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All posts for the month January, 2012

Altared Perceptions: January 2012- “Love”

Published January 8, 2012 by Susan Woodward

Rev. Scott Taylor’s sermon today reiterated the monthly theme of “Love”, but focused on how lack of self-love has led to a “numbing” of our souls in always expecting the worst in situations.

I gazed quite intently at this month’s altar as I listened to Scott’s words.   The more I heard about self-doubt, self-criticism, self-loathing, and self-defeating behaviors, the more I saw the scarcity of branches on the tree.  It reminded me of how I have written about my feelings of being disconnected and isolated.   Before the decorations were added, I would highly doubt that even Charlie Brown would have chosen this as a Christmas tree!  It must have looked bare, scrawny, and neglected before the love was added.   So many times I, too, feel like that tree must have looked in its natural, undecorated state.  One of my Mayan-sized resolutions for 2012 is to work on that feeling inside myself by letting go of fear of rejection.  If I were this tree, I would certainly feel neglected, scrawny, insignificant, and not lovable.  Too often, I DO see myself that way (ok… not the scrawny part…), but in learning to let go of my fear of rejection, I can learn to love me.

Even the trees without an abundance of branches still have something to offer.  This tree is able to provide a branch for a bird feeder to offer sustenance to others.  Like the tree in December, this one also is a gift.   In loving myself, I can see what I CAN do for others instead of focusing on my self-imposed limitations.   The hearts can symbolize not only the love that the tree has for the birds in providing them with food during the cold times, but the love that the birds have for the tree in providing that food as well as perches to rest themselves upon.   No matter how I view myself, I know that I always have the ability to give to others who don’t see the limitations that I do when I look in the mirror.

The flowers at the base of the tree are white and remind us of the snow at this time of year (well, most often at this time of year, anyway… no snow presently in 2012!).   The snow is a blanket of beauty spread upon the Earth, but most often it is viewed as a reminder of the cold that surrounds us.  But this tree offers its gifts in the midst of the cold… a place to hang the bird feeder and a place for the birds to land and rest.   And winter is a resting time.  The Earth is at rest after working hard to provide its inhabitants with the food that we enjoy year round.   We all need a time to rest after hard work… winter reminds of that.  It’s a time to recharge our batteries to get ready for the work ahead.

The heart at the top of the tree is to remind us of love… love for others, as well as love for ourselves.  The tree top is placed on the tip-top of the trunk of the tree… the same trunk that I viewed as sparse and unwanted earlier.

Again, I am only sharing what I see in this month’s altar, and if anyone would like to add comments here, I welcome them gladly!

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Altared Perceptions: December 2011- “Engagement”

Published January 8, 2012 by Susan Woodward

The theme for the month of December 2011 was “engagement” and we were asked to think about how we not only engage with others, but how we engage with ourselves and the world at large.  

When I first saw the decorations in the church, I was awestruck.  I have always admired the creativity of those who decorate the sanctuary, but this really did blow me away.

The overall effect was quite dazzling, and this picture does not do it justice.  What I see about how this relates to the theme of “engagement” is how the tree is personifies the act of giving.  It reminds me of an earlier post that I wrote about For Giving, Not For Getting.   Notice that there aren’t any gifts under the tree.

This takes away the notion of “getting” something; however, the tree is shaped like a person, and the gift bow is ON the tree, symbolizing that the gift is the person herself  (I shall say “herself” because the tree is obviously depicted as a female!).

I also like the stance of the “person”: hands on hips as if to say, “Not what you were expecting, huh?”   For some, this might be surprising, like my students whose first question to me after returning to school after the holiday break was, “What did you get for Christmas?”

I loved the idea of engaging in being a gift to others instead of thinking about what one might “get” for the holidays.

The detail of the “head” of the person is a lit star.  For me, this symbolizes how we bring light to others.  No matter what tradition one celebrates at this time of year, light seems to be a central focus.  There is the Star of Bethlehem that the Wise Men followed, the lights of the Menorah to commemorate the continuation of light even after the oil ran low during Hanukkah, and even the return of the Sun God on the Winter Solstice for Earth-based believers.  No matter what one believes about the symbolism of the light, this reminds me that we should always strive to bring light to others, especially to those who live most of their lives in darkness.

The detail of the shoes makes me think about how I might try to “put myself in another’s shoes” more often.   As part of being a gift to others, what better gift could we give but one of empathy?  Not pity, or sympathy… but putting ourselves in their place and try to bring to them the most joy we can.  This applies to all year, not just during the holiday season.

The beauty of Nature was depicted by the snowflakes that descended on either side of the altar.   And true to the spirit of being kind to the Earth, the decorations were made out of scraps of tin foil and white plastic garbage bags.  Things that are normally thrown away in our society were transformed into something lovely.

While I am not entirely sure what the “Altar Society” had in mind when creating this work of art, these are my impressions.  I most certainly welcome any and all engaging comments… I would love to hear your thoughts about what you see!

Altared Perceptions

Published January 8, 2012 by Susan Woodward

Although I am not quite sure if the correct term at a Unitarian Universalist Church is “altar”, I thought the name of this new category I am adding was pretty clever, so I hope that Reverands Scott, Kaaren, and Jen will forgive me!

What has always struck me at our church are the beautifully decorated meditative focal points (ummm… altars?).    Ever since I became a member two years ago, I have admired the creative and thoughtfully poignant decorations in the sanctuary.   Each fits in with our monthly themes at the First Unitarian Church of Rochester, and I have decided to share my thoughts about what these creative people have brought to us.

For the first two, I shall have to apologize for the picture quality as I was using my phone camera.   I took pictures of the December display, but it only occurred to me today to begin writing about them as I snapped a shot of the January altar.  Beginning in February, I will use my “real” camera and hope that the pictures will be of better quality!

This is a bit of background about the decor from Betty Jane Evans:

In case you didn’t already know, I’ll give you a little history. Madlyn Evans created the decor each week by herself from the beginning of our church until she retired several years ago, passing her leadership on to Anita Rosenfeld, who leads the decor team of Karen Evans (Madlyn’s daughter), Elaine Anderson, and me. We each do the decor one week each month except for holidays and/or special occasions (flexibility is essential) such as the decor that was up for nearly a month in December.

Thanks for sharing!

Using the Right Tools: Drop the Teaspoon and Pick Up the Shovel!

Published January 7, 2012 by Susan Woodward

One thing that all teachers try to do is give their students the right tools to be successful in completing tasks.  We can give them the tools, but it is totally their responsibility to pick them up and use them.  Many are so comfortable using what they have always used that they resist anything new.  When it comes to writing and analyzing, I want them to dig deeper.  If the assignment is to dig a hole three feet by four feet and five feet deep, it’s very frustrating to give a kid a shovel only to have him try to complete the job with a teaspoon!  He may eventually complete the task, but it will take much more effort, require a hell of a lot more sweat, and the desire to quit will be at an all time high.

What is it about letting go of the old that is so difficult?  Hanging on for dear life to old patterns that have long outgrown their usefulness really leads to a lot of anger and frustration… but the idea of leaving something behind is also frustrating.

Part of making those long-term changes for 2012 will require me to let go of comfortable, yet destructive behaviors.  There are better tools available to me: healthier foods, reaching for a bottle of water instead of another cup of coffee, picking up a pen instead of a cigarette… all tools that will serve me well if I can just let go of the old stand-bys.   We are eight days into the new year, and so far my cigarette usage has decreased a bit.  It hasn’t ceased, but it has decreased.  That’s a bit of progress.   I’m still working on the healthier food alternatives.  My next grocery shopping trip will involve some changes in what goes into my cart and what doesn’t.  Not Earth-shattering, but a start.

One thing that I will keep in mind as I begin reaching for better tools is how I can help make the same transition for my students.   I work hard to give them the writing skills that will help them be successful.   Everything I give them is something else for them to add to their toolbox, but if they never open that box on their own, the tools will just sit there.   By using the tool analogy with them in the classroom, it will help to keep the idea forward in my own mind to do the same.   Like no one can take my old, comfortable tools away from me without resentment on my part, I can’t take their teaspoons and force them to use the shovel.   It’s something that each of us has to do for ourselves.   I see many who are becoming much more proficient with their new tools, and a few even astound me by bringing out a backhoe and going even further than asked!

That’s what I want to hang on to and learn from myself.   I need to be strong enough to not only stop picking up the wrong implements, but getting rid of them altogether.   But, like my students, it will happen a little at a time.

For Giving, Not For Getting

Published January 4, 2012 by Susan Woodward

Every year when I return to school after the winter break, I am asked, “Ms Woodward, what did you get for Christmas?” immediately followed by, “I got…” before I can open my mouth in reply.   The questions then gravitate toward other students as they enter the room (many even before they reach their desks) in a competition of who got what.  Then the one-up-manship begins as many try to outdo their classmates with their litany of loot accumulated over the holiday season.  It’s actually pretty painful to think that this is all that the winter break seemed to mean to a lot of my students.

By the fifth or sixth time a student asked me what I got, I turned the question around and asked, “So what did you give?”  When he began to tick off the presents he’d bought, I asked, “That’s nice, but what did you give of yourself?”  I figured this tactic would be a good diversion from the Litany of Loot, and since this was during a study hall, it wasn’t taking away from my lesson plans, so I pursued the question.  I asked him what he gave of himself to his family or friends.  He finally got around to saying that he’d helped his Dad clean out the garage (even though it was a grudgingly done chore), and I asked if he and his Dad talked about anything while they were cleaning.  He told me that they’d talked about football and school and things that his Dad wants to do with the house.  That’s when  I said, “Don’t you think your Dad appreciated that one-on-one time more than anything you could buy?  You gave him a gift of yourself.”   When another student smirked at the conversation we were having, the first student turned to the other and asked, “So what did YOU give, huh?”

It ended up being a pretty good half-hour of hearing how they spent time with family, especially younger cousins or siblings that they played with or put toys together for or taught to play a new game.  That was much better than the Litany of Loot.  I pointed out that the spirit of the season was more for giving and not for getting.

The phrase stuck in my mind the rest of the day like one of those songs that you just can’t quit humming unconsciously after hearing it on the radio…and it led me to ponder that old adage “forgive and forget”; however, I really liked “forgiving, not forgetting” better.   To forgive and forget seems, especially for those who have been in abusive situations, to produce a vicious circle.   While forgiving is the best thing to do to promote healing (especially self-healing), forgetting might open the door for repeat offenses.  I would rather forgive someone, but not forget about the lesson to be taken from the situation. 

For example, I can forgive my ex-fiance for his betrayal, but that does not mean that I will forget what he did.  I tried the “forgive and forget” thing the first few times he hurt me, and I took him back.  Three times.  Only he repeated the behavior because my “forgetting” seemed to give him permission to go ahead and do it again since there had been little consequence.  This time, though, I got off the merry-go-round and ended the cycle for good.   At this point,  I can forgive him, but I will not forget.  This will keep me from falling into similar patterns of behaviors in the future.  Forgive the offense, but never forget the lesson.

Funny how this all started with, “So what did you get for Christmas?”

I am getting a better sense of self-esteem.

2012: Mayan-Sized Endings

Published January 2, 2012 by Susan Woodward

Every year at this time everyone talks about resolutions to make changes… me included.  And every year, my resolve weakens about the third or fourth week in, gets invigorated in the spring after the winter hibernation, ebbs and flows throughout the summer, and then falls totally short once the new school year begins in September.  It’s been my pattern for so many years, but January 1 is always right there around the corner every 365 days just in time for me to make similar resolutions that will also fall short.

With all of the attention being given to the Mayan calendar ending in 2012, I want to pay attention.  This is an ending that won’t have a 365 day renewal policy.  While many are certain that December 21, 2012 will be the end of the world, I simply see it as a time for preparing for the end of an era.  And with the end of a long cycle needs to be the end of some long-standing resolutions… at least for me.  2012 also marks a milestone birthday for me… I will turn 50 in February, and it is time for some long-lasting changes.  I am ready for 2012 to be an ending of long cycles of behaviors in my life, starting with my annual pseudo-resolutions.

Long-Standing behaviors that I want to end throughout 2012:

1.  Self-Poisoning:  I need to stop poisoning my body and my mind.  This has been life long battle for me.  I eat too much of the wrong foods, I smoke, and I fill my mind with doubt.   I have been fearful too long, and have self “medicated” with overindulgence to the point where I have reached toxic levels… poison.

2.  Isolation:  Because of my fears of rejection, I have kept myself from really connecting with others.   I put myself in a self-imposed desert state, and it’s time to move more toward civilization.  While it may have been good for me to think of it as solitude and reassessment for a period of time, I have become too comfortable being by myself.   A certain level of safety has arisen from being alone, but that wall of safety has cut me off from so much.  Now even more at social functions, I retreat from the crowds to find a quiet corner.  Because I am afraid that anything I might have to say is not anything that anyone would want to hear, I shy away from conversation and simply watch from a distance.   I have done this for most of my life, but not to the level that I have currently reached.   This is a pattern I so desperately want to break because there is so much that I want to do with what is left of this life.   I cannot do what I truly want if I hide away from the world.

3. Fearfulness: My fears have caused the above behaviors, particularly the fear of rejection.   It has kept me from connecting with people, caused severe procrastination in my writing, provided me with an excuse to self-medicate with food and smoking, and kept me in this self-imposed desert state.  By working to conquer #3, that should take care of knocking off #1 and #2 above.

So fighting fearfulness is where I begin to make these long lasting changes.   And from past experience of resolutions, I am not going to try to go cold-turkey.  This cycle of endings came after a long period, and so my endings cannot just happen overnight… but they will happen.

– I will quit smoking, but I will do so gradually, giving me a better chance at long-lasting success.

– I will improve my eating behaviors, but I will not tell myself to stop eating any particular thing altogether.   I will work toward moderation so that I will not feel deprived and then fall back into over-indulgence.

– I will get out of the corner at social functions.  No, I won’t be the life of the party… but I will avoid being too shy to talk to new people.   I’ll start with talking to one new person at a time, and just go from there.

– I will get off the couch and exercise more.  No marathons, no Olympics… but getting out to do something I really love… swimming… will do much for me physically.   With less smoking, I will be able to build stamina in doing laps.  As my body becomes stronger, I will be less inclined to indulge in eating too much.

– I will make time to write a bit a couple times a week and work my way up to doing a bit of writing more often.   I don’t want to put a time line on my novel because that is self-defeating, but I will keep a steady pace at it and it will be complete in its own time… as long as I chip away at it.   A few pages at a time and before I know it, I will have all the pages it requires.   I will stop worrying about whether or not anyone else will like what I’ve written and just do it for myself.   I actually DO like the story I’ve plotted out, and as long as I like it, then that will be a very good start.   If I care enough about my own work, then I will be able to find others who will care about it, too.

While these may seem like the same resolutions I make year after year, I am going to be much more mindful about how I tackle my issues.   It took a couple thousand years for the Mayan calendar to come to an end, so I will not have high expectations of my life-long behaviors ending at the drop of a ball.   It will be a year of endings, and when December 21, 2012 arrives, a whole new era will begin.  That is my goal… to get ready for new beginnings.

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