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Giving Up versus Letting Go

Giving Up versus Letting Go

I lost a dear friend last week.  She’d gotten weaker and weaker after undergoing one planned then one emergency open-heart surgery in a matter of days.  Her friends are stunned.  Her family is in shock.  This was not the way it was supposed to go.  She was intrepid.  She was stubborn.  She was the one who seemed like she could go on forever.  At 80, she could still rise from a full squat to her feet without touching anything, for god’s sake.

And yet, there came a time when all that she was wasn’t enough.  A time to admit she was too tired to keep fighting to get her life back.

Assessing “what went wrong” is useless.  But this big decision has me looking at all the little decisions we make, where we decide that whatever we have been fighting for is not going to happen. And that made me ask “Is there a difference between letting go and giving up?”

It seems there is.  Letting go is about surrendering control.  Giving up is about surrendering everything.  And there is a time for each.

Letting go clears the way for what’s next.  By no longer focusing on the job you had to have or trying to force real love into a romance that doesn’t come close, you clear the space you need for something much better to come into your life.  Accepting that the real answer is beyond something you can make happen opens up possibilities you can’t even imagine.  You’re betting on a future that’s better than you can create on your own. If you’re authentic with it, what comes next will serve you far better than whatever it is you let go of.

Giving up stops at now.  Giving up says “No more.  I am done with this.”

Eventually we will all get to “giving up.”  But let’s not do it prematurely–when we’re going to go on living despite what we are relinquishing.  When things seem hopeless, it’s the time to surrender, yes.  To wait in the deep velvet fog of  uncertainty for “what’s coming next.”  To trust that it will be what you need.  To open yourself to going beyond your own fences so you can recognize it when it arrives.  It is the time to let go.

But don’t give up when letting go is an option.  Don’t give up on ever having a happy life just because today was close to unbearable.  Accept that what you need may simply be beyond your own thinking–not absent entirely.  Let go and wait for what comes next.

Surrender is part of living life to the max. It resonates with hope and potential. Giving up is the very last resort. Save that for the authentic end.

Thanks for the lesson, Linda.

What Can I Do About Mental Illness?

What Can I Do About Mental Illness?

My youngest brother died a month ago. It was sudden. It was a shock.  But it was somewhat expected.   He hadn’t even made it to 60, but his body was giving up on him.    His mental health was declining even more rapidly.  That was an “elephant in the living room” though.  He’s been mentally ill since grade school but he did not—and would not—acknowledge that.  We all danced around it in trying to relate to and help him—with varying degrees of success and compassion.

Along with the grief and sadness of losing him, I am feeling relief.  He lived on the very edge of our common reality, and that made him vulnerable to every well-muscled redneck with a dislike of “weirdos.”  Now that he’s passed, I can let go of the worry and helplessness of not being able to protect him from 2000 miles away.

But I’m also relieved that I don’t have to try to communicate with him anymore.  It was very hard work.  That relief brings regret—I wish I had done more to make sure he knew I loved him, even if his replies sometimes came in such word blizzards that I couldn’t take them in.

My brother “made it home” without getting beaten up.  He also didn’t hurt someone else—a consequence of mental illness that we are seeing more and more.  The killing rampage at UC-Santa Barbara is just the latest example of how much is wrong for so many.  Why are disenfranchised, angry men (yes, virtually all of the rampages have been instigated by men) deciding the “solution” to their own demons and nightmares is in killing other people?

I can grasp that my brother’s disconcerting behavior was because of illness, and that it wasn’t’ something he chose.  It wasn’t something he could change.  But that didn’t solve the problem.  The illness itself made the likelihood of him agreeing to the help he needed unlikely.  The mentally ill 20-year old who went berserk on the UC-Santa Barbara campus had parents who were desperately trying to get him help.  It wasn’t enough.  What do we do with this problem?  How do we stem this epidemic?

What can I do?  What can any of us do that might make a difference?

Trying to get these individuals to change to what’s more familiar and comfortable to the rest of us does not work.  That’s like expecting a person without legs to grow them because you bought them a new pair of socks.  Getting them to take medications for illness they don’t even think they have is a hard sell.  Plus how much are the meds contributing to the situation?  Side effects can take years to manifest and what’s good for one body might not work in the next one—or the 100,000th one.

Is there a way to mitigate this that starts before the alienation becomes extreme?  Can we do anything to keep this deep, painful version of aloneness from developing?  One idea keeps coming back to me.  Perhaps part of this deluge of horrible personal atrocity starts with a lack of connection that each of us really could be doing something about with very little risk to ourselves.

What would happen if we all tried to be friendlier—even to the kid who’s looking at his shoes the entire time you talk to him?

What would happen if I smiled at strangers?  Would it help if I gave a friendly nod to people who don’t seem to be “like me”?  What would happen if we projected an attitude of acceptance in casual encounters?  Like saying “Hello” or “Hihowareya?” or “Howzitgoin?” to those we pass.  And waving to neighbors.   Maybe offering a simple kindness like letting that meek person with two items who’s behind us at the checkout go first.    Would this start to change if we were all a little warmer automatically?

This year’s commencement speaker at the University of Texas was Admiral William H. McRaven, Commander of Special Operations and a highly decorated Navy SEAL.   As part of his comments, he talked about the compounding effects of what you do to help other people.  His point: if each member of that graduating class did something to improve as few as 10 other people’s lives, they really could “change the world” over generations.  (Check out the whole speech, about 20 minutes long.)

Maybe simply noticing the people who are “not like us” and being friendly is where we need to start with changing this.  We’ll only find out if we try it.


Savoring Summer

Savoring Summer

I just caught myself doing the unthinkable–worrying that summer is going to be over before it’s even started! Time for me to refocus on how to savor the pluses of the moment instead of worrying about what’s likely to come after them.

I live in the Pacific Northwest–with some of the best summer weather you will ever find anywhere. In addition, because of where we sit on the globe, we get really long summer days (balanced, of course, by really short winter days, but we don’t need to get into that right now).  We do have rainy days and cool weather as part of the overall summer pattern, but summer here is largely a matter of moderately warm, mostly dry, and more often than not sunny.

The last few days of May were a delightful hint of what my particular environment will be like for coming months–sunny with highs in the mid- to high 70’s.  As I looked out at all the gorgeous green and listened to the bird song, I caught myself in a disconcertingly negative thought though.  In 20 days, we will begin the progression of shorter days again.  Once summer starts, we’re marching toward winter.

Oh come on!

There is always a progression going on.  Sometimes we know what the next thing is going to be (drizzly gray days that go dark at 5:00).  Sometimes we just project what we’re afraid it’s going to be (boring, scary, not-fun, demanding…whatever).  The point is the same regardless:  When you fail to notice the good stuff going on right now and focus instead on worrying about something less positive that’s on the way, you are squandering your life.

Most of us learn to worry before we even make it to high school.  Noticing that something might go wrong is useful–it gives you a heads-up so you can do what’s needed to make it go right instead.  But not noticing that things are going right at this very moment makes you miss the real sweetness of life–the delight of really living those moments where “all’s right with the world.”  That is a tragic waste.

The sun is shining.  The sky is blue.  The birds are singing.  I’m on it.  I’ll worry about winter later.


Get In (or Out) of the Habit…

Get In (or Out) of the Habit…

Recently a friend insisted I read Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit. What a good friend.  Duhigg deciphers the eternal question of why we do what we do as habit–and translates the physiology and psychology of it into language we can all use to make sense of our lives.

For starters, we can’t totally get rid of those bad habits.  Just willing ourselves not to do that thing anymore usually doesn’t make that change happen for the rest of our lives.  Sometimes, the attempt fails from the get-go.  And when you do pull it off initially, quite often you find yourself right back in the old habit when things get stressful.  (“Mom isn’t doing well with this surgery.  I need a cigarette just this one time….”  Or “Work is insane, and I’ve done a great job of getting rid of that 15 pounds.  I can have a donut….”  We can’t erase old habits, but we can modify them.  Duhigg clarifies that distinction and demonstrates how.

When we get to the point we can “give up work,” habits can become particularly frustrating.  The ones that structured our lives for the sake of doing the job are no longer needed.  Those good habits don’t go away either.  Sometimes, they turn into not-so-good habits in the new context.  During your career years, work came first.  You’re used to getting things done on the job before anything fun even hits the radar.  If you’re giving whatever you’ve substituted for that work the same kind of priority, you’re going to find yourself cleaning the garage on a glorious spring day instead of taking your golfing buddy up on a spontaneous round.  Same deal with fun.  If you’re used to going to the casino every Friday night as entertainment because it was what helped you unwind after the work week, you might be ruling out things that would be even more fun for Friday night because you’re coming from habit instead of conscious choice. (And you may be missing out on fun that happens at the casino venue on other nights of the week.)

Habits help us do what we want to get done.  They are formed and perpetuated in a different part of the brain than conscious choices.  They are far more automatic.  Once in place, you can count on them.  They happen even when you have gotten into one of those maddening “indecision interludes” when even deciding which pair of socks to put on in the morning results in second and third guesses.  Good habits help create the “Good Life” when you’ve retired and the whole day (and week and month and year) is up to you.

We have learned an amazing amount about what happens physically to create a habit.  There’s also a huge body of work about the psychology of human motivation that comes into play.  Duhigg explains all of that well, and it’s worth the time to read just for that.  But he also addresses what most of us really want to know:  How can I have better luck dealing with my own habits–both the bad ones I want to change and the good ones I want to add?

We are all “creatures of habit.”  Willpower enters into the equation, but so does knowing what triggers the behavior and why you find it rewarding.   You can change things more effectively if you understand the process and the pieces of the puzzle.  Duhigg didn’t write the book just for the retirement scenario.  But when we get to making that transition, paying attention to our habits and tweaking them to serve us better in the new territory is a major plus.  If you want to address that challenge, The Power of Habit might make it a lot easier.


About “Experts”

About “Experts”

How much of what we get from people who call themselves “experts” is truly helpful?  We seem to be in a societal groove that assumes “somebody else knows what I should do here better than I do.”  Is that so?  Is that even realistic to assume is possible?

Last week I did a session for a group of life coaches that billed me as an expert (with my concurrence) on non-financial retirement issues.  I did not feel good about that session.  I’ve been trying to figure out why ever since.  What I am discovering is a surprise–and a relief.  I do not want to play the “expert” role.  I do not like being an expert.  I like helping.  Those two things are different.

There’s an old joke that defines expert is the combination of “ex”–a has-been–and “spurt”–a drip under pressure.  Not very flattering.  And probably true more often not.  Why, as a society, do we value “experts” so highly?

The amount of information now available for any significant decision  makes it impossible to have a complete grasp of exactly what’s needed and how to go about making the right things happen single-handedly.   Finding someone to help sort the situation out–so you working with the best information–and to help identify what needs to be done–decisions, actions, etc.–is a major plus.  That kind of expert is a treasure.  Sometimes you pay those people; sometimes they are family members or friends.

Too often these days though, “experts” jump up to offer services before you even ask.  These “expert” practices are designed more to make them money than to give you help. These are the experts you don’t need.

But how do you winnow out the people offering themselves as “experts” who–well intentioned and personally committed as they might be–really aren’t useful to you in what you’re trying to do?

I keep dancing back and forth on this dilemma.  I don’t like the idea of being an expert.  So that devalues the role for me significantly.  But I also know I need help from people better versed in what I am ignorant about but need to get on with.  Right now, my experts include a plumber, an HVAC guy, the folks who will install carpet next week, my accountant, and my financial advisor.  In a few weeks, that list will also include my sons and brothers–who are far better than I am at getting large pieces of furniture from where I am now to where I am going to live then.  These are practical experts.  No problem using them and paying them as the situation dictates.  (Sometimes that’s money; sometimes it’s “Thank you!”)

But every day I am bombarded with people who want to show me how to grow my business, create a better social media presence, lose weight, etc.  These people approach me–which is the first red flag.  If I don’t know I need the help, using it–even if I do get it once I sign the contract–isn’t likely.

Some other red flags:

Does working with this person help?  I’ve spent money on people who didn’t have a clue about what I was trying to do or what the details of my project were–even after I provided information on both.  These people offer the same cookie-cutter solution for any problem a client describes.  If the solution is already laid out in a glossy brochure, it’s probably not the solution you need (unless you’re looking for a product rather than an effective problem-solving process).

Is working with this person about YOU?  The “expert” who goes on and on about what she or he knows isn’t valuable no matter how much he knows and how much he charges.  The focus needs to be on your problem or project, not on how wonderful the expert is.  If you find yourself mesmerized by “war stories” about previous clients and wanting to be them, get outta there!

Is this something someone else could even know how to approach?  Very often, we turn to experts when what we really need is to turn inward and learn our own truth.  Having some well-paid third party tell you to lose weight or ditch the unsupportive significant other or buy a house is so much easier than accepting that reality yourself.  But that other person’s opinion doesn’t get you very far in terms of staying motivated.  A good expert in that kind of context gets you off the dime so that you start to do what needs to be done yourself.

Being an expert is not a good gig.  It’s too easy to get caught up in “being the expert” which dilutes your ability to help solve the current problem well.  So please don’t seek me as an expert.  I can tell you what I see from my perspective in terms of what you’re trying to do.  I can help you find the right information in my area of expertise.  I can explain concepts that you don’t understand and offer insights that I’ve gained from working on the same kind of problem with other people.  But I don’t want to offer you a canned solution or to have you  rely on me to make your decision.  You need to do that.  Period.


Do You Ask for Help?

Do You Ask for Help?

This time of year, we usually have too much to do. But asking for help doesn’t come easy for most of us.  You believe it’s just easier to do it all yourself.  But really, it’s not.  And asking the right people for the right help builds the kind of bonds we all yearn for.

There’s a lot more to effective asking than screwing up the courage to do it though.  First, you need to have a good grasp of the help you need to get it right.

  • Is it something you really don’t know how to do?  Trying to fix something better done by a professional (like electricity and cars) may end up in injury—or worse.  But we get off track in the other direction, too—like calling the electrician when all that was needed was to plug in the cord.  Check the obvious solutions before you call for help.
    • What really needs to be done?  When you ask for help, choosing the right resource hinges on knowing what needs to be done.  So get as clear as you can with yourself about what you need.  If you don’t know, admit that when you ask for help, but don’t send your saviour down the wrong road by being lazy with the information you provide.
    • Is it just a matter of time versus money?  I have friends who pay to have their houses cleaned.  This works for them because they would rather spend money than time on that.  But asking for help is not about taking advantage of family members and friends just as busy as you are (or busier) simply because you don’t want to do that work.  If you need this kind of help, pay up, one way or the other.  When you ask more of those you claim to love than you need to, you build resentment not those nurturing bonds you’re looking for.
    • Can someone else do it well enough that you’re going to be okay with the results?  If it’s critical that the results are perfect, and you’re sure you can do it more perfectly than anyone else, then you need to do it.  But is it really that critical?  And are you really the one who will do it best? Are you really that good at it?  Or do you need a reality check on all that?
    • Are there extenuating circumstances?  Sure, your cousin George has built three fences on his own properties and needs the money, but if you have a picky HOA and a bunch of restrictive architectural requirements to keep in mind, maybe hiring the fence company that’s done all the other fences in your subdivision is wiser.

Then there’s the actual asking.  For many of us, this is where the whole idea stops. There’s no high school class on how to do this well.  We don’t get to “practice” this under careful tutelage.  First attempts can be difficult and unsuccessful.  Learn to do this anyway!  Life is so much better when you feel like  you are on team.

  • Be clear about what you need.  It’s tempting to assume that the person you ask will just know.   Nope.  Be precise and complete in explaining the situation.  This is true whether you are paying for a top-notch reupholster job or asking your sister to prep the potatoes for dinner.
  • Get on the same page about timing. Don’t assume another person is on the same wavelength in terms of timing.  Be honest about when you need it done.  Do you really need that light bulb changed before the next commercial?  Or are you just trying for a power grab with a fake emergency?  Give the other person as much leaway as you can–but no more.  If the differences in timing aren’t going to work, reassess whether this is the resource you are best to ask
  • Ask wisely.  This is particularly true when you are asking for unpaid help which is basically a favor.  Pay attention to what the other person is doing before you ask.  Expecting someone to drop everything just to hear your request is setting yourself up for a “No.”  Don’t ask for more than you really need either. And when someone says, “Sorry, I can’t,” find someone else to ask rather than acting like a five-year old and asking again and again.  Be aware of the context and the other person’s needs in making your request.
  • Keep asking.  If what’s supposed to be happening isn’t once someone agrees to help you (paid or otherwise), it’s wise to follow up. But that doesn’t mean you have to make a federal case out of it.  People forget (even the ones you pay to do something.)  If nothing’s happening and your gut is telling you to find another resource, pay attention.  Sometimes there’s more than forgetfulness at stake and the longer you wait to deal with it, the bigger that kind of problem gets.
  • Have more than one option.  If you do need to shift gears on how you are going to get something accomplished, it’s a lot easier if you’re already have other options identified.  This is as true of who’s going to pick up Aunt Jen at the airport as it is of getting your cellphone fixed.

“The strong individual is the one who asks for help when he needs it.”  – Rona Barrett, columnist and businesswoman.

At some point, you’re going to need help. Be strong and smart. Ask for it well.


Let’s Dance!

Let’s Dance!

When was the last time you danced? Have you ever? Or are you intimidated by the intricate footwork and synchrony of the couple stuff on TV?

We all need to dance. Not just at weddings. Not just with old friends at a favorite watering hole with live music. Every day. It’s a good way to keep your body and soul on the same page.

I’ve always advocated walking. Walking helps you think and problem solve. It reduces stress. It’s a great cardio workout. Walking, at its most effectively practiced, is non-denominational meditation. As your shoes move across the land, you move closer to the forces of the Divine.

But dancing is another multi-purpose marvel for creating a satisfied life. The joy side of the coin. I’m not talking about the ballroom stuff where you have to follow prescribed steps and keep rhythm a specific way though. I’m not even talking about Western culture’s classic “man-leads-woman-of-his-choice-in-movement-on-a-dance-floor” stuff. I’m talking about any situation where you move your body to music.

There are many more fun ways to dance than the stuff we learned was dancing in junior high. You don’t have to wait for a guy to ask you–or to decide on which woman you’re going to dare ask.  You don’t have to limit yourself to places with an official dance floor. And ballroom dancing, with all its choreographed steps and showmanship, is a long way from the real fun. So let’s forget the Dancing with the Stars stuff for now. Please.

Dancing is celebrating. It energizes your soul. It takes you beyond your mind and your aches and pains. Good dancing generates joy. And joy makes everything else better.

So find the dancing that appeals to you. Line dancing, square dancing, contra dancing, folk dancing, salsa, swing, zydeco—and that’s just a quick list. There are groups doing this stuff all over and many of them offer lessons before the dance itself to help you get started. Most of them have websites or else list their events on bulletin boards.

If you don’t want to break into an existing group, take a class—ballet, jazz, tap. That way, everyone is starting together. If not that, you can get involved in a dance practice, where the movements of your body are a form of prayer. The options “out there” for dancing go way beyond the foxtrot.

You don’t even need to be at a defined venue to dance. Dance while you’re waiting for the shower to warm up. Or while your coffee is brewing. In the elevator. In line at the grocery store. Wayne Dyer tells the story of a toll booth attendant who danced his entire shift every day. When you got to his window, you paid your toll at a dance party.

Dancing isn’t about putting your feet in certain places in a defined sequence with a specific beat with other people doing the same thing. Dancing is simply moving to music. And the music can be in your head if that’s all you have to work with.

When you can dance in a social setting, milk it for all the fun you can. A dear dancing friend and I liven up an evening by getting other people up dancing. Sometimes it’s women; sometimes it’s men. Those we coax out on the floor seem to have a much better time than if they’d just kept watching. And we do, too. The younger kids have one upped us on doing this well. Not only do the women go out to dance “uncoupled”(either alone or in groups of more than two), in under 30 crowds, you’ll see the guys doing it, too.

Avoid reducing dancing to “exercise.” That’s a terrible waste of a good time. When aerobic dance first made the scene, I took a class taught by a college instructor who specialized in folk dancing. Lord that was fun! (A classmate suggested all that was missing was a basket of fruit on my head.) Unfortunately, “fitness types” decided aerobic dance needed to look more like exercise. Now, even Zumba comes across as just another workout to music. If you want to get the most out of dancing, find something where the music and moving to it—i.e. having fun–are more important than reaching you target heart rate.

Dancing is not a matter of “knowing the steps.” Dancing is about having the guts. Find some music and start to move. Be a kid again—dance like nobody’s watching (because they really aren’t). You don’t need a partner. You don’t need lessons. If you don’t have music, use what’s in your head. Be happy. Spread joy. Boogey down!


How Much News is Enough?

How Much News is Enough?

Remember the adage “No news is good news?” What happened to that?  Now, no news means you’re either dead or lost in a South American jungle where even satellite reception falters.

“News,” at least in the dictionary, is “information about recent events or developments.”  Sometimes it’s in print.  Sometimes it’s on television and radio.  Sometimes it’s through the computer.  News is information about what’s going on where we aren’t.

If we care about that place or have loved ones there, of course we want to know what’s happening.  But what’s the point of being thoroughly informed about all the bad things that have occurred all over the world in the last 24 hours?

In this morning’s newspaper, I read about a train wreck in Spain that killed 79 people, a bus crash in Italy that killed 38, and an accident in Switzerland where two trains collided, seriously injuring five.  I live on the West Coast of the United States.  The only reason I can think of for needing to know of those three disasters is to pray for those involved.  But does such specificity improve Divine access?  Would I do any less good if I skipped the news and prayed “God, bless everyone who needs it right now”?

In my own life, there’s local news, sports news, national news, weather news, business news, and financial news.  Our local TV news starts at 4 AM.  The 24-hour news channels give me a dose whenever I choose to look for it.  The internet can even custom tailor alerts about whatever I’m interested in.  Around here, “the news” is often on midday, for as much as two hours at dinner time, and another hour or two before we go to bed.  Is that a good thing?

It’s nice to be able to find out what’s happening regardless of when I decide I need to know.  But being connected to everything that’s going on in the world all the time carries a lot of stress.  There’s nothing I can do about most of it.  Why is “the news” such a big presence in my life?

I’ve been thinking about this for a while now and there’s only one thing I’m 100% sure of.  I need to go on an information diet.  A lot of what I take in isn’t even good as “news.” Journalistic junk food.  A while back, I used a stopwatch and learned that over 50% of what I was getting from the local 10:00 news was ads.  Just how much of my time do I want to dedicate to car commercials and lovey-dovey couples touting erectile dysfunction drugs?

“News” can also be defined as “somebody or something interesting or something previously unknown.”   If I think about it that way, I can chart a wiser path to the information I really want to ingest.  If I want news about someone I love or want to get to know, a phone call or e-mail beats Inside Edition.  If I want to learn about something new, surfing the Net or going to the library will get me a whole lot farther than waiting through five minutes of ads so I can hear the 30-word follow-up to the 20-word trailer the evening news teased me with before going to commercial.

We hear way too much about stuff we don’t need to know–politicians who should have kept their pants on; paramours who should have kept their mouths shut; financial difficulties and deceits; personal tragedies and traumas.  We hear about crime and mayhem all over the globe. We hear the same awful stuff multiple times a day.  It’s not just me.  This is not good for any of us.

A steady stream of bad news is hard on you, even if you have no emotional connection to the people facing the problem.  The very best we can hope to get from witnessing the current horrible thing is a fleeting moment of “feel good” when we write a check or text a donation in response.  The rest is a combination of unrequited compassion and insensitive gawking.

I do want to be informed about what’s going on in the world.  And I do care about people.  But you can get too much of a good thing.  Am I an informed citizen of the world or a news addict?

I’ve decided I need to learn to imbibe more responsibly.  From now on, I’m going to make myself answer three questions:  Do I really need/want to be fully informed about this?  Is this the best source for the information I need?  And, much as it makes me uncomfortable:  Am I just watching/hearing/reading this news as a bogus way to feel connected?  If the answers aren’t yes, yes, and no, I need to pass.


Life Goes On. Go With It.

Life Goes On. Go With It.

No one is immune from the occasional cosmic gut punch. Stuff happens in every life that’s life threatening, gut-wrenching, and/or soul crushing. We’re dazed initially when it happens, but eventually, we literally need to come back to Life.

There is no better place to remember this than at Mount St. Helens.  I had the chance to hike there this week.  Seeing what’s going on there 33 years after its own cosmic gut punch was amazing.

On May 18, 1980 at 8:32 AM Pacific Time, this previously  dormant volcano in Washington’s Cascade Mountains roared to life with stunning devastation.  The top 1500 feet of the mountain slumped off the north side after a 5.1 earthquake.  Horrendous volcanic explosions that hurled rocks and hot gases at over 300 miles per hour followed in seconds.  The heat of that caused the snow and  ice on the mountain to melt, resulting in massive mud flows that swept a slurry of muddy water, ice, rocks, and trees over the landscape and into local lakes and rivers.

The blast downed or killed over 217 square miles of timber.  Virtually every bird in the vicinity, most of the mammals, and many of the fish died.  The debris was as much as 150 feet deep.  At the end of that day, the devastation  was complete.  The landscape was as inhospitable as the moon. Much of the mountain still looks that way:

Mount St. Helens hike 001

The dome in the center near was is now the top of the mountain grew after that unbelievable day.  The volcano spewed lava for six years, but in more subdued fashion.  It’s quiet now, but still on fire inside.  The dark area shows how much the debris has been carved by ground water in the ensuing years.

Thirty-three years isn’t even a nanosecond in terms of geologic time.  In the grand scheme of seismic change, it’s like we are still in the same moment the mountain blew up.  But if you look closer (or in this case, behind you), the evidence that life goes on is all around at Mount St. Helens.

The area is now a National Volcanic Monument, and the US Forest Service does a nice job of explaining how the volcanic apocalypse happened–and what happened immediately after.  Even when the entire mountain was convulsing, pocket gophers were safely burrowed underground.  When the violence stopped, they started digging out.  That action shoved dormant seeds to the surface.  Within weeks, those had sprouted, and plants were starting to grow.

Some of the fish avoided the catastrophe because they were below the ice of a still frozen lake, which helped moderate the impact of the heat.  Once the lake thawed fully later, their existence continued as if nothing had happened.

But even in the lakes where everything had been killed, life returned with unexpected speed.  On land, mammals and birds carried seeds from beyond the blast zone back on hooves and feathers or in intestines, giving even more plants the chance to germinate and grow.  And now, not even four decades after the blast, Mount St. Helens has more a more biodiversity than it did before the top blew off.

Yes, the timber companies harvested many of the downed trees and planted many more to replace them.  Yes, it looks different.  But life really has gone on at Mount St. Helens.  The day we were there, wildflowers were screaming their colors in the sun all along the trail.


Mount St. Helens hike 008

The red of Indian paintbrush, the fragrant lavender blue of prairie lupine, a variety of different yellow flowers dancing happily in the breeze and even an occasional young spruce tree made the place look like a garden.  Entire forests of alder trees have grown up.  (Alders create a better soil for later trees.)

You can’t get much more destruction than what went on at Mount St. Helens in 1980.  And yet, life there is back without hesitation.

That’s such a great lesson.

Even if what happened is awful.  Even if what it left you with is far “less” than what you had before, go on.  Be part of life.  It might be different, but it can still be rich and diverse and beautiful.


A Proper Hello

A Proper Hello

You can learn the most amazing things from the littlest people. Last week, my one-year-old granddaughter taught me a huge lesson about saying “Hello.” She knows how to do it right. Me? Well, let’s just say I’ve gotten a bit too complacent.

When someone Cora loves comes to where she already is, her excitement at seeing him or her is expressed with her whole body.  A huge smile spreads across her face–ear to ear, no kidding.  She throws her arms open in welcome and starts forward, a miniature version of an Italian grandma.  (She has not one drop of Italian in her.)  Then comes the best part.  She does this delighted little happy dance where she hops from foot to foot in rapid succession before she comes running toward you.

That welcome still has me smiling a week later.  In fact it impressed me enough to decide I want to do a better job of saying “Hello” to those I love myself.   The first test of that commitment came yesterday.  I wasn’t expecting myself to pull off the happy dance but I wanted to at least offer  a warm, sincere acknowledgement of my joy at seeing someone I care about.

The friend I was going to visit was one I hadn’t seen in more than a year.  She’s helped me through a very rough patch and is, truly, a dear friend.  But despite my desire to be obviously joyful when we first met, things didn’t quite work out that way.  She was taking the dog out when I got there.  You can’t interfere with a dog’s business.  And then her husband appeared from the backyard, and we got lost in conversation quickly.  So much for the delighted hello–happy dance or not.

It was wonderful to see her again and great that we had the chance to get together.  But why didn’t I greet her with open arms and obvious joy?  Was I on autopilot?  Was I too timid?  Or was the whole idea really out in left field?

Maybe it was none of those things.  I wanted to make sure my friend knew I appreciated the chance to spend time with her. That happened.  We talked about many things and enjoyed catching up with each other’s lives.  Did we both miss out by me not doing that little happy dance?  Probably not.  But I still wish my exuberance had been a little more obvious.

Ironically, since we are both grandmas, I ended up telling her about Cora’s full throttle hello.  And she asked why she hadn’t gotten that.  I didn’t (and don’t) have a good answer.  It would have been fun for me. But it’s Cora’s way to say hello.  I’m not sure I can make it mine.

Maybe it’s not Cora’s hello that I need to master here.  What I want to do better at is acknowledging the presence of a special person when we first reconnect.  That can be my kids. Or grandkids.  Or siblings. It could be friends, neighbors, or long lost cousins.

More often though, it’s my significant other.   And sometimes, when we return to each other’s company, even the basic word “Hello” gets lost in hauling in groceries or making sure the garage door closed properly.

Life would be sweeter if I remembered a happy “Hello!” though.  If I want to be happy, I need to acknowledge the things that make me happy–like returning to the presence of someone I love.  Then again, maybe I need to come up with my own dance.