Sunday, April 29, 2012

Be a Tree

"And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper." (Psalms 1:3-4)

Lately I've been thinking about trees. I realize this may sound crazy, but I'm now beginning to realize that in order to really appreciate life I must learn to be a tree. Trees, you'll notice, bend with the force applied towards them. They lean into the storm and never try to resist. Those trees that hold rigid are soon uprooted and cast aside and forgotten, while those that surrender to the elements remain rooted for years. I'm now only starting to see that when I am faced with an obstacle, I don't need to fight back. I can just be still and let the attack pass. When I try to fight in my own strength, I always fail. I am exhausted and discouraged and I usually don't win because resisting is futile. It is when I surrender and allow the forces to blow about me that I'm victorious. How silly it would be for a tree to throw up it's branches and attempt to fight the wind, yet I try to fight my own squalls with feeble attempts.

Although I've always been fascinated by trees, I've never really stopped long enough to think about how they symbolize all of the lessons that I need to learn in my life. It's true. I've felt most comfortable around trees. When I was a child, I would spend all of my free time in the woods behind my house. I got such comfort from the green sanctuary and have always felt closest to God when I'm near his creation. Just like Jessie in The Other Side of Through, I have found my own way in life whenever I've made my way to a wooded path. There is just something about trees that make me feel safe, protected and a part of creation. Through the years, I've complained about living in Florida and it wasn't until recently that I realized what it is about Florida that I don't like: It's the fact that, for the most part, I don't have access to the huge, towering trees of my childhood. Trees whose limbs I could climb in or whose leafy branches I could sit beneath. Trees that bore fruit that I could reach up and grab. Filling my mouth with the very taste of God. Yes, many of you will argue that Florida has trees, but, in my opinion, it's not the same sitting beneath a palm tree or a citrus tree.

Trees truly are symbols to help guide me--no, all of us-- in life. Almost every major religion and faith uses the tree as a symbol of humanity and creation. The Bible, The Qur'an and other sacred books speak of The Tree of Knowledge or the Tree of Good and Evil. This tree, whose branches reach up toward the sky, connect the heavens to the earth. It is the fruit from the tree that represents the choices we make-- some better than others--but we always have the freedom to make those choices. Like trees, we are constantly growing. I am not speaking of the growth spurts we have as we move from infancy to childhood or childhood to adolescence, rather the growth we make as we live our lives in an attempt to truly live and to finally get it right. I believe God put trees on earth to remind us of these lessons.

Scientists say that they can tell the age of a tree by counting it's annual rings, but more importantly they can read between the lines of those annual rings to discern even more information. They can learn the climate of the area, whether or not there was sufficient rainfall, and they can learn about parasites and other trauma that the tree may have sustained. Isn't that the same in our lives? We can look at the beautiful faces of people who have lived through some stuff, but we can also read between the lines. We can learn so much from laugh lines and furrowed brows.

The most obvious symbol is that trees bear fruit. It may be an apple, an orange, an olive or a pomegranate. It may not actually be something we eat, like an acorn or a pine cone, but trees produce something. Just like the tree, each of us is producing something in our lives that is meant to sustain someone else. Is the fruit that you're producing helping someone grow as you are growing? Are the trees you're eating from yourself sustaining you or is it time to do some pruning in your life? Do you need to cut back those areas that are not producing what you need or perhaps you need to feed from another vineyard or orchard.

So, as I sit beneath my favorite tree and write this, I realize that I must be a tree and stay planted near all that sustains me so that I can produce fruit at the appointed time that helps someone else.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

I Can't Change the Outcome, Only My Outlook

There for a moment I took hit after hit from a series of unfortunate events. It seemed that as soon as I recovered from one blow, life took another swing and once again I was knocked to my knees. Over and over again I called out to God "What is the lesson?" and of course my pleas were met with silence. So many times I needed a burning bush moment and all I heard were crickets in the midst of the silence. I was desperate for some answers because I wanted to hurry up and learn the lesson so I wouldn't keep repeating the same painful experiences. Finally while journaling one morning I had an epiphany. It seemed that all of my bad luck could be grouped into one category: lack. I never seemed to have enough of something. Whether it was money, time, energy, faith, my tank was always running on empty. That's an easy fix I reasoned, so I changed how I thought about what I had. I began to show gratitude and appreciation for what I was given even if I felt I needed more. I was confident that I had learned the lesson and then I received a one two punch that didn't knock me on my knees. Instead I landed flat on my back.
I was devastated. Shouldn't I be able to move on if I understood the problem? I was a good student, I reasoned, why couldn't I proceed to the next life lesson? Finally God spoke to me, but it wasn't the larger than life Morgan Freeman voice that I expected. It was a still small voice that sounded very much like my own. "Michelle," it whispered, "how are you reacting when you don't have enough?"
Aha! It wasn't that I didn't understand the principle of gratitude, it was that any time I was faced with a problem I would freak out. I would go into a full tailspin until I figured out a way to fix the problem. What all of those setbacks were showing me was that I needed to change my reaction to the bad event. There was nothing I could do to change the event itself because bad things happen and that's just a part of life, but I could change my reaction!
As you know, I am a teacher, so I feel compelled to teach those things that I have learned. I'm by no means declaring that I've learned all of life's lessons, but I have learned this one and I want to make sure you learn it too. Here's the lesson: There is nothing you can do to change a bad event in your life, but you can change how you react to it. If someone cuts you off in traffic, smile. If your pay check is too small, smile. If your lover leaves you, smile. If you burn dinner, smile. It's all good so count it all  joy.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Never Let A Fool Kiss You or a Kiss Fool You and Other Lessons Learned

Former talk show host and media mogul Oprah Winfrey always finds a way to ask the signature question "what do you know for sure?" to the high profiled guests she interviews. This has me thinking about the lessons I've learned through my own experiences or by bearing witness to the pain of others close to me. These are the things that  I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, to be true. I apologize in advance for the crude way I've worded some of these lessons, but life doesn't sugarcoat it when it's being taught, so I'm not going to try to make it sound fancy.

Lesson One: Never Let a Fool Kiss You or A Kiss Fool You
Sometimes a kiss is just a kiss and there is absolutely no emotion behind it. A kiss is not a commitment or a promise and it's important to learn how to separate the two. All too often people,especially women, put too much meaning into gestures that are just that, gestures. Even worse is that we allow people access to our bodies without knowing exactly what kind of person they really are. It's not always the love making that means anything, but the person's non-sexual actions that show where his or her heart really is. Furthermore, it takes time to really get to know someone and physical contact can cloud judgment.  The bottom line is don't kiss (or have sex with) someone who you are unsure about. Take sometime to really get to know them before the intimacy. If you've decided to wait until marriage, perfect, but if you haven't, my advice is to slow down and make sure that the person wants you and not just that part of you and also be absolutely sure you want them.

Lesson Two: Don't Give It All Away
No, I'm not referring to that age old question "Why buy the cow when the milk is free?" What I'm suggesting is that we learn to give from our abundance. Through the years I've seen others, and I've been guilty myself, of giving what they don't have. Like so many, I've volunteered my time and my energy when my body, mind and spirit needed rest. I've given above tithes and offerings for the "whatever fund" and then worried if my bills were going to get paid. What I've learned is that it is important to give, but we also have to give to ourselves. We have to make sure that we make ourselves as much of a priority as anyone else. If we need something, then we deserve it. Please hear me because I am not talking about material things nor am I promoting selfishness. What I am proposing is that we take care of our emotional, spiritual, physical and fiscal needs before giving it all away. You can't give what you don't have so stop trying.

Lesson Three: If You Haven't Given Birth to Me, Married Me or Financed Me, Then Your Opinion of Me Doesn't Really Matter
I'm not sure exactly when it happened, but somewhere along the way I stopped trying to please everybody. Of course I'm concerned with what my mother, husband, children and employers think about the public choices I make, but other than that I really don't care. Through the years I spent a great deal of my time hoping that people would like me. I tried to always be agreeable and polite and bent over backwards to accommodate other's needs. Unfortunately, there were people who didn't like me because of the way I looked, the car I drove, the way I spoke or whatever and there was absolutely  nothing I could do to please them. So I stopped. If someone likes you, great. If they don't, two tears in a bucket...I wouldn't suggest that you upset your mother, your children, your spouse or employer by your words or actions, but I wouldn't spend a lot of time worrying about what others think. Everyone has an opinion about you, and it's just that-an opinion. And like noses everyone has one.

Lesson Four: Chocolate Really Can Make Things Better
If I'm sad, chocolate will lift my spirits. I don't care if it's dark, white or milk, Hershey's or Godiva it  makes me happy. On those occasions when I feel sorry for myself I consume as much chocolate as I want. Sometimes it's Hagen Daz chocolate ice cream and other times it's chocolate covered peanuts. Regardless, it's the adult equivalent of a pacifier and it comforts me for a while. Thankfully, this doesn't happen often. Otherwise I would be obese. Also, when others are sad, I've found that a piece of chocolate can brighten their day.

Lesson Five: You Can Tell A lot About a Person by the Way They Speak to the Help
People can put on their best manners when talking to the Chairman of the Board or the most important guest in the room, but do they value the person who cleaned the toilet, mowed the grass or cooked the food? People who are only impressed by titles always let their true colors show when they have to deal with anyone who they deem as unimportant. I avoid these fake people at all costs because they're opportunists. They don't care about the individual's worth, only their net worth.

Lesson Six: Trust But Verify
U.S. President Ronald Regan often used this phrase when discussing the tense U.S.-Soviet relationship in the 1980s. Like President Reagan, I want to believe what people tell me, but I've learned that if I don't verify what people tell me as "truth" then shame on me. It's my responsibility to discover the truth for myself.

Life is full of lessons, but these are the first seven. Thankfully I'm still learning.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Friday, April 6, 2012

Happy Birthday to Me (And if You Add Another Candle I Swear I'll Kill You)

Driving home from Orlando today I returned a phone call from my longest and dearest friend, Natalie. She'll appreciate that I didn't say oldest because that was, after all, the topic of our conversation. She and I will both be celebrating birthdays this month and as we joked, it seems like just yesterday we were 4.

Now don't get me wrong. I am thrilled to be celebrating my 44th birthday on Monday! I'm healthy, I'm happy and I have the love of family and friends, which truly makes me wealthy. But damn. How did I get to be middle aged? Seriously, it seems like just yesterday I was trying to decide what I was going to wear to Prom and whether or not I wanted to have children when I grew up. But grow up I did, and two children later, I try not to be angry when my daughter sashays in front of me in a bikini with her perfect little body and comments on some imperfection of mine. Doesn't she realize my body looks like this because of HER!!!

How is it that I now have a career and a mortgage and very adult responsibilities, but I don't feel grown up at all? Of course I feel mature, but I don't remember actually growing up. I remember all of the milestones...the first kiss, the first time I drove a car on my own, my first date, my first college party, and the list goes on, but I honestly don't remember the passage of time. Was I so busy doing life that I missed it?

Other than the occasional gray hairs that insist on raising their fists in victory along my hairline, and the tiny lines that are slowly creeping around my eyes, I don't really see the passage of time when I look in the mirror. I see it instead when I look at my loved ones. I see it at family gatherings: The adults who once sat me at the children's table are now the ones whose food I have to cut in small pieces so they can chew it easily.  I see it my children who speak such words of wisdom about things they see happening in the world and how they wish to make a difference. So full of youthful indignation and optimism they are!  I see it also when I meet up with friends who I have not seen in a while and the passage of time is clearly written across their faces, and I'm sure they see it on mine.

Although I joke about growing older and watching my youth fade, I am truly grateful for every birthday because it means that I've spent another year on this earth learning more about what it means to be human. I honestly don't mind that I'm no longer 24 (or 34 for that matter) because I am finally at a place in my life where I love me! Imperfections and all! I'm old enough not to take myself too seriously and to understand that every day is a gift.

On Monday, there will be cake and lots of well wishes, too. I am sure I will receive phone calls and texts and birthday messages on Facebook and Twitter. Most likely there will be gifts, but there isn't really anything I want other than to be able to appreciate -truly experience-every day of my 44th year!