Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The waning light

Candles light up the dark (1)

The year is winding down. The morning light doesn't come until almost 7am, and it's dark by dinner time. Each night is a bit longer, each day that much shorter. Soon it'll be the longest night... but not yet.

I used to have real issues with depression in December and January. I would be horribly down and prone to crying throughout the entire time. Sometimes I would blame it on external issues (family fights, stress at work, missing a loved one) but that really wasn't the problem. The problem was that my body wasn't dealing well with the low levels of natural daylight and the resulting drop in vitamin D levels in my system.

I would be miserable, and I would drag everyone else along with me. I would snap, shout, burst into tears without warning, and generally make everyone walk on eggshells around me. I don't do that anymore, though.

Part of my getting better was admitting that I had an issue. I started taking an anti-depressant, which has helped me find my own humanity again. I still have ups and downs, but they're not spikes and extremes. For a long time, I felt shame over "failing" to improve my body's chemistry on my own. I think that was a part of the depression, too. Now, I take my pills and slowly work my daily magic to get myself to a place where the pills can go away. But not yet, and not without careful consideration.

The other part of my getting better was that I added things to my lifestyle designed to make me feel more human. Once the darkening days set in, I switch out my usual bedside lamp for a "daylight" lamp. It provides the right kind of light for my body to create its own seretonin and vitamin D. I use it each evening as I read in bed, or work on my cross stitch, or watch a bit of something on Netflix. It helps. I also eat better, exercise, and take a vitamin D supplement. Goodness knows that those three things have done as much for me as anything else!

No matter how good your intentions, though, it's hard to exercise and eat well when you're down in the dark doldrums. It's a cycle, an unfortunate and terrible one. The darkness makes you depressed, which makes you not want to eat right or exercise or do the things you ought to, which makes the depression worse. There has to be a break in the cycle in order to get out of it. For me, the ladder out of my depression pit was my anti-depressant. Armed with a bit of mental space, I was able to make the changes that would begin the slow repair of my body and psyche.

I still have dark days. I cry when I miss my daughter, and I sometimes regret old decisions. I get upset over things, or frustrated with family members. Those dark times are nothing, though, in comparison to what I used to experience.

December is the time when the most people commit suicide. The holidays, when there's such terrible pressure on everyone to look happy and buy buy buy!... well, it doesn't do good things for the depressed person. If you or someone you know is suffering from depression, don't hide it. Reach out. There are people at the National Suicide Hotline (1-800-273-8255) all the time.

I know it's scary. I know it hurts. I know it seems impossible. I've been there. I know that the idea of having to be strong for one more minute is a type of torture. Please... don't give up. There are people who care about you. *I* care about you. Hold on, and don't hesitate to ask for help if you need it.

Check back often for prayers, spiritual musings and all manner of religious discussion and talk. If you have questions or comments, please write to me below. I love to answer questions! If you purchase items I have linked through ads or Amazon, I receive an affiliate portion of the sale. If you find the items are useful, please purchase from my site!
You may also be interested in:

How do you give thanks?
Crafts as a spiritual practice
The power of helping
And you've got a job...
Women of Faith

1) Image by Michael Henderson / Wikimedia Commons

Friday, November 16, 2012

How do you give thanks?

Thanksgiving prayer - 1942 (1)

Can you believe it's only a week until Thanksgiving Day? In the past 100 years or so, Thanksgiving has become much less of a time for giving thanks, and much more of a time to gear up for the crass commercialism of what is known as "the holiday season." So many have forgotten what Thanksgiving is supposed to be about.

Americans spend hundreds of dollars per family on Thanksgiving meals. The statistics are frightening. While it is still a time of getting family together, it's also a time of over-eating and excess. The 'thanks' is long gone for most, to our country's detriment.

Basting (2)
Instead of talking turkey this year, why not take the time to learn about the real history of our modern day Thanksgiving? Why not spend a bit of time in prayer, together, as a family? Why not take the time to think of others over this holiday?

There are several stories associated with Thanksgiving celebrations in American history. Most of them are not positive stories, not filled with joy and happiness, with peaceful Indians and joyful Pilgrims dining together. Most include massacres of some kind, stereotypes that range from silly to downright insulting, violent 'gratitude' by Pilgrims, and the death of thousands of Native Americans by plague and pox brought over by the Europeans.

These sad stories, horrible stories, need to be remembered. The Wampanoag tribe of Indians, the descendants of those met with the first Pilgrims in the 1600s, spend our Thanksgiving Day as a day of mourning over their lost people. For them, it is not a celebration but a funeral.

We don't live in the 1600s, though. We live here, today. It is important to remember the past, both horrors and gratitude, but we must also learn from it and move forward. There will always be those who celebrate football on Thanksgiving, and those who mourn the death of people 400 years ago. We can't (and shouldn't, in my opinion) attempt to change that. What we can do, and should do, is take back Thanksgiving as a time of interfaith prayer and gratitude, of true thanks.

Bush pardoning the turkey (3)
This time of year, as the weather gets colder, we spend more time indoors with one another. Stress levels go up, and being cooped up together sometimes means that colds and flus go through the family like wild-fire. This can add to the desire to spend Thanksgiving over-eating and ignoring one another, but it doesn't have to be so. There are many things we can do to alleviate the difficulties surrounding the Thanksgiving feast and its associated problems.

Remember, you don't have to roast a turkey. Not everyone does! If you want turkey but don't feel up to cooking a whole one, you can purchase a breast only, or even go out and buy a pre-cooked one. Alternatively, you can cook it a week or two ahead of the feast, and then thaw it and warm it in the oven for an hour or two before serving it (just don't stuff it if you're going to do this!). Perhaps you don't want anything to do with turkey, which is alright too. Pick up a ham, or even a pizza! Have a pot-luck meal instead of preparing it all yourself, and ask someone else to do the heavy cooking. Or go non-traditional and have turkey meatballs or turkey salad from the deli instead of a roasted turkey. There are so many options, so don't let your own sense of tradition or pride push you into something that isn't going to add to family harmony.

Take some time for yourself, either the day before or the day of Thanksgiving. Even ten minutes of quiet time in meditation or reading a favorite book or stitching away at your favorite craft will help with the pressure. Don't be afraid to ask the rest of the family to pitch in, either. Even small children can help out with decorations, putting tablecloths on, or setting out the plates and cutlery (though with small ones, avoid the knives).

Thanksgiving 1870 (4)
When you sit down to eat, have everyone hold hands for a moment. Acknowledge that, whoever you have around your table, they are a part of your spiritual family in some way. While there's no need for a long, religious prayer (unless you want one!), pausing to say thank you to everyone for their help, their support, and their love is a great way to begin a meal.

Don't rush through your food. The football game (and dessert) can wait until later. Relax and enjoy the fruits of the season that grace your table. Taste everything you want to. Chew slowly, and savor the flavors and the way they enhance one another. Enjoy the talk around the table, and join in as you feel called. Ask people politely to avoid contentious subjects while at the table, and stick to things that promote happiness. Share your successes, tell funny stories about your children when they were little or what Aunt Jillian did three years ago. Revel in family.

The two great classes (5)
If you happen to be part of American society that isn't living as fat off the hog as others, turkey may not be something you can afford (although at $0.49/lb at the moment, it might be time to pick some up!). Certainly the wide variety of fresh organic produce in the grocery store isn't always affordable for some of us. Whatever the situation you live in, this can still be a time for the giving of thanks. Dig deep, and find within you something that brings you joy or a smile, something that has bettered your life.

Whether you sit down to a six course meal or home-made mac'n'cheese doesn't matter. What does matter is that you are where you are. Your family might be husband and wife with 2.3 kids, or a gay couple and friends, or a mom and her children alone on Base because hubby is out fighting a war somewhere.

Take the time to be thankful. Take the time to say thank you. Remember to thank yourself, as well, for all you've done!

Check back often for prayers, spiritual musings and all manner of religious discussion and talk. If you have questions or comments, please write to me below. I love to answer questions! If you purchase items I have linked through ads or Amazon, I receive an affiliate portion of the sale. If you find the items are useful, please purchase from my site!
You may also be interested in:

Crafts as a spiritual practice
The power of helping
And you've got a job...
Women of Faith
The Power of We 

1) Photo by Marjory Collins. Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress) / Wikimedia Commons
2) Photo by Ethan Lofton / Wikimedia Commons
3) Photo by  Chris Greenberg (White House) / Wikimedia Commons
4) Photo by American Broadsides and Ephemera, Series 1 / Wikimedia Commons
5) Image by Winslow Homer Collection / Wikimedia Commons

Friday, November 9, 2012

Crafts as a spiritual practice

My current project

Despite the historical inaccuracies, I love Marrion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon. Every time I pick it up (and I do so every couple of years, inevitably), I find some new insight, some niggling thing that applies Right Now to my spirituality or my practices. Today, it's the using of crafts (knitting, spinning, weaving, cross stitch and embroidery, sewing, and more) as a method of finding the trance-like state that calms the mind and soul. Sometimes, that trance brings visions, and other times "just" healing and serenity, but it doesn't matter which, to me.

There's a bit near the end of the first third of the book where Morgaine is spinning wool into thread for sewing and such. She has an internal monologue talking about how she hates spinning because, ". . . twisting, turning the thread in her fingers, willing her body to stillness with only her fingers twisting as the reel turned and turned, sinking to the floor . . . down and then up, twist and twist between her hands . . . all too easy it was to sink into trance." (Bradley, Marion Zimmer. The Mists Of Avalon. New York: Del Rey, 1983. Print.)

For me, that ability to be still except for my fingers is what makes doing crafts (especially cross stitch or Zentangles) so enjoyable. During the summer, I find my quiet moments in the garden, among the growing plants and the dirt and weeds. In the autumn, there's canning and dehydrating and cooking and preserving to occupy my mind. Winter is my craft time, though, the time when I immerse myself in making gifts and taking the time to look at my inner lights.

Last night, I played music on my Android phone and picked up my latest cross stitch project. I've been working on it for a couple of weeks now, in between herding children, dealing with possible storm issues, cooking, cleaning, and editing the work over at Troglodite's blog. It was nice to sit for an hour, sip tea, and stitch.

As I slide the needle up and down through the Aida cloth, I find my mind wanders silently. There's less chatter and my "thinking brain" starts to shut down. My body stops needing to shift incessantly. I narrow down to the pattern and the needle and thread, up and down, all one direction, then back again in the other direction.

I'm not prone to visions, as Morgaine was in the book, but I can definitely see how certain types of crafts could bring about visions in someone who has talent in that sphere. As a meditative skill it's invaluable, in my opinion. Just sitting and concentrating on your navel works for some people, but never really has for me. I prefer things like tai chi and yoga, meditative walking, ecstatic dance, and crafts. They keep my body and "thinking brain" entertained while the rest of me gets on with the business of meditating and calming down.

I don't think it matters what your craft is, to be honest. If you like to sew, then sew. I get the same benefit out of hand-piecing a quilt top as I do out of cross stitch (though using the sewing machine is a completely different thing). You might get it from knitting or crocheting.

When you indulge in a craft, you are not only allowing your creative juices to flow, you are allowing your mind and body to become more serene and relaxed. The health benefits, both mental and physical, are wonderful. Never thing that you're only "wasting" some time doing "nothing productive" because you couldn't get any farther from the truth.

What's your favorite craft? What do you indulge in? What's the "chocolate" of crafts for you? Why do you like it, and what does it do for you on all the various levels?

Check back often for prayers, spiritual musings and all manner of religious discussion and talk. If you have questions or comments, please write to me below. I love to answer questions! If you purchase items I have linked through ads or Amazon, I receive an affiliate portion of the sale. If you find the items are useful, please purchase from my site!
You may also be interested in:

The power of helping
And you've got a job...
Women of Faith
The Power of We
National Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The power of helping

Hurricane Sandy, 2012 (1)
New Hampshire was spared the worst of the damage from the recent hurricane. Most people didn't lose power, and of those who did, most had it restored within a few hours. The news this morning reported that the last of the power outages will be restored by tomorrow morning at the latest. There were no deaths that I'm aware of, and there was no rioting or looting. Thanks to All Divine for us getting the luck of the draw for this particular storm.

The people in New Jersey and NYC weren't so lucky. Not only was there massive flooding, there were fires in NYC that left 300 families without homes. There are states of emergency declared all over the place to the south of us, and power is still out to thousands of people. People in NYC have been told some of them might not get power back for another ten days.

I have many former seminary classmates and minister friends who are helping those who were left homeless from this storm. I agree wholeheartedly with helping out. It's terrible to think that might be us.

I have to admit, though, that I find myself wondering why some of (or perhaps most of) these people didn't help themselves to begin with. I know some of my readers may see that as a callous statement, but I need it to be said. I need to discuss this, and I invite comments.

The Battery tunnel (2)
Warnings about the hurricane began over a week before it actually reached our shores. FEMA and other agencies were asking people to stock up on food and water, to have an emergency bag packed, and to be ready to evacuate if you were in a flood prone area. In many places, evacuation orders came hours before Sandy's landfall, and shelters were set up well well in advance. Various pet agencies offered to provide free shelter for the pets of those who had to go to emergency stations, so that even the smallest and most innocent residents would have somewhere safe and relatively dry to be during the storm.

We're not in a flood plain. We're not in a place that's subject to storm surge, being well inland. We don't even get really bad Nor'easters, here. Still, we heeded all the warnings. We bought extra food that was easy to prepare, picked up an extra cylinder of propane for the camp stove and the barbecue grill, fueled up the cars, and made sure there was gas for the generator. We didn't have to pack emergency bags because we always have those ready to go, just in case, but we certainly double checked them to make sure everything needed was still there. We filled up some plastic jugs with water and left them in the bathtub, just in case drinking water was shut off or contaminated in some way.

None of this cost us very much. Food was stuff we would have gotten anyway. Much of it was cheap (eggs and bread, for instance). The propane and fuel were things we'd planned to get anyhow. The water jugs just happened to be on hand, though if they hadn't, I would have used milk jugs or whatever was around.

I find myself asking... why did people get wakened at 2am in NYC to find water on their second floors, and were totally unprepared? The entirety of NYC is a flood plain. Evacuation orders had been given. People were warned. There was ample time for preparation. How could they be in a position that they were required to be evacuated by emergency boats, with nothing more than their night clothing? How could this happen, when all that time and money had been spent to warn them?

I feel bad for those who lost their homes. It was not their fault that storm surges ripped apart the buildings they lived in. The storm was not something they could prevent from happening. Judging by the size of most of the storm surge, even very high breakwaters would not have prevented most of the flooding. Those who lost their homes to fire, too, could not have known that was going to happen.

Avenue C, NYC (3)
Yet every single one of those people should have had a grocery bag or suitcase or backpack with a couple of changes of clothes and a handful of granola bars by their bed. Every single one of them was within the path of the storm that was so clearly defined and illustrated on NOAA and Wunderground. There was no surprise at the storm itself, or the danger it posed. This was not an event that sprung up in the small hours of the night without warning or advanced notice.

I am finding myself wondering, how did we get to a place where we can (as a society) completely ignore warnings and emergency statements? How did we reach a mindset that allows us to blank out the dire, long-range forecasts and evacuation requests? How did we breed a group of people who simply sat there passively while their lives washed away in Sandy?

There's a quote that I feel we need to focus on, right now:
"Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." -- attributed to Confucius
People (and I mean this in a very general, country-wide way, rather than specifically any group of people) today seem to want the fish. They don't want to do the work to catch the fish. They don't want to get up early, pack up the gear, make sure the lines are not tangled, load the tackle box, dig worms, make their way out to the early morning waters, bait their hooks, wait patiently while the fish bite, then come home and clean those fish, prepare them, cook them, and serve them up. They want pre-cooked fish in plastic bags to put in the microwave.

It disturbs me. It interrupts my prayers. How can I pray for someone who didn't even help themselves in a well-marked dangerous situation? The answer is that I pray for them to be well and to learn from their mistakes.

However, I also find myself praying that our country, as a whole, can learn to fish together. The handouts were never meant to be for everyone. They were designed for a small group of people who were in dire straights not of their own design. They were intended to give people room to breathe while they got back on their feet after losing a job, sustaining a life-threatening injury, or a natural disaster like Sandy.

There are people in Cuba and Haiti, Jamaica and the Bahamas who were all affected by Sandy's wrath. I'm not sure how many people have seen images of the destruction there. Yet we don't see the same kind of response there. I realize they don't have our kind of infrastructure for helping their citizenry, but I also see that they expect the people to help themselves.

Yes, disasters happen, and it sucks. That's part of life, unfortunately. You get hurt, you get up, you dust yourself off, and you get on with the business of living. I've lived through things that left me homeless, with all of my "things" (photographs, most of my clothing, books, keepsakes, ID, etc.) destroyed or missing. I found ways to deal, pulled my head out of the sand, and moved on. It wasn't easy, and yes I pissed and moaned during part of it. I was scared, too. I was emotionally hurt, knowing that some of the "things" I loved were gone forever. All the baby pictures of my daughter. All my awards from school. My favorite books. My favorite cookware! Gone. I cried.

But then I picked up my emergency bag and I got moving. I helped others, and I helped myself. So now I find myself in the interesting position of wondering whether I'm somehow emotionally crippled because I am having less sympathy for the people in shelters than I ought to. I did it, and frankly I'm not great at it, so others ought to be able to do it, too.

I'm not asking people to be joyful about disasters, natural or otherwise. They're horrible things, and those affected deserve our help and our prayers. There's a great power in helping others, because it also helps us sustain ourselves. I suppose what I'm asking is that, when we help (because inevitably we will; it's in our nature), we do so in the manner of, "teaching someone to fish," rather than just handing out MREs (or even prayers).

Let's take the time to arm our citizenry with knowledge. I know that's contrary to the current political mess (on both sides of this damned campaign), but it's what NEEDS to be done. Let's make "common sense" common again! Let's work together to show people how to weather a storm, whether it's emotional, physical, or natural. I know that I, for  one, would be on board with that type of plan for our country. Let's stop holding out our hands for things, and start holding our hands out to others to help, help in a useful manner.

Check back often for prayers, spiritual musings and all manner of religious discussion and talk. If you have questions or comments, please write to me below. I love to answer questions! If you purchase items I have linked through ads or Amazon, I receive an affiliate portion of the sale. If you find the items are useful, please purchase from my site!
You may also be interested in:

And you've got a job...
Women of Faith
The Power of We
National Breast Cancer Awareness Month
Books for Halloween

1) Image by The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration / Wikimedia Commons
2) Image by MTA of NYC / Wikimedia Commons
3) Image by David Shankbone / Wikimedia Commons