The Calm After the Storm

When I woke up Thursday morning, the first thing I did was listen. I heard the hum of my air conditioner. I didn’t hear howling wind or pounding rain. And I felt a rush of relief.

After nearly a week of anxiety and an overdose of the Weather Channel, Hurricane Dorian passed by my home in Savannah, Georgia far enough offshore to spare us from the worst of its fury. No damage to our house or our trees. Incredibly, we still had electricity. Normally a storm like that leaves us powerless for days, which is always a miserable experience for me. I freely admit I am utterly dependent on modern luxuries. This is one reason I never go camping. 

Hurricane stories

As a native of New Orleans, hurricanes have always been a frightening part of my life. A violent Gulf storm is one of my earliest memories. Hurricane Betsy, a wild and devastating Category 4, struck my hometown when I was three years old. In hazy flashes of recall, I see candlelit nights, dinner out of cans and our house filled with relatives whose home was flooded beyond belief. 

Then there was Hurricane Camille in 1969. I was in the second grade. Tape on the windows and more candles. A direct hit on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Along the beach in Biloxi, a long line of driveways leading to empty spaces where beautiful homes used to be.

By the time the infamous Hurricane Katrina nearly destroyed my city in 2005, I had been living in Savannah for a long time. I sat on my living room sofa for days on end, grieving over the magnitude of the devastation. Unbelievable. I still don’t have words for the tragedy of it all. It’s how I feel now as I look through my tears at the heartbreaking images from the Bahamas.

Hurricane Katrina flooded my parents’ house, damaging just about everything they had. At a time in their lives when they should have been planning a post-retirement getaway, they spent eight months renovating their home while living in a FEMA trailer. Both say they couldn’t go through that anguish again. But they stayed. A number of my friends and relatives left the area for good, rebuilding their lives in Baton Rouge, Mississippi and Texas. 

Like so many other aspects of life, Mother Nature reminds us that no matter how carefully we plan, ultimately, we’re not in control. We can buy canned goods and generators, or we can head for higher ground, but we can’t make a storm change direction any more than we can make time stand still, no matter who we are. All we can do, as I heard so many times this week, is prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

What matters most

Experiences like this sharpen our focus to the things that matter most. As I was contemplating an evacuation that we eventually decided against, I moved around my house, trying to figure out what we could take with us. What could I absolutely not live without if my home were destroyed? 

Obviously, these sweeties must come with us:

No room in the car for my book collection, my favorite boots or my prized red jewelry armoire, the one with the painted birds on it. I am surrounded by stuff – useful stuff, beloved stuff, stuff I don’t remember purchasing. It all feels so important when we buy it. And it all gets left behind in a disaster.

In the news footage of these events, what matters most is plain to see. It’s what we all have in common when the chips are down. A woman trudges through chest-high water carrying her two dogs under her arms. Rescue workers gather desperate survivors into their strong embrace. Color, class and religion don’t matter. Only life matters. And courage is everywhere. 

My boxes of old photographs wouldn’t fit in the car either; I stored them carefully in a large plastic bin placed high on a shelf in the closet. If I lost them, these pieces of paper that would mean nothing to anyone else could never be replaced. (Next project: scan everything.)

I’m really tired today. So many emotions! The days of indecision and anxiety – should we stay or should we evacuate? The aching sadness for the people of the Bahamas. The enormous relief that it’s over now, at least for us. And the gratitude. I am so thankful. 

To all the people who’ve been affected by Hurricane Dorian, my heart goes out to you. I can’t imagine how hard this is and I’m praying for you. And if you’re safe tonight in your comfortable home like I am, surrounded by people you love, hug them close and say thank you.

What Color Are Your Glasses?

Once upon a time, there was a girl who prided herself on being prepared for every possible lousy outcome. She anticipated every pitfall, mentally conjuring every worst-case scenario. Having a vivid imagination and a pessimistic outlook, she positively excelled in the negative.

This girl thought optimists were suckers because they’re so often disappointed. Since she believed nothing in her experience ever worked out according to plan, she thought it was emotionally safer to just expect the worst. After all, if on the rare occasion something did go well, she could be pleasantly surprised.

There’s a big problem with this kind of thinking: dwelling on the negative ushers in more negative. We tend to find just what we’re looking for. We attract it.

I know a lot about this. Because I was once that girl.

I don’t think I was born with a dark cloud over my head. Always full of ideas, my natural inclination leans toward hopefulness and possibility. Somewhere along the line, though, fear and disappointment got the better of me; I donned my cynical armor and tried not to expect too much. I guess I thought it was easier that way.

But it isn’t easier. The burdens of anxiety, anger and regret are just too heavy for my shoulders. Maybe it’s naïve to view the world through rose-colored glasses, but I think I’d rather be innocent than bitter.

A yogic attitude adjustment

Which brings me to one of my favorite yogic attitude adjustments: pratipaksha bhavana. It means taking a negative thought and replacing it with its opposite, positive thought. It’s a basic tenet of joyful living. It sounds simple, and it is. I’m learning that sometimes it’s not easy. But it’s necessary.

On any given day in my ordinary life, 15 things might go well and just one thing will get bungled up. Guess which one I’m thinking about – dwelling on – all day long? Right: the bungled one. It’s almost as if negativity is a magnet, pulling me away from the good stuff. It’s such a waste, really. If I allow my mind to focus on the rude driver, the bad weather, etc., it doesn’t just make me grumpy. I also miss the moments that make life sweet, like the exuberant greeting from my dog or the gentle tone of my husband Ret’s voice when he says my name.

I’d like to blame the media for turning us all into grisly rubber-neckers, stopping the traffic of life to gawk at its horrors when we could turn the other way to watch a spectacular sunset instead. But the truth is, no one can choose my thoughts but me.

When I was much younger, I had a job I really disliked. Okay, I hated it. Each day I showed up for work with my heart on my sleeve, and probably a crabby expression my face, too. One of my coworkers took note and would say to me, “Lee, every day that you wake up is a good day!”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know,” was my standard, somewhat biting reply.

Decades later, I feel like I owe this woman an apology. She was right, of course. Every day that I wake up is a good day, because the alternative is a day when I don’t wake up… So every day, I need to seek out the positive. Where I focus my attention, energy follows. Do I really want to spend my energy on the things that sap my spirit?

An attitude of gratitude

About a dozen years ago, at the urging of a friend, I started keeping a gratitude journal. I didn’t want to do it. It was a time of great distress in my life and I wanted to point out all the rotten things I saw in the world. But she insisted. She instructed me to write down five things for which I was thankful every day. I could write anything, but it had to be sincere and I had to do it every single day.

At first I was resistant. My entries looked like this:

  1. The sun came up today.
  2. I don’t live in a third world country.
  3. My dog is cute.
  4. I have a job.
  5. I’m not in the hospital.

Then came the nights when, just as I was getting into bed, I realized I hadn’t written in my journal. I’d have to really think back over the day to remember what happened and find something good to report. Surely there was something? My entries started looking like this:

  1. I had lunch with a friend. It was nice.
  2. My boss liked my presentation.
  3. It rained today. We really needed the rain.
  4. The boys got good report cards!
  5. Talked with Dad today. Love my dad!

Over time, the assignment became almost a game as I tried to find gratitude in everything. Instead of lamenting over how much new tires cost, I was happy to have a car. When my then-teenaged sons whined about some terrible injustice at school, I was glad they were talking to me about it. That summer, I decided to stop complaining about the Georgia heat because then I wouldn’t have the right to grumble about winter. I didn’t want to be one of those people who gripes about the weather all the time.

Little by little, I found myself looking at the bright side. And I started seeing God’s hand everywhere, guiding me, showing me the way. I only had to open my eyes.

Practice, practice, practice

All these years later, my journal has  morphed a little but my practice of pratipaksha bhavana continues. Believe me, it’s a practice – I have to work at this to stay focused or my old tendencies will rise back up to the surface and wreak havoc. Besides keeping the journal, a couple of things have really helped me:

The first thing is surrounding myself with people who point me to the light when I can’t find it myself. Sometimes we don’t see ourselves clearly because we’re looking in a fun house mirror. I need people like Ret and my mom as much as I need oxygen.

And the second thing is giving it away. All this experience looking for the silver lining in my own life has made me a much better encourager to other people. The bonus is that serving other people, especially sharing hope and happiness with them, always makes me feel better too.

Writing in journal (1)

Gratitude journal entry, Sept. 17, 2016:

  1. My boys are really terrific men. I’m so proud of them.
  2. Fall is on the way, with its cool air and pumpkin spice lattes.
  3. Ret is writing music – I love seeing him so happy.
  4. It’s so nice to share the sofa with my sweet dog, Lacy.
  5. There is peace in my home and in my heart tonight.

The Story of Penny

Sometimes selfishness comes gift-wrapped.

— Ret Taylor

You may have surmised, based on my previous posts, that I’m an unapologetic dog lover. Perhaps because I was deprived of pets as a child (except for a short-lived relationship with a miniature Schnauzer – the original Greta), I’ve had at least one dog under my roof most of my adult life. Currently my husband and I share our home with an eight-year-old bichon frisé named Lacy, and Tanner, the crazy border collie mix who surprised us by doubling his weight in the first six months after we rescued him from the pound two years ago.

The story of Tanner is best told in a separate post, but I’ll admit that I become embarrassingly emotional in animal shelters. I cry the whole time and contemplate ways I could free all those poor, unwanted dogs and bring them with me to a magical meadow somewhere so they can frolic, eat and be loved all the days of their lives. The magnitude of the world’s suffering is more than my heart can contain, but there’s a special, fragile place there for homeless dogs.

This is the story of Penny.

I’ll spare you the long version, but a few weeks ago, at my urgent insistence, my husband and I adopted an adorable, seven-year-old Pomeranian mix (older dogs steal my heart) that had been pulled from the animal shelter. With a pointy little face and equally pointy ears, she looked like a miniature fox. The sweet little thing was in a loving foster home recovering from bladder surgery.

This was thIMG_1768e most affectionate dog I’ve ever met. Even though she’d been very ill and almost died, little Penny was more emotionally resilient than most people I know. You’d think an animal that had been neglected and allowed to suffer like this would never trust a human again, but time and again I meet dogs that are eager to give away their hearts one more time, hoping to have their love returned.

Confident that my two dogs would welcome this new little addition to the pack, we scheduled a meet-and-greet to allow the pups to get acquainted. While there were a few skirmishes, there was no outright aggression, and Lacy actually seemed to enjoy walking through the neighborhood with Penny by her side. The signs were good that Penny would be a nice fit in our family.

Unfortunately, that’s not what happened. Penny was a well-behaved dog with the most charming habit of executing ballet steps after doing her business in the grass. She was friendly, smart and completely lovable, but she hadn’t fully recovered from her surgery and was having some difficulty. She needed to be taken outside to potty every couple of hours or she would have an accident. I live just a few minutes away from my job, so I’m fortunate enough to be able to come home at midday to let the dogs out and share my lunch with Louie the parrot. Still, leaving Penny alone for four or five hours at a time was just too long. Her bedding was always wet and this was causing skin problems on top of everything else. Her lower abdomen was painful. She needed more care than I was able to provide.

The worst part, though, was the reaction of my two dogs. Initially they seemed to be mixing well, but after a few days, it became clear: Lacy and Tanner didn’t want to accept Penny into our pack. Following the butt-sniffing protocol, they would simply walk away from her. It was especially heartbreaking to me because little Penny wanted so much to be included. She tried to romp with Lacy, but Lacy’s reaction was to stop romping. If Lacy were napping on the sofa, Penny would lie down as close as Lacy would allow, but if Lacy noticed the intrusion, she moved to another piece of furniture.

 

IMG_1771

I don’t know if my dogs sensed that Penny was sick and thus kept their distance from her, as dogs sometimes do. But after a week of this, Penny’s health situation seemed to be getting worse, not better. Maybe she was suffering because she felt their rejection. Maybe she missed her foster mom, the angel who nursed her back to health when she was so very ill.

I didn’t want to do the right thing. There’s a part of me that has always sided with the underdog and feels compelled to rescue the lost. I learned a long time ago, in the most painful way possible, that most people just don’t want to be rescued. But dogs do. They tell you with their eyes. I’d grown to love this funny little fox-dog and desperately wanted to keep her with me.

But that was selfish.

Penny had been enjoying a good recovery in her foster home. Her foster family included three small dogs that were friendly to her. Although I loved her and lavished her with affection and attention, I couldn’t give her what her foster family provided. And so Ret, my husband, gently led me to the realization that it was wrong to keep Penny – wrong for Penny and wrong for our two dogs. And so tearfully, I returned Penny to the woman who’d really been her mommy. I pray that she will adopt Penny and give her a secure, forever home.

There’s always a yoga lesson waiting for me, and this time is no exception. The one that springs to my mind here is aparigraha, which is the fifth principle of yama, yoga’s ethical foundation. Aparigraha is usually translated as not coveting or non-greed, a concept that can be expanded to include cultivating gratitude for what one already has and to cease grasping for what one does not have. I’ve heard this all my Catholic girl life: Thou shall not covet.

What began as a desire to make the world a better place for another sentient being became a struggle as I attempted to force a situation that wasn’t right. All the signs were there, beginning with the urgency I felt to adopt another pet when, for many reasons, it was not the best time for us to do so. Add to that the restless feeling that comes from that small place inside that tells me I’m not doing enough, I don’t have enough, I don’t belong. By rescuing someone else, I must be OK.

Ouch. That was hard to say.

Another principle for me to remember is non-attachment. The Bhagavad Gita, a classic scripture of the East, discusses doing one’s duty without concern for what others may say or what reward one may receive, to perform the work joyfully, for its own sake and with no expectation. I struggle with this. I want my good deeds to be recognized and appreciated. I think we all do, at least to some degree.

As it happened, I received not one, but two, rewards for my actions. Little Penny reacted joyfully to the sight of her foster mom, running to her and showering her with puppy kisses – what a comfort that was to me! Upon returning home without Penny, I was greeted with another happy sight. During the time that Penny lived with us, Lacy and Tanner had lost their usual zest and became strangely moody and withdrawn. Now, for the first time in days, they were jumping up and down and barking excitedly, unable to contain themselves. Why did I think they weren’t enough? I am so lucky to be surrounded by all this furry love.

I’ll sign off for now. My dogs want to go for a walk.

Little Things

“Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things.”

This much-washed, charming little rug graces the floor in my son’s home near Seattle, Washington, a mere 2,991 miles from our humble abode in Georgia.

So. Far. Away.

Ret and I are visiting Kevin this week, something we’ve only been able to do twice since the Navy moved him here over a year ago.

It’s a bittersweet time for me; Kevin works on an aircraft carrier and spends a lot of time at sea. Being a worrier by nature, this just troubles me. When I’m at home, I miss him so acutely that the hole in my heart is huge; the longing to see him is physically painful at times. Being able to freely hug your child only one week a year is not nearly enough, no matter how tall, grown up or opinionated he may be. While I’m here enjoying our time together, there’s a part of me that is already dreading the next long separation and finding it hard to stay focused on the moment at hand.

Last year, Kev was new to the area and we spent a lot of our time together exploring this ultra-cool city. Seattle is a progressive, densely populated mecca for the tech-savvy, the artsy, the vibrant intellectual. Ret and I reveled in soaking up the culture that’s so distinctly different from the South. Plus, there’s a coffee shop on every corner.

Our visit this time has been a little more subdued. It’s rained a lot (oddly enough, it didn’t rain last time we were here), so we’ve spent more time relaxing around the house and just quietly enjoying each other’s company. I’ve been appalled at how few steps I’ve logged on my Fitbit this week. But it’s been nice. Several times we’ve found ourselves doing our own thing in companionable silence; Kevin’s playing video games or his guitar, Ret’s watching TV and I’m reading. It reminds me of the days when we were all living under one roof, along with our younger son Jared, four dogs, a cat and Louie the parrot. Well, no. This is much more peaceful, even with the commotion from his amazing singing Siberian husky, Anya, the original grand-dog.

I am reminded of how much of my life I spend regretting the past, worrying about the future and wishing to control the uncontrollable. I wish he didn’t live so far away. I wish things could be different. I wish the sun would come out today. Left unchecked, these intense longings eat away at my peace like termites. They’re a waste of energy and fuel the kind of ingratitude that poisons the soul.

Santosha, which means contentment, is one of the yogic principles of niyama. Together the ten principles of yama and niyama comprise the first two of the eight limbs of Raja yoga. They bear striking resemblance to the Ten Commandments of Christianity and Judaism and the ten virtues of Buddhism, all universal principles of morals and spiritual observances. Here contentment doesn’t necessarily imply satisfaction. The meaning is deeper and more subtle. To cultivate contentment, santosha, is the path to true joy, to be able to be just as we are without the need to seek or strive for anything outside ourselves. I like to think of it as living in the moment, wanting nothing else. It’s tough in our grasping, consumption-driven society.

It’s tough for me, anyway.

Counting my favorite little things

When I look back across the years and the miles, my most santosha-filled moments were the little ones, like:

Gathering around the kitchen table playing Monopoly: I had to be the banker every time we played so the boys and their dad couldn’t steal from the bank.

Staying up into the wee hours of the night reading a book: There’s something decadent about tucking the rest of the house into bed to steal a few hours for yourself. The allure of being a night owl is probably the reason I’m now struggling to become a morning person.

Watching the boys play with our dogs: A much younger Kevin taught Bear, our German shepherd, to catch treats in midair. True to his breed, Bear was known in his youth for his great herding abilities. When the neighborhood kids played in our yard, Bear could be found circling them, nipping at their ankles as he rounded them up. Every kid on our block loved him.

Sitting on the back porch watching the birds in our yard: Songbirds are one of God’s most delightful gifts to us. I’ve lost hours in this happy pursuit.

Sure, there have been moments of stunning importance in my life, like the days each of my children entered the world, and they occupy their rightful places on the stage of my memory. But the little things are no less special. They’re largely stress-free, harbor no expectations, cost very little, and their spontaneous appearances are a tonic to an overburdened soul.

Actually, true santosha permeates every moment of life, not just those we perceive as positive or even neutral. I can’t say that my first emotion is one of contentment when I’m stuck in traffic or writing a check to the IRS, but I’m working on it. Being mindful of the little things in everyday life is a start because it’s teaching me to recognize the feeling when it arises.

I know I’ll cry when we say goodbye to Kevin and board our long flight back home. It happens every time I leave my parents’ house in New Orleans, too. I’ve never gotten good at goodbye; after 28 years of living in Georgia I still choke up when the pilgrimage to my hometown comes to a close. Goodbye is even harder as a mother saying goodbye to her child.

One thing that helps me overcome this sadness is gratitude, not just for the time we spend together, but for the abiding connection we share that transcends everything else. And another is the only rule we set for our visits: at the end, we decide when we will see each other again. The plans might change, but somehow just making them allows me to not dwell on the future because I can feel secure in it. I can return home wrapped in love and go on to whatever happens next.

So we don’t say goodbye — we say “see you later.”