I wish I were one of those people who walked through life gracefully, but I’m not. The fact that I am aware of this should be helpful in my attempt to overcome awkwardness or calamity. But it doesn’t. I honestly believe most of my mishaps in life are due to over-thinking, an affliction that I understand all too well.
Several weeks ago, I had an appointment for my yearly mammogram. This honestly isn’t significant, except that I opted to go to the facility that was closer to my house, thus, shaking up the entire universe.
It all began when I was quizzed at the front entrance about any symptoms I might have, while I was also having my temperature taken. When asked about congestion, my comment was, “I have a little, but it’s probably due to allergies.” This seemed like a Captain Obvious type of answer, which, at first, was lost on me. The medical person doing the intake commented, “You know, that’s not the best question to ask people who are coming into an allergy clinic.”
And then I panicked. “But I’m here to get a mammogram. Is that done here?” (Please note that I said this loud enough so there was absolutely no doubt as to the reason I was at the Allergy/Mammogram/Student Health Center Clinic).
I was relieved on two fronts when the sweet girl answered “yes” to my blurted out query, and as I also received the news that my temperature was within the normal range.
I found my way to the front desk, and I was somewhat disappointed in the surroundings, comparatively speaking. The place where I usually go is in a large medical facility, and there is an area/office that is specifically for mammograms. It’s more private, and the atmosphere is quiet, and calming, with music playing lightly in the background, and magazines scattered around the tables, within grasp of the comfy chairs.
The lady with whom I was speaking at the front desk was friendly enough, but she definitely didn’t exert any extra energy into welcoming me or making me feel at home. She handed me a large clipboard, with about eight pages of information to sign or initial, and told me to bring it all back when it was completed.
I was a little taken aback with the “pen” situation. Since the Coronavirus, I noticed that many businesses simply give you a pen that you keep, rather than having to deal with sanitizing the writing tools after use. I noticed a cup (penholder) sitting on the very narrow counter that was between me and the person working behind the glass enclosure, and it was filled with no less than thirteen pens. Realizing there didn’t seem to be a concern about using/sharing pens among the patients who were there for allergies or mammograms, or whatever else might ail them, I opted to dig in my purse and find my own Papermate Profile pen with blue ink.
When I finally completed signing and initialing, like a student about to turn in an exam, fearing I would have points unfairly taken off due to ambiguous instructions, I returned with the large clipboard, and I inquired about one of the questions that I felt was redundant.
The person behind the glass enclosure, couldn’t have cared less, and mumbled something (or it seemed that way because of her mask). I attempted to hand her the rather awkward sized clipboard through the opening, but misjudged the angle at which I was coming in, and knocked over the penholder (which held no less than thirteen pens). As I watched the pens scatter across the well traveled, petri-dish-of-a-floor, I was somewhat comforted in knowing that as much as things had changed this year, I could still be proud of the fact that I could always be counted on for raising a ruckus.
So there I was. Being stared at by an office full of people, and not one of them offered to help me pick up the pens. I’m sure it’s because of the whole “not touching stuff” but that didn’t seem to matter until the clumsy woman (me) caused a scene with my unfiltered and immediate reaction of “You’ve got to be kidding me!”
If I had a dollar for the number of times I said, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” in 2020, I’d be sitting pretty.
What a year! There have been so many surprises, and tragedies, and unexpected/unprecedented events. I think it was June when we finally stopped asking, “What else can happen?” because we honestly didn’t want to know.
In a year filled with counting calories, votes, and COVID19 cases, I have been overwhelmed, disappointed, angry, shocked, and amazed. It has been a year filled with bumps, and bruises, and setbacks. In my quest for honest information and facts, I’ve gone down several rabbit holes, and I remain extremely concerned about the lack of transparency and integrity in both the media and our government. It’s frustrating, and mind-boggling, and has added extra-stress to an already anxiety-filled year.
Inasmuch as I wish so many things hadn’t happened, I can honestly say that I’m emerging from 2020 better, stronger, and with a lifetime of lessons learned.
I’ve shared numerous times about my struggle/journey through grief. It seems that when I reflect on my life, Grief is one of the major themes. How does one move on from immense loss, without forgetting the loved one who is gone? How do you truly ever stop grieving?
In 2017, I wrote Mockingbird Moments, a memoir about love, loss, and letting go after the death of my father. It was published years after I suddenly lost my dad, and it took most of those years to peel away the layers of sorrow, and regret, and finally discover the feeling of freedom. That word might be a bit unusual when speaking about grief, but I’ve always equated it with a quote by Michelangelo:
“I saw the angel in the marble, and carved until I set him free.”
That’s how I view the story of my father. The one it took over two decades to write. I struggled to find the words for so long, but once they came to me, I was set free. I released my grief, and began to channel it in different, more positive ways.
Before this process, or epiphany of sorts, I had formed some terrible habits as coping mechanisms. I thought what I felt was normal. That grief should just be forgotten. That everyone would eventually experience loss, and my situation wasn’t unique or special. That living within the huge hole that was formed in my heart after I lost Dad was a standard emotion. That one wasn’t supposed to tary around grief when trying to heal. That you should simply just wake up one day and not think about all the ways your life has changed, and all the ways you miss the person who left you without even saying goodbye. I survived by stuffing those feelings, thoughts, and emotions way down into the core of my being, and prayed they wouldn’t one day emerge with a vengeance.
In addition to hanging on to all kinds of emotional baggage, I also believed the lie told to me by my principal, who matter-of-factly stated on the Monday I returned to work, six days after losing my hero, “The best thing you can do is move on.”
I mean, what choice do you have when your boss basically tells you to suck it up and do your job? So as I followed his instructions, I began chiseling away on my own value, and worthiness. I began to believe this fallacy/lie of moving on, and that I deserved this life because I wasn’t a better person. Because I wasn’t stronger. I believed that I was to live a life of simply getting by, forging through, making it through the week, and then the month, and then another year.
And to a great extent, I’ve lived that same lie for a lot of 2020. I just chalked it up to more bad things that were simply a part of life. I believed in the midst of the chaos there wasn’t room for the rich and abundant, and readily available blessings from God. And when good things did happen, there was a degree of guilt because so many people around me were suffering.
I felt undeserving of grace. Isn’t that crazy? Because grace is just that. We don’t deserve it or earn it—-it’s freely given to us by our loving Father.
So on a random day, in the middle of the month of November, I began thinking about and questioning why I would be feeling all these non-truths again? Had 2020 stripped away all that had been built up through years of resilience? Had the mainstream media worn me down with their continuing negative, gloom and doom talk about the virus, and unemployment, and the failing economy, and the number of deaths? Had I simply heard enough about masks, and shutdowns, and isolation, and voter fraud, and the completely dire state of our nation?
Feeling lower than a snake’s belly, I decided I wanted to turn the television off, and search for something to read. One of my worst habits is starting a book and not finishing it because I get bored and want to read something else. I knew there was a plethora of those tossed aside books, waiting for me, hoping for a second chance.
As I glanced at one of my bookshelves, I caught a glimpse of a work I had intended to read for a while (as in years) but never had picked up. I quickly grabbed it, and walked to my bedroom, covered myself up with my favorite blanket, and began reading the words of Ann Voskamp.
My hope had been for a distraction. For something positive and uplifting. I never dreamed that One Thousand Gifts would touch my life, much less change my line of thinking. I never dreamed that on an ordinary day in November, when I was tired, and weary, and exhausted, and lost, that one paragraph written by a stranger, would so beautifully and eloquently express and define what I had longed to say for over half my life. I never imagined that within these words I would find my hope, my purpose, and the answer I’d been searching for.
“If I’m ruthlessly honest, I may have said yes to God, yes to Christianity, but really, I have lived the no. I have. Infected by that Eden mouthful, the retina of my soul develops macular holes of blackness. From my own beginning, my sister’s death tears a hole in the canvas of the world.
Losses do that. One life-loss can infect the whole of a life. Like a rash that wears through our days, our sight becomes peppered with black voids. Now everywhere we look, we only see all that isn’t: holes, lack, deficiency.” (Voskamp, 2010, p. 16)
I had no idea when I grabbed the book off the shelf that it was Ann Voskamp’s memoir. I had no idea that she had experienced the tragic loss of her younger sister. I didn’t know that what she summed up in two neatly, and eloquently written paragraphs, would contain the scope and depth of my whole existence.
As her words reached out from the page, and wrapped their arms around me, I began to cry. Tears of joy, and sadness. Tears of relief—understanding that this person who had no idea I even existed, had succinctly expressed every thought I’d ever pondered, wrapped it up and tied it with a beautiful bow.
But there’s more. As I came to the end of the first chapter, the author revealed the key to filling those black holes. Those voids. And the title of that first chapter began to make sense, “an emptier, fuller life…”
“With memories of gravestones, of combing fingers through tangled hair, I wonder too…if the rent in the canvas of our life backdrop, the losses that puncture our world, our own emptiness, might actually become places to see.
To see through to God.
That that which tears open our souls, those holes that splatter our sight, may actually become the thin, open places to see through the mess of this place to the heart-aching beauty beyond. To Him. To the God whom we endlessly crave.
But how? How do we choose to allow the holes to become seeing-through-to-God places? To more-God places?
How do I give up resentment for gratitude, gnawing anger for spilling joy? Self-focus for God-communion.
To fully live—to live full of grace and joy and all that is beauty eternal. It is possible, wildly.
I now see and testify.
So this story—my story.
A dare to an emptier, fuller life.”
(Voskamp, 2010, pg. 22-23)
“An emptier, fuller life.” How is that even possible? How can life be empty and full at the same time? How do I give up resentment in exchange for gratitude?
And those are the questions I have set out to answer in the days that have followed my mid-November slump.
Before I continue, let me apologize if this blog post is longer than usual, but in my defense, I haven’t written in a while. I guess, this is literally the process of “emptying my thoughts,” to become more full, or more aware. To find some kind of hope, or peace, or reason in the midst of a year that has already taken away so much.
As we enter into the season of celebrating Christmas, it might seem odd that I mention Thanksgiving. It seems we set aside one day a year to be thankful, and it’s on that day that we speak of gratitude and the bountiful blessings we have. And that’s where our problem lies. In order to live life more abundantly, to get the most out of each day, to empty ourselves in order to be full, we must first be thankful. Thanksgiving is at the very heart of it all.
My, how I have missed the boat! For all these years, I’ve focused on the things I didn’t have. The losses I suffered. the experiences I didn’t get to share. The sadness of the holidays. The empty chair at the otherwise full table. Resentment rather than gratitude…
But, through it all, every day, I had the opportunity (but didn’t take it) to be thankful in every moment. To focus on all I had (have). You see once you have gratitude, and a thankful heart, the Lord will bless you even more.
Think about when Jesus healed the ten lepers. Do you remember out of the ten, only one returned to thank him? And Jesus said, “‘Were there not ten cleansed? But where are the nine? There are not found that returned to give glory to God, save this stranger.’ And he said unto him, ‘Arise, go thy way; thy faith hath made thee whole.'”
All ten were healed, but the grateful Samaritan who returned to voice his praise received the blessing of a deeper salvation. All because of a simple act of gratitude.
So as I begin my quest to being empty, yet full, I am trying to do as Ann Voskamp suggests, and make a “gift list,”—not of things I want, but of things I already have.
I have also done something a little strange in this time of social-media-overload. I’ve deleted my Facebook account. It’s something I’ve toyed with for some time. I strongly believe that we are “brainwashed” by social media. I feel it’s over-reach is alarming, and as a junior high counselor, I have seen countless studies that support the increase in teenage (and pre-teen) suicide rates, and the obvious increase in teenage depression. And it’s all tied to the advent of smart phones and social media. The effects and statistics are even more terrifying during this time of Pandemic.
After watching “The Social Dilemma,” and seeing firsthand the division leading up to and immediately after the Presidential election, I decided that for me, the best option was to move on and live a life without Facebook. I felt my mindset would be healthier, and my time better spent in other ways. You see, I’m one of those “all or nothing” people. It’s hard for me to do something “just a little.” I also tend to take on all the problems of the world, and let them fester inside, leading to uncontrollable worry about the ways of the world. It’s hard for me, at times, to separate the things I can and cannot change.
So I bit the bullet, and deleted my Facebook account. And it hasn’t been easy. I am completely out of the loop. I do have several friends who update me, as does my Facebook savvy mother, but again, I miss the interaction with so many people I don’t often see.
During this time, I’ve had friends lose parents, and husbands. I’ve had to reach out to other mutual friends who have given me their addresses, so I can send sympathy cards, something I probably wouldn’t have done if I were still on social media.
But, when I see how much my screen time has decreased each week, I do feel good about my choice. I also have found that I fall asleep faster, and have less stress and anxiety. Hmmmmm. Is this part of being empty in order to be full?
I think it is.
But don’t applaud my efforts too loudly. I still have an Instagram account, and I do peruse that every couple of days. I don’t have as many followers, but I do enjoy seeing holiday pictures of family and friends. (You can find me on Instagram @sharonbrownkeith.writer).
As I continue to maneuver through the year that keeps on giving, I will keep you posted on my break-up with social media. I will also be keeping a gratitude journal. I began doing this last week, and have slacked a bit due to my latest episode. A sinus infection.
In true 2020 fashion, I set out last Friday morning for the “Quick Care,” located in one of the surrounding towns. I absolutely was convinced I had COVID. I needed a rapid test because we were planning on attending the SFA basketball game that night. I knew I wouldn’t be able to go if I didn’t have my test results.
A friend referred me to this Quick Care operation, which was actually housed in a building which doubles as an Aesthetics Med Spa. I pulled up in the parking lot, called and gave my reason for being there, and was quickly assisted by the medical personnel, who came to my car and began the process.
I was tested for COVID, but ended up being diagnosed with a sinus infection. My oxygen levels were taken, she listened to my breathing, checked my heart rate, and also my throat, ears, and nose. It was a very thorough process, all completed while I sat inside my car, far away from cupholders of pens, and noisy waiting rooms.
All in all, it was a pleasant experience, albeit a little outside of the box. But aren’t those the times we’re living in?
I salute the healthcare workers, who continue to do all they can to serve people during this craziness. I weep for those who have lost loved ones, and I pray for days when we can come close to being back to normal.
As much disdain as I have for this year, I am so very thankful for all the good things it has brought. My sweet, smart, and animated grandson, Cooper, has given new meaning to our lives. As I’ve struggled to figure out my future (Do I continue to write books? What about my podcast? Do I write my blog weekly, or just when I feel inspired to do so?) Cooper is my answer. He’s my reason, my purpose, my legacy. Proof of all the great and wonderful things this life has given. Freely, and unconditionally.
So as we finish out this year of counting calories, votes, and cases, it is my most humble prayer, that wherever you find yourself in the last weeks of 2020, I hope you’re in the middle of a field of never-ending gratitude, surrounded by all the good things in your life. If you feel like more has been lost or taken from you this year, start making a list of things you have. Count your blessings. Write down all the gifts. The simple things that surround your life. I promise, once you start writing, it will be hard to stop.
I’ve been reminded this year that there is always something to be thankful for. I recently read a devotional about a woman who was in a store and the song, “What A Beautiful Name It Is,” was playing in the background. She commented to the young girl who was checking her out, “Before the Pandemic, I was blessed to be able to sing that song with a choir in a large church in Italy. I’m so glad that happened before we were shutdown.”
The young cashier replied, “The Pandemic hasn’t been all that bad. When we first shutdown, I was completely alone for ten days, and it was during that time that I found Jesus and was saved. I’m thankful that happened, because otherwise, I might not know Jesus.”
And then the two women, began singing the song playing in the background together.
There truly is always something to be thankful for. The more you express your gratitude, and acknowledge all God has given you, the less you will need…
And that’s what it means, to be emptier, in order to be fuller.
I’ve learned that disconnecting and downsizing can be a very good thing. Less is more.
How very thankful I am for all I have, and for all of you who are in my life.
My cup is full. In fact, it runneth over…
“There’s a reason I am not writing the story and God is. He knows how it all works out, where it all leads, what it all means…I don’t.”
(To read more about Ann Voskamp, you may click on the link below. There’s a whole lot of inspiration and joy going on there).