Learning to Celebrate Everyday Victories

I slid into the water between the lane lines at the pool, ready to start my workout. In the lane next to me, a woman was taking a lesson from a private instructor.

When I swim laps, I only go four lengths at a time. After that, I pop up for a fifteen second breather before pushing off the wall to start the next set. So I couldn’t help but hear bits and pieces of the exchanges between instructor and student. It was obvious that the swim lesson was very difficult for the middle aged student. I heard the instructor calmly encouraging her, giving her lots of praise for her short strokes and flailing kicks.

 

What really impressed me was something the instructor said to boost her student’s confidence. “You’ve come such a long way. You used to be afraid to get into the water. Now you can float and swim a little on your own too. That’s great progress! That should be celebrated!”

I couldn’t help but chime in after hearing that wonderful bit of wisdom. I said, (a little breathlessly), “You’re impressing me, that’s for sure.”

The instructor gave me an appreciative smile, and the student let out a shy, little laugh. I could tell she was proud of herself, and I was proud of her too. But even more, I was struck by the instructor’s words.

We really should celebrate our victories, no matter how small they may seem. This new swimmer was doing great things, but she thought she wasn’t doing well at all. How sad is that? I wanted to tell her that every time she overcame her fears, or got even a step further toward her goal, she was victorious.

Why is it so hard to accept that we are capable of doing good things?

As I continued swimming, I wondered about that question. I had to admit, I often fail to recognize or celebrate my own achievements too. Instead, I’ll think, “Yes, I did that. But I could have done it better. Or faster. Or thought of it sooner.” It’s like I repeatedly light the candle of victory in my mind, and then turn around and blow it out with self-defeating criticism.

That little swimming lesson really helped me realize how important it is to recognize personal growth, no matter the size. We all need to experience the encouragement and joy of our personal achievements. A little happy dance, or a small giggle of delight doesn’t mean that you’re prideful or refuse to see that you could do better. It just means that you appreciate the grace and goodness of a work that’s been well done.

In this season of Advent, the weeks before the celebration of the birth of Christ, let’s make a pact. Every day, let’s promise to catch ourselves doing something well, and then stop for a minute to soak that in.

For these next few weeks, let’s claim our daily successes, without exception. All those victories are joyful, encouraging gifts from the Lord, who loves to make his children happy.

Let’s honor our personal daily victories with a little happy dance…or maybe pie?

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I will be taking the month of December off to prepare for Christmas in my home and in my heart. I wish you all a blessed Advent and Christmas celebration, and I look forward to seeing in January. May God bless you and yours with his peace and joy!

An Unexpected Connection

It’s Thanksgiving time, and my house is full of relatives. Naturally, the cable service started acting up. My daughter and SIL were all tucked in and ready to watch their favorite show. The TV picture looms into view: Good! No sound: Bad! Connection issues yet again.

We just had the cable tech out for service. He swapped out our box for a new one, new remote too. The cable wires were rerouted through a bright and shiny new metal coupler, indoors and out. And now this? I am definitely thinking bad thoughts in my head.

Well, couldn’t do much about it. Board games to the rescue! We abandoned the television set for a rousing game or two our family’s ‘go to’ game, Sorry.

The next morning, I called tech support. After successfully getting through to an agent, I described our issue.

“Oh!”, the agent said. “I’m so sorry that you’re having problems. Sometimes after you have a fix done, all we have to do is reset your box from here.”

Great news I guess. Except why didn’t the tech do that two days ago? I am not a happy person.

“And I see that you’ve been a subscriber for…wow! I hope you don’t mind me saying that…well…you don’t sound that old to me.”

Well, that was an awkward thing to say, right? I don’t know if it was the mood I was in, or her southern drawl, but either way, I burst out laughing. “Oh yes”, I replied. “I’m that old. I’m a grandmother.”

“You are?”, she answered in a surprised voice. “I am too! Hold on for a few minutes, I’m still resetting your box.”

“Congratulations!” I replied. This woman has completely disarmed me.

She was quiet for a time, waiting for the equipment to reset. Finally breaking the silence, she said, “Well, thank you…but it’s kind of a challenge really. My son is seventeen. I mean, it’s not like my grandchild isn’t a blessing. It’s just really hard.”

I sat there in my living room in front of that television set, silently willing my heart to stretch and push through the telephone to connect with the heart of a woman I’d never seen or met before, and yet felt so connected.

After we talked for a little while about her family, she said, “I’m all done from this end Mrs. Cecilia. Is the sound back on?”

It sure was. I gave her that happy news, and then told her that I’d be praying for her.

After we hung up, I needed a few minutes to think over what just happened. I began that connection irritated and exasperated, moved on to laughter, and then to prayer. That phone agent might not have been a person open to prayer, or even felt she needed it. But there was a reason we were so randomly paired that day.

She lifted me out of my rotten mood and made my situation more bearable. My hope is that, in my own way, I was there to do the same for her.

 

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“How Did I Get Here?”

I can’t count the number of times I’ve collapsed into the sofa after a crazy day, and thought with a tired sigh, “How did I get here?”

That question is certainly a great lead-in to some introspection isn’t it? It creates a perfect opportunity to silently count the days blessings, but…that’s not usually what I do. Instead, I stare at the ceiling and think back on that crazy, unexpected curveball that started my day, mentally watching it whack into the first domino of my carefully stacked, neatly planned next 12 hours. One after the other, my efforts fell into mindless oblivion as I worked to put out fires and juggle appointments.

Looking back, I know I was working hard, but I just can’t remember specifics.

Memory fog was especially strong when I was raising my two children. I quit work when they were about four and two years old, so I had the great fun of being present to them and for them for many years. But the same syndrome I experienced while working would happen at home too.

The kids loved to wake up early, and seemed to have limitless supplies of energy. (What four and two-year-olds don’t?) PreSchool, gymnastics, swim lessons, trips to the park, laundry, cooking, art projects, books – it was a busy time. My husband would come home from work and ask “How was your day?.  I’d turn to answer and freeze. Um, I don’t know. What did I do all day? It seemed like all I did was keep up. I struggled many days to answer that question, often just settling with “Fine. How was yours?”

Honestly, I’d love to tell him everything we did and how wonderful it all was. But that would mean taking a little break to quietly look back at the passing hours, so I could see, really see, all the joy, sorrow, love and challenge that swirled around us. But who has time for that?

This week, we celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday, a day that gently draws us all into self-reflection. No matter how busy or brain-fogged we are by daily responsibilities, we gather together with family and friends to celebrate all the ways we have been blessed. And make a conscious effort to answer the question, “How did I get here?”

The gifts and blessings of each hour, in each day of this past year have shaped and directed us to where we are right now. What a great thing it is to take time this week to look back at all the miracles, seen and unseen, that have allowed us to be…here. Right here. Here in this blessed space with our families, friends and those we serve.

What if “How did I get here?” became the focus of every evening prayer?  I mean, not just on Thanksgiving, but every day of the week. Instead of sitting on the sofa feeling confused, we’d silently review the day instead, giving thanks for each grace that carried us through.

That way, every day would be Thanksgiving Day.

 

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The Sad Truth About Being Too Busy

It’s hard to keep up with life sometimes. Commitments to our families, communities, schools, not to mention volunteer activities; pile up on calendars and spin car odometers. The morning alarm ring starts to resemble the flag drop at the Indianapolis 500.

“And their off!”

At first, having a full plate is exciting. Getting so much accomplished is like winning the premiere race of the day…every day. But after a while, it all just gets overwhelming. And there’s a reason for that: In all the work and movement that’s been scheduled, something got left behind.

In the midst of all the planning, protecting yourself through having strong personal boundaries, somehow didn’t make the list. So on the day goes. There’s so much to do, the day never seems to end. From flag to finish line, there’s simply no time to just take a deep breath. Or be silent. Or meet with a friend. The sad truth is: being too busy, which used to be exciting, now becomes a burden.

But there is a way back. The best way to fight against an energy sapping, over-busy life, is to define some personal boundaries.

Physically, boundaries are easy to see, easy to set up. Things like fences and hedges are all built to do the same thing. They announce “This is where my property begins. This is mine.” Personally and spiritually, it’s a little harder to identify boundaries because you can’t physically see them, or erect them. But they’re just as important as any fence in your backyard.

When you set up personal boundaries, deciding what to do and what to avoid, you are protecting both your time and your heart. When you have healthy limits, your daily burden lightens.

Keeping boundaries in place does take constant vigilance. People will always ask for something, hoping for your time, talent, or advice. It’s so tempting to say yes to everyone, because saying ‘no’ sounds so…unhelpful. But if you say yes every time, the resulting responsibilities will drain your energy. Soon your happy attitude will disappear too, as you begin resenting the work you do, even it’s for a good cause, because you’re tired and over-scheduled. That’s no way to go through life.

The ability to confidently define your boundaries, to decide how much time you have to give, and how much you have to keep, is one of the best gifts you can give yourself. Being at peace with your day and with yourself is is a great grace, and it is also a great desire of our hearts.

Boundaries aren’t just a sign of a healthy and balanced way of life, they are also a sign that you respect yourself, and honor your hearts desire.

You have the power to make balanced, life-giving choices in the course of your day. Use that power to lead you to a well-rested, healthy lifestyle, serving your family and community in the best way you can.

And don’t forget that serving the ‘community’ includes you too.

 

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Diving Lessons

Five children, ages seven to ten, were lined up side-by-side on the cement pool deck, my sister and I among them. Our diving coach stood about ten feet in front of us, clapping out the same rhythm, “Step: 1 -2- 3, JUMP!”

Five new divers took three steps forward as counted, and then jumped as high as we could. After jumping, we’d scramble back to the starting point on the deck to do it again. And again. And again. After a while, we added throwing our arms up in the air, while kicking up our left knee before jumping. Step by repetitive step, we learned a dive approach.

I remember practicing that darn three-step approach for days. Finally, we were allowed to move to the diving board. Step: 1 – 2 – 3, knee and arms up, pushing down on the flexible board, bouncing up high, sailing up into the air and landing in the water.

Now, as an adult, diving is one of my favorite sports to watch. The movements in the air are amazing, as are the perfect entries. But those dives start on the board. Fancy dives just don’t happen without a strong approach and a high bounce.

We’ve all had the experience of crawling before walking, and babbling before we speak. These are necessary beginning steps to a new skill. We don’t usually question why these steps are needed, because it makes sense that it’s ‘practice, practice, practice’ that shapes and prepares us for growth.

Not that it’s easy. Diving into a new skill, or branching out into a new job or volunteer position can be very daunting. How am I supposed to know if I can do it? If God called me here, shouldn’t I see success quickly?

I often struggle with these questions. I have hope that I’ll be successful, but doubt comes in with expectations. I want mastery of new skills to come fast and easy. But if I’d just look back on my diving experience, I’d certainly be comforted.

Not everything comes quickly, and really, it rarely happens that way. Having to work hard to make the most of our opportunities is truly a universal truth.

 

If you fail to prepare, you’re prepared to fail.

~Mark Spitz, Winner of 7 Gold Medals at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games

 

Luck has nothing to do with it, because I have spent many, many hours, countless hours, on the court working for my one moment in time, not knowing when it would come.  ~Serena Williams, Winner of 2 Gold Medals at 2000 and 2008 Olympic Games

 

Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.

~Malcolm Gladwell

 

If you’re feeling called to something new, don’t decide that it’s not for you if you’re not immediately successful. Just take a deep breath and try to enjoy the season of learning. It can be as much fun as finally mastering the new skill.

Be kind and gentle with yourself, knowing that good things eventually come with open eyes, open ears and a willingness to practice.

Step: 1 – 2 – 3. You begin at the beginning. But with work and practice, who knows how high you’ll soar?

 

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What Do You Have Faith In?

When you sit down in a chair, do you sit there holding on for dear life, praying that the chair won’t break? Or do you have faith that it won’t crumble under your weight and drop you to the floor?

Well. That’s silly. Of course you believe the chair will hold you. The faith we have in furniture is so great that we never even think about it really. Our trust is complete.

When my son got his driver’s license, we had faith in him. We trusted that he would not be harmed, and that he would drive defensively. Then he had an accident. His fault. The car had to have thousands of dollars of work, while we became a one-car family.

After the car was repaired, we had faith that this wouldn’t happen again. We handed over the keys, and told him that we trusted that he would be safe. Then he had another accident. His fault. The car had thousands of dollars of work, while we became a one-car family once again. Oh, and just to top it all off, our insurance company dropped us. Sigh. Who could blame them really.

Now you would think that after two expensive accidents, this child’s driving career would be toast, but you’d be wrong. We had faith, and we handed those keys over once again.

It’s fascinating how we have so much faith in furniture, isn’t it? And how we have rock-solid faith in our children, and in people in general, even though they will eventually fail us. That’s just how people are, we’re all well-meaning mistake machines, and that’s just how it is. But still, we have faith.

Faith is a gift, we all have it. But like all gifts that we’ve been given, it’s up to us to decide how and where to activate it. We almost universally apply it to things like cars starting, doors opening and chairs not collapsing, but almost universally struggle when applying it to God.

The boy with two accidents? “Here’s the keys!” The God who made me and supports my life? “Um…I don’t know…”

Jesus said if we have the faith of a mustard seed, we’ll be calling mountains to move, but I’ve never seen that happen, have you? So faith truly is a difficult gift to activate when it comes to God, and Jesus surely knew it.

But he also knew it wasn’t impossible. If we already know how to trust created things, then certainly there’s hope in placing our trust in the Creator. Maybe our faith starts small, but it can grow if we’ll only hang in there and practice it.

We make it a habit to exercise and build up our muscle strength so we’ll be ready to face the day. If we don’t, our muscles will be weak and useless. If we don’t continually practice faith and trust in our Creator, it won’t be there when we need it most either.

It’s okay to start small, even smaller than a mustard seed. I’m not really interested in moving a mountain anyway. Trusting God like I trust my desk chair? That’ll be a great start.

 

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Called? Yes! Gifted? Not So Sure…

Have you ever felt called to do something that you’ve never done? Somehow you know in the stillness of your heart it’s the right thing to do, but have no idea where to start?

I think it happens all the time. I also think that it results in so much confusion that many dismiss the call or even quit before reaching the starting line.

When my dad retired, he and my mom began spending their winters in Florida. Over time, the stay in Florida got longer, so they decided to become Florida residents.

They had an easy transition to the new state, new home, new everything really. They were full of life and loved to socialize, so it didn’t take long before they had a wide circle of friends.

One of the activities my dad got involved in, much to my surprise, was Habitat for Humanity. A new friend of his worked with the charity, building houses for underprivileged families. My dad loved that idea.

Diving right in, he started up on the roofs, pounding nails into roofing shingles in the Florida sun. It couldn’t have been very comfortable or very stimulating work, but he really enjoyed it. When he hit his 70’s, the crew boss invited him to come down from the roof and never return. My dad saw the wisdom in that, so it was goodbye to roofs, and hello to drywall. He didn’t care, he just wanted to be a part of something good.

I mentioned that I was surprised. It’s not that I doubted his desire, or the worthiness of the charity. I just thought it was an odd choice. He never was the “handyman type.” He told me once that his dad (who could fix anything) didn’t want children around when he made repairs, so he never learned how to work with plumbing, electricity, or redecorating.

So I asked him why he thought he was able to help with constructing a house, because It sure didn’t sound like a perfect match of skill and purpose to me.

Let me tell you, his answer was priceless. “You can do anything if a professional shows you how.”

I love that. It’s such a great mantra for anyone who doubts their call in life.

His reasoning was so clear, simple and true. Never laid a roof? Have a roofer show you, and you’re on your way. Never hung drywall? Take the time to show up, listen and practice. You’ll get it done.

You may have heard that God doesn’t call the equipped, he equips the called. That means you don’t have to begin your new adventure unprepared and alone. Instead, like my dad, seek out others with experience in the field. Take classes, read books, find out how the professionals did it.

My dad never thought he’d be a tradesman. He just wanted to do his best. Isn’t that all that we can hope for too?

The key is to show up. Listen. Practice. With a little help, you’ll be amazed at how much you’ll accomplish.

 

 

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Photo credits:

Photo by Ray Hennessy, Lance Asper, Janko Ferlic

A Silent Retreat Experience

On October 2nd, I drove four and a half hours west to St. Louis, Missouri to attend my first silent retreat. Although I had read the outline of daily activities, mailed to me months ago, I was still a little nervous. This was going to be an adventure.

When I arrived, I checked in and picked up my name tag and room assignment. I found out there were 81 women attending, and I was one of the 25 ‘first timers’. Each retreat participant got their own room with a private bathroom with shower. The room was about as big as a decent sized walk-in closet. If I put my suitcase on the available floor space, I wouldn’t be able to get past to the bathroom. First lesson in simplicity. How big does a room need to be? And the first of many gifts…I was on the ‘river side’ of the dorm, giving me beautiful views of the Mississippi River (and sunrises), and right next to a little alcove sitting area. I spent many hours there.

I had some free time until lunch, so I walked the grounds. Even though silence didn’t begin until after the first meal, my fellow retreatants were already sinking into the quiet. Adirondack chairs, arranged to view of the river, were filling up fast. And everywhere you looked were reminders of the gift of silence. From wall signs to floor mats.

The White House Retreat Center is run by the Jesuit order of Catholic priests. Although it is Catholic in spirit, all men and women of Christian faith are welcome. Each day begins with Morning Prayer, followed by breakfast and the first of three to four Conferences a day.

The Conferences are meetings of all the participants, to hear a talk given by the retreat director. This retreat was built around the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, which I had heard of, but never studied.

After each session, we were given work sheets with a review of the main points of the talk, and questions to meditate and pray over. In the free time after each conference, you could choose to study the sheets, pray independently, take a walk, or even take a nap. We were told there is no ‘right way’ to proceed in the retreat. Wherever you felt call to go, that’s where God wanted you to be.

Spiritual directors were available by appointment, and a small library was open for our use. I found a book I really liked, called The Examen. The examen is a five step process of reviewing your day, compiled by St. Ignatius of Loyola. I only had time to read the first step “Gratitude”, so after I got home, I ordered the book from Amazon, along with the Autobiography of St. Ignatius.

I had a wonderful experience on retreat. I really connected with the themes of the talks, and the grounds were just gorgeous. So many flowers. So many monarch butterflies!

Keeping silence was easy for me. I think I could have stayed an additional day, but not more. I say that because of the study material given. For me, it was very challenging, with new ideas and questions to ponder several times a day.

At the last lunch before leaving, my table mates and I could talk, and it was fun to introduce ourselves, even though we’d seen each other for three days. (There was time to speak and visit after dinner until the 8 pm conference, but it was optional. I decided to keep silence.) We all agreed that somehow we all felt like family, even though we didn’t speak until the last day.

I definitely think I’d attend this kind of retreat again someday. It’s a unique opportunity to come away from the everyday and sink into silence and the presence of the Lord. It’s such a great renewal of spirit and relationship with God.

Who wouldn’t want that?

 

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Thank you for all the wonderful comments on my last post, and the entries for the Chicken Soup for the Soul giveaway. The winner of the My Kind (of) America is: Estelle Soger! Congratulations Estelle, and I’ll be sure and get a copy of the book to you 🙂

 

 

Yay! A Book Give-Away!

I am so proud to be one of the 101 contributing writers to the recently published Chicken Soup for the Soul book: My Kind (of) America. A call had gone out for stories about kindness, demonstrating that our country is filled with people helping people.

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This is a book about hope and the true American spirit. It reminds us that a kind America is everyone’s kind of America.            ~Amazon.com

 

This is a book about Americans doing what we do best: being kind, compassionate, generous, and welcoming. That’s my kind of America.”    ~Amy Newmark

~

The book happened to be published on the same day I attended a luncheon given by Chicken Soup for the Soul’s publisher, Amy Newmark. She was in town for a conference, and so invited contributors living in the area to come together for a meal, to learn more about the Chicken Soup company, and to meet each other too.

A smiling group of Chicken Soup Writers!

Amy Newmark and Me

We all learned a lot about the company, and I met fellow writers that came from all sorts of backgrounds. A few were hoping to write their own book someday, but most just had a story to tell, and were excited to have a platform to share it.

I really appreciated the generosity of Chicken Soup Publishing, as well as the warm welcome from Ms. Newmark. She really made us all feel valued and special. And this is such a great moment for a book like this to come out. National News organizations are really good at telling us about the hard and tragic, but not so good about helping us to realize that people like you and me can make a big difference in the world. One act a time.

I would love to give away a copy of this spirit-lifting book. (I wish I had enough for everyone.) I really think you’ll love it. All you have to do to enter is make a comment on this post. That’s your entry form. This coming weekend, I’ll choose the winner.

So go ahead and make a comment, and we’ll see who ends up with a free copy of the book!

 

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A Time To Be Silent

I am going on retreat this week, and I have to say that I’m both excited and nervous. I’ve never attended a silent retreat, so this will be a new experience for me. There will be talks to attend, and time for all to come together for prayer, so I’m thankful for a little structure in the quiet days ahead.

Participants are not allowed to have computers or iPADS or internet, so I will be silent on the web and social media too. Please know that I will keep you in my heart when I pray, and I’ll look forward to sharing the experience with you when I get back.

In the meantime, I saw this quote on Twitter, and really liked it, so I thought I’d share.

See you in a week, with a Chicken Soup for the Soul book give-away, okay? It’s a date!

 

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