Surprise me!

by Annette Bridges. ©2009. All rights reserved.

I love surprises — the pleasant kind! I can’t get enough of them. This may surprise some folks who think of me as the ultimate planner. And it is true that I tend to always have a plan and a “to-do” list in hand. But what most don’t realize is that I would also happily throw away a well-thought out plan for a nice surprise.

My husband surprised me last night. We were at a community outdoor concert and I was longing to dance. But no one else was dancing. Suddenly, my husband was standing in front of me offering his hand.

Did I take his hand? You bet I did! And I delighted all the more in my dance with him because of the joy of surprise I was feeling.

But why was I surprised by his gesture?

I wonder if my surprise had more to do with my low expectations than it did in his action. Of course, sometimes low expectations are the result of a history of behavior in similar situations. I can certainly recall attending many community dances where I didn’t get his invitation to dance, which is perhaps why I wasn’t expecting to dance with him last night.

I’m intrigued that my low expectations may have resulted in my surprise. The element of surprise seemed to make our dance all the more special.

There was a research study a few years ago that was trying to discover why the citizens of Denmark scored higher than any other Western country on measures of life satisfaction. The conclusion cited Denmark’s secret was a culture of low expectations. In short, the study indicated that citizens of Denmark had low expectations each year and reported they were pleasantly surprised year after year when their year turned out better than expected.

Even though I admit a possible correlation between my low expectations and pleasant surprise, I’m not convinced low expectations are a good thing.

No one rises to low expectations. And low expectations can become self-fulfilling prophecies that keep us from seizing a good and viable opportunity. And yet I understand the fear that high expectations may never be attained. No big dreams equal no big disappointment, some might say.

I can’t help but wonder if our surprise is sometimes something of a fault. Do we impose our own expectations upon others — often without their knowledge — and if they fail to meet them, they have failed to please us. And yet, we are surprised when they meet them because we didn’t expect they would.

I don’t think the secret to life satisfaction is found in low expectations but rather in living one’s life with the smallest expectations. By smallest I mean humble, modest, simple, unpretentious, honest and unpompous expectations for yourself and others. This would mean passing no judgment, making no assumptions or comparisons. There would be nothing or no one to criticize, condemn or complain about. No one or nothing could offend or disappoint us.

We would move along our life journey — learning, growing, loving and living. And we would recognize others are doing the same. We would be patient with ourselves and with others as we all strive to progress.

This is not life without lofty goals. On the contrary, we make goals and aim to reach them. We just don’t complicate our goals with self-imposed limitations or conditions that define our success or failure. Do we expect progress? Of course we do. Do we expect good? Of course we do, because our faith assures us that God is good and He loves us and only wants good for His precious children.

As we do this, I suspect we will all learn that we’ve been entertaining “angels unawares” all along the way. (Hebrews 13:2) In other words, God has been — and remains — in our corner giving His loving support and encouragement.

Perhaps our prayer to God should be, “Surprise me, dear Lord!” And we get our own frail, human sense of what is right or good for us out of the picture and trust God to direct us to what we need at every moment.

So I will continue to love surprises, especially when the surprise is a dance with my husband! Indeed, we can allow each day to surprise us with its discoveries and lessons. We can relish in the joy of each surprising twist and turn of our life journey. And our expectations can be for the joy of each surprise.

When simple is not-so-simple

by Annette Bridges. ©2009. All rights reserved.

I’ve often felt if I could only find a way to simplify my life, I would be happier and my life would be less stressful.

Recently, I came across the opening statement of an online article that caught my attention: “In a world of overwhelming choice, technological complexity and diminishing free time, consumers are desperate to simplify their lives.” (Rob Tannen, director of research at Bresslergroup, a US product design consultancy)

Desperate to simplify is definitely me!

I can’t help but be reminded of the acronym that has been popular in the military, business and government for decades: K – I – S – S. Whether this translates “Keep it simple, stupid” or “Keep it short and simple” or “Keep it short and sweet,” its meaning is obviously focused on whatever simple entails — meaning whatever is easy, uncomplicated, effortless, manageable and fundamental. And I must say that simple does sound like a wonderful life!

Some say the KISS method or principle has its basis in various statements in history, such as Albert Einstein’s, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Or Leonardo Da Vinci’s, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

The Dalai Lama once said that simplicity is the key to happiness in the modern world, and yet for many of us, simplicity feels like the impossible dream. Confucius said, “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.”

It is certainly not my intent to make my life complicated. I asked my husband why he thought it was so difficult for life to be simple. He said, “People have too many commitments and responsibilities these days. The demands on our time are often too consuming.”

Of course, it can also seem impossible — or not very easy — to shorten our list of commitments and responsibilities. Perhaps we see no way to pare down our list. Then what?

My friends, I wish I could say I’ve figured out the simple solution to this not-so-simple question, but I haven’t. What I have started doing is remembering all the simple things that have made my life so sweet. And I’m discovering that what has brought me the most profound joy are the most simple of things.

When I was a child, simple joys would have been blowing dandelions, making flower necklaces, looking for a four-leaf clover — which required hours sitting in a field of clover, watching clouds and imagining what their shapes looked like, walking barefoot in the grass, or watching for falling stars. Actually, most of these are still on my “what makes me happy” list as an adult!

I would also now add things like listening to the sound of ocean waves, smelling evergreen trees as well as fresh cut hay, going for a walk at dusk, savoring my favorite dessert and relishing in the kiss and hug from a loved one.

Perhaps the simplicity the Dalai Lama was referring to has nothing to do with our human choices or the complexities of our lives. Rather, the simplicity that is central to our happiness is an understanding of the simple truths about God and our spiritual identity as his beloved children.

I can attest that basking in God’s love — even if only for a few moments — does make me feel comforted, nourished and strengthened, which is a lot when I feel my life is too complicated and overwhelmed with demands and choices. Truly, my greatest peace and deepest joy comes from prayerful pondering the infinitude and magnitude of God’s love.

The more I think about all the things that bring me joy — and peace of mind — the more I realize that happiness isn’t dependent upon or restricted by all the details and minutia of our day to day lives. The pleasure in the “simple” is found in our active appreciation of the present. Living in the now tells us there are no ordinary moments. Each moment of our life is extraordinary — a time to marvel at and be marveled by.

Downsizing, de-cluttering and prioritizing are all well and good and can certainly be helpful. Trying to maintain some sense of balance in one’s life is good, too. But I think this summer I’m going to start making sure each day includes at least one of the simple joys that has always brought me happiness. And this includes some quality time with my Father-Mother God, too.

Something tells me that these may be the first steps in simplifying the whole of my life. May you, too, remember the simple joys in your life and fill your summer days with as many as you can.

Are you too busy?

by Annette Bridges. ©2009. All rights reserved.

I often suffer from self-imposed tunnel vision. This means my visual field and focus becomes severely constricted. In fact, I’ve had friends walking toward me who practically had to tackle me to get my attention.

A forwarded email has given me reason to reevaluate the pace of my life. Apparently, The Washington Post conducted a social experiment that won them a Pulitzer for a story published in April 2007.

The feature told about a cold January morning when a man sat at a metro station in Washington, DC and played the violin. He played six Bach pieces for 45 minutes. Of the thousands of people who saw and heard this man, only six stopped and stayed for awhile, and about 20 gave him money as they continued to walk their normal pace. The one who paid the most attention was a three-year-old child. But his mom soon forced him to move along. He did this reluctantly, turning his head back as he walked in order to see the violinist. It seems several other children also repeated this action.

It turns out the man playing incognito was violin virtuoso Joshua Bell.

The concluding question of the email was: “If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing the best music ever written, how many other things are we missing?”

When I finished reading the email, I was immediately reminded of the country song by Alabama titled, “I’m in a hurry (And don’t know why).” And I must admit I usually don’t know why.

My husband suggested that perhaps many of the people were on their way to work and maybe even running late so they couldn’t have stopped to listen to the violinist even if they had wanted to. And I suppose this might have been the case.

But are there times when we should “stop to hear the music”?

Must our obligations and responsibilities keep us from taking time to appreciate what’s happening around us? Should we ever be so busy that we’re unavailable to our friends and family, unable to find the time for a sunset or a single mindful breath?

I suspect many of us would concur that most days we are booked solid with little or no time to rest. I came across a study a while back that said during the last 25 years American’s leisure time had declined by 37 percent and our work week had increased by a full day. The result has caused many Americans to complain about feeling depleted, stressed, frustrated and pulled in every direction.

And in January 2007 in Washington, DC, thousands were so busy or in such a hurry they missed a free opportunity to hear music that two days before people in Boston paid an average of $100 to hear.

I just don’t want to be that busy anymore. My new priority is to experience life more fully. I want to grasp each moment of my day. I want to take time to look around me and give my full attention to those I’m with. I want to eat slower and take more walks. I want more time to simply be quiet, to reflect, to ponder, to pray.

And I want to give more time to having fun!

How often do you not act on an urge to do something fun because you believe you are so busy that you don’t have time?

No more of that for me, my friends! I plan to hear more music in 2009! And I hope you do, too!

Do you ever feel like your day left without you?

by Annette Bridges. © 2008. All rights reserved.

Day after day — for months now actually — I get out of bed and begin the new day and before I know it, the day has flown by me and I’m trying to figure out where it went. And again and again, at the end of the day, I’m feeling like I’ll never catch up.

I’ve made myself feel better with the “there’s always tomorrow” speech. But lately I’m finding no solace in those words. I refuse to concede that there may never be enough time to do all that I want to do with my life. But I’m tired of life moving too fast, and I want it to slow down.

Once again, I’ve been clipping along so fast each day that finding time for God — for prayer and meditation — is something that never gets enough attention. And somehow I know that if my day could include more God-time, my day would be much better.

It has occurred to me that perhaps it’s not life that is moving too fast but rather it is me that is moving too fast through every moment of my life. And if I’m the one doing the driving, then I’m the one who can get out of the fast lane and change to the slower lane on the right-hand side of the road.

“Slowing down” reminds me of a favorite song from my youth. I believe its title was “The 59th Street Bridge Song” written by Paul Simon. As I write, I find myself singing its lyrics:

“Slow down, you move too fast. You got to make the morning last. Just kickin’ down the cobblestones. Lookin’ for fun, and feelin’ groovy.”

Feeling groovy? Those words certainly don’t describe how I’ve been feeling lately. I would surely love to make my mornings last. Yes, I definitely need to stop moving so fast.

Then I continue to sing.

“Got no deeds to do. No promises to keep. I’m dappled and drowsy and ready to sleep. Let the mornin’ time drop all its petals on me. Life, I love you, all is groovy.”

Life — I love you? I haven’t said that in a long time.

I’m not sure I know what it means to have the morning time drop all its petals on me. But somehow I like the way that sounds, and I want to find out — especially if finding out will mean everything will be “groovy” in my life!

But it’s 8:45 in the evening. My morning and day have disappeared yet again. And I still have not taken my daily walk. One of my goals has been to walk a mile each day, but way too many days have gone by without my walk. I almost thought, “Another day is done. It’s too late.”

But then . . . “It’s not dark yet.” And I bounded out of my house and began my walk.

Suddenly it didn’t matter whether or not I walked a mile. So what if I didn’t have much time or even enough time to get my mile in before dark. I could still walk!

It’s not so hot in Texas right before dark. There was a nice little breeze blowing my hair out of my eyes. The colors of the sunset were barely glimmering in the horizon. The trees surrounding me were becoming dark images. It was like everything was changing from a color photo to black and white. Quite an incredible transformation I must say! And in those few peaceful moments, any anxieties I had been feeling were replaced with the calming knowledge of God’s ever presence.

I sing, “Ba, da, da, da, da, da, da, feelin’ groovy.”

And I was feeling groovy!

My lesson? Relish every moment of the day. Every minute is important and there to be experienced. If I didn’t outline so much, it would never be too late. I make way too many rules for my day.

Let’s enjoy every moment, my friends. May we all slow down and be more reflective of God in our life throughout our day. And then I suspect we’ll find all will be groovy!

Don’t distress over your mess

by Annette Bridges. © 2007. All rights reserved.

You can stop drowning in clutter and reclaim your home — along with your peace of mind. Not too long ago, I learned a life-altering lesson that taught me that a simpler lifestyle is achievable and also that it isn’t just about having less stuff.

Yes, I discovered that clutter isn’t confined to messy closets, overflowing cupboards, covered desktops, jumbled shelves or drawers that won’t open. It also includes our mental pantry which can be jammed full with indecision, worry, fear, stress, pressure, anger, frustration, anxiety, depression, dread and countless medleys of other feelings and emotions. Such mental chaos robs our peace and steals our hope for a happy and satisfying life.

When my daughter and son-in-law recently purchased their first house, I offered to help with the moving, unpacking and organizing. I was especially excited about helping my daughter sort through their stuff and reach her great goal — to purge and pare down to create a clutter-free home. But in the process, I was reminded of some insights that lately have been buried in piles of new clutter I had allowed to accumulate mentally.

My lesson began the year prior to our daughter’s wedding a few years ago when my husband and I had the grand idea to remodel our house. We had lived in the same house for over 20 years, and, needless to say, we had gathered and collected lots of stuff.

The first requirement before a remodeling project could begin was to do major and significant downsizing. But this seemed like an overwhelming job, and it was difficult to know where to start.

I pondered some wise instructions that Jesus gave to us about what we esteem and hold dear. He cautioned against storing and hoarding needless and pointless treasures that have no long-lasting value. He told us that our best treasures are discovered in the desires of our heart (Matthew 6:19-21). This sounds like we determine what we value by answering the questions — What matters most? What are the things, people, occasions, events we value the most?

So with these questions directing our “housecleaning,” we decided what we were going to keep, take to a secondhand shop, sell, recycle or discard altogether.

Prior to this sorting and eliminating, I frequently harped on the fact that I didn’t have enough space — this house wasn’t big enough and there weren’t enough cabinets, drawers or closets. No one could have convinced me that cleaning house could result in more than enough space for our stuff. But it did! After years of complaining, I learned, much to my surprise, that my home was suddenly big enough. I now had space for all the things I had decided were truly important to me.

Around the same time of my house makeover, I became faced with making a career decision. A mishmash of uncertain and confused feelings buzzed around in my thoughts. It seemed impossible to determine the best course of action. Making a change is not always easy. You usually can’t see what’s down the road until you begin to make the drive. And you usually have to get to the top of the hill before you can see what lies at the bottom. So, sometimes you’re reluctant to make the turn onto a new road. Or at least I was.

I finally realized a decision was not going to be reached as long as my vision was getting obstructed by the maelstrom of emotions whirling around me. It was time for some mental inventory to be taken. Once again, I asked myself what was most important in my life. As I answered this question, I began ditching all the worry, concern and uneasiness that were cluttering my mind. The less cluttered my thoughts became, the more clearly I could envision the correct next steps and goals for the rest of my life. I was on the path to a simpler life, and it felt great.

Once again, I’ve been struggling over another big decision. It really is no surprise that I’ve been in such a quandary. I had allowed my life to become jumbled with so many self-proclaimed responsibilities, as well as needs and demands, that there were never enough hours in my days or days in my weeks. Being reminded of my life lesson on cluttering and de-cluttering was just the impetus needed to help me start trimming my duty list. I’ve been beginning with the obvious changes that are possible this very moment. And already my load feels lighter.

A simpler life is possible to maintain if we can remember what matters most to us and have those treasured and most precious values guide and direct us. Without a doubt, the list of what is most important to you will be far shorter than the list of stuff that is only unnecessary clutter.

When we let “what matters most” navigate and pilot our life — every moment of our day, every purchase we make, every choice, every decision, every goal — we can maintain a de-cluttered mind and house and live simply and happily.