Personal Agency

In last week’s blog, I mentioned that I have ignored potentially dangerous behaviors in my work life and in personal relationships that I knew I should address. In my attempts to avoid upsetting anyone, I pretty much accepted whatever situations into which I wandered. For some reason, it never occurred to me that I had any power to improve any circumstances of my own life. It did not occur to me that I could leave a situation. It did not occur to me that I could draw boundaries. It did not occur to me that I could rewrite my own narrative.

Let me cite some examples to give you an idea of what I mean.

In my work life, the government paid me to serve the public. Because of the nature of my position, my customers were often not at their best.  I was an excellent employee, embracing the idea of service… to a fault. Most professionals with whom I worked lauded my level of professionalism, efficiency, accessibility, and genuine desire to help. I was proud of my approach to the job and I value that legacy. However, if I am honest, I think I behaved the way I did only partly because of kindness, empathy, professional pride and integrity. A good part of my super-performance was my desire to avoid conflict.

I did not consider whether a request was reasonable or even possible. I did not just go the extra mile. Sometimes, I traveled a marathon of extra miles while dragging the wreckage of my own sanity behind me. I contorted my physical, mental, and spiritual health into a raggedy tangle of anxiety in my attempts to do what other people wanted. 

I did not consider the demeanor and cooperation of the customer. Sometimes customers were flat out abusive, even in the face of my unbelievable efforts to give them what they wanted. I remember one person telling me that she hoped I would be cursed with seven years of tragedy. Another customer tore the eyes off my pet rock when I went to the photocopier.

It was not just customers, either. I somehow had this idea that if an employee- or especially a supervisor- asked me to do something, it must be something possible and I had to figure out a way to accomplish the task. I never thought about pushing back with the reasons why the requested action was impossible within the constraints of my set of circumstances.

Even in volunteer activities, I still felt that my own needs and wants were immaterial. If anyone else had any sort of expectation of me at all, I would subjugate even critical needs of my own.

What is incredibly weird about all of this is that others did offer me opportunities to make decisions that would be good for me- delegating more work, refusing the assignment, setting reasonable boundaries with customers, and developing a work-at-home schedule to minimize the stress of an ungodly commute. I somehow thought that taking advantage of any of these options would make me weak or lazy. I did not feel that my worth was sufficient to merit these sorts of adaptations.

In my personal relationships, it was even worse. When my husband left me, the break was not clean. I spent months waiting for him to decide if he was coming back. It never occurred to me that I could be the one to decide that he wasn’t. In another malignant relationship, which I was ending, I let the man continue to engage me by responding to his requests for assistance. It took something dramatic for me to finally stop entertaining contact with him. Sometimes, when one of these dangerous relationships ended, I would have nightmares that the man was attacking me with a knife. It was my dream, but my dream self did not think to grab the knife from the guy and turn the tables.

Even in good, healthy, loving relationships, I struggled to ask for even the smallest, most minimally intrusive adaptations to my needs and wants.  I couldn’t even tell people who clearly loved me and valued me that I wanted something from them.

I did not even initially connect the real me to my own blog. I imagined a “creative name” in order to write in anonymity and to avoid hurting anyone else’s feelings. It took me over two years of writing a weekly post to reveal my actual name and own up to who I truly am. 

For most of my life, I have been acting like I was couch-surfing on a life that didn’t belong to me. I lived quietly, timidly, non-intrusively. I did everything in my power to be as little trouble to anyone as possible because I believed my mere existence was more than sufficient inconvenience to the world. When I think about what I might have wanted or needed in the past, the phrase “beggars can’t be choosers” comes to mind. A person who is living on a friend’s couch really can’t be asking for a duvet. So, I didn’t ask. I simply accepted what came my way and was grateful for it.

A lot of the shift in my understanding of myself and my value and my ability to create happiness in my own life came about because of my life coaching with Todd Payne (Todd Payne (trueself.io)  I have been working with him for some time now and have learned that my pattern of existence has been to dismiss the possibility that I have any ability to change the circumstances of my own life. I have learned that it is important to at least consider my own needs and wants as a factor in making decisions… maybe even the first factor.  I have been learning that I have agency to consider those needs. I can make decisions that honor and fulfill them.  I have been learning that exerting my agency will increase my own happiness. I am also learning that exerting agency in my life will probably not lead to any huge disruption of anyone else’s life. In fact, it is quite possible that it may create happiness for others as well.

Over the past year or so, I have purposefully acted to create agency in my own life. For instance, I’ve come to terms with the toxicity in many of my past relationships. I now understand that I had every right to insist on changes or to leave. In beautiful, healthy relationships, I’ve come to understand that the relationship partners will not only agree to make changes to help me be happy. They will welcome the opportunity to do so. I have been making requests. These requests are not “demands.” In fact, I do not even see them as requests for particular changes or actions. They are requests to engage with me to see if there are ways we can both be happier and more satisfied. These conversations are bonding and fruitful. I have stood up for myself and my beliefs when others have attempted to bully me into acquiescence. I cut back on a big chunk of my volunteer activities because I realized they were eating me up more than they were feeding me.

My life is much happier and healthier now that I’ve clothed myself in some degree of self-determination. It is very grounding to understand that I often have the power to change my circumstances without causing the earth to spin off its axis. Even when I do not have the power to change my circumstances, I can almost always choose the way I frame and respond to them. As I cautiously begin taking actions and having conversations to be more self-determinate, I feel liberated… and the fall-out has not been nearly as profoundly negative as I thought it would be. Who knew that agency in one’s own life is such a crucial factor to mental health? When I say it like that, it seems obvious. Still, it was not obvious to me for nearly 65 years.

How do you reach the right balance between being self-determinate in meeting your own needs and being a loving, giving person who cares about others?  Please share your perspective by leaving a comment. In the alternative, you can email me at terriretirement@gmail.com

Have a self-determining day!

Terri/DORRY 😊

A Love Story

Love humbles.

It is a paradox. You would think that love would lift you up and infuse you with confidence. And it does. I know that one of the most effective means of improving my own self-esteem is thinking about people who love me. That may not be the healthiest way of dealing with low self-esteem issues because self-esteem should come from within, not from external validation. However, I think most of us do nurture our self-esteem with the knowledge that someone loves us.

At the purest, most authentic core of love, though, I think love humbles.

Recently, I’ve been embroiled in some fundamental differences about the meaning of church and how our parish should move forward into the future. I am not going to recount the long, complicated, emotionally fraught story because it is too involved, and the precise circumstances don’t really matter to my point. Let’s just say that, through absolutely no design of my own, I became the lightning rod of change. I guess, if I am honest, it is something that has been happening for some time. I felt it but convinced myself that I was being hypersensitive or paranoid or ridiculous. However, the cat clawed its way out of the bag at a meeting a month or so ago. It was not nice, and it was not pretty. Still, I am sort of glad it happened because I at least felt like less of a crazy person. There was substance- like Mount Everest is substance- behind the vague feelings.

Those of you who know me in real life will find the perception of me as a radical as ludicrous as I do. The concept of me as an agent of change boggles my mind. I remember a couple of the secretaries in my department once banding together to confront me- in the kindest, gentlest way possible- about my attitude regarding a changing procedure. The changing procedure made life easier for the secretaries, but I resisted… mostly because I felt terrified that I did not have the bandwidth in my brain to learn ANYTHING else. They pointed out that they saw my fear of screwing up  as close-mindedness to their needs. The word “stubborn” came up a few times. I recognized the truth of their observation and I own the feedback. It is uncomfortable to admit that I can be close-minded about new things, but denying the truth does not make it any less true. I work hard to overcome my knee-jerk, fear-based, negative reaction to change. Still, it is always a struggle. No one in my entire life would call me progressive or change-hearty. Until now.

If there is one thing in my life I’ve avoided even more than change, it would be conflict. I have always done everything I could to avoid disappointing, unsettling, angering, or disagreeing with people. To a fault. My brain is always committed to doing the right thing and having the difficult conversations. Because I believe in doing the right thing, I usually force myself to do what I believe is right even though I am in agony over it. Even the slightest possibility of upsetting someone can derail my mental health. When I was working, I would often spend completely sleepless nights trying to figure out a way to communicate something that I knew was likely to elicit a negative reaction. Sometimes, I am ashamed to say, I ignored potentially dangerous behaviors in my work life and in personal relationships that I knew I should address.

Given these little nuggets of Terridom, I underestimate when I say that the conflicts surrounding change and my role in it rocked my sense of self to a pretty catastrophic degree. I’ve spent several months now thinking about the issues involved and what I needed to do for myself, for my church, and for my God. About a month ago, everything came to a head, and I’ve been a bit lost in the desert of my emotions. Since I am who I am, fear was the emotion of choice. I have also felt sad, hurt, angry, disillusioned, resentful, empty, demoralized, worthless, embarrassed, ashamed, and a plethora of other not-so-pleasant emotions. I am pleased to report that I believe I have weathered the internal and external storms and feel at peace. I believe I conducted myself well. I believe I made good decisions. I believe I am resting in a season of waiting on God’s time for whatever is next in my life.

I believe the work I have done with my life coach Todd Payne is the main reason I have made it through this situation and, I believe, thrived. The whole thing has been a kind of lab class for my life coaching process. There was also another very key element to this favorable outcome. Love.

When everything came to a head, there were a few people who knew what was going on- the situation impacted not just me, but also a few other people that I love and admire. We were able to support and lean on one another. Max was wonderful in his empathy, support, comfort, and acceptance.

I was careful about how much I said to anyone who was not directly involved because I did not want this one episode involving one group of people to become something that overwhelmed the beauty and joy that is also very present in our community. Still, there were things that happened publicly, and word spread. There was reaction. You would expect that people would take sides and place blame. Of course that happened. I have to say that, as hard as I tried to do everything in love, I did not always stay above the fray. Truth be told, I was very frayed.

There was more to it than just taking sides, though. People blanketed me with support, concern, and protection. The breadth and depth of that support was not about a vote, an action, a direction, or a position. It was not about taking my side. It was just pure, genuine, unadulterated love and appreciation for my worth. The appreciation was not about what I’ve contributed or the actions I’ve done. It was crystal clear that the love and appreciation was solely about who I am. People came out of the woodwork to hold me in their hearts, protect me from pain, and cherish my value as a beloved sister. It was very like the love of God, I think. In Scripture, 1st John 4:19 tells us that we love because He first loved us. Like the profound love of God, I cannot understand the profound love I experienced from so many people. I cannot fathom it. I am just a normal person with no remarkable skills or abilities. I don’t know how I merit such an outpouring of affection. I don’t merit such an outpouring of affection. It is grace. All I can do is gratefully receive it and let it lift me up above the ugliness in this world.

I am loved. And I am humbled.

When have you experienced humbling love? Please share your perspective by leaving a comment. In the alternative, you can email me at terriretirement@gmail.com.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Terri/Dorry 😊

Labonte’s Fables: The Lions’ Den

Throughout my career, I told a story that demonstrated how I saw success in the business world. Now that I am retired, I see that the story is about more than success in the business world. It is a story about how the world sees achievement.

Once upon a time, Roman guards marched three falsely imprisoned men to the entrance of the coliseum. Hungry lions roamed the coliseum floor, waiting for the prisoners to enter. The guard pushed the first prisoner through the gates. The prisoner bobbed and weaved past the angry lions, making it to the other side of the coliseum without significant injury. The second prisoner did not share the same fate. He darted around, dodging teeth and claws. The lions were too angry and hungry, though. And the prisoner was a little too slow and a little too scared. Lion after lion caught him. They dragged his body across the coliseum. They scratched him and bit him and tore off several appendages. He just made it across the coliseum floor before bleeding out and dying. In all the excitement, the third prisoner slipped away from the guards. While everyone was watching the lions destroying the second prisoner, the third prisoner found a way around the coliseum and met the guards on the other side without ever having to face the lions.

You see, some people face the lions in life and come out of the experience relatively unscathed. Sure, they might have a manageable, impressive scar or two attesting to their courage. However, they are still upright and functional. They still have all their body parts… and all their marbles. These are the heroes of success in our world. Then, there are the people who face the lions and get eaten. Even if they make it through the coliseum alive, they will never be right again. Often, our world mocks these people and labels them failures without even knowing what circumstances led them to their bloody end. Finally, there are the people who figure out how to make it through life and reach the goals to which most of our world aspires without ever going through the lions’ den.

Moral #1- Just because a person fights the lions and loses doesn’t mean he is a loser.

Moral #2- As noble as it can be to face the lions, it is sometimes better to avoid the lions when you can.

Alternate ending:

The prisoner who is circumnavigating the coliseum to avoid the lions was attacked by a far more vicious beast- a man with hate in his heart. The man with hate in his heart murdered the prisoner.

Moral #3- Everybody has scars, even when we don’t watch them happen.

Which moral resonates with you the most? Please share your perspective by leaving a comment. In the alternative, you can email me at terriretirement@gmail.com.

Have a lion-free day!

Terri/Dorry 🙂

Disasters Ahead

The other night, I attended a continuing education session for a ministry in which I serve. The speaker talked to us about ways to help the elderly and infirm (which included me and everyone else in the room, as it happens) maintain the independence necessarily to age in place. The main focus of her talk was prevention of common potential catastrophes. She talked about falls, medication errors, fires, and food poisoning. She regaled us with wild and fearsome statistics that seemed to suggest that a person over 65 years of age is more likely to encounter some tragic end than to lose the tv remote in any given day.

As the speaker bounded from one terrifying possibility to another, I think she could see the people in the room starting to panic. The participants around me started to gingerly and shamedly confess to all kinds of folly, like ascending a ladder to undecorate the Christmas tree and relying on the date on the marked carton to determine if an egg was still good. I could see on their faces that they were calculating the odds of surviving to our next meeting in a month. It did not look good.

The speaker stopped mid-sentence, as if suddenly realizing she was scaring the pants off her audience. She asked, “is everyone here over 65?” She stared at me and I honestly told her that I was not over 65 yet. That seemed to make her feel better. At least one of us was not standing right at the door to disaster.

As we were leaving the building, several of the participants still seemed worried. They mused out aloud about leaving the Christmas tree up all year long to prevent standing on a ladder. I quickly volunteered my help. “Call me, “ I said. “I can stand on a ladder for you. But don’t delay. I’m only safe for another nine months!”

What home accidents worry you as you age? I think falling is the way I will most likely encounter catastrophe. I am fundamentally clumsy and convinced I am much more physically agile than I actually am. Please share your perspective by leaving a comment. In the alternative, you can email me at terriretirement@gmail.com.

Have a safe day!

Terri/Dorry 🙂

The Anti Resolution

Happy New Year to all of you. May 2024 bring us faith, hope, love, joy, and peace. I know that is a lot to ask of a year, but the Bible tells us in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 to “pray without ceasing.”

Dear Lord, my enduring prayer for my world, my church, my family (both of biology and of love), my enemies, and even myself is that you will grace us all with these blessings in the year that waits before us. Amen.

This is the time of year when people make resolutions to improve themselves. I often resolve to make changes in my life, but rarely do I follow through on those changes. I saw a quote on Facebook yesterday. The poster said, “I’m going to open a new gym called Resolutions. There will be exercise equipment in it during the first two weeks of January. After that, it will become a wine bar.” That pretty much sums up my experience with new year’s resolutions. Just change “wine bar” to “ice cream parlor” and you will have me pegged. It can be discouraging.

Why do we make resolutions? We want to be healthier and happier. Does making resolutions really help us meet that goal? I’m not sure it does.

First of all, what we want is usually an outcome, not the process. Everybody wants to go to Disney World, but nobody really wants to spend 7 hours on a cramped airplane with dozens of hyper stimulated children. We may want to be thinner, but don’t particularly want to stop eating ice cream. I think for a resolution to be meaningful (and have even the tiniest chance of success,) it must focus on the journey and not the destination. If I resolve to increase my level of physical activity, it may work if I genuinely believe and honor the notion that increasing my level of physical activity will make me happier and healthier just for its own sake. It won’t work if the reason I make the resolution is because I believe I will get thinner if I increase my level of physical activity. I am unfairly raising the bar for success if I resolve to increase my physical activity but “really” mean that I resolve to lose weight- an outcome over which I don’t have complete control. It is a recipe for failure.

Secondly, a year is a very long time. The average life expectancy for a woman in the United States is 79 years. I have already lived 64 years of mine. That leaves me with about 15 years to go, statistically speaking. The year 2024 may represent 7% of the time I have left. Deciding in January how the year will go and how I will want to live that year seems a little reckless. There are a lot of variables that can impact the facts and circumstances of my life over the course of a year. The improvements I consider making on January 1st may not be healthy, possible, or beneficial in the landscape of the life I end up living on March 12th or August 9th or December 25th. Again, setting resolutions that assume everything will be the same throughout the year as it is on January 1st is just resolving to fail.

I do not know quite how to describe the impact of the year 2023 on me. I ended 2022 with gratitude, exhaustion, and a relatively clear vision of what I thought the next year would be. More importantly, I think I had a pretty clear vision of who I would be during the new year. I learned and grew a lot in 2022. The resolutions I thought about making for 2023 had a lot to do with recrafting relationships to accommodate the new me. To be honest, I thought I had done the work I needed to do in 2021 and 2022 to be the person I wanted to be. My resolutions for 2023 centered on how to reap the rewards of that work.

Yes, I did do some reward-reaping and relationship recrafting in 2023, but the truth is that I was still a long way from who God intended me to be. This year 2023 was one of the most painful, most challenging, and most precious years of my life. I resolved some decades-old pain that has eaten away at my soul for over 40 years. I learned to stand up for my own convictions. I embraced the idea that I can still be right, even if someone else thinks I am wrong. I have shared some of my epiphany year in this blog, so I won’t delve into specifics again. The other revelation I had during 2023 is that the only way to live effectively is to live in the moment. I have always been a compulsive planner, creating detailed action plans for everything and strategizing solutions to every possible scenario. There is nothing wrong with planning. I believe that it is important to be present and in the moment during the planning process. I am never going to stop being a planner and I do not want to stop being a planner. However, it is just as important to be present and in the moment during the doing process. I’ve done things in 2023 that I never, never could have even imagined as possibilities in the past. I did not always manage these new, unplanned scenarios perfectly. I did not always do what I resolved to do. However, there was NO failure. Even circumstances that did not yield the results I wanted or expected were huge triumphs in my personal development. No harm, no foul.

As I go into 2024, I am making no resolutions. I am choosing instead to observe the world around me and my responses. I am choosing to be curious and open to what God has in store for me. I am choosing to embrace unexpected conditions and adapt in order to sail with the wind. I am not choosing resolutions to develop myself into a happier, healthier person. I am choosing explorations and experiments.

Who’s with me? Do you make resolutions? Why or why not? Please share your perspective by leaving a comment. In the alternative, you can email me at terriretirement@gmail.com.

Have a wonderful 2024!

Terri/Dorry 😊

A Gentle Christmas

This pre-Christmas season was different for me than many of its predecessors. We did many of the same activities, but they felt different to me. The activities felt less dramatic and frantic. It was not a bad thing. My life coach would be very happy to hear that the difference was that I was more inclined to immerse myself in each exquisite, sensual, joyful moment instead of seeing the whole totality of Christmas cheer as one, interwoven, overwhelming monolith of mood. In the past, each of these activities, conversations, experiences precariously balanced on the success or failure of the one before it.  Each holly jolly moment had to be “just so” to keep the Christmas monolith from crumbling onto my heart like an avalanche of disappointment. If I skipped something that has always been part of Christmas in my life, or if I did not imbue some gift with a manic level of sentimentality and sparkle, or if some Noel bell rang hollow for some reason- Christmas would be a failure and I would be left in the holiday wasteland for another year.

This year, I savored each Christmas theme park. I let each Christmas treat I ate sit on my taste buds. I threw myself into activities that brought me pleasure in the moment and skipped events that I typically do only because “I always do them.” I entertained people that I love, when it was convenient for me and for all of them. I bought and made presents that I believe brought joy to the recipients. If I did not find something that spoke to me for a certain person, I did not despair. I decorated my Christmas trees with ornaments that made me happy and did not worry that my “elegant tree” was no longer elegant.  In fact, the lack of elegance did not even register with me until I mentioned it to someone else.  I did the decorating over several days; thus avoiding the exhaustion and panic I often feel. I went to bed tired but had refreshing sleep nearly every night. I wrote Christmas cards strictly for the purpose of bringing pleasure and connection, not because I “had to” because other people would send them to me. In fact, I recognized that my Christmas card list was a trifle arduous and decided to do something different throughout 2024 to make my greetings more personal and effective.

The season seemed to go quickly, but it did not feel rushed. I was always looking forward to the next seasonal delight… but I was not looking forward to it until the current one was finished. I’m not sure what has changed for me, but whatever it was made the period between mid-November and Christmas extremely enriching and enjoyable. I was musing about this a week or so before Christmas. For the past five years or so, we have either gone to friends for Christmas dinner or had people come to our house. This year, our little family of friends is somewhat scattered. I originally thought to invite people over but decided against it. I had a bit of a health challenge (everything is great now, by the way!) which took up a lot of energy. As Christmas approached, though, I was starting to feel a little “meh” because I had no festive party planned. I wasn’t sure how it was going to feel when the day rolled around with nothing on my dance card.

I did end up inviting another couple to come for dinner on December 22. We festived ourselves silly. It really did feel like a Christmas gathering. However, I still wondered how I was going to feel about a “quiet Christmas.”

As it turned out, Max and I had a wonderful Christmas together. On Christmas Eve, I went to the Sunday morning church service. Max met me and another couple from our family of friends at a local restaurant for brunch. After enjoying some food, fun, and fellowship, we went our separate ways. Max and I opened Christmas presents later in the day, drove around looking at Christmas lights in our development, and watched our traditional Christmas Eve movie- Little Women. The next day, we attended Christmas morning church service during which our deacon delivered the sermon. In my family of origin, we opened gifts on Christmas Day after going to church. Each year, my mother, who has been deceased for seven Christmases buys us each a present. We opened our presents from my mother after Christmas morning service. I watched the Christmas Eve service from my church so I could hear the choir sing and my pastor preach. Later, we watched football and just hung out with each other. We ended the day watching another traditional movie for us- Therese: The Story of Saint Therese of Lisieux. 

When people ask how my Christmas was, I could say “nice, but quiet.”  However, that is not quite correct. I think it is more accurate to say, “nice, but gentle.”  I found a lot of joy this Christmas season. It was not noisy and loud, but it was audible and profound. I connected with many of my traditions in a way that did not feel forced. I let go of traditions that do not nurture me. I planted myself firmly in moments of wonder and excitement. I did not hop, jump, or dodge from one glob of fun to the next. I found myself steeping emotion and meaning into each moment instead of slapping a slipshod coat of sentimentality over timeslots as I rushed to make my next “appointment” with happiness. The monolith is not one, fungible tankard of Christmas cheer. When you take a step back, that monolith is a mosaic made up of dozens and dozens of individual, beautifully crafted moments and experiences. 

I slept in heavenly peace this Christmas season because I had a gentle Christmas.

How would you describe your Christmas? Please share your perspective by leaving a comment. In the alternative, you can email me at terriretirement@gmail.com

Blessed Christmas!

Terri/Dorry 😊

Beyond The North Pole

Those of you who read my blog regularly (and if you don’t, why the heck not?!) know that Max plays Elf on the Shelf for me every year in December. Each morning, before I wake, he helps my elf find clever hiding places so I can play elf hide-and-seek. Up until this year, the grown-up version of the elf was very tiny- about as long as my thumb and half as wide. Kringle’s size made it possible for him to hide in a wide variety of bizarre places. Not a good option for the younger set. Most kids worth their salt would have become bored and frustrated looking for a microscopic elf. Children would have the good sense to wander off to pursue more rewarding activities. I was not so wise. I often needed multiple hints to locate him and there were some mornings I searched for a good half hour before calling “ally, ally, outs in free.” The elf would giggle maniacally when Max retrieved him from a place I either would never think to look or, embarrassingly, where I had already looked several times.

Max liked that Kringle the Elf was so small because it gave him the advantage in the game. I liked that he was small because it made him unique and interesting. On the other hand, Kringle’s size made him kind of delicate. And hiding places like a slat on a plantation shutter or in the fold of a blanket on the couch were definitely hazardous to his health. His little appendages were about as thick as toothpicks and more fragile. Over the years, bits of him kept breaking off until there was really only a torso, head, and bit of a cap left of him. It was pathetic, but I would not relent and replace him.

For one thing, my Kringle was part of a limited-edition promotion. You cannot just buy tiny elves. The elves in the stores were all much bigger than Kringle. If Kringle is the measuring stick, a regular elf on the shelf seems like a mutant. One year, Amazon gave away these mini-elves with a $100 purchase. Since spending $100 on Amazon was child’s play for my mother, she acquired several of these little guys and gave them away for Christmas of 2015. That is the other reason I was loathe to replace Kringle. My mother bought him and inspired the game of elf hide and seek that Gary plays with me each December. Kringle was part of my Christmas sentimental journey to visit my Momma.

This year, however, when Max and I were wandering around Hobby Lobby a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving, we found a facsimile elf that was only slightly larger than Kringle. Max finally convinced me to let Kringle go home to the Great North Pole In The Sky and bring a new elf, Kristina, into our little family. I agreed reluctantly only on the condition that I myself had no part in disposing of our mutilated little Kringle. One day he just disappeared. I assume he is enjoying his retirement in a nice safe hiding place.

Kristina has been an excellent elf, although I still think of Kringle fondly. She is a little bigger so she is a little easier to find. However, she is easily as sneaky as Kringle. Some days, I have found her lickety-split. Other days, I have needed hints. Two days, I surrendered to her stealthfulness. She hid inside the battery compartment of my wooden Bavarian village. She hid in the paper bag that holds the Christmas card Max bought me. She hid under the edge of the Christmas tree skirt. I think my favorite place that she hid was inside the stable on my fake gingerbread nativity set. I guess she was trying to get there before the wise men.

I sometimes wonder if I am ever going to grow up. Then, I wonder if I want to.

What Christmas activities are making you jolly this year? Please share your perspective by leaving a comment. In the alternative, you can email me at terriretirement@gmail.com.

Merry Christmas, everyone! Love and joy come to you!

see the nativity set on the bottom shelf- fake gingerbread manger scene, complete with elf!
See her bringing that all important gift of peppermint to the Baby Jesus!

The Lights On The Christmas Tree

Many of you know that 2023 has been a pivotal year for me. It has been scary, challenging, and painful. On the other hand, it has been a year of great growth and liberation. I’ve learned so much. I’ve spent most of my life living in fear and emotional  pain, thinking it was imperfectly normal. This year, I’ve discovered how it feels when pain is not my de facto state of being. It feels more wonderful than I can say. I find myself often reflecting on my improved mental health with a sense of awe and bemusement.

I was talking to my life coach Todd about this transformation. In coaching me, one of his main areas of emphasis has been emotional resilience. He helps me learn to sit with difficult emotions, understanding that I will be able to withstand them and that they will pass. One of his axioms is that feelings are not forever.  There have been many opportunities for me to practice this skill in the past couple of years. As I have developed emotional resiliency, my major focus has been mostly relief when I don’t feel shattered and valueless. I have been gaining strength and confidence, especially over the past year. Recently, I have started to think beyond the moments of relief and contentment, wondering if this newfound peace can really be a new default way of being for me going forward.

I told Todd that I understood his perspective that feelings are not forever. I agreed that I have experienced the phenomenon of paddling my emotional resiliency boat into safe harbors over the past couple of years. However, I can also look in my rear-view mirror and see a time not so long ago when feelings WERE forever. I asked Todd how I could be confident that I was changed in some fundamental way that would prevent me from turning future painful feelings into forever conditions. He replied with a metaphor that resonated profoundly with me.

He explained that, for many years, I had no concept of self-determination. I had no understanding that I had any power to change conditions that made me depressed, scared, angry, or other otherwise emotionally hobbled.  No matter what happened in my life, no matter how anyone treated me, no matter what needs I had- I simply accepted whatever came my way, believing I had no right or ability to change it. Now, I know that I have agency in my own life. I can often take actions and have conversations that can change my circumstances. I can choose how I respond to events that I do not have the capacity to change. Todd said it was like having a stone in my shoe. Most of my life, I wandered around with a stone in my shoe without even knowing I had a stone in my shoe. I just knew something hurt. Since I did not know there was a stone stabbing into the sole of my foot, I never took my shoe off to shake it out. Therefore, the pain WAS forever. Now, I know that there is a stone in my shoe. I can take time out to extract it when necessary, so the pain will be temporary.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to muse a little more about this metaphor. I decorated the house for Christmas.  I pulled out the self-lighting tree I purchased last year. It is one of those fancy-dancy trees that have this “magic” central pole to make the tree light up all over without having to attach multiple strings of lights to each other. I love the lights on this tree. They are so colorful, with pure, clean shades of pink, blue, green, yellow, red, and blue. It makes me happy just to look at them.

I heaved the tree out of its box, struggling to stabilize the trunk in the holder and maneuver the upper section into place. I am just a little too short on one end and a lot too lacking in upper body strength to assemble the entire thing without breaking a sweat. The tree also attacked me with its thousands of sharp plastic needles, leaving bloody scratches on my forearms.  Finally, I had the entire structure standing straight and strong, overlooking my living room. The colorful universe of lights twinkled from top to bottom.

I lovingly unwrapped my ornaments- all of which hold sentimental meaning for me. There is not a single boxed, generic Christmas ball on my tree. I have one ornament that graced my maternal grandmother’s tree when she was a child. I have numerous Tinkerbell ornaments. I can tell you where Max and I were visiting when I purchased many of them. I have a reindeer wearing Alohawear swimming trunks from my first trip to Hawaii- he does jumping jacks when I pull a string. I have a hippopotamus ornament that I originally bought for my mother soon after we moved to Florida. We used to drive by this store that sold large bronze statuary. One day, Momma mused out loud why anyone would want a huge bronze hippo on their front lawn. Confused, I asked her what she meant. She pointed to one of the statues on display. I advised her that it was a cow, not a hippopotamus. That ornament always makes me laugh.

I found places on the tree for each ornament, reminiscing as I worked. Finally, I stepped back to admire my handiwork. I saw that it was good. The ornaments brought me joy and the lights sparkled. I felt like the completed Christmas tree was worth the considerable effort and lacerations. I went into another room to do some additional decorating.

When I returned to the living room, something looked wrong to me. It took me a second to realize it, but it soon hit me that the top half of the tree was no longer twinkling. It was no longer glowing. It was no longer colorful. It was no longer lit. It seemed that the magic pole had lost its magic, no longer transmitting power through both sections of the tree. I had limited options for troubleshooting because it is not that easy to manipulate a tree decked out with 64+ years of sentimental ornaments. I gingerly tried a few possibilities, but to no avail. The bottom had twinkling, colorful lights dancing around it, but the lights came to an abrupt halt mid-tree. It looked silly, so I decided it would be better to turn the lights off completely.

As the evening wore on, I kept looking at the tree in all its non-lit splendor. It made me sad to see it so lifeless and flat. Also, because there were no lights drawing my eye to the sparkle, all I saw was the clumsiness of my ornament placement. The blank spaces and the places on the tree where too many ornaments bunched together glared at me.  All the joy I felt in decorating the tree seemed artificial. I experienced a palpable feeling of pain, disappointment, and resignation. I prepared myself to tolerate the lightless tree for the next few weeks, trying to convince myself that it was okay.

It wasn’t okay, though. I was downright sad. I thought about buying a few strings of lights to give the tree a little oomph, but everyone knows that the lights go on the tree first. I wasn’t sure how it would work to try to string the lights around the already decorated tree. I sure as heck did not want to remove all the ornaments and start over again. It seemed like a waste of money to buy lights, since the tree came with plenty of lights… if they would just light. I kept trying to convince myself that it was not a big deal, but I could not let it go. It was a stone in my shoe.

By the next day, I had decided. I didn’t care if the lights were supposed to go on first. I didn’t care if I was spending $20-$30 that I should not have had to spend. I wanted lights on my Christmas tree, and it was within my power to have them. I took myself to Lowe’s, bought three hundred colored lights, and added a string of clear lights to put around the bottom of the tree, for good measure.  When I got home, I draped the lights around the tree, over the ornaments.  It was not perfect. In fact, it is pretty messy and bunchy in places. Removing the lights will probably be a nightmare. But you know what? When the lights are on, I don’t see the mess. I just see the lights. And they make me happy.

There was a time when I would have simply lived with the lightless tree, silently grieving while putting on a happy face. I would have simply tried to tolerate the disappointment because that was my state of being. I certainly would not have entertained the notion that I could do anything to change my set of circumstances… or that it was okay for me to even want to change it.

I guess an old elf can learn new tricks. 

What have you learned this holiday season? Please share your perspective by leaving a comment. In the alternative, you can email me to terriretirement@gmail.com

Have a holly jolly day!

Terri/Dorry 😊

Bulking Up My Faith Muscles

I recently told you about my resolution to do more than talk a good game about my faith. I remember a minister who taught a Bible study I once attended. He said that you have to be careful when you pray for faith. Sometimes, God will just give you more faith. Sometimes, however, he may put you in a situation which requires you to exercise your faith, thus growing that faith. And, sometimes, if you are really blessed, God will test you in a way that demonstrates to you just how much faith you already have. These are some scary possibilities but I am beginning to realize that to grow faith, one must actually step out in faith. Talking is not enough. Action and practice are necessary. To bulk up one’s faith, one must exercise the faith muscles.

A few months ago, I led an Alpha course at my church. This was the fourth Alpha course I have helped lead. Alpha is a program made up of eleven weekly evening sessions, plus a day retreat. The original purpose of the course was to provide a place for people who would not identify themselves as churchgoers or Christians to grapple with the big questions of life, faith, purpose, and God. However, we find that the course has dramatic benefits for people at any point on their spiritual travels. Each evening begins with a dinner, followed by a video presentation on some aspect of Christianity. Then, the guests break into small discussion groups to talk about their perspectives, experiences, questions, doubts, fears, observations, and anything else they wish to say. Coordinating the program is a rewarding, enriching, and soul-feeding experience for me. In the past, it has also been exhausting and stressful for me.

At the beginning of this Alpha course, my life coach challenged me. He advised that I prepare no more than half as much as I would have in the past. He encouraged me to trust the Holy Spirit, trust my own competence, and trust the qualities that God created in me. Faith in God and faith in myself was a radically different strategy than my previous modus operandi of trying to anticipate and guard against any possible (or, for that matter, impossible!) uncomfortable eventuality. I always said that we only opened the door and turned on the lights during the Alpha course. God was the one who did all the work. Despite what I said and despite my intellectual understanding that it was true, I could not seem to refrain from doing, doing, doing in any spare moment between sessions to try to cover all my bases. I felt terrified at the very notion of dialing back on preparation… but also strangely liberated. I decided to try it. Why not? I convinced myself that it wasn’t brain surgery, and no one was going to die if something uncomfortable happened. In fact, someone might grow.

Someone did grow. Me.

I had FUN during this Alpha course. I not only said I was going to let the Holy Spirit take the reins. I actually did it. The burden was much lighter. In the past, I had to beg and plead to get people to provide meals. I usually ended up providing several myself. This time, I had a surplus of people agreeing to help with the food. One of my precious sisters by selection who attended the course in the past and enjoyed it volunteered to be my production partner. This reduced the work, the worry, and the responsibility of the program by way more than half. I didn’t worry about things going wrong. Nothing really went wrong. When something went a little bit off center, I relied on help from the team and even the guests to get us back on track. I also relied on my own personality and sense of humor to offset any awkwardness. I figured out that every offering, no matter how imperfect, is a priceless gift to God. We had the largest number of guests we have ever had on an Alpha course and our guests had the highest level of consistent attendance. The guest feedback was stellar.

God has been working on me, clearly. Let me tell you a story. When I first agreed to help with Alpha (without ever having attended a course, by the way), I did so because I did a lot of group facilitation work in my career. I was not necessarily thinking about roles that involved cooking, serving meals, and providing a cozy, hospitable environment. I had never even hosted a party in my life. I grew up in a family that did not entertain. I eat like a four-year-old, so my cooking repertoire is extremely limited. I am as introverted as one can get on the Myers-Briggs scale. Somehow, I wandered into the path of a runaway volunteer recruiter and ended up being the Alpha hospitality princess. I stepped out in faith. I, who had never thrown a party in her life, was holding dinner parties for fifty every week. And nothing tragic happened.

During that first Alpha program, one of the guests brought up the subject of Lent. We were talking about how to use the Lenten season as a time of spiritual growth. I told the small group that I wanted to learn to pray better during the time leading up to Easter. One of the participants in the course was the chaplain for our church ladies’ group. She made it her business to nominate me to succeed her, telling me it would be an excellent way for me to develop my prayer skills. I stepped out in faith. It was a jarring jolt to my system, but my nominator was absolutely right. In acting as the chaplain, I became more intentional about prayer. I excavated and rebuilt the foundation of my own prayer life. I experimented with leading the monthly meeting devotionals with different types of prayer. I looked for ways to engage and involve our membership in creating active, powerful prayer. I presented a workshop about prayer, which culminated in a time of focused, peaceful, silent prayer. Our ladies told me they felt as if they truly felt the spirit of God in the room with us. I allowed myself to be more vulnerable in sharing my own writing and prayers. There is no question that I developed my prayer skills during the two years I served as chaplain. And I loved doing it.

Over the past few years, I have expanded the scope of my “stepping out in faith” activities beyond Alpha. I have been involved in leadership in my church. The issues under discussion are more sensitive and controversial- sometimes even divisive. I have never been a fighter. All my life, I have avoided conflict and confrontation. My idea of peace-making and negotiating is appeasement. I give up instead of standing up. I have always convinced myself that whatever the issue in question was, it wasn’t a big deal, and I just did not care enough to fight. Although I hid from it, I did always understand that there are some things that are big deals and that I do care. Lately, God has been leading me to step out in faith in trickier situations. I believe He has put it in my heart to stand up and be counted on some issues- maybe even be a warrior.

It has not been easy. I struggle with myself and with others as I take this step out in faith. It is hard for me to trust my own thoughts and perspectives, especially when others resist. Some relationships have been strained. I try to do everything, even disagree with people, with love. I am aware, however, that my heart sometimes gets heated. I wonder if I am truly doing what God wants of me, especially since fighting is so counter to my nature. I wonder if I am simply pridefully pursuing my own perspective Selecting me to do spiritual battle seems a funny choice for God to make. On the other hand- precisely because this behavior is so unlike anything I would choose for myself- perhaps it must be God.

I guess I always thought that by the time I reached the advance age of sixty-four, God would be finished with me. I figured that He would have already equipped me with whatever attributes or talents He needed me to have to do the work He wanted me to do. It never occurred to me that He would want me to take on something completely out of character once I hit chapter three in my own personal book of life. I have to confess that I am still not sure that is what is happening because it is so darn difficult. The robe of authentic righteous indignation fits me poorly. There have been many times when I have tugged on the hem or pushed up the sleeves. More than once, I have had it half over my head to remove it. This experience requires me to surf wilder waves in my faith than ever in my life. I said a couple of weeks ago that I feel like I’ve struggled with my faith, but I know that “grown” is a better word that “struggled.” I sometimes think about what it has meant to stand up for one’s faith. The early Christian martyrs died for Christianity. There are still places in the world where people are jailed and murdered for their faith. Even in Western countries, there are people who are ridiculed and isolated from family and friends because they choose to become Christians. I have never experienced anything like those kinds of spiritual trials. Maybe the reason God is choosing me to stand up in this small way now is to show me that I can do it. God doesn’t need me to protect Him, but He wants me to trust that He will protect me.

What experiences have you had that has stretched your faith? Please share your perspective by leaving a comment. In the alternative, you can email me at terriretirement@gmail.com.

Have a muscle bound day!

Terri/Dorry 🙂

Thinking About Thanking

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving in the United States. People all over the country will be counting their blessings. I like to think I count my blessings every day. Gratitude is a big deal to me. Every Thursday, I post five of the things for which I am most thankful from the preceding week. I have been celebrating “Thankful Thursday” in this way for about 15 years. It is a rare week when my “thankfuls” do not fall trippingly off my fingertips along the keyboard. There are sooooo many things that I receive with great gratitude every single week. It is hard to know what to do as an encore for Thanksgiving Thursday!

That is not going to keep me from trying, however.

Here is a whole passel of thankfuls that have come my way in 2023:

  1. I am thankful for Max, who loves me and grows with me all the time.
  2. I am thankful for Todd Payne.
  3. I am thankful that I was finally able to release the huge burden of pain related to my marriage that I carried for over 40 years.
  4. I am thankful for learning to draw boundaries.
  5. I am thankful for the beautiful, precious, amazing family of friends that inhabit my life.
  6. I am thankful for the congregation at St. James Episcopal Church.
  7. I am thankful for Tom and Kathleen Trees.
  8. I am thankful for a beautiful, joyful, rewarding Alpha course experience, after a three-year hiatus.
  9. I am thankful for the oceans and beaches.
  10. I am thankful for beautiful and fragrant flowers.
  11. I am thankful for tall trees that dapple the paths beneath them with sunlight and shadow.
  12. I am thankful for mountains and streams.
  13. I am thankful for the leaves changing color.
  14. I am thankful for Cathy and Jim Gocella who supported me through the difficult time when my much-loved cousin Ann passed from this life to the next.
  15. I am thankful that good homes were found for Ann’s cats.
  16. I am thankful for my pretty, sweet, cozy house.
  17. I am thankful for soft, snuggly blankets.
  18. I am thankful for air conditioning.
  19. I am thankful that no hurricanes hit my neighborhood this summer.
  20. I am thankful for our vacations this year that were not only fun and beautiful, but also enriched me in terms of confidence, peace, and connection.
  21. I am thankful for the return of gingerbread at Starbucks.
  22. I am thankful even for the struggles and challenges of this past year because I can see how God has grown me through them.
  23. I am thankful that God did not leave me alone and orphaned during the struggles and challenges- because without God, there would have been only destruction instead of growth.

I am stopping at 23 because there is something satisfying and orderly about having 23 thankfuls for 2023. Also, it is Wednesday, and I am already late posting my blog for this week. Please know, however, that there are many more reasons for my gratitude this Thanksgiving week. If you are reading this today, YOU are one of those reasons!

Have a thankful day!

Terri/Dorry😊

What are your “thankfuls” this Thanksgiving week? Please share your perspective by leaving a comment. In the alternative, you can email me at terriretirement@gmail.com.