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Are You Living the Life You Want?

Listen to this episode of the Focus with Marlene Podcast:

Get caught up with all episodes in the Developing a New Focus series.

This is part 5 in my series, “Focus on Building Confidence.”

Part 1: Focus on What You Can Do, Instead of What You Can’t

Part 2: Why Your Focus Matters 

Part 3: Are You Reaching Your Goals?

Part 4: Relaxation Exercise to Maximize Your Focus

When I was working through the loss of my husband, it became a time of both healing and discovery.

Similar to my experience, when you transition from what was to what is now, you’ll go through a period of reflection and creating a new identity. (See my book, Learning to Live Again in a New World).

But you don’t have to wait for a tragedy to pause and consider who you are, what is important, and what you are capable of. You can stop and reflect right now and ask, “Is this how I want to live my life?”

Have you identified what is truly important to you and are you living that life?
If not, what needs to change?
What do you need to learn about yourself before continuing on?

Much of life revolves around what is required to live, from getting a job to raising a family and then preparing for retirement. We become tougher over time through life’s challenges. We gain courage and a stick-to-itiveness we wouldn’t have without going through difficult times.

But we don’t have to wait for life to present opportunities to explore who we are, what we like or enjoy doing, or what hidden talents and abilities we may not have yet discovered. No matter what our age is, we can stop at any time and do some important self-evaluation.

So, ask yourself right now: Am I living the life I want to live?

I’m not talking about fancy homes, or cars, or elite lifestyles. I am talking about what, deep down, you realize is important to have contentment, satisfaction, and joy.

As you reflect, consider the following:

What do you like to do?

Think back over the years and explore times when you did things that gave you a sense of achievement, peace, fun, challenge – times when you could lose yourself in what you were doing.

It may be singing, traveling, gardening, reading, studying, working with people, painting, etc.

  • When was the last time you did this activity?
  • Is this something you can start now?

Do not allow age or other predetermined restrictions to keep you from considering this. Start small and work from there.

When were you the happiest?

Your first thought might be when you were first in love and being with that person and doing things together.

But other times can create a feeling of happiness. Can you identify some of them?

Maybe it was whenever you worked with others on a project or helped others, or accomplished a difficult goal.

  • Can you keep doing things that create this sense of achievement, happiness, and contentment?
  • Have you given yourself credit or praise for the times you tried as well as when you accomplished?

If we focus only on times when we failed without giving ourselves credit for attempting or simply trying one more time, we might begin to think we are no good at doing anything.

Make a list of all the things you can take credit for, no matter how minor or small they may seem. Examples: Being willing to try, stick-to-itiveness, knowing when to alter directions, self-discipline, finding joy even in tough times. Go over your list every day as you build confidence.

What do you dream about and hope for?

What have you always wanted to do but were even afraid to tell someone for fear they might laugh at you?

What is keeping you from exploring those hopes and dreams today?

President Bush skydived when he retired and made his last jump when he was 80. Age is not a barrier.

You have only one life to live.

Identify what is important to you and begin living it!

Relaxation Exercise to Maximize Your Focus

Listen to this episode of the Focus with Marlene Podcast:

Get caught up with all episodes in the Developing a New Focus series.

This is part 4 in my series, “Focus on Building Confidence.”

Part 1: Focus on What You Can Do, Instead of What You Can’t

Part 2: Why Your Focus Matters 

Part 3: Are You Reaching Your Goals?

Last week you assessed how you would like to live the rest of your life – your passions and aspirations, and what would make you happy.

You identified the times when you completed a goal or objective and what you did to make that happen.

You also identified times when you didn’t succeed, and what kept you from achieving. Perhaps it was time management or a goal you didn’t thoroughly think through because you were unaware of the magnitude of obstacles you would have to overcome.

When you define what is important and how you want to live, you can find ways to make that happen.

Discover unhelpful patterns

This FOCUS exercise will help you evaluate what you do every day.

For one week, keep a record of what you do, from the time you get up to the time you go to bed. Don’t assess at first, just keep a record.

At the end of the week, go back and evaluate.

Look for patterns that aren’t helping you. For example, you play video games before fixing dinner, or you call someone instead of doing housework. Are these activities unconsciously keeping you from completing tasks you don’t enjoy doing but need to be done?

Over time, we create habits of avoidance and making excuses. How many necessary jobs and chores have you put off for tomorrow because you don’t enjoy doing them?

Until we can honestly appraise what we do and don’t do every day, we will find it difficult to make the goal that we want to complete.

Reduce the stress in your life

As our lives become more chaotic, we become more and more stressed. We stop focusing on what needs to be done or how to maximize our time.

We also add to our stress levels by how we interpret and replay what is happening. Our brain responds to words we continually focus on. Without realizing it, we are constantly streaming some kind of statements all day long. A lot of those statements are loaded with words of contention or resentment or failures, and the body immediately gears up in some way to respond to them.

Taking time-outs during the day can help reduce tension, relax the muscles, and return our focus to one that is productive.

Use relaxation to your advantage

Make Stress Work For You by Marlene Anderson | focuswithmarlene.comEarlier in my career, I studied the brain-body connection and ways to use relaxation and visualization to our advantage. It prompted me to record a CD, first for Kaiser Permanente (who I was working with at the time), and then later, as an ebook/audio MP3 for my readers:

Make Stress Work for You: 12 Steps to Understanding Stress and Turning it Into a Positive Force

It is difficult to learn how to relax on our own, and we usually try to “make” it happen instead of “allowing” it to happen.

The music that accompanies the script was composed by a good friend, Ron Jones, and recorded in his studio. The MP3 is both relaxing and instructive. As you listen and follow the instructions, you’ll discover where in your body you hold your tension and you’ll learn how to release tension.

A few minutes a day can do wonders.

Here is a summary of what you will get from my recording. Because you only have to listen, you can do a quick relaxation during the day in the privacy of your home or workspace.

Relaxation Exercise


Once a day, or whenever possible, find a quiet time and space away from family or work, turn off your cell phone, and seat yourself in a comfortable chair, feet on the floor, hands in your lap.

Hang a DO NOT DISTURB sign on the door. While this exercise can be done sitting up or lying down, it is more productive when sitting. When lying down, we often fall asleep.

One of the key elements of this exercise is breathing – breathing that is slow and even and originates in the diaphragm.

Breathe in through the nose, hold a second, and then slowly release the air through your mouth. You can put your hand on your stomach as you breathe in and out to see if you are breathing correctly. Remember, each breath during this exercise is done slowly and evenly.

Before you continue with the relaxation of your body, you may want to practice this slow, even breathing for a while. Practice breathing like this until it becomes normal and natural. You can take one-minute breaks from work and focus on breathing in and out.

The next phase of this exercise is to progressively relax the different parts of your body. You are seated comfortably in your chair, and you can close your eyes.

I like to start with the head and work my way down. The process goes like this: tighten the muscles, feel the tension, breathe into that spot and as you release the air, release the tension.

Begin with your head. Tighten the muscles around the eyes and forehead. Feel the tension. Take a deep calming breath, and as you let the air out, relax all the tense muscles. Continue down the face, tensing the jaw and cheek muscles, taking a breath, and then releasing the tension with the air.

Continue this relaxation sequence of “tense, breathe, and relax” for all the muscle groups in your neck, shoulders, back, arms and fingers, pelvic area, hips, legs, and feet.

As you do this, add the following phrases:

  • “Letting go”
  • “I am relaxing more and more”
  • “I am relaxing deeper and deeper”
  • “All my tension is melting away”

Use different phrases as you go through the relaxation exercise.

By pairing the tensing of muscles and relaxing breathing with words that tell your brain you are letting go of tension and stress, you are associating the words or phrases with the actions of the relaxation process.

When you have relaxed all the muscle groups in your body, take a moment and focus on relaxing your internal organs.

Before you get up and resume your activities, take a moment after opening your eyes to let your body energize again.

When you have done this exercise for a while, you will be able to relax your body anytime, anywhere by simply taking some slow, deep, even breaths, focusing on the areas where you are holding your tension, and telling yourself to let go. After a while, you will notice how quickly tension can drain away.

Order the MP3 of Make Stress Work for You.

Are You Reaching Your Goals?

Listen to this episode of the Focus with Marlene Podcast:

Get caught up with all episodes in the Developing a New Focus series.

This is part 3 in my series, “Focus on Building Confidence.”

Part 1: Focus on What You Can Do, Instead of What You Can’t

Part 2: Why Your Focus Matters 

If you can’t define what you want, you will continue to do whatever is expedient in the moment.

Until you develop a positive and constructive FOCUS for your life, you will keep doing whatever feels good at the time but won’t make you happy over the long term. Instead, you’ll become exhausted and discouraged.

For example, let’s say you want a happy marriage. But all you can think about is what is constantly going wrong, especially everything your spouse is doing wrong.

Or, you might want to succeed at work but focus on everything and everybody that seems to be keeping you from reaching that goal. You are not looking for productive ways to bring about what you want.

To succeed with personal or professional goals, we must first define specifically what we want. Assessing and evaluating takes thoughtful consideration. Clarifying what is important is the first step in preparing to work for it.

Goal-setting exercise

This exercise will help you recognize behaviors and choices that worked and those that didn’t and why they didn’t.

  1. What has kept you from reaching your goals in the past?
  2. What did you do differently when you were successful in completing a goal?
  3. What did you fail to do when you didn’t succeed? Was it time management, identifying obstacles, or how it involved other people in your life?
  4. What obstacles are you currently facing that are keeping you from reaching a goal? List them – all of them. This might include:
    •  difficulty staying focused on my goal over time
    • making alterations when needed
    • following a reliable and realistic routine
    • not completing the small tasks that eventually lead to bigger problems

Only you can ascertain what you need to do to make your goals succeed. After you have worked through the questions above, make an assessment:

  • Were these goals important enough for you to work for them?
  • What needs to change?
  • Look at each item on your list and see how you might do things differently.

We tend to think of goals as relating to work or a career. But every day when we say we are going to do this or that and spend the time and energy to accomplish it, we are setting a mini goal. We don’t consider it a goal – just a job that needs to be completed.

When we look at goal setting overall, we realize there is a pattern from beginning to completion.

Obstacles that are unique to you require ways to overcome.

Time is involved – deciding when to start, when you hope to finish, and how working towards your goal will impact your lifestyle.

Plan of action

A specific plan of action is required with as many steps as necessary to complete that goal. Write down all the benefits you will get from reaching that goal.

Thoughtful reflection

Before you can get serious about how to improve your life, you need to do some thoughtful reflection.

  • What do you really want your life to be like?
  • What are your passions, your deep desires, and ambitions?
  • What makes you feel content and satisfied? (Include the things you have thought about many times but deep down never believed you could accomplish.)

Review your list again. Then ask yourself once more, “How do I want to live the rest of my life?”

  •  What is more important than the usual matters of the day?
  • Am I happy with my relationships? Why or why not?
  • What could I do to improve my relationships?

A common obstacle to achieving goals

We are confronted with obstacles all the time – most of which we don’t really identify as things we can work with to bring about a change or better outcome.

A common one is holding on to resentments.

Decide to let go of that long-held bitterness. It’s not helping you. Hanging onto it is not going to change anything.

Relationship goals

  • Do you want to be able to communicate your wants and needs better while respecting those of others?
  • This is very important in long-term relationships.
  • How can I avoid conflict without giving up my needs?
  • Can I set reasonable boundaries and maintain them while respecting others?

Then expand from the personal interactions to other desires you might have had but never believed were possible because of time or money or degree of knowledge.

What would it take to try one wish now and make it happen?

While I’m sure you have done exercises like this before, I encourage you to do it again. Sit down, maybe at the beginning of the day, and let your mind relax. Then take a piece of paper and start writing whatever comes to your mind – don’t plan or correct – just write, free-flowing without purposeful design.

When you have written about three pages you will notice your brain is focusing on things that are important to you in some way.

Free-writing unlocks the brain and allows creativity to flow.

See Walking in This World: The Practical Art of Creativity by Julia Cameron, who also wrote The Artist’s Way

Why Your Focus Matters

Listen to this episode of the Focus with Marlene Podcast:

Get caught up with all episodes in the Developing a New Focus series.

This is part 2 of my series, “Focus on Building Confidence.”

Part 1: Focus on What You Can Do, Instead of What You Can’t

At the top of my website, you will find this statement:

Your focus defines who you are and who you can become.


  • On God — let Him lead
  • On what you can do — not what you can’t
  • On choices and possibilities
  • On solutions — not problems
  • On principles and values — live them

Whatever challenge you face, you can have a life full of meaning, purpose, and joy.

As a licensed mental health counselor, psychology teacher, and a Christian, I know that what we focus on matters more than we think.

Our FOCUS impacts every aspect of our life.

FOCUS is what we pay attention to or dwell on.

For example, if we don’t focus on the road when we are driving, we will end up in the ditch or will hit another car.

If we don’t focus on where our kids are playing, they could easily put themselves in danger.

However, we often fail to consider the effect of constantly focusing on our resentments or on how angry we are with someone who did us harm or wronged us.

Over time, that resentment creates a grievance story that we repeat over and over. Joy and happiness are blocked.

Focusing on our losses without moving beyond them to create a new beginning will leave us feeling life is over. Thoughtless, mindless rambling about everything that goes wrong can keep us from focusing on how we can improve our lives.

(For more on this, see my book, Learning to Live Again in a New World, available on Amazon)

We need to stop and think about the positive things that are happening – the blessings we miss because we are so focused on everything that is going wrong. We need to engage life with a purpose: to find solutions, evaluate our beliefs and values so we can live them, and develop positive and lasting relationships as we celebrate our blessings.

There is no magic formula. It is simply becoming more aware of what your mind is constantly attending to.

  • Do you focus more on things that could go wrong or are going wrong without spending equal time looking for and celebrating what is going right?
  • Do you focus on how bad the problem is, or do you focus on finding solutions?

Coming this year on my blog and podcast

Throughout the year, my blog and podcast will offer suggestions to help you improve your life and accomplish your goals. Each month, I will focus on one of the following topics:

  • Focus on what is most important to you and live it.
  • Focus on gaining a more positive self-evaluation of your worth, skills, and abilities.
  • Focus on your responses to life – are they helping or hurting you?
  • Focus on solving problems, not on the symptoms that tell you that you have a problem.
  • Focus on building good, reliable relationships – become a good friend.
  • Focus on setting boundaries and on becoming comfortable saying “no.”
  • Focus on building and improving your skills and abilities.
  • Focus on your spiritual life – do you know what you believe and why?
  • Focus on setting realistic and achievable goals – starting small and building from there.
  • Focus on where you want to go next with your life. And remember to include time for rest and relaxation, so you don’t get burned out.

We are the only ones who can determine whether what we constantly focus on is hurting or helping us.

Focus on What You Can Do, Instead of What You Can’t

Listen to this episode of the Focus with Marlene Podcast:

Get caught up with all episodes in the Developing a New Focus series.

This is part 1 in my series, “Focus on Building Confidence.”

We have all struggled with the enormity of problems we face and have gotten discouraged when we felt there were no solutions.

At such times, I had to remind myself that I could reach out to others for help, advice, support, and assistance. But, in the end, it was up to me. Only I could take charge of my life and address my problems.

With the help of God, I found the solutions I needed. They weren’t always perfect, but they opened the door to further possibilities.

FOCUS. What we continually focus on makes a huge difference.

We live in trying times that trigger anxiety and apprehension. Often, however, the greatest obstacle we face is ourselves.

Do we believe we can make it?

Do we have the ability to make reliable decisions?

Can we look for and find the solutions we need?

When faced with uncertainty, conflict, or unexpected tragedies, we come face-to-face with ourselves.

It’s at such times that we need to remind ourselves, “Yes, I can.” I can try as many times as needed. I can alter plans or update them when necessary. I can reach out for support and help.”

When the going gets tough, our first thoughts are often, “Oh no. Not again!”

The next thought bumping into that first one is “How can I survive another setback? I don’t know how I will make it. I’m not sure I can.”

Since there is an automatic physical response to our thoughts, we either get angry, mad, frustrated, or depressed. Every muscle in our body aches, and we are drained of energy. We may think the whole world is against us. We start imagining and dwelling on the worst that could happen and begin questioning everything about ourselves.

Every year we will face new obstacles.

But what we bring to them will be the key to meeting those challenges. We don’t ignore the problems we face but recognize we need to look for solutions.

Throughout this year, my blog and podcast will FOCUS on monthly themes that can help you live more productively. The content will give you tools that can be easily applied and integrated into your life, helping you focus on what you can do instead of what you can’t. I hope this content will encourage and motivate you to develop new strategies and maintain strength, hope, and faith.

As we focus on ways to enhance and improve our lives, we can reduce stress and anxiety. Instead of increasing fears, we can lower constant worry and tension as we learn and apply new skills.

Problems, when identified, can be resolved in some way, even if it is simply altering our response to them.

As we communicate with ourselves and others with a “Yes, I can” mindset, we can reduce conflicts and overcome obstacles.

The Final Gift of Christmas

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“What we once enjoyed and deeply loved we can never lose, for all that we love deeply becomes a part of us.”

—Helen Keller

Christmas – a shining star – a break from the tedious schedules we find ourselves in.

For a moment in time, we escaped the drudgery, pressures, anxiety, and uncertainties.

For a moment in time, we humbly knelt before the Christ Child whose birthday we celebrate.

For a moment in time, we laid down our heavy burdens of doubt and fear and unanswered questions.

And now Christmas is over. The torn wrappings are stuffed in bags ready for the garbage pickup Bows are packed away to use again next year.

Families have returned home, and we collapse in an easy chair, take a deep sigh, and try to relax.

We are left with an afterglow of loving moments, age-old songs that brought joy to our hearts and rituals that filled our hearts with special remembrances. An afterglow that brings the hope that life doesn’t have to return to the way it was before – the same grind, same routines, same stresses. It is an afterglow that maintains the magical remembrance of those extraordinary Christmas moments.

As I pick up the gifts I was given – love, joy, and peace – I find another one waiting for me; that final gift of Christmas: Hope.

Hope: the glow that began at Christmas and extends beyond

Hope takes those early tentacles of despair and hopelessness and reminds us there is a tomorrow and gives us the willpower to try one more time, or two or three or how many more it takes to reach our goals.

Hope faces the uncertainty of tomorrow and replaces it with an optimism that things will improve.

Hope allows me to stop running in circles, but to identify the problems I face and start looking for realistic, long-term solutions.

Hope reaches out and asks God to give us the strength and courage we need to keep going.

I love the Christmas season – the smell of burning candles and pine boughs, Christmas cards that continue to connect me with old friends, and the music that fills all the tattered and worn places of my heart and spirit. I love the afterglow when family and friends have returned home after a special day of celebration.

It is several days after Christmas, and I look again at the Christmas cards I received – cards whose message proclaims our desire for peace and hope. Yet, as it has for centuries, the world remains in rebellion, revolt, and war. Peace. Hope. Are these things truly possible?

Each year, we are allowed to pause and reflect on what Christmas means to us. For Christmas isn’t just about pretty bows, celestial music, and lights that decorate trees and houses; it is about a gift given to us by God, a gift that involved sacrifice and love.

Who can fathom such a God who loves us so much that He would be willing to send His Son to die for us?

As we gather the wrapping paper strewn about and put away our presents, what will we do with the gift God has given us?

Will we put it on a shelf somewhere with other gifts we don’t know what to do with? Or will we choose to continue to unwrap its many layers throughout the year?

We look forward to Christmas because the season symbolizes peace, hope, love, and joy. Yet even when we begrudgingly put aside our differences, resentments, and hurts so we can enjoy the holiday, we quickly pick them up again right after Christmas and life continues as usual.

But the peace and hope we long for don’t begin with negotiations to end wars on foreign fronts. It isn’t found in governments that write peace treaties. It is found in the gift God gave us, which can transform hearts and lives.

The choice is ours. Do we use the gift given to us or discard it?

We have romanticized the spirit and intent of Christmas to where it makes for good entertainment in Hollywood movies. The message may give us pause for a second of sentimentality about a way of life that might be different. But then we rethink it as being idealistic and impossible to achieve. We think, “Who would consider a love-filled life as anything other than Pollyanna? I would be laughed out of my neighborhood.”

Can we take those priceless moments of joy, laughter and contentment and apply them throughout the coming year?

Can we find ways to love one another, forgive, build bridges of communication, and resolve conflicts?

Are we willing to try?

If so, the afterglow of Christmas will continue to grow and enrich our lives.

5 Christmas Gifts I Am Thankful For

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I love Christmas – the lights, the music, the gifts, and the anticipation of time spent with people I love.

When I was younger, the gifts under the tree held the excitement of Christmas in the anticipation of, “What will I receive?”

As my children were growing up, it was the excitement I saw in their eyes as they opened their presents. Gifts my children gave me were like gold, made and given with loving hearts and hands – all they had – themselves.

As I get older, Christmas becomes a time of deeper reflection of the greatest gift God gave us: His only son, who came to teach us how to live and save us from our sins. It cost him his life.

As I reflect on the many gifts I have given and received at Christmas, I am reminded that perhaps the most important gifts we can give one another are not the carefully chosen and budgeted gifts from the store, but time to listen, loyalty, love, understanding, grace, and forgiveness.

Here are some of the gifts I am thankful for:

Laughter. It is the balm that covers disappointments, shortcomings, and failures. It turns them over and inside out so we can see how silly we are to put so much emphasis on things we have so little control over. It takes the sting out of grief and helps turn losses into wonderful memories.

Work. What would we do with ourselves if we didn’t have the opportunity to work and achieve, have a focus and purpose in life?

Choices. Every day, I can choose how I will respond to life. What a great gift! It is in the challenges of life that I have the opportunity to grow and become a better person. It is where I learn compassion and the need for others.

Relationships and family. Death has taken people I have loved. But God has given me new relationships, and old relationships that grow in depth, meaning, and love, as has my relationship with God.

The ability to create. We can create a new life, a new beginning, a new way to use our talents and abilities. How often do we throw away our unique selves by comparing ourselves to others or trying to be like everyone else? It is exciting to uncover and develop the special gifts God has given each of us.

A gift isn’t something you earn or work for. A gift is something given freely out of love.

May all of us unwrap and experience this Christmas the great gift of God’s love.

Dickens and the Christmas House of Love

Listen to this episode of the Focus with Marlene Podcast:

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Everybody is familiar with the popular author, Charles Dickens, who wrote A Christmas Carol.

Charles Dickens was born in 1812 in England and had a tough life. He was forced to work at a factory, pasting labels on shoe polish containers, to help support his family. Historians believe he suffered from asthma.

His first story, “A Dinner at Poplar Walk,” was published in a magazine in 1833. He authored 15 novels, five novellas, and many stories and essays. But most people know him because of his most famous novella, A Christmas Carol.  

When I first started writing, I belonged to a group of writers who had been writing much longer than I had. At that time I began writing fiction and one of the pieces I wrote was “Dickens and the Christmas House of Love.”

As I read it again, I thought I would share my attempts to put a new spin on Dickens and A Christmas Carol. I wasn’t trying to add to or alter anything. I was just intrigued with his novel and used it as an inspiration.

Dickens and the Christmas House of Love

By Marlene Anderson

Dickens was downcast as he moved from room to room in this home that held so many memories of seasons past. The house had mellowed with age; its bright green trim and crisp white siding had yellowed and now glowed in the setting sun. It sat comfortably among the twisted trees with wide spreading limbs that had been planted so many years ago; leaves fallen, swirled, and resting undisturbed in the flower beds adding their nourishment to the soil for a spring revival.

Like Dickens, there was a melancholy that had settled everywhere. Within the halls and rooms, there remained a residue of a different time when laughter and singing rang through the house. And this season especially, Dickens remembered the aroma of apples and cinnamon and spices.

Because it was Christmas, you see. And this was where friends and family came together to enjoy the season’s warmth and festivities.

In the corner, beside the large picture window, stood the large freshly cut Christmas tree, its scent permeating the entire house, branches bursting with bright-colored ornaments collected over many years. The twinkling lights spilled out the window, lighting the dark and wet sidewalks so typical of Seattle. It was where the family gathered on Christmas Eve, singing the old carols of peace on earth and silent nights and little towns of Bethlehem.

As Dickens paused in his reflection of what was, the words of the songs sung so long ago seemed to melt together with the lingering scent of apple pie and burning candles . . . flowing images that floated together forming snapshots of a time long ago – last year – a decade ago – or was it longer? Time seemed to have no beginning or ending – it just was.

So how did it come to this – a house full of laughter and squeals of delight replaced with eerie silence broken only by the memories, stored in the walls, that released themselves as you walked by?

Dickens was lonely. He didn’t want to haunt this home – he wanted to be with a family again.

Daylight sneaked over the mountains and flooded the little town where Dickens roamed in the old house situated on one of the rolling hills in the suburbs of town. The sun sparkled on the frost that covered everything with its sugary crystals.

Dickens wandered into one of his favorite rooms. The library was the hub of so many intimate conversations, quiet moments – a place to get away and escape into the endless supply of books that lined the shelves.

They were empty now; all that remained were traces of dust that outlined placement of books less readily sought after and smudges on the lower shelves where children’s fingers grabbed for the latest Dr. Seuss.

There lingered in the room the faint scent of tobacco from a pipe smoked in contentment after the pressures of the day, and linseed oil, and yes, even the faint stale residue of old musty copies of books resting on the high reaches of the shelves.

He could see the desk placed just in front of a southern wall where the early morning sun’s rays filtered through the beveled windowpane, streaking the room in slices of brilliance.

The large leather chair with books at its feet was a favored reading chair, placed at an angle to capture the last rays of the sun as it slid down behind the spreading leaves of a large oak tree whose size bespoke of centuries.

Although no longer there, the image of that beloved chair remained floating in his memory, as sharp as if it was yesterday, its surfaces cracked and molded by the many shapes and sizes of people who had settled into it and allowed the cares of the day to sink away. Ashes still remained in the fireplace which glowed cherry warm and inviting on a cold winter’s night.

Home – a place of solace and safety – where family and friends gathered to heal from life’s wounds, regained stability and purpose once more. A home once full of laughter and the excitement of life that only comes with the young, interspersed with the tears of disappointments wiped away by a loving mother.

Dickens continued on his journey, up the stairs and into the many bedrooms, some for children and one large one for parents. He lingered only a little while before returning downstairs.

The long-gone smells of pumpkin pie freshly baked and a large roast with red potatoes and juicy sweet carrots and onions, pungent and inviting, still drew one closer to the room where so much activity reigned throughout the day. From early morning to late afternoon meals were prepared, vegetables cleaned, and fruit stored. Dickens could still see the busy workers.

But just as all journeys come to an end, Dickens realized it was time to go. He drifted out the door, locking and securing it behind him. He was both happy and sad.

But doesn’t Christmas leave us with both the excitement of gatherings and presents and yummy food, and the lingering sadness when everybody has gone home, the tree gone and the kitchen silent? And life goes on.

Give the Gift of Reaching Out to a Hurting Person

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“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.”

—Luke 2:11, King James Version (KJV)

Thanksgiving is over and the beautiful fall colors have been replaced with red and green and twinkling lights. We have entered the season of Christ’s birth. The namesake of this holiday is so often forgotten, pushed aside, or replaced by a jolly old man in a red suit, congested malls, and holiday specials you can’t afford to miss.

Christmas: a time of decorated trees and fireplace mantels. A time filled with commitments and hectic schedules as we make mad dashes to the store for last-minute presents. We are bombarded with ringing bells asking for donations, food bank requests, and impersonal checks made out to special organizations.

While I love my tree lights and all the ornaments and decorations, without the gift of love given to us by that tiny baby born so long ago, Christmas would be shallow and superficial.

Our “have to” lists are long and sometimes burdensome. But the love attached to each of the gifts we select for the people we care about fills us with joy and anticipation; we can’t wait to see the pleasure our gift will bring to that someone we love. While both lists are necessary, one list fulfills a sense of duty and propriety, while the other fills our hearts with joy.

The Gift of Love

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son . . .”

—John 3:16

We have made Christmas into a time for, “I want this or that.” But Christmas is more than shopping lists, mulled wine, or eggnog flavored with nutmeg and cinnamon. It is more than concerts and festivities and Christmas shopping. It is more than lights, candles, and presents under the tree.

Christmas is about love.

It’s about remembrance and celebration.

It’s about God and the gift of love He gave us when He sent His only son to be born in a barn. It’s about love freely given with the hope that as we accept, our lives will be changed and transformed.

And for a few moments, we grasp the meaning of love. It is in those rare moments when gifts are handed out and we see the anticipation or exclamation of surprise as loved ones open their presents that we begin to experience the gift of Christmas.

Reaching Out

Perhaps even more important, Christmas is a time when we can make a special effort to reach out to those who are hurting or are alone. A few minutes of our time, an empathetic listening ear, and understanding can be huge to those who are suffering from a loss or loneliness.

When I was closing my son’s affairs after his death, I had an unexpected conversation with a cashier at a small bank where my son had an account. After the shock of learning that my son had died, she shared with me a time when my son had reached out to her when she was going through a tough time.

Sensitive to the needs of others, he was aware of the sadness and unhappiness that couldn’t be hidden. A few moments of time, a caring and listening exchange of words that offered understanding, hope, and encouragement, had made a huge difference when she most needed it.

We never know the impact we have on the lives of others when we reach out with compassion, caring, and understanding.

Reaching out can be as simple as acknowledging how someone is doing. “You look like you are having a tough day.”

Sometimes, it is simply taking a few minutes to listen without judgment, preconceived assumptions, or emotional platitudes. A simple touch on the shoulder or arm or squeeze of the hand can be incredibly uplifting.

An invitation for coffee or to join others in group activities can make someone feel important, wanted, and needed.

Whether during the holidays or mid-year, reaching out can have both immediate and long-lasting benefits.

Be genuine and sincere when you reach out.

Honor and respect another’s privacy. People don’t always want to talk about their pain. Make it clear they do not need to respond – you are simply acknowledging an awareness of their situation.

Whether or not individuals return conversation what is important is that show you care. Your words and actions tell them they are not alone and open the door for sharing if they choose.

I believe when we are sensitive to others and reach out, even in tiny ways, we are blessed, as well. It takes little time and effort and yet can be so profound.

It can be the greatest of Christmas gifts.

Mountains of Blessings

Listen to this episode of the Focus with Marlene Podcast:

Get caught up with all episodes in the Developing a New Focus series.

In our struggles, blessings can seem far removed from us, even during the holidays.

When I am in the thick of things, looking for blessings is the farthest thing from my mind. I want solutions – I want to make things happen – I want bad times resolved or removed. I want to wake up happy.

Thanksgiving and Christmas are times when we stop and appreciate the good things that have happened during the year. And if we make this an ongoing habit of looking for blessings throughout the year, we will be doubly blessed.

It is in the simple things of someone reaching out to us to see how we are doing, or saying thank you when we least expect it, or just simply listening that harshness and tragedies can be reduced.

Sometimes in our haste to move past these times, we miss the blessings God is giving us – new growth and a new appreciation for what we have, no matter how small.

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

—Isaiah 9:6

We have heard the story so many times in Christmas cards, articles, and sermons. It is a familiar and treasured ritual – a ritual that today is being challenged on many fronts.

But why is it being challenged? Why are there so many who are adamant about erasing the meaning of Christmas from our lives?

The challenge we have is not just looking for the blessings we have during this time period but throughout the year.

Start a gratitude journal.

Every day, consider the blessings you have received. You may not have noticed them before.

Maybe it was your child coming home on time, or your best friend calling to see if you were doing okay, or your spouse understanding why you were grumpy and snappy.

Having a ritual of writing something in your gratitude journal each day helps you recognize and appreciate those blessings. They offset the hardships you’ll encounter.

Read and reflect on you’re the things you are thankful for as you go through your day and keep adding to the list.

Stacks of Blessings

“What a stack of blessings you have piled up

For those who worship you,

Ready and waiting for all who run to you

To escape an unkind world.”

—Psalm 31, The Message

It was over Thanksgiving one year when I visited a dear friend who was losing his battle with cancer while his loving wife tended to his needs. It had been an ongoing struggle for some time.

I asked her how she was doing. She told me that at the end of each day, she and her husband would think of at least one blessing they had received that day – no matter how small. It gave them joy, smiles, peace, strength, hope, and assurance that God was with them on this journey.

In my own life, when I stopped trying to make something happen over which I had no control, and simply let God take over – and I focused instead on the blessings I received – I found peace and the energy to do all the things that needed to be done.

What blessings have you received that you may not have recognized or acknowledged?

Sometimes life is so burdensome and intense that even when we do recognize something as a blessing, we move on without thinking about what that blessing means.

We take for granted when someone says thank you for a kindness we have shown or stops to help in an emergency, or notices that we haven’t been ourselves lately and asks if everything is okay, giving us an opportunity to talk.

God’s blessings surround us.

Recognizing them can make the difference between despair and peace – from cold resignation to acceptance, hope, and motivation. Then we are able to gain a different perspective on our trials and hardships.

Good things can be found every day – not just on Thanksgiving and Christmas. It takes purposeful looking to recognize them.

What blessing have you received today? Let me know in the comments.