The Negative We Actually Need Today

negative capability

F. Scott Fitzgerald borrowed the poet’s phrase “Tender is the night” to become the title of his 1934 novel. The term “Bright Star” was taken from one of his poems and used as the title of a 2009 biographical film on the poet’s life. Rachel Carson’s 1962 book “Silent Spring” (on the adverse effects on our environment caused by pesticides) was supposedly so named because Carson had been inspired by a line of his poetry that says, “And no birds sing.”

Well, since others have used English poet John Keats’ words for their own purposes, so will I.

Keats, who died in 1821 at the age of 25, used the phrase Negative Capability just once in an 1817 letter to his brothers. Keats was describing a conversation with friends from a few days earlier. Wikipedia notes that Keats meant the term to “characterize the capacity of the greatest writers (particularly Shakespeare) to pursue a vision of artistic beauty even when it leads them into intellectual confusion and uncertainty, as opposed to a preference for philosophical certainty over artistic beauty.”

Although the primary reference was in regard to a writer’s ability, Negative Capability has come to have philosophical meanings. After some research, I believe this is my favorite meaning of a person possessing negative capability:

One who has a willingness to embrace uncertainty and can make peace with not knowing everything right now

If ever there was a time for Negative Capability to be present in our lives, it is this day, this week, this month.

Many of us are like four-year-olds on a car trip whining, “How much longer?!” We demand to know when this COVID-19 crisis will be over. Come on; give us a date to circle on our calendars so we can X-out the days as we get through them!

Acting as if it’s our right as Americans to demand certainty in uncertain times only causes us more stress. What we know is that we don’t know for sure when life will resume its normal patterns. And in the meantime, we’ll follow the rules of social distancing and washing hands.

Embracing uncertainty can assist us in accepting our changed lives. For instance, you may have seen one of the Facebook postings that reads like a lesson from the Bible. This one is by Kitty O’Meara:

And the people stayed home. And read books, and listened, and rested, and exercised, and made art, and played games, and learned new ways of being, and were still. And listened more deeply. Some meditated, some prayed, some danced. Some met their shadows. And the people began to think differently. And the people healed. And, in the absence of people living in ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal. And when the danger passed, and the people joined together again, they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images, and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully, as they had been healed.

Or this one from the Center for Spiritual Living: “Nothing should go back to normal. Normal wasn’t working. If we go back to the way things were, we will have lost the lesson. May we rise up and do better.”

Wishing you joy, peace, and some negative capability on this day.

~~~~~

Article from BrainPickings.org

A Life’s True Calling

life's true calling

My friend Kimberlee Baer says her response is sometimes a conversation starter. At other times it can bring a conversation to a screeching halt.

The question: “What do you do for a living?” Her response: “I’m a licensed funeral director.”

Presently most funeral directors are male. The percentages vary depending on a) whether you’re looking at just the United States or the world, and b) whether the site combines funeral directors with morticians and/or undertakers.

The National Funeral Directors Association, whose members are from the US and 49 other countries, states that 16% of its membership is female. But in an article from NextAvenue.org titled “Why Your Funeral Director Will Likely Be Female,” the author tells us a strong shift is occurring. In the last few years, more women than men have enrolled in America’s 59 accredited mortuary science programs. And in 2016, 61 percent were female.

Kimberlee’s mom (a registered nurse) had encouraged her daughter to find her life’s calling in the medical field. As a science buff while in high school, Kimberlee thought that embalming was a fascinating topic. On senior career day, she chose to shadow a funeral director.

Earning a B.S. in biology, she spent two years in mortuary school and did a two-year residency in Chester, Virginia. Shortly after that, she responded to a funeral home’s ad of looking for an apprentice. She took that position and has been with the independent family-owned funeral home ever since.

Kimberlee has seen many changes over the years, and if we ourselves think about it, we can realize how end of life services have evolved. They used to be somber events, no photos or videos, with just sad music.

Now “celebration of life” services often replace a funeral. There are photos and videos showing the person when he or she was enjoying life. Playlists enable us to hear the person’s favorite music. Often people will include warm or funny stories in their eulogies. People attending the reception share favorite moments of the deceased and laugh as they remember the best times, the most poignant times, of the person’s life.

When I asked Kimberlee to share the most unusual service she had directed, she didn’t pause. This particular man had loved being on his sailboat. His life had basically revolved around sailing so he had left specific instructions for his celebration of life service. Palm trees with tiny lights and antique rum bottles decorated the room. A band played Jimmy Buffet music. Guests were requested to wear shorts, t-shirts, and flip flops. Apparently, it was quite the send-off and everyone agreed that the deceased would have thoroughly enjoyed it.

As for the most difficult moments she faces in her role, she named three. The first instance she referred to is a sudden tragic death such as from an accident; the person was here one moment and the next they were dead. Family and friends are in shock and are sometimes barely able to focus.

A second has to do with her location in a small town; often the deceased is someone she knows and/or she knows their family. The personal connection makes it much harder.

And then, coming as no surprise, is the death of a child. Regardless of how old that child is, comforting a bereaved parent is the most difficult aspect of her work. Kimberlee shared the story of a baby who had died of SIDS. The mom had come in to plan the service and the two of them were still standing when the mom just collapsed into her arms. Kimberlee lowered them both to the floor where they stayed while the mom cried and they talked. Together they got through the planning of the service.

Kimberlee feels it is her life’s purpose to be with those who are facing the finality of death. She is able to remain calm, yet loving and compassionate, with those who need her. While seeing so many different sides of grief (anger, denial, heartbreak), Kimberlee has the ability to gently guide people through their most difficult time.

The two of us are new friends who were brought together on a Facebook community page. But that’s a story I’ll tell another time. For now, I’ll simply say that the world is a better place because of her.

~~~~~~~~~~

Next Avenue article

Who Knows What’s Next?

what's next

My mother-in-law Rosalie often quipped an adage up to the week before she died at the age of 100: “Old age isn’t for sissies.”

QuoteInvestigator.com says that the phrase first appeared in the Reader’s Digest April 1968 magazine, having been submitted to their “Life in the United States” section by a Ruth Hain from California. Ruth’s story was that her group of elderly friends had been sitting around complaining of various aches and pains and the maladies associated with aging. Until finally one friend said, “Well, it just proves one thing; old age sure ain’t for sissies.”

As we age we hear more about decline, both physical and mental. Maybe we clicked on one social media article about aging and the algorithms kicked in, gleefully filling our news feeds and inboxes with notices about the hazards of getting on in years.

Many of them scare us because we don’t want to be THAT person who ends up with Alzheimer’s, or THAT person confined to a bed or a wheelchair, or THAT person who has been forgotten and is living in isolation.

The older we get, the more frightening the concept of not being the same version of ourselves becomes.

Next month I will cross the calendar date when I will officially be closer to 70 than 69.

May I just say that feels impossible?

For the past ten years I haven’t minded sharing that I’m in my 60s. I had a blast at my 50th high school reunion in 2018, reminiscing with all the other 68-year-olds. Keeping active in all the ways that it counts (spiritually, mentally, physically, socially), I haven’t felt my age. I don’t feel old.

So I’m not certain why the idea of becoming 70 in the fall feels like a dramatic turning point.

The “aging” site that most frequently pops up in my email feed is called NextAvenue.org. Their tagline is “where grown-ups keep growing,” and their menu tabs are: Health / Money and Policy / Work and Purpose / Living / Caregiving / Technology.

Unlike many of the “you’re-getting-old-and-you-need-to-be-afraid-of-what’s-coming-next” sites, articles, and stories, Next Avenue offers encouragement, insight, inspirational stories, and advice to those in their midlife season.

I like it because it’s not one of those preachy sites that makes it seem as though there is just one right way to live your older life. And actually, it parallels my teaching and writing methods: offering up new information in a positive way for readers to consider and then ponder how they might find ways of incorporating the ideas to improve their own lives.

I’ve included a link below so you can check out their site.

So for now, this is your 69 years, four months, and 22 days old blogger signing off.

~~~~~

QuoteInvestigator.com

Next Avenue

A Peace Page A Day

a peace page

Last June I gave a dear friend (who at the time had just been diagnosed with ovarian cancer) the gift of a year in the form of a National Geographic book: Daily Peace, 365 Days of Renewal.

The book’s jacket encourages readers to “Pause to reflect, enjoy life’s simple pleasures, and renew your spirit with the timeless wisdom of Daily Peace. Filled with elegant photographs and thoughtful quotes, this inspiring book will provide perspective and meaning every day of the year.”

National Geographic has a series of these 6”x7” by 1 ¾” thick perpetual calendar books. Besides Daily Peace, they include

  • Daily Kindness, 365 days of compassion
  • Daily Joy, 365 days of inspiration
  • Daily Gratitude, 365 days of reflection
  • Daily Love, 365 days of celebration
  • Daily Calm, 365 days of serenity

Each book offers a monthly theme. The twelve themes for the Peace book are Transition, Healing, Resilience, Strength, Acceptance, Forgiveness, Mindfulness, Perspective, Balance, Tranquility, Kindness, and Simplicity.

Don’t you feel better just saying those themes out loud?

I also bought the book for myself since I had pledged to my friend that I would travel the healing journey with her. Each new day as I turned to the date’s offering, I thought of my friend and whispered a prayer for her recovery.

At times I felt her spirit with me. Other days as I pondered a fresh interesting quotation, I wondered what meaning she might find in the words.

For instance, January 14 provides a quote from Narihira: “I have always known that at last I would take this road, but yesterday I did not know that it would be today.”

That quote has stuck in my brain, well, since January 14. Consider all the meanings those words might have for various people because what it means to me will be different than what it means to you.

(In case you’re wondering, Narihira was a Japanese poet who (it’s believed) lived from 825-880. No, I’m not an expert in Japanese poets; I had to look it up.)

These books can last a lifetime because they are set up as simply dates, such as February 1. It doesn’t matter if I’m reading that page today or five years from now on February 1.

Because my friend Linda and I began our reading journey in June, the pages for the months January through May are new to us. But even when June rolls around again, I plan on keeping my Daily Peace book right where it is and refer to it each morning. I’m a different person, as are each of us, than I was a year ago. So I’ll be absorbing the photos and words from a different mindset.

Who knows what new motivational renewal awaits me?

A Flash of Unforeseen Remembrance

flash of unforeseen remembrance

Life lessons appear around us each day if we can just remember to be attentive. I certainly wasn’t expecting to find one at a celebration of life ceremony for the son of a friend. I guess because it was unexpected that I felt (and still feel) a tremendous sense of awe and gratitude.

At just 31 years old, unable to recover from a devastating two-year battle with a brain infection, Catzby Pitzvada died on December 17. I had never met Catzby; it was only through the stories of his mom Denise that I knew of him.

The ceremony was TRULY a celebration of life because Catzby lived a full life…full of adventure, travel, learning, music, friendships, laughter, and love.

Although the eulogies and tributes were each uniquely personal, one clear message shone through them all:

  • Catzby cared deeply about people.

  • Catzby understood that relationships need to be nourished.

  • Catzby encouraged those in his orbit to also care deeply about people and nourish their relationships.

A high school friend of his was brave enough to admit that she’s always been kind of a loner. She said she had let many friends drift away, but that Catzby always kept in touch over the years and nudged her to do the same, to keep reaching out, to maintain bonds.

That was the lesson that hit home for me. Because it’s easy to get lazy about relationships.

Right now (without having to think twice about it), I can name four people I’ve been talking about visiting for over a year. Each lives within an hour’s drive from me so why do I only talk about it? Do those people feel loved by my inaction? No. Likely they feel forgotten.

A line of poetry by Edwin Arlington Robinson goes like this:

We cannot know how much we learn

From those who never will return,

Until a flash of unforeseen

Remembrance falls on what has been.

Catzby, thank you for being such an inspiration, for choosing a full and joyful life, for having smile lines around your eyes before you hit 30. And especially thank you for the flash of unforeseen remembrance that we need to hold onto our relationships, to value them and care for them like the precious gifts they are.

~~~~~~

Catzby’s obituary

 

Itsy Bitsy Teeny

infinitesimal

Someone at a party on New Year’s Day mentioned she was vaguely aware of my blog. It turns out a mutual friend had forwarded her several of my posts over the last few years. “How do you figure out what to write about?” she inquired.

My standard answer is that typically I’m inspired by something I’ve heard or read or seen or done. Or sometimes a story or event from my life seems worthy of sharing. Today’s post is different.

At the risk of sounding like a yaya-new-age Mrs. Mysterio, I’m going to tell you the truth. A word came to me just as I was waking from a short nap today.

The dog and I had been going to just rest on the sofa for a few minutes, but the rain lulled us to sleep. As I began waking, the word infinitesimal kept repeating in my mind in a woman’s voice.

As I became fully awake, I tried to make some sense of it. I couldn’t even recall the exact meaning of infinitesimal and had to look it up. Mainly used in mathematics, it means “so small as to be impossible to measure.”

Great. How do I write about almost nothing? It’s a new year, a new decade. I want to talk about BIG ideas and BIG thoughts, and definitely NOT something so small as to be impossible to measure.

But I’ve learned when a topic strongly presents itself to me, it’s my responsibility to write about it. What slant on this subject might be of help or encouragement to my readers?

In considering the concept, I realized that right now, in this moment in time, I know more than one person who is feeling like an infinitesimal.

Their existence feels like nothing; their lives are nearly unbearable. One is due to the tragic early death of a loved one. Another has a multitude of serious illnesses that afflict him. He said recently that he’s in such unrelenting pain that he wishes he could just disappear.

And I’m willing to bet that each one of you reading this post also knows at least one person who feels so beaten down by life circumstances that he/she feels like an almost-zero.

When people are in that state, we need to be there for them. To me, being there means something specific. It’s not showing up with a casserole and a smile and singing “The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow.” Each person will have his or her own needs. Listen to your heart and empathically provide what’s needed. It may be simply holding a hand and sitting in silence with them.

This is one time when it’s OK to make something out of (almost) nothing.

 

Great (or Maybe Not) Expectations

expectations

A friend shared the story of attending her niece’s college commencement. In the car on the way home from the event, Auntie remarked to the family in general that she had certainly enjoyed the valedictorian’s speech which had the theme of expectations.

To Auntie’s surprise, her generally sweet and sunny niece harrumphed and then barely audibly snarled the word expectations.

The subject was quickly dropped.

Apparently, that word holds a strong negative connotation for the young woman. I wondered to myself what had been the cause of expectations producing such a negative response from her.

Had she felt undue pressure from professors’ expectations of her? Perhaps she’d majored in a field she wasn’t thrilled about due to family expectations of what she should do. Or maybe she was angry at herself over too many self-imposed expectations. I, of course, am making up these answers. Maybe she was just having a bad day.

The word expectations is common in job performance evaluations. The above-and-beyond winners EXCEED them, most employees MEET them, the “needs help” group PARTIALLY MEET them, and the guy on his way out the door DOES NOT MEET them.

It seems that psychologists generally dislike the word, but mostly for two reasons. One is in connection to having expectations of others without letting them know what they are. In other words, if a wife has the expectation of her husband that he “should” take his clean and folded T-shirts upstairs and put them away but she never clearly states this reasonable request, that’s setting up a possible resentment when he doesn’t take action. (I’m not saying that this happens in our family and I’m not saying it doesn’t.)

The second reason psychologists appear to frown on expectations is when they are unrealistic. If someone who’s in the dating world expects every new date to be a Hallmark movie character, they are setting themselves up for disappointment. Or if someone expects to lose a few pounds but changes nothing in the diet or exercise segment of their lives, then it’s just magical thinking that the pounds will come off.

I actually like the word expectations and I use a phrase to describe what I believe most audiences bring with them to a performance: hopeful expectations.

Consider this: When you’re going to any event (such as a show, a football game, a concert, a lecture, a party, or the circus), you walk through the door with hopeful expectations. Maybe you expect to be entertained, to feel deeply, to learn something, to laugh, to gain information on how to improve, or to be bedazzled.

We attend events expecting to enjoy ourselves. Otherwise, why would we show up?

So instead of New Year/new decade resolutions, I’m going to set hopeful expectations for myself. Here goes. In 2020 I’m hopefully expecting:

  • the people I encounter to be kind
  • to find happiness in each day
  • the blessings in my life to outweigh the struggles
  • that the people I love will love me back every bit as much

~~~~~

Forbes article on unrealistic expectations

Example of performance evaluation ranking

Crosses On The Tree

PLEASE NOTE:  TODAY’S POST IS BASED ON THE CHRISTMAS LETTER I INCLUDED WITH MY CARDS THIS YEAR.

crosses on the tree

A friend asked the significance of the crosses on my Christmas tree. After all, we’re celebrating the birth of Jesus in this season and not his death.

On the first teaching card in the Godly Play lesson titled Faces of Easter we don’t even see the face of Jesus; rather, we see the faces He sees as he looks up as a newborn. Part of the lesson says, “The baby may even see the image of the cross on the faces of Mother Mary and Father Joseph.” As the teacher says those words she gently finger-draws a cross just above the bridge of the nose on the faces of Mary and Joseph.

To me, Christmas and Easter are inextricably linked. You can’t have one without the other.

And one way they’re linked is by something as simple as a breath. Jesus took his first breath the moment he was born and his last breath when he died on the cross that Good Friday.

Unless we have a medical condition that inhibits our ability to breathe, we give virtually no thought to this autonomic body function that connects us to the universe. Go ahead right now and take a deep breath and appreciate what links you to the rest of humanity.

When we’re desperately ill, we may not be able to breathe on our own. And when we’re frightened or numb with anxiety or grief-stricken, it can seem as if we have forgotten even how to breathe.

One of my favorite Christmas songs is Breath of Heaven sung by Amy Grant. Songwriter Chris Eaton, a friend of Amy’s, originally wrote the song with different lyrics except for the chorus. Amy convinced him to let her rewrite the words to tell the Christmas story from Mary’s perspective.

Grant says the song has turned into a prayer for her. The reason it turns into a prayer is that it fits the circumstances of so many people; it is a cry for mercy. On songfacts.com she is quoted as saying: “Some nights on stage I can hardly get through the song for knowing all of the collective, unspoken pain of the lives in front of me. And so the words become my prayer for the listener…”

I think of each of you as I look at the crosses on my tree. Whatever joys fill your life, whatever heavy loads you are bearing this Christmas, my loving wish for you this season is a sense of peace with every breath you take.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Amy Grant – Breath of Heaven

Just Like Cupcake

Today’s post is based on my 2005 Christmas letter.

In November 2004 we made the difficult decision to put down our beloved family dog of thirteen years. Like most old dogs, Cupcake had developed many physical problems. She endured twice daily insulin shots for diabetes. Minimal pain medication for her aching joints had to be carefully monitored as it could have further damaged her ailing liver. Cupcake’s clouded over eyes severely limited her vision. She was nearly deaf as well, and she often became confused, appearing to not know where she was.

We no longer put her on a leash for walks since there wasn’t a risk of her running off. She loved to be outside; rooting around near the trees and bushes smelling for squirrels and other dogs. I usually lingered slightly behind her, letting her enjoy herself. At some point, she would look up and her body would stiffen. I knew she was afraid that she was lost and alone outside. She would stand frozen until I came up to her, touching her gently, saying her name and telling her I was there watching over her. I swear I could see the relief that flooded over her old body. Soon, and with a little spring in her step, she would continue on her way.

It dawned on me that most of humanity ends up like Cupcake. Our eyes become so filled with visions of “things” we want that we lose sight of what God wants for us. Our ears turn deaf to His voice when we are too caught up listening to the busyness and needs of our daily lives. We stumble along and are suddenly frozen with fear that we’re lost and alone. Then God touches us gently, speaking our name, and gives us loving reassurance that He is there beside us, watching over us, loving us more than we can possibly know.

Experience With a Capital E

changed by an experience

Note-taking is in my DNA. I just can’t help it. Whether I’m listening to a TED talk, attending a live presentation, or watching a YouTube or Udemy training, I retain the message stronger and longer if I physically take notes.

Sometimes I even take notes in church. Although our church’s sermons can be found online, if I hear something on Sunday that speaks to my soul, I’ll jot it down at the top of the bulletin. Such was the case with one of Father Ben’s recent sermons. He posed this challenging question: What if we are left unchanged by an experience?

Go back and read that again. Say it out loud. Because it is profound.

Our time is one of our most highly prized resources. We don’t want to waste it or use it on something we will regret. So when we invest our time in an experience, subconsciously we are looking to be changed somehow by that experience.

It would be impossible, of course, to have every one of our experiences be an earthshaking one. But consider that when we hear beautiful music, we may embrace a sense of calm. If we listen to an uplifting podcast, we may experience motivation to make a change. Spending quality time with family or friends can fill our hearts with joy and peace. An hour’s worth of playing with children reminds us that it is indeed freeing to act silly and that it feels great to laugh out loud with others.

A major experience such as a vacation to the Grand Canyon can change us by shifting our perspective to WOW! And those terrible experiences where we wonder if we can ever get past them? Well, those change us as well.

Most of us tend to live life at such a hectic pace that we don’t consider how we are changed by the experiences in our daily activities. Can we slow down just a bit to consider them, to look for them, to ponder them?

Now that the winter weather is here (at least in Virginia), I begrudgingly take the dog out for the cold, right-before-bed pee time. Instead of muttering please-hurry-up-and-go-NOW comments to the dog, what if I would lift my face to the night sky and look at the moon and the stars? That experience of resentment could be transformed into one of gratitude for living where I can truly see the night sky.

I’m convinced if the world would apply this standard of looking to be changed by each experience, the genre of reality TV would cease to exist. And maybe we’d stop watching political rhetoric and the daily sensationalism of what used to be actual news.

Obviously, I was not left unchanged by the experience of Father Ben’s sermon. And if this post has resonated with you, well then neither are you.