I’m thinking about a planning meeting I attended last night. We’re running a community event tomorrow. Our group leader was reporting back on some last-minute items, and I noticed she kept circling back to one issue. It was evident to me that she was really worried about playing background music through a Bluetooth speaker during the event (because it was on our lists of tasks provided by someone else). I spoke up with a reassuring smile and said I would handle it. “You will? Oh my gosh! Awesome!” she exclaimed. Then I added, “And if it doesn’t work for some reason, I’m confident the event will not be ruined because we didn’t have background music.” Everyone paused for a minute as they processed then simultaneously threw their hands up and laughed. Everyone said, “Yes! Exactly! Good point!” I instantly saw the relief in our group leader’s body language. Something else happened, too. We had been focused on the problems that had come to light during much of our meeting. Worry started to spread through the group. “How are we going to pull this off?” became our mantra. Then our attitudes shifted. By the end of the meeting, we had become cheerleaders for ourselves and for each other. We agreed we would do our best and see what happens. We said it will be what it will be and it will not be the end of the world if it doesn’t look like we thought it would. In fact, we can pretty much expect it won’t look anything like what we thought it would, but it might actually be better!
I’m reflecting on this moment because it’s so common for us to fixate on things that really don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Distractions can weigh us down, slow our momentum and thwart our progress. These distractions can make us act like we have blinders on and keep us from seeing the big picture because we’re so focused on the thing that makes us uneasy or insecure.
Over the years during my son’s health crises, I was forced to let go of my perceived notion of control. My Type A personality transformed. It’s bizarre because I still have traits of it, but I roll with the punches pretty darn well and have come to realize I never had control to begin with. “Good enough” really has become a thing for me with the understanding that I did the best I could under the circumstances. If the circumstances were different, the end result might be different, but all I have is right now and my best effort. This may sound extreme or even unacceptable to you, but my motto at work and home is, “Did anyone die? Is this a matter of life and death? If not, regardless of the hassle or our legitimate disappointment, there is still a lot to be grateful for.” I think once you’ve faced literal life-threatening situations, your perspective changes and you realize the wide spectrum of such hassles and disappointments. I want to be careful not to encourage comparative suffering (“My suffering is insignificant because there are people going through a lot worse”); however, realizing the scale of our own situation really does help us to stay grounded. Life is full of disappointments and it’s necessary to our viability & vitality to let ourselves feel those moments. But if we get stuck there for too long, we stop thriving and our “good enough” never elevates or improves.
So, how do we ensure “good enough” is not just accepting mediocrity? Here are a couple of ways:
1. Surround yourself with people who pivot well and communicate with them. Two heads are often better than one, not just because of the complementary skills and character traits, but because of the dynamics that naturally occur when two people communicate with each other. The operative phrase here is “communicate with each other.” Speak up. Bounce ideas off of each other. Offer insight. Offer solutions. Share and appreciate different perspectives. Listen.
2. Improve your own ability to keep moving. The Disney Creative Strategy is a process in which a team or individual works through three distinct thinking strategies to develop a solid and realistic plan. First, think like a dreamer to come up with your vision or dream. Then think like a realist as you consider how you can realistically achieve your dream. Then think like a critic who looks for the potential pitfalls of your plan. Formalize your plan with the usable parts of this process to carry out your vision/dream. Using this process helps force yourself into thinking patterns you don’t naturally lean into.
3. Review and improve. Underestimating, overestimating, skill gaps, knowledge gaps, market trends, personal boundary issues… The list of variables in any scenario is endless, but it’s important to continually review your processes and outcomes to look for patterns and consider what you can do differently in the future. Learn from your mistakes and your successes and get serious about upping your game. Hopefully your best is better next time.
This week will live in infamy. It’s actually been more like the last month. But this week has been unique because I knowingly made a series of unfortunate decisions that complicated my life and the lives of my family members. And made lots of messes. Literal. Messes.
Between one of my children and I, we spent a great deal of time in doctor’s offices and under anesthesia over the last month. It’s been a real fun time. Add in Halloween and all the last-minute seasonal festivities like the pumpkin patch, pumpkin carving, school-related activities and expensive vehicle repairs and plumbing issues for added excitement.
By the time I got my daughter into bed last Sunday night, I was ready for a hot bath, even though we were waiting on a plumbing part. I stood alone in our bathroom looking at my jet tub. I don’t even use the jets because it literally sounds and feels like you’re bathing in a jet engine. But I loooooooove to soak in this tub. “Don’t do it, Janelle,” I said. “The plumber said we could use it,” I responded to myself. “It’s not worth the risk. What if it won’t shut off? How will you stop it? There’s no access panel, JANELLE.” “But a bath would feel so good right now. My whole body hurts,” I threw back. “Don’t.” With that, I reached out and turned on the hot water and drew a bath. I settled in and it did feel so good. I reached up to turn off the water and nothing happened. The hot water continued to pour at full blast into the tub. It got so hot I had to get out. My husband tried and tried before finally resorting to turning it off at the hot water heater. As if the Universe was punitively making a point, the cold water fixture also began to fail during this small fiasco so we had to turn off the main to the house to get it to stop. Oops. My family of five has been so very patient for the last 5 days while we operated with short stints of running water. (Pro tip I learned this week: The dishwasher requires hot water to thoroughly dissolve the detergent and effectively wash the dishes.) My husband and I continually reminded each other and our kids that we were lucky to have this problem and how grateful we were that we still technically had running water albeit a little inconvenient.
On Tuesday, I dumped trash all over the bathroom floor and inside my vanity drawer because I didn’t slow down and use both hands like I told myself.
On Wednesday I baked a 36lb casserole for my son and tried to remove it from the oven with one hand. “You need another pot holder,” I told myself. “I think I can get it. I’ll readjust my angle and see if this is better,” I said with confidence. “Don’t be ridiculous. They are literally within arm’s reach. Get another one before this ends badly.” “No, I think I can get i-” FLOP! + BANG! + SIZZLE The entire thing flipped out of my hand and landed upside-down on the inside of my 350° opened oven door. I paused for a minute. I turned off the oven. I evaluated my options. I started smiling. I took a picture of the casserole on the oven door and texted it to my son who was downstairs with the caption: “The casserole is done.” Then the tears welled up, but they didn’t fall. I wish they had, but they were intercepted by a sudden realization. I had completely stopped listening to myself – stopped trusting myself – for almost an entire week. And it was going very badly.
After the casserole incident, I vowed to start listening to my gut again. There was a lot of chaos and extra distractions last week which, in hindsight, would have been the perfect time to focus more within. But here I am now, soaking in my tub with the water fixture finally fixed and my family safe at home on a Friday night. I finally found time to relax and to contemplate my insights from this week and to tell the story of how the casserole really ended upside-down on the oven door.
It’s the same every time. The news is delivered. My mind reels and spins and pivots, and this new information just bangs into nondescript barriers inside my brain. I can actually feel the information bounce around inside my head. Then my jaw drops and my eyes sting with tears and my throat starts to close. My traps tighten. The tiniest beads of sweat form in the triangles between the bridge of my nose and the inside corners of my eyes. Then back to reeling, spinning, pivoting, as the pinball inside my brain ricochets some more. By now, my inner dialogue begins the volley of “yes,” “no,” “yes,” “no,” while my mouth simply squeaks out, “What? Wait. WHAT?” Then more stinging and restricting as I’m literally choked by my new reality – the reality of a world without someone I love in it. My world is so rudely physically and spiritually transformed, without warning, in the blink of an eye. In the snap of a finger. In a literal instant. Someone I loved has been physically removed from earth.
This is the familiarity of shock. This is the familiar process of receiving the news that a loved one has died unexpectedly. The process has become so familiar, yet it remains just as uncomfortable every time it happens. The entire process has been the same for me since 1994. I imagine it’s similar for most people. Or maybe everyone has their own way of processing this type of news; but for me, I go through this exact scenario each time. And even though the process is the same, the pain is unique and fresh and awful because every loved one is unique and missed in different ways.
In a way, over the years, the familiarity makes things a little easier as I know what to expect. Instead of being surprised by it, I anticipate the shitstorm that is grief, so the surprise factor is eliminated and it’s one less thing to have to deal with. Knowing what is happening, what will happen, and that it won’t be raw like this forever is helpful to know, even if it does nothing for the actual pain itself. Knowing what questions my brain will need answered and which ones are better left unknown can only come from experience. But as I mature in my faith and my lived experience, I also accept that there will be questions I want answers to but will never receive. I take comfort in the belief that if those questions are still burning in me the day my own soul leaves this earth, they will be made known to me. Experience has taught me that regrets and feelings of guilt and anger and resentment as well as joy and relief and unhinged honesty are all normal and to be expected.
What grief has taught me the most over the last 27 years is that you must truly experience it in order to learn from it. You can’t teach someone how to grieve or how to respect the fragility of life. It’s something they must experience for themselves. It’s an unfortunate but beautiful paradox that when we lose someone they are most present with us. And it is only through the grieving process that we heal from such a loss. Grief is good and awful at the same time.
I lost someone today. To be honest, I didn’t like him much, but I sure did love him. And he sure did love me. I hope wherever he is now, he can understand the complexities of how I’ve felt about him for so long. I hope he knows how much I truly loved him and what an absolute asshole he was and that deep down I really understood why.
On a recent Sunday morning, I was enjoying the quiet house before everyone started creeping from their bedrooms. I was mindlessly scrolling through social media while my thoughts drifted toward the day’s priorities. Those priorities included visiting family, intentional play with the kids, meal prep, feeding my soul, feeding my mind, and my daily strength & mobility training. No matter what, those things had to get done. I knew I had a full plate. Suddenly, my finger stopped scrolling and my eyes focused hard on an image shared by one of my dearly positive & uplifting friends. It was a dark blue sea against a pale blue sky smattered with clouds. The horizon was about a third from the bottom. The handwritten letters across the image prominently stated: “Actually, I just woke up one day and decided I didn’t want to feel like that anymore, or ever again. So I changed. Just like that.” A lump formed in my throat and my heart pitter-pattered. This was my truth. Seeing it in writing solidified the decision I’d already made months prior, the decision that took me years to finally make.
The thing that struck me when I read those words is how in ONE precise moment, life can change. In the same way catastrophe can strike without warning, so powerful, too, is the moment of deciding to change your habits or change your mindset in order to become a better version of yourself. It often takes years or even decades of wandering before something finally slips into place that changes the trajectory of your life. And that moment isn’t always recognizable as some monumental climax accompanied by relief or excitement or anything at all. Sometimes it might seem so insignificant that you don’t really notice it. I think it’s often pretty anticlimactic on the surface, but when we trace it back, we realize what a pivotal moment it really was. Sometimes one small decision is the domino that sets off a chain reaction. I also think that “thing” that finally slips into place is different for everyone and for every life change. Maybe it’s deciding to connect with a new person who seems really good for you. Maybe it’s a song, a book, an essay, a movie, or a conversation that inspires you or shines a light on something you didn’t fully see before. Maybe it’s hitting rock bottom, whatever that looks like for you. And regardless of how long it took you to arrive there, everything before that was really just leading up to one moment — the moment of decision to take some sort of action. While everything leading up to that moment was not a waste (trust me, it’s so tempting to think it was), the real spark happens in the single instant a decision ismade! In one breath, you made (can make) a decision to change. A decision to try something. A decision to be open. A decision to love. A decision to seek. A decision to listen. A decision to feel. A decision to breathe. A decision to see. A decision to stop something. A decision to start something. A decision to rise. And the course of your life can be forever changed. Forever better.
What an amazing experience this #gratitudewritingchallenge has been! I am calling this challenge a complete success. I can’t believe it was only 14 days long. Lord, Almighty, it feels like an eternity! Honestly, it feels like I’ve been writing these daily gratitudes for months. And it seems impossible that what I gained from this exercise was planted, grown, and harvested in only 14 short days. Because of that, I can say it was totally worth it. It feels a bit like I’ve been on a spiritual retreat for the last two weeks, while still going to work, caring for and playing with my family, focusing on my health, etc. While I continued with my daily tasks, my view of life shifted in two profound ways.
While I was already viewing the world with a keen sense of observation and gratitude, taking the time to write about those observations seemed to knit everything together. It was almost like being able to see the bigger picture by zooming in on one area at a time – like portals. LOL! (I cannot believe I just wrote that, but I’m sticking to it. I’m going with the flow here!) I intentionally decided to write gratitude essays rather than simply jotting down a list of gratitudes each morning. Not that there is anything wrong with that, and I’m actually considering starting this practice, but my intention for this project was very specific in that I would deep dive into my experiences and insights.
The other shift that I didn’t notice until several days into the experience was how personal my gratitudes are to me. I began drawing comparisons to the world around me. I learned through this process that the things I am grateful for are not the same for everyone and what others might be grateful for are things I have no experience or knowledge of. It became a very uniquely personal journey that happened to be shared very publicly.
I never expected this to be such a rewarding adventure. I thought it might give me a chance to hone my writing skills after another hiatus. Ultimately, I think these posts have been subpar. But I honestly don’t care. I think that was something valuable I gained from this as well. While quality was important in the sense that my words mattered and they needed to make sense to the reader, the focus of the project was really more about what was going on in me and being disciplined about writing on a deadline, but I didn’t focus on the words themselves or sentence structure to convey my thoughts in the most eloquent way. Case and point, I referenced portals earlier in this post.
So, it’s obvious I’m incredibly grateful for this experience, but I’m also grateful it has come to an end. I’m a little sad, too, but I’m happy to have the gift of time back. I’m excited to shift gears and be able to focus on the next project in my queue, a non-writing project, that will benefit someone else. And I’m grateful to have the freedom, time, and flexibility to come back and write on other thoughts and social issues and maybe share an occasional bit of humor from the circus that is my life.
Be grateful. Be open. Be the light. Be love. Xoxo Nel Bell
I’m down to only two days left of this #gratitudewritingchallenge so even though I’m looking forward to finally meeting and moving on from this obligation, I’ve actually found myself rationing my gratitudes today, trying to choose which one I most want to write about. (No one better dare suggest I extend this challenge!)
Then, suddenly this afternoon, a clear winner arose.
I was working intently on a project at my desk but the phone kept ringing in quick succession. By watching the caller ID and the lights on my phone, I could see the receptionist kept answering and hanging up on the same phone number over and over again. It looked like they were getting disconnected. So I put my headset on and waited a whole two seconds for the phone to ring again. This time I beat her to it and answered the call. The line was not very clear, but we were connected; however, the caller had a very lovely but very thick accent so it took me a second to register he was actually asking for me. Now, please understand people struggle with my name all the time. But of all the times it’s been mispronounced, this was a new one! It struck my funny bone and I loved it! When I finally registered what he’d said, my heart started pounding and my hand flew over my mouth as I squeezed my eyes shut and threw my head back IN COMPLETE SILENCE. My lungs nearly collapsed in on themselves as a result of the laughter I was suppressing. The pressure in my cheeks rose to a sting. My jaw and temples tightened as I fought every part of my body that was involuntarily trying to howl with laughter! It took everything in me to avoid being rude to this man by laughing at his earnest attempt to pronounce my name. When I hung up, I thought, “Damn, I am so grateful for JOY!”
I love to laugh! I’m loud and boisterous and often socially inappropriate. But I can’t help it. Joy is part of who I am. My parents should have named me Joy!
What I’ve learned over the years is how easy it is for me to find joy in just about everything. I find joy in music, art, family, friends, nature, cute things, ugly things, almost everything. What I also learned is that this is not a universal experience. I don’t yet understand why that is, but I accept that joyfulness doesn’t come this easy or often or maybe ever for everyone. I never knew this until I had a very deep, insightful conversation with someone. When she shared this with me, I was completely dumfounded – and saddened, honestly. I wanted her and everyone to feel joy like I do. And I was confused because she’s one of the funniest people I know. How could she not feel joy? From that moment on, I have looked at joy differently. I’ve come to know the difference between humor or sarcasm and pure joy. I look at joy as a gift now. I think maybe I don’t hold back much anymore because I now know the true value of this gift and I feel like it needs to be fully used to be fully appreciated.
I am grateful that I can so freely feel and express joy. If you are also a joyous person, I hope you appreciate the gift enough to use the hell out of it and never hold back. Perhaps it’s possible that if we joy-filled people spread it around enough, everyone will be able to receive and feel at least a little of it.
A few years ago I learned how effective and restorative two small actions can be: 1. Pausing, and 2. Breathing. In an argument or when you’re frustrated with a situation and even when you’re in physical pain, simply pausing to focus on your breathing creates enough space in the situation for negative energy to escape and new energy to enter. Breathing can reset the parasympathetic nervous system in an unbelievably short amount of time, telling your body to chill out. This gives your muscles a chance to relax, slows your heart rate, and reduces stress hormones produced by your endocrine system. It normalizes the body and brings us back into a healthier state of being.
I’ve been focusing on my breathing a lot lately and have been reflecting on this, which brings me to this gratitude writing exercise. And like many of my previous gratitudes, I find myself faced once more viewing humanity through some sort of lens that highlights the disparities in the world and directs my attention toward those who do not have the same material goods, support systems, financial resources or privileges that I enjoy. The words “I can’t breathe,” now carry so much meaning and weight these days, it becomes a little more complex when a white woman utters the phrase, “I’m so grateful for each breath I take.” In many ways, it feels wrong. But breathing is not wrong. Nor am I wrong for being grateful for my life and for the restorative power of breathing. What is wrong is the oppression so many people live under that they can never pause to catch their breath and calm their nerves. What is wrong is when someone’s breath is stolen from them. What is wrong is when someone’s breath is taken freely from them by someone who will never be held accountable.
Bear with me, I promise this is a gratitude entry.
I suppose it’s too soon to try to put into words or fully understand what yesterday’s guilty verdict of Derek Chauvin truly means. It’s a lot to process. But I do know what it means to breathe. And yesterday, there was a moment of collective breathing that took place. Did you feel it? After the announcement of the verdict, there was a massive, almost audible, sigh of relief felt around the world as millions of people simultaneously exhaled some of the tension, anger, anxiety, and sadness that has been building up, synching tighter and tighter around our chests. So for just a few moments, at least, there was breathing. Exhaling pain, inhaling hope. Exhaling so many wrongs, inhaling something that’s finally right. Exhaling loss, inhaling something gained. Exhaling exhaustion, inhaling energy. Muscles relaxed, fists unclenched, souls reignited, spirits were renewed, resolve was strengthened, and minds were cleared to see the path forward. The pressure was eased for a moment to allow everyone to pause and to breathe. For this moment and for all who helped make it happen, I am truly grateful.
I cheated a little on this one. I knew exactly what I would write about today. Today is our 20th wedding anniversary. But while I anticipated the topic, I’m still unsure how I’m going to pour my heart out while respecting my husband’s privacy. Let me give it a try.
Today I’m thankful for the man who has been there through it all. I’m thankful he is the husband who has willingly remained by my side, even through some really serious shit. I’m thankful he accepts all that I have brought to our marriage, even the not-so-great “could do without that,” stuff. And I’m grateful he trusts me enough to bring his full self to our marriage, too. I’m grateful for his honesty and willingness to acknowledge the imperfections in our marriage and in our humanity. I’m grateful he respects the differences between his humanity and mine. I’m grateful for his character, his sense of humor and his genius. I’m grateful for his gentleness. I’m grateful for his unshakable instincts to protect his family and his driving compassion to help those in need. I’m grateful for our conversations about some of life’s most interesting and important facets. I’m grateful that he stops and returns my random hugs in the kitchen and I’m grateful for his occassional hand on my back while we drift off to sleep at night. I’m grateful for the children we share together. I’m grateful for the life we have built together. I’m oh so grateful for these twenty years.
I got up early yesterday morning to write my daily gratitude post while everyone was still asleep and the house was quiet. Then I hopped onto my phone and perused my Facebook feed for a few minutes. I came across a friend’s post asking us to share our favorite songs. I love anything with music so I shared mine. Then, on a whim, I shared her post to my feed and moved on. Shortly after, my daughter woke and my attention shifted toward her.
By the time I got back to my phone, friends had started sharing their songs. So, as promised, I listened to each song while working on meal prep in the kitchen. I connected to a speaker so I could really experience the songs which meant my family could hear the songs, too. My oldest kiddo had lots of questions and comments! Ha! You guys, it was such a wonderful experience! I did not expect to think about the person who posted each song so deeply while listening! It was amazing and unexpected!
There was a wide variety of genres and eras covered, even different languages, evidence that music has a way of reaching through barriers, including the span of time. As I listened to each song, I started to appreciate why that person chose their song and I simply thought about them for about 3 to 5 minutes each while their anthems played. In thinking about them, I prayed for them. I sent love and light to them and cherished their experiences and memories that I imagined (and in many cases knew) were tied up in their songs. I can’t sell it short by omitting the fact that it was a spiritual experience for me.
I’m grateful I followed my gut and acted on a whim. I’m grateful for the power of music. I’m grateful for songwriters and musicians. I’m so grateful for those who participated and shared themselves with me. I bet they didn’t expect to bless me with such a meaningful, beautiful Sunday morning, either.
Do you ever sit in line at the car wash and think about the people in developing countries who would be in shock to see such a thing? Huge populations of people face water shortages or no clean water at all or they have to carry water for miles in buckets just to meet their basic needs, and we’re over here parked in a giant shower stall with rainbow soap and high-pressure sprayers, sewer lines, and a heated dryer FOR OUR CARS.
I think about these things often. While I’m playing on the floor with my kids, I often think about the engineering that went in to making our carpet and that there’s an entire flooring industry. And I think of the pad and the subflooring under our carpet and all the solid construction that supports that subflooring. And then I compare all this to the households in other parts of the world with dirt floors and Lord knows what for makeshift roofs.
While I’m grateful I live in an industrialized country with a more advanced infrastructure like public schools, running water and indoor plumbing, a functioning travel system, and superfluous developed resources, I’m reminded that we’ve got our issues, too. Realizing things like the water crisis in Flint, Michigan or the power crisis that affected most of Texas can occur in this country is eye-opening and unsettling. Maybe this is part of the exercise. We tend to take things for granted when they work as expected.