1 August 2017      

Hello, and welcome!  Today we start the eighth month of our year,
and we sincerely hope that you're able to give everything you have
to making this an extremely special month for you and yours!

what now? (an excerpt)
Ann Patchett

The Girl (an excerpt)
Dawna Markova

Standing at Attention
tom walsh

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Better than a thousand hollow words is one word that brings peace.

the Buddha

We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it.  We need a refuge even though we may never need to go there.

Edward Abbey

Opportunities are usually disguised as hard work,
so most people don't recognize them.

Ann Landers

  
what now?  (an excerpt)
Ann Patchett

Receiving an education is a little bit like a garden snake swallowing a chicken egg:  it's in you but it takes a while to digest.  I had come to college from twelve years of Catholic girls' school.  At home I thought that mine was the most ridiculous, antiquated secondary education in history.  We marched in lines and met the meticulous regulations of the uniform code with cheerful submission.  We bowed and kneeled and prayed.  I held open doors and learned how to write a sincere thank-you note and when I was asked to go and fetch a cup of coffee from the kitchen for one of the nuns I fairly blushed at the honor of being chosen.  I learned modesty, humility, and how to make a decent white sauce I probably could have done without, but it turns out that modesty and humility mean a lot when you're down on your luck.  They went a long way in helping me be a waitress when what I wanted to be was a writer.

It turns out that those early years of my education which had seemed to me such a waste of time had given me a nearly magical ability to disappear into a crowd.  This was not the kind of thing one learned at Sarah Lawrence or the Iowa Writers' Workshop, places that told everyone who came through the door just how special they are.  I'm not knocking being special, it was nice to hear, but when it was clear that I was just like everybody else, I was glad to have had some experience with anonymity to fall back on.

The nuns were not much on extolling the virtues of leadership.  In fact, we were taught to follow.  When told to line up at the door, the person who got there first was inevitably pulled from her spot and sent to the back and the person from the back was sent up front to take her place.  The idea was that we should not accidentally wind up with too grand an opinion of ourselves, and frankly I regard this as sound counsel.  In a world that is flooded with children's leadership camps and grown-up leadership seminars and bestselling books on leadership, I count myself as fortunate to have been taught a thing or two about following.  Like leading, it is a skill, and unlike leading, it's one that you'll actually get to use on a daily basis.  It is senseless to think that at every moment of our lives we should all be the team captain, the class president, the general, the CEO, and yet so often this is what we're being prepared for.

No matter how many great ideas you might have about salad preparation or the reorganization of time cards, waitressing is not a leadership position.  You're busy and so you ask somebody else to bring the water to table four.  Somebody else is busy and so you clear the dirty plates from table twelve.  You learn to be helpful and you learn to ask for help.  It turns out that most positions in life, even the big ones, aren't really so much about leadership.  Being successful, and certainly being happy, comes from honing your skills in working with other people.  For the most part we travel in groups--you're ahead of somebody for a while, then somebody's ahead of you, a lot of people are beside you all the way.  It's what the nuns had always taught us:  sing together, eat together, pray together.

It wasn't until I found myself relying on my fellow waitress Regina to heat up my fudge sauce for me that I knew enough to be grateful not only for the help she was giving me but for the education that had prepared me to accept it.

  
  

Based on her lauded commencement address at Sarah Lawrence College, this stirring essay by bestselling author Ann Patchett offers hope and inspiration for anyone at a crossroads, whether graduating, changing careers, or transitioning from one life stage to another. With wit and candor, Patchett tells her own story of attending college, graduating, and struggling with the inevitable question, What now?

   

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The Girl (an excerpt)
Dawna Markova

I barely noticed a small girl approaching me, her hands outstretched, palms open.  She was painfully thin, maybe six or seven years old.  Her hair, eyes, and skin were all the same dusty brown as the burlap wrap she wore.  Her legs and arms were like spindles, and as she came closer, the missing three fingers from her left hand and two from her right indicated she probably had leprosy.  My morning's commitment rose in my mind like a red sun through dark clouds.  Without another thought, I found myself scooping her up in my arms.  Her eyes flashed as she threw back her head and giggled.  If they could have spoken, they would have said, "Will you let me love you?"

It was one of those moments when everything I had been taught, all my beliefs and manners, attitudes and values, fell away.  I had no idea what to do or what to say.  All I could feel was a rising and opening in the center of my chest, as if my sternum were cracking.  What emerged was as much of a surprise to me as it was a mystery to her.

I don't often sing.  As a matter of fact, I don't sing if a single other living being is anywhere within earshot.  It's something that has been drilled into me by my family, teachers, friends, and sundry pets.  I learned that it was an act of kindness to spare them the experience of my unique tonal system.  But this was a moment when all rules were broken, when no preparation or rehearsal was possible.  My mouth had a mind of its own--the mind of my heart--which the giggle of this little ragamuffin had broken wide open.  A song I had learned from an Alaskan woman, Libby Rodericks, spilled out:

How could anyone ever tell you
You are anything less than beautiful?
How could anyone ever tell you
You are less than whole?
How could anyone fail to notice
That your loving is a miracle
How deeply you're connected to my soul?

As I sang, my right hand signed the words the way Sandy, a woman from WIsconsin who worked with deaf children, had taught me.  My eyes began to leak tears down my cheeks.  I'm sure she couldn't understand the words, but in that one moment, we knew each other completely.  With the two dirty fingers of her left hand, she reached over and pinched a tear from my cheek and then brought it to her lips to kiss.  For a second, the world seemed to pause, to sigh.  And then it was over.  She giggled, and wiggled herself out of my arms, not even stopping to turn around as she ran off.

I walked slowly on, aware for a moment of my very full heart.  It felt as if it had a new chamber.  By the time I reached the corner of the street, however, I noticed something else.  Inside my head I heard a very distinct voice from the past--my mother's--that was warning me in no uncertain terms to wash my hands and face immediately.  Didn't I know that leprosy could be contagious?  I smiled in amazement at the cobwebs hiding in my mind.  Still, it did seem as if my fingers were tingling and becoming numb. . . .

Twenty years ago, faced with a life-threatening illness, Dawna Markova began a journey of rediscovery. This book follows her path to finding deeper meaning in life. As she points out, people can continue to feel powerless and live habitual lives--or they can make the choice to follow their passion.

   

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My advice to you is not to inquire why or whither, but
just to enjoy your ice cream while it's on your plate.

Thornton Wilder

   

 
Standing at Attention

The first day of Basic Training in the Army is usually one that's remembered by the people who have gone through it.  That's the day when the drill sergeants try to set the tone for the coming weeks by breaking down immediately any sort of defiance--they need everyone to know that they'll do as they're told, or else face pretty drastic consequences.

In order to do that, there's a whole lot of pushing going on, both physical and mental.  The physical tasks are ordered, and everyone has to do exactly what they're told--or else.  And that's where the mental part comes in.  If you're not able to do the physical part because you've been worn down physically over the last couple of hours, then you face pretty severe consequences--and those are mostly physical.  Can't do the twenty push-ups the drill sergeant just ordered you to do?  Then you get pulled out in front of everyone else and punished by having to low-crawl across a lawn.

The goal isn't just to avoid punishment, but to avoid perceived humiliation, too.

It was a pretty brutal day, all in all, but not so bad--all 300 of the people in our company made it through.  It's not designed to break anyone, but to train--to get people used to acting under duress and being able to perform even when they're worn out and frustrated and angry and whatever else.

One of the most effective things that they did was have the entire company stand at attention for almost an hour.  It was a hot day, and after all the running around and carrying heavy duffel bags and loading trucks and all the other crap, everyone was tired and frustrated, and nervous about what else was to come on that day.  It was early afternoon, the sun was extremely strong and the humidity was high.  When they first gave the command to stand at attention, we had no idea that this was part of the drill, that this was going to be one of the ordeals we were expected to go through.

Five minutes later, it was pretty clear that we wouldn't be going anywhere or doing anything else for quite a while.  We were standing on pavement on a 90-degree day, and it was only getting hotter, while the drill sergeants walked around and among us, making threats about what would happen if we moved, and warning us not to lock our knees as we stood there so that we wouldn't fall.

The first guy passed out after about fifteen minutes.  I was kind of surprised that it took that long.  It was hot.  The drill sergeants dragged him into the shade in the grass and poured water over him to cool him off.

The rest of us were still standing.  It's an interesting situation--we were right in front of our barracks, and because we were in the position of attention, our eyes had to be forward--we couldn't look around ourselves, or even to the sides, though I'm sure we all did from time to time, moving just our eyes and not our heads.  In front of me was a red brick building with metal-framed windows, and between me and the building were some bushes and a couple of trees, along with a narrow stretch of grass.  It wasn't much to look at, but under the circumstances we had no choice.

And that's when the important moment happened, one that comes back to me fairly often in times of stress.  It was so simple--on that hot, stressful day, a sparrow flew into one of the bushes right in front of me.

It was just a sparrow, but to me it was a sign of normalcy.  To me, it was a message that no matter what I was going through at that moment, life was going on.  The bird was still doing what birds do, and it didn't care in the slightest about drill sergeants or anything else--it was flying around as it always did.

And I realized just then that things were okay.  Life was going on.  My stress was such a small part of the world that even though it was very real to me, it honestly didn't matter in the bigger picture of life.  What was happening to me had happened to millions of others--for many of them, in much worse ways--and the vast majority of them had made it through just fine.

As if to reinforce the message, at that very moment a slight breeze picked up, something that I hadn't felt all day until that moment.  If I hadn't been standing completely still, I probably wouldn't have felt it, but there it was.  It wasn't anywhere close to complete relief from the heat, but paired with the bird's reminder, it helped me to relax, even in the midst of that completely stressful situation.  All of a sudden I knew that that, too, would pass, and that soon the ordeal would be over--the day's ordeal would end that evening, and the ordeal of Basic Training would end in weeks.

A couple more guys passed out, and they decided that that was enough for standing at attention, and soon we were doing something else--I don't remember at all what we followed that up with.

That's all it takes sometimes--a little bird flying into view and a slight breeze.  They're both part of the eternal nature of this world of ours, a world in which life simply goes on.  We may get caught up in our own stress and problems, but even as we're being challenged, sometimes to the limits of our capacities, the rest of the world keeps on keeping on, and that's something that's good for me to keep in mind when times get difficult.  More than once I've summoned the sight of that bird and the feeling of that breeze to help me to keep perspective in hard times, and they've never failed me yet. 
   
A Matter of Moments

This is a new column for me, a way to examine and explore things that have happened to me in my life that have been extremely positive and extremely negative--things that have helped me to learn about life and living and about myself and my strengths and my weaknesses, my prejudices and abilities, my shortcomings and my gifts.  It's based on the idea that while life is long and varied, there are many moments that stand out, times when we've learned important lessons and developed significantly as human beings in a very short time.  One of the reasons I'm doing it here is simple:  I've wanted to write this as a book for a long time, and if I do  the separate entries each week, by the end of a year or so, the book will be written and will need just a bit of work to tie everything together.  So please enjoy these moments!
    

   
More on goodness.

   

One of the most important elements of living life fully is awareness-- awareness of our surroundings, of other people and their motives and fears and desires, of the things that affect us most in our lives, both positively and negatively. In the twelve years of livinglifefully.com's existence, this essay series has been a mainstay of the weekly e-zine--a series that has explored not just the things that exist and that happen around us, but also our reactions to those things. The first five years of the column are now available exclusively on Kindle.

   

  

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People who are “being” are fully present.  They are totally engaged in the moment.  This engagement includes an easy appreciation and sense of connection with whomever or whatever they are relating to at the time.  These people are aware of a job well done or a difficulty surmounted and will respect and often acknowledge the person who has accomplished it.  “Being” is a state of heart and mind that is receptive and able to listen carefully.

Sallirae Henderson

  
The power of memories and expectations is such that for most human beings the past and the future are not as real, but more real than the present.  The present cannot be lived happily unless the past has been “cleared up” and the future is bright with promise. . . . it is of little use to us to be able to remember and predict if it makes us unable to live fully in the present.  What is the use of planning to be able to eat next week unless I can really enjoy the meals when they come?  If I am so busy planning how to eat next week that I cannot fully enjoy what I am eating now, I will be in the same predicament when next week’s meals become “now.”

If my happiness at this moment consists largely in reviewing happy memories and expectations, I am but dimly aware of this present. I shall still be dimly aware of the present when the good things that I have been expecting come to pass. For I shall have formed a habit of looking behind and ahead, making it difficult for me to attend to the here and now. If, then, my awareness of the past and future makes me less aware of the present, I must begin to wonder whether I am actually living in the real world.

Alan Watts
The Wisdom of Insecurity
   

  

All men and women are born, live, suffer, and die; what distinguishes
us one from another is our dreams, whether they be dreams about
worldly or unworldly things, and what we do to make them come
about. . . . We do not choose to be born.  We do not choose our parents.
We do not choose our historical epoch, the country of our birth, or the
immediate circumstances of our upbringing.  We do not, most of us,
choose to die; nor do we choose the time and conditions of our death.
But within this realm of choicelessness, we do choose how we live.

Joseph Epstein

    

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