One Piece of Advice

I am going to continue to use the journal prompts from this website, because I really enjoy them, and they make me think about a variety of topics. Today’s prompt is: “If you could offer yourself one piece of advice for the next month, what would it be?” I have a couple of bits of advice for myself for this next couple of months of summer. As a teacher, I really use the summer to unwind, regroup, and heal before starting again in August.

First piece of advice: Live in the moment. No, really live in the moment.

Living in the moment doesn’t mean that you can’t plan, it doesn’t mean that you can’t look forward to other things or back to previous times. What living in the moment means is treating each moment with respect and gratitude. Living in the moment is listening to learn; living in the moment is recognizing the beauty if your current situation; living in the moment is seizing opportunities to make a difference in the life or lives who are right in front of you.

Second piece of advise: Be open to whatever comes your way. If what comes your way turns out not to be for you, that’s okay, but don’t send things away without really considering them.

If you had told me a year ago I would be where I am today, I would have laughed in your face. Sober, vegan, moderately happy, attending a church and a Bible study, regularly going to therapy and having days that are more happy (content, joyful, okay) than sad (angry, depressed, anxious), running again, setting healthy boundaries, and knowing when to say yes and when to say no. For real, a year ago I would have just belly laughed. But if you seize what comes your way, you may find that the unexpected leads to something you never imagined could happen for you. And that something may be the absolute best thing.

Third piece of advice: Live by a consistent ethic. Living by a consistent ethic doesn’t make you better than anyone; I don’t feel better than others, but I can look at myself at the end of the day and feel good about the choices I make.

Most people don’t know that I am pro-life. They don’t know this because I don’t really talk about it much. I am pro-life in a way that is consistent for me: I do not believe in taking any type of life, unless absolutely necessary, and even then, is it really necessary? My pro-life status extends even throughout species, as I am vegan, as I try to use organic products, and as I don’t kill insects. And it extends throughout humanity, as I don’t believe in the death penalty, as I don’t think abortion should have to be a thing because I think we should provide services to eradicate the necessity of it, as I am not a fan of firearms because I’ve never been in a situation where a gun would’ve made me feel any safer, and since I don’t eat animals, I don’t need to hunt, and as I try to love the person who is in front of me.

Last piece of advice for today: Love and grace and truth and more love and more grace.

When I think about how many times in my life loving someone, giving grace to someone, being honest with someone has hurt me, I don’t come up with many examples, if any at all. When I think about how many times being hateful, spiteful, condemnatory, and dishonest with someone has come back to hurt me, I have countless examples. I firmly believe that how we treat other people is, at the end of the day, how we treat ourselves. What we sow, we reap.

I guess summer is time for slowing down, for thinking deeply, for meeting myself in the mirror every morning, and reflecting on who I want to be and who I really am. What piece of advice do you have for yourself? What piece of advice do you have for me?

One Thing You Wish You Could Do

For the month of May, my writing prompts have been taken from this website. Today’s prompt is: “One thing you wish you could do.” There are so many things that I wish I could do better, but that isn’t what this question is about, so I guess I will talk about something that’s been plaguing me recently. Something(s) I wish I could do.

*Buckle your seat belts, this post is a lot.*

I recently started going to therapy with a fabulous counselor named Angie. After my mom died, and after I had COVID for the third time, and after I realized that this school year was incredibly difficult, I decided that I might need someone to help me through, and that someone couldn’t be a person with whom I regularly interact.

Here’s the killing part of this, despite our oldest son and his wife and our middle son all being therapists, my friend and I used to talk about how therapists were for people who didn’t have good friends, but now I know how wrong I was. I have the best friends of anyone I know, but I am an expert at keeping secrets when I think someone might think less of me if they know something about me, and I am an expert at allowing everyone else to tell me things about themselves—I know some pretty deep and intimate things about my friends—but then I turn around and tell that same person that I am fine, refusing to share the deep intimacies of my life.

When I say I am expert at these two things, I mean I am very talented at faking being okay. I faked being okay for well over 30 years and was fully prepared to keep faking it. Thankfully, another friend of mine said to me at lunch, “You’re not okay, and you should probably talk with someone.” She’s awfully pushy, but I love that about her.

Long story short, I started looking for a therapist sometime last fall, and got on Angie’s waiting list, then I quickly swore that when she contacted me, I’d just say I found someone else, I was feeling better, or some such nonsense. Basically, I got really brave about my mental health for a minute in September, then figured out how I would sneak right back out of it if she ever called. Well, in December, just after mom died, I received an email from In the Midst Counseling Services that Angie had an opening, I begrudgingly accepted the appointment, and here we are.

At therapy, I have been working on something that I would love to be able to do: I’d love to be able to hear about people’s difficulties, situations, problems, joys, accomplishments, and all of those things without holding them and carrying them as my own. I’d like to be more of a conduit of God’s love and grace, than a repository for people’s emotions. I would also like to be able to share more of myself with others—so that they may fully know me—without me being afraid that whatever I have hidden from them will some how drive them off. I have a lot of things I’ve kept tucked away for a lot of years.

Don’t hear me wrong: I am not blaming others, nor do I want people to stop sharing things with me, but I find that when people share their stories with me, I hold on to them in a deeply personal way, absorbing their emotions and making them my own. I am especially prone to doing this with negative emotions, so much so that I have a hard time experiencing my own long-lasting joy.

Anyway, in therapy, we’ve talked about a backpack analogy, which has been really helpful to me. In this analogy, backpacks equal emotions, situations, thoughts, experiences, and whatever else people carry around with them. Basically, when the people around me tell me that their backpacks are heavy, my common practice is, without hesitation, to pick up their backpack, put it on, and just carry it for them. So, in the practice of not doing that, I have learned to accept someone’s backpack, look around in it with their permission, maybe help them rearrange their baggage so it’s lighter and possibly more well organized and easier to carry, maybe take a thing or two that I can help carry, and then to have them take back their own backpack. By doing this, I am able to see what others are carrying with them, maybe help them with some of the items, maybe liberate them into throwing some of their garbage away, but I do not carry the weight of their pack on my own shoulders.

When I first learned this technique, I thought how silly, but I can tell you now a few months later that, that one analogy was worth my $100 for that session! I have found that when I am in a sticky situation, people around me with whom I have shared this bit of wisdom will say things like, “You’re carrying their backpack,” or “Did you forget to give their bag back to them?” or “Let me help you carry your backpack.” That last one is the most difficult for me.

I am completely humbled when people say to me, “Let me help you carry your backpack.” Humbled is maybe the wrong word. At first, I feel more humiliated and indignant. “How dare that person insinuate that I can’t carry my own backpack! Grumble, grumble…” as I stumble under the weight of the baggage… I am not a person who is accustomed to letting others carry my back pack. I am not even someone who is accustomed to letting someone see inside just the front pocket of my backpack (those are my lovely wife’s words), but I am sometimes now letting others see in that front pocket, I have maybe even let a couple of people see inside the pack itself. I haven’t let anyone really get in there and dig around, but I am trying.

So, in a nutshell, my two things I wish I could do are:

  1. Not carry other people’s burdens in the extreme way I have for most of my life, to remember to give them back their backpacks, and to
  2. Allow people to start seeing the inside of the compartment of my backpack, not just the front pocket. And maybe if I get really brave to let people help me rearrange the things in there.

I really wish I could do these two things well enough some day to experience longterm joy, instead of being weighed down by intense sadness. I know I will get there. I know I will. But for now it’s still a wish.

Also, if you are worried about after this post, please don’t be. For the first time in 48 years, I am learning some tools to cope with the way my brain works, and I am doing the best I’ve been doing in a really long time. I just process through writing. So here we are.

Decisions

For the month of May, my writing prompts will be taken from this website. Today’s is: “Do you make decisions quickly or slowly?”

In my day to day world, as a teacher, I make a million decisions at lightning speed all day every day, so in some regards I make decisions really fast. Those decisions are one that I have to make, but decisions that I need to make about things that may cause lifelong consequences, there isn’t really a speed at which I make them.

For example, the decision to ask my wife to marry me took forever. I kept shuttling back and forth between every possible ramification of asking her. Would she say no? Would she say yes? Would her kids think it was foolish? Would they be angry? How should I ask her? Why get married when it wasn’t legal? Would her family be supportive? On and on my brain raged and anguished over the decision, until I finally decided that I would, in fact, propose to her.

The decision to quit my PhD was an important decision I made pretty quickly. I knew I wasn’t progressing forward anymore on my dissertation, because I was working so hard teaching middle school and high school, and though it was said to me that I could put off my teaching commitments in order to successfully complete my dissertation, I knew I could not. Teaching is my greatest joy—grading not so much—and I knew that it would be unethical to be a subpar teacher in order to complete a degree that I ultimately wouldn’t use. So I quit.

Other decisions take a moderate amount of time, like deciding to trade in my Jetta for my van turned camper. I knew I wanted to be able to camp safely anywhere I needed to go, so I weighed and measured and looked for the perfect small van that would fit the things I needed to camp comfortably. Once I found the Nissan NV that would become Maude the Minivan, I made the plunge. In all, that decision took about two months to make.

A friend of mine and I talk a lot about people who make decisions like different brewing techniques for coffee: the espresso decision maker who takes a very small amount of time and is good under pressure, the drip coffee or percolator decision maker who sort of lets things ruminate for a bit and then decides in small increments eventually completing the decision once all of the pieces are in place, and the French press decision maker who mixes everything together and thinks about it for a good long while then applies some pressure and decides. I can be all three of those in any given situation, and I am not sure which I think is best, or if there is one that’s best.

Planted

For the month of May, my writing prompts will be taken from this website. Today’s is: “Do you have plants or a garden? Describe.”

When my brother and I were small, a huge part of our summer each summer was spent in the garden bent double with our faces pointed toward the ground, eyes carefully looking to discern the right plants and the wrong plans, our feet pressing into the tilled but still hard clay ground, our arms swinging freely with hands grasping errant foliage. Day after day, we weeded the rows, sometimes as part of our chores, other times as punishment, but always with purpose and the knowledge that we were helping share the burden of raising seeds into things we could eat.

Dad was the person who tilled and prepared the soil, and he also carried countless buckets of water for us to dip from to water the rows. Mom planted the seeds, especially the small and delicate ones that my brother and I were too little to be careful with, but sometimes they would let us plant things like corn or melons or the ones with the larger seeds that didn’t require nearly as much precision. Adam and I weeded and helped with the watering and harvesting.

Once things were harvested, we would eat whatever we could while it was fresh in the summer and early fall, but when we’d exhausted our desire for fresh produce, we’d help can or freeze whatever we could for winter. One summer when Mom decided to can some hot peppers, she didn’t know that she needed to wear gloves, and her hands got burnt so bad that they blistered. That was a really difficult couple of weeks, because the pain was unbearable for her and the blisters made it difficult to do most every day tasks.

I guess what I remember most about gardening when we were young is the way our parents hid the desperation with which we gardened. We didn’t know until years later that we depended upon the produce from our labors to make it through the year with fresh food. Our parents never one time let on that we were unable to afford the same luxuries as some of our friends, and we weren’t made to feel as if we had to help, unless we were being punished.

For as much as Mom canned and froze vegetables, Dad raised and butchered the animals. I remember rabbits, chickens, pigeons, and other animals that we raised from babies and turned into food. We fished in our pond and at the river as well as slaughtering a lot of our own meat, and we didn’t know that we did all of this because it was so much cheaper than buying everything from the grocery or any of the markets near where we lived.

I don’t mean to paint a picture of us as incredibly poor to the point of being destitute, because on Saturdays sometimes Dad would take me to the comic book store to get a comic and soda, and sometimes Mom would take me after preschool to get some root beer barrels or she’d buy us some Chips Ahoy cookies at the southside Joe’s when we went to get the things we didn’t raise on our own. Toiletries, paper goods. An occasional Faygo Rock ‘n’ Rye.

Where Do I Go To Write?

For the month of May, my writing prompts will be taken from this website. Today’s is: “Where’s your favourite place to write/journal?”

Near the house where I live now is one of my favorite places to exist. To write. To meditate. To pray. If I walk down the Cardinal Greenway toward downtown and then turn left onto McCullough Blvd, walk toward the park, under the train track trestle, and then step around the concrete barrier to where the dam used to be, I find myself in a place where only I exist. Rarely do I see other people there, and if I do, they are typically fishing quietly, or they are like-minded people with me, who are there to seek solace in the river. There are usually a couple of great blue herons fighting over some fish or frogs, some ducks just floating along, and sometimes a train will pass overhead rocking the trestle and squealing and creaking along the tracks.

I have an affinity for water, particularly flowing water, like big lakes or rivers. When I lived full time in Minnesota, I used to walk down a few blocks to a place where I could sit on a bench and look out at the Mississippi River as it flows lazily along from northern Minnesota to St. Paul toward Grey Cloud Island and then eventually into the Gulf of Mexico. What I could see was a narrow section between I-494 and the old Inver Grove Heights bridge near the oil refinery, but in my mind I could see all the way from the beginning of it to the place where it spilled out into the ocean. Being a lifelong swimmer, water takes me places and soothes me in a way that nothing else does. The water with its quiet for my ears, soft pressure for my body, and weightlessness of spirit humbles me, fulfills me, and makes me think infinitely about life.

My favorite place to write or journal is near the water. I’ve been known to take my notebook in my backpack on my bicycle and just ride until I need to stop along the greenway to sit and look at a farm pond or to find my way to a creek or even a park lake where I might climb to the highest floor of the gazebo. Anywhere, really, where there is water, calls to me as a sacred space in which to record my thoughts.

The sacred space I love the most is at the water’s edge, but currently, as I write this I am sitting in another of my favorite places: in my bed, ready to turn in for the night, with my dog sitting on my feet. Typically, I spend some time reading before I head to bed, but the past week, I have been writing instead. I think they belong together really. Reading fuels writing, writing records the knowledge and wisdom acquired by reading, and then sometimes writing helps to create a type of newness; the two are sacred together, so why not give them to benefit and the luxury of happening in a space that is also sacred? The beauty of journaling is that it doesn’t need a sacred space, but frequently wherever you do it becomes sacred by the mere act of creativity taking place there.