The Dark Time is The Ideal Time to Rest

The trees outside my window have lost most of their leaves. Some few still cling to their branches as a result of the late warm weather, however not many. The leaves are being released from their branches. The tree has sealed off the part where the stem contacts the twig and the leaves are subject to the whims of the wind. Thus the trees move from active participation in growth and expansion to rest and restoration, solidifying what has been gained. Nature is sensible that way, bringing opportunities for alternative modes of being. Most animals as well as insects are in their burrows or nests, resting from the work of gathering and consuming food as well as maintaining the dwelling.

Once there was no electricity to keep us humming along 24/7. In many cases native peoples in the North went into quasi hibernation mode in the winter. Later, although torches and candlelight provided evening illumination, early bed times were likely. Judging from how I feel, the human body seems to be inclined toward seasonal rest. I always seem to sleep longer and even more soundly during the darker hours between November and February. I find that my body is happy with the additional rest. However I am fortunate that I do not have to answer to a time clock at work or an alarm clock at home that tells me I must rise and get moving regardless whether or not my body would prefer to stay under the covers.

We humans do love the light. Throughout history various cultures have provided and still do provide their own opportunities to invoke it during the dark hours. In our Western European culture, our holidays devoted to light in one form or another commonly include Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years. Hanukah comes to us from another part of the world, as does Kwanzaa, a recent addition. The Internet can provide information concerning the many other celebrations of light that are not as common now because they have faded or been forgotten. These include interesting customs—some of which have come down to us, that include all kinds of symbolism as well as special dances and other activities. All these opportunities help counter the inevitable lethargy brought on by the dark hours.

Although I do not count the years, I still celebrate my birthdays. Now I have another celebration coming up, and I am reminded that as a result of the numerous autumns I have lived through, the leaves of my days are indeed falling. Little by little they flutter down, gathering on the ground in colorful heaps. I have also noticed that as the days of my life increase, I am slowing down. I do not get as much done; I need to rest more. Sometimes this is frustrating. These days are precious and the daylight needs to be made use of. Still I need to be kind enough to myself to allow for the rest I need to keep up my strength, most especially as the days of autumn dwindle and the dark hours grow longer.

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Triskadeckaphilia or Phobia, You Choose

My DeskMythology has fascinated me ever since I first encountered it in school. Until I discovered Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces I was not conversant with much more of it than the Norse myths and those of Greece and Rome. I highly recommend this very special book to anyone who enjoys folk and fairy tale as well as learning more about the myths we all grew up with. The stories and tales of the heroes and heroines of yore are part of our cultural heritage and an important key to how we behave. Among the tales are also smaller, more prevalent myths embodied in our superstitions.

“Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.” Growing up, how many sidewalks did I hop and skip along to avoid their seams and cracks? Ladders? Never walked under them though I didn’t know why then. Pick up a penny? Well of course! How about Friday the 13th? Make you nervous? Not me, I always liked both the number and the day. Stephen and I used to give a party any time it came up on the calendar. We called it a celebration of the Triskadeckaphilia Society: Lovers of the number thirteen.

In the seventh grade I wrote a paper on the origins of superstitions. Always fascinated by superstitions, I have been reading and studying them for a long time. Certain societies and groups are more superstitious than others. For instance, the Irish used to clothe their baby boys in dresses so they would not be stolen away by the fairies. They also felt it was bad luck to praise a child. The Italians, as well as numerous other nationalities have strong feelings about the “evil eye.” They may make a gesture called a “fig” to ward it off. Eastern countries, among others have amulets one can wear or hang in one’s home. You may have seen one, a hand, called the Hand of Fatima.

While it might make sense not to walk under a ladder, another reason is that a leaning ladder forms a triangle, symbol of the trinity. Walking through it is a sign of disrespect, bringing bad luck. From the Internet I discovered that this superstition and a good many others actually date back to ancient Egypt, where the triangle was also considered a sacred symbol. I was surprised to discover a good many of our common superstitions actually date back that far.

Other common superstitions originated in Greece and Rome. Whether we subscribe to any given belief or not it seems as though these are an important part of every culture and incorporated into the human psyche. We may believe we are beyond such superstitions nonsense, or is it really non sense? Often the so called superstition was logical behavior. Touching wood for instance, to invoke good fortune was thought to insure the help of the spirits residing in the trees the wood came from. Do you throw salt over your shoulder if you accidentally spill it? Say “God bless you when someone sneezes? Many do, and why not? A little extra insurance never hurts.

Making My Own Music

A musician by avocation, from the time I was a young child I was usually involved in some kind of music making. I’ve always loved to sing, and I can remember singing to my mother when I was quite small. At my grade school, weekly music classes the teacher played the piano as we sang British folk songs and music from Gilbert and Sullivan, typed and collected into a loose leaf notebook. Later the same teacher gave me private piano lessons. These ended after two years for two reasons: I found the practice songs to be boring and my mother, an amateur musician and child prodigy on the violin, disliked my fumbling attempts at learning the piano. She didn’t even like it when I played around on the piano keys, making my own music for myself. She would scold me for “making noise” as she called what I thought of as music.

Later I sang in various choruses at various schools and then in my church choir. To my delight one year my then husband bought me a guitar for my birthday. I began teaching myself to play. There followed a number of years playing and singing in coffee house, at hootenannies, and then professionally for parties and special occasions. I even volunteered at the local hospital, playing for the patients every week or so. My mother seemed pleased that I was following in the family musical tradition. Encouraged by her, and a poet by inclination I began to write my own songs. The melodies were simple, reminiscent of the many folk songs and hymns I had sung over the years.

Although I enjoyed playing the guitar, from the time I was a young child the idea of playing the harp had attracted me. However the many strings of the large harps looked difficult compared to the guitar and surely transporting one would be a nightmare. Then I injured my shoulder and because of the position required for me to play it, had to retire my guitar. After reading many articles on the importance of keeping the older brain alive, and disliking the recommended suggestion to do crossword puzzles, I decided to try a smaller folk harp. Searching the internet I discovered a lap harp with a playable nineteen strings and purchased it from the maker along with a book to learn from.

I spent a respectable amount of time teaching myself the initial songs and techniques. As I advanced, the lessons became increasingly difficult. I realized I was losing interest in playing. I felt frustrated and began to neglect my harp, even allowing it to get out of tune. My mother’s former diatribes from the days I used to play on the piano rather than practice my lessons had come back to haunt me. Then one day I realized I didn’t have to play actual songs, I could do ass I liked. I could just enjoy myself, making musical sounds; I could play for fun. I began to do that. Spontaneous tunes emerged in my head and then from my fingers. Now playing my harp has become a treat and the music I make from my heart has become a daily joy.

Perspective Makes All the Difference

Cherry Blossoms on a rainy dayAt the time I was born my mother was newly come to the US, a bride of less than a year. Except for my father, she was very much alone in a big city, and I was her only companion for quite a while. I have often thought that my persistently positive perspective on life may have had its roots in my trying to cheer her up when she was sad and missing her family and friends back in her home country. Over the years since I have come to understand the power of a positive perspective on a potentially negative situation or experience.

This has become essential to my work. When I tell people I am a writer, they often ask me what I write. If I say I write essays, it sounds as though I am writing from a scholarly point of view. If I say I do inspirational writing, it sounds as though I am coming from a religious perspective. In truth, what I am doing in my columns is to simply present a different or alternative point of view from that which some might take about any given situation or experience. I write to be helpful, but it is self help I write about. Helping others to help themselves is my intention and my goal.

There is little we can do about circumstances. Daily life presents us with issues and difficulties we must deal with. The school of experience is our ever-present teacher, one we cannot escape no matter what we do. I’ve often felt that maturity or adulthood truly begins when we’re willing to learn from this teacher rather than moan, groan and feel as though we are victims of fate, circumstance or those who might perpetrate it. It is a lot easier to complain than it is to “bite the bullet” and admit there might be something to learn from any given situation.

I believe the expression “bite the bullet” comes from battlefield medicine when in the days gone by the surgeon had to amputate or otherwise operate without anesthesia. After whiskey was poured liberally into the patient, a bullet was put between his jaws to bite down on as a way to keep from crying out. Whether this is actually true or not it makes a good metaphor. When our focus is put not on complaint or disappointment but on what can be gained from whatever is happening to us, coping becomes easier and wisdom more accessible.

In my own life right now I am dealing with a change in lifestyle and a need to take better care of myself. I have learned that much of what I used to take for granted, I no longer can. Exercise is not an option it is a necessity. I need to do additional work on my body to restore it to better working order. I could complain, or even bemoan my fate. Instead I rejoice that I now have a good way to lose weight, that I can become stronger and healthier with effort and that it is good and helpful to be made to do that. Therefore I bless these circumstances and state firmly that I am exceedingly grateful for them.

Pleasure Can Take Many Forms

As regular readers of my column know by now, my mother really did not like to cook. She did what she had to do to feed her family. However, at least as far as I can remember preparing meals gave her no pleasure. Nor did she want my father to cook because, she said, he burnt everything. Perhaps he was impatient or perhaps he wasn’t watchful. I don’t know because I never saw him in the kitchen except to mix cocktails.

The only household chore I ever knew him to do was to polish the silver. My mother refused to do that and I do not blame her in the least. It is a dirty, tedious job. My father however seemed to enjoy it. I have a memory of him in an apron made from black and white striped mattress ticking material, vigorously polishing some of the lovely silver items he had inherited or been given by family members.

I on the other hand have always derived great pleasure from preparing food, baking, and providing meals for loved ones. For years I collected recipes. In the 80’s I wrote a cookie cookbook as well as a completely refined sugar free general cookbook with many recipes I had created. In those desserts I used only honey or maple syrup. Now even that kind of baking, along with a lot of other recipes I enjoyed making over the years, is history.

Recently I was diagnosed with a medical condition that requires severely restricting my carbohydrate intake. This has resulted in a major upheaval in both my eating and my cooking. In addition to sugars I have had to stop eating rice, pasta and potatoes. Thus I have had to eliminate many favorite comfort food recipes. I can no longer eat the Chinese fried rice I specialized in, the home fried potatoes or the shrimp scampi I enjoyed making as well as eating.

Then along came some difficult news. This caused a reaction I did not expect. I found myself in a depressed state and developed new aches and pains. I kept asking myself why was this happening? Then I realized I had been limiting most of my pleasure to cooking and eating. This is not to say I wasn’t doing fun things or having enjoyable experiences other than with food, however, I had concentrated principally on food related pleasure. I no longer regularly practiced other experiences I found pleasurable, like playing my harp or coloring.

Pleasure can rebalance the body’s ph and help keep us healthy. So now I am working to discover ways besides eating and cooking to give myself pleasure. In so doing I have rediscovered hobbies from the past like embroidery and begun to watch favorite old TV shows we have on DVD. I am spending more time with my harp, simply playing for the pleasure of it rather than working to learn tunes. I got out my coloring books and blank paper pads and began to color and as well as to draw. As time goes by I expect to enjoy new pleasures as well and look forward to discovering them. Meanwhile I already feel better.

Tidying up the Piles

Tasha's desk 7-17

I remember vowing as a child that I would never have small heaps of stray things around my house the way my parents did. I can clearly remember the way it looked then. My memory of the past has not eroded to the extent my short term memory has, and I have a clear image in my mind.

As I visualize my parents home, I can see the small piles of unread papers here and there, along with the mail that needed to be answered, the notes concerning phone calls on stray bits of paper, as well as other notes about things that were important or that needed to be done. Then too there were the little piles of items that had not yet been put back where they belonged.

Sometimes these various piles would sit for a long time, most probably my parents had gotten used to them being where they were. However, because my father liked to entertain, the house nearly always got picked up just before the guests arrived. That meant the piles would suddenly migrate elsewhere or possibly be distributed somewhere they actually did belong.

It’s only fair to say that my mother had plenty to do with caring for my three siblings and me so it’s no wonder there was little time left for tidying. And of course as they all got older they added to the various piles with their toys, books, and school projects. When I cleaned out my mother’s storage last year I threw away quantities of items that had simply lingered long after their owners had departed the home.

I fear I have no excuse for my piles. I have no little children to attend to and my time is pretty much my own. I do have the time, I think I lack the motivation. I have noticed that one good way, perhaps the best one to get tidied up is to invite someone over—especially someone who may not know us very well and upon whom we wish to make a good impression. This is wonderful motivation to redistribute the piles and get things cleaned up.

It is also true that tidying up may help me to find things that have been lost or misplaced. I really do like to keep things in good order, however, like my parents I fear I have the same attitude that promoted their piles. “I’ll just put it here for the time being until I have time to put it away.”

My desk is a good example of my doing that. For several weeks I have promised myself I will tidy it. The last time I did I found an overdue bill I hadn’t paid. The strange thing is I thought I had, and in fact even had a distinct memory of paying it. But I had not done so.

I suppose I need a better place to put the unpaid bills. Or else I might pay them as soon as they come in. too often something more immediate takes precedence over what I intend to do and things get disorganized. I fully intend to get that desk organized very soon, however, I do have these deadlines to meet and so I’ll do it soon, very soon, but just not right now.

The Many Ways to Happiness

Grafton sky 2When I was a child one of my favorite occupations was to rearrange my mother’s pantry shelves. I delighted in doing this. It seems to me that I was born with a need to accomplish. In many ways, this has been a source of my happiness and a way of making myself feel good. I can remember when I was a young mother that time spent in the kitchen helped to heal any disappointment or dismay. Baking cookies for my children did wonders for my spirits and helped keep me cheerful. Even simple tasks like the ironing I did then were useful to me in lifting my spirits.

I learned long ago that whenever my spirits need lifting I have a choice. Beyond dwelling on whatever it is that may be bothering me, I can seek happiness or I can stop and look around me for something to be grateful for or to enjoy. When I do I have taken a significant step toward being kind to myself as well as making myself feel better. But there is more: I can keep reminding myself to take note of the many things to appreciate that surround me. My happiness is made up of small smiles harvested daily.

While the link between accomplishment and happiness is still strong within me, this other link is even stronger: the opportunities to notice what makes me happy. It functions for me whenever I notice whatever is beautiful around me; it is delivered in the joy I receive when I walk with Stephen in the mornings and listen to the birds twittering and chirping around us. When I get a phone call or an email from a friend I haven’t seen or heard from for a while, my heart fills and I smile. I feel happy when I read the morning newspaper and find interesting stories from it to share with my husband.

It is truly said that happiness does not work as a goal. If for instance I buy something I have wanted, it may make me happy for a little while yet that kind of happiness does not last. Not unlike taking a drink of alcohol or indulging in sweets, the good feelings gained this way dwindle soon. This diminishment is one of the stimuli for addictive behavior. Once the good feeling is gone it is normal to wish for more in order to regain or prolong it. This experience leads many people to practice self-destructive behaviors.

However, the happiness that comes from the appreciation of what is given is not addictive nor can it be sought. It comes from the practice of awareness, of noticing some small joy or gladness that comes to us as a kind of gift. It also helps to have an understanding of what makes us feel happy so that we can take extra care to notice it when it is given to us. I must open my eyes and ears to notice the beauty around me in order to appreciate it. I need to remember to look out the window to see the lovely sunset when it glows there. This kind of happiness lasts beyond the experience and nourishes me always.