Monday, December 24, 2007

Witnessing a 'Last'

It’s Christmas Eve – the kids are tucked in and the presents are wrapped. As I sit next to the glowing fireplace, I reminisce about the years of Christmas photos taken in this very same spot. There was the scene over 10 years ago – my just-turned-three-year-old daughter trying desperately to keep her new baby brother in an upright position for the camera. Then, a couple of years later when she struggled again with her new baby sister. My favorite was the one where all three wore matching Rudolf outfits. And I can’t possibly forget the one where my four-year-old son didn’t want to have his picture taken and insisted on covering his eyes with his hand. So as I sit her tonight, part of me giggles as I think about the wonderful memories we’ve made in this spot. But the other part of me feels weepy in the knowledge that in four short years, my oldest will go off into the world, making a life of her own and will likely have her own Christmas picture in front of her own fireplace. All of these thoughts remind me of just how quickly my life is flying by and how very important it is to cherish ever second if it.

I was reminded of this fact again last week. My kids had begged me to take them to our neighborhood ice rink. “Ice skating,” I thought. “That sounds like fun!” But reality smacked me in the face as I remembered all of the shopping I still needed to do, all of the cookies I still needed to bake and all of the presents I still needed to wrap. So, my first instinct was to say, “No, I have too much to do.” “Too much to do.” Honestly, there’s always too much to do though, isn’t there? But what good is all of the “doing” if we don’t have time to do the things we want to do – the things that make us happy? I wanted to take my kids ice skating – it would make me happy. What exactly was the point of all of the shopping, baking and wrapping in the first place? We do these things for the sole purpose of making others, and ourselves, happy. Ice skating would make my kids and me happy, so why would I sacrifice this happiness now for happiness hopefully gained in the future from all of the shopping, baking and wrapping?

Holiday happiness was looking me in the face, asking me to take them ice skating, so I took them ice skating. And I was glad I did for I was reminded once again to enjoy and cherish every second of my life.

The kids had just been skating for about an hour when they noticed Santa arrive.

“Santa!” I heard them cry. “Let’s go see him!”

While I expected this enthusiastic response from my seven-year-old daughter, I was surprised to hear equaled excitement from my 10-year-old son.

The kids hurried off of the ice and up to where Santa sat, greeting children. When it was my son’s turn, he eagerly approached Santa and settled himself onto Santa’s knee. My mind was thrown back eight years ago as it remembered delighting in the sight of this same child sitting on Santa’s lap for the first time. I remembered feverishly snapping photos, wanting to capture every aspect of this ‘first’ for all eternity. The ‘firsts’ always seemed so very important – the first step, the first bite of real food, the first time without training wheels. But what about the ‘lasts’? The last time using a fat pencil, the last bath in a baby bathtub, the last ‘Mommy’. We don’t know to cherish the ‘lasts’ because as they are happening, we don’t yet know that they are a ‘last.’ But as I watched my son, my big 10-year-old son whose feet used to dangle playfully at the side of Santa’s legs but now rested comfortably on the floor, I realized that I was very well witnessing a ‘last’. My son was thoroughly immersed in the magic of Christmas and the thought of shopping, baking and wrapping almost caused me to miss it. Feeling as I had just been given the biggest gift of the season, I blocked out every sensory distraction except for the scene of my son with Santa. I watched, trying to etch every detail of the scene into my memory – the way my son nodded hesitantly when Santa asked him if he’d been good this year, the way he looked down at his shoes while reciting his wish list for fear of looking overly confident by looking directly into Santa’s eyes, the way the corners of his mouth turned up in a little smile when Santa patted him of the back and said that he was sure my son was a very good boy, and the look of gratitude my son gave as Santa handed him a candy cane and wished him a merry Christmas.

My son slowly stood up and while walking back to me, he glanced once over his shoulder and saw Santa, saw the magic, perhaps for the last time.

Warm pools of gratitude and love formed in the corners of my eyes. The shopping, baking and wrapping could wait. This was happiness. This was joy. This is what Christmas is all about. This is what life is all about – enjoying and cherishing every moment, valuing every moment for what it holds. Sometimes it’s a simple request to go ice skating that reminds me to experience the joy of today instead of planning for the joy of tomorrow. For the joy of today may never present itself again. Merry Christmas.

Sonya May
President, Choose Joy, Inc

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Know How Good You Have It - Even When Things Seem Hard!

I have an Electrical Engineering background and in the past did technical sales for a Silicon Valley-based software company. Every year the Sales organization got together in a different city for meetings and team-building activities. These events served to educate us on new products, taught us how to beat the competition, and reinvigorated our minds and attitudes as we strived for that all-important-goal of making revenue numbers. We left focused on business and I suspect most of us simply didn’t have – or make – the time to think much about all the joyful things in our lives.

In July 2000 our yearly meeting took place in San Diego, California, on the other side of the country from my home and family in Cary, North Carolina. After spending a week with hundreds of fellow employees working and playing hard I’m always anxious to get home, although it always seems to be an ordeal. This year was no different than others, with a plane breakking down, being bumped off a flight, missing connections, running - really! - through the airport, and ulmitely getting home 8 hours late at 3:00am.

But I was jazzed and savoring life as I pulled into my garage in the wee hours that morning! Why? THAT is the important part of the story...

On my flight from San Diego to St. Louis there were all these kids - probably in the 10 to 15 year old range - who had matching white shirts with something like "TWA San Diego Teen Trip 2000" silk-screened on them. Additionally there were lots of different personalized handwritten notes written all over each one's shirt - things like "Bonita, you're the best... it was a pleasure getting to know you... keep that smile going for all the world to see…." You get the idea. I immediately assumed it was some sort of youth conference, maybe associated with student government, or perhaps some sort of church-related activity, or even an event to expand the horizons of youth somehow related to TWA (after all, St. Louis is a big TWA hub and the shirts did have TWA on them). A few adults also wore the shirts and helped ensure the kids were all situated before take-off; naturally these would be the chaperons for the bunch I assumed.

They all appeared quite friendly. Some listened to their Walkmans, others read books or did word searches, and many simply held bubbly conversation among themselves. As far as I could tell, all carried some sort of beverage, and the standard seemed to be green Gatorade. For the first hour of flight I simply made these various observations. I was in an aisle seat and the traveler next to me was neither associated with the group (at least she didn't have on the requisite shirt), nor awake to do much talking. I worked on my laptop, read some of a book, and occasionally took in what was going on in the aircraft around me. During take-off one of the kids about five rows ahead of me had apparently gotten sick, so the stewardess had to bring some paper towels. At one point they asked Nurse Smith* (I can't remember what the real name was) to ring their call button. Somebody instantly did, the stewardess pointed back to the where the sick child was sitting, a guy got up wearing the matching white shirt, and came and swapped places with person next to the boy. Okay, good idea, I thought, they even made sure one of the parents / volunteers / chaperons had some medical training.

Then the captain came on the intercom and introduced himself as Captain so-and-so. But he didn't follow it with any of the usual "I'm assisted by First Officer Jones," or "our flight time to St. Louis will be 4 hours 18 minutes," or " during our flight today we'll be passing over the Grand Canyon..." He said something I will never forget: simply "We have some special people on-board with us today." I stopped what I was doing and paid keen attention. He added "And I'd like to read all their names: Adam, Bonita, David,..." He continued on and told me the first names of about 15 people flying with me on that plane - 15 children dressed in white shirts with take-on-the-world hopes penned on them.

I wasn’t sure where this was going, but it sounded like he was going to fill in some details about what this group was all about... I only remember a few key phrases of the rest of his dialog to us: "... spent the last few days enjoying the sites and activities in San Diego...," "... program which helps to fulfill wishes....," "... won't be in this world as long as the rest of us..."

Yep. Apparently these vibrant people I'd been observing were terminally ill children. I couldn't hear specific words, but I could tell those seated two rows in front of me on other side of the plane were excited, pointing out to each other how the pilot had mentioned their names and was talking about them. They spoke and laughed about a few more things and then put their headphones back on or immersed themselves in the printed words before them. I, on the other hand, sat there kind of transfixed, my eyes focusing on nothing... I didn't know what to think or do. I did want to be home then. I wanted to see and hug my family more fervently than ever. I felt those feelings as strongly as I ever had, yet I was more at peace than I'd been for years.

That was over seven years ago, yet I think about it often enough that it seems like yesterday. I don’t know what became of any of the kids I flew with that day; I wish now I’d made a point to talk to some of them and I hope and pray they are all doing well. It was an event that helped super-charge my focus on striving to constantly look for the joy in life. With the experience were two key messages: (1) One's attitudes and choices really define the way a person lives and (2) Sometimes we need an awakening slap in the face to remind us of the much worse things a lot of people go through.

Life is indeed good and to be savored. Choose to make yours joyful every day!

Bill May
ChooseJoy, Inc.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Live Like You Were Dying

As I sit here in my warm house, wearing my snuggliest PJs, typing this entry, a very dear friend of mine sits at home, waiting. She’s waiting to wake tomorrow – that is if she is able to sleep at all tonight – and drive to Duke Medical Center where she will undergo a full hysterectomy. As difficult as this night will be for her and as apprehensive as she is about having the surgery, she’s ready to get it over with. She’s ready to get every female piece removed from her body that could be plagued with the evil enemy of cancer. You see, last month, she found out that she has ‘the cancer gene’. Not that I know much about ‘the cancer gene’, but I know it doesn’t sound good! And from what my friend tells me, it’s definitely not a good thing! So after she fully recovers from tomorrow’s surgery, the doctors will perform a double mastectomy on my dear friend.

While my thoughts this evening are heavy with concern for my friend and hopes that the surgery will go well, my mind wanders and thinks about the many other women who have gone through the same experience, as well as the women who’ve actually not just had ‘the cancer gene’ but had ‘the cancer’. Some of them became survivors and some lost the fight. But one thing is certain for all of these women – when faced with their own mortality, each second they have on earth suddenly seemed more valuable.

I love that country song, “Live Like You Were Dying”. It’s all about a guy who finds out he’s dying and decides to live the rest of his days doing the things he wished he had done before. I especially like the line, “I loved deeper and I spoke sweeter and I gave forgiveness I’d been denying…”

But why is that we wait until we find out that we have cancer or some other potentially terminal illness to live the way we wish we had lived? Why do we wait until we find out that our days on this earth may be limited to love deeper, speak sweeter and give forgiveness? Why do we wait until we are given the news that we may not be around tomorrow to savor the beauty of each day…of each second? Why do we wait until we’re told that we’re dying to live like we’re dying?

Let me give you a little pearl of wisdom and save you the trip to the doctor – you do have a terminal disease…it’s called LIFE!

Each and every one of us is dying, and there is absolutely nothing we can do about it! The terminal disease of life is nothing that a hysterectomy or mastectomy will cure; nor will chemotherapy or radiation cure it. No, there’s absolutely nothing you can do to change the ultimate outcome. But there is something you can do - you can do something about the way you’re living today – you can live like you were dying. You can love deeper; you can speak sweeter and you can give forgiveness you’ve been denying. You can live each second like you choose to. You can live the way you will have wanted to live when you look back on your life many years from now. You can make the choice to live that way today!

Every day, every second, you have a choice about how you live – you have a choice about what you say, what you think and what you do. What are you choosing to do with each of your days, with each of your seconds? Are you living life like it will go on forever or are you living like you were dying? Go on, live it like you were dying, because you really are!

Sonya May
President, Choose Joy, Inc

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Joy of AGING....REALLY!!

Like millions of people last Friday, I too braved the stores for "Black Friday"......yet instead of discovering the perfect gift for a loved one, I discovered something about myself!!

While visiting with relatives for Thanksgiving, my sister and I decided to see what we could find in the stores on Friday. As neither of us had our "lists" or any real desire for particular items, it was more of an opportunity to spend some time together than it was to get some "real deals" for the holidays.

We headed out to the local stores and wandered......literally wandered through the stores looking at the piles and mountains of products and the throngs of people clamoring for the items that were "one day sale specials". Not having participated on the Black Friday Frenzy for years, I was amazed. It reminded me of a sad remake of the movie "Night of the Living Dead"..........people wandering, as if in a daze..........tired, cranky, moving from store to store......simply with the goal of filling their carts. I'm certain many of these people simply wanted to be at home enjoying a well-deserved and long-overdue day off with their families, eating left-over turkey and stuffing, yet here they were......

While it amazed me at how the stores had all geared up for this day so far in advance, how the buying public was participating in the hoopla, and of course at the sheer volume of things to be purchased, I was amazed at something else.....something inside of me. I felt so removed from the process of it all......I had no desire to purchase anything! My thoughts wandered to some of the decorations and how I wanted to create a special holiday atmosphere and mood in our home, but I wasn't processing what items the kids or I "needed" to be happy this holiday season.

My wish list became populated by other things that morning. Here are the first several items:
1. Time to make holiday cookies with the kids
2. Remember to get that family recipe for my grandmother's applesauce cake
3. Find the kids' favorite holiday music CD that got put away with last year's decorations....the one they knew all the words to so we could sing along
4. Cut the construction paper so we could make paper chains for the tree
5. Clear the afternoon after-school schedule so we could go ice-skating
6. Stop by the library for a stock-pile of holiday stories to read in front of the fireplace

My list grew as I wandered along. The true JOY of the holidays for me was not to be about finding the perfect gift. My list didn't cost much money either! My list was about making the TIME with those who are most important to me in my was about making MEMORIES of an unhurried holiday was about creating TRADITIONS for my children that hopefully would carry over to their adulthood and they would not become one of the wandering zombies at the mall on Black Friday!

I see this as a true joy of aging.....sure I have a few more aches and pains with each passing year.....but I also have a greater sense of the real me and what is important in my life! I'm embracing the wisdom that the aging process brings! Realizing what is truly important is a joy of aging!! I have the courage, wisdom and capability to make the holiday season what I WANT it to be......not what I've been told it should be!What is it you wish your holiday season to be? What is important to you? What brings you JOY?

Glenna Sanford
Choose Joy, Inc.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Joyful Inspiration comes from all Angles!

"My wife... died Wednesday, November 7th after a nearly eight year long battle with breast cancer, she was 46." So started the email I received from Joe*, a fellow co-worker ,last Friday. Although I know the person who sent it (we'd taken a class together and I see him in the hallways occasionally), the email wasn't sent to me directly but to a distribution list including the 700 hundred or so people where I work. As we are not close friends and I knew nothing about this person outside of work, it caught me completely off-guard.....

I found myself initially sobered by his sharing of something so personal, and so tragic. As I continued to read his heartfelt note however, I found myself inspired:

"Her small five foot two frame belied her giant personality and presence. She had a strong moral compass, strong will, and a passion for the things she loved and believed in. She lived with a good quality of life despite the huge price she paid for every day, she looked forward to each one and used it the best she could. Those that knew Diane*, knew that she had a wonderful smile that she shared freely, she was intelligent and engaged.... She wouldn't be beaten by cancer, she would beat it despite constant pain and nausea. It came as a surprise to me the day she died because even the day before she was strong, bright, and ready to fight. She was by far the strongest person I have ever met. Her will and lust for life and the daily price she paid for that life was terrific."

Though I'd never met her, because of her husband's words I felt like I knew Diane somewhat. I loved Joe's descriptions of her attitude, her enthusiasm, and how she chose to live her life. Here was a person who had been dealt a pretty bad hand - "In the last eight years she was in remission for only about 12 - 18 months, the rest of the time she was on one chemo-therapy or another. She had 6 major surgeries, horrific amounts of radiation, dozens of minor surgeries and countless CAT and MRI scans." - and yet, through it all, she made the best of it, made a difference, and made her life count for more. I wish I had REALLY known her. What a strong and inspiring woman she was and continues to be to all those who actually had the privilege to know her.

The other inspiring part to me in this story is Joe. It is simply amazing to me that at a time like this he could actually think to write such a powerful letter! Perhaps writing it simply helped him with the mourning process, but I'm confident his choice - whether active or subconscious - to share his thoughts and memories of his wife's life with a larger audience was meant to move and motivate others ----- to make decisions and take actions to lead a joyful life. Each day. Every day. No matter what your circumstance.

So, in the end, I found the email I received that morning uplifting. In the process of relating the amazing life of someone I'd never met, it served to remind me - as it should all of us - of how precious each day in life is, and how we can make the choices to make it a joyful celebration!

(* Not their real names.)

Bill May
VP and Co-Founder
ChooseJoy, Inc.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The To-Do List

A few weeks ago, my friend, Kathy came over to give me her opinion on one the scents Choose Joy will carry in our candle line. After she gave me a thumbs up on the scent, we settled into our easy-friend-type conversation. I love Kathy and love the times we can just talk as girlfriends. Kathy told me that this year for the first time, her two teenage children would not be going trick-or-treating. “And,” she sadly said, “We didn’t even carve a pumpkin this year.” But suddenly, her eyes lit up and she said, “Maybe I’ll carve one by myself tonight. That would be fun! But I’ll see how my day goes. If it seems like a joyful thing to do, I’ll do it. I don’t want it to become a to-do thing.”

A “to-do thing”. Definition: something that’s on your list of things to do that you really don’t want to do, but you have to do it because it’s on your list; something that causes you stress (which is certainly not a joyful feeling!) just by having it on your list and knowing that you have to do it.

A “to-do thing”. How many to-do things are on your list? How many of your to-do things are there because you think you have to do them and how many things are there because you want to do them?

My calendar probably looks like yours – lots of places to go and things to do. Children’s activities, volunteering commitments, social gatherings. But how many of those things are things we really want to do – things that add real value to our lives – and how many are on our calendar because we think we have to do them, either because of the expectations we have for ourselves or even because of what others expect from us?

On Halloween, how many of you could allow yourself to not have had a carved pumpkin greeting the neighborhood trick-or-treaters? Kathy, my wise friend, could. Carving a pumpkin is supposed to be fun, not a chore. If it becomes a chore for her, she knows that it’s not worth doing. Doing it when it’s a chore defeats the entire purpose of doing it in the first place!

As parents, we want nothing more than to build the self-esteem of our children. So we sign them up for activity after activity where they can explore their talents and hopefully gain some good feelings about themselves. But how often, in the rush to get out of the door and to the activity on time, do you find yourself raising your voice or even yelling at your children, telling them to hurry up? How many disagreements and arguments do you have with your children over some aspect of their activity? If your kids’ activities cause you to yell at your children or in any other way cause you to be less than emotionally supportive of them, you’ve defeated the purpose of taking them to the activity in the first place! The purpose of the activity is to help your kids feel good about themselves. If the activity feeds their negative self-esteem, then you’ve defeated the purpose of signing them up for the activity in the first place!

Many things compete for your time and energy. Choose wisely how you spend your time and energy and choose wisely for your children as well. If something that is supposed to be a positive experience becomes a negative one, then you need to find some new ways to spend your precious commodities of time and energy. This is your life and you only get one – choose to make it a positive experience!

Sonya May
President, Choose Joy, Inc

Monday, October 29, 2007

Daily Dose of Joy?

Did You Find Some Joy Today?
Every day. EVERY day. Do you find JOY somewhere in your life every day?I can recall days....weeks.....months.....where it seems like the "unfair" or "unkind" elements of life just keep washing over us like the never ending waves of the powerful ocean......and we need to take care not to get caught in the undertow of the the negative forces pulling us down. Why is it we can so easily recall the dark times of our lives and have difficulty recalling the constant reminders of joy in our lives?When I am asked about my journey with breast cancer.....I have to stop and ponder. It is so very easy to recall the multiple surgeries, the testing, the treatments......and on and on. What I have to remind myself however is of the joyful times during that same time and space. Was it bad? Of course it was bad. Was it also good? Of course it was also good!! The good times of cancer involves cherishing the friendships - old and new - of those who helped us endlessly. The good times of cancer involves smiling with every trip to the mailbox that resulted in a get-well-soon card that brightened my day. The good times of cancer involved the patience and care of the doctors and nurses who tended to my needs. The good times of cancer involved the neverending support of family and friends who walked in walks, worked events, and did everything they could to help raise money for a cure. Yes, there are good times ....even in cancer.

The biggest thing that cancer taught me was to look for joy EVERY day. EVERY day I look and find joy somewhere. Are some days harder than others? Of course they are......yet every day I strive to find something. Sometimes the joy is simply from having gotten through the day and looking forward to the dawn of a new day. Sometimes the joy is simply from witnessing the joy of someone makes me smile. Sometimes the joy is from sharing a giggle with a friend. Sometimes the joy is from sitting quietly, alone, drinking in the beauty of our world around us. It doesn't have to be monumental. It doesn't have to be significant. It only needs to be real.
My wish for you is to open your eyes to the real joys that surround us daily. Open your heart to the song of joy that whistles gently through the green leaves of the trees. Open your sense of smell to the soft fragrances of blooming flowers. Open your enjoyment of the sense of touch to the joy of holding the hand of a child.

True joy does exist in our world......every day. We can see it and feel it if we look for it. When you find it, share it with others. Perhaps this will spread the message of beauty,
What joy did you find in your world today?

Glenna Sanford
VP, Choose Joy Incorporated