Living Happily Ever After


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The Speech Continued: ‘V’ is for View

V: View Your Blessings

Count them. Find something to be grateful for each day. Even if it’s just one thing! Some days, honestly, the only things I counted as my blessing was that I was still breathing or that I hadn’t had a heart attack from the stress.

And believe it or not, there came a time when I looked at where I’d been, all that I’d gone through, everything I’d learned, and everything I’d become as a result of my nightmare and I actually had the thought, “Wow. That was terrible to go through, but I wouldn’t change a thing. I would go through everything again to be where I’m at now and to learn the things I’ve learned.”

And eventually you may even get to the point where you’re grateful for your challenge, because you see that your challenge, or some part of it, in the end, saves you.

I remember reading about Corrie Ten Boom and her sister who were imprisoned in a WWII concentration camp. In her book “The Hiding Place,” she said the housing provided them was swarming with fleas. They found comfort in the Bible, they said it seemed written expressly to Ravensbruck concentration camp: “Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances…”

Her sister said, “Give thanks in all circumstances! That’s what we can do. We can start right now to thank God for every single thing about this new barracks!” Corrie stared at her sister and asked, “Such as?”

“Thank you,” her sister Betsy went on serenely, “for the fleas. ‘Give thanks in all circumstances,’ she quoted. “It doesn’t say ‘in pleasant circumstances.’ Fleas are a part of this place.”

To they were thankful for fleas, although Corrie was sure her sister was wrong about them. And then one day they discovered the reason they enjoyed as much freedom from concentration camp guard harassment was become of the fleas–the guard wouldn’t enter their barracks because of the fleas!

Find SOMETHING, ONE THING, each day to be grateful for. Even if it’s that you’re still breathing. Even if it’s fleas.

“But was there ever dog that praised his fleas?” (William Butler Yeats)

I think there should have been.

When all Else Fails

“It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.” (Lou Holtz)

There you have it, Andrea Merriman’s SIX STEPS TO SURVIVING ANYTHING.

And when all else fails, I guess, you can look to the inspiring examples of others, follow in their footsteps and carry on anyway when life and its challenges seem overwhelming. That’s what I do.

Let me introduce you to some of my heroes. Sadly, I don’t even know her name, but her life and what she chose to do with it, inspires me to carry on no matter what.

She and her husband had lived an idyllic life in East Prussia prior to WWII. Then came the war. Her husband was killed and she was left alone to care for their four children when occupying forces determined Germans in East Prussia had to go to Western Germany. She was forced to make a journey of over 1,000 miles on foot—with four little children—allowed to take only what they could load into their small, wooden-wheeled wagon.

They left in late summer with no food or money, forced to gather whatever they could find to sustain them from fields and forests along the way. They faced constant dangers from panic-stricken refugees and plundering troops. Days turned into weeks and months, the temperatures dropped below freezing, and they continued to stumble over the frozen ground, her smallest child, a baby, in her arms and her three other children struggling behind her; the oldest, seven years old, pulling their tiny wagon.

Their shoes had disintegrated so they wore ragged and torn burlap to cover their feet. Their only clothing and protection against the cold were their thin, tattered jackets. The snows came and the days and nights became a nightmare. She constantly forced from her mind overwhelming fear that they would perish before reaching their destination. And then one morning, it happened: she awakened to find her three-year-old daughter cold and still.

Overwhelmed with grief, she used the only implement she had, A SPOON, to dig a grave in the frozen ground for her precious child. And they traveled on. They had to.

Death was her companion again, over and over on the journey. Her seven-year-old son died. Again, her only shovel was a spoon, and again she dug hour after hour to lay his mortal remains gently into the earth. Then her five-year-old son died, and again, she used her spoon as a shovel.

She had only her baby daughter left, and as she reached the end of her journey the baby died in her arms. The spoon was gone now, so hour after hour she dug a grave in the frozen earth with her bare fingers. She had lost her husband and all her children; she had given up her earthly goods, her home and even her homeland; and in the moment of overwhelming sorrow, she felt her heart would break.

And then, something within her said, “Get down on your knees and pray.” She knelt and prayed more fervently than she had in her entire life: “Dear Heavenly Father, I do not know how I can go on. I have nothing left.”

Then she recognized that her faith was the one thing she had left, and that it was a blessing to her, which led to expressions of gratitude and resulted in a new determination to live.

Recognizing our blessings and counting them, even if we can only come up with one blessing we have (that we’re still breathing, or that we have faith) can give us the will and determination to press forward and to carry on, no matter our adversities.


Find One Thing

“We shall draw from the heart of suffering itself the means of inspiration and survival.” (Winston Churchill)

The second step to surviving anything and living a thankful life is: find just ONE THING to be thankful for each day.

Years ago, James E. Faust told of being raised in very poor times that required the use of homemade soap—rough and terrible smelling. He said from that, every day that he had the good fortune to use soft, sweet smelling soap, he never got over being thankful for it.

Regardless of our circumstances, each of us has much to be grateful for, sometimes we just have to stop and realize that. I believe no matter HOW BAD things get, you can always find SOMETHING you’re blessed with or grateful for!

I remember at one of my lowest times, the drama of 2009 that was forced upon me when the man I was married to revealed he’d been running a Ponzi scheme and was heading to federal prison and everything that went along with those terrible crimes, there were moments (ok, probably several weeks or a few months, if we’re being honest!) where I wasn’t sure I had much, besides my children, to be grateful for.

I had to dig deep for gratitude.

I remember one day thinking, “I have never felt such despair. What can I find to be thankful for?” and honestly, the only thing I could find to be thankful for was that I was alive—still breathing, anyway—because if I weren’t, that would mean my children would be orphans. So I chose to be thankful for that—that I was still breathing.

Some days it may be the only thing you’re grateful for is the fact you’re still breathing, and that’s ok. Some days are just that terrible.

Just remember to be thankful for SOMETHING.

Instruction for Living a Life

“Instructions for living a life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” (Mary Oliver)

A few weeks ago I was asked to speak to a women’s group about gratitude—living a thankful life. It was a good experience, and another opportunity to reflect on my life, my experiences and to think about what I’ve learned from it all, and to try to share something from all of it that might help or encourage someone else.

I ended up titling my remarks “Six Steps to Surviving Anything And Living A Thankful Life.” And while I tailored my comments to that particular group, I thought I’d share a version of it over the next several days—one step a day.

My six step program.

To surviving anything.

And living a thankful life despite it all.

Here goes.

Step one: Count each day a success if you accomplish ONE thing. (And be liberal with yourself in what you consider an accomplishment!) Some days it may be only that you got out of bed OR took a shower. It doesn’t have to be both! Just one thing…and you’re a success. Because some days are just that hard.

I’ve had a few days like that.

A day or two when the fact that I got out of bed was my big accomplishment for the day. And that’s ok. I can’t remember a day when I succumbed to the awfulness of my life during a few of its most challenging moments by not getting out of bed to face another day.

So no matter what you’re facing, get out of bed that day and call yourself a success.

Although, “Lying in bed would be an altogether perfect and supreme experience if only one had a colored pencil long enough to draw on the ceiling.” (Gilbert K. Chesterton)

The Patchwork Quilt Called Life

When I was 12 years old, I was assigned to recite a poem about life. It was my first such recitation. And while I don’t know who wrote it, and after 33 years can’t remember all of it, I remember part of it went something like this:

“Life isn’t given us all of one piece, it’s more like a patchwork quilt,
Each hour and minute a patch to fit in, to the pattern that’s being built.

With some patches bright and some patches dark and some that seem ever so dull,
But if we were given to set some apart, we’d hardly know which to cull.”

The life concepts I gleaned from that poem were great for me to learn as a 12-year-old, and the older I’ve gotten and the longer I’ve lived (and the more challenges that have come to me) the more I’ve decided that if we’re wise, we’ll never abandon or give up on the quilting project of our life, but choose, instead, to keep quilting through all the patches. And we’ll be wiser yet, and a lot happier, if we choose to be grateful for all the pieces and patches of life: the bright, the dark, the good, the bad.

“It’s like this old patchwork quilt my momma used to have…Each piece on that quilt meant something. And some of those pieces were the [darn] ugliest things you’ve ever seen…But some of the pieces were so beautiful they almost hurt my eyes to look at when I was a kids…That’s the best you can hope for…That your life turns out like that patchwork quilt. That you can add some bright, sparkling pieces to the dirty, stained ones you have so far. That in the end, the bright patches might take up more space on your quilt than the dark ones.” (Brook McKinley, Shades of Gray)


The Most Glorious Task

“To be doing good deeds is man’s most glorious task.” (Sophocles)

Perhaps I’ve been inspired by all of the Facebook posts about things people are grateful for this month, or maybe it’s because Thanksgiving is this week, but whatever the inspiration…I’m thinking about good deeds lately. Especially the importance of doing some for others. A few that have touched my life. And my gratitude for the doers of them.

One that stands out in my mind took place in 2009. My children and I had lost our world, we didn’t have much in the way of money or material goods, so we were living off of our “food storage” (the food we’d collected in our pantry over time) as much as we could. For almost four months, we utilized what we had and supplemented it with minimal grocery shopping or the goodwill of friends who’d call and ask, “I’m running to the grocery store, is there anything you need?”

Most of the time, I told people we were fine, living off our food storage as much as we could and that we had food to eat. All of which was true. We didn’t starve. But, out of necessity, we stuck to the basics and did without the “fun extras” (like fresh fruit) or “fun food,” food that is generally processed and/or costs more.

And then one day a friend pulled into my driveway with her car—the passenger seat, the back seat and the trunk— filled with “fun food” from Costco! All the things kids love but don’t get when their family is living off of their food storage. Mickey Mouse-shaped chicken nuggets, fruit snacks, chips, crackers, cookies, juice, fresh fruit, etc…was hauled from the car, piled on our kitchen counter, and enjoyed thoroughly by my family—especially our three-year-old and his hungry older brothers.

I’ll never forget that. A bright spot in an otherwise very challenging time. When I think of good deeds, I always think of that experience and the time we were the beneficiary of someone’s most glorious task.


One Grand Sweet Song

“Life is one grand, sweet song, so start the music.” (Ronald Reagan)

Last month my husband took me to see Olivia Newton John in concert. Even if I hadn’t loved her music or aspired to be her during my childhood and teenage years (yes, I had the white dress from Xanadu and wore my hair like hers!) that concert was a trip down the memory lane of my childhood and life.

It was also there that something very unexpected happened—and I’m not talking about the Olivia enthusiast next to me who didn’t sit down once during the entire performance, who had what appeared to be choreographed danced routines he performed to every song and who didn’t miss an opportunity to call out “I love you, Olivia!” every time there was a pause or break in singing. (For the sake of my husband’s reputation and honor, I should probably clarify that although I love that he knows every word to every song, sang along with Olivia and I and enjoyed the evening as much as I did…I’m talking about the man on the OTHER side of me!)

While sitting on the grass and enjoying the concert, I was unexpectedly struck by the most powerful sense of complete and utter satisfaction and contentment; a feeling of  joy, gratitude, happiness and a love of life. Not just about life itself, but about the life I am living today.

Honestly, it surprised me.

Because I still have an occasional moment of trying not to compare the “then” with the “now.” Yes, a materially blessed life with a beautiful home, a house cleaner, a gardener, luxury cars, vacations and everything else that was mine in a former life was easier, in some ways, than the life I struggle to provide for myself and my children now. Yes, I lived one life I loved until 2009 at which time I began living a new and very different life in which I’ve found much unexpected happiness, joy and satisfaction. But it surprised me to be struck, unexpectedly, by such a powerful sensation that despite its many, many losses and the heartache and grief I’ve passed through, despite the challenges of the past and present and the extreme changes in every aspect of my life including lifestyle, I not only have incredible peace and joy but also total gratitude and contentment in and for my new one.

It made me realize that not only do you have to triumph over your challenges, you must embrace what has happened to you, accept it as a part of you and your life experience, own it (make it yours) and the triumph will be that much sweeter. It was an epiphany for me to realize that is what I had unintentionally done and that the happiness and joy that is yours, when you do that, is indescribable.

Really, it is. I highly recommend it to everyone living an unexpected life. Because when you get to that point, I believe you really ARE experiencing, living AND FINDING JOY in your unexpected life. You’re living your “happily ever after.”

“Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another.” (Toni Morrison)

The Greatest Bit of Wisdom

“To help my muscles rebuild after I work out, I have a small serving of cottage cheese.” (Brooke Burns)

Cottage cheese. Great for rebuilding muscles after strenuous physical activity, but what do you utilize when your task is to rebuild a life after the one you’ve always lived (and quite enjoyed) is destroyed?

Some choose to utilize the “Q” word—quit. But I say: have the courage to take stock of what you’re left with. No matter your loss, you’re still going to be left with SOMETHING. So choose to be grateful for what you’re left with, no matter how insignificant it looks at the time, and use it, whatever it is, to rebuild a new life. One you can find happiness and absolute joy through…if you choose to.

Remember, “Luck exists in the leftovers.” (Japanese proverb) And thanks to Mr. Hannah, my amazing 4th grade teacher, I know what luck is: preparation meets opportunity. You can make your own “luck” out of the “leftovers” you’re left with. With preparation (the life you’ve lived, everything you’ve learned and know, the talents you’ve been blessed with, a LOT of hard work and endurance) and opportunity (the unexpected life you’ve been handed) you CAN create a happily ever after. One you never EVER would have imagined for yourself, one you may not have chosen if given the chance, for sure one you never saw coming, but if you’re “lucky,” you’ll realize you’ve one day arrived at.

The unexpected life.

And my guess is…at that point…you wouldn’t choose to have it any other way.

“What we call the secret of happiness is no more a secret than our willingness to choose life.” (Leo Buscaglia)

Dandelion Death

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” (Charles Darwin)

While doing yard work and weeding a few weeks ago, my middle son surprised me with a bouquet of dandelions. I was thrilled, delighted and quickly rushed to put them in water to preserve them for as long as possible. For that day, they sat in a vase on my kitchen windowsill. Soft, puffy, cushions of yellow sunshine. The next day they were dead.

I confess, I was a little surprised. It has always seemed to me that dandelions, creeping into grass, springing up unbidden, are hardy plants. And although I’m not a weed, flower or gardening expert by any means (as evidenced by the many plants and flowers I’ve managed to kill), I think there’s a life lesson somewhere in their short life span.

From my perspective, dandelions have it pretty easy. They bloom into being uninvited and there they stay. Cheery, yellow, WEEDY; rain or shine. They don’t need water, they don’t need fertilizer and it seems like lawn mowers even have difficulty making an impact on them! It’s an easy life, as long as they remain in their expected and “natural” habitat—outside. But pluck a few, put them in a vase full of water, and they’re dead by nightfall (or at the very latest, the next morning.) I expected them to last at least as long as flowers do in a vase of water!

With such an easy existence, dandelions haven’t had to learn to be hardy, to adapt to change or to challenge. They don’t appear to have ever had to “hang on” when times get tough. They haven’t had to develop roots. Hand them an unexpected new life—indoors, in a vase of water—and they wither and die faster than anything I’ve seen.

Makes you grateful for the unexpected life, YOUR unexpected life of growth opportunities, doesn’t it? Because it’s through our trials that we become stronger. Our challenges strengthen us (if we let them) and by triumphing over them, we become stronger. Better. More than we would otherwise have been. Draught, hardship, the unexpected life…cause us to develop roots and to sink those roots deep to survive. The character-conditioning program called life, especially the unexpected one, makes us more than we ever could have become on our own. And in the end, we master not just surviving new circumstances or new challenges, but blooming wherever we’re planted.

We can find happiness and joy in whatever garden, or yard, or patch of dirt, or pile of manure we’ve had the good fortune (or misfortune!) to land in. Life is good regardless of where life transplants you to. Sink your roots into the soil of your unexpected life, look for the beauties of it, count your blessings and strive not just to survive but to bloom.

“I hope you will go out and let stories happen to you, and that you will work them, water them with your blood and tears and you laughter till they bloom, till you yourself burst into bloom.” (Clarissa Pinkola Estes)

Remaining Open to Unexpected Experiences

“An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.” (Gilbert K. Chesterson)

Maybe I’m a know it all (or at least a woman who knows her own mind.) I admit, I have preconceived notions as to how I think things should be, how I think they should go and I confess, I’ve always had my own plans, goals and dreams I’m working toward. Maybe that’s why it’s such a struggle for me when things don’t go as planned. Hence, the “shock factor” of the unexpected life.

For example, I remember when my dad died unexpectedly in a plane crash when I was a teenager and I struggled to make sense of it. One thing I remember thinking over and over again was, “No, this can’t be. I love my dad. I was meant to have a dad—that’s why I was placed for adoption as an infant, because I was SUPPOSED to have a dad, that was the plan for ME.” Cut to 2009 when the Ponzi scheme was revealed to me. I had many issues with it, of course, but one was, “No, this can’t be. I’ve always been honest, I’ve always lived a life of integrity, I can’t be involved to whatever degree, to any degree, in something like this that SOMEONE ELSE has done!” But you don’t always have control over the situations you find yourself in, courtesy of life, do you? The only thing you can control is your reaction to those challenges and what you choose to do with them.

I say: do something good with them. I can’t think of anything worse than being handed something miserable and choosing to let it destroy you for the rest of your life. Create a triumph out of a tragedy. Pick yourself up and carry on. Look for the good you’ve got. And never give up on life, or being happy, through everything you’re required to endure. Endure to the end. Oh, yes, and while you’re at it—strive to be open to all of the “new” opportunities that come with it all.

For example, when I saw Notre Dame in Paris for the first time, I was unexpectedly overwhelmed. I went into it thinking it was just something to see because of its history. I expected I’d visit it, enjoy it, cross it off my list of things to see while in Paris and move on to the next sight. I didn’t expect to FEEL what I felt there. To walk inside and be literally overwhelmed by its majesty. To be so touched by the experience of it. To sit, to cry from the beauty of it all, and to soak it all in until my friend finally felt it was time for us to go!

I remember my first trip to London. My #1 goal was to see the Tower of London and the crown jewels; my friend’s #1 goal was to see Westminster Abbey. So we saw both, and guess what? The thing I most enjoyed from that trip ended up being Westminster Abbey, while my friend was unexpectedly impressed by, you guessed it, the Tower of London. By remaining open to the unexpected, we saw things we’d otherwise perhaps have missed. We might have missed our most cherished experiences; remaining “open” to new adventures, or things we didn’t expect, greatly enriched our travel experiences.

Apply that to the unexpected life and I guess that’s why I dared trust a man again, fall in love and remarry. Why I keep singing (occasionally!) Why I ALMOST auditioned for a show. Why I’ve tagged along to autograph signings when invited. Why I give speeches. Why I’ve dared expose myself to the potential for anything in a media interview. And even, to some degree, why I blog about all of the unexpected adventures.

Every life experience has something to distinguish it by, something to learn from or can be a new adventure in some way if you choose to allow it to be. I think it depends on you.

“An adventure may be worn as a muddy spot or it may be worn as a proud insignia. It is the woman wearing it who makes it the one thing or the other.” (Norma Shearer)