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Untangled

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This is me, when I had those pesky snarls and tangles to deal with.

Blog Post #47

I have curly hair. When I was young, it was even curlier, and prone to tangles. My mother would comb and brush the snarls out, but the process was sometimes painful, and I didn’t like it!

Now that I’m older, my hair no longer snarls. As with many laws of science, such as laws of displacement, or the migratory habits of birds, when a snarl is combed out of one’s hair, it has to go somewhere else.  My migrating snarls have displaced vacant spaces in my brain and heart, which have resulted from a year of dramatic change, leaving some gaping holes and empty places—perfect for snarls to settle into.

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A tangled brain is not a good beginning to the New Year.

Let me explain what I mean by a tangled brain. A tangled brain is when a variety of commitments, desires, plans, thoughts, and scheduled parts of life seem to all land on the freeway of my mind at precisely the same moment causing a bottleneck-traffic jam of major proportions in my neural networking. Anyone who has experienced a bottleneck on the highway knows that traffic reduces to a crawl, or even a dead standstill, until a lane opens up ahead or there’s a reduction in the number of cars.

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Bottleneck  traffic jam

It’s the same with a tangled brain. An onslaught of stress or confusion results from too much input coming together at once, and too little capacity to deal with it efficiently.

Like combing out snarls, it may be a painful process trying to sort out the effects of major changes while also dealing with unexpected responsibilities mixed with everyday routines.

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It’s an interesting fact that, just when I see the approach of a free-flying chunk of “time” making its way toward me like a fly ball I’m straining to catch, some all-absorbed outfielder named Opportunity comes at me from one side, a focused short stop named Commitment comes at me from the other, and both slam into me with such force, the ball pops out of my groping mitt, and falls out of play with a thud. It’s happened to me so many times, I can’t even begin to count.

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It’s my own doing; I have the freedom to choose. Yes or no. Accept, or reject. I can decide. Mostly, I choose to accept. Accept is, perhaps, too passive a word.  Invite is more appropriate. I invite these kinds of fly ball responsibilities because I believe in the principle of service. The kind of service I’m speaking of doesn’t understand the meaning of the word “convenient.” I suspect that most true acts of service—the kinds that cause you to put someone or something else ahead of your own selfish desires—are rarely, if ever, convenient. I seriously doubt the Samaritan found it convenient to care for the man he found on the road during his travels.

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The Good Samaritan – Luke 10:25-37

I wish I could say that I always invite, or accept these opportunities with a willing and cheerful attitude, but that would be a lie. I have kicked against some of the opportunities I’ve had to serve, I’ve whined and I’ve complained. The result has always been the same. In the end, I have felt so grateful that I didn’t say no, even though I wanted to.  And not only did I feel grateful, I benefited. I benefited – and in every case, I probably benefited more than the person or organization I was serving. I stretched, I grew, I learned, I became more aware, I became more skilled. I found balm for my soul—my soul. I benefited. So in the end, who was really served? And was the sacrifice I thought I was making at the time really a sacrifice? The unequivocal answer is NO! It was not a sacrifice because of what I gained. Even though I used a portion of my time to do something I had not planned on doing, it really was not a sacrifice, because I was one of the beneficiaries.

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Dr. Seuss’s Grinch 

The best benefit of all is a changed heart. Like the Grinch, when I choose service over the selfish hording of my time, my hard and shriveled little heart softens and grows. I become a little bit better in my heart, a little less selfish, a little more generous.

Many years ago, I heard Camilla Kimball quoted as saying, “Never suppress a generous thought.”  That thought surfaces every time I contemplate any act of kindness, large or small. It has encouraged me in making the choice to serve over indulging in selfish desires. 4dcbbd7950dada094bcc65f827bbd178

So, here it is, the New Year. My brain is tangled up with a conglomeration of anticipated, as well as unexpected events, responsibilities, needs, desires, and opportunities for service that all seem to be converging on the same bottleneck portion of the calendar without regard for the fact that I also have regular, routine things to attend to during that same time slot. The (not so) strange thing (when you consider the explanation about the free-flying chunk of “time” I thought I saw heading my way) is that I had, at least for a moment, anticipated a nicely ironed out length in the fabric of time to do some of the things I have been setting aside for just such a vacant space. That sudden jam-up in my space-time continuum is threatening to create stress that I, frankly, don’t need or want.

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The thing is, I have something to say about that, too.

Looking at my history, a pattern is revealed, which is this.

  • I think I have a chunk of time.
  • It gets filled.
  • It clogs.
  • I stress.
  • It all gets done, (and usually with enough time to spare for a lot of other things).
  • I look back and wonder why I got so stressed.
  • Repeat from the beginning

That’s the pattern.

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(1)Think I have time                              (2) It fills and clogs 

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(3) I stress                                  (4) It all gets done

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(5) I look back and wonder why I was so stressed

Here’s an example of that pattern from my own experience. I’m lying awake in bed at night fretting over a checklist of responsibilities I will face during the course of the next busy day. The list is long. It is demanding. Each item on the list requires a chunk of time. Because the list has so many items, my brain, immediately, becomes tangled. That cluttered, tangled brain reacts with “It’s too much! I don’t have enough time! I’ll never get it all done!” Then that same brain begins to dwell on the first item on the list until it appears to have a dark cloud looming over it in a threatening way, causing it to take on unrealistic proportions. A small puffy cloud grows into a roiling thunderstorm. The more I think about it, the more it grows in my mind into a task requiring super-human effort and hours of time (which is usually a falsehood my brain imagines—not based on reality—like unloading the dishwasher when I was a kid. I thought it would take an hour of my precious playtime, when in reality, it only took about eight minutes.)

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The next day, I get up, and with anxiety, I begin my list. Right away, if I don’t dawdle about beginning because of the stress I’m feeling, I attack the first item, and discover that it only took fifteen minutes, not two hours. I recalculate the remainder of the day’s list based on this new discovery, and my stress level goes down a notch. Because my motivation increased with the time I gained, I complete the second item in a fraction of the time I imagined. My stress level drops another notch. And this continues with the rest of the list, until noon arrives, and my list is completed. I eat a leisurely lunch, while marveling at the weight lifted from my shoulders, the brightness of my mood, and the lightness of my heart as I contemplate how quickly that dark cloud dissipated.

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I know this pattern. I’ve lived it time and again. So for my current brain-tangle, I have made a decision. I am going to work backwards. I am going to look ahead, knowing the outcome, and forewarn myself that there will be time to do ALL of what is required with enough extra time to do many of the other things I have been saving up for, and want to do. I will paint a bright, light vision for my brain to focus on, so I will approach upcoming events and challenges with a bright and cheerful forbearance. I will weigh real-time, instead of tipping the scales with dark presentiments and false anticipation. I will cheerfully, willingly accept and invite these converging opportunities with the absolute understanding that I will be a beneficiary. But more importantly, I will be motivated and inspired by the hope and desire that someone else will benefit at least as much, and hopefully, even more than I do.

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The truth is, and it’s been proven conclusively, that when my heart is right, and I’ve placed my trust in He who is the Author of all Goodness and Service, I am strengthened, guided, and blessed. I can manage and untangle any snarls that come my way, while maintaining a proper perspective about time and my use of it.

Suddenly, my bottleneck is opening up! The snarls in my brain are beginning to untangle because in a very real way I can envision chunks of space in time, and chunks of time in my space.

I will enjoy the moment I’m in and the privilege I have of being alive to live it.

End Piece

© January 10, 2017

From the bottom of my heart, I thank you, dear friends, for reading.

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Planting Apples Trees (A Veteran’s Day Offering)

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Blog Post #46

On this Veteran’s Day I ask the question: What is greatness?

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When I think about what makes someone great, I can’t help but think about planting apple trees. *John Chapman, AKA “Johnny Appleseed,”was the son of a Minuteman who fought at the Battle of Bunker (Breed’s) Hill. Chapman spent a lifetime planting and cultivating a tart variety of apples, called “spitters,” (because that’s what you’d do if you bit into one), but which made good cider. He purchased lands to homestead, planted fifty acres of trees on a parcel, then sold the land to settlers throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois. His travels took him over 100,000 square miles of wilderness, and by the time he died, he owned 1200 acres. Avid in his Swedenborg faith, he remained unmarried and chaste throughout his life, and was an advocate for all animal life.

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Apple Cultivars “Spitters”

It wasn’t in the planting of trees, or the harvesting of apples, his unusual rustic garb, or his travels that made Johnny Appleseed great. I believe his greatness was in his unselfish labors, in planting something good for others to enjoy at some future time (rather than hoarding the fruits of his effort for himself). The backbreaking work of clearing land, preparing, planting, and cultivating fruit-bearing trees was not a passive hobby. It required sweat and toil. It was a labor of love and a selfless sacrifice. That’s why I think of his planting of apple trees as greatness. When someone plants an apple tree, knowing they will not benefit from its shade, fruit, or beauty, that’s selflessness, and selflessness for the good of others is greatness.

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Those who serve our country know what it means to give selfless service. They often sacrifice family, health, convenience, personal time, and the fruits they may have planted in their homeland of America, leaving a bounty of the blessings of preserved freedoms for those at home to enjoy while they labor on foreign soil.

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My father, Joe Culotta, is at front left.

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My Uncle Albert Mascari is standing 4th from the left

My father’s generation—the World War II generation— was truly great. Most of their generation understood and strived to live lives of decency, courage, self-sacrifice, self-mastery, and fortitude. They laid their lives on the line for the good of their families and others, for the good of their nation, and for the good of the world. Many, like my father, stepped forward and volunteered to serve before the draft. They saw a need and rose to the occasion without coercion or intimidation. They gave all for their beliefs, and for a love of liberty, and they did it without complaining or whining.  They were a willing and hard-working generation, and they did so honestly and with humility.  Sure, there are those who bucked this standard, but they were comparatively few.

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My mother, Veneta Mascari, was asked by Henrite Product Corporation to join the war effort working as a draftswoman in 1944

Those of that generation who remained at home were great, too. They worked for the USO, and stocked the garners of liberty with their offerings, doing what they could: newspaper drives, rubber drives, sewing, cooking, entertaining troops, and giving what they had to give. My mother wrote to servicemen, and worked as a draftswoman for the war effort. These folks had love of country branded in their hearts, and that patriotism appeared in their music, movies, conversations, billboards, and by their home fires.

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Yes, there were evil folks in that generation, too. Yes, there were those who were lazy, self-serving and contemptible, and no, I’m not suggesting that their generation alone cornered the market on that which was great. There are many great men and women from generations prior to theirs, as well as after, and also today. There is much good in the world today.  While we are bombarded with the notion that society, in general, is tipping the scale in a direction away from decency and selflessness toward incivility and self-gratification, and there does appear to be more concern about who is “wrong” than what is right….And though the banks of meaningful conversation are overrun by a glib texting of words and tweets, and an inability to listen to or value what is precious to another, or to find the common ground that unites us as a people, and as members of humanity….And even if much of what we see and hear casts the pendulum as swinging away from civility…. Even though it is possible, even probable, that all of this is rooted in truth, I look around at my neighborhood, and am grateful to see an overwhelmingly quiet, industrious, respectful and generous body of people. These are good people who care about each other, and perform quiet acts of service for neighbors – neighbors they didn’t choose, but have embraced.

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We have neighbors who took the trouble to build a counter on which they freely give away lemons and limes in season.We have neighbors who bring us delicious persimmons, peaches, and plums – sharing their bounty with others. We have neighbors who create marvelous light displays for others to enjoy during the holidays. We have neighbors who overwhelmed us with their kindness when death reached our doors. We have neighbors who anonymously leave flowers, notes, and gifts on our doorstep. We have neighbors who take in our mail, and return our garbage cans without our asking. We have neighbors who are decent, kind and serve others. We have “great” neighbors; we have “Johnny Appleseed” sorts of neighbors. I hope we may be found in every way equal to our neighbors in these selfless acts of  goodness.

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9-11 “Tribute in Light” Memorial

We are all the same, really. From my perspective, 9-11 gave proof of that. When 9-11 happened, for a small moment in time, the people of America laid aside personal biases and agendas, and became one in charity and in patriotism – linking arms, hearts, and minds to comfort the downtrodden, provide aide to the suffering, and preserve what was most dear to us all.  For a moment, we as a unified nation assumed the attributes of the greatest generation.  In most scenarios, we saw others the way we saw ourselves – vulnerable, hopeful, and in many ways, equal. We cared about each other because someone from without was threatening our way of life and our very lives in a very real and tangible way.

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Abraham Lincoln

In Abraham Lincoln’s famous Address, which he delivered to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois on January 27, 1838, titled “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions” he said these words:

“Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant to step the ocean and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest, with a Bonaparte for a commander, could not by force take a drink from the Ohio or make a track on the Blue Ridge in a trial of a thousand years. At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer. If it ever reach us it must spring up amongst us; it cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen we must live through all time or die by suicide.”

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Daguerreotype of Abraham Lincoln taken in 1846

During the 1858 Senatorial campaign, Lincoln also said:

“Our defense is in the preservation of the spirit which prizes liberty as a heritage of all men, in all lands, everywhere. Destroy this spirit and you have planted the seeds of despotism around your own doors.”

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Believed to be the last known surviving apple tree planted in Nova, Ohio by John Chapman 

It’s not too late to plant apple trees instead of “the seeds of despotism” for the next generation…to leave a positive legacy for our children – for our posterity – of hope that feeds the body and soul with the fruit of goodness, kindness, truthfulness, respect, tolerance, faith, and love. It’s not too late to live for others.

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“John Chapman: He lived for others.” 1774-1845  (What a great epithet!)

“Surely God would not have created such a being as man, with an ability to grasp the infinite, to exist only for a day! No, no, man was made for immortality.” (Abraham Lincoln, 1858 Senatorial campaign)

End Piece

© November 11, 2016

From the bottom of my heart, I thank you, dear friends, for reading.