Faith, Hope and Love

I don’t usually crowd source my blog posts. As a matter of fact, I never do. First time for everything, right?

I published this status update in Facebook yesterday as I was having a late pre-fishing trip breakfast, and over sixty people have already liked it. There have been many good comments and personal takes on the situation that prompted the post. I would like to expand on my feelings in this blog post, and I would like to share some of what you said to me that made me think even more about the topic at hand (thank you for that!). Here is the post from yesterday:

Just saw a very sweet elderly couple quietly enjoy a large breakfast, smile at each other, and talk very respectfully with their nice waitress.
Then, he got up, unfolded her walker with the dayglo yellow tennis balls on the back legs, gently helped her up, steadied her, and slowly walked with her to the door and into the parking lot.
Love, real love, is patient and kind.
Respect only grows stronger with time. It does not see class, color or infirmity.
Devotion is dogged. When challenged, it only becomes more tenacious.
Well done, sir. Well done
.

First off, some of you might remember that I talked about another couple I saw in another setting, two people who looked tired and sad and said not a word to each other as they ate their meal. Watching them, I felt sad, defeated, worn down. The futility I felt while watching them felt very real to me.

This elderly couple was different. They had to be in their eighties, both a little feeble, he a little kyphotic but still tall and relatively strong for his advancing age. She, obviously post-stroke or some other event that necessitated the walker, but with a sweet face and a look in her eyes when she made eye contact with him that spoke love in a way that was unmistakeable. They enjoyed a hearty breakfast, eating more than I did! They didn’t say much to each other, but in this case I don’t believe they had to.

His attention to her was slow, measured, careful, loving and supportive. He never pushed her, never scowled at her, never hurried her at all. She made an obviously difficult effort to rise, balance herself and walk. He never wavered, supporting her arm at the elbow, guiding and letting her shift her weight onto him as she needed to.

I had no doubt that he was always that way with her, that he loved and cherished her, and that he would do anything to make her life easier. No words were needed. He didn’t need to explain himself. It was all so clear, so very clear in his actions.

One of you told me that what mattered was that this was their reality and their life. Sometimes, we don’t get to choose what happens to us. We do, however, choose who to spend our lives with, who to love and cherish and who to support. We also choose who to show our vulnerabilities to. This loving companionship, this caring and sharing and supporting, work both ways in a good relationship. A relationship cannot last, not in any meaningful way, when these bonds are not real, not strong.

Another reader told me that she had spent a lot of time “unfolding the walker” for her dear husband. She said more in that one little comment than I could ever write in a thousand words.

One reader asked if I thought this was the exception. I certainly hope not, though I think the world likes to hear more about the sensational, the negative, and the outlandish much more than it does about the quiet humbleness of a man acting out his humility and servitude in the context of love and devotion.

One of my friends commented that love and resilience are two qualities that must be present in a successful marriage, and she is so right.

Another friend reminded me that love and respect go hand in hand. The former is not real without the latter.

I was very humbled by the likes and responses and opinions shared on Facebook about this tiny little status update as I sat there drinking coffee and eating eggs. There is so much sensationalism in social media these days that sometimes we forget to sit quietly, observe our world, and allow ourselves to think, observe and learn.

For those of you who have this kind of relationship with someone, cherish it, please. Work on it. Nurture it. Feed it. Let it grow and grow as the years go by, so that when the inevitable storms come and the stresses mount up and you feel lost and unable to cope, you can look across the table at the love of your life and know that everything will be okay.

For those of you who have never had this, I hope you find it. At twenty or forty or sixty or eighty. I hope you find it and it knocks your socks off.

For those of you who have had it, or even a part of, and lost it, take heart. Never give up. Miracles, true miracles, happen. Love blossoms and grows in the most unlikely places. Old loves come back. New loves spring up.

Never stop looking.

“For there are these three things that endure: Faith, Hope and Love, but the greatest of these is Love.”

Aramaic Bible in Plain English

Boredom

I want you to do something for me.

I want you to sit quietly for one full minute before you start reading this post. Still. Quiet. Hands in your lap. Doing nothing but timing yourself for one minute.

I’ll wait.

My hunch is that this little exercise was extremely hard for most of you. Almost impossible. You were feeling silly at fifteen seconds, antsy at thirty seconds, twitchy at forty-five seconds and downright anxious at fifty-nine seconds. A minute is a very long time to sit quietly and do nothing.

I was talking to a friend of mine yesterday about my weekend activity plans. Part of these plans include taking time, consciously, to be still, to sit and watch TV or read or do something that is slower than my usual pace.

Let’s just say that this is hard for me. Really hard.

I proudly exclaimed to her, “Look! I’m being bored! Watch me!”

She told me that that this kind of boredom is good.

What was she thinking?!? (Of course, she was right.)

We don’t know how to be bored anymore. We’re raising a generation of kids who are antsy, distracted, energetic, fidgety, impulsive and don’t know how to amuse themselves. Many of us adults have lost control of this scenario to the point that all we know how to do is bring the kid in and have him medicated for ADHD, which he may or may not have.

Why is boredom, planned boredom, good? How does it help us?

1) It rests our body physically. Let’s face it, we all burn the candle at both ends way too many days out of the week. We rest too little, sleep too little, and we are not very kind to ourselves. Have you ever been afraid to let yourself slow down, sit still, and do something quiet for fear that you would simply fall asleep, exhausted? (Raising hand with sheepish grin)

2) It rests our mind. When we sit still and let ourselves be undirected for a while, our mind can be free to wander, to dream, to think, to scheme, to plan. It can unplug for a little bit. It can disengage. It can also pay attention to the things around us. Funny, the birds chirp, the wind rustles the leaves on the trees, motorcycles roar by, and there are spectacular sunsets, even when we are tremendously busy. We just don’t notice them.

3) It allows us to be creative. Down time, physically and mentally, gives us that extra little bit of capacity to see things differently, to notice the colors and the sounds and the ideas that get pushed out by our frenetic day-to-day lives. We can do some pretty spectacular things when we give ourselves the freedom to do them.

4) It lets us get reacquainted with ourselves. You’ll have to trust me on this one. I see patients day after day who are chasing after other people or jobs or material things that will make them whole. That will make them feel good about themselves. That will make them okay. The thing that they don’t get is that they ARE okay, but they are not in touch with who and how they really are. If they gave themselves that little bit of time, that boring few minutes to sit and have a heart-to-heart conversation with themselves, they might find that they were actually pretty good people.

Give yourself some time to be bored today.

If you read my post from yesterday, yes, it’s okay to schedule it on your calendar if you want. That means you must do it!

Rest your body.

Rest your mind.

Be creative.

Get to know yourself again.

Do What You Gotta Do

This has been one of those weeks when I need to step back, look at things critically, evaluate my performance, and make adjustments to my approach to the workload and obligations currently on my plate.

Ever had one of those weeks?

First things first.

Assessment.

What are the current assignments, burdens, schedules, relationships and tasks that I need to attend to?

I work, and I work hard. I currently have a full time job as medical director of a busy, three-site mental health center. I also work seventy-five hours a month doing telepsychiatry on some evenings and weekend days depending on how the scheduling falls. Mental health is a rewarding business to be in, but it is very stressful for psychiatrists and others who choose it as a career. Burnout is a very real possibility.

I have relationships that I cherish. These are with family, online friends, IRL friends, coworkers, confidants, and others who I want to spend time with, talk to, share a meal with, or just feel safe with. These relationships don’t happen in a vacuum, and they don’t flourish without some effort on my part. (Some of my closest and dearest friends have gently reminded me of that when I fall down on the job) Being with others is healthy. Isolation for long periods of time is not.

I have a need to create and spend time in my own head. Now, psychiatrists spend a lot of time trying to figure out what other people are thinking and feeling and why, but they need time to attend to their own thoughts as well. I am no exception. For me, writing things down and thinking things through is as important as breathing. If I go too long without doing it, I get a physical air hunger for the words, the sentences, the paragraphs and the physical look and feel of my words on the page.

My body needs my attention. I will be fifty-seven years old in October. Do I feel fifty-seven? No. Do I realize that my physical body is no longer nineteen years old? Yes. Using the old excuses (I’m too busy, I don’t have time, it hurts, it’s not fun, I’m older and I don’t need to exercise) doesn’t cut it. Attention to physical needs such as exercise, sleep and nutrition is as important as working hard to pay the bills. Probably more so. If I don’t pay attention to the former, I won’t be able to keep doing the latter.

Second stage?

Planning.

Given that I really believe that the things I just told you about are really important, how do I plan to make sure they get the time and effort they deserve as I go about my daily life?

Schedule. I make time for the work, the people, and the personal activities that are most important to me. I keep my calendar sacred. If it gets on my calendar for a certain time on a certain day, it must be done at that time on that day. No exceptions. That makes it absolutely imperative that my calendar is pruned ruthlessly and only things that need to be there are there.

I keep a constantly changing and dynamic to do list. Unlike the calendar, this list is always churning, moving, and morphing from one look to another. It is a living thing. It is meant to be a playground for ideas, projects, writing topics, shopping lists, vacation planning, and things to do. I work in it and on it many, many times every day.

Third stage?

Execution.

The most beautiful calendar and the most organized list in the world will not help you if you don’t get up, get out, and execute.

I have to show up at the places on my calendar. I must attend the meetings and participate fully. I must go to the gym. I must message someone on Facebook or call a friend or remember to schedule a dinner to catch up. I must share something of myself, open myself up to others, in order to get them to do the same. Those of you who know me well know that this does not come naturally to me. I work at it every day. I love it when it clicks, when it feels right, when I feel that special connection with a good friend or a confidant who knows exactly how I feel and sticks with me anyway!

I have to pay attention to cooking, eating right, exercising, and feeding my mind as well as my body. These things don’t happen by themselves. It takes effort. The effort is worth it.

When I am tempted to just go home and call it a day, sometimes I need to reach out to a friend. When I think I can get just one more task done at ten o’clock at night, I am learning to tell myself that it is time to go to bed, because the extra two hours of sleep I get will lead to much higher productivity the next morning.

The business of the week is behind me.

Today I will get my car serviced, buy a nice bottle of wine, spend two hours at the gym, cook a couple of nice meals, talk to someone special, sit in the sunshine, take a nap, watch a movie, and get to bed by ten.

I have assessed.

I have planned.

Now, it’s time to execute.

Have a good weekend, all.

Dystillation

Floor technician.

Environmental technician.

Life coach.

Investment and retirement strategist.

Facility safety coordinator.

Interventional cardiologist.

Cardiothoracic and vascular surgeon.

Neurodevelopmental psychologist.

Are we hiding behind our words? Worse yet, are we afraid to be who we really are?

Maintenance man.

Trash man. 

Knowledgeable and experienced friend.

Salesman.

Security guard.

Doctor.

Psychologist.

I see it every day. Someone comes to me for a run-of-the-mill mental health problem, absolutely nothing to be ashamed of, and asks for help. For whatever reason, when we get to the social history taking part of the interview, the part where I ask things like “How far did you go in school?” and “Who lives with you at home right now?” and “What kind of work do you do?”, there is a very strong need to embellish. To make the mundane and the normal and the usual and the expected look and sound like much more than it really is.

Personal flaw? Societal norm? You tell me.

Years ago, when I was a child, it was okay to be just a teacher. Just a garbage man. Just a fisherman. Just a factory shift worker. Just a  shift supervisor. Just a lawyer. Just a doctor.

I remember with great fondness those people in my life who were sure of who they were, what they did, what they knew (and didn’t know) and were quite comfortable and proud of those things. I remember wanting to be like those adults. I wanted to be as quietly confident as they were. I wanted to be as sure of who I was as they were. I wanted to be like them when I grew up.

Nowadays, I see kids who are afraid to excel, even when they most assuredly can. I see adults who think that just because they process widgets in a factory that they will never be on par with the local businesswoman who wears painfully high heels or the stock broker who drives the BMW and has an office on the town square.

I see people who are blessed beyond measure with titles and material things and degrees and high-powered jobs. I see those same people buried alive under layer upon layer of regulations, rules and policies, so constricted that they are stifled and can barely breathe. 

I see people diluted by the clear, killing acid of modern life, spotless and sparkling in their constraining and confining societal beakers, proudly propped on wire stands and bubbling over Bunsen burners of advancement and promotion.

The problem?

Once the heat has been applied for too long by peers and regulating bodies and governmental institutions, once the clear liquid in the beaker has burned off and the residue is swirled around in the bottom of the vessel, there is nothing left.

The distilling process is no longer purifying, no longer leaving only the essence and the basic substance that undergirds life and stability and happiness. 

It leaves the beaker burned and crusted, and the flask at the other end of the rig…

…empty.

 

Lights. Camera. Emotion.

I’ve been looking at a lot of pictures lately.

I have fourteen thousand personal ones on a hard drive at home, dating back years.

I have just seen, and seen again and again, the hundreds that were taken by professionals, family and friends at my daughter’s wedding last month.

I have revisited pictures of my father on the nineteenth anniversary of his death, the now fading images still conjuring up sights and sounds and smells from decades ago, some of them so real that they are almost hallucinatory.

I have been bombarded with online and onscreen images of sporting events, victories by long-dead competitors in long concluded contests, reminding me that this year’s installment of the Belmont or the U.S. Open or the World Cup is not too far away.

I have laughed out loud (something I rarely do) at pictures of my children and grandchildren in some silly pose or acting out, word for word, some scene from a recent movie or show.

I have wept silently at pictures that I took myself, or others took, of row upon row upon row of pristine white crosses on grasshopper-green grass, a testament to a struggle now relegated to history, but enshrined forever on wind-scoured cliff tops and in sunny valleys or under Spanish moss-draped live oaks.

Pictures evoke memories.

Pictures remind us of triumph and tragedy, decisions wisely arrived at and mistakes unwittingly made.

Pictures pull us, gently and unavoidably, back into the life that we once had, the good old days that were not as good as they seem now, the ideal and the unreal and the times when everything seemed right, if only for the instant it was caught by the photographer.

Pictures give life to memories.

Pictures objectify the past.

Pictures help us hold on to something that we desperately do not want to lose.

What do the best pictures really do for me, personally?

When all is said and done, the pictures that draw me in, time and time again, the ones that hook me, spear me, grab my soul and make my eyes moisten with the warm feelings of a thousand summer days, are the ones that make me feel.

The picture of Payne Stewart as he pumped his fist after sinking the birdie putt that won him the 1999 U.S. Open. (He would die in a tragic plane crash only four months later)

The picture of my granddaughter, mouth agape with absolute delight, as she blew bubbles on the deck behind her house.

The picture of my daughter walking down the sandy “aisle” at the beach on her wedding day, and the memory of her soft exclamations as we topped the dunes and saw all the people waiting for us there.

These are the pictures that make me feel alive and human and present in my own life.

What else do pictures teach me?

We all have a limited time here, some shorter, some longer. We can revisit the past, wallow in it, be consumed by it. We can fret and catastrophize and be paralyzed by what the future holds. Or, we can choose to be present in our own lives, to feel every little bit of emotion, good and bad, happy and sad, that comes our way.

We can consciously look for, and find, as many of these intense, emotional, real-life moments as we possibly can and revel in them.

None of us is guaranteed tomorrow.

All of us can grab the now, feel the present moment, enjoy it to its fullest for what it is, and be very grateful that we were here to experience it.

CHRIS SEWARD — 1999 News & Observer file photo

CHRIS SEWARD — 1999 News & Observer file photo

IMG_2366

Photo by Anne Sims

Photo by Anne Sims

 

 

 

Señor Citizen

So I’m excited to be in Athens, Georgia, yesterday.

I have just spent the morning with my daughter’s family, watching my granddaughter play soccer with the Purple Crush (how AWESOME a name for a soccer team composed of scurrying three, four, and five year olds) and then making a lunch of a veggie Cuban with everything and enough Diet Coke to put out the ensuing mouth fire. Don’t judge.

Next activity on my Athenian Saturday was to drive over to the UGA campus and take in an afternoon of NCAA Championship Tennis quarterfinal activity at the tennis center. I could not think of a finer way on Memorial Day weekend to get some sunshine, dehydrate myself and have an excuse to wear my summer Tilley hat than a tennis tournament. 

I park Rosie and walk up to the mobile ticket trailer set up outside the tennis complex. The cost of admission is ten bucks. I pull out my wallet, grab a twenty and put my face as close to the ticket window as possible. The white-haired gentleman on the other side of the window does the same. I shove my folded twenty into the little metal tray under the glass. 

Then it happens.

The event that changes my life forever. 

The milestone that I always knew I would reach, some day, somewhere (probably in line at the local CVS or something), but not today. Not one week after my second daughter has just married and is packing to move to Denver, Colorado, which I think is in a whole different country than South Carolina.

“Hi!” says the Silver Fox. “You’re in luck. Senior citizen tickets are just six bucks today.”

My hand freezes, the twenty still between my thumb and forefinger, halfway in, halfway out of the little silver channel, sort of like I am in relationship to MY GRAVE, I think almost reflexively after hearing this pronouncement from the man behind the glass who MUST be at least sixty years older than me. Hell, maybe eighty years older. 

I swear, I think I turned around to look over my shoulder to see who he was talking to.

There was nobody in line behind me.

“Excuse me?” I said.

“Senior citizen tickets,” Silver Fox repeats, like he thinks I am not only old enough to purchase one of these decade markers but I’m also DEAF.

“They’re six dollars today.”

He looks at me, then down at my hand with the death grip on the twenty, then back at my face again. I know that if I release my hold on this piece of currency, that if I complete this transaction and take him up on his offer to buy an OLD MAN’S ticket, that, like a bad relationship, I will have consummated something that will haunt me for the rest of my natural life.

Something that I now know, just by buying this ticket, is much shorter than it was thirty five seconds ago. 

“Oh, wow.” I say lamely. “Well, yeah, okay. Six bucks. Cool.”

I think I am probably drooling now. I’m not sure, but I may have just had a stroke or developed urinary incontinence or caught toenail fungus. 

He asks if I also have a dollar so that he can give me a ten and a five back instead of using all of his singles making change for me. I secretly think that he is giving me the cognitive portion of a mental status examination. 

“No, I’m sorry, I don’t,” I say, truthfully.

The lady next to me flips a rumpled greenback my way. 

“Here you go. Don’t make the man use all his singles.”

So now I’m OLD and I am receiving charity from a lady I have never met who feels sorry for me because I have incontinence and toe fungus (she could tell, I’m sure she could). This has got to be a nightmare. I’m going to wake up, young and alive and in bed with a George Clooney castoff. I can feel it. Come on, come on, come on.

“Thanks,” Silver Fox says, handing me back a ten and his last four singles. I flip the dollar back to the lady and thank her just the same. He gives me my ticket, which looks yellowed and nicotine stained in my hand. (I made that part up)

I take my ticket, my first ever Senior Citizen Ticket, turn around, and walk toward the entrance to the complex. 

The grandstand is steep. The day is hot. The sun is blazing.

I hope they have an ambulance on standby.

Dehydration and falls are two of the most common things that get us old guys, you know.

Well, at least I know I can ask for a discount on my next veggie Cuban.