This Is Not About Kittens (Okay, Maybe A Little)

I may not always know what to say, but I continue to daydream and trust that words will come. Writing makes me look closer at things. It leads me to ponder things more deeply and to consider them from different perspectives.

Sometimes when I’m stuck on what to write, I tell the person closest to me about it. Giving voice to the obstacle sometimes helps me to work through it. My husband K in an effort to be supportive offers ideas, which usually consist of recent experiences that he and I had together. His latest suggestion involved kittens.

We recently went to look at a house going up for sale. It was a major fixer-upper but had great character. As we explored the big backyard, a strange noise floated up above the wind in the trees and rung in my ears. I froze, listening hard, and there the sound came again. Kittens!

I followed the high-pitched mewing to a stone fountain broken into pieces and IMG_0566overturned in a bed of monkey grass. There I found him – a tiny gray kitten, the giver-away of the hiding spot. I picked him up and snuggled him close to me as K scooped up his three siblings. They were so small and sweet yet fierce with their sharp claws in permanent protrusion from their soft padded kitten feet.

When we first ventured into the backyard, K and I saw a couple of adult cats watching us cautiously before jumping the fence and taking off. One of those was likely the mama of these kittens. Their place of refuge was a good one, complete with multiple hiding spots and cover from sun and rain. They ran to each other and huddled together as we placed them back where we found them, confident that their mom would return.

I thought about the kittens all that night and the next day. I tried not to worry, trusting that the mama cat would do her best because that’s the nature of things. Still, K and I brought over some kitten food. We quietly crept into the yard, anticipating listening for the sounds of mewing, but the stone fountain and monkey grass were empty. We searched the yard and called for the kittens but to no avail. Mama cat did her job and moved them to a new place, a safer place. We set out the food anyway just in case and silently wished the kittens well.

I appreciated K’s suggestion to write about this experience, but I decided against it. What was the moral of the story? What was the point? Yet I continued to think about it, to replay the events in my head, and as I did, the seeds of those thoughts began to grow and spark questions in my mind.

Those questions sparked conversations between K and I – philosophical conversations, and from there I have continued to ponder and question a plethora of beliefs and ideas, reconsidering my perspective on certain things I have thought to be true, all because I found some stray kittens and thought about the experience more deeply than usual.

I realized that finding those kittens and reflecting on the story gave me insight. I did not know it at the time, but it was an experience that for a few minutes caused me to be present and thankful.  From that experience I was able to appreciate the small moments that make me see and feel something outside my normal realm and routine. It distracted me from myself and presented something new and wonderful. From there I could reflect on writing, on what I wanted to say.

This is why I don’t simply give up when I don’t know what to say when I write.  Writing has made me more conscientious of my world. I realized that I don’t write so much as to make an impact as to influence. I write because the act influences me. It makes me a better person, and it has given me a better and happier life.

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I Spy Something Green

Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. – John Muir

Hiking, sleeping, and eating – it was a way of life for three full blissful days. It had been too long since our last vacation, and my husband K and I were overdue for some time away from the obligations and routines of our daily lives. We counted down the days in anticipation, packed up the car, and then hit the road to Hot Springs, Arkansas!

Road trips are the best. I always pack an arsenal of things to keep me busy in the car onlyVersion 2 to spend most of the time gazing out the window and daydreaming. I felt substantially more relaxed just an hour after leaving town, and I think our dog Cora felt the same! Gradually I noticed that the roadside trees seemed to loom taller and glow a brighter green as we got closer to the national park. It was all we could see for hours as we drove down the highway, and I joked, “I spy something green!” That evening after arriving at the hotel, we ordered a giant cheesy pizza from room service and kicked back watching cartoons. We made it!

Version 2We kicked off our first full day in Hot Springs with an indulgent breakfast (a free perk of staying at Embassy Suites), me piling my plate high with biscuits and gravy galore! I had to fuel up for a day of hiking after all. As soon as we hit the trails in the national park, K and I were mesmerized by never ending waves of green. Everything was lush and in full bloom, and we trekked in silence for quite a while, simply enjoying this time together in nature. We hiked uphill and downhill, over rocks, and along well-traveled trails, getting lost in our thoughts and then stopping to take photos of whatever caught our eye and pulled us from our reverie.

Back at the hotel giggling at more cartoons, we drifted off to sleep, Cora included. I am not typically a nap taker, but I lapsed into a deep sleep that day and the following two days of vacation. I slept more than I have in a long time, and I felt more refreshed than I have in a long time as well. We dined out that night at Copper Penny Pub in downtown Hot Springs, inhaling our hot comfort food and enjoying a pint of the local brewery’s wheat beer (my favorite).

We spent the next day at Garvan Woodland Gardens, a botanical garden and natureVersion 2 preserve on Hamilton Lake. Cora was very enthusiastic about the koi pond, wishing with all her might that she could jump in and catch one! We also caught sight of a cute fuzzy chipmunk just before he skittered back to his home under a large rock. Again the waves of green stretched on forever and the brisk wind rustled through the trees creating a soothing soundtrack as we hiked, catching glimpses of the cool blue lake just beyond.

The main attraction of Hot Springs is of course, the hot springs. Historic bathhouse row downtown consists of a string of old bathhouses, some still operational as such while others have been converted into other attractions. Thus, our trip would not be complete without a trip to the spa. We relaxed in the thermal pools at Quapaw Bathhouse before venturing into the steam cave, a dry sauna designed to look like the old thermal caves used by Native Americans believing that the heat from the hot springs had just as much healing power as the waters themselves. It was K’s first sauna experience, and while I don’t think he’d do it again, I’m glad we got to do it together.

IMG_0554We also went to the Fordyce Bathhouse, which has been well maintained and now functions as a museum. Wandering those halls is like a trip back in time to the age when the bathhouses were a highly popular destination and both men and women spent all day there, relaxing and socializing. I loved the old tile floors. We had lunch at the Superior Bathhouse, which was converted into a restaurant and microbrewery that makes beer from the local spring water. It was delicious, and they also played the best music mix of 90’s grunge rock as a backdrop for our meal.

After spending so much time inside however, it was time to return to nature and trek through the forest on our last hike of the trip. It was warm and sunny, so the lizards and squirrels were out. The ticks were also out unfortunately and we spent a good deal of time pulling them off of Cora’s feet, but it was worth it. She had a great time, as did we. Once again we fell asleep that night watching cartoons and slept soundly until the next morning when it was time to pack up and return home.

The best things in life aren’t things – they are experiences. Taking a short vacation to experience nature in all its bright green glory and to spend a few days simply relaxing and enjoying life gave K and I renewed energy and vigor for when we returned home. We all deserve an escape now and then, and an escape into nature is always fun and satisfying.

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Bananas: A Crazy Dog

K came home from work and wandered into the kitchen absentmindedly, shuffling through the day’s mail, until he heard a squeal. He stopped and looked around but didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. Then he heard the squeal again. That’s when he noticed the lid of the trashcan had been knocked onto the floor.

K peered inside the trashcan, and there was our dog Haley. She broke into the trashcan, jumped inside, and then got her foot stuck and couldn’t jump back out on her own. Her look of happiness and satisfaction as K pulled her out of the trashcan said the whole ordeal was worth it. She would do it all over again if she had the chance.

I have referred to Haley as being bananas so often that it turned into a nickname, and – Version 2she responds to it. Other nicknames include but are not limited to Cray Cray, Little, The Buffalo, Poo Face, and Runt.

Don’t let the cute face fool you. Haley may be the smallest and oldest of our pack, but she is also the fiercest and the craziest. She is a JRT, a Jack Russell Terrier (or a Jumping Running Terrorizer). She is the stereotype for why many people do not adopt JRTs.

Here are some of Haley’s favorite things to do:

  • Tricking you into thinking she wants to cuddle with you when really she’s trying to steal food off of your plate
  • Growling at the other dogs when they come close to things that aren’t even hers but that she claims anyway
  • Being a creeper when you are behind a closed door. She lies on the floor and tries to look under the door to see what you’re doing and squeals at you.
  • Jumping into the air repeatedly until she successfully grabs hold of whatever is slightly hanging over the edge of the counter and pulls it down for further investigation and possibly consumption
  • Barking at every single animal or person she sees
  • Eating and/or rolling in poo, dead bugs, dirt, anything gross
  • Chasing the tennis ball or laser beam until she’s about to pass out from exhaustion
  • Snatching her roommate’s favorite toys and destroying them right in front of his eyes, simply to remind him that she holds all the power
  • Racing everyone from one end of the house to the other or from the yard to the dog door. Everything is a race.

Haley’s mom was a race competitor, and she raced even while pregnant. I imagine that to IMG_5743be the source of Haley’s enthusiasm and energy. As crazy as she is, she’s also smart, and like all of my dogs, she has taught me a thing or two.

Use your strengths to your advantage.
Our dog Sid is three times Haley’s size. He would wrestle incessantly with Haley, and Haley always lost simply because she was much smaller and lighter. That is until Haley figured out a new strategy. She would jet underneath Sid and nip at his back legs one after the other so fast that Sid had no recourse but to fall on the ground, at which point Haley jumped on top of him. Her small size turned out to be a good thing.

Live in the moment and do the things you love.IMG_6378
Haley runs when she feels like running. She savors the treat she has in front of her. She naps when it seems like the best idea. She sees poo, she rolls in it and then comes in the house and happily shows me how gross she is. She chases squirrels all over the yard. She sees something interesting, she barks at it. She does what she wants from moment to moment and truly enjoys life.

Show your love freely.
Haley loves with the same energy and ferocity as she does everything else. When people come over, she is beside herself with joy. She can’t wait for everyone to sit down so she can jump in their lap, climb up their chest, and lick them incessantly in the face while her tail happily spins in circles. She follows K everywhere he goes. When he comes home from work, she cannot rest until he lets her greet him property with cuddles and kisses. She lies next to me or in my lap at some point every single day.

Haley is a true force of nature and just had her 13th birthday on, no joke, April Fool’s Day. While she is showing signs of slowing down and her hearing isn’t quite at full function any longer, she continues to surprise us, make us laugh, drive us crazy, and share in our love every day.

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93 Reasons: An Exercise in Gratitude

The psychology of happiness has become a popular field, and experts consistently tell us that a major key to creating happiness in our lives is through gratitude. The ability to appreciate what we have instead of fretting over what we don’t increases our sense of satisfaction and leads us to see the goodness in life more easily from day to day. It also makes obstacles seem less overwhelming.

I consider myself a thankful person, but I know that there is a depth to life of which I am not always aware, comprised of moments that wash over me without barely any recognition on my part. I wanted to experience a deeper sense of wonderment and gratitude towards my world.

I decided to take the experts up on their suggestion and focus on daily gratitude. They say to keep a gratitude journal and write down what you are thankful for every day, so I did. Every evening for a month I reflected on my day and wrote down three things that I appreciated.

The first challenge I encountered was simply remembering to do it, but I stuck with it. I aimed never to repeat the same thing and theorized this would be challenging as well, but almost immediately I noticed that my entries were not as general as I expected. Every day was very different when I looked at them close up, and it was never a challenge to avoid repeating the same subjects over and over when I focused on the details.

The question of what I was thankful for was harder to answer on bad days and I found myself sighing in frustration while staring at the blank journal page. But then I would realize the problem: my attitude. Sure, the bad parts of those days at first glance cast a shadow over my gratitude, but it was up to me to part the clouds and let the light shine through on my day. I simply had to change my focus.

Here are some of my favorite excerpts:

Inspiration: When it strikes, it’s a creative sigh of relief followed by a rush of excitement.

Music that moves me: I heard a song for the first time that stopped me in my tracks. I could do nothing but listen to it, captivated. The second time I listened to it, it moved me to tears. I’ve listened to it twenty more times since then.

Ghost stories: They are a fun indulgence for my imagination. They can be scary, funny, mysterious, and interesting. I love them all.

Unexpected hugs: I interviewed for a promotion at work and it was nerve-wracking. Afterwards, my co-worker gave me a big hug and told me she was proud of me.

Cozy sweatshirt: I bought this vintage-style soft sweatshirt on a whim and felt guilty about how much I paid for it until I wore it for the first time. I wear it almost every week now. It’s my favorite.

Mistakes: For the first time ever my local Thai food place got my takeout order wrong. The dish they made by mistake looked good though, and it was a dish I had never tried, so I told them not to worry about the error and accepted the food as it was. I ate the entire thing! It was delicious!

1980’s pop music: You have to dance! It’s happy and weird and fun, and the music videos are silly and ridiculous. An ‘80s dance club was the perfect choice for my cousin’s birthday celebration.

Strangers who make extra effort to help: When picking up my dog’s expensive epilepsy medication, the pharmacist showed me how to find an online coupon for the medication that cut the price in half. She even added the coupon information to my account so that the discount applied automatically for refills.

Spaghetti: Sometimes a big bowl of spaghetti bolognese with a glass of red wine is the perfect thing at the end of a rough day.

Challenges: They push me to see things in a new way and to think creatively to find solutions. I learn something with every challenge I face.

As the weeks passed, rather than waiting for the end of the day to reflect on my gratitude, I found myself recognizing those moments in the present and feeling thankful in real time. Some days I had five or six things I wanted to note in my journal. On those days the gratitude swelled in my chest and I felt overcome with emotion. More than once my eyes became teary with happiness.

Ultimately, keeping a daily gratitude journal works. Try it, and see what happens.

I wish for you an abundance of wondrous moments that fill your life and your heart with joy, that give you reasons to wake up and feel happiness every day. They are there already. We just have to be open to seeing them.

Photo via Visual Hunt

Happy When

There is an abundance of things going right in our lives, but sometimes we choose to focus instead on what’s going wrong and what we are missing. We let our problems loom over us and believe they are standing between us and happiness.  We think we can’t be happy as long as we have these obstacles in our way, but we are wrong.

We feed ourselves ideas that start with phrases like “I’ll be happy when…” and “I won’t be happy as long as…”

We set rules and limitations on the boundaries of our happiness. We base the pursuit of happiness on future possibilities that are not guaranteed.  We tell ourselves that we will be happy once we lose weight.  We believe that we will be happy as soon as we start making more money.  We think we will be happy once we are in a romantic relationship.  We focus on the potential ahead, even though now is all that we have.

Research into the science of happiness has often shown that we are poor predictors of the things that will truly make us happy. We lack the foresight to consider all the influencing factors and base our beliefs on unrealistic ideologies.  Most likely they will make us happy for a time until we focus on something else we want and slip back into a state of dissatisfaction.

We all have problems and experience setbacks, and this will always be the case. This is life. We all want things that we don’t currently have, and we will always be in pursuit of things we think will lead to a better life. Maybe these things that we want will make us happy, and maybe they won’t. Regardless, the key is choosing the right focal points to calibrate our “happy” state of mind and not holding ourselves back based on endless wanting.  Life is a balancing act and so is happiness.

One obstacle I have let stand in my way is weight gain. In the past I have let it take over more of my existence that I like to admit.  At times it has become the only thing I can see.  I think, “I’ll be happy when I lose this weight,” putting all my “happy” eggs in one basket, so to speak.  I feel like hiding, become less engaged in life, and ultimately create a ripple effect that morphs into depression.

Eventually I get tired of feeling miserable in this self-induced state of unhappiness and come to my senses, but I can’t get those wasted days back. We cannot get any of these days back, so why do we let them pass us by and continue to make our happiness contingent on future things that may or may not come to fruition?

We can practice being happy now by taking action, showing gratitude, and being present.

It’s great to recognize the components of our lives that we want to change, that we want to improve. Identifying them allows us to then create a plan of action to make those changes and in turn create better lives for ourselves.  When I am unsatisfied with an aspect of my life and I know I need a change, I only feel better when I take steps to remedy it.  I think about why I want the change and what I can do to start.  Once I start putting forth effort to improve my situation, my “happy” state improves and I feel more in control of my life.

In the meantime, we can recognize the vast array of positive things that already exist in our lives. We can think about the things we have earned, accomplished, and experienced in addition to the natural wonders that surround us every day.  Thinking about them when we wake up in the morning and before we go to bed at night will bring them to the forefront of our minds.  Writing them down will make them sticky and even easier to see as we flow through our days with an increased sense of appreciation for all that we have.

We think about how happy we’ll be when this or that happens in the future, all the while missing the amazing things that are happening now. Being mindful of the present moment will help keep us grounded.  It will decrease our stress and worry over things yet to come so that we can focus on today.  It will decrease our dissatisfaction with the current state of our lives and help us pay closer attention to the important things that are right in front of us.

There is no reason to hold back and wait for when certain things fall into place. We can enjoy our lives, have fun, explore, and engage.  We can be happy now.

A Confession: Looking for the Bad

“When you look for the bad in mankind expecting to find it, you surely will.”
-Pollyanna

“Hate” is a strong and powerful word, and I usually refrain from wielding it towards anything or anyone. It has become casually and commonly used, and I often hear it as part of the phrase, “I hate people.” It is a phrase I seem to hear more and more frequently, and it’s one with which I often find myself nodding in partial agreement.

I don’t really like people. Other than my few close relationships, I mostly keep my distance, which would be a shock to the social butterfly of my youth. “Why?” I hear her asking. “Why do you dislike people so much and how have you become so cynical?” Good question. It’s one I have been asking myself a lot lately. While I don’t have all the answers yet, I recently realized that somewhere along the way I have developed a habit of looking for the bad in people.

It’s hard not to be disappointed and disheartened by mankind. We constantly hear about the horrible things we do to each other and to other forms of life with blatant disregard for everything but ourselves. The dark side of humanity is always evident via news and social networks in formats that take advantage of and build on our fear. We see these things, hear about them, talk about them, and latch onto them. The bad things are endlessly tossed into our line of sight. It’s overpowering.

My disenchantment has overflowed into my more personal, intimate relationships. I have gradually become less trusting, less open, less engaged with others. When I meet people, I begin immediately evaluating their words and behavior in an attempt to glean their real agenda underneath the façade. I am quick to pass judgment with little information and automatically assume people are being disingenuous.

Ultimately, I have been looking for the bad. Many of us have grown cynical towards humanity (or lack thereof), and it has soured our personal interactions. It’s time for a change. It’s time to look for the good.

How do we change our perception? How do we begin looking for the good instead?

1) I think it starts with ourselves. Once we understand our own triggers, we can take them into consideration when we are in the throes of casting judgment on others. If we better understand what angers us, gets under our skin, or sets us off, we can learn to better manage those emotions and project them in a more positive way instead of towards an increasing sense of animosity.

2) Elie Wiesel said, “We must not see any person as an abstraction. Instead, we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own treasures, with its own sources of anguish, and with some measure of triumph.” Every person is unique. We are all living out our own stories. Being curious about others and their experiences allows us to humanize them in a way that can create commonality and a sense of compassion. Ask people questions and make a genuine effort to piece together a more complete picture of who they are.

3) Everyone has positive character traits. Everyone has something they are good at doing. In elementary school we sometimes sat in a circle and took turns saying something nice about our classmates. Consider the people we encounter from family members to strangers. In our interactions with them, we can think of something we like about them, something we appreciate, or something they are good at doing.

4) Most people we encounter are not going out of their way to make our lives more difficult. We are all focused mostly on ourselves, so why do we assume others are focused on us? Assume positive intent. Everyone is simply trying to make their way in the world as best as they can. This concept cured me of my road rage. We all think we are the greatest drivers and that we do no wrong. We can’t all be right. The person that cuts us off on the freeway is simply trying to get to a destination, same as us, same as everyone. It wasn’t an intentional act of meanness.

5) Every time we encounter someone in life, we have a new opportunity to learn something. We can look for those lessons, especially when we experience more challenging interactions. We can ask ourselves what we can learn from this person, from this situation? Other people often act as mirrors that show us what kind of people we are or what kind of people we want to be.

Looking at humanity as a whole, we are exposed to more examples of the dark side of our nature than the bright. We have to take it upon ourselves to seek out the good. We can find it more easily in individuals we encounter in our daily lives. The good is right in front of us every day; we just have to teach ourselves to see it.

I am striving to be less judgmental, to practice showing more love, kindness, and compassion, and to see others in a more positive light. I am looking for the good in mankind, and perhaps if everyone tries to do the same, the world will be a better place.

A Wish List

We have a tendency to get lost in the hype of the Christmas holiday. We stress about all the gifts we have to buy, the money we have to spend, the obligatory office parties and family gatherings. In all of the chaos and commercialism, we sometimes forget to appreciate this time of year and the opportunities we have to bring joy to others through the act of giving.

It’s the season of giving and it’s the season of getting, and this year my husband and I decided to do something a little different.

At the beginning of December, my dad called me for quick chat and asked if K and I knew yet what we wanted for Christmas. The hubs and I started talking about our wish list last year in fact, so I was ready with an answer.

K and I feel happy and satisfied with all that we have. If there is something we want or need, we buy it ourselves, and we realize that we are truly fortunate in that regard. Our situation may not always be this way, but this year we felt like we would be asking for things just to ask for them, and that didn’t feel right.

This year we have one thing on our wish list: donations to the Humane Society. Our local chapter is nonprofit and rescues and rehabilitates not just cats and dogs but also horses, donkeys, bunnies, guinea pigs, etc. It is where I adopted my dog Cora six years ago, and she has been my shadow ever since. (You can read about her here: A Rescue and a Birthday) This rescue organization and the animals they save have a holiday wish list that is much more dire than ours.

When I shared our wish list with my dad, he seemed disappointed at first. Many of us enjoy looking for and finding that perfect gift to give to a loved one. My intention was not to take the fun out of giving for him or for anyone else. I explained to my dad that we would of course be grateful for any gift he gave us but since he was asking, we felt like we have more than enough “things” and what we want this year is a donation to the Humane Society. He is a dog lover as well and understood my point. I later emailed him instructions for how to donate money as well as how to buy specific items from the organization’s Amazon wish list, like food and supplies, and have them shipped directly to the shelter.

Just a couple of weeks ago, my friend N shared the sad news that her dog had passed away. Anyone who has lost an animal best friend knows what that kind of grief is like, the feelings of loss it entails. N is a big supporter of adopting rescue dogs, as am I, so I decided to donate to the Humane Society on her behalf. On the website, I pressed the “donate” button and got a surge of energy! I have dropped off donations to the shelter but have never made a contribution online. It was so incredibly easy and felt so satisfying that I decided to keep going and donate more on behalf of others and of myself. I have gotten myself a few gifts this holiday, but I believe this is the best one.

It’s easy to get lost in the craziness of the holidays, but perhaps one way to keep things in perspective is to donate to those in need. While the Humane Society is my pick as it is near and dear to my heart, there are many other organizations out there that welcome anything we can give.   Spend some time at the homeless shelter or food bank. Participate in the angel tree adoptions at the office. Donate children’s books via Barnes and Noble’s local giving initiatives. It’s a simple way to give back and stay in touch with the spirit of the season.

Happy giving and happy holidays!

Photo credit: Aaron Jacobs via VisualHunt.com / CC BY-SA