Friday, March 20, 2015

Choosing Happiness

Today, March 20, 2015, is the third annual International Day of Happiness, as decreed in a proclamation from the United Nations in 2011.

On the surface, it might sound a little silly or even preposterous, considering the state of the world and the suffering so many people endure in their personal lives.  Wars and partisan violence rage and people experience inexplicable heartbreak every day.   There is injustice, disaffection, poverty and hunger right here, within blocks of my home.  My sister is gravely ill and I have experienced a series of misfortunes over the past decade that are surreal in their number and impact.

But today the United Nations implores us to take action to be happy, with this year’s theme being to achieve happiness by focusing on your connection with others.

I have had to face many challenges in my lifetime.  I discovered early on that you could choose to give in or you could fight.  By nature I am stubborn and I usually choose to fight.  On one hand, this is not a particularly positive trait to have.  It is not easy for me to give in on anything.  It can be very difficult to admit when I am wrong and to say I am sorry.  Being stubborn means you often will stay in a bad situation because you refuse to acknowledge you cannot fix it.  You tend not to make the healthier choice of cutting your losses and moving on.

But on the other hand, being stubborn also means stepping up to a challenge and overcoming obstacles.  It means pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and getting on with it, which I have had to do more times than I can count.  And it means tenaciously holding on to good things, like hope and friendship.  Even though I can’t get out very easily, I work at keeping in touch with my friends, my loved ones.  I am so lucky to still have friends in my life that go back to my earliest childhood.  And I am so blessed to have my wonderful cousin, who has always been there, like a big brother.  And, despite being estranged from some of my beloved children, I will never, ever, ever give up on them or stop loving them, no matter what.  The absolute happiest moments in my life have all involved them.

I have discovered through my stubbornness that you have a choice in life.  You can be happy or you can be miserable.  I have been both.  Happy feels a whole lot better than miserable, despite the fact that it can be harder to maintain.  It is very, very easy to sink under the weight of the terrible things that happen to us.  On the surface, it might seem I don’t have a lot to be happy about.  And it is true, I am only human and I wobble constantly.   But the recommendation for today, connect with others, is the key for me.  My friends, my children, my grandchildren are my lifeline.  Just their voices are enough to lift my spirits.  And they are so good to me.  We all need that.  We human beings need to be kind to each other, to stay connected.  Connection feeds itself, it is like ripples on a pond.
If only people could stay connected, on a global level things could be so different.  Even as I type that, I realize it sounds not just naïve, but downright simple-minded.  I know that concept doesn’t take into account mental illness, natural disasters and other things we have no control over that cause great suffering.  But the song is so true, from South Pacific, you have to be taught to hate and fear:

You've got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You've got to be taught
From year to year,
It's got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,
You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You've got to be carefully taught!

(Songwriters: Rogers and Hammerstein/to hear it sung, follow this link here)
We are not born hating, we all know that.  So why haven't we been able to fix it in all the thousands of years the human race has existed?  Peace could be possible if we were more connected by understanding, compassion and acceptance.  We are born with the capacity for happiness.  It is others who take it away and it is others who can maintain or restore it.

I pray from the bottom of my heart that all of you reading this have or can find happiness.

I leave you with the prayer from St. Francis, which I believe to be a formula for connection and, ultimately, for happiness:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy;

O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.


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Monday, February 23, 2015


Especially as someone who desperately misses my cherished children, J.K. Simmons made me cry last night in his Academy Award acceptance speech when he implored people to call their parents. 

I would take that step farther - if you can, reach out to anyone who has made a difference in your life and let them know how they matter to you.   My mother died three years ago.  We had a challenging relationship, but I miss her terribly and would give anything to be able to talk to her again for even one minute.  

I have been so blessed to have many, many people, friends and relatives, show me support and love over the years.  Life is so short.  At the end of the day, staying connected to people we love is truly what makes living worthwhile. 

A call can be a simple connection or it can be an opportunity to begin to heal a deep wound.  Either way, it is a winning proposition.  Call someone you love, for you and for them. 

From 1 Corinthians 13:

Love is patient, love is kind.  It keeps no records of wrongdoings.  Love does not delight in evil.  Love never fails.


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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Just Some Random Tuesday Observations

It can often be the small victories that make your day:  I finally cleaned up a computer virus that was tormenting me.  It’s finally gone.  I am giddy with relief and flushed with triumph.  Well, maybe the triumph bit is going a bit far.  But I am definitely giddy.  Of course that may have something to do with my monthly IV steroid infusion, Soulmedrol coursing through my veins, giving me the illusion that I am Superwoman.

I shop for everything online and I need some all occasion cards.  On Amazon there are boxes of every kind of card imaginable.  But a box of thirty sympathy cards?!?  Golly, that is a massacre.  I don’t think I’ve sent thirty sympathy cards in my entire sixty years.  Am I just lucky?  Or thoughtless?


Although it is gorgeous to look at and fun to join in the fantasy, I have never quite gotten the level of hysteria over Downton Abbey, especially when there are three new episodes of smart, elegant and captivting Foyle’s War to relish.   I have always been suspicious of a program where the opening scene of every episode is a dog’s backside.


The top story in the news today is the weather.  Cold weather in February in the Northeast of the United States is news?!?  Have they not noticed a pattern over the past few years?


Does anyone else feel anxiety escalate through the roof when they receive e-mails from Facebook with subject lines that say “Marie, you have 729 new notifications, 332 pokes and 21 event invites”?  I don’t even know what most of those things mean!  Although I do recognize the word “invite”.  And I suppose it would be odd if your e-mail message said “Marie”.  Unless your name is Marie.  So fill in Your Name Here.  But still, despite the fact I love being connected to my wonderful friends, the whole actual process is overwhelming.  Despite my carefully crafted illusion of technical wizardry, I actually am pathetically hopeless.


A word of advice:  it is a really, really, REALLY bad idea for a woman who lives alone to watch a TV series (such as, say, The Fall, for instance) about a serial killer who methodically stalks, breaks in, tortures and murders women who live, you’ve got it: alone.  It will do terrible things to your electric bill as you will subsequently leave the lights on day and night, despite high tech security methods such as the renowned chair-beneath-the-doorknob. 

I have been trying to organize and clean out, as I may be moving before too long.  I came across a minuscule, yellowed, wrinkled scrap of newspaper, about two inches by one and a half inches, that was clearly garbage.  To anyone but me that is.  I knew I must have saved it for a reason and reading it, I remembered. 

It is years old, maybe twenty, maybe more, and it was from a Times article about Sister Parrish, the eccentric but influential interior designer (she worked for Jacqueline Kennedy and Brooke Astor among many other movers and shakers) .   I apparently just ripped out the bit I wanted, a quote from her that totally hit home.  Literally.  It was exactly how I felt about decorating my own home.  She said, “As a child, I discovered the happy feelings that familiar things can bring – an old apple tree, a favorite garden, the smell of a fresh clipped hedge, simply knowing that when you round the corner, nothing will be changed, nothing will be gone.”  Ironically, I grew up with none of those things, I was raised in New York City.  But the concept of her vision was what struck a chord and it is what I worked to create in my own home.  I wept with joy as I planted my first rose bush, a climber of pale pink cabbage roses, aptly named "Eden", and every year the girls and I created an oasis of flowers in dozens of pots on our patio.  I filled our house with color and light, books and lace, old fashioned furniture and floral patterns.  My sons teasingly called it The Girly House.  But that was ok.  I accomplished what I had wanted.  It felt right.  It felt home.  When we had people over, they always declared they were reluctant to leave.   

Some of Sister Parish's designs.  Far grander than my home, of course, but it gives you some idea of her style.

A copy of her calling card, as unique as she was.
It is going to be very, very hard to move on.  But I am not worried, I am in God’s hands and all will be well.

Finally, assurance from one of my morning readings:  Never does God’s loving and compassionate eye turn from us.


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Thursday, January 22, 2015

Fighting Fear

Went for a routine CT scan last Thursday, routine as far as keeping an eye on the liver tumors, which have mercifully been shrinking.

I tried to put it out of my mind.  I believe if you imagine negative outcomes, they can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  I hadn’t heard from the doctor by Monday but around 7:30 that night I got a call from the local hospital’s scheduling department saying that my oncologist had ordered a PET scan, which is a more intensive and comprehensive diagnostic test.

It was too late to call her to get details and but the implications were not good, something must have shown on the CT scan. Because I didn’t know what the results had been, I assumed the worst.  I assumed worse than the worst. All my carefully organized positive thinking flew out the window so fast I am surprised the glass didn’t break.  I was a MESS.   I had hours and hours to agonize over what had been found and each hour had me escalating fear and anxiety exponentially. 
One of the hardest aspects of not having a significant other is having no one to share the burden, to talk you off the ledge.  It doesn't help having my little dog, because she acts sadder than me when I am upset.  The cat only cares that I sit still and provide her with a comfortable spot to sleep on, so  that is not exactly comforting.  On a certain level, I absolutely do believe God is with me and loves me and symbolically holds me in His arms.  But when push comes to shove, there is nothing like a flesh and blood person sitting in front of you encouraging you to calm down.

As early as I could, I sent my daughter a message asking if she could give me just a little bit of her company.  I hate to ask.  She works nights and has two little ones.  But she was over within minutes, after getting my precious Maddy on the bus for school.  Her quiet, sensible cheerfulness made a difference immediately.  We called the doctor’s office to see if we could get some details, but she was with patients and I had to leave a message.  My daughter had to get going before I got a return call, but her visit had made me feel so much better. 
I didn’t hear from the doctor until late that evening!  This was a first where I had been left hanging this way, she is usually incredibly responsive and considerate.
It was not the dire news I had envisioned.  But it wasn’t exactly good news either.  There has been some change in the tumors and she wants a clearer picture, hence the PET scan.  She wants to discuss the possibility of Radio Frequency Ablation again.  That procedure had been considered last spring.  But it requires general anesthesia.  Because MS has partially paralyzed my diaphragm, undergoing general anesthesia would result in me being on a ventilator to breathe for me for the rest of my life.

I have been blessed with the most incredible network of loving friends.  But it is hard to stay strong when you are alone at three o’clock in the morning and your mouth is dry with fear and dread.  So it is back to the drawing board.  I have set myself up a regimen of prayer and meditation.  I am focusing on healing and reinforcing confidence in God to ease my fear.  I need tangible bolstering, so I am listening to affirmations, reading affirmations and setting my timer to regularly remind myself to pray and listen.  I am a walking Affirmation.  I am willing myself to eliminate fear from my consciousness.

When my youngest daughter was an adorably sweet and funny nine year old, she regularly drew me pictures to post over my desk at work.  I still have some of my favorites.  One said how much she missed me when I was at work and she wished she could be with me “the hole day”.  lol  Loved that one.  But the one I framed and have truly cherished all these years, even before I got sick, is this one.  It shows a tiny stick figure in a boat on the sea, buffeted by wind, waves and tornadoes.  Two large hands are stretched out over the figure and the words say “God will always protect you!”:

I have it in front of me now, my much needed reminder.  Please Lord, I pray, let me feel your comforting presence around me.


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Thursday, December 25, 2014

Do Not Fear, For I Am With You

I have been struggling with much grief and fear this holiday season.  My beloved family is fractured, some of my children estranged, it seems, beyond restoration.  Being a mother has been the bliss of my life.  Without them, meaning, pleasure, any sense of satisfaction, has paled, despite the outstanding nourishment of my many friends, my remarkable daughter, who is endlessly supportive and helpful, and my delightful grandchildren.  They are all wonderful and I am truly, truly grateful for their love and infinite encouragement.  But we always want what we don’t have, don’t we?   One of our great human flaws is a recurrent inability to be satisfied by the good that we do have right under our noses.  We long for what we miss.  And I miss my children with a gnawing pain that literally howls through my every waking moment.  I try to move on, I try to be accepting, but their absence is a bottomless pit of loss and pain.

Then there is the fact of the unknown.  With the spread of the cancer, it is literally a waiting game.  Waiting for the other shoe to drop.  Waiting for the inevitable day when my oncologist calls and the result of my biannual scan is no longer good news.  Fearing that the facts would be simply too hard to face, I have never asked or researched what exactly my prognosis is.  Last month I finally screwed up the courage and looked it up.  Breast cancer which has spread to the liver has a projection of three to five years from diagnosis.  I know it could be worse.  But I am greedy, another very human flaw.  I want so much more time.  I am already a year down.  I am sad and I am scared.

My faith has been shaken.  Yet another flaw.  I am the first one to admit, I am all too human and all too flawed.  But it has been awfully hard to remain reassured by the spiritual when the corporal is so spectacularly challenging.   Loss upon loss upon loss has worn me down.  The basest, most immature part of me cries out, haven’t I had enough already?!?  I know intellectually that life is just like that.  It doesn’t matter if you have tried to be a good person, tried to do the right things.  Good intentions + going to church + doing the best you can = health, happiness and success, right?  But there is no formula, no equation.  Stuff just happens.  

I have never believed God causes bad things to happen to us, I do not believe He visits disasters upon us.  I could not believe in a vindictive, punishing deity.  But lately I have found it is difficult to believe in any deity at all. 

I have received many Christmas cards this year from the delightful people I am surrounded by.  One card was from someone who is particularly special to me.  The day it arrived was an especially busy one.  Before I could open it, I was interrupted and set it aside.  Four days later, when I went to open it and reply, it was nowhere to be found.  I felt sick.  I turned every room upside down.  Because my mobility is so limited, there are not too many places I could have lost it in.  I went through every box and basket, every surface.  Nothing.  I chastised myself over and over for being so careless, so disorganized, so stupid, so thoughtless, on and on.  I automatically invoked Saint Anthony, every Catholic’s resource for lost things.  But I didn’t really believe a word of it.                                                                                                                                  
After another fruitless round of searching I collapsed in my recliner, utterly exhausted and discouraged.  I’ll just rest for five minutes, I thought, and then I will look again.  It must be stuck in something else.  I’ll turn out every catalog, every book I have laid my hands on in the past year, every container.  As I leaned my head back in the chair I noticed a small white envelope lying face down on the corner of my chairside table.  This is a tiny table, with barely enough room for my laptop.  I had searched for card on the table easily ten times.  I had picked the laptop up each time.  There had been no card.  It wasn’t there.  But it was now.  Perched on the edge, bright white, unmissable.  

I burst into tears.  I don’t ask for signs, I never have, even when my faith was at its strongest, I never felt comfortable testing God, demanding things.  It felt disrespectful and disloyal.  But I believed at that moment, with the inexplicable appearance of a card I had been searching for over hours, God had sent me a sign.  He had sent me a message: do not fear, I am with you.

After I had children, I struggled deeply with the concept of putting God before else, as demanded in the Bible.  How could I put anything before my beloved children?  How could I?  It was impossible, nothing meant more to me than my children, not even God.  I always felt guilty about that and even slightly fearful.  How much of a sin was it?  Was I dooming myself to eternal damnation because I was putting mortal beings before the Lord?  I decided it didn’t matter.  I loved my children more than life itself and if God didn’t understand that, oh well.

But here I was, facing Christmas Eve alone, the night we traditionally had come together as a family and celebrated the holiday.  The night I cherished as a representation of everything I loved most in the world, the night I had the opportunity, shallow though it was, to tangibly demonstrate my love for them by giving them things I thought would make them happy.  The sadness of being by myself, of knowing that they were deliberately choosing to exclude me from their lives when I needed them the most, was overwhelming.  I had laughed in God’s face and told Him He meant less to me than these people who were wounding me so deeply.  And He was saying, I am here anyway.

Some may scoff at what appears to be my fanciful superstition.  Some may say say that the card had been there all along and I just missed it.  Some may argue there is a perfectly logic explanation for missing that glaring white envelope all those hours.  And I might agree with all of them on some level.  But I am making a choice.  I am choosing to not be miserable.  I am choosing to be reminded that I am not alone.  I am choosing to not be afraid.  I am gratefully, humbly choosing to accept the gift of God’s love and comfort.

Isaiah 41:10

10 So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.


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