30 May 2013

Lessons from Vegas: Be Yourself

Last week's entry was about my trip to Vegas with my coworkers.  This post is kind of a continuation from last week, as promised.

First off, you have to understand  why I went to Vegas in the first place.  I was watching a movie after my daughter got married, where a group of friends go off on a weekend together to kind of relax, have fun, bond. This sounded good  to me but there was one problem: I can count my close friends on one hand, and sadly, since my friends are pretty much just like I am, none of us has a whole lot of free time to do things together. We send each other texts and emails...and occasionally talk on the phone, but we don't often see one another.  Distance and commitments keep us from doing that.  The people that I usually hang out with are my family.  So you get the idea.  When this Vegas trip came up, and I got asked if I'd like to go, I said, "Sure, why not." And we bought our tickets and booked the hotel months in advance.

But as the dates grew closer, I became more and more apprehensive about going.  We had "meetings" between the 10 of us to discuss plans.  There were clubs to go to, shows, spas, dinner. Remember when you were in junior high or high school?  The peer pressure?  Do such-and-such to be cool.  Wear a certain brand of clothing.  Try something you weren't supposed to do on a dare?.  All of this in the name of fitting in with the rest and being a part of the inner circle, right? 

Well, sitting there during these Vegas planning meetings, those peer pressure feelings started flooding back.  Here I was going on a trip with everyone, yet I wasn't into any of the stuff they were planning.  So I thought, okay, I'll just go along with the group.  I said, "I'm up for whatever."  Except that I wasn't.

My typical day starts at 5:00 a.m.  Our plans were to get to Vegas after work by 8:00 p.m.  And the group was going to go to a club at 11:00 p.m.  I'm not much of a drinker, and I'm not much of a dancer....and at this age, believe it or not, I've never been to a club.  And the idea of going to a club at 11:00 at night after working a full day just didn't make sense to me (or sound fun).  It just wasn't my thing.  But there was the peer pressure.  So I said I'd go.  Just to be part of the group.  After all, that's why I was going...so I could hang out with new friends, right?  But a week or two before, at our last meeting, I announced that I wasn't going to the Friday night club thing.  "You're not going?? Come on!  You have to come!!  What are you going to do if you don't come?"  Of the group of us that went to Vegas, I was the only one that didn't go. And that was totally okay with me.  My life gets so crazy at times, that spending a few hours on my own was great.  I checked out some of the casinos, walked a long ways people watching, played penny slots.  Inside, I felt good that I was doing what felt right for me and was not swayed by the  group.  But, here's the question: by doing so, am I alienating myself from friends?  Do we need to make the effort to conform when conformity doesn't feel right?

The next day, Saturday, we were all over the place doing different things (some went to the spa, another group of us to the museum, another to a show) but we had all decided to meet up for a "nice" dinner together in the evening.  And then the group was going to see the Thunder Down Under  - basically a male dancer/strip show.  Advance tickets were purchased.  Everyone was going, except for...you guessed it, me.   Before I go on, I want to say that my intention here is not to judge anyone.  I've done my share of crazy things in my life as well.  What I mean to say though is that going to this type of show was also, "not my thing."  And it's okay if it's someone else's thing, but I'm just speaking for myself.  

At dinner that night, we were joined by a couple other friends who met us there.  And there was excitement about the show.  When I mentioned I'd been leaving after dinner...again, the peer pressure...or maybe it's not really peer pressure as much as a need to know why I didnt want to come.  And then a need for them to justify why they wanted to go.  As if they have to explain to me or defend themselves.  Again, I'm not judging...but only saying that the show was not a good fit for me.   Truly, my reason is this.  The show is basically a strip show for women, right?  Well, if the shoe were on the other foot and my husband was in Vegas with friends and they were all going to a strip club for men, would I want him to go with his friends? I would never tell him he couldn't go; and in the same token, he didn't tell me that I couldn't go either.  But I didn't want to go.  "Not my thing" was the answer.  Of all my girlfriends that came on the trip, one of them - a  young mom - decided that she didn't want to go either.  And we hung out together that evening and had a great time talking, sharing, walking the strip and people watching.

So you ask, just what is "my thing" since it's pretty obvious that I've figured out what isn't.  That's not so easy to define, but I know this much.
My thing is ...
Listening to my heart (and respecting what it has to say)
Respecting other's feelings
Living in peace with myself and what I believe is right for Me 
Not judging others for what feels right to them

There's a lot more I think, but for now, that's enough.  I'll have to keep adding to the list.  
I DID end up having a great time in the Vegas. I got to know my coworkers a little better, and the time we did spend together was fun.  Am I glad I went?  Yes.  Did I learn something about myself?  Yes.  I learned that I'm okay with who I am now. And those who get me, get me.  And those who don't, don't.   Really, I don't "get" everyone I meet either, right?
I think Oscar Wilde said it best when he said, 
"Be Yourself; Everyone Else is Already Taken"
To hear an audio version of this post, tune in to this week's episode of "The Next Step with Fr. Vazken" on epostle.net

23 May 2013

Wanting More

This past weekend, I took a trip to Las Vegas with some of my friends.  The little two day trip was fun, and it gave me a lot to think about and I thought I'd write about it over the course of the next couple of weeks.  This week I'm writing about about that need to want “more”.   I’m not a big Vegas person, but there are a few things that I enjoy there:  people watching (Vegas is the place to do it!), relaxing, and playing penny slots.  Slot machines have come a long way since the put-the-coin-in-pull-the-lever-hope-for-lucky-sevens type.  Now they are more like video games.  And a penny is hardly what you play on a penny slot.  You bet a penny a line with some machines having up to 100 lines.   And then you can multiply your bet 2x, 3x, whatever.  But I do like them because you can play for quite a while, winning and losing, and if I’m lucky, I’ll come out a few dollars ahead (which doesn’t happen very often).  In fact, most of the time, I lose what I started with, always thinking that if I put in just one more play, surely, I'd hit the jackpot...or get the free spins.  And this Saturday night, when I was digging through my purse for just one more dollar to feed into the machine, my behavior made me stop (after yet another losing pull) and think about human behavior and how we are wired.  Or if it's really wiring at all, or is it learned behavior?  What I'm talking about is this need to want more.  

Vegas makes its millions by this very thing, right?  The need to keep gambling.  The hope that “just one more bet” is going to be the winner.  I’m wondering if this is part of our hardwiring – a type of survival mechanism from our early days.  The need for self-preservation maybe?  The thinking that if  I won a little bit, that’s great.  But if I can win a little more, that’s even better.  It’s like that little girl on the AT&T commercial, “We want more! We want more!”

Is it greed?  I'm not too sure about that.  I think it's more about gratification. But the truth is that I'm still thinking about it.  I thought I'd have the answer, but I don't. 

Our monthly In His Shoes Skid Row outreach was this past Monday evening - the day after I returned from my trip.  What a huge contrast between the glamour and glitz of Las Vegas, and the poverty and homelessness on the streets of Skid Row.  What I was wondering is this:  Are we hardwired to want more for ourselves?  Or is this need something that is learned in our fast-paced, material world?   As I sat at the slots, putting in that last dollar, I thought about this: What if this same need to want more for ourselves didn't just stop with ourselves?  What if we had a need to want  more for others?  On our homeless outreach, we had prepared to feed about 170 people.  Sadly there were so many people living on the streets that we ran out of everything -- sandwiches, snackes, everything.  What if we couldn’t stop at helping just 170 people a month but we felt the need to help “just one more” person.  And now thinking about this on a more global level, I'm reminded of those tribes in Africa and elsehwere  where people truly live as a community, all helping one another and working toward the common survival of themselves and their community. When one person eats, everyone eats.  When one person struggles, they all struggle.  I think it's more of a nature vs. nurture issue.  

When I think about our homeless outreach group, I KNOW our main reason for doing this outreach is because we have been commanded by God to do so…to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.  But I also know that there is a lot of gratification in it for each of us when we spread Christ’s light and love to others. And I do think that for us that that gratification is enough to keep us coming back for more.     And so now the question is: Has God created each of us as compassionate, giving human beings...and then do we learn to want more for ourselves for survival in society?   I think this is more likely.   At least I would like to think so. 

Finally, I'll leave you with a little food for thought. Just this morning, I read Pope Francis' address and it tied in to this beautiful idea of community and compassion.  He said, 

"The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all! And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make this a culture of encounter: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”

“Doing good” the Pope explained, is not a matter of faith: “It is a duty, it is an identity card that our Father has given to all of us, because He has made us in His image and likeness. And He does good, always.”

Like I said, I don't have all the answers on this one, but it's "ripe with possibilities!"  What do you think?  I would love to hear your thoughts.  Please comment on my blog below and let me know what  you think.

You can hear the audio version of this post read on this week's episode of "The Next Step with Father Vazken" on epostle.net

16 May 2013

Why Pray?

If God is omniscient and truly knows our needs better than we do, then what is the point of prayer? I thought about this because of an email I received from a church family member and the many responses to it.  The email was addressed to five of us.  It was about one of our parishioners - a sweet woman that we all think of fondly.  This woman is a regular at church but she is a private person.  Some of us had noticed her absence on Sundays, and the email that I received was about that.   "Has anyone heard from Rose?  I heard that she's not well.  If any of you have her phone number, please let me know.  Let's keep her in our prayers."

Between the next few hours that passed after receiving the initial email, each recipient wrote in.  Whatever information any of us knew was shared with one another.  Her phone number.  When they had spoken to her last.  Someone wrote that she was going for treatment.  And each of us said we would pray for her.   Not one of us, however, asked what type of treatment, or what illness she was suffering from.   I really love this about our church family.  The need for acquiring information is not to use as a source of gossip, but out of genuine concern.    You ask someone to pray for you, and they do.  It doesn't matter if the reason for the prayer is shared with you.  It doesn't even matter that you know the person's name.  God knows all of that.  All we have to do is keep them elevated in our consciousness and amazing things happen through God's love.

The mere act of praying for someone bringstheir needs - instead of ours -- into focus. And when we know that someone is in need, we act on it.  In Rose's case, some  reported back that they had spoken to  her and relayed her progress.  Another had run into her in the market and shared with her that we missed her and were praying for her.  And what I really appreciated was one of the email responses brought into perspective that Rose is a private person, and asked that we please keep this in mind and not "share" any personal news about her with others but to just keep praying.  Incidentally, I did change Rose's name out of respect for her privacy.

The answer to the question, "Why pray?" is this:  Because it elevates our souls into acting out of love for one another - by reaching out, calling, visiting, caring for that person and in so doing - really doing God's commandment to love one another.  Praying is for US - to help us focus; to remember that all things are possible through God's love.  There is a specialness in belonging to this type of family.

09 May 2013

Why I Walk

Right around mile 36, coming into the home stretch!
This year marks my 10th year participating in the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer - a challenging 39-mile, two-day walk that raises hope, awareness and funding for breast cancer.  It seems that every year I say I'm taking a break this year, and then somehow, I find myself signed up and training to walk.  This Saturday, May 11 is this year's Kick Off event for the walk, and I have been asked to speak to the group and share my story and Why I Walk.  I thought I would share it with you.  So here goes.

Would it make sense to you if you heard me say that my cancer diagnosis was a positive event in my life?  How can something so devastatingly scary be positive?  I think of it as positive because no other event (other than becoming a mom) has made me understand who I am, what I believe, and what it means to be a survivor.

When I was diagnosed at age 34,  cancer meant fear.  Fear of the future, fear of the unknown, fear for my children.  Growing up, in the 70's, you didn't hear of too many people who survived "cancer."  So when I was diagnosed, naturally I thought of the worst.  But thankfully, we caught it early.  I underwent surgery and daily radiation.  And I made it! I celebrated life and every year that went by. They told me that if I made it to my 5th year without recurrence, then I could consider myself "cured." And that 5th year was my goal.  That was back in 1998.  I heard about the first Avon Walk...it was a 3-day walk back then. 60 miles from Santa Barbara to Malibu.  And it coincided with my 5 year cancer anniversary.  I remember that first walk.  Everything seemed so special.  I walked on my own, but all along the way I met so many amazing people...some were survivors just like me.  We were all walking together, all of us with different stories, yet all of us touched by cancer.  I remember that last day, walking single file along PCH into Malibu.  One foot in front of the other.  Calling up every last bit of strength from inside me.  Thinking about my grandmothers (who were both genocide survivors and powerful women of faith)...and thinking, I am their granddaughter.  I can do this.  I am a survivor!  Just believe! And I thought of my fear of cancer, and I came to the realization that I had overcome that fear.  When I saw my children at the finish line cheering me on, with their smiles and flowers, something inside me changed.  I felt powerful!  I had survived!

Life went on the years went by.  I kept up with my check ups and my mammograms.  My children grew up.  And I kept walking.  When my daughter got old enough, she signed up to walk with me. And then 2011 came and hit me with a double whammy.  You know that colonoscopy you keep putting off?  Well, don't do that!   In February of 2011, I went for my first ever colonoscopy.  Routine.  No symptoms.  Nothing.  And then wham, I was diagnosed with colon cancer after the mass they found tested positive.  Thankfully, it too was caught early.  I underwent surgery.  And during my six week recovery, I went for my annual mammogram.  I remember the day after I returned to work I got a call.  They saw "something" in my mammogram and wanted me to come in for a biopsy.  I went in the very next day, and by the following day I received the call.  I had breast cancer again.  18 years later.   Because I had radiation the first time around that was no longer an option. I had to undergo a mastectomy and opted for reconstructive surgery at the same time.  So there was a lot of coordinating and scheduling going on...and at the same time, my daughter was getting ready to graduate nursing school. This time the feeling wasn't fear, but determination.  I was going to get through this...and I was determined to make it to graduation.   I think each and every one of my medical team and hospital staff knew about my daughter's graduation. I heard more than one scheduler or nurse say, "This mama's got to make it to her baby's graduation....we need to get her there!"   That became my goal.  To make it to her graduation.  And it happened.  I had my surgery and despite the bandages, the incisions and the drains,  and was well enough to make it to graduation and hear my baby girl deliver her commencement address!

That September, just 3 months after my surgery...my daughter and I walked in the Avon Walk Santa Barbara.  We held hands as we approached the finish line.  Our family was there (as they always have been) and then looking beyond, I saw so many of my friends!  15 of my friends had rented a van and surprised us.  They had come all the way from Glendale to Santa Barbara to support us as we crossed the finish line.  It was amazing. Not only that, but they had cooredinated this huge potluck ...and they all stayed for the closing ceremony.  By the end of the closing ceremony, my brother, sisters and 7 of my friend had signed up to walk in 2012 as Team In Her Shoes so inspired by the amazing stories they heard.  Our team grew to 18 walkers last year.  And between 18 of us, we raised $35,000!

When I think about why I walk, the reason is because I can't not walk.  I walk to thank those who walked before me.  I am alive because of breast cancer research.  I walk to raise funds so the research can continue, so that someday we won't have cancer.  I walk to remember those who are survivors of this disease, for those who are fighting cancer now, and in memory of those who have lost the battle  And I carry their names with me on my 39.3 mile journey.  And I also walk to offer hope and support to others just like those that walked with me those first years of my Avon walk experience.

Finally, I know I have changed a lot from 20 years ago and my first diagnosis.  Cancer doesn't mean fear to me anymore.  Cancer has become so much more -- but in a good way.  Cancer means hope for recovery.  Cancer means love and support from friends and family.  Cancer means beauty in seeing the most ordinary of life happening around you and appreciating it for what it is - beautiful and miraculous.  Cancer means faith, prayer, and believing in your wellness and knowing  that those prayers are being answered.  And cancer means action - being proactive and aggressive when it comes to our wellness.  We have the power to make amazing changes that are happening in our lifetime.  It all starts with the first step.  I am so  looking forward to taking that next step with all of you this September!

If you would like to donate to the Avon Walk and have us walk in memory or honor of your loved one, you can follow the link to donate.  Each walker has to raise a total of $1800.  I have met my goal, but I ask that you donate to Father Vazken's goal.  You can access his donation page at:  http://info.avonfoundation.org/site/TR/Walk/LosAngeles?px=2509651&pg=personal&fr_id=2240

You can hear this post read on this week's podcast (May 9, 2013)  of The Next Step with Fr. Vazken on epostle.net

02 May 2013

The Hummingbird Feeder

Here's a photo from our patio.  We just
filled the feeder yesterday! There's one of our
friends taking a little drink.
Spring is definitely here.  We're blessed to have a beautiful lemon tree in our yard, that not only  gives us lemons year round but also draws hummingbirds to its flowers. We really enjoy watching the birds hover in mid-air drinking from the lemon blossoms, and because of this, my daughter Ani gave us a hummingbird feeder last year.  It wasn't your regular run-of-the-mill feeder, but a beautiful, funky looking feeder.  The bottle is clear glass, but stamped in a pretty vintage pattern.  The base is an antiqued metal, with dimensional metal flowers attached to it to attract the birds to the red colored nectar that also came with it.  It's really beautiful.  Suspending it from its antique metal chain we put it near the lemon tree and waited for the birds.  One or two birds flew by and didn't even stop.  They did look at it though.  They perched on the lemon tree, thought about it, and turned and flew off.  Hmm.   Okay, maybe they didn't like the location.   We moved it.  Still no visitors. At least not to the feeder.

Maybe it's the nectar?  We looked up recipes, cooked up a new batch, dropped in a little red coloring sure that this was going to do it.  We hung it up, and waited.  After a week it still sat there.  Full.  Beautiful but not attractive to the birds.  Oh, I almost forgot about the bumble bee that kept buzzing near it though.

Months went by and then just last week while I was picking out tomato plants at the nursery, I passed a hummingbird feeder display.  They weren't beautiful, just plain.  Clear glass, red top yellow cheesy plastic flowers...and on sale.  My mom has been staying with us, and I thought it would be a nice diversion for her to watch the birds, IF I could get it to work this time.  I bought the feeder and headed home.  Looked up a new recipe:  4 parts water, 1 part sugar.  I didn't have any coloring this time, so I left the solution clear.  I filled the feeder, hung it up and forgot about it.  It was my mom who discovered the feeder and the birds -- two days later.  I came home from work and asked how her day went...that's when she told me she had been watching the birds all day long.  I looked out the window at the feeder and it was almost empty.  While I stood there, there were many visits sometimes 2-3 birds at a time!  Since that day, we have been filling the feeder every 2 days. The birds are visiting regularly.  They're beautiful and they bring us so much joy.

I've been thinking about this for a few days now, and there's a lesson to be learned here.  We are just like the feeders.   We are hungry to attract joy: friends, happiness, love.  We can dress ourselves up and change our appearance, we can color our sweetness even.  Sure, we'll get noticed...but putting up the walls will only deter not attract.  OR - we may attract someone, but maybe not who we were hoping for..

When we're truly transparent - honest, truthful and really ourselves, that is when we're most attractive.  It doesn't matter how plain and ordinary.  Letting our true selves shine through will allow people to discover our true goodness and then keep coming back to drink of our friendship.

And in order for all this to happen, we have to be approachable.  I finally figured out why the birds weren't attracted to the first feeder.  It was because there was nothing to hold on to.  The feeder we now have has a perch for the birds to land on.  It allows the birds to sit for a while to take a drink.  It's welcoming.  Real friendships require time.  Time to stop, rest and allow others to drink of our friendship.  We too need to be welcoming.  We need to reach out to one another, extend ourselves and allow others to hold on to us too.  In this way, we can share the sweetness of  our lives with others and receive life's blessings in return.

You can hear an audio version of this blog post on this week's podcast of "The Next Step with Fr. Vazken" on epostle.net

This is anush wishing you a pomegranate day...filled with hope, sweet nectar, and RIPe with possibilities.