Shaving, mindfulness and contentment

Occasionally, when I visit my father he needs a shave. That’s usually because he has waved off the offer of help from the nurses at his retirement home, telling them he’ll get to it later. Sometimes I remind him to let them help him. On a few occasions I’ve shaved him myself.

Back when his hair was dark, my father didn’t have a five o’clock shadow – it was more like a two o’clock shadow. Even now, after only a couple of days he has a heavy growth of beard. I’ve learned that in giving him a shave there’s no substitute for patience. Sometimes it takes three or four passes to get his skin smooth – along with lots of hot wash cloths in-between. The other day he dozed off as I worked, his lips fluttering as he breathed deeply in and out. I was honored with the trust implicit in his dozing, but it got a little dicey when he did the old “sleeping head jerk” as I had a razor up against his throat. (I’m glad to report there was no blood loss.)

It’s a simple task that he’s done thousands of times in his life. but as I do it I am reminded of the profound mindfulness required for me to do it. My attention can’t be anywhere else. I have to be present, completely focused on this moment of time, completely attentive to this action. One night as  I worked he listened to Andrea Bocelli sing opera on the TV, and it seemed to me to be one of the most pure and exquisite moments of my life.

If you pay attention to magazines for therapists or look at the line-up of continuing ed conferences, you’ll see a lot about mindfulness. It’s one of the hot topics in therapy, and rightfully so. Distraction isn’t a modern invention but we’ve certainly taken it to a new level. Smart phones and IPads help us ensure that no moment of our days has to be free from distraction.

But if we are not present – to our lives and our selves – we suffer. Our mental health suffers. God knows our spiritual health suffers. And I’m no doctor but I’m sure it is not good for our bodies either. When my clients are able to be more mindful (even in difficult


times), they report deeper levels of contentment and well being.What I am discovering is that my occasional times of giving my father a shave are not only a gift for him but a gift for myself as well. Afterwards I feel more centered, more balanced. I have received the gift of mindfulness.

As you begin anticipating this coming year, consider the place of mindfulness in your own life. Where do you experience it? How do you need to make room for it? Sometimes it can be as simple as making sure you have a few moments to breathe – just breathing in and out and feeling present in the action.


The 12 Days of Christmas: Surviving and thriving (Days 6-12: Punt)


Yep, that’s my wisdom for today.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not the wisdom I’d planned to have. I had such good plans. I’d blocked out the first three days of last week. No clients. Plenty of time at the office to get caught up on other tasks. I’d promised myself I’d leave no later than 4 each day to get Christmas things done… like get a tree, do shopping, finish getting the house ready for my family who was staying with me. It was such a good plan.

Monday morning  I waltzed into the office, efficiency oozing out of my pores. I started writing the sermon I was scheduled to preach Sunday night. But then I started feeling not so good. I started getting chills. I knew what was coming.


That’s right, a rip-roaring, 102 degree fever case of the flu.  So much for my plan. I spent all week on my couch, working my way through the shows I’d recorded but had no time to watch. I discovered  I really liked The Chew. I spent a lot of time napping with my dogs.

None of which was on my list. Early in the week I contemplated my situation. None of the things I’d planned to do during the week were going to get done. It was time to punt.

In football, a coach decides to punt when there’s no real chance of gaining a first down. It’s not what they’d planned to do, but at least they could give themselves a chance to score the next time around. You’ll hear commentators talk about living to face another day.

I decided to punt. I might not get everything done that was on my list. I might not finish the touch-ups in my newly painted bathroom before my brother arrives. But the bathroom will be functional and we’ll all live. If I had to do gift cards for everyone, I could do that. I called the church to let them know that they’d better have a plan B in hand just in case I couldn’t make it.

I did wind up preaching. And after six hours of ninja shopping on Saturday, I finished my Christmas shopping. Hopefully today I’ll get a tree, and if that’s the only decorating I do, then so be it.

Because sometimes we can only do what we can do, not what we’d planned to do. Sometimes we just have to take stock of where things stand… and punt.

If all goes according to plan for you this Christmas, then blessings upon you. Enjoy it. And if it doesn’t, remember that sometimes there’s no shame in just punting. After all, you live to see another day.


The following is a sermon I preached at a Blue Christmas service at First Baptist Church, Greensboro, NC on 12-18.


“You feel the way you feel.

And in this space no one will command you to smile.

We will invite you

to pull up a chair for a while

and let yourself listen

to other words that are also a part of this advent season…”

Sermon: blue christmas

The 12 Days of Christmas: Surviving and thriving (Day 5: Have some cake)

So you’ve decided to eat healthy and lose that weight you’ve been carrying around. Or you’re trying your best to follow your doctor’s guidelines for managing your diabetes. Or you’ve come to a decision for your ethics and your health that you’re committed to being a vegetarian. Or vegan. Or you’ve discovered that you really do better without gluten.

You’re doing pretty good with it. But Christmas is looming. Here’s some tips for navigating the minefield that can be the dining room table.

1. Understand that food is loaded. And I’m not just talking about loaded baked potatoes. Food is loaded with meaning.

Every year, my mother spent days baking Christmas cookies. Many different kinds of Christmas cookies. Dozens upon dozens of Christmas cookies.

Our family is not that big.

But for my mother, baking Christmas cookies was an important part of Christmas. Just like it was important to have two meats and sixteen vegetables on the table for dinner. (Our family is not that big.) But for her it was an act of love to make sure every family member had a vegetable they loved, that we had everyone’s favorite dish.

That cake may be more than a cake. It may be a way the baker has of expressing love. It may be the passing along of a legacy of generations, remembering someone who has died with the food they used to make. (For example, whenever I make chocolate pie it’s not just chocolate pie. It’s my Aunt Janie’s chocolate pie.)

2. Honor the feeling. Even if you cannot or chose not to eat the slice of cake, you can honor the intention of the one who made it. Honor the work they’ve done. Honor the caring behind it. “Tell me how your mom used to make this…” “You’re so thoughtful to think about all of us…” For some, the acknowledgement they need is in your enjoyment of their food. But it can also help to have a verbal acknowledgement.

3. Talk about the food. this is true especially if you have a special diet. Family members may feel a little scared that first Christmas you’re a diabetic or have gone gluten-free. Talk with them about what it means. Give suggestion as to what you can eat or ways recipes can be modified. Offer to bring something, if possible.

4. Talk about food early. In the case of my mother, most of the Christmas casseroles were done and in the freezer not too long after Halloween. If the cooks in your family plan on a similar schedule, be proactive.

5. Be prepared to be a broken record (or stuck CD or frozen mp3.) Anticipate reactions. Will your uncle the hunter make fun of you for being vegetarian? Will your sister make comments about all of that gluten stuff just being a fad? Plan ahead of time how you’ll respond. Generally, the Christmas dinner table isn’t a good time for debates, so answers that de-escalate instead of answers that engage generally work better. “I know it must seem like a fad to you, but I’m willing to do anything that makes me feel this much better.” “I know it may seem silly, Uncle Jim. but you know me…” “It’s okay if our children don’t clean their plates.”

Be prepared to repeat these statements as many times as possible. If you choose not to engage in an argument or debate, they cannot make you.

6. When all else fails, have a back-up. We still laugh about the time that my sister-in-law’s father, not impressed with the healthy dessert she’d made for Thanksgiving, insisted on stopping at Shoney’s on the way home for fudge cake.


The 12 days of Christmas: Surviving and Thriving (Day 4 – Family Matters)

The most wonderful thing about Christmas is being able to be with family. The hardest thing about Christmas is being with family. If you checked statement one, you can skip today’s blog post and go back to your eggnog. If you checked the second statement, keep reading.

Many of us carry an expectation of how Christmas should be… the kindly grandparents welcoming families home, in-laws who are as close as blood family, a dinner table crowded with aunts and uncles enjoying being together, rosy-checked children who are delighted with their gifts.

Your reality may be different.

Mom and your sister still aren’t speaking over that Wal-Mart disagreement. No one has ever liked your brother’s wife who returns the favor with repeated dramatic sighs and snide comments. Even though you have explained with being a vegetarian means, your father insists on putting turkey on your plate. Your uncle is drunk again, even though everyone pretends not to notice. During the  dinner table discussion you are told that people who think like you either have ruined this country or are going to hell… or both. Because of divorces and remarriages, you will be expected to eat five Christmas dinners in two days… and less than hearty eating will be considered an affront. At least 30% of the Christmas toys are broken within two hours and the kids are so wired on sugar and Santa that they will not sleep until Tuesday.

So how to survive going over the river and through the woods?

1. Have realistic expectations. Some families do take advantage of the holiday get together to resolve differences and begin healing. But other families will simply intensify their dysfunction. If your family has always been more Rosanne than Norman Rockwell, don’t walk in expecting Rockwell.

2. Make a plan. Decide beforehand how you will respond to invasive questions, offensive comments or your usual family dramas. You cannot control what others do. You can control how you respond. If you decide not to opt in to the old family games, they cannot make you play. Statements like, “I guess we just disagree” are good to have in your back pocket. They are most effective when followed by a question that changes the subject: “So, tell me about your new car/Susie’s braces/ your team’s season…”

3. Take care of your own self. All of us have inside of ourselves all of the ages we have been. If your family was fractured or hurtful, you may have inside of you a little kid who keeps waiting for his or her parents to get it right. It may leave you feeling deeply disappointed or hurt when it doesn’t happen again this year. So, whatever the family experience, make sure that you carve out a little time to do something that’s meaningful for you. It may be putting up the tree that you want to have instead of the one out of Southern Living. It may be watching “a Christmas Story” three days after Christmas when you’re finally back home.

4. Step back. If all else fails, step back and become an observer. Pretend that you are watching the latest “Christmas Vacation” movie. It’s a lot less intense when you’re watching it from a little emotional distance.

5. Be responsible for your own celebration. Whatever your family experience, you can still choose to focus on joy and delight. Create the celebration that you want to have. Hopefully it can include your family. But if not, you can still celebrate.

12 Days of Christmas: Surviving and Thriving (Day 3: Present-Day Decisions)

First, let me begin with a disclaimer. I love Christmas shopping. I’ve had years where I found presents throughout the year so that when the first week of December rolled around,  I was done. And I’ve had years in which I was out there at the last minute, taking advantage of all of the desperation bargains. Either way, I really love looking for the right thing and finding that present that I’m reasonably sure they will enjoy.

I realize this passion is not universally shared.

Dealing with presents is usually at the top of lists of Christmas stress. Here are some tips to make life a little easier.

1. Before you begin, decide what you can do. Each year I decide how much money I have to spend on Christmas. I then divide that among by the number of presents I have to buy. And that’s my budget for each present. It doesn’t matter if I find just the perfect thing for someone. If it’s twice as much as my budget allows, I’ll keep looking. By sticking to the budget and paying in cash, I’m not hit with the month after remorse. Some years that budget has been pretty small, but it’s amazing what you can find on a good sale.

2. Don’t be afraid to ask. If you have no idea of what your niece would like, ask her. It doesn’t mean you love her less. People get into trouble applying the mythical wedding ring ESP to other family members. (The mythical wedding ring ESP refers to the belief that if your partner loves you, they should be able to read your mind.) If your niece asks for a new car and that is beyond your means, ask her for a longer list.

3. Presents don’t have to be perfect. It’s easy to fall into the trap of passing on a really good present in the quest for that absolutely perfect present. When you’re tempted to fall into that trap, remember that your good mental health is the best present of all that you can give your family.

4. Along these lines, presents aren’t magical. They probably will not mend fractured relationships, heal family dysfunctions and make up for everything you didn’t get as a kid. It probably won’t finally make your mom love you best when she’s always favored your brother. It’s a Christmas present. It can be pretty special but it probably won’t radically change your life. And that’s okay.

5. Figure out what works for you. Your family may decide to draw names. Or to put your present money together and spend it on a family trip. Or adopt a goat in a third world country. The most important thing is that everyone is able to have a voice in the decision.

6. Gift cards are not tacky. You know all of those people whom you’d like to remember at this time of the year – teachers, choir leaders, hairdressers, etc.? The vast majority of them are not offended by a gift card. If you give a card to a local restaurant, just be sure it’s a place where they’d like to go.