The Living Gifts of the Dead

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Patricia Ann Jones O’Rourke 1941 – 2014

Today is November 2nd, All Souls’ Day. The burning red and glittering gold leaves dance in the wind showing us both how to live and how to die.

Today would have been my mom’s birthday. It still is her birthday wherever she is.

Whether she’s flickering amongst the most brilliant stars, breezing through southeastern trade winds of Asia, sitting in Heaven beside Steinbeck discussing his use of characterization, walking her dogs with her dad or as I sometimes suspect, standing right beside us pushing us onwards, she remains an integral part of us.

Although the workings of the afterlife remain somewhat of a mystery to me, I am certain that mom never loved being in the spotlight for her birthday.

An educator for over four decades, year after year, our mom had told others that her birthday was in July. Never much for obligatory gift-giving or being the center of attention, she believed she had escaped the fanfare with a summer birthday.

It didn’t end there. Many birthday gifts I gave her ultimately ended up gifted to someone else. Despite the sincerest expressed appreciation, the gift then became someone else’s gift.

I later learned it was not because she didn’t value the sentiment, as quite the opposite was true. She valued things so much so that she wished to share them. She was excited to share with others. She understood the joy of giving much outweighed collecting stuff.

And here is the magical conundrum in it all. She minimized the annual attempts to celebrate her life yet treated each year of her life as a gift – a gift she could regift to others.

In honor of her life and memory, it seems fitting to share some truths she has shared with us. Whether you knew her well or are just meeting her through shared memories, consider practicing one of these shared truths to honor her and all those we have lost.

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As saintly as mom was, she wasn’t the devout, statuesque type that we have come to know through traditional stereotype. She was a tireless advocate, a fierce champion of the weak and downtrodden, an indefatigable educator arming the next generation with intelligence, and full of passion and grace – the best kind of spiritual warrior.

1 If you must choose between laundry and reading to your children tonight, choose a good book.
2 With older children, read the same book your kids are reading so you can discuss it.
3 Excavate the courage within yourself to tell someone the truth.
4 Do secret good deeds. Tell no one.
5 Work hard.
6 Believe in what you do. Believe your contribution matters.
7 Hold your ground with children. It is ultimately in their best interest.
8 Keep secrets that have been entrusted to your care.  Make your word worth something.
9 Poke fun at yourself.
10 Still find things funny enough to laugh so hard at that you snort.
11 Embrace the parts of you that are cracked and vulnerable not just the strong parts.
12 Listen well to others. Hear the unspoken, as well.
13 Don’t panic – it won’t affect the outcome anyway.
14 When given the choice to discuss other people or ideas, choose ideas.
15 Know that moments matter much more than things. Always.
16 Infuse your life with compassion.
17 Treat the unknown like an adventure.
18 Wit is a saving grace of life. Humor is a silver lining.
19 When you can laugh or argue with your spouse, laugh.
20 Think before you speak.
21 Do not waste a moment of your time in conforming your life to the way others think it should look.
22 When playing with children, get down on the floor with them.
23 Advocate for the underdog.
24 Don’t fish for approval from others. Cultivate a garden of self-worth within.
25 Remember words have the power to inexplicably change things.
26 Take accountability for all that you are, the good, the bad, and the flawed.
27 Pay attention to how you fill the cracked parts of yourself and what you fill them with.
28 Pray daily. Pray pleas for help. Pray praises of wow. Pray thank yous of gratitude.
29 Let your authenticity shine. Let your brilliance of your authentic self shadow what it means to be perfect.
30 Fight for what you love.
31 Fight fairly.
32 Choose your battles.
33 Invite friends and those in need to your home. Don’t underestimate the power of breaking bread together.
34 Seek understanding before judgment.
35 Have a dance party with your kids, even when your children are old enough to have children.
36 Recognize animals as gentle souls. Learn from them.
37 Don’t be solely concerned with returning favors. Pay the kindnesses of others forward.
38 Be punctual. Value other’s time as much as you value your own.
39 Be an active listener to those who trust you enough in life to share their story with you.
40 Approach all opportunities that require new clothing with extreme caution.
41 If you must choose between a luxury to spend on, choose education.

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42 Keep in mind that other people’s opinion of you, for better or for worse, are a reflection of them not you.
43 When anger is a catalyst, sleep on it before you respond.
44 Spend time in nature.
45 Send holiday cards. Value connection.
46 Be a fearless advocate for your children and family.
47 Be the most tireless and exuberant cheerleader your children could ask for.
48 Practice forgiveness. It is good for your soul.
49 When practicing forgiveness, don’t forget to forgive yourself.
50 Remember humility is an extraordinary strength even when mistaken for weakness.
51 Stand with others in their suffering. It is for the sake of yourself as much as others. It is transformative.
52 Be present. Immerse yourself in the now.
53 Rock a good pair of boots.
54 Don’t easily offer your children all the answers. Leave a breadcrumb trail. Teach them how to follow it.
55 Be careful not to allow other peoples’ opinions of yourself guide your actions.
56 Teach your children the art of sacrifice. Learn to say ‘no’ to them when necessary.
57 Be cautious around assumptions.
58 Be mindful that our mistakes and failures are really lessons cloaked in humility.
59 Concern yourself with what is right not with popular opinion.
60 Don’t let the small things distract you or steal your joy.
61 Choose a favorite charity. Donate time or money or whatever you can.
62 Infuse your children’s lives with confidence.
63 Be cautious of comparison. Comparison steals momentum and squanders joy.
64 Take the time to write those you care for letters and notes speckled with truths and kind thoughts. They will later grow into treasures.
65 Always find time to take the dog for a walk.
66 Care about the most vulnerable members of our population. They are us.

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67 Do things outside your comfort zone. Push back on your fears.
68 Be mindful that you are your thoughts.
69 Do not accept every invitation to do battle.
70 Get comfortable with feelings of uncertainty and vulnerability. Try them on. Walk around in them, strut and get used to them because they never totally disapate. Tame them and then go out and try new things anyway.
71 Fail over and over and learn how to fail better. If you’re not failing often, you may not be trying hard enough.
72 When lost for an appropriate prayer, try this favorite night prayer of mom’s. Lord, guide me and inform me of all I need to know for tomorrow.
73 The person in the arena trying and stumbling deserves much more credit than the individual on the outskirts giving the critique.
74 Don’t let someone else hold your self-worth. If they do, take it back now.
75 Know that the most courageous choice is usually the best path.
76 Stick your nose in a book. Often.
77 Do not believe all that you read. Question the source.
78 Spend a few moments of each week doing nothing because it is something.
79 Believe that the universe, even in the darkest of times, is conspiring in your favor because it is.
80 Make it a point to learn something new each week.
81 Be interesting because you are interested in others and in life.
82 Live a life informed by faith.
83 Never aim to be better than others. Aim to be better than your former self.
84 Thankfulness is a repeated consistent practice. Happiness is a choice. There is great power in perspective.
85 The same life lessons show up disguised in different ways unless we deal with them face-to-face.
86 Be okay with spending time alone.
87 Develop a financial sense. If you’re not generally good with money, try even harder. Depending on someone else’s financial sense is one of the biggest risks you can take.
88 When a great song comes on the radio, turn it up loud.

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87 Take the time and space to discover what you can contribute to this world. Pursue your calling with indefatigable enthusiasm.
88 Plant seeds whether you will fully see them harvest in this life or the next.
89 Take the less traveled road. Make your own path when you need to.
90 Lead by example.
91 Lead through service to others.
92 Cultivate gratitude daily.
93 Find meaning in your own suffering otherwise it is just pain.
94 Find dignity in your choices.
95 Become a spiritual warrior.
96 Be the heroine or hero of your own life.
97 Trust in God’s blueprint.
98 Leave the world a kinder, better place because of your time here.
99 Be mindful that this human world is the challenge …full of sacrifice, humbling, and opportunities to learn how to love. The next world is the reward.
100 Learn how to love abundantly and tirelessly before you depart this world.
101 Know the best is yet to come.

Happy Birthday Mom! Watch over us.

Knowing A Blessing From A Curse: And Why It Really Doesn’t Matter

farmer1An old Chinese parable tells the story of a farmer and his horse:

An old farmer was working in his field with his only horse. Somehow, the horse broke free and ran away from the farm. The farmer could not find the horse anywhere.

In hearing of what happened, neighbors from the village visited, offering their condolences and said, “What a shame.  Now your only horse is gone.  What bad luck. How will you live, work, and prosper?” The farmer replied: “Who knows? We shall see”.

Less than a week later, the farmer’s horse returned. He returned to the farm with a pack of eight other wild horses.  The farmer and his son corralled the horses.

The news traveled throughout the village. The neighbors came to visit the farmer. “You are fortunate!” they proclaimed. “What good luck.”  Again, the farmer softly said, “Who knows? We shall see.”

The next morning the farmer’s only son set awoke to train the new wild horses, but the farmer’s son was thrown to the ground and broke his leg. He quickly became sick with fever and pains. One by one villagers arrived to visit the sick son. “Oh, what a tragedy. What bad luck. You must be very sad”.  they said.  The farmer calmly answered, “Who knows? We shall see”

5226587_sAcross the country, a war began. The Emperor’s men arrived in the village demanding that young men come with them to be conscripted into the Emperor’s army.  As it happened the farmer’s son was deemed unfit because of his broken leg and poor health.  “What very good fortune you have!” the villagers exclaimed as their own young sons were marched away. “You have good luck.” “Who knows? We shall see!”, replied the old farmer as he headed off to work his field alone.

As time went on the broken leg healed but the son was left with a slight limp. Again the neighbors came to pay their condolences. “Oh what bad luck. Too bad for you”!  But the old farmer simply replied; “Who knows? We shall see.”

The war ended but the other young village boys had died in battle.  The old farmer’s son was the only young man to have lived. The neighbors said: “Oh how fortunate we are, you must be very happy”, to which the old farmer replied, “Who knows? We shall see!” 

In my own life, there are those days where everything seems to fall apart. Although I am aware that I leave little marginal room for error or adjustment in a tightly-packed schedule fully, the slightest shift in planning can ripple throughout the day.

Yesterday, I had a huge deadline and a few hours to accomplish my goal. I arrived at work with three hours to accomplish that work, about five hours of work ahead of me, and anxiety in the pit of my stomach. About forty-five minutes into my work, I get a text and a phone call. My sitter is sick. I have to return home to the kids.

Driving home I felt this sense of defeat. My defeat and negativism was wrapped firmly in a sense that I knew best. My day was crap. I hadn’t accomplished anything and I was feeling sorry for myself.

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I arrived home. The sitter left. I began to wash dishes and reason inside my head that these things happen. About twenty minutes into my time at home, there was a horrendous noise. It sounded like twenty-toilets running at once coupled with a train approaching our house. A pipe had burst and began leaking down through three floors of our home. Water poured from the recessed light fixtures, out the air-conditioing vent, and down the brick fireplace.

I was able to shut off the water in our basement in less than ninety seconds from when the leak started. There was damage but not the catastrophic kind. It could have been worse, much worse.  I had this overwhelming feeling of thankfulness that I was home. Had no one been home, the damage to our home and danger to our three dogs could have been significant. Had our sitter been home, she wouldn’t have known where the main water valve was and how to turn it off.

I shouldn’t have been home and yet I was. I couldn’t help but feel that someone or something was looking out for me. What I had foolishly thought was a curse (in having to return home early) was a blessing.

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This blessing in disguise was a much needed kick in the pants to my ego. In this fast-paced, technology savvy world where we believe so much of life is within our control, this is not always the case. And perhaps this is a good thing. The day was a reminder of faith.

Although we can’t foresee what God or the universe has in store for our days ahead, it isn’t our job to be all knowing. In my life, concentrating on what will happen and what it all means robs me of joy in the presence. Having faith allows me to do my best in that moment.

What may seem like a curse may be our greatest  blessings. And the inverse is sometimes true. Sometimes the universe saves us from ourselves and our own choices. Sometimes we walk down the wrong path of romantic partners, career choices, life choices, and the powers that be redeem us. We are spared from short-changing ourselves.

For me, not getting caught in the trap of interpretting that moment-to-moment significance in my own life is about relinquishing control. It is about falling back away into the safety net of faith.

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Within that safety net, there is a plan. It would be maddening to attempt to try and figure out that plan. It would be impossible to understand all of its detailed connections and meanings but having faith that there is purpose in each event, seemingly bad or seemingly good, is key.Faith doesn’t mean we will be spared from suffering. It simply means that suffering is for a purpose and that purpose may be something we do not fully understand.

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Life speaks to us in our blessings. Life shouts to us in our setbacks and tragedies. Sometimes things in our life are multi-faceted. They are both good and bad intertwined and infinitely joined but fully coated in purpose.

I recently listened to Amiira Ruotula-Behrendt speak about faith and the universe. She suggested what if the universe had three answers in store? And those answers to any of our prayers or questions were: 1) yes, 2) yes but not yet  and 3) I have something better in mind for you.

In the year ahead may your sorrows be short lived and your joys be infinite and may you always have a sense of purpose to hold strong to and enjoy the present.

Easter Gratitude: Putting My Blessings In One Basket

eggsAs a young girl, every Easter I was sick. I would eat too much chocolate or catch the flu or suffer from a combination of both ailments. Easter was more about pastel marshmallow treats and my love-hate relationship with them. As I grew older, Easter presented an opportunity to visit with my West-Coast cousins in Seattle. I traveled cross-country on a plane with my maternal grandparents to celebrate family tradition, to embrace the true sense of holiness, and to celebrate our blessings. I soon learned that a rainy Easter spent with family out West was better than most anything. I learned to make sticky-buns and even more importantly, we made memories that will shine in my heart forever.

As I now prepare for this season of rebirth, I think about sacrifice and I think about my many blessings. It’s a powerful and important thing to reflect upon after a week full of such ups and downs.

As I feel the impulse to complain about what is trivial, I more fervently feel compelled to be thankful. I am blessed that my husband’s business is busy enough that he works from 7 am until 8 or 9pm each night. I am blessed that I have three daughters who turn my house upside down in a matter of moments. I am glad that have each other to be in cahoots with, and I’m grateful that we have a home. I try to earnestly appreciate the sour with the sweet, to find the lesson in what is difficult, and to take each obstacle as a lesson for what lies ahead. Sometimes it is easier said than done. Sometimes I am able to focus on the journey better than the destination.

I am thankful for family, even when we are fighting and when we agree to disagree. I am thankful that they are there and for their love that remains unconditional.

I am thankful for the half-dozen pills that we have to give to our twelve-year old dog, Sweetie. I am glad that she made it through a medical scare this week. In Easter irony, she ate a rabbit (not a chocolate one, rather a furry one) and didn’t fare well after the fact. My heart is full of gratitude that she is there to squeeze between my husband and I in our bed tonight, and evil-eye us when we invade her space. We have been granted the gift of time with her for now. Dogs have a way of reminding us of all that is good and wonderful in this world without saying a word. Just their presence can sum up joy, lightheartedness, and loyalty all at once. Sweetie and our two other rescue pups suffered abuse before they came into our lives. Sweetie, Finn, and Jake, continue to teach us so much about life through their daily example of simplicity. Their ability to forgive, reconcile, trust, and care for one another and us is amazing in itself.

I am thankful for my husband and the many differences we have between us. They are reminders of why we got together to begin with, of why we get along, of what we have to offer each other, and of how far we have come. There are truths in our disagreements, these small little bits of honesty filled with light, that seem to rise up to the surface. Sometimes things need to be said in order to move forward.

I am thankful for humor. It is a saving grace and God-sent. When I stand in our kitchen and watch our eight-month-old daughter laugh hysterically at the funny sounds and faces her two sisters make at her, I am instantly reminded that God is present in her laughter. It serves as such a poignant reminder of the importance of keeping a sense of humor and perspective in this whirlwind life. My children remind both my husband and I of how necessary it is to take life seriously and not to take life too seriously all at the same time.

I am thankful for friends. People travel in and out of your existence. Life always seems to surprise me though. It is such a beautiful, startling shock to have someone in your life gift you with the most generous gift of time, the most enthusiastic present of their presence in your life, and the reward of their honest feedback. These are the sweetest gifts and I am thankful for true friends. You are the many reflections of the face of God in my life.

I feel those who are no longer with us, who have departed this earth still walking beside us. I feel them with us on the other side, guiding us and rooting us on. Every now and then they whisper into our hearts. I miss them and hope as this new spiritual year commences to make them proud.

Blessings to you and your loved ones this Easter!