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Where Do We Go From Here? Moving Beyond Survival

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January — a time for new year’s resolutions. However, like all good intentions, they fall by the wayside. Until we think through and actually define what we want, our ambitions and aspirations will remain just dreams and desires.

  • What do I want and why is it important to me?
  • What is needed to create a workable goal?
  • What benefits will I get?

Where do we go from here?

When I first began blogging and podcasting years ago, it was to share the training and information gained from my counseling and teaching career. The topics covered a range of subjects from grief and loss, parenting, and communication, to acquiring the general life skills we need each day.

Many crises can be avoided if we recognize problems early enough and define them accurately so we can find the solutions we need.

Learning to Live Again in a New World, by Marlene Anderson | focuswithmarlene.comThe last couple of years, my blog and podcast have followed a more defined theme. In 2019, my book, Learning to Live Again in a New World, was released (available on Amazon), and my blog/podcast revolved around going beyond grief to make that necessary transition from painful loss to a new beginning.

After updating my book, Make Stress Work for You, (available as a pdf and audio on my website) my blog articles reflected how we can reduce the unwanted stress in our lives by understanding how we contribute to our problems.

Last year, I chose stories I had written over the years. I expanded and re-posted them. They represent the many life experiences we all share, from anxiety and fear to happy and exciting encounters. Those stories have been put into a soon-to-be-published book, Threads of Life.

Going beyond dreams and desires

Years ago, a dear friend encouraged me to write a book about what it takes to survive as women in a world that is often harsh and unforgiving. The book would be based on interviews I did with women who shared inspiring stories of struggles and survival.

We are often unaware of the challenges people endure in order to not only survive but create a promising life. It is within our struggles where we get to know ourselves, become strong and confident. I started writing the book and then set aside as I worked on other writing projects.

This year, however, I want to return to that theme of going beyond survival. With COVID, lockdowns, losses of jobs and financial security, life becomes more and more traumatic. The stories I have collected over time are as relevant today as they were yesterday.

If you have struggled with overwhelming challenges during these past couple of years, the information may provide the tools you need to overcome or go beyond.

  • Perhaps you are struggling with ongoing formidable problems.
  • Perhaps there have been a string of traumas leaving you exhausted.
  • Perhaps it is simply that life has not been predictable, reliable, or enjoyable for a long time and you want to find a way to move beyond.

Let’s get started

This month, I will describe in more detail what it takes to survive, how circumstances affect each of us differently as well as collectively, and offer ways to minimize unwanted outcomes.

You will have the opportunity to take that next step beyond survival to find the motivation, inspiration and will power to formulate a new workable plan of action.

The pandemic, lockdowns and constant restrictions have left us feeling as though life is no longer reliable, stable, or dependable. Changes are happening faster and faster without time to compensate, rethink, or put new adaptive plans in motion. After a while, anxiety takes up permanent residence, inviting with it depression, worry, fear, and even loneliness.

How do we return to normal – even a new normal?

We can stop and consider new approaches to work on problems, ways that expand our frame of reference and offer more constructive options. The goal is to find new coping skills and methods to use moving forward.

As you read my upcoming blog posts and listen to my podcast, would you take a moment and give me feedback?

  • Was the information helpful?
  • Were you able to apply it successfully?
  • What other strategies or “life tools” would you like to know about?

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And remember, no matter what, don’t give up. You can make it.

A New Year – A New Beginning (How to Reflect on What You Learned)

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As we end this year and begin another, take some time to reflect on the instructive things you have learned or gained throughout the year.

We often remain focused on regretful things and fail to remember the good things we have achieved and the obstacles we have overcome.

We minimize the good things, not considering them to be that important. But they are important, as they become learning tools to take with us into the new year.

Here are some things to consider in that reflection.

  • Perhaps you stopped yourself before lashing out in anger or stopped and thought carefully before responding to an inciteful circumstance.
  • Perhaps you listened more during conversations and looked for positive ways to communicate needs and wants.
  • Perhaps you decided it wasn’t worth it to keep holding on to that grudge and you let go of it.

These are just a few things we may not have thought of as positive steps to keep building on.  Reflection allows us to expand on that learning, making it applicable in the new year.

Congratulate yourself for all the steps you took to overcome and grow this past year. Don’t minimize even one of them.

Each little step leads to a bigger one and to the end accomplishment you desire.

Happy New Year! See you next year.

Marlene

What if. . . Re-Thinking Christmas

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What if…

We discovered that Christmas really was more than holiday get-togethers, calculated gifts, and the compulsory visits to relatives we otherwise would not speak to?

Would we truly experience Christmas?

What if…

We really got it; that Christmas is about the birth of a Savior?

Would we realize our need for Him?

What if…

We stopped trying to live perfect lives, pretending we had it all together?

Would we become real?

What if…

We made our own pilgrimages into the soul, laying bare our sins and shortcomings before a loving God?

Would we discover grace and peace?

What if…

We forgave ourselves.

Would we be more forgiving?

What if…

We were willing to share our talents, abilities, and skills, our tattered love, vulnerabilities, and incompleteness with those around us.

Would others discover Christmas?

May the God who was willing to allow His son to come to this earth as a vulnerable baby, transform your life as He continues to transform the world; and in that transformation, may each of us truly experience Christmas for the first time.

Do You Hear What I Hear?

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“Do you hear what I hear?”

Do you hear the baby Jesus cry, born in a stable so long ago on a cold winter’s night?

Do you hear his mother, little more than a child herself, soothe him with words of love?

Do you follow his wandering gaze around the stable where cows and sheep stare back at this unknown intruder?

Can you feel the warm sticky breath of these animals as they moved closer to have a look?

Do you hear what I hear?

The angels sang. His mother and father and shepherds heard. And years later, thousands of people listened to the message He spoke as they gathered on mountainsides and by the sea and in the little Galilean towns to hear His words of comfort, healing, hope and understanding.

Do you hear what I hear?

It is God’s voice speaking through the ages, calling His people to come and see, come and listen, come and worship. “My Son is born!” He has come to save you from your sins.

As a counselor, I listen to people share their hurts and pains.

Spouses attack and defend, slowly tearing the fabric of their relationship apart; not because they are mean-spirited or uncaring, but simply because they do not know how to express or hear the need of each other.

Fears of rejection run deep in the spirit of our subconscious, keeping them safely hidden because we do not know what to do with them. Instead, we follow survival instincts, lash out and demand that everyone follows our unrealistic expectations and rules. And communication comes to a standstill as we put the other on notice to change or else.

Jesus came to bind up the wounded.

As people begged him to heal their physical ailments, it was their hearts that Jesus “heard” and responded to – the internal pain, anxiety, and fear. And in hearing, told them that love was the answer – not murder or hatred or revenge or even divorce.

Love your enemies; love your neighbor. Love yourselves.

He understood their pain.

And he taught us that God loves us so much that He, Jesus, was sent to earth to show us that love through his death.

His love is unconditional – we can’t earn it by following rules or through sacrifice; it is a gift He gave that night as a tiny baby in a stable long ago. With mud and spit and simple commands, Jesus healed physical bodies; but it was the healing of their hearts that made the difference.

Healing starts when we put our injured lives at His feet and reach out for His healing love.

Do you hear what I hear?

Do You Hear What I Hear?

I hear people silently crying.

I hear the wounded in spirit fearfully and with anxiety reach out to friends and family to be heard, loved, and accepted instead of judged, dismissed or ignored.

I hear the wounded lash out in anger.

I hear the words of Jesus tell us to go out and “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” – to clothe the poor and look out for the disenfranchised.

Do you hear what I hear?

I hear a world crying to “hear” the words of Jesus through the actions of his followers.

I hear the angels sing joyously.

I hear the awed silence of simple and uneducated shepherds who somehow knew that something special had just happened.

I hear God whispering to us to listen to His son and to reach out and listen to those around us.

The Gift of Christmas

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

—John 3:16

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.

Our “have to” lists are long and sometimes burdensome. But the love list attached to each of those gifts we select and purchase are filled with joy and anticipation; we can’t wait to see the pleasure our gift will bring to someone we love.

Both lists are necessary. One fulfills a sense of duty and propriety. The other fills our heart with joy.

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.

Christmas is about love.

It is not about Christmas trees or lights or candles or presents under the tree, although these are important. It’s about remembrance and celebration.

It is about God and the gift of love He gave us when He sent His only son to be born in a barn – a love freely given with the hope that as we accept, our lives will forever be changed and transformed. And for a few moments we grasp the meaning of love.

St. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians centuries ago, articulated that transforming love. The words and their message are ageless.

“Love is patient and kind. It is not jealous or boastful, arrogant, or rude. It doesn’t insist on its our own way and is not irritable or resentful and does not take pleasure in things that are wrong. Love hopes all things and endures all things.”

The gift of love wrapped within the swaddling clothes of a tiny infant who would grow up and sacrifice his life so we can have hope and salvation is the ultimate love. It is experienced at Christmas only for a brief moment.

If we take God’s love and gift out of the season of Christmas, we are left with shallow rituals that give us a spike in pleasure before dumping us back into the dull routines of life. Like any gift, if it is left forgotten and unwrapped under the tree, we will not experience the joy, anticipation and love attached to it throughout the coming year.

May you experience the joy of that great love this Christmas.

Friends: No Strings Attached

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A neighbor called and asked if she could come over. I was surprised since I had just seen her and her husband the night before. But she was such a delightful and bubbly person that I quickly and enthusiastically said yes.

When she arrived, she held in her hand a large carton of heavy Costco cream – the kind I enjoyed using in my coffee.

I invited her in, and she handed me the box of cream. “This is for you.”

The look on my face reflected my surprise and confusion. As she declined my offer to sit down and have a cup of coffee with me, I went to get my purse to pay for the cream.

But she quickly said, “Oh there is no cost – this is just a gift. I know you like this cream and last night at dinner you said you were out of cream.”

I had invited her and her husband over for dinner, and in serving coffee with dessert, realized I had no cream to offer with the coffee. So, when her husband went to the store that morning to pick up some groceries, she asked him to pick up the cream for me.

Overwhelmed was an understatement. I still wanted to pay for it, but quickly realized that she wanted this to be a gift – no strings attached – just a friend being a friend.

“There is no cost – it is my gift to you.”

Never was cream so tasty. Never did the coffee it was poured into taste so good.

To refuse a gift would be like refusing the person. For with the gift comes an extension of that person – their kindness, concern, and appreciation.

To refuse would be hurtful. And the most important gifts we receive come in the simplicity of cartons of cream and a bouquet of flowers brought because someone is hurting. These say, “I am aware. I know. I care. I can’t change things, but I can help make it easier.”

Friends. They are truly one of God’s blessings to us.

Who can put a value on friendship? True friends are more valuable than gold. They can be neighbors; they can be people we have known for some time or recently met. They can even be part of our family.

Over the years there have been many people who have moved in and out of my life. Some have simply been nodding acquaintances or associates I have worked with professionally.

Others came into my life when I needed someone I could rely on or when they reached out for support. Common needs, concerns, or life situations brought us together for a short period of time as we worked on projects or agendas.

Travel introduced many people with common interests, where, within a short period of time, we became friends

But friendships that remain over many years are friends on which no price can be put.

These are the friends whose loyalty, tolerance and genuine caring have helped me over the many bumps and tragedies of life.

Like the friend who flew home from England to help me when my husband became ill. No hesitation – no concern other than to be there to help. No matter how far apart we moved, no matter how seldom we connect, there is a bond that goes beyond distance or time that remains in place despite the years. These have become more than simply friends – they have become a part of my family.

What does it mean to be a friend?

A friend is loyal and faithful through the good times and the bad times. With unconditional love, I am accepted with all my faults as they reach out with support even in the toughest of times.

A friend will believe in me and hold confidences. We share similar values and feel free to discuss even the most contentious and opposite of views. As a friend, I listen and respect our differences. I feel free to give constructive and honest criticism when needed or asked for.

My friend will stand up for me when others are intent on tearing me down.

Perhaps there have been friends in your life that you not only remember with fondness but wish you could connect again. Reach out – call – inquire. Rekindle that deep friendship that was so important to you at one time in your life. Share old times, the concerns of today and laugh over old stories.

Distance, different paths, and life circumstances may take us in different directions. But for those who are true friends, neither time nor distance can shake the friendship we share.

Thank You, God, For My Kids!

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What?! Thank you for runny noses, staying up all night, cereal dumped on the floor, clothes strewn everywhere, muddy feet, muddy floors, dogs and cats and garter snakes?

Yes, even with sleepless nights, worried nights, “No’s”, stomping feet and even, “I hate you’s,” there is nothing like my kids.

Through thick and thin, I love them. They are God’s special blessings to me. And especially now that I am older, I appreciate them even more and the wonderful memories of raising them to be strong adults.

drawings on refrigerator

I loved the finger paintings and stick figure drawings I displayed on the refrigerator door, prompting a smile each time the door was opened and closed.

The wiggly garter snake thrust at me with great excitement exclaiming, “Look what I found, Mom. Can I keep him?” as I struggled not to show my unreasonable fear of snakes and somehow not stifle the excitement of discovery by keeping the intruder outside.

Grubby fingers clutching bunches of ragged and frazzled wildflowers, and with eyes brimming with love, saying, “For you, Mommy,” will forever be burned in my memory.

One of my most treasured pieces of jewelry is a necklace fashioned by my daughter in 5th grade. I still wear it.

And one of my fondest memories is when she planned a surprise birthday party for me when she was in high school and with the help of Dad arranged everything – even cooking the meal.

She continues to create wonderful scenarios of life through photography and her painting while efficiently and competently running her home and professional life. Thank you, daughter – you are a treasure.

As a kid, my oldest son loved to create new, complicated board games. With Dungeons and Dragons as inspiration, he wrote and self-published game magazines. He still has a love for creating new games.

Life wasn’t always easy for him. His own struggles have given him a sensitivity and understanding of others which were reflected in the classroom when he was a teacher. He motivated and inspired his students to be the best they could be.

My youngest is no longer with us. But the joy he brought to everyone in the family cannot be put into words and continues to bring a smile to our faces as we remember his humor and mischievousness, his tenacity and outlook on life.

In spite of a physical handicap, there was little he couldn’t do. He started drawing as soon as he could hold a pencil and his incredible art covers the walls of my home. Your creative ability amazed everyone, son. What a blessing you were to all of us.

Often we are quick to remember only the not-so-pleasant memories of time-outs, rules and consequences, misunderstandings, and those infamous teen years. Long colicky nights as babies, sibling rivalry, sneaking out, and less-than-desirable friends.

Yet it was precisely in those times where I learned patience, understanding and appreciation. And then I remember spaghetti-covered faces, childhood theater productions for the neighborhood and rotten eggs in mailboxes at Halloween. And I chuckle.

As a parent, I struggled with the enormity of raising such wonderful but diverse children.

There were many unknowns that I had no preparation for. But with every step along the way, I gave all my love, my hope, my sincerity and prayers as I shared my love of God and the principles and values needed to live a mature and responsible adult life.

I hope my children will forgive my mistakes, struggles and bungling. I hope I have given them the tools needed to meet their life challenges and that the best of it can be passed on through the generations of children and grandchildren.

Kids – they may be a challenge – but oh, what a blessing.

How to Turn Challenges Into Advantages

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At a women’s retreat, I asked, “Who has experienced stress in the past week?”

All hands went up. I then asked how they knew they were stressed. Their comments ranged from “constantly feeling overwhelmed” to “exhausted.”

They were unable to get everything done that was expected of them and there was little time left for pleasure or relaxation. They felt there was never enough time, there was too much to do, and they were constantly required to learn something new.

As I jotted their responses on the white board, I was reminded again of just how many demands are placed on us every day and the heavy toll it can have on our lives.

A thousand scenarios contribute to the challenges we face and the stress those challenges can create.

Our minds keep racing as our “to do” list gets longer and longer. We run out the door in the morning, grabbing a bagel or sweet roll to eat along the way and return in the evening, dragging. As we drop our keys on the kitchen counter, we look around at the mess left from the morning and wonder where to begin. Our stomach hurts and we grab a cookie. And as it melts in our mouth, we realize we have been snacking on sweets of some kind all day.

When we finally get a moment to sit down, we zone out on TV, Facebook, or some kind of internet game before we fall into bed. Our neck and shoulders hurt, acid reflux starts, and we wonder if we will be able to go to sleep and/or stay asleep.

Perhaps you are challenged, as I am, with the world of technology.

Although it allows me to manage a website, publish blog posts and podcast episodes, and do other functions, the language of computers and technology continue to frustrate me. When given very concise step-by-step instructions, I can maintain some semblance of functioning. But when something goes wrong or I need to learn something new, I quickly feel a sense of anxiety and time pressure to complete my projects.

While technology allows us to do things we never imagined, it can also increase our workload as we struggle to learn and apply it. We are not only required to work faster and smarter but to improve the quality and quantity of output, and we struggle to keep pace.

It feels as though the learning curve gets steeper and steeper. The harder we try, the more tension we experience and the more difficult it becomes to stay focused. As the cycle goes round and round, we find ourselves overwhelmed and exhausted.

With little time to think through our options, we become disorganized and make quick decisions without proper consideration, resulting in more and more mistakes. Accidents waiting to happen seem to be lurking around every corner.

We begin to make excuses, and blame others for everything that is going wrong. We no longer take the time to call our friends, send thank-you notes, check in on a friend who has been sick, or play with our kids or grandkids. There just isn’t enough time.

And at the end of the day, we feel like a violin string that has been stretched so taut that if we breathe it will break.

When our day begins and ends with a never-ending stream of things we “have to do” and “must do” to survive, it is time to stop and take a very serious time-out.

First, write down what you are doing all day long.

  • What has been scheduled?
  • What has not been scheduled?
  • What can you eliminate?
  • What wasted time can become more productive?
  • What unrealistic expectations have you put on yourself?
  • How do those expectations keep you from finishing the everyday tasks you face?
  • If you started to put some structure to your day, how would that help you accomplish more and free up some time?

We can’t slow the world down.

But we can get off the merry-go-round that simply spins us around and around, out of control. We can take back our life. It doesn’t mean we won’t be required to learn new skills, work more effectively and efficiently. It doesn’t mean we will find all the answers. But we can become more skilled at problem-solving and managing our time.

We can schedule in some serious down times. In the process, we become more proactive instead of reactive, and become empowered to take charge.

The Difficult Choices I Need to Make

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There are days I don’t want to get out of bed or go to work or face another day of caregiving.

I don’t feel like being kind to my neighbors or overlooking minor irritations.

I don’t want to know I can choose to forgive or be responsible for how I react to others. It is much easier to blame.

I’m tired of working through all my problems. I don’t want to make the tough choices required of me.

And yet, would I really want to give up the freedom I have to make those difficult choices of getting up, forgiving, and working through tough problems?

I may feel like doing the opposite, but I know I wouldn’t be happy just doing what I feel like in the moment. Every day, I am blessed that I can make tough choices, difficult though they may be.

We want to avoid things that are unpleasant. Yet that is part of life. Knowing that the decisions I make can have either a positive or negative outcome encourages me to look carefully at how I make those decisions.

Here are some choices that impact our lives.

We choose our attitudes and responses to any life situation.

  • Bitterness or gratitude
  • Resentment or extending grace
  • Negative comparisons or personal self-worth
  • Anger or reconciliation
  • Anxiety and fear or faith and promise
  • Belief in God or being my own god
  • Integrity, honesty, generosity or self-centeredness, greed, “what’s in it for me” attitude

We choose our mindsets and patterns of behavior.

  • What I can do vs what I can’t do
  • Focus on finding solutions or remaining helpless
  • Acceptance of events and moving forward or resisting and remaining stuck
  • Personal responsibility vs the blame game
  • Forgiveness vs revenge
  • Assessing options and taking a risk vs remaining in panic, fear and worry
  • Focus on similarities and agreement vs division and differences
  • Grieving our losses, our past and letting go of traumatic events vs remaining stuck

We choose our lifestyle.

  • Letting go of old scripts and toxic messages
  • Self-discipline and regulation instead of whatever feels good in the moment
  • Principles and values vs whatever the current culture dictates
  • Long term goals vs immediate gratification
  • Developing good friendships, mentors, and safe environments

What choices are you facing today?

What attitudes would empower you? What core values and beliefs will help you through the tough spots?

Reflect, define, let go of what doesn’t work and be blessed.

Reach Out and Keep Going

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Life can change in the blink of an eye; one minute you are living life to the fullest and the next you are faced with some catastrophe. Whether it is the loss of a job or a loved one who has been diagnosed with a serious illness, you hear yourself cry out, Please God, No.

Whatever the situation, whether you have just received some earth-shattering news or you have simply reached a point where everything in life lacks purpose or meaning, it is a place where you recognize as never before your shortcomings and reach out to God for guidance and strength, and friends for support and encouragement.

Many times throughout our lifetime, we will encounter unforeseen tragedies or catastrophes. We will feel overwhelmed with indecision.

One such time for me was the death of my husband. Everything changed and I was faced with making some tough choices that involved radical changes. During that time as I struggled, I began to journal. My journaling led to more serious writing that soon became a new way of life, creating a new focus and meaningful purpose.

It was not easy, however.

As a new writer, I felt I was entering a land of giants, a world of talented and gifted people who seemed to have it all together, while I struggled to put down on paper my thoughts and ideas within the parameters of correct English and sentence construction.

The path to publication seemed even more onerous, trudging through sand, over rocks and raging rivers with obstacles huge and intimidating. This land of writing and publication was already inhabited by men and women successful in their trade. How could I hope to compete?

I asked, “God, is this really what I am supposed to be doing?”

It is scary to venture out from what was familiar into unknown territory. But I have discovered that God doesn’t turn us in a new direction without giving us the tools we need to accomplish new undertakings. And He continues to guide and mentor us along the way.

When I felt compelled to write and share my story of the loss of my husband, I questioned whether anyone would want to hear my sad tale. And it was with fear and trepidation that I had it published. Later, others shared with me how helpful my story had been as they went through similar situations.

God called me to change directions from counseling and teaching to writing and speaking. I believe He has a specific purpose in mind when He calls each of us, whether to share our stories through print, or speaking, or service of some kind. Our experiences remind others they are not alone in their suffering and struggle. It tells them they can make it.

As we listen to God’s nudging, we are given opportunities to learn and grow into any new calling.

He gave me critique groups to help become more proficient in the writing industry. As I developed an association with other writers, I reached out to others to give them support and encouragement.

When I get overwhelmed with becoming a serious writer, I am reminded of the journeys of young musicians and athletes. It takes hours of practice and discipline before they can run that race or play with the orchestra. It takes determination, passion, and the guidance of teachers during those long hours of commitment.

As I establish the work and dedication to develop this new skill and calling, I reach out and grab the hand of other writers who struggle with similar anxieties, questions, fears of rejection and meaningful purpose to offer support. They, in turn, give back encouragement, support, and constructive analysis of my work.

No matter what you are called to do, reach out to others; develop a support system.

Encourage one another. Validate what they are going through and inspire them to keep going. Share knowledge.

Lay your anxieties, fears, and uncertainties at your Lord’s feet. He will give you strength and courage. Together, you move forward in faith in God and enter the land of giants and possibilities.