How To Develop Mindfulness And Serenity During Stressful Or Uncertain Times, With Mary Potter Kenyon
Sharing false information and skewed statistics on social media only adds to the frenzy. We can choose to fuel the fire of fear or be the voice of reason, a calming reassurance. Spread hope, not fear. Yes, we need to take the pandemic seriously, but please check out sources before sharing the newest cure for the virus or unsound advice on preventing it.
As a part of my series about “How To Develop Mindfulness And Serenity During Stressful Or Uncertain Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mary Potter Kenyon.
Mary Potter Kenyon, graduate of the University of Northern Iowa and a certified grief counselor, works as Program Coordinator at the Shalom Spirituality Center in Dubuque, Iowa. She is a widely published author and popular speaker for grief support groups, churches, libraries and women’s groups. She is the author of seven books, including the upcoming “Called to Be Creative” to be released by Familius Publishing September 1, 2020.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
After graduating with a B.A. in Psychology from the University of Northern Iowa in 1985, I began working on a Masters in Family Services. When I found myself taking finals from a hospital bed following the birth of my fourth child, I made the decision to quit school and stay home to serve my own growing family instead. Attempting to hold onto at least a semblance of my creative mind and bring in an income, I began doing freelance writing. I had my first piece of writing published in 1989. The $50 check hooked me. I’d give birth to four more children and hundreds of published articles and essays in the next twenty years. I added homeschooling to the mix in 1992. Though I picked up occasional part-time work writing for newspapers and ran various small home business ventures, for the most part I was a stay-at-home mom. By 2011, I’d completed an ethnographic history of the cultural phenomenon of extreme couponing, a topic I’d lived and breathed for most of my married life as I struggled to make ends meet. As part of a platform to sell the book, I also designed a two-hour power point couponing workshop I began teaching at community colleges and libraries. I discovered a new passion in public speaking. My workshops led to a weekly column with a tri-state newspaper. My husband David reveled in seeing me come alive with the workshops and speaking, offering to drive me to events just to watch me in action. I told him I couldn’t have done any of it without his encouragement and support.
Then, suddenly, I had to. In March 2012, David, a five-year cancer survivor, died three days after coming home from the hospital following a heart stent surgery. I was 52-years old. Four of our eight children still lived at home, the youngest just eight years old. The life insurance policy David left behind gave me a cushion of maybe two years before I’d have to find a job.
That first year, I immersed myself in grieving. I gave myself permission to do only those things that brought me joy and allowed time with my children. I spent hours writing every day. I conducted couponing workshops at libraries all over Iowa, with my youngest daughter in tow. She’d explore the children’s section while I spoke. Seven months after my husband’s death, I signed a contract for the book that had been his idea in the first place. I signed three more book contracts with the same company before I began working as director of a small-town library. During my interview, I informed the library board I’d need to bring my two youngest daughters with me, and they still hired me. Two years later, my three girls old enough to stay home without me, I worked full-time for the local newspaper. In the meantime, I continued doing workshops and speaking to grief support groups on finding hope in grieving. I returned to library work when I realized writing for a newspaper left me creatively depleted and I’d ceased writing for myself. I was on both sides of the programming desk, working as an adult programming coordinator and conducting my own programs on writing and creativity for community colleges and other libraries.
In the meantime, I’d founded an annual yearly grief retreat. When I needed more tools to help other grievers, I took online courses to become a certified grief counselor. I signed two more book contracts with Familius Publishing, one for a grief journal, and the other on incorporating creativity into everyday life.
When my current position as programming coordinator for a spirituality center was advertised, I realized that my life experiences; caring for a husband with cancer and losing mother, husband and grandson in the space of three years, plus my freelance writing, the workshops and public speaking, grief certification and organizing an annual grief retreat, along with my recent work experience had all prepared me for this perfect job. Two years ago, I sold my house and half my possessions, moving with my youngest daughter to a 760-square-foot house in the town where I now work.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I was replacing a Franciscan sister in my current position, so it’s very likely I have a more laid-back approach than a nun. Yet, I’ve also been instructed to bring new and novel programming that would appeal to a younger audience. Finding the balance between what has “always been done” and “new and novel” without offending anyone has been a challenge. I’ve brought in more art programs, hosted a writer’s conference and incorporated art as a healing tool in the grief retreat I’ve continued hosting at our center.
Besides planning programs, I soon discovered I was also responsible for the daunting task of decorating the tables for the well-established formal dinner events at our center. While my predecessor was a skilled dinner event planner, I had to look up information on the Internet just to set the tables properly. That first December I was in charge of two Advent meal events scheduled by my predecessor within a week of each other. I consulted with the cook before making the executive decision not to use tablecloths for the smaller event, instead opting for a more casual look, utilizing lovely white lace placemats and fancy napkins I’d ordered on my own. With festively decorated hurricane lamps on mirrors in the middle of each table, the result pleased me and many of the attendees, who commented how lovely it was. I did hear a few whispers among a small group of older volunteers, who also happened to be sisters. “Where’s the tablecloths?” one approached me with a pinched look on her face. I felt every bit the rebel when I replied that we’d decided not to use them for both Advent dinners. I’m certain my scandalous ways were a topic of much discussion that evening.
I’ve pulled off several dinner events since then, including a Valentine’s meal where I once again ignored tradition, substituting the usual white tablecloths for lace placemats, and adding Victorian-themed paper napkins I hand-folded into hearts, along with vintage red glassware, fabric roses and vintage valentines for decorations. Whether I’ve been written off as an eccentric or that table set-up lauded enough praise to quiet the dissenters, I haven’t heard any more complaints.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
Everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses, and most of us are already well aware of the latter. I like to observe my co-workers and figure out their strengths. Working as a team is a lot smoother when you can delegate to the proper person. I also like to acknowledge a job well done so I leave little notes in my co-worker’s mailboxes; to thank them for going above and beyond, or to reiterate their importance to the efficiency of our center. The first time I headed a dinner that was served by volunteers, I sent each of them a thank-you note in the mail. Someone commented that I couldn’t keep doing that, but why not? It took an hour of my time and fifteen stamps. We couldn’t operate without our staff members and volunteers. People need to know that they are appreciated.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I love all of Madeleine L’Engle’s non-fiction books, particularly her Crosswicks series of journals, because I identify with her compulsion to write, even when writing doesn’t always make sense financially. When I read that she got lost in her thoughts, was cranky when she wasn’t writing and would go outside to burn garbage just for a few minutes of respite from her children, I thought that’s me! When we lived in the country, I’d offer to burn the garbage just so I could be alone to think. Like me, there was a point in her life that Madeleine L’Engle wondered if she should just give up writing altogether, since writing wasn’t bringing in any money. On her 40th birthday, when her husband told her she’d gotten yet another rejection in her mailbox, she covered up her typewriter in a grand gesture of renunciation. Then she paced her office, crying, until she suddenly realized she was already considering how she was going to write about her decision! She realized then that she couldn’t stop writing. It has always been the same for me. When I read that, I took the time to sit down and write her a personal letter, to tell her how alike we were. Unfortunately, the letter reached her address when her health was failing. Her granddaughter, Lena, wrote a return letter to tell me she appreciated how much her grandmother’s words meant to me.
My favorite book of Madeleine’s, the one I refer to most, is her Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. In it, she captures what I feel about my own journey of creativity and faith: “And as I listen to the silence, I learn that my feelings about art and my feelings about the Creator of the Universe are inseparable. To try to talk about art and about Christianity is for me one and the same thing, and it means attempting to share the meaning of my life, what gives it, for me, its tragedy and its glory.”
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. From your experience or research, how would you define and describe the state of being mindful?
Let me borrow from my favorite book again, Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water. Madeleine wrote “When I am constantly running, there is no time for being. When there is no time for being, there is no time for listening.”
Whether it was because I was raising a large family, or struggling to make ends meet, or both, I spent much of my adult life running. I hurried to put children to bed so I could write. I hurried downstairs before they were awake so I could post books or garage sale discoveries for sale online. I needed to make money from home, and I craved stillness and silence for creative endeavors, but it was never enough. Never enough time, or money. When my husband would pat the couch and ask me to sit and watch television with him or come upstairs for a shared nap, I’d tell him I was too busy. I wasn’t about to waste time watching television or taking a nap. His bout with cancer in 2006 and my subsequent caregiving stint slowed both of us down a bit, and then I’d take the time to lay next to him and listen to his heartbeat. I’d sit by him and hold his hand while he watched television, or during his chemotherapy sessions, even though I’d often be writing with my other hand. I knelt and rubbed his feet after long days of treatment. I’d never touched his feet in twenty-five years of marriage! I cherished each and every moment spent with him. I learned a lot about mindfulness then. Mindfulness meant living in the moment. If I was worrying about losing him, or hurrying through my day to accomplish something, I’d miss the now, and I’d spent too much of my life missing the now. But I still had to help out financially, homeschool, and find a way to work creativity into my life. Something amazing came out of that cancer experience: a revitalized marriage relationship. We’d become true partners in life, and I didn’t even have to ask for what I needed, David instinctively knew. He gave me the gift of time by offering to watch the children while I went somewhere to write. After my mother died in 2010, he encouraged me to use her empty house as a private writing retreat. I got more accomplished during those three months than I had in the previous three years. It was where I finished the manuscript for the couponing book David had encouraged me to write. I designed my first power point program in her empty house.
I was thrust into stillness with David’s death. And for the first time in my life, thanks to his life insurance policy, I didn’t have to do anything outside of caring for my children and house. I didn’t have to make money or be somewhere or do something, except those things I wanted to do. I could just “be.” During those first twelve months, outside of the workshops and writing that gave me purpose and made me feel alive, I had never moved so slowly. It felt as though I was walking underwater. I’d pause in my dishwashing to watch the birds gather on the feeder outside. I’d open the window to hear their chatter. I’d sit on the deck, drinking tea and soaking in the sunshine while I read yet another book. My senses were sharpened by grief. Grass seemed greener; the sound of rain drops more pleasant. Riding my bicycle, I reveled in the breeze blowing back my hair, the scent of the fresh-mown lawns I passed. One day, I stood and stared at a rainbow for ten minutes, overcome by awe.
This might be intuitive to you, but it will be instructive to spell this out. Can you share with our readers a few of the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of becoming mindful?
Mindfulness keeps us in the present moment, so we don’t miss the beauty in life. It keeps us centered. It ensures we won’t miss out on the most important things in life, and those things are usually people. “We rush around with our bodies tense and our minds whirring, ticking off things on our to-do list — picking up the kids, finishing that report for work, going to the gym or the mall or that long-distance meeting — winding ourselves up into such a maelstrom of busyness that we lose touch with the small and nourishing pleasures in life, the beauty and peace of the world around us, and the deep satisfaction of being playful and creative. All acts of mindfulness, creative or otherwise, start with pausing and reminding ourselves that there is another way; the simple act of being,” Wendy Ann Greenhalgh writes in her book Stop Look Breathe Create.
Mindfulness is essential to creativity, crucial to those of us who make a living on being creative. In his book, Mindfulness for Creativity, Dr. Denny Penman explains how mindful practices enhance three essential skills necessary for creative problem solving. Mindfulness switches on the divergent thinking that is so important to opening up the mind to new ideas. It improves attention, making it easier to register novelty and the usefulness of ideas. And finally, mindfulness nurtures courage and resilience in the face of skepticism and setbacks.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. The past 5 years have been filled with upheaval and political uncertainty. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have only heightened a sense of uncertainty, anxiety, fear, and loneliness. From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to develop mindfulness and serenity during such uncertain times? Can you please share a story or example for each.
Meditate. This advice comes from a meditation drop-out. Mindfulness is often associated with the practice of meditation. Artists, writers and entrepreneurs have lauded the praises of meditation as a tool for enhancing brain function, improving the immune system, dissolving anxiety, stress and depression, and tapping into the creative mind to unleash creativity. But what about those of us who find the traditional form of meditation mind-numbing and slightly inane?
For a long time, I considered myself a complete and total failure when it came to meditation. I didn’t practice yoga. I tried, but I had trouble keeping my mind still for even five minutes. Then I learned about the concept of Flow, getting lost in a creative endeavor. I seemed to be pretty good at that. On a day off, I could begin writing at 8:00 in the morning, only to be interrupted by one of my children asking about lunch. I’d look at the clock and realize five hours had passed. I was still in my pajamas, and I’d forgotten to eat. Perhaps immersing oneself in writing or another creative endeavor can be the mindful practice. Drawing, painting, collage making, journaling, writing letters; those are all naturally meditative, calming activities. What about the preparation for those activities? I often approach a morning writing session with prayer. When I read the Bible or a devotional, take a moment for prayer, or take a walk to clear my head, I’m using a ritual similar to meditation, to quiet my mind and soul. Find what works for you to calm and center yourself, whether it is in the form of traditional meditation or a meditative practice.
Mark mindful moments in some way. I want it all; I want to get lost in the flow of writing and yet savor the beauty of each moment. I want to get a lot done, but still slow down to appreciate what really matters. In order to do that, I must hit pause on occasion. In her book, Life Reimagined, author Carol Ryff discusses the research behind frequently marking off mental milestones, suggesting that we should train ourselves to take “mental snapshots” of moments. By doing so, life feels as if it slows down, taking on more meaning. According to his published diaries, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known as author Lewis Carroll, marked days he felt to be especially memorable as “white-stone days” in his journal, adopting the Roman symbol for a day of good fortune. I mark white-stone moments in mine. That means when my daughter got married, instead of attempting to orchestra the day like a Momzilla, I sat back and just enjoyed it. I was fully present. I took mental snapshots of precious moments; walking my daughter down the aisle, holding hands with my new son-in-law’s parents as we prayed over the couple. I took actual snapshots at a gathering at his parent’s house following the reception, capturing the couple’s first dance and the expression on his parent’s faces as they stood in the doorway, watching. Instead of feeling sad that her father wasn’t there (though there was some of that), I could enjoy my daughter’s special day and write about those moments in my journal that night.
Connect with nature.
When I began my new job two years ago, I couldn’t believe my luck — with a soul that needed more nature, my office was located next to a meditation garden. Whenever the weather allows, I have my office window open. Even on the most stressful day, the sound of birds chirping, and the water fountain bubbling relaxes me. I can step outside during my breaks and sit in the sunshine, basking in its warmth.
When I recently began working from home during the coronavirus pandemic, I discovered I needed fresh air to clear my head after a long day at my desk. I began a regimen of a daily walk, something I wouldn’t have considered doing before, without a companion to talk to or a destination in mind. Initially, it felt like just another “should” in a long list of things I should be doing for my health. The first few times, I didn’t get very far before tears started flowing, an unexpected, and embarrassing side effect of escaping the demands of home and work and the scrutiny of my teen-aged daughter. I soon realized I was grieving: the loss of the office that was also a sanctuary for me, loss of social interaction, my daily routine, and a heightened loneliness facing the disruption without a spouse. I found myself crying for others, too: the medical professionals, grocery store workers, and truck-drivers who were working the frontlines, my friend who could not visit her mother or grandchildren, my aunt, and others like her, who faced the loss of a spouse without the wake and funeral ritual and the church support that would have given some comfort. As soon as I acknowledged my loss, the tears dried up and I began noticing things like the flower buds coming up through the ground, an inspirational message written with chalk on a sidewalk, the Christmas lights that appeared one morning, likely an attempt to share light and hope during a dark time. Now, I look forward to those daily walks. I come home refreshed, often ready to tackle another creative project. Called the “tonic of wilderness” by acclaimed nature poet Thoreau, a natural setting is an ideal place for your mind to roam free.
Take control of your time. Most of us are guilty of having said we “don’t have time” for something, when in reality it is a matter of how we choose to spend the time we do have. While I’ve been known to lament a lack of time for exercise, I actually choose to write instead of exercise on my free mornings.
Laura Vanderkam compares our lives to a metaphorical garden in her book Off the Clock, suggesting that becoming our life’s “master gardener” means deciding that you are responsible for how you spend your time and believing that much of time is a choice.
“But here’s something we do all have: 24 hours in a day, 168 hours in a week. Whatever our constraints — our own or those that come from caring for others — by tending our gardens, we come closer, day by day, to building the lives we want in the time we’ve got,” Vanderkam writes. “Mindfulness gives you time. Time gives you choices. Choices lead to freedom, whatever one’s plot of earth looks like. It is easy to fall into false narratives of time poverty but choosing to change your story from ‘I’m too busy’ to ‘I have time for what matters to me’ can make you see possibilities. In time, such possibilities can make any garden bloom.”
Count your blessings.
Forty-eight hours after my husband died, I pulled out a journal and wrote down all the things I was thankful for; my sisters who hurried to my side, my eight children, the bonus five years I’d shared with David after his cancer. I filled three pages. Choosing thankfulness under difficult circumstances isn’t always easy, but it’s a practice well worth cultivating. An attitude of gratitude is part and parcel of my Christian faith, but the benefits of gratitude extend far beyond the spiritual.
In his book, Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier, Dr. Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, details many benefits of practicing gratitude, including a strengthened immune system, lowered blood pressure, higher levels of positive emotions, more joy, and an increased optimism and self-esteem. Emmons looks at gratitude as “receiving and accepting all of life as a gift.”
Start a gratitude journal or jar, writing down at least one thing every day that you are thankful for. There’s always something to be grateful for, even if it’s the smile of a stranger that lifts your spirits. Once you begin looking for the blessings in your life, gratitude becomes a habit.
From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Don’t add to the anxiety with fearmongering. Sharing false information and skewed statistics on social media only adds to the frenzy. We can choose to fuel the fire of fear or be the voice of reason, a calming reassurance. Spread hope, not fear. Yes, we need to take the pandemic seriously, but please check out sources before sharing the newest cure for the virus or unsound advice on preventing it.
Don’t judge someone else’s anxiety. I was once informed that I wouldn’t be missing my deceased spouse or feeling anxious if I was a good Christian. What that person did with her words could have been devastating, adding guilt to my already fragile emotions. Anxiety is not a sin. It’s an emotion.
Acknowledge that we each have our own way of dealing with anxiety. What works for me might not work for someone else. We must find what works for us. Just because we don’t understand someone else’s method of dealing with anxiety doesn’t mean their way is wrong.
Reach out to others. As part of your newfound habit of practicing gratitude, begin reaching out to others. Write thank-you notes. Write letters. Drop a card in the mail. Message someone on Facebook to see how they are doing. It’s hard to worry and fret when you get out of your own head and start thinking about other people. Ten weeks after my husband died, I got so sick and tired of counting down the weeks and dreading Tuesdays because my husband died on that day of the week, that I decided I’d make Tuesday the day I would reach out to others. I’d wake up every Tuesday, prayerfully consider who to reach out to, and then send a card or a letter. Sometimes, I even put together a care package for someone else, something my sister-in-law Susan had done for me at ten weeks. Soon, I was looking forward to Tuesdays!
Be a good listener. When you reach out, make sure you are listening to the other person. Sometimes, we just need someone to listen. But if their fear or anxiety seems out of control, connect them with someone who can help, a counselor or therapist. At the very least, suggest they talk to their doctor. Many of these professionals are offering phone or video sessions right now.
What are the best resources you would suggest for someone to learn how to be more mindful and serene in their everyday life?
The Art of Breathing by Danny Penman
Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done by Laura Vanderkam
Chasing Slow: Courage to Journey off the Beaten Path by Erin Loechner
Anxious for Nothing by Max Lucado
Stop Look Breathe Create by Wendy Ann Greenhalgh
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
“We’re all just walking each other home.” — Ram Dass
For me, that is home with a capital H, as in Heaven, but even for those who don’t believe in life as a spiritual journey, this concept is a reminder that we’re all in this world together, that it is important to help each other.
When my husband died, my heart didn’t just break in two, it broke wide open. My journey of grief was transformative. I began reaching out to others in ways I hadn’t before. I cared more, loved deeply, my empathy increased exponentially, and I was more understanding of the failings of others. I continually strived to do the right thing. My children noted the transformation, wondering why I was suddenly talking to strangers or giving things away. Praying out loud. I’m not sure everyone was thrilled with the new Mary, but I am.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
It’s a simple idea, and there are already many movements associated with random acts of kindness but being kind is a way we can make a difference in our world, or at least our corner of it. My daughter and I did this in a small way after my grandson, Jacob died, following a three-year battle with cancer. He was one of the kindest, gentlest people we’d ever had the pleasure of knowing. During his stays in the hospital, he’d save his gifts and prizes to give to his siblings at home. He saved up money to purchase toys from the hospital gift shop for them. During a brief period of remission, he collected toys to take back to the hospital for other children. After his death, we were determined his life would have meaning, that we’d become better people in his memory. We designed random acts of kindness cards and began doing acts of kindness in his name. 64,000 people viewed his page the morning of his death in August 2013, and people all over the country did random acts of kindness in his name. I still use the cards. It never fails; doing something nice for someone else always brings a smile to my face.
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Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!
About the author:
Beau Henderson, editor of Rich Retirement Letter and CEO of RichLife Advisors LLC, is a best-selling author, national tv/radio resource, and retirement coach/advisor, with over 17 years’ experience. Beau is a pioneer in the strategy based new model of holistic retirement planning. He can be followed on Facebook here or on Instagram here