What I Learned During One of the Toughest Years Ever
Many loathe the ubiquitous years in review that are the staple of December news. I love them. In part, I often miss the significance of events when they are happening. It’s only in reflecting on them after some time that their wider meaning is clear.
For the next few posts, I’m joining journalists and editors the world over by offering a look back at a difficult year and what I learned, or learned at a deeper, more profound level.
In no particular order is a list I’ve been compiling throughout 2011:
1. Never underestimate the need for places of refuge.
I’m grateful to live in gorgeous Colorado where there is easy access to the Rocky Mountains that I love. Nothing beats standing above the treeline at 12,000 feet or more to look out over an expanse of land. A change in altitude boosts my attitude. I always feel better when I am outside among beauty. Give me fresh air. Comfort, and at times healing, have been found on the road to Mt. Evans, in the mountains of Summit County standing atop Loveland Pass, and strolling around the Denver Botanic Gardens. Interestingly enough, I found refuge in the beauty of architecture and ritual at Denver’s Episcopal cathedral, the Cathedral of St. John’s In the Wilderness. That my wilderness journey is made easier by being there seems humorous.
2. Look for Unexpected Gifts.
While difficult, my situation brought many unexpected gifts. Three in particular are most meaningful. For one, this year I’ve been able to explore Colorado and northern New Mexico and have come to know these places in ways I’ve never known others. It’s important for me to connect with the land. The past year, especially the past six months, permitted ample exploration. Then, creative and artistic abilities that didn’t have much opportunity for expression had a chance to come out of the closet, so to speak, growing and, at times, flourishing. Perhaps the most important gift is the removal of aspects of life and self that were unnecessary and unhelpful. Life is a lot less cluttered, freeing me to focus on what’s most important.
3. Accept the Detours.
This summer I didn’t understand detours made to Kansas and New Mexico. Why there? Circumstances and situations didn’t add up. From this vantage point, I am grateful for the several weeks in Kansas. Among other important aspects, it was delightful to spend time with a friend, Nancy. New Mexico seemed like the strangest detour. In the end, it turned out to be the most important path because it led to a great job and the start of a new chapter.
In the old devotional Streams in the Desert, the writer expressed well this aspect: “Sometimes, as part of your education … you must … travel subterranean passages, and lie buried among the dead. … No matter how many twists and turns the road may have, there is always one smooth, straight portion. (p.432-433)
4. Live in the moment.
I’ve lived in limbo, without a sense of what the next day, week or month will be like. When you can’t see your future you quickly get used to living in the moment. I learned to look only at the present day. As a result of living in the moment, I’ve learned to live with ambiguity (at least I’m better at it, but far from perfect). I worry less about some things, and not at all about others.
The Luxury of Less
5. Retain Personal Boundaries.
For some reason, going through long-term difficulties made other people act as if I was incompetent. More than one person attempted to exert control over my life by telling me what was and wasn’t good for me. A few others often attempted to pry into inappropriate areas. In short, there were a lot of attempts at intrusiveness. Reinforcing boundaries with “Nosy Nellys,” required a lot of energy and diligence, but those who didn’t like the boundaries ultimately faded away. That’s not such a bad thing.
6. I Gotta Be Me!
Regardless of outward circumstances, I’m still me. My personality remains the same. My likes and preferences remain intact. My mind works just as well as it always has. For the most part, I have the same dreams and aspirations.
Unfortunately, some friends treated me as if I were a social work case, and not the person I’ve always been. They would contact me with questions about life’s basics, but never respond to my queries about them or what was going on in their lives, as is typical in the back and forth between friends. That sort of lopsidedness is a degrading and depersonalizing experience and was hard to endure.
During the past year, I learned to give from who I am rather than what I have or what I can buy. The most honest gifts come from that place within in.
7. It’s True! Laughter Is the Best Medicine.
I’ve been grateful to have a cast of characters among my friends. Laughing with them over a simple meal or on the phone has kept me sane. As one who has avoided TV for most of her life, I’m surprised at the help it’s been. For the past six months I’ve watched hours of Seinfeld reruns. I’ve laughed out loud during Conan, Friends, The Tonight Show and The Big Bang Theory. Vince Vaughn made me forget my troubles during several viewings of The Break-up, Old School, Wedding Crashers, Four Christmases and Fred Claus. Mr. Vaughn, wherever you are, thank you!
8. Difficulties Makes One More Compassionate — Not Necessarily True.
Going through difficulties often make people more patient and compassionate. In general, I’m actually a less compassionate person. Can’t say I’m proud of that, but it’s the truth. There’s something about going through severe difficulties repeatedly that makes me less inclined to empathize with those whose problems are seemingly matters of inconvenience or, at times, the equivalent of little “boo-boos.”
9. It’s What’s On the Inside.
Yes, I have learned about what’s in my heart — the good, the bad and the ugly. And, through the experiences of the past year, I’ve seen glimpses of what’s in the hearts of others. I know who is for me, and who isn’t. At times reality surprised me, evoking a range of emotions. No matter. It’s good to know the truth.
10. Pets Made a Positive Difference
The past year has been better because of two cats, Thomas and Timothy. This summer someone (who isn’t a fan of pets) urged me to get rid of them, as if I could go through with such an action. It was immensely helpful to have these two furry, faithful friends. When I could not adequately care for myself, I could at the very least take care of the cats. By looking after their welfare, life’s beam balanced. Plus, they have been a source of comfort. Until his death in July, Thomas was always keen on curling up as close to me as possible. Timothy, who is full of energy and clownish behavior, has been the catalyst to many conversations with children, hotel housekeepers, and other people who’ve seen him standing guard from windows. At a hotel in Dillon, I’m remembered as the person with the cat in the window.
During a trip to New Mexico in October, I met a nine-year-old Maine Coon mix cat in need of a home since July. After our long wait, he comes home this Saturday. Things are looking up for us all!