Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Twisting Paths

Have you ever wondered if something in your life is ‘meant to be?’ or fate ? Have you wondered if actions, no matter how random they seem, work together to create a path in your life that was destined to exist ? Perhaps, do you believe that we are blindly headed any which way, and yet, we still emerge in a way that is serendipitous? I love this idea, and while I often can’t help but view life as a series of forks in the road in which we must choose one direction or the other, I still can’t keep the idea that whichever fork (or many forks) I take, I will still end up where my destiny lies. I look at big events, such as where I went to school, and realize that I would not have my children had I not made that decision. Even little choices can sometimes turn into something larger…striking up a conversation with a nice person at the library, who will ultimately become a best friend.

Because I do believe that our choices do, in fact, lead us to the destination at which we are meant to arrive, I read “A Stopover In Venice”, by Kathryn Walker, with great enthusiasm. This wonderful novel of literary fiction involves two of my favorite ideas: fate and Venice. Although I’ve only spent one week of my life in Venice, I feel such a love for the city that, in some ways, it feels like a bit of me will always be there. As one walks around tiny alleyways, opening into piazzas, one can’t help but imagine something magical around every turn. Venice, in and of itself, in many aspects feels like fate. After all, it’s a city of great mystery, great beauty and great history. The fact that it was created by a people who simply hoped to defend themselves by living on the water only further illustrates its mystique. In “A Stopover in Venice”, Kathryn Walker tells two stories, side by side, both with their fates intertwined; one of a modern day woman fleeing an unhappy marriage, and the other of a Venetian woman of the Renaissance, who had a loving marriage. Yet, the twists and turns of both Venice, and the stories plots, create a serendipitous existence of them both. This novel illustrates that, even when we are experiencing a negative situation, ultimately, we will learn a lesson from that unfortunate experience that will lead us to further enlightenment. After all, what would inspire us to grow into the men and women we are capable of being, without challenge ?

During times of great change in the world, it’s often difficult to truly process this concept. And, it’s also hard to imagine how a tragedy can be meant to be. When a dear friend of mine lost a baby a week after his much wanted birth, I had no idea how to even find the words to comfort her, let alone picture a way in which this situation might bring about ‘good’ in the end. To be honest, I still don’t know the answer to that dilemma. I can say that my friend has grown into one of the most compassionate people I know…and yet, couldn’t this have happened without her losing her child ? Fate is not always pretty…and it’s not always understandable. I wish I understand why there is misery in the world. I wish I understood why my own children feel hurt by the meanness that exists in their every day lives. If I could take the pain they feel onto myself, I would. And yet, a rational part of me understands that each one of us must feel our own frailties to grow. It’s finding those edges of our personality, our gifts, our strengths and our weaknesses, and then exploring the boundaries beyond them, that do help us to push into the next fork in the road of our own fates.

An illustration I often use in my yoga classes is that of a treasure map. While we’re walking on the map, we can’t see it. We are on the very roadways themselves, and too close to the map’s surface to grasp the overall view. It’s only when our lives are complete that we will be able to look down, see each pathway, each twist and turn, and each fork in the road, and ultimately, view the lessons we learned along the way as the ‘gold’ at the journey’s end. My wish for each of you is a prosperous trip as you discover your own life’s treasured meaning.

As we move through life, the force of fate creates events that we only appreciate when we reflect on our existence. ~ Ronald Harmon

Monday, November 24, 2008

Thankfulness vs. Appreciation

During Thanksgiving week, most columnists, essayists and those who simply like to hear themselves speak, like to use thankfulness as a topic. It’s not surprising. The holiday industry of enforced merriment over Thanksgiving makes greeting card topics at the forefront of everyone’s consciousness. And yet, thankfulness is not bad a subject to discuss. It’s just overused in November every year. People are forced to say what they’re “thankful for” around the Thanksgiving table, putting one on the spot to come up with something original that will entertain their guests, make a profound point, or just avoid drawing a complete blank when called upon. There are only so many times you can “good health” or “an A on my Biology quiz” at this moment in the judgment seat.

Instead of thankfulness as a trite, sugary notion we trot out alongside the turkey, I hope to incorporate a spirit of appreciation, rather than thankfulness. Most people would say “But they’re the same thing !” and roll their eyes at me. I beg to differ. I believe that thankfulness is something we feel internally. Appreciation, however, is something we share. The emotions and ideas are similar, but truly, the execution is different. Thankfulness is often about a ‘thing’, be it that test in school, a roof over your head or being grateful that the sweet potatoes didn’t catch on fire. Appreciation is usually generated towards another person: the stranger who smiled and cheered you up on a bad day, a friend who’s willing to come lend a hand to help you move or your family willing to fly across country to visit you in the hospital. Appreciation means going outside of your own box of emotions and expressing those feelings of gratitude to another human being. Maybe it’s simply a smile back at the kind, and patient, shopper behind you who isn’t hissing at you to hurry up when you can’t find your wallet. Perhaps, it’s telling your friend all the things about her that you love. What about expressing all the little things your mom has done for you over the years that have added up to a lifetime of blessings ? Appreciation goes beyond thankfulness. It places the responsibility of sharing how much we truly value that other person’s place in our lives. For many of us, there is also no greater gift than knowing we’ve made a difference, no matter how small, in the life of another.

In Yoga, cultivating gratitude is part of the daily practice. As we sit and focus on nothing but the breath, we draw inside ourselves, quiet our minds, and let go of all the extraneous, external concerns, or ‘mind trash’, that we have accumulated. The breath brings with it all good things, and a seated, peace-filled, meditative breath can leave the yogini feeling a deep sense of appreciation those who have made a difference in her life. Sometimes, I believe we aren’t being selfish by our lack of expressed appreciation. We are simply overwhelmed by the day to day toll that life takes on us. We worry about deadlines, bills and finances. We are concerned about the war, the economy and the fact that our dog just ran away. We stress over gaining 5 (or 20) pounds and know that the holiday season isn’t going to help our waistlines much. With all these thoughts pulling us in a thousand directions, is it any wonder that we often forget to express gratitude ? Often, we’re just so grateful when something does go ‘right’ that we forget the appreciation part of it ! But, bringing yourself back to the breath, every day, even for a few minutes, can help move away the clutter and bring forward the sense of appreciation you do feel…and do want to share.

There are endlessly creative ways to share appreciation with people. For someone who helped you long ago, I can’t think of a more remarkable gift than a letter expressing the moment that person touched your life. For a friend who has picked up your children more times than you can count, a bottle of wine, and gift certificate to her favorite restaurant---or even a home cooked meal, delivered to her door, might be just what she needs to know her actions were felt by you. For someone you love deeply, listening to them….really listening, not just nodding along, can be create a deep impact….making eye contact, asking questions about him (instead of rambling on about you !), can show your love, as well as your appreciation. The more you think about the person whom you’d like to shower with gratitude, the more you place are out of yourself and into them. The right path of expressing your thanks will make itself known.

So, ring your neighbor’s doorbell and leave cookies on her porch, or hug a friend who is having a bad day. Hire a sky writer to thank someone who saved your life or shout it from the rooftops (metaphorically or otherwise)! Appreciate those around you…and I promise, the world will be a better place.

Silent gratitude isn't much use to anyone. ~G.B. Stern