Finding Beauty Wherever We Are

“Life is full of beauty. Notice it. Notice the bumble bee, the small child, and the smiling faces. Smell the rain, and feel the wind. Live your life to the fullest potential, and fight for your dreams.” – Ashley Smith

In my visits to a local arboretum, I often see people I know. During the past week, two of them said to me, “This is my church.” These people are churchgoers, but I knew what they meant. There is something about the beauty of nature that touches us and changes us if we pay attention.

A few months ago, I had finished shopping at Aldi’s and was putting away my shopping cart. A woman said to me, “Look at that sunset!” The sky was the most beautiful fluorescent pink with deep purple clouds. I drove home marveling at how beautiful the sunset was, and that I’d almost missed it.

We get in our routines and forget to look. Recently I was running at a forest preserve and was preoccupied with checking my I-phone for my mileage and running time. I also was looking at the path to ensure I didn’t step on a squished frog or in a pothole. What I wasn’t doing was noticing my surroundings. So I paused and looked around me. A beautiful, large blue heron stood among greenery at the edge of the nearby lake. As I watched, he lifted up and flew away. I’d almost missed seeing him.

blue heron at Danada

We go to art museums to see paintings of landscapes but we forget to look at the real thing. God is the master artist. How often do we stop at look at His paintings and sculptures? And do we reflect on them as we do with museum paintings?

Being in nature lifts my mood and often puts my worries in perspective. Even when I start a walk feeling irritated or stressed, I end it feeling soothed.

In my post Dealing with the Doldrums, I wrote about how a visit to the arboretum lifted my bad mood. A reader commented, “Wish I could afford to just go somewhere too.” But we can find the beauty of nature anywhere, even at a retention pond. We just have to stop and notice.

In the U.S., Queen Anne’s lace is thought of as a weed, and there is a lot of it at a retention pond two blocks from my home. Here is a picture:

qeen anne's lace for blog post

Is that not lovely? If you really look at a dandelion, it is pretty also.

I wrote a poem, which was published in the Prairie Light Review literary magazine, about that retention pond and the transformative beauty of nature. I’m sharing it with you:

Stormwater Pond
Wind shrieks,
Brushes my cheeks,
Clouds of slate slide
Across the dreary sky.
Daring the storm to strike
I beat a steady pulse
On the pavement

Ducks with emerald heads
And golden beaks
Strut past dry reeds
Into the glistening pond.
Tiny silver peaks
Ripple across
And diamonds
Cascade from a culvert

Wind screams again
Pulling my hair
Up and back and sideways.
I stand tall
Shoulders back
Head held high
And stride

What beauty have you seen in nature recently? Has nature, or God working through nature, ever transformed you?

Posted in Beauty, God, Gratitude, Nature | Tagged , , , | 10 Comments

Journaling for Self-Improvement

Whether you’re keeping a journal or writing as a meditation, it’s the same thing. What’s important is you’re having a relationship with your mind. – Natalie Goldberg

If you read this blog regularly, you know I talk about my efforts to become a Women Making Strides. “A woman who makes strides appreciates being alive and takes active steps to care for her body, mind, and spirit. She accepts challenges along her path and uses her God-given talents to better the world.” Journaling is one of the greatest tools I have to improve myself as I strive to be a Woman Making Strides. It is a way to care for my mind and spirit.

My quest to be a Woman Making Strides is an effort to be the leader in my own life. Life is short, and I want to make the best of it. I can’t do that if I passively go with the flow, never pausing to assess where I’m going. Or worse, if I follow other people’s ideas of what my life should be. For too long, I’ve been looking for answers from other people. I read various self-help articles, blogs, and books—but none are satisfying. That is because no one really has the answers for me except me. Sometimes I think I don’t know what I want or how to get there, but when I journal, I realize I do have the answers.

Journaling takes me out of my daily routine and allows me to pause. Otherwise, life just carries me along in its current. Have you ever thought about your last days on earth? What will be your regrets? What will you be grateful for? These are good questions to reflect on and write about in your journal.

Even if you’re not a leader by the world’s standards, you are the leader in your own life. It is too late when we’re on our death beds to say “I wish I had . . . .” Or “I wish I hadn’t wasted all that time doing such-and-such. . . .” or “I wish I’d been nicer to so-and-so.” Journaling gives us the opportunity to pause, reflect on our lives, and make changes as needed.  You can’t excel at being a leader in the world without first being a good leader in your own life.

Journaling helps me with clarity and decision making. I am honest in my journal pages because no one but me will see it. Seeing the pros and cons of a decision in black and white helps me clarify my thoughts and feelings. For example, when someone asks me to take on a new activity, I go to my journal. I list all that I am doing currently, and usually I am surprised. I have too many activities, especially for someone who wants to write more. This helps firm up my resolve to say “Thank you, but no.”

Recently, I knew I “should” go for a run or walk, but I didn’t feel like it. So I wrote down my pros and cons in my journal. Cons were:

  • It is wet out and more rain is forecast.
  • I’m not in the mood to run.

Pros included:

  • I want to maintain my running fitness so I can keep up with my running group.
  • I am seldom in the mood to run alone, but once I go, I never regret it.
  • If I don’t want to run in the rain, I can run indoors at the park district fitness center.
  • I could walk with an umbrella, and then I wouldn’t have to change clothes.

Ultimately, I wrote, “Sue, is this all that tough? Come on. Get off your duff and get moving. You’re trying to lose weight and running is a more efficient workout than walking. Even if you only run half an hour, that’s good.” And so I went to the fitness center and ran. Without journaling, I’d have stayed home because that’s what I felt like doing.

Woman running on a wet day

Woman running on a wet day

Life is not always perfect, and sometimes I feel moody or annoyed at myself. Or I’m irritated by other people’s actions. When I point the finger at someone, I need to also point that finger at myself and ask what I can learn. Is that behavior true for me, too? Journaling helps me get a new perspective on the situation—for example, I realize I can’t do anything about the other person’s behavior. The only person I can do anything about is myself. I can change my own behavior and be nicer to the person or resolve to be a good role model, even if that person doesn’t do the same. I can decide to put it all in God’s hands and accept that what will be, will be. Putting my worries on paper is a safe way to vent and let go, rather than lying awake at night worrying. And what seems to be free-floating anxiety can often be clarified and resolved.

Sometimes I journal at home using my computer. That is most convenient, and then I can read what I wrote (rather than struggling to read my handwriting.) However, I most enjoy journaling in nature, which lets me feel God’s presence as I look at the beauty around me. Many of my journal entries begin with “Dear God.”

I have a means of journaling that is probably somewhat unique—I go for a journal drive. I drive around my local arboretum, parking my car periodically. Then I write in a journal, either in the car or on a nearby bench, and I sip a beverage such as tea or a hot chocolate. Sometimes I have a series of questions and answer one question per spot. Other times I just write. Each spot brings a new perspective along with the new view and new sounds of nature. When I leave my journal drive, I have a new perspective on a situation, or I decide whether to do something, or I come up with an idea for a blog post. In any case, after doing a journal drive, I feel nourished and satisfied.

Do you keep a journal? What is the greatest benefit for you?

 This post is dedicated to my friend Dawn Herring in honor of the fifth anniversary of #JournalChat Live on Twitter and Facebook. Find out more about Dawn and her journaling resources at

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Race With Me

“Your biggest challenge in a race is yourself.” – Summer Sanders

I am standing with the other runners waiting for the 10K race to begin. We are at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois. I’ve got this. I have so got this. I am normally not this confident in a race, especially on a hilly course such as this. However, I’ve run the entire route two times in recent weeks, so I know I can complete it. I also know the toughest part will be the first part. We are standing on flat ground but around the first bend we’ll be going up a hill, and then we will loop around and go back up that same hill.

The starting area - the day after the race

The starting area – the day after the race

 The excitement of the crowd is contagious. Everyone is stretching, talking, jogging in place. I can almost feel the adrenaline. It is chilly, but we will warm up quickly once we start running. I greet a friend, Regina, who is lined up in the same area because she runs near my pace. Regina inspires me, for she has lost 100 pounds and has kept the weight off for well over a decade. My husband Ken is a much faster runner than me, so he is lined up closer to the front.

The starting gun sounds and we’re off! My MP3-player is playing at a low volume, and Sheryl Crow is singing “All I want to do is have some fun, I got a feeling I’m not the only one.” Most people, including me, make it up the first hill OK. I come back around and face that hill again. Some people are slowing down here. I listen to a song from the Sound of Music: “Climb every mountain, ford every stream, follow every rainbow, ’till you find your dream.”

As I run, I look for signs of spring. The scenery is beautiful. Every time I spot something green or blooming, I feel uplifted.

Daffodils and scenery the day after the race

Daffodils and scenery the day after the race

Somewhere around mile 2, two friends from the Bolingbrook Fun Run Club are shouting “Sue! Go Sue!” Wow! I did not expect anyone to be cheering for me, but Leslie and Amy have gotten up early solely to cheer a handful of runners.

I feel strong throughout the race and run steadily, listening to music. “Rawhide” from The Blues Brothers:

Rollin’ Rollin’ Rollin’
Though the streams are swollen
Keep them doggies rollin’

I sing aloud softly with Frank Sinatra to “My Kind of Town”:

This is my kind of town, Chicago is
My kind of town, Chicago is
My kind of people too
People who smile at you

And each time I roam, Chicago is
Calling me home, Chicago is
Why I just grin like a clown
It’s my kind of town

The flow of everyone running carries me along and I never even think of walking. When I pass the Strength bench, I repeat, “Strength. Strength. Strength!”

Strength bench

Throughout the course, volunteers and spectators line the road. A man shouts “Keep going! You’re almost there”.

No, I’m not! He means well, but it is not good to give a runner false hope. An app on my I-Phone tells me I’ve run 4.5 miles, so I have 1.7 miles to go. I know there will be three hills in a row beginning at mile 4.8. By now, I am getting tired, and the hills will be a challenge. 

That's me in the green shirt - picture from Amy

That’s me in the green shirt – picture from Amy

Reaching the first of the three hills, a teenage boy is obviously struggling. He walks, hands clasped, then runs a few steps with his hands waving wildly. Then he walks, hands on head. It is obvious he needs support, so I run alongside him saying, “You’ve got this! You’re rocking this race! Keep going!” He perks up but indicates someone he knows is up ahead of him. “That’s OK,” I say. “You’re doing awesome. No worries!” I don’t know if I helped, but I hope so.

I run ahead and power up the first hill, along with Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror”.

I’m starting with the man in the mirror
I’m asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer
If you want to make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself, and then make a change

 Surprise! There are my two friends from the running club again, shouting and cheering. You can see how much Amy and Leslie’s cheering perks me up.

Picture from Amy

Picture from Amy

With the last two hills ahead, I tell myself to just keep running steadily. Josh Groban and I sing,

You raise me up so I can stand on mountains
You raise me up to walk on stormy seas
I am strong when I am on your shoulders
You raise me up to more than I can be

I pass people who’d been ahead of me but who now are walking the hills. Perhaps I’m a little cocky, for I think, “You didn’t train on hills.” Thank goodness for those Saturdays when I ran on hills with the running club.

Flowers in the home stretch

Less than a mile remains. I have practiced finishing strong and that is what I will do. Around mile 6, I round a curve, and Ken is shouting “Good job! You’re almost there.” He finished the race a while ago and has walked back to cheer me on for a strong finish. That is just the boost I need and I cross the finish line with exuberance.

What have been your experiences in races? If you’ve never done one, what other challenges have you faced?

Posted in Challenges, Inspiration | Tagged , | 9 Comments

Living with Integrity

“Integrity means that you are the same in public as you are in private.” – Joyce Meyer

Recently I realized that if I wanted to have integrity, I needed to watch Season 1 of Downton Abbey. Does that sound strange?

I had never seen Downton Abbey and promised myself I would watch Season 1 as a reward for running a 5K race at my goal weight. I told people about this plan in Walking the Talk. Although I achieved my goal in November, in early March I still had not collected my reward.

I tried setting another goal for running but was unmotivated given that I never collected my reward from the 5K race. Setting another goal and reward seemed futile. I figured even if I met the goal, I might not collect my reward. Watching Downton Abbey became a high priority so I could set another goal and know I’d reap the reward. That is integrity as well as motivation.

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

I finally watched Downton Abbey in mid-March and loved it. I watched Season 2 just for pleasure, with no goal to meet. (We have to enjoy our lives!)

My step forward in integrity grew into other areas, not always tied to concrete rewards. One day, I told myself I’d run two loops at our local arboretum. I went there and found that my headphones were dead. My initial reaction was “I’ll do just one short loop.” But keeping integrity in mind, I realized, “I didn’t say I’d run two loops if I could listen to music. I said I’d run two loops.” After running five miles, I felt a sense of accomplishment for completing that distance alone with no music. That feeling was all the reward I needed.

photo courtesy of

photo courtesy of

Sometimes I have more integrity with others than with myself. If I told my boss I’d do something, I got it done. The same is true of my family—I feel responsible for tasks like getting dinner on the table and toilet paper in the bathrooms. Where I struggle, still, is with my writing.

Some of you hold me accountable—“Where’s your next blog post, Sue?” or “How’s your book coming along?” I appreciate your pokes as I share my struggles to take one slow baby step at a time. I say I want to be a writer but don’t actually write much. I hope as I grow in integrity with myself that I’ll overcome this resistance. Perhaps you have an area in your life where you need more integrity, too?

I’ve decided my next goal for writing is to write chapter 2 of my book and have it reviewed in a writers’ group. If I do this by June 20, I will celebrate by going to a creperie that I’ve wanted to try.

Meanwhile, I’ve been making progress with my running. For the past few weeks, I’ve been training for a 10K race, which will be held tomorrow. If I run the entire race without walking, I will rent Season 3 of Downton Abbey—soon. And I’ll enjoy every minute of the race as well as my reward.

Do you set goals and rewards? Do you have integrity with others? What about with yourself?

Posted in Challenges, Goals, Integrity, Running | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

Making a Sanctuary

“If we could make our house a home, and then make it a sanctuary, I think we could truly find paradise on Earth.”  – Alexandra Stoddard

I always enjoy the opportunity to tour lovely homes. Every year I go on a housewalk, where beautiful homes are decorated inside and out as a fundraiser to provide scholarships to high school students. Seeing such homes always makes me a little envious–but the home that made me most envious recently was not part of a housewalk. It was simply a house where my husband and I had gone to a party.

The rooms that had me drooling were a bedroom suite belonging to our host. The suite was spacious and had paintings, statues, and books on shelves. There was a comfortable couch that was obviously used by our host to relax. Why did this particular suite create a yearning in me? It wasn’t necessarily the spaciousness. The bedroom my husband and I share is the largest room in our house. It wasn’t necessarily the artwork. We have paintings that I like. They are not valuable, but I have no reason to think the artwork in that suite was valuable either. Books? No. I’ve got books—more than I will ever read, probably. The couch? No. My room contains a comfortable chair.

No, what appealed to me about the suite was the order and sense of peace. It was a place to get away from our noisy, busy world and read or reflect. Religious artifacts made it clear that it was also a place to pray.

It was a sanctuary.

Caribbean, British Virgin Islands, Scrub Island,  Guest Bedroom

A serene bedroom (Marina_Suite,_Scrub_Island_Resort,_Spa_&_Marina)

My bedroom has the basics to make it a sanctuary. Besides the comfortable chair, which belonged to my mother, I have a small bookcase from her, and a lamp and table from my mother-in-law. These women are deceased, and their items have positive connotations for me. I even have a few religious artifacts in my room.

The problem is that I have too much clutter. It is not a calm place to reflect or to pray. I don’t need to add anything to make my room a sanctuary, I need to subtract items. My books are stacked on night stands, on the floor, and even under my bed. These need to be cleared out and put in order. I have papers and magazines to sort through, and I need to hang up clothes I have flung over another chair.

So I’ve decided to do some “spring cleaning” now, while it’s winter. I live in the Chicago area, and the cold and snow make me want to cocoon. This is a better time for me to declutter than spring, when I will want to be out enjoying the weather.

I look forward to having a sanctuary of my own.

What about you? Do you have a place that serves as your sanctuary? How have you nourished your spiritual self recently?  

Posted in Inspiration, self-care, Spiritual | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Retreating Before Moving Forward

“Women need solitude in order to find again the true essence of themselves.”  Anne Morrow Lindbergh

The New Year has come and gone. I set my resolutions but felt the need for something more. I remembered a dream where I was following the elephants in a parade and shoveling up their droppings, which I dumped into a cart pulled by a horse. The parade had passed me by, and I just had to deal with the remains. When I had this dream, I realized I wasn’t happy at my job, and I decided to quit.

It is time to reflect on one’s life when one feels frustrated like this. I want to lead my life, not just watch it go by. I decided to take a mini-retreat. 

woman for retreat post

An important part of a retreat is setting an intention. I wanted my retreat to take me out of my ordinary life for a few hours so I could reflect on how I want the upcoming year to be.

I began my retreat by praying for guidance, and I listened to a couple of talks on the New Year, which I found on the Internet. I also read the scripture passages for the day. Interestingly, the first one spoke about the need for Sabbath, and the gospel reading talked about the need for faith and action.  “Rise! Pick up your mat! And walk.”

For the logistics of the retreat, I dressed in comfortable clothes and found a cozy blanket to use throughout the day to help myself feel relaxed. A meditative activity like drawing is always good—I pulled out colored chalk and a big sheet of white paper and drew for a while. I also gave myself changes of scenery by splitting my time between my bedroom and our dining room and by going for a walk.

For me, the most critical part of a retreat is journaling. I began by journaling about 2014.

  • I did pretty well in some ways. I lost the weight I’d wanted to lose for a long time. I took up running and found a group of people to run with. And I’ve been cooking and eating healthier foods.
  • I enjoyed both quality time and quantity time with my family. We along with our young-adult children took two fun vacations, which both included weddings.
  • I enjoyed my work as Church Librarian. I got a poem published and read it at an Open Mic evening. My husband and I enjoyed our volunteer work in Worldwide Marriage Encounter.
  • However, I got very little writing done in 2014.
  • And it was an expensive year for my family. We had to replace our roof and siding, and we bought a new car.
  • I spent too much time in shadow comforts. Jennifer Louden defines shadow comforts as “any choices that masquerade as self-care but in fact drain your energy, numb you out, or fuel the story that you can’t be trusted to be good to yourself.” In my case, that meant checking Facebook and emails several times a day, which led to Internet surfing. At the end of the day, what had I gained? Not much.
  • I’ve been frustrated lately with being “Ms. Responsible.” There is nothing wrong with being responsible except that I was getting stressed fighting fires for other people. And that was partly my own fault. I have taught people that I respond quickly and jump in to fix things. I suspect some of these issues would have resolved themselves if I weren’t so responsive.

The purpose of looking at one’s past like this is not to beat oneself up but to observe. We can’t change anything if we don’t think about what we want to change.

Next, I journaled about what I want to do in 2015. I want to be more focused and get more writing done. I want to help manage our money better by purchasing less (e.g. stop wasting food.) I want to get caught up with my work as church librarian. I want to keep running and walking and stay fit and below my goal weight. I’d like to earn some money. I want to finally write a book—a mystery novel.

Here is my action plan to achieve my goals.

  • I don’t want to give up Facebook and emails entirely. There are concrete things I get from Facebook (for example, I’m in a group that holds me accountable for getting exercise. And other groups give me inspiration to keep fit and keep my weight down. But I will cut back on my use of Facebook starting immediately– allowing myself to dip in just twice a day for 10 minutes each. I will only check emails two times a day.
  • Most of my computer time will be spent writing. I’ve started using an app that will “catch” how much time I spend Internet surfing, writing, etc.
  • Continue to go to weekly Weight Watchers meetings even though I’ve met my goal. I want to maintain my healthy weight and lifestyle.
  • Keep running and walking with my running group whenever possible. That commitment gets me out the door and moving.

Finally, I decided to set an intention for the year. You’ve probably heard about deciding on “one word” about how you want to be or one word to focus on for the year. I tossed about several words and decided my word to focus on in 2015 is “Integrity.” Sue Paige of Pathways Seminars says, “Integrity is a simple concept yet difficult for many of us to do. Integrity is where your actions meet your words. So simple.”

That is how I want to be in 2015. What about you?

What are your shadow comforts? (Examples: excessive use of computer, smart phones, TV, drinking, escape reading, etc.)

What do you want in 2015?

Posted in Journal, New Year, retreat | Tagged , , | 14 Comments

Walking the Talk

“How can you sing of amazing grace and all God’s wonders without using your hands?” – Mahalia Jackson 

Thanksgiving Day is over in the United States, and we’ve talked about thankfulness a great deal. But do we act grateful?

A local running store sponsors a 5K Turkey Trot each year, and an employee told me that some people who had come in for race packets were rude to the volunteers. I wonder if they realized their behavior was incongruous. These individuals were unkind to volunteers administering a race so these same individuals could run as a means of thanksgiving.

In general, running the Turkey Trot is a good way to express gratitude because it benefits a charity. It is also a way to do something fun with our families and work off calories before the Thanksgiving feast.

I started thinking about the Turkey Trot three months ago, wondering if I could use the race to motivate myself to lose weight. I set goals:

  • Run the race at my goal weight.
  • Run the entire race, not walk any of it.
  • Beat my times from recent years—the fastest of which was 36:33.

But what would make me actually do these things? These were ambitious goals for someone who hadn’t been running and still had several pounds to lose. What reward would motivate me to stick with it?

I decided if I accomplished all my goals for the race, I would let myself rent Season 1 of Downton Abbey and enjoy a Downton Abbey marathon. I have never watched the show because I try not to watch much television, especially since I already spend too much time in front of a different screen – my computer. But I knew I would love it.

I trained for the Turkey Trot by running three to four times a week. One day I ran 3.6 miles without walking, so I knew that unless I got injured, I could do 3.1. The day before the race I was still slightly above my goal weight, but on Thanksgiving morning, I was below it. Thank you, God!

I lined up with the 11:30 pace runners, set up my MP3 player for music and a running app on my smart phone and got ready to run. I didn’t look around at the other runners. Instead I soaked up the excitement and used it as fuel to run the race.

One person I could not ignore was a tall young man, an amputee with a hook replacing his right leg under his knee. We were neck-and-neck for the first couple of miles—after that I was so focused on my own race that I no longer saw him. Clearly, I’m not a speed demon–a couple of years ago, a race walker beat me.

As I ran, I thought, “I am running for the glory of God.” This might seem melodramatic for such a short race, but I did feel some truth to it. Keeping my body fit and healthy is a way to give thanks for the gift of my body and my life.

I had practiced finishing strong, and the end of this race was no exception. When my running app told me I’d run 2.9 miles, I turned on the speed. People were lined up along the streets, cheering for runners. If someone shouted, “Go, Amy!” or “Way to go, Bill,” I pretended they were shouting “Go, Sue! Finish strong.”

I crossed the finish line with a joyful feeling of accomplishment. I had done it.

In past years, I often thought, “I should have trained more, I should have lost weight, I should have worked harder.” This time, I had prepared and I finished with a time of 34:37. I will fully enjoy my reward of a Downton Abbey marathon.

But even more, I’ll enjoy the reward of having no regrets.

Do your words and actions express gratitude? What are your fitness goals and how will you reward yourself when you complete them?

Posted in God, Gratitude, Healthy living, personal leadership, Running, Weight | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments