Starting over from scratch? Don’t forget your plastic shark.

Eight years ago this summer my family was evacuated from our home in Littleton while the Hayman fire raged just miles away.

When the call came to prepare to evacuate, I alerted my two children and we began scouring the house for valuables. Within minutes, a pile of things-too-precious-to-leave-behind had been accumulated by the front door.

The first thing I noticed was the inflatable plastic shark.

I said, “What’s this shark doing here? We can’t take an inflatable shark.”

Kacie, seven, looked at me like I had just suggested sacrificing her sister to a pagan volcano god. She said, “Mom, I LOVE that shark. We CAN’T leave him here to die in the fire!”

Not wanting to provide more fodder than I already do for my daughters’ sessions with their future therapists, we kept the shark.

Kaitlyn, fifteen, added cheer poms and her favorite goose down pillow.

I grabbed the avocado green Kitchen Aid mixer that sat in my mom’s kitchen for years. When my grandmother died, her avocado green Kitchen Aid got passed down to my mom, who then gave me her own. Under those circumstances, what woman wouldn’t save a mixer from a fire?

We rounded up the dogs, fish, photo albums and Kacie’s collection of several thousand Chuck E Cheese prize tickets (she’s saving for the Grand Am).

Kaitlyn rescued the Texas license plate she had salvaged from our former car.

And as we were pulling away from the house, Kacie beamed and brandished a small plastic bag of gum and said, “Look, Mom, I saved the Double Bubble!”

I said, “Thank God. Now we won’t have to turn around.”

We were lucky. We had several hours to gather our treasures. But what surprised me was the ease with which I left the rest behind.  Thousands of dollars of placemats, trinkets, compact disks, doodads, artificial plants, sofas, paintings, office equipment, books, kitchen gear, video games and more.  The stacks of mail order catalogs I love to save.  Forty-seven pairs of shoes. The lamps I bought at Target. Stuff that—as I lingered in the doorway on my way to the car—I realized I could live without.

We spent the next two weeks staying with family in Colorado Springs. Every day we eyed smoky skies and watched the news. As the fire continued to spread, I tried to prepare my daughters for the worst. I said, “Years from now, out of the blue, you’ll suddenly remember something that was lost in the fire, something precious you’d forgotten about until that moment. When that happens, take a moment to think about it—close your eyes, take a deep breath—then let it go.”

We are not unlike small planets, each one of us our own center of gravity. As we orbit through life, we gather things to us: Belongings. Relationships. Dreams. These things in hand, we take great pains to build some sort of personal civilization for ourselves.

But sometimes we lose it all and have to start from scratch.

We were lucky. Our house was spared. But it did make me wonder about the things we keep and the things we can’t. Remember the ol’ icebreaker standby? “If you were stranded on a desert island and could only take three things with you, what would they be?” Sometimes it stops being a game.

Desert island. Divorce. Wildfire. Death of a loved one. Bankruptcy. Loss of a home or job.  Health crisis. Whatever. Sometimes the worlds we’ve crafted crash and burn and we have to begin again.

If we’re lucky, we get to carry a few treasures from the world we lost to seed the one we’ve yet to build. But even when we don’t, well… we’re a hardy lot. We grieve. We survive. In time, we can even thrive again.

With or without our inflatable sharks.

Endings: The birth pangs of brand new things?

Undoubtedly you’ve had times in your life when something has crashed and burned. Maybe it was a dream you were pursuing. Or a relationship you valued. Or maybe even your own hope, happiness and joy as you experienced a season of burnout or even depression.

Think back on those times. Revisit those ashes. Kick around in the rubble a little. What gems are hiding there? Is there a tenacious flower that has taken root despite and loss? Is it growing stubbornly up through the debris, waiting to be transplanted to more fertile ground? Sometimes the ashes and rubble of our worst experiences yield unexpected treasure.

Take a few minutes to make a list of some of the darkest experiences in your life. Now write down any longings, new visions, goals, convictions or desires that came from those experiences. Some dreams need to die, to be sure. Some deserve to be resurrected. Others, in their death, give birth to new and different longing. The truth is that endings and beginnings are one and the same.

I know you’ve experienced endings in your life. The question remains: What new beginnings are waiting to be pursued?

–From the book Only Nuns Change Habits Overnight by Karen Linamen

An uncommon cure for the common binge

Whenever I’m working at my computer, I reach for the junk food.

Oh sure, I try to stem this mindless urge, but it’s not easy.  Every time I fire up my computer, a rumbling murmur somewhere in my head says Feeeed meeee.

Since apparently I’m most creative while shoveling things into my mouth, I figured I should at least try shoveling healthy foods instead of empty calories. One week I tried munching carrots, ice chips and even tofu. But always by mid-afternoon, the Froot Loops were not only calling my name, they’d convinced the Twinkies, cheese puffs and baking chocolate to join the chorus.

Recently I came up with a new strategy, and I think it might be working. I put a beautiful crystal candy bowl next to my computer and filled it with snacks. Not just any snacks, mind you. These are very special snacks—crunchy and flavored like chicken.

The first time I did this, it took me less than an hour to absent-mindedly empty the dish.

Before long, however, the same bowl began taking longer to empty. These days, it lasts almost a week, sometimes longer. What this means is that I’m starting to think about what I’m doing before stuffing things in my mouth. It means my autopilot eating is slowing down. 

I figure if I keep this up, one day my mindless nibbling will be completely under control.

This’ll make a lot of people happy. Like my kids, who are tired of hearing me complain about my weight. And my therapist, who supports all (okay, some) of my zany self-improvement schemes. And definitely my dog, Buddy, who looks really confused every time I refill my candy bowl from his box of doggie treats.

–From the book Only Nuns Change Habits Overnight by Karen Linamen

Think you’ve failed? Think again (or ask an 8-year-old)

One day I overheard this conversation between my eight year old and her best friend, Rachel. They were talking about a friend of theirs who was learning how to skate.

Rachel said, “And then she let go of the rail and teetered and started to fall…”

My daughter said breathlessly, “Did she catch herself?”

Rachel said thoughtfully, “Yes, she caught herself, but her rump was on the ground when she did.”

Apparently, in kidville, even in the midst of abject failure, humiliation (and possibly a chipped tailbone) there’s still room to say, “Woohoo! Good job! You turned it around just in time!”

I want to be eight again. Except maybe taller. And with all my adult teeth. And I’d be ever so grateful if I could keep my drivers license and credit cards.

And my kids. I wouldn’t want to give them up either.

Now that I think about it, the only thing I’d like to reclaim from those years is a childlike perspective that lets me see magic in the mundane, possibilities around every corner, and cause for celebration even in the midst of what looks strangely like failure.

You accumulate a few birthdays, get a degree, get a job, suffer through a few of life’s not-so-fairy-tale endings, spend a few hundred hours on a therapist’s couch, pay a few mortgages, raise a couple kids and buy your first bottle of Rogaine and you start to think you’re all grown up.

Now wouldn’t that be a crying shame.

Can one word cure grumpiness and stress? Try it and find out.

I woke up this morning, thought about the day ahead of me, and groaned. Couldn’t I just stay in bed instead?

Not that there was anything particularly horrible on my plate today. Just a mish-mash of administrative tasks, loose ends and errands. I found myself thinking stuff like this: “Let’s see…I have to make that deposit. Oh, and I have to finish that report and get it to my clients. I have to put that roast in oven AND I have to take my kids to buy shoes for school!”

I felt stressed! I was exhausted before my day even got started.

Then something occured to me. I decided to make one small change. Suddenly my entire world seemed brighter.

The change I made was very simple. In fact, it involved just one word. In my self-talk, I replaced the word “have” with the word “get.” Suddenly I had a whole new perspective on my day as I began thinking things like this:

“Let’s see…I get to make that deposit!”

“Oh, and I get to finish that report and get it to my clients.” (Thank God I have clients!)

“I get to put a roast in the oven AND I get to take my kids to buy shoes for school!”

Wow! Suddenly these tasks seemed more akin to opportunities than obligations. I went from feeling stressed… to feeling blessed!

Try it some day. In fact, why not try it today?

Sometimes a small change can make all the difference in your world.

So you made a bad choice. Don’t make another.

Something painful just happened.

Maybe you lost your waistline or your temper or your biggest client. You failed someone you love. A friend said something mean. You picked up a bad habit. You picked a fight. You picked door number three when all the really great prizes were behind door number one.

Is there anything good you can glean from the experience?

Did you learn something? Grow in some way? Did you handle something in a way you can be proud of later? Did you model something healthy for your kids? Did you keep your wits about you? Handle something with integrity? If not, did you handle your mistake well, eventually seeking accountability or forgiveness or resolution?

We all mess up. And when we do, we have a choice. We can remember the mistake, failure or wound. Or we can remember the growth that occured as a result. The first option hurts. The second heals. The choice is ours.

Swimming in the blue world of grief


Several years ago I faced the excruciating task of freeing my heart from a terminally broken relationship. I walked five miles a day, gave myself pep talks, reinvented my looks, joined a book club and deleted our pictures from  my phone. Some days all that stuff helped. Some days it didn’t.

One day, during a summer thunderstorm, I flung open my bedroom window, sat on my bed and listened to “Refuge” by Vas, one of the most haunting songs I know. The stormy weather seemed to transform my room, and I felt immersed in the elements. The air felt cool and damp, my room smelled like earth and rain, and sometimes all I could hear was the thunder and noise of the rain pelting the forest outside my window.

Anyone watching might have assumed I was wallowing in sadness. But I knew different. In holding my breath and swimming just below the surface of my sorrow, I was searching for a portal. My skin tingled and I felt a sense of anticipation, as if any moment I might find what I was looking for and swim to the other side.

Sometimes there is an invisible veil between us and what we long for. That day, in the midst of the steady rain, that veil seemed to take on shape and substance, as if the elements that usually kept it hidden were being washed away. It felt close, both earthy and ethereal, and I couldn’t help but feel that, if it could be seen, perhaps it could be penetrated, like a membrane, like a birth. Employing all my senses, I drew as near as I could, then nearer still, yearning to break through to the other side.

I think grieving is a baptism of sorts. Submerged, we swim below the surface of our sorrow, searching for portals, for treasures lost, for the way back home.

I’m all for rising above our circumstances. But sometimes, before we rise, we need to grieve. Eventually the need for air and light and life forces us back to the surface, where we catch our breath before diving again. In time, our hours beneath the surface grow shorter and less frequent. Then one day it dawns on us that the blue world of grief has stopped calling our names altogether.

Unexpected leg of the journey

Whew! What a trip! This afternoon I flew back into town after speaking twice to 500 wonderful women in Mountain Home, Arkansas, then drove to Zios Italian Restaurant to meet family and friends for my dad’s 77th birthday. Walking back through the rainy parking lot after dinner, I found the window on my Explorer smashed and my laptop stolen.

Driving home from the restaurant, my daughter Kacie and I prayed about it and, a few minutes later in our kitchen, we prayed again with nephews Isaac and Hunter and friend Bradley. Our prayer began with us asking God why He would allow something like this happen, and telling Him how upset we were.

Somewhere in the middle of our prayer we acknowledged that the computer wasn’t ours anyway, but belonged to God. We also admitted that God wasn’t responsible for this mess, and that if anyone could bring something good out of it, He could.

By the time we said “Amen” we were actually excited the thief was sitting there in possession of God’s computer! We began praying that the Holy Spirit would be all over it and him, and that he would feel such conviction—not about the theft—but about that empty place inside that drives him nuts that only God can fill! We even prayed that he/she would watch the DVD that was in my computer bag containing video of the two speeches I gave in Arkansas, speeches in which I start out with a comedy routine and end up telling my audience about the difference God can make in their lives, especially when life feels crazy or hard.

I don’t know how God will use today’s little incident in the life of the guy who’s now in charge of the laptop I was blessed to use for several years. But I know how God has used this experience so far in my life. I—and my daughters, nephews and friend Bradley, too—got the rich experience of going from feeling victimized to victorious, all in the space of a prayer, maybe two. And it’s dawning on me that’s a trip worth making any day.

Good news all around: Bradley bought the farm. And I’m not going to.

So I get this phone call today. Good news: Weird-skin-thing beneath my left eye is not melanoma, but garden-variety basal cell skin cancer. Bad news: Doc says removing it all might prove interesting, being so close to the tear duct and all. My friend Bradley cuts to the chase: “What’s your worst fear?”

My first thought is, Gee, couldn’t you have come with something a little more positive?   But I don’t say that. I answer the question. “Disfigurement,” I say.

He continues playing Farmville on Facebook.  A few minutes later, without even looking up from his game, he says, “Whew. Disfigurement, that’s a tough one.”  And suddenly we’re both laughing.

And I realize something.  Bradley’s question was the right one. Because now there’s nothing lurking unsaid in the shadows. My worst fear is on the table for both of us to see. And look–we’re still laughing. In fact, Bradley just harvested a pumpkin and bought a cow. And oddly enough, I feel better already.

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