all.

Nurses become pharmaceutical sales representatives, teachers become real estate agents, and businesspeople become nonprofit leaders (or vice versa). I even know a doctor who had been an architect. Imagine all that schooling only to discover it is not what you really wanted.

I know several lawyers who discovered they did not want to be lawyers. Two are now elementary school teachers, another opened a bookstore, and another works in fundraising.

Now, deeply in the third third of my life, I can see that life plays out in ways I and many others could not have imagined. I suppose having a dream, an idea of what one wants to be, can provide a base, but sometimes that dream can get in the way of using our gifts and talents to their fullest.

Padre Pio is a good example of someone who allowed himself to become what people (and God) needed him to be—a sought-after spiritual advisor and confessor. Perhaps he imagined he would have more time for prayer, but he seems to have adapted to the needs of the people who came to him.

A neighbor recently attended a function at my work and commented that she could see that my work is more than a job. You belong to those people, she said, and they belong to you. Growing up, I may not have known what I wanted to be, but my life has worked out better than I probably could have planned.

Have you ever said, I only want to be…? Has the dream changed over time?

Love is our destiny

Every day brings us holy moments,

chances to glimpse unconditional love and

unlimited forgiveness.

We only need look for them,

be open to them,

expect them.

If we are looking elsewhere,

if our hearts are closed or we are

expecting an insult or betrayal,

we might miss these gifts,

these moments of grace.

Look up with anticipation of seeing beauty,

and then bring that beauty in.

Let it touch your heart and soften any hard edges.

We were meant to love and be loved,

as much as fish were meant to swim and birds to fly.

Love is our destiny.

Reflections from a day of kayaking

Two friends invited me to go kayaking on the Thornapple River in central Michigan, and I gladly accepted.

Kayaking is one of my favorite outdoor activities because it offers an easy way to be on the water surrounded by nature. Kayaking requires minimal strength, and on the Thornapple River, the current did most of the work. We had to steer around some fallen trees and other debris, but the water was relatively calm and the trip downriver peaceful.

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Photo from Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy

Nature gifted us with sightings of deer along the riverbank and herons standing in the water. There were more turtles than I could count, lounging on fallen logs along the river’s edge.  

Being carried along by the current, I rested my paddle and looked up into the canopy created by the trees. Although mostly green, a few had started to change to fall colors and some leaves even fell into the kayak along the way.

I remembered a meditation about trees and how they change every season without resistance.

They seem to trust that even though their leaves are dying now and they will be dormant over winter, in the spring, new leaves will bud and grow to cover them again. Every year the cycle repeats itself, and the trees move naturally through the cycle. They don’t resist the changes—the death of autumn or the new growth of spring. They just do what trees do, living the cycles of their lives.

Be the tree, I said to myself. Let go of what needs to die and trust that something new will grow in spring.

When I lowered my eyes and looked at the trees at water level, I realized that the riverbank had eroded, and the roots of most of the trees were exposed. I wondered if that exposure weakens the trees and makes them more vulnerable.

The words of St. Paul came to me: When I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:10).

Be the tree, I said to myself again. Let your roots be exposed and risk vulnerability.

Yes, I thought, I want to be like trees and let go easily. I want to accept the changes of life as they come and move gracefully through each season. I want to let my vulnerabilities show, to be less certain and more open, less fearful and more trusting.

A little further down the river, I had the opportunity to lean into my vulnerability—I fell into the water in a less than dignified way. I was not hurt—just drenched. And like the time I had to climb a tree to get over a barbed-wire fence in England three years ago, I was grateful no one was videotaping the escapade.

Letting go of my pride and laughing at myself moves me along the path to humility, the path of accepting my vulnerability. Those few minutes of embarrassment were part of the hours of peaceful contentment kayaking down the river, helping me be the tree and embrace whatever comes.

Let the river carry you

Leaves gently falling onto the river,

just a few these first days of autumn.

How would it be to fall into the river and

be carried away,

past farm and forest,

floating freely?

Is it too late to start again?

To step into the river and let it carry me away?

To let go of all that I have been clutching,

all the history that fills my heart,

taking up all the space and

leaving no room for what might come.

Be the leaf.

Let go and fall into the adventure

that awaits just around the bend of the river.