The place I want to get back to

A few evenings ago, as Chad and I were walking Lexi, I was talking about how lucky I am. I’d started out talking about this incredible encounter that took place at the Sausalito Art Festival last weekend, where I was on the receiving end of an astonishing act of generosity and grace, but as the walk continued into its second mile, I’d begun to wax poetic about my luck more generally. I was listing off all the acts of unexpected kindness, all the surprising good things that have happened to me, all the people who’ve reached out to me and made me better by their presence in my life… until I was interrupted by Chad’s laughter.

He said I wasn’t that lucky. “What about when the moving truck full of everything we owned got stolen ?” he asked me. “What about our business that couldn’t survive the economic downturn? What about all our savings that went with it? What about…”

I’ll spare you. He went on. Without even pausing to think, he listed about a dozen bad things that have happened to me over the years, and he wasn’t even talking about the minor stuff. He was listing my big losses, my worst disappointments.

“Okay, killjoy,” I said. “You can stop. I get it. I’m not that lucky.”

“Actually, that’s not my point. My point is that you think you’re lucky because you generally focus on the good stuff.”

“What you focus on expands,” I thought, and it was the first time I realized that phrase isn’t just about seeing beauty in an often ugly and unkind world. It’s not just about noticing the rescuers in a disaster, or practicing forgiveness, or choosing love. And even though I’ve written posts about how what you focus on expands, I’ve always thought of that phrase in terms of kindness begetting kindness, love begetting love. I hadn’t thought about how what you focus on arranges the molecules in your brain and heart, shapes your whole perception of the world, your life, yourself.

***

A lighthearted example of how my brain works:

One time, my family and another family we love rented a houseboat on Lake Shasta for a week. It was heaven for me. For a week, I played every day with people I adore. I swam and wake boarded, escaped to the top deck to read books all by myself, learned some new card games, hiked along the shoreline with my dog. After we got home, as I excitedly recounted to friends all the great times we’d had, someone reminded me about out how the plumbing had backed up (twice!) and we’d had to clean up some pretty awful stuff. And there was the part when our ski boat prop hit a rock and Chad and I spent a lot of hours (and money) finding a place that could get the part we needed and fix it in a day. And there was the night of the great fly invasion, and that other night when I was unprepared to start my period (which is a little more problematic when you’re in the middle of a lake in the wee, wee hours), and the time when, as we motored our way across the great expanse of Lake Shasta, our ski boat came untied from the houseboat and no one noticed for about half an hour.

And still, every time I talk about our houseboat vacation, what I remember is the blue-sky sun and the crazy number of stars you can see out on the lake at night. I talk about the water slide contests, the Marco Polo games, the glass-smooth, early morning water that was, literally, right outside our door.

***

This week, on Facebook, Elizabeth Gilbert posted the question, “How do you cope with all the horrible news in the world?” I loved her answer, which you should definitely read. I loved it because she addresses the idea some people have – a lot of people I think – that if you’re not focused all the time on all the shit that’s wrong in the world, it’s because you have no real problems, or you don’t care about the world’s problems, or your head is so far in the sand, you don’t notice the world’s problems. She says,

None of us can afford to live in a bubble — not in a world that needs engaged people. But find another way to express your compassion and your concern for the world, besides sitting in front of CNN for three straight hours, being assaulted by an endless parade of global horrors…

Also, remember this: We do not live in a time of special horror — no matter how it seems. Every generation has known its horrors. So it has always been, and probably always will be. It is our duty to be aware of these horrors, and to help where we can. But as all the great masters have taught us for centuries —we also have a duty to delight. We find our humanity, our restoration, in delight. We live in a world of both suffering and joy. Both are equal realities. To turn all your attention toward one (suffering) while completely disregarding the presence of the other (joy) is a pity — maybe almost a sin.

I think she’s right, and I think it applies not only to global tragedies, but to your own  personal tragedies as well.

***

It’s not always a choice what to focus on. Sometimes, when you’re at the center of a terrible story, when your heart has been broken, or you just got laid off, or you’ve lost someone you love, or all the money’s gone, there’s nothing to do but live it, fully, excruciatingly. And there are times when you simply have to grieve the horrors of this world – stand up for something or fight against something – be one more voice in the chorus of voices crying out for change. There are times, I know, when it just isn’t possible to focus on what’s good and beautiful in the world, but for me, that will always be the place I want to get back to.

Because, when it comes right down to it, I guess I like believing I’m lucky.

~~~~~~~~~~

If you’re curious about what I’ve been up to art-wise, check out the galleries, especially Art & Illustrations, where I just posted a cartoon I made from a writer’s photograph. His publisher has said maybe they’ll use it in his soon-to-be-released book! (And even if they don’t, I have years of conditioning to be excited about a publisher’s liking my work.)

If you’re curious about what I’ve been up to everything else-wise, join me on Facebook, where I keep everyone way too informed.

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23 Responses to The place I want to get back to

  1. Annie Neugebauer (@AnnieNeugebauer) September 5, 2014 at 6:27 am #

    This is so beautiful. Exactly what I needed to read today. Thank you.

    • j September 5, 2014 at 4:15 pm #

      Thank you back, Annie.

  2. Robyn Hayes September 5, 2014 at 7:16 am #

    Oh Yes. Sisters in spirit. I to am the unluckiest lucky person I know <3 Keep a grin handy – you'll always need one is my motto these days.

    • j September 5, 2014 at 4:16 pm #

      Excellent motto. Putting one in my purse now. ; )

  3. Nancy September 5, 2014 at 8:28 am #

    I have a friend who used to say that if it weren’t for bad luck, I would have had no luck at all. :-) Like you, even when I’m mired in crap, I can let my mind go to the place where I think I’m lucky — even if that luck is just being born with an ability to be resilient in the face of struggle.

    Elizabeth Gilbert is correct to point out that every generation has faced their own Gaza-Ukraine-Iraq-Syria-Terror crises.

    As always you’ve stated this just beautifully, and like Annie, this is just what I needed to read this morning.

    xo

  4. j September 5, 2014 at 4:22 pm #

    That’s so true, Nancy! Some people are born more resilient in nature than others, I believe that. I will consider that among my lucky traits from here on out. (Talk about finding a bright side to tragedy!)

    I saw someone on FB disagreeing about whether or not there is more horror now than ever before, but I think Elizabeth Gilbert is right too. I think what’s different now is our access to the spectacle. Horror is more visible now than ever before, and that is exhausting.

    Thank you for the comment. I miss talking to you, my friend. xo

  5. Pam September 5, 2014 at 7:19 pm #

    Love it!

    Yes, I think the focus –> expansion dynamic is like my favorite saw about the stories we tell ourselves and how powerful they can be. If one of your stories about yourself is that you’re lucky, I think that is a good thing.

    On the point about strife and horror in the world I do think there has always been bad stuff (humans have been claiming the world is going to hell in a handbasket since human utterances have been recorded) and I don’t see how being miserable 24/7 about the strife and horror is a requirement. I’d be surprised if anyone has ever thought “I should have spent more time helpless with outrage” on her deathbed.

    • j September 6, 2014 at 7:12 am #

      If only we’d all spend more time doing the stuff that will make us feel we’ve lived happy, loving lives on our death bed. One of the saddest articles I’ve ever read was written by a hospice nurse about the things people say on their death beds. You’re right. No one mourned their missed helpless outrage opportunities.

  6. Sheila Seiler Lagrand September 5, 2014 at 7:25 pm #

    Thank you for helping me to strengthen my shield against the exhausting horrors. Not that I ever want to ignore them, or stick my fingers in my ears and sing “la-la-la-la-la-la” in an effort to become deaf to the suffering of other human beings, other people who are loved and have gifts and dreams and treasures.

    But still. Wallowing in the mire of pain doesn’t help the hurting ones. It doesn’t help anyone. It is so much better to do anything I can to comfort those who suffer, to offer whatever little aid I might have control of, and at the same time to remember to keep my eyes peeled for the beauty, for the joy, for the goodness.

    Huh. I guess I just dumped a mini-manifesto . . .

    • j September 6, 2014 at 7:14 am #

      It’s an excellent mini-manifesto. You should doodle it and hang it on the wall above your desk! ; )

  7. lunajune September 6, 2014 at 4:07 am #

    As there will always be crap going on everywhere, there will always be those who can only see it
    I was talking with my acupuncturist yesterday about illness and emotion. It’s our emotions that reflect our health.
    Life contains death… it’s how we deal with it
    Our attitude reflects our altitude

    and I love yours :~)

    • j September 6, 2014 at 7:20 am #

      Why thank you, June.

      You’re right there are studies that show that being positive is good for your health and even boosts your immune system. Sadly, it doesn’t stop beautiful people from getting seriously ill, but neither does dwelling on the what’s wrong in your life and the world, and that is such a scarier, sadder place to live.

  8. Linda Wanstreet September 6, 2014 at 8:23 am #

    I agree! I consider myself lucky also, and I think that I am lucky because I believe that I am lucky and deserve to be!
    I am enjoyinging your posts and art – thanks!

    • j September 7, 2014 at 1:49 pm #

      Thank you, Linda! I love that you expect it and feel that you deserve it. You should and you do!

      I do think that, to some degree, we get what we expect, even if only because that’s what we notice. I once read that we humans look out into the world and we see whatever confirms our beliefs – good or bad people, acceptance or rejection, love or hate, beauty or ugliness. If you (and I obviously don’t mean YOU) look out in the world and see only the horrors (that confirm your worst fears and most negative opinions), then I think it’s a good time to do some self-work. The good stuff is out there, you just need to train yourself to see it.

  9. juliafehrenbacher September 7, 2014 at 9:34 am #

    “What you focus on expands” is one of the truest things I know, J. Thank you for sharing the beauty of you with us.

    And thank you for being one of the most beautiful things that has ever “happened” to me.

    I love you (and what you focus on) dearly.

  10. j September 7, 2014 at 1:50 pm #

    Oh, Julia, you made me tear up here. Thank you so much, and you know, I know, that I feel the very same way about you. xoxo

  11. Karin September 7, 2014 at 6:34 pm #

    I guess the phrase “what you focus on, expands” really hit for me just now.
    If I’m only focusing on all the crazy bad things that are happening to me, then my life gets to be pretty darn miserable.
    But if I turn it around, have a positive attitude about it, it makes all the difference.
    Easier said than done though. I’m definitely no believer in “luck” (though I often claim to be “unlucky” sometimes). I never expect things to really go my way.
    But it’s the best experiences in the human condition that bring back hope and confidence.

    Having recently had some ups and downs myself lately, I’ll just have to remember this post and look back on it as a learning experience.

    • j September 15, 2014 at 10:15 am #

      Despite the studies and studies and studies that show having a positive attitude is good for you in every way, I hate the phrase. It sounds so trite in the face of wrenching, real-world tragedies. It’s hard to have a positive attitude when you’re grieving, or sick, or heartbroken. I’m really not suggesting that (though if you can do it, by all means do). I think in the moment of suckitude – personal or global – we have to feel what we feel, however unpleasant. It’s over the long haul where I think we might be able to change our focus.

      When the truck got stolen with all our stuff on it, I was inconsolable. I’d lost everything – old journals, old pictures, letters from people I’d loved and lost, keepsakes, my favorite threadbare, worn out, ugly, beautiful sweatshirt which I’d stolen from my father. No amount of “keep a positive attitude” was going to help me, and I’d have wanted to punch someone for saying that to me. But now, all these years later, I can see that it was all just stuff – memory-laden stuff, but stuff nonetheless. And no matter how memory-filled my stuff is, it’s not me. It’s not the people I love. It’s not my values or my creativity or my dreams. I still have all that.

      I guess here’s what I think: when we look at the world, our lives, ourselves, it’s easy to see only the parts that verify how much they suck. But, in truth, there is also love, and art, and our messy, admirable attempts to be the better people we aspire to be. I think that’s where we get to make the choice about what we focus on.

  12. Nina Badzin September 10, 2014 at 2:44 am #

    So much is about attitude. The one meme on FB I don’t mind is the gratitude project. Just saying your lucky is a giant dose of gratitude wrapped up in another name. It’s great!

    • j September 15, 2014 at 10:16 am #

      True. It’s an instant attitude adjustment every time I focus on the things I’m grateful for.

  13. Diann September 25, 2014 at 8:23 am #

    How absolutely beautiful. I really needed this today.

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