What sets your heart free?


“Drink from the well of your self and begin again.”
–Charles Bukowski

That nasty ol’ polar vortex finally sauntered out of town last week, but Old Man Winter is still hanging around, teasing us with just enough sunshine to beckon us out of doors–and then slamming us with just enough bone-chilling wind to send us scurrying back inside.

Have I mentioned before how much I despise January? (I’m sure I have.) The dreadful weather alone is enough to send me burrowing beneath the covers, but a stack of holiday shopping bills is suggesting that, once again, I went a little overboard on my gift-giving, platters of consumed Christmas goodies are proving just how quickly and easily they can transform into belly blubber, and a rapidly approaching date on the calendar is reminding me that no matter how desperately I want to believe otherwise, I’m just not that young anymore. (Yeah, it’s okay to chuckle at that revelation.)

And because I have been so cold (and old and blubbery and broke), I’ve been staying home and logging miles on my indoor bike trainer, pedaling strenuously and sweating profusely while staring in glazed-over boredom at my bedroom surroundings. Oh, how I have wanted to be outside, rolling down the highway with lake views over my shoulder, sunbeams warming my face, and greenness all around. And, if I were as tough as I pretend to be, I suppose I could have braved the below-freezing temperatures and ridden outdoors–but I chose not to.

And therein lies an important lesson–one that I’ve had ample opportunities to learn but still haven’t quite mastered.

A couple days ago I pulled back the bedroom curtains before I hopped on my bike, thinking that even though it was too cold to be outside, I could at least find some comfort from the sunshine streaming through the glass. With the television droning in the background, I began my pedaling frenzy, trying to focus on slowing my breathing and increasing my leg speed while reminding myself how much better I would feel when I could once again shimmy into my skinny jeans. But within minutes my focus had strayed . . . to the pain in my shoulders and the burning in my muscles, to the hodgepodge of clutter on my dresser (and night stand and desk and closet and floors), to the baskets of dirty clothes awaiting my attention, and to the billions of dust particles dancing on the sunbeams–mocking me.

I was not having fun.

But I kept pedaling.

And then a flash of red caught my eye . . . and when I turned my startled gaze to the window, I saw a male cardinal had perched on a swaying tree branch on the other side of the glass, and as he cocked his head to and fro, he seemed to be watching me as I watched him. Soon he was joined by another cardinal–and then another–and I pedaled and gazed for several more minutes until they all flew into the breeze.

And I know it seems silly, but when I turned my gaze back to my indoor surroundings, I was happy. I had suddenly realized that whatever I was feeling, whatever I was seeing, was of my own choosing. I could choose to focus on the pain of knotted muscles and the cruelty of January winters, or I could choose to ignore all that negativity and just breathe. The pain would eventually go away, and January would eventually be over. And while there were still loads of laundry to be done and dust motes to be eradicated, the clutter I had seen before now looked like cherished photographs of family and friends and colleagues and memorabilia from trips and adventures and childhoods. I now saw rows of candles waiting to sweeten the air around me and stacks of books that had filled my mind with beauty and joy–or were waiting their turn to do so. This was not clutter but evidence of a rich, full life.

pictures-3On the wall above my bedroom mirror hangs a large, metal daisy inscribed with the question, “What sets your heart free?” I’ve been staring at that daisy a lot lately as I ride my bike, contemplating those things that soothe my spirit and make my soul dance, that ease my burdens and allow me to simply get lost in time–and get lost in myself. If I had taken the time to ask myself that question 15-20 years ago, back then I would have thought for a long time before answering with a good book and, of course, my children–and while those answers would have been just and right, honest and expected, I’m not so sure they would have been the best possible answers.

When my children were younger, I spent every rare, “free” moment reading. It was a form of mental escape from all the daily stresses I faced, and yet it came with its own guilty anxiety, for every stolen moment lost in a book was a moment when something else was being left undone. My children were my most important gift to the world, and their needs were my responsibility, my focus–and even if I could go back now and change that focus, I would not. But I also can’t help wondering if I had devoted just a little more time to feeding my own soul and setting my own heart free (a minute here, an hour–an entire hour!–there), would they have reaped even more benefits from having a happier, kinder, calmer mother?

And I would imagine many of you have asked the same questions (or will someday when your own children are grown and gone).

Most of us (and parents, especially, I think) have been indoctrinated not to grasp self-satisfying opportunities when they present themselves–and certainly not to go looking for them. We don’t “set our hearts free” because we’re too busy, we’re too tired, we don’t have time to exert that much effort, and–the big one–someone else needs our attention more. We’ve been led to believe that whatever we’re needing, dreaming, feeling is not nearly as important as what everyone else is needing, dreaming, feeling–and so we shut the door on our own needs, we build prison walls around our own desires, and we refuse to listen to that little voice that keeps begging for our attention, reverberating within our very souls. Or, at least, that’s what we do until that someday time when everyone else has finally been taken care of.

But what if that someday never comes?

I realize I’m one of the lucky ones. My “someday” is here. Shortly after my youngest son headed off to college, I was able to retire–and my days suddenly became my own, to do with as I pleased. If I wanted to take a long, luxurious bath in the middle of the day, I could do so with no little fists pounding on the bathroom door, no little voices screeching “Mom!” If I wanted to eat carrot cake for breakfast or Cheetos for lunch, I didn’t have to worry about the example I was setting–no one even needed to know. And if I wanted to spend the entire day in my pajamas curled up with Pat Conroy’s latest masterpiece, then I could do that, too.

But, you know, it’s funny . . . I don’t take baths that often, I usually choose oatmeal over cake for breakfast, and even though I thought when I retired I would spend every available moment immersed in a book, I really don’t read that much now. I don’t need to escape anymore, and I’m no longer content living vicariously through the characters in a book, traveling to wherever their adventures take them. I want my own adventures, thank you very much.

So what sets my heart free now? A few of the BIG ones are

  • Riding my bicycle, whether on the highways of home or on the roads of distant shores (but especially when the sun is on my face and the wind is on my back).
  • Hiking through the woods, seeking out waterfalls and wildflowers and all the other tiny wonders of nature.
  • Traveling to new places and experiencing new things (I just got my passport!).
  • Exploring the world from behind the lens of my camera, editing my treasures and then sharing them with others.
  • Writing about my thoughts, my feelings–and then discovering so many others share the same sentiments.

picturesOn the desk in my bedroom is another motivational memento, this one with the command to “Find your happy.” I have found my happy–and I have found that it can be wherever and whenever and whatever I choose–taking moonlit, early-morning walks around the lake or boat rides into the sunset, spending hours editing pictures or even pedaling on my trainer on frigid January days. I have opened the door, I am listening to the little voice, and I am ever-so-slowly chipping away at the prison walls.

But enough about me.

What about you? What sets your heart free–and what are you doing to find your happy?

I know it’s not easy, especially if you have others at home who need your time and attention, but I hope that somehow you can devote a few moments of every day doing something that feeds your soul, something that satisfies you instead of everyone around you. It’s okay to be selfish once in a while–in fact, it’s vitally important. Dare to listen to your little voice, take the time to discover where your true passions lie and take those first steps–no matter how small, no matter how timid–toward tearing down a few walls of your own.

And now I’m headed back to a bike trainer–a few billion fat cells need to be set free, too.

Happy January.

“You can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will.”
–Stephen King

raindropMacro photography (making larger-than-life photos of tiny objects) fascinates me, and I can spend hours lost in raindrops, flower petals and insect wings. This raindrop photo is one of my favorites because of its upside-down reflection.

moonset hires3I took this photo of the full moon setting over the lake a few mornings ago. It was a bitterly cold morning, but walking along the lake’s shore and gazing at the moonlight was a perfect, peaceful way to start a January day.

bee10

And here’s a little bee, feasting on a dandelion . . .

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About icedteawithlemon

I have recently retired from a 30-year career in education in one of the best school districts in the world. I hope to spend my second life reading, writing, photographing, traveling, biking, cheering on my favorite baseball team (the St. Louis Cardinals), and soaking up glorious sunshine. In my spare time I enjoy playing with my pet tarantulas, trying out new flavors of chewing gum, and knitting socks for prison inmates. I'm almost positive that in a past life I was one of the Seven Dwarfs (most likely "Grumpy"), and in my next life I'm going to be either a taste tester for Hershey's or a model for Victoria's Secret's new line, "Bloomers for Boomers." I want to travel country back roads, singing Vanilla Ice songs at every karaoke bar and rating bathroom cleanliness at every truckstop. And someday I plan to own a private beach where skinny girls aren't allowed. I want to be a writer when I grow up. "Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake."--Henry David Thoreau
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12 Responses to What sets your heart free?

  1. Janet Taber says:

    The raindrop photo is my personal favorite of all your beautiful photographs, Karen. And it’s interesting that the image reflected in it is upside down — sort of another metaphor for a new way of looking at things, such as “What makes me happy?” and “Where do I find my joy?” Sometimes, when we get to the place where we can actually answer those questions, they surprise us (me.)

    • Thank you, Janet (and that raindrop is one of my personal favorites, too). You’re right about those answers sometimes taking us by surprise. In the past I had only minimal interest in photography, and I would have never dreamed I would be so smitten with biking and traveling. Learning and growing …

  2. RayEtta says:

    I have found that the things I always thought I wanted time to do, are the things still that I want to do. My bucket list was a mile long and still has quite a bit to go. I read, often 3 and 4 books a week, and lots of it has been research. Of course plenty are novels too, I want to write something also, but I needed to understand more of recent history to do so. This is not something for sale, but of a more personal nature. I have left over pizza for breakfast and eggs for supper and get up at 4 a.m. and take a nap in the afternoon. Like you, January is the roughest month of the year for me. I make it fine until the holidays are over but after that I am not much good until about mid-February. I think it is a slight bit of the SAD thing, not enough sunlight. Yesterday and today have been beautiful and I am enjoying every minute of it. Maybe I really did know myself, because what I am doing is undisciplined and selfish but who cares? It is not going to bother anyone else.

    I agree, the water drop is a real wonderful pic. Keep up the good work.

    • Thank you, RayEtta. The only passion that has been consistently in my heart for as long as I can remember is writing–and even that I postponed until my children were grown and I felt I could devote a little time to it without feeling guilty. As I’ve opened myself to new experiences, I’ve discovered new interests, and some of those interests–photography, in particular–have grown into true passions.

      I hope you have many, many more days of sunshine to get you through the rest of this winter (I wish the same for me), and I hope you keep chipping away at that bucket list. Enjoy your naps, and be just as selfish as your heart desires.

      And pizza is my kind of breakfast!

  3. jeanjames says:

    I truly love your photo’s; that shot of the moon setting is so calming, I love your perspective from your lens. I took a nap today. I can’t tell you how long it’s been since I’ve taken a nap. I told my kids I was going to fall asleep and not to wake me up. They said, “What if there’s an emergency?” I told them “Only if there’s an emergency!” I guess we’re never really off duty, but it sure did make me happy to have that nap. Running outside is my form of exercise, so being stuck inside for the winter takes it toll. Like you I’m waiting for the sun…

    • Thank you, Jean. I thought the same thing about the moon photo–but then, photography in general is very calming to me. And, boy, do I remember those days of never being off duty! I have three sons, the second one four years younger than the first and the third one four years younger than the second–so it was a LONG time before I was able to take a nap with both eyes closed. I hope you are soon blessed with an abundance of sunny, run-worthy days!

  4. bronxboy55 says:

    Karen, you’ve spent so much time putting others first. Not only did you raise your own children, but you had thousands of adopted kids at work, too. I’m glad you’re enjoying the rewards now. And I love the way the moon looks like a hexagon in that lake photo. I’ve never seen that.

    • Thank you, Charles. I feel so fortunate that I was able to retire at a relatively early age so that I can enjoy all those rewards (with only minimal aches and pains the next day). And I’m not really sure how that moon turned into a hexagon–I didn’t do anything to make that happen. Weird.

  5. liliofthefield27 says:

    “Oh, I’m bein’ followed by a moon shadow, moon shadow, moon shadow.
    Leapin and hoppin’ on a moon shadow, moon shadow, moon shadow.”

    Karen, your absolutely gorgeous shot of the moon setting over the lake compelled me to put on a Cat Stevens CD and listen to that great tune of his, accompanied by a cup of Earl Grey and a chocolate chip cookie….um…two chocolate chip cookies…okay okay…five. 🙂

    Your raindrop photo is a serene and complex world unto itself…exquisite.

    Amazing…you know, with the exception of photography, your list of what sets your heart free mirrors mine…especially travelling to lands near and afar. I’ll also add laughter to my list…laughing to the point where it hurts…and induces snorting! Yes, laughter sets my heart free.

    I adore Carrie Fisher for many reasons – she cracks me up big time. Here’s an eensy teensy quote of hers…

    “I don’t want life to imitate art. I want life to BE art.” Amen, sister.

    Meditate the winter out of your mind. Create your own summery high pressure zone in yer head…and if that fails…chocolate cake with brandy.

    Tiger Lil

    • Thank you, Tiger Lil. I will now have Cat Stevens prowling through my head for the rest of the day (and that’s not a bad thing). I love the Fisher quote. All three of my sons are artists in their own ways, and the older (and braver) I get, I find myself following in their footsteps and looking for art in my everyday world.

      We have sunshine and temps in the 40s today–a beautiful day for a walk around the lake before our next cold front moves in this weekend. Ah, well, it will all be over eventually.

      Laugh on, Sister.

  6. liliofthefield27 says:

    By the by, me thinks Stephen King was channeling Dr. Seuss when he uttered that quote, no? Would you add Stephen to your illustrious dinner guest list?

    • Good question. I’m sure he would be quite interesting, but sometimes he scares the dickens out of me–and I don’t know if I could handle him and Poe in the same room (or if I’d be able to sleep for weeks afterward).

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