delight, gratitude, photography, symbolism

delight in the form of a broken lioness

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It’s an unexpected experience, this thing called delight. It’s a word that we don’t hear all that often anymore but one that seems deserving of a comeback. Perhaps more than deserving at this point and time – perhaps necessary. How often do we actually go out and seek delight? When I think back in my own life to moments where I felt the sensation of utter delight, it hadn’t been something I was necessarily looking for.

It was unexpected. Un-awaited. Unsought.

In an instant, there it was. I imagine if I had been an observer, I would have noticed my mouth agape, the corners of my lips upturned as if readying for a smile, a sparkle in my eye, and a lightness of being. Delight has that effect. It inhabits us, even if only for a fleeting moment – hopefully, long enough for us to become aware of it to enter fully into its presence.

I’ll admit that the past several months have been a bit rough. My father’s health has been declining, and he has been enduring chronic, nearly unbearable pain for an extended period of time. If you know him, you know that he has always been a “go-er,” a “doer” – one who chooses not to slow down – even through and despite any pain he may have been experiencing. Even though his own gait has been stilted with limping for a couple of years, he continued to drive for Meals on Wheels, do nearly all the yard work, volunteer at a local pantry, help with church activities, and go for coffee every morning with the “old cronies.” However, the pain of the last couple of months has stopped him cold. He must use a walker to move from one place to another – and with each step, it is easy to see the excruciating pain he experiences. He no longer leaves the house except for appointments – and rarely leaves the couch or chair. To say this is uncharacteristic of my father is an understatement.

Procedure after procedure have been tried to no avail. Each new procedure presents us with both hope and trepidation. Hope that something will finally work to relieve his pain – and trepidation that it will simply result in another disappointment. Another disappointment for him. Another disappointment for my mother (whose patience in the past month, in the midst of frustrations and uncertainty, has risen to an unbelievable level). Another disappointment for his family and friends who miss his contagious (and loud) laugh and presence.

Watching parents age is not for the faint of heart.

And so with a combination of my emotions on overdrive from my father’s challenges, from watching my oldest son Nick graduate and look with excitement toward the next chapter of his life in college, from feeling a void at not being a part of an annual event in which I participated for the past seven years, and from several rejections in the vocational and photographic realm, I have definitely been in a phase of my life that is demanding that I move with grief and loss as frequent companions – in all the myriad forms they take.

Not that this past couple of months have been only grief and loss. There has been much to rejoice along the way, too. The moments that my dad feels good enough to come to the table to play a few rounds of dominoes. Laughter with my mother that is so intense that she “hurts from laughing.” Truly feeling excited about Nick heading off to begin his college life because I remember feeling the same way. FINALLY getting a “yes” on something that was probably the yes that I wanted the most. Patience from my husband and sons as they realize that I’m a bit “on edge” at the moment. Getting away by myself for a few days…

Finding gratitude in the moments, around the edges, and in the midst? That I can do – most of the time. I’ve been practicing that for a while. But finding delight – which seems much rarer and harder to expect? Is it possible to seek delight? I don’t know for sure, but I’m willing to try.

In a conversation with a friend recently, in expressing the challenges that life is offering me, I mentioned that I was going to actively seek light and delight. So imagine my surprise yesterday morning, when delight found me – in the form of a broken figurine of a now faceless lioness tossed randomly aside in the grass near a path on which I was walking. I can’t explain it. I laughed out loud when I picked it up, and I was giggling inwardly all the while that I was posing her in a shallow puddle nearby. I knew it when I felt it, though. THIS was delight.

As these words formed this morning, my curiosity was piqued. I believe that our external world has a way of showing up with signs and messages – if we are open to seeing them. I find it extremely satisfying to seek meaning and metaphor in that which we encounter in our lives, and in this case, I found a broken, faceless lioness. With a mid-August birthday, I am a Leo, and I have been known to shoot a portrait of a lion or two. I’m a sucker for symbolism and metaphor, so I had to know. What might a lion or lioness symbolize? What message might this animal be offering to me? And, thanks to the wonders of the internet, these three topped my Google search:

Family ties

Courage

Strength

Ha. Coincidence? I doubt it. And the fact that the lioness figurine was broken? Even more appropriate. Yes, courage and strength are necessary these days – but I’d be a liar if I claimed that my courage and strength hadn’t been fractured or sprained as of late. Besides, I’m not sure I would have found the same delight in a lioness that had been whole. This lioness was faceless for goodness sake, and I offered it a photo shoot.

Yet there was something satisfying, something delightful even, about taking that which had been cast aside and forgotten, broken, abandoned, and “in the mud” – and honoring it with its own (admittedly comical) photo shoot. Though she had no face and no voice to speak, she still held a message – at least for me.

Delight in the form of a broken, faceless lioness.

Unexpected. Un-awaited. Unsought. Just as delight usually is.

–shari miller

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gratitude

the gratitude challenge

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Nearly daily, for almost eight years, I’ve written gratitudes on my personal Facebook page. In the spring of 2009, after ignoring the emotional signs of depression for nearly two years, my physical body decided to make me pay attention by allowing me the “gift” of a bulging disk that left me unable to sit, walk, stand, move, or lie down without being in unbearable pain. Looking back now, it seems like there was some bit of knowing within me that was saying,

“Well, if depression isn’t going to influence you to make some much-needed changes in your life, we’re going to have to get your attention in some other way.” 

Ouch. It worked. For some reason, being completely incapacitated with level 10 pain or being completely incoherent on painkillers was finally motivation enough for me to make some significant changes in my life. As author and motivational speaker Mary Kay Mueller describes in her book Taking Care of Me, the evolution of change often moves in the following way:

When the fear is greater than the pain, we stay where we are.

When fear and pain are equal, we talk about change but stay where we are.

When the pain is greater than the fear, we finally make a change.

Looking back, I must admit that this rang true for me.

Before I had read those words, though, and around the time that I was attempting to move beyond the depression and the physical pain, I heard Mary Kay Mueller speak. Her story was different from mine, but I could definitely find some resonance in what she said. At one point in her presentation, she said, “I am going to offer you a challenge. If you accept and follow through on this challenge, I promise you will experience incredible transformation in your life.”

Was I skeptical? Definitely. Intrigued? Yes. If there had ever been a time in my life that was desperate for transformation, I was living in it. My ears perked up, and what she said next surprised me:

“The challenge is this: write down three NEW things for which you are grateful each day – every day – for the rest of your life.”

What? That’s it? This task is going to help me experience incredible transformation in my life? I’ll admit, my skepticism grew. How could something that seemed so simple be so transformative? I had nothing to lose, though, so I accepted the challenge.

The first few days were easy: my husband, my boys, our house. Food in the fridge, a car to drive, showers. Books, laptops, and, of course, my morning coffee! I was feeling smug. I’ve got this! This is a piece of cake! It’s only three things a day!

Except there was that one other word she mentioned: NEW.

Three NEW things. EACH day. EVERY day. For the rest of my life.

About 2-3 weeks in, it became challenging. I remember waking up one morning feeling as though I was heading back down the dark hole. I didn’t want to get out of bed, I was tired, and the negativity began to swim back into my thoughts. And then all of a sudden? It hit me while I was still in bed.

Wait. I need to find three new things for which to be grateful today.

I don’t remember the date, but I remember the moment. There was a shift happening. I realized that I could spend my day looking for (and finding ample evidence of!) things about which I could complain OR I could choose to begin to look for the good in my day, and so I began seeking it in the smaller things. No longer could I simply be grateful for my family, in general, since I had already listed them. Instead, finding three NEW gratitudes forced me to look for specifics – like when my oldest son emptied the dishwasher after my first request without the usual teenage groan. Or when my youngest son told me that I was a “cool mom.” Or when my husband offered to make dinner.

When I was out and about in the world, I began to notice the little things. The driver that let me merge in front of her as I got on the interstate. The young man who carried my groceries to my car. The woman at the convenience store who is always smiling and joking with the customers. A leaf whose shadow made it look like a butterfly.

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And nature. Ohhh, nature. I swear that in the summer of 2009, there was an explosion of the butterfly population because it seemed that there were more of them around my house than I had ever seen before. I noticed the shapes of the clouds. The details in the bark of the tree. Light. Shadows. The vibrant, ordinary beauty of a dandelion. In seeking those things to be grateful for, I was seeing far more of the world – and it felt different. I felt different.

Humor me a moment.

Right now, think of something you could complain about. Think about all the aspects of it – all the details. Become aware of the emotions tied to that thought. Really go into it, and notice how you feel. Stay there for a bit.

Now stop.

This time, right now, think of something you’re grateful for. Think about all the aspects of it – all the details. Become aware of the emotions tied to that thought. Really go into it, and notice how you feel. Stay there for a bit.

Now stop.

Which one felt better? Which energy was more life-giving?

I’ve done this activity with large groups of people in workshops I have led. Each time, the same thing happens. Eyes closed, they can’t see one another, but I see them. When they enter into the realm of complaining their foreheads tense, their posture droops, their chins tighten. When they enter into the realm of gratitude? Their posture shifts upward. Smiles emerge. Their faces relax.

Then I ask…how long did it take you to switch from the first realm to the second? A few seconds? And could you feel the difference? Inevitably, the answer is YES. They could feel the shift, and as a witness, I could physically see the shift.

The implications of this are quite powerful.

In an interview with On Being‘s Krista Tippett, Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, author, and teacher who has spoken often on gratitude once said,

“Can you be grateful for everything? No, not everything…but in every moment.”

But in every moment.

Yes.

Don’t get me wrong. Finding gratitude isn’t always easy. There are moments in our lives that challenge us – accidents, disappointments, illnesses, diagnoses, losses, death, and myriad other manifestations of living in an uncertain world. These moments can rock us to the core of our being. In these moments, the world often seems dark. Hopeless. Despairing.

And yet.

Even within those moments, if we can open to the possibility, there is often a silver lining. A moment of unexpected grace, a lesson learned, a connection made, a story told. Finding the gratitudes isn’t about denying or shutting out our feelings. It’s not about acting as if we never have difficulties in our lives. It’s more about realizing that the challenges and the gratitudes can hold the same space together. They are not mutually exclusive. It is possible to experience disappointment – while realizing that your capacity for compassion for others may have just been expanded because you have been through something that others have experienced as well. It is entirely possible to grieve while witnessing moments of grace.

The challenge is there for us all. Seek gratitude. Daily. Within each moment. Even when it’s hard – or perhaps especially when it’s hard, and see what transformation might happen for you.

shari miller

©2017 shari miller photography – all photographs & writing are the work of shari miller unless otherwise noted