Sunday, June 26, 2016

GIVING AND RECEIVING

I went to the Internet in search of the answer to a question I’d been pondering: Is it better to give than to receive? Of course I already knew what conventional wisdom would suggest, given the number of people who say: “It is better to give than to receive”, including a lot of people who probably don’t even know they’re paraphrasing the Bible, Acts 20-35. Normally I don’t get too bothered making comparisons between things like giving and receiving, but I seem to have been doing a lot of receiving lately, and it occurred to me to wonder: Am I really making a lot of people happy? Take this past week for example. Amy brought flowers and Anne brought jam and chili sauce. Mike strummed his intoxicating jazz until every nerve in my body was sighing in blissful contentment. John and Grace inconvenienced themselves considerably so that I could go to a party and David could get a ride to a memorial service. Bev carried my groceries and made an extra trip to return things I left in her car. Brother John gave up a morning so we could get a massage. Alamo reorganized his schedule so that we could attend a barbecue. All of these cheerful givers said, “Oh, it was nothing. We were happy to do it.” So you can’t blame me for wondering if they were happier to do it than I was to have it done. I asked Lawrence to give me his opinion on the matter last Thursday, while he waited for his dad to get ready so he could drive us to exercise class. “It’s better to give than to receive,” he declared in a no-nonsense tone. “Are you saying you are happier driving us to exercise class than you would be if I drove you to exercise class?” I asked. “Mother, you are blind and I definitely would not want you to drive me anywhere,” he said. “Besides,” he added, “That saying doesn’t apply to family. You give to family because you give to family.” Not entirely satisfied with this as the definitive last word, I turned to the Internet where thousands, possibly millions of opinions awaited me. I began by ruling out a few contributions. I did not, for example, accept the opinion of those complaining about paying taxes unless they had signed a declaration that they would forego all publicly funded services, including roads and health care. I don’t know why I excluded them, except that they always annoy me. I excluded all sermons written by ministers who were seeking money for their respective churches, which accounted for pretty well all the sermons given on the topic. It seemed disingenuous that they were asking people to make themselves happy by giving when what they wanted was to receive. I excluded all articles that mentioned Christmas, because giving at Christmas is an unavoidable institution as much as a generosity. After all was settled, I had unearthed this conclusion about donor happiness: “The overarching conclusion is that donors feel happiest if they give to a charity via a friend, relative or social connection rather than simply making an anonymous donation to a worthy cause.” Therese J. Borchard http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2013/12/22/how-giving-makes-us-happy/ And I got a little lecture on accepting what is offered: “Do not ask people NOT to give you a gift – this is the same as telling them you do not need their help when they offer it – you deprive them of the joy they get from the giving of the gift and shut down the energy flowing between you.” http://psy-chick.net/sacredness-of-giving/ Finally, a comment on asking for help: “he ability to ask for and accept help is a deeply human gesture, a recognition of the truth that no person can manage alone. The giver may appear to be self-sufficient, but we are all parts of an interconnected web, and to receive is to acknowledge this eternal truth about all of us.” Rabbi David Wolpe http://time.com/4353514/receiving/ As for my question about whether it is better to give than to receive, well, the jury is still out.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

IN SEARCH OF GRATITUDE

“The most transformative and resilient leaders that I’ve worked with over the course of my career have three things in common: First, they recognize the central role that relationships and story play in culture and strategy, and they stay curious about their own emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. Second, they understand and stay curious about how emotions, thoughts, and behaviors are connected in the people they lead, and how those factors affect relationships and perception. And, third, they have the ability and willingness to lean in to discomfort and vulnerability.” BrenĂ© Brown, Rising Strong After spending more than a year on the market, our house sold. Our realtor seemed happy, if a little apologetic. Beside him I sat, scribbling initials here and there, scratching my full name on the line as he pointed. Then I waited for the surge of gratitude that would, if my readings of www.gratefulness.org were accurate, enhance my physical/mental health, contribute to financial stability, improve my personal relationships and contribute to the well-being of work/community environments. I waited for the unbridled shout of joy, the quiet contentment of satisfaction, the slight tug of a smile against my cheeks. Then I waited some more. Gratitude, it seemed, had gone missing. To my surprise, I didn’t call anyone to announce the good news about the sale, didn’t tell my friends, thought it better not to disappoint them. They had been summoning my gratitude—my relief at a minimum--ever since the negotiations began. “You must be so relieved,” they said. “You must be really happy to have the possibility of getting it done with.” If I can’t be grateful, then I must be relieved, I thought. I must be it. I have to be relieved for my friends, for my kids, for all the people who want to hear that I am relieved. They are counting on me to be relieved. But I was not relieved. I was anything but relieved. Instead of being relieved, I was angry—angry that it had taken more than a year to sell, angry that it had sold for so much less than we had ever imagined, angry that the buyer was demanding that we do routine maintenance before handing it over, angry that I hadn’t insisted on lowering the price long ago, angry that there had been a break-in during the negotiations, angry at myself for feeling sad every time I visited the house I loved, so sad that I only went there when forced to do so. So it wasn’t enough just to be angry. I had to be sad as well. I was sad to be losing the house that had made us so happy, sad that David’s illness had made the sale of the house the only reasonable option. I was sad to lose the house with the incredible veranda and the yard full of birds, the house where you could lie awake at dawn and count the birds you could hear through the open windows—five birds, ten birds maybe. I was sad to lose the rhubarb I hadn’t wanted to plant, the onions I couldn’t get rid of, the raspberry bushes that tore the skin off my arms, the lupines, the peonies, the lilac bush, the Solomon’s Seal started from a cutting stolen by friends from the front of Athabasca Hall for my fortieth birthday, the goat’s beard Mark once gave me for Mother’s Day. Adding it all up, I had to admit that I was far too sad to be grateful. On top of all this, I was resentful, resentful that it wasn’t enough just to be angry and sad. I had to be worried on top of it all, worried that the accumulation of all that had happened to me had somehow transformed me irreversibly into a sad and angry person who couldn’t be grateful for blessings, who couldn’t tell stories that ended happily without including long middle descriptions of the suffering. I worried that I might have lost the capacity to be satisfied with my life. Now I know that the best way to enhance gratitude is to list things for which you are grateful. I also know, from trying this myself, and from hearing hundreds of stories from clients who tried it, that listing things for which you are grateful is a practice that works best when you are already feeling grateful. When you are mostly sad and angry, a list of gratitudes quickly transforms itself into a list of yes-buts. Yes, I am grateful that we live in such a beautiful apartment, but I am angry that we had to move out of the house. Yes I am grateful that I was able to go to the house and collect two fragrant bouquets of peonies for the apartment, but I am sad that I will probably never grow my own peonies again. Yes I am grateful to have the best husband anybody ever had, loving children, delightful grandchildren, devoted friends, financial security, sunny days, the on-line grocery shopping service, and the electric wheelchair that has made it possible for David and me to cruise the streets of our new neighbourhood, but I’m angry and sad about the house. Take it from me. Satisfaction with your life is a hard thing to come by once you get into the intoxicating rhythm of making a grateful yes-but list One of my great disappointments in the positive psychology trend with all its potential for self-help is that it makes you believe it is possible to make yourself feel what you want to feel instead of what you feel but don‘t want to feel. If you can make yourself feel things, I haven’t yet learned how to do it. The best I can offer is that you can lead your unwanted feelings to the door, but you can’t shoo them out. They’ll leave when they are good and ready to do so. If you are lucky, the process of herding them toward the door will leave some empty space to fill with other feelings. Maybe you can do a little bargaining, practice the art of compromise. It took a while to come to it, but I’ve offered Sadness a deal. I’ll stop pressuring her to leave if she’ll stop pushing back. I’ve hinted that she might even be allowed to stay permanently. As for Anger, well, she’s already on her way out. I suspect she got a little jealous when I buddied up with Sadness and decided to search for an easier target. And as for life satisfaction, a visit to www.viacharacter.org has reminded me that satisfaction is strongly associated with five character strengths—hope, zest, gratitude, love and curiosity. With Anger consuming a little less of my time, I found a moment to take an inventory. Firmly in place I have love and curiosity. Hope, as you might expect, refuses to be left out entirely. Zest is making occasional appearances, and gratitude has promised to keep working against the yes-buts. As the peonies prepare to drop their petals, maybe tomorrow, but certainly the day after, I notice that I’ve even made a few calls to announce that the house has sold, and though I had to pinch myself to believe it, I am quite sure I heard myself say, “It’s a bit of a relief to have it sold.” Could it be that, one day soon, “It’s a bit of a relief” might actually be replaced by “I’m grateful”?

Saturday, June 04, 2016

ON VICTORY AND STRUGGLE

The motto of our high school was “palma non sine pulvere”: No victory without a struggle. Lofty, suggestive, possibly even inspiring, it was largely wasted in its representative role. For it was, in practice, a theoretical motto, since few, if any of the people who graced the classrooms knew any Latin, and even the English version languished in obscurity except when it was trotted out by valedictorians desperate to appear wise at graduation. I uttered it once, on the valedictorian stage, in brief reference to winners of the long jump, and future engineers who powered their way through Physics 30. After that, I never gave it another thought for 45 years. I could probably make more of it today, given my broader experience with both victory and struggle. But I do wonder if there might have been a motto that would have meant more to teen-agers. I was, as I recall, uncomfortable on that stage, not because of the obligation to speak, for the gift of the gab was early bestowed upon me. My discomfort related to the idea of victory and struggle, and the knowledge that, as a blind graduate in a sighted school, people thought of me as a symbol of that very motto. I didn’t want to be a symbol of victory and struggle. In fact, I didn’t want to be a symbol of anything. All I wanted was to be one of them—the people who, by virtue of their place in the sighted majority, were relieved of the burden of being a symbol of anything. I wanted to get a degree, and work, and get married—not because that would be a struggle for me, but because that was what I expected everyone to be able to do. Now, if I had achieved a reasonable distance in long jump, or persisted at any level beyond Physics 10, that would indeed have been a victory after unimaginable struggle! Then, just possibly, I might have made more of the motto.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

WHY DON'T YOU WRITE MORE OFTEN?

Conscience: Why don't you write on this blog more often? Me: I have so many good reasons for that, it's hard to count them all. Conscience: List them. Me: Do I have to? Oh fine. I will. 1. I don't have time. Conscience: Rubbish. You are retired, you know, albeit unsuccessfully. Of course I know that you volunteer half a day a week at Momentum Walk-In Counselling, and you still do sessions for the Alzheimer Society, and you are planning hope groups for Parkinson's patients, and you occasionally give hope presentations, and you play Bridge Wednesday mornings, and you go to music classes with Carys and Tracey on Saturday mornings, and you take exercise classes with David at the YMCA, and you go to church most Sundays, and help if David asks you to, and spend time watching TV with him, and your friends come over to keep you company, and you tend your flowers, but if you would be honest, you would have to admit that each of these things is a little thing, and you still have plenty of time to write. 2. This is a hope blog, and I'm not always as hopeful as I want to be. I have a responsibility to myself and the hope community to write hope on a hope blog. conscience: Garbage! You're hopeful enough, given all that's going on in your life, perhaps more hopeful than most, since you have made an art form of intentionally noticing hope. 3. Nobody wants to read my silly writing. I have only six followers. Conscience: Nonsense! Two out of those six have taken the time to comment since you started writing again. I'm sure you wouldn't want them to think they are unimportant. By the way, why did you start writing again? 1. Because I was going to a writing retreat and I knew I'd better warm up for that. 2. Because I still give hope talks and I have to write in order to prepare for them. I was getting rusty. 3. Because when I started writing again, I remembered that writing for an audience always help me think more clearly and more positively. 4. Because two people noticed, and they said nice things, and I'm really a sucker for attention, especially attention laced with flattery. Sometimes I just wish I didn't have a conscience.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

FAMILY GOLF

It took me seventeen years to get three thousand hits in baseball. I did it in one afternoon on the golf course. Hank Aaron Read more at: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/golf.html Lawrence and Mark organized a family golf game. The goal, it seemed, was to seize the day, to have as much fun as possible. Each of them did their part. Lawrence had the idea. Mark booked the tee time. Lawrence arranged the weather. The day was perfect, sunny with a slight ruffling breeze, not too hot, not too cold, no mosquitoes. Mark arranged the golf carts. “Could we have two golf carts?” he asked at the Pro shop. The clerk was polite, but curious. “For two golfers?” he asked. “Yes,” said Mark, making no apology. “We can manage with one.” We left the shop with the key to one cart. Any conversation that might have occurred between clerks went unheard by us. Then, just at the moment when Mark was leading his blind mother by the arm, and Lawrence was helping his dad board the cart from his wheelchair, the clerk appeared with the key for a second cart. No additional charge. We all climbed aboard. I rode with Mark. Sibling rivalry bubbled just below the surface. With a wave to his brother, Mark cranked our speed to maximum. We must have been going one or two kilometers per hour. “You can’t scare me,” I said, looking as fearless as possible while holding tightly to the side arm. Mark takes wicked corners, wickeder when his brother is watching. By and by Tracey joined us at the fifth hole tee box with a full load, baby Carys in the baby carrier and a picnic supper alongside the diaper bag. I surrendered my seat to most of Tracey’s cargo to trail after the carts with Tracey and Carys, chattering all the way. We know you’re supposed to whisper on a golf course. We just forgot. Dad spotted the balls as they landed. Birds chirped. Ducks watched unmolested. Nobody knows who won, because nobody bothered to pick up a score card. After the picnic we all went home. If the goal is happiness, there are probably a thousand ways to play family golf.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

THE FLOWER PROBLEM

Picture a balcony bearing ten pots of flowers. Find impatiens, geranium, Martha Washington, evening scented stocks, pansies, heliotrope, roses, begonia, petunias, alyssum, ornamental grass and a few adornments that didn’t come with names. Picture all of this in mid May in a province known for occasional snow in June, and there you see it—evidence of a FLOWER PROBLEM. Warning: don’t bother organizing an intervention to get my attention. Don’t assemble a delegation of caring family supported by flower problem treatment professionals! I know about the problem. I know that only I can beat it. Some day I’ll beat it. I swear I will! It was daughter Ruth who first named the illness. She had failed to notice the introduction of the lily patch and a few hanging pots to the already flowered house on 67th Street. She had celebrated the planters and peonies at the house on 89th Street. But when the number of front yard pots exceeded twenty, she felt she had to say something. “You, Mother,” she announced, “have a flower problem.” How could I deny it? Time I used to spend with the kids on the soccer field was now spent trimming the coleus. Television watching time was pre-empted smelling the roses. But how could I quit, or even cut back? What would our friends say? How could I explain it to any of the neighbours who passed our house on walks just to see the profusion Then, out of the blue, an opportunity presented itself. We were moving to an apartment. It would be difficult to have a flower problem on an apartment balcony. Where would I store the potting soil? How would I deal with the mess of water and fallen leaves? Who would haul away the debris? We moved in late August. “No flowers,” I said to my surprised family. “The flowers stay with the house.” Just to show how serious I was, I only took a few empty pots, and a few plant stands, and one pail of potting soil. And I only bought one chrysanthemum when the need arose to warm the autumn chill. Perhaps if I had been a little more vigilant at the first signs of spring, things might have turned out differently. But it seemed right to thank Mark for bringing the first pansy pot in early April, an affirmation that winter was truly gone. And would it not have been impolite not to rejoice when Grace brought my favourite yellow pansies and removed the remains of last year’s chrysanthemum? And how could I have rejected the rose bush in full bloom that Mark presented as a gift for early Mother’s Day, or the free pot of geranium and petunias that came free from Superstore with a grocery order over $250.00? Would it have been right not to support our church by purchasing $100.00 worth of summer joy from the annual plant sale? After all, the house did not sell as we had planned. And there sat the remaining plants stands, lonely on the veranda. Had they, after so many years of faithful service, not earned a position of honour outside our new livingroom window? “I like to look out the window at all those flowers,” said David. Next door to us stands a high rise with suites that look directly on to our balcony. “These people probably think I have a flower problem,” I said to David, as I stowed the last of the potting soil. “Don’t worry,” said he. “The neighbours have always loved our flowers.. If I were to be truly honest and not simply hopeful, I suppose I would have to admit that I may never be cured. The root of the flower problem, it is now obvious, lies in the act of enablement. Yes, there is an enabler living under my very own roof? How can you expect to cure yourself of a problem like that with an enabler in the family?

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

GRIT, GRACE & GRATITUDE

A few weeks ago I received an email from my friend and mentor, Ronna Jevne. She was offering an overnight writing retreat at a lodge in the country, and even though common sense told me that the very same email was sent to dozens, maybe hundreds of people in her network, I couldn’t seem to rid myself of the conviction that she was aiming that retreat directly at me. “Ridiculous!” said Common Sense. But I was not listening. “Look,” I said to Common Sense, “there is a ton of evidence pointing to my conviction that this retreat is being offered especially for me. The title of that workshop is Grit, grace and Gratitude, three things I could use right now. And the lodge is only a little way out of the city, so I can take a cab if I can’t get a ride. I’d only need to be away for about thirty hours, which is certainly within the realm of possibility. And you know, Common Sense, I haven’t been writing much lately. In fact, I haven‘t put a word on The Hope Lady blog since some time back in 2015. Yes, when I put it all together, it seems pretty clear that this retreat was designed specifically for me.” “Ridiculous!” said Common sense. I didn’t listen. Life can be pretty dull if you spend too much time listening to Common sense. “You haven’t been writing on your blog,” said Ronna, when I emailed her the news of my pending registration. Her tone was more affirmation than accusation. “See,” I said to Common sense. “I knew it. She’s been checking up on me!” “Just send the money when it’s convenient,” said Ronna, “and I’ll get you a ride.” Ronna and writing and I have a long and storied relationship. Our first encounter happened back in 1993 when I asked her to be my thesis supervisor. “Can you write?” she demanded. Truth was, she needed a Master’s student about as badly as she needed chicken pox. “Yes I can,” I declared with conviction. I needed a thesis supervisor as badly as I needed food for the rest of my life, and Ronna was the only desirable person in the department who hadn’t yet turned me down. “I don’t want to be nagging you,” she said. And I had a supervisor. At the time, I really intended to be self-managing. “I don’t want to hear you whining about how you can’t write,” she said. “The sign on my wall says NO WHINING!” Apparently she’d already had enough whining students to last her a lifetime. “I won’t whine,” I promised. But she did have to nag me, after the fog descended on all my good ideas and the only way out was to disappear and pretend I’d never started a Master’s. And she did help me, even though I whined. “Is there something I can do to move you forward?” said her voice on the phone on a day when I had accidentally answered a call from her. I couldn’t think of anything she could do to help me, so she had to do her own thinking. She praised me when I wrote a little, and laughed when I was funny, and bragged about me when I wrote more. And she published hope work with me, and hoped I would be a writer, which I’ve never turned out to be—though I do love writing when it calls to me. So I’m blogging again, out of gratitude to Ronna for keeping my name on her email list, even though the retreat is still sixteen days away. And Ronna has shown the grace not to utter a word of complaint, or let on that she might be groaning under the weight of responsibility for the good mental health of former students who require more attention than they have earned. I am promising, as you might expect, to write at the retreat without uttering a single whining noise. At this point, it is not clear to me where the grit comes in, but if there’s grit to be uncovered, well, I guess that’s what we’ll find out in sixteen days.