Sunday, February 12, 2017

Consequences of Breaking My Own Rules

One of our house rules* is that we all agree not to do something for someone else that will make us angry. It seems obvious, but it's amazing how many times I've done things as I'm knee-deep in resentment and fury because it feels like there's no other way or because I simply can't think straight in the midst of all that strong emotion.

What I know is that when I do things like that, often somewhere in the back of my mind, I'm keeping score. There is a part of me that is saying, "ok, now this person owes me one" or "I get to bring this up the next time they claim I never do anything for them."

What I also know is that the longer I hold on to that chit, the heavier it gets. And as I'm doing the "selfless" act for someone else, I am enraged, and neither of those things makes me feel good about myself.

It's tempting to blame the object of my actions for even having the audacity to ask for such a thing, or (as in the incident that occurred this morning) lash out at them for emotionally blackmailing me. And I'm sad to say that I have done both of those things far more often than I wish I had, but ultimately, I made that one of the house rules for a reason: because it is powerfully easy for me to slip in to a space where I do these kinds of things more and more and it becomes easier in the moment to just capitulate than it does to explain myself or assert my reasons for declining. And then I get resentful and feel like a victim and it affects my relationships with the people I love the most.

So here's to self-awareness and posting house rules in a conspicuous place as a reminder to act in accordance with what I know is good for me and those whom I love.

*These rules are not my creation. I heard about them from a friend a few years ago and adopted them because I think they're so fabulous.

Friday, January 13, 2017

The Special Power of Family

My girls are getting older and now that Lola is in high school, I've really been hit with the knowledge that they are strong, capable young women who are reaching for independence. It's a delicate balance for me as their mom, to let them stretch themselves and to keep reminding them that I am here if they want me - for adventures or to vent, as a shoulder to cry on or just someone to hang out with on the rare evening they don't have other plans.

I remember that desperate need to be on my own, to prove that I could do it myself, to peel off from my family and firmly attach myself to my friend-tribe. When I left for college, I came home so rarely, convinced that the new family I had created was so much better, so much more fun and supportive. And in some ways, they were, but there is something powerful about that other tribe - the one that shares my history, that remembers who I was all those years ago (and loves me anyway).

Last weekend, Lola and I traveled to the central coast of California to hang out with that tribe, my mom's siblings and their spouses and kids. And even though Mom couldn't be there with us, it felt like coming home. Looking around the table to see faces that are so familiar, hear laughter that I remember deep in my bones from years past, was grounding in a way I can't really describe. I loved the opportunity to remind Lola that she is part of this group whether she wants to be or not. There is a special mix of nurturing and support, loud hilarity and not-taking-ourselves-too-seriously that has been there ever since I can remember. This group has weathered major storms over the years and come out smiling because they do it together. No matter the brand of tragedy, there is a set-your-jaw-and-roll-up-your-sleeves mentality that doesn't back down and doesn't forget that in the midst of all of it, there is joy to be found. This is a group that doesn't shy away from the full range of emotions available to us (sometimes swinging from one to the other with dizzying speed), all the while holding on tightly to each and every other member of the family. And it's a group whose definition of family extends beyond bloodlines to include others who are deeply loved and abide by the rule of having each others' backs.

While I really wish Eve had been able to join us, I came away knowing that we will do this again soon and I'll bring her along because I think that this is the perfect time for both of my girls to be reminded that there is a strong, smart, compassionate, funny-as-hell group of people who will always be there for them, who are rooting for them as they spread their wings and head out into the world to do whatever it is they decide to do. I know that I have always felt grateful to be able to rely on the absolute bedrock of this family to both hold me up when times were tough and make me laugh until I pee - sometimes simultaneously.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Writing and Yoga Retreat: Join Me

I am teaming up with a good friend to offer a weekend writing/yoga retreat just north of Seattle, March 24-26. She is a certified Reiki Master and yoga instructor and we will be alternating yoga sessions with writing workshop sessions Friday afternoon, Saturday, and Sunday morning as a way to delve in to creativity, self-awareness, and reflection. The setting is absolutely gorgeous - just at the foot of Mt. Baker near Bellingham, Washington, and we have hired a caterer to prepare healthy, locally-sourced, delicious meals and snacks for us. All you have to bring is yourself and a journal/computer.

You can be brand new to writing or yoga or both. You can be working on a project, or just come to get a weekend respite with others who are interested in looking at life from a different perspective. There is no requirement to attend every session (if you don't give a whit about writing, but you want to do yoga and hike - come on up; if you don't particularly like yoga, but you want to have a quiet, natural space to write - come on up).

We're offering an early-bird special ($400) for folks who sign up before February 24 and pay in full. The cost goes up to $450 after February 24, and the deadline for registration is March 15.

We can accommodate dietary needs, so let us know when you sign up, and please consider joining us. Email me with questions or to register (you can pay via check or SquareCash) at

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Repost: The Power of a Gratitude Practice

As a person who has struggled with anxiety and depression throughout her life, perhaps choosing a career as a writer wasn’t the best way to go. Writers, especially freelance writers, experience far more rejection than the average person.

Fortunately, during some intense research I was doing on adolescence and brain development, I discovered several studies on the power of gratitude. When I was really wrestling with darkness, mornings were the most challenging time for me. I woke up, opening one eye at a time to gauge whether that semi-truck of pain and longing was heading for me before I swung my feet out of bed onto the floor. Often, before I could get both eyes open, my mind would begin to race and my heart would pound as I anticipated what the day had in store for me. After reading about the way gratitude shifts our thinking patterns and affects our brain chemistry, I decided to start each day with a short list of things for which I was truly grateful. I envisioned it as a sort of shield against that truck hurtling toward me.

In the beginning, it was often hard to come up with a list; not because I don’t have many, many blessings in my life, but because I have an innate tendency to qualify them. As soon as I think of one, I either compare it to someone else and feel guilty that, say, my kids are healthy and I have a friend whose kids aren’t – which effectively soils the gratitude – or it feels trite and petty, like being grateful that I have enough money to pay my bills. Even in my gratitude practice, I found myself wanting – either for more ‘pure’ things like love (which feels a little too nebulous sometimes, to be honest) or for deep, profound items on my list that really resonated in my bones. I am nothing if not stubborn, though, and motivated by the fervent desire to keep my depression and anxiety at bay, I kept going despite the sometimes pathetic nature of my lists. Every day, I thought that maybe tomorrow I could come up with something beyond gratitude for my soft, warm bed, my kids, and my husband to be grateful for.

When my teenage daughter was struggling with anxiety upon starting high school, I encouraged her to start a gratitude practice to see if it could help her. Every night before bed, I would text her three things for which I was grateful and she would text me back right before falling asleep. My hope was that if the last thoughts she had every day were ones that filled her up rather than dragging her down, perhaps she would wake up with optimism for the coming day instead of dread. Her lists began much as mine had. She was grateful for a full belly and a soft pillow and a roof over her head. But over time, she was able to open up and recall specific things that had happened during the day that were positive – a friendly smile in the cafeteria, being picked by a classmate to partner on a project because she is so organized, to appreciating a trusting relationship with a special teacher. Her perspective shifted over a period of weeks and she went from finding excuses to stay in bed to getting up and tackling each new day and its challenges with a feeling of competence and groundedness.

Over time, my definition of gratitude has developed and I’ve come to understand what it is about this practice that has been so effective for me. In the beginning, I often attempted to come up with things by starting with, “at least I’m not….” What I discovered is that if I am comparing my life to someone else’s (as in, “at least I’m not part of this oppressed group or that oppressed group,” or thinking about all the ways my situation could be worse such as, “neither of my kids is terminally ill and I’m not homeless,”), I’m not really being grateful. That’s just another way my anxiety is telling me my life could run off the rails at some point, so I should really be cautious. Instead of helping me feel calm and centered, it is really reminding me that one or more of those things could potentially happen and, for now, I’m just dodging a bullet.

If I am making a mental note of the number of “good” things in my life as compared to the number of “bad” things, that is also not helpful gratitude. Weighing them against each other in a sort of balance sheet is not a positive step. The fact is, both things exist simultaneously (and are often intertwined with each other) in my life and in my mind, but gratitude is about the ones I consciously choose to pay attention to. It doesn’t make the challenges and difficulties in my life disappear, it simply allows me to notice that there are many positive things in my life, too.

The human brain is wired to look for deficiencies, expect sabotage, and find the things that need ‘fixing.’ This isn’t always a bad thing – often I am happy to know that there is something I can do to make things better. But unless I take the time to really engage in a gratitude practice, I won’t notice the things that are absolutely right and lovely in the world all around me. I might notice the pile of unfolded laundry lying on the couch, but I can also choose to see that the dishes are all clean and the dog is fed and happily snoozing in his bed and an essay I was working on this morning is coming along nicely.

I am loathe to imply that gratitude is a complicated thing, though, because when I am in the zone, it truly isn’t. When I am really tuned in to the goodness and abundance in my life, the list of things for which I am grateful grows quickly and easily. For me, the key to gratitude is to simplify things. When I am frustrated and irritable, the best thing for me to do is stop and look around. I see my computer and I am grateful for the ability to write and connect with people who are important to me online. I catch sight of a glass of water on the counter and appreciate clean water and a cupboard full of dishes. I note my sunglasses on the table next to me and close my eyes and thank goodness that I can so often feel the warm sun on my back. When I can keep myself from trying to create stories or context, I can find simple, pure gratitude and suddenly, there is more air in the room.

Knowing that every time I actively look for things that are right in my life means I am activating the parts of my brain that produce serotonin and dopamine gives me hope. When I started that gratitude practice all those years ago out of desperation, I was beginning a process of rewiring my brain to more easily find happiness. Sticking with it, I realized that it does become easier over time to recognize and appreciate simple things that give me joy. While I still struggle with anxiety (and rejection), I am more able to see it as a part of this messy, glorious life I am living instead of letting it keep me from getting out of bed in the morning.

Friday, December 02, 2016

Treading New Ground

I had thought that, since I lost one parent already, there would be a sense of familiarity, of deja vu, of "been there, done that" when I lost the next one. Not in a dismissive way, just an "ok, I've got this, I know what to expect" kind of way.


Dad was diagnosed with lung cancer. He told me early on, I was there to listen, I went down when he had surgery to remove part of his left lung and some lymph nodes, I let him bounce ideas off of me for future treatments. We weren't certain of the timeline, but we knew he was sick and he was absolutely honest with me about how sick he was. It was excoriatingly, skin-flayingly, teeth-grindingly painful in the last week to watch him suffer. He knew me until the minute he died in my arms.

But Alzheimer's or dementia or whatever the hell this is that Mom has is a completely different animal. She isn't having some diseased cells cut away. She isn't calling me to tell me about the latest drugs or therapies her doctor has offered. She might live for six months or six years. She has no idea who I am.

This one-sided relationship is teeth-grindingly painful in a completely different way. When Dad took a turn for the worse, it was obvious. Over a period of several days, he began having pain in his legs and hips and when they took x-rays it was clear that the cancer had spread to his bones. An MRI showed it was in his brain, too - the cancer cells lit up like the night sky I once saw in the middle of nowhere, New Mexico. From that point forward, we knew there was no rallying, no bouncing back.

Mom's slide has been gradual except when it seems to leap forward, and there have been many times over the last year when she was almost able to snap out of it and recognize me and have a conversation. The cruelest part of that is that it gave me hope. It made me wonder how we could capture those lucid moments and prolong them, whether there was some magical drug that she could take that would clear the way for a return to herself. Those moments, when they are gone, are all I can hope for and envision, but they are much fewer and farther between and I know I won't get a signal that tells me I've seen the last one. I didn't get a sign the last time I spoke to Mom on the phone that said it wouldn't happen again. I didn't get a warning the last time she called me by name and knew I was her daughter so that I could savor it.

There is a part of me that wonders if I am a little bit narcissistic in my grief. A part that thinks maybe it shouldn't matter so much whether she knows who I am, that tells me to just get on with caring for her the best way I know how without worrying whether she remembers I'm hers. Because somehow, I want to be special. I don't want to be just one of another cast of characters who comes through to visit and smile at her. I want to be her daughter, not for any sort of recognition of my efforts, but because I mean something more. There is something about the reciprocity of a loving relationship that makes it feel whole. When I sat with Dad during his last days, holding his hand and telling him stories, even though he couldn't speak, there was a familiarity. He squeezed my hand and his eyes danced during the funny parts, and his rough, calloused thumb rubbed back and forth against mine when I was being serious. We had a history that was fully intact until the moment he took his last breath and when I grieved for him, I grieved for all of it simultaneously, the loss of his body, his Self, and our relationship.  

This time, I am grieving in stages. While there are parts of Mom's Self that are still fully intact - her sarcasm and playfulness comes out sometimes with her husband - I have lost the history of our relationship as mother and daughter. She knows I am familiar, but she doesn't know why. Our inside jokes now belong to me, even though she is physically still here. When we sit together, I can't tell her stories about my kids or my husband because it confuses her - she doesn't know these people, why am I talking about them? We can't reminisce or look forward to sharing family holidays together or significant moments in the future because she isn't coming to my girls' high school graduations or weddings. There is a quality of suspended animation to it all, a sense that I am walking without a foundation beneath me.

I wish I had a succinct ending to this post. I usually am able to close the loop with some sort of insight, but maybe the fact that I can't this time is an apt metaphor for how all of this feels right now - loose and unfinished.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Memoir Excerpt on The Manifest-Station

Yesterday, Jennifer Pastiloff's site, The Manifest-Station, featured an excerpt of my memoir-in-progress on their site. I am thrilled to have this process begin. You can find it here. 

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Please Don't Unfriend Me

In the past several days, I have seen more requests for people to "unfriend" and "unlike" pages on social media than ever before.

I have spoken with people who acknowledge that their loved ones voted for a different Presidential candidate than they did and roll their eyes, saying that they don't get it.

I have seen calls for parts of the country to split off from the rest because of the deep philosophical divisions that showed up on Tuesday night, and I have listened and watched as groups form with the intent to "fight." I heard one person say last night that she doesn't talk to people who voted differently than her because "we can't."

We can't afford to not talk about this.

It's hard.
It is often painful.
It sometimes feels as though we are speaking different languages.

And we have to try.

The future of our country depends on it.

The first thing we can do is stop pretending that debate is conversation. In a debate, there are sides. There are factions with deep-seated beliefs and the goal is to show up and talk the other person under the table. The entire setup is predicated on the idea that this is a zero-sum game. That one side is "right" and the other is "wrong." Debates are about power, they aren't about common ground, and what the American people need right now is to find our common ground.

Instead of one-upping each other, we need to listen.
Instead of either/or, we need to start thinking in terms of yes/and.

When Lola headed out to take the bus with a couple of friends to the movies yesterday, I nearly had a panic attack. At some point, it occurred to me that I was sending my 14-year old daughter out with another young woman (who happens to be black) on to public transit and out into the world without an adult. Before Tuesday, I wouldn't have given it a second thought. But in the days following the election, my Facebook feed was filled with stories of women and girls being harassed in public, people of color and Muslims attacked for simply being who they are, and I was gripped by fear. I hated the fact that I had to give her instructions as to how to behave on the bus - eyes up at all times, assess the situation constantly, if your gut tells you something isn't right, scan the area for the nearest trustworthy adult and have an exit strategy that puts you in a safe place. I tried to do it as calmly as I could without scaring her, but still letting her know that she needed to heed my warning.

I am keenly aware of the daily fear that accompanies being a woman in this country. I am also aware of what many of my friends who are people of color go through on a daily basis and I think I understand their fears. I have heard and acknowledge the fears of those who are immigrants, refugees, and people who do not identify as Christian. I also feel as though I understand the concerns of folks who are part of the LGBTQ community.


Yesterday, I had a very interesting exchange on Facebook with someone who supported Donald Trump's presidential bid. He wrote that he wanted us to all stop fighting and start working to make this country great for "our kids," and I inquired whether he meant all kids - black and brown kids, immigrant kids, gay and transgendered kids, and Muslim kids. What ensued was more than 30 minutes of back and forth clarification, peeling layers to really understand what he meant by making our country great and if it was inclusive of all of us. What I learned was that he doesn't care a whit about reversing Roe v. Wade or marriage equality. He isn't interested in deporting anyone and he believes that the Bill of Rights was written to include every single one of us, regardless of what we look like or where we worship or who we love. His reasons for voting the way he did had nothing to do with racism, xenophobia, homophobia or sexism.

In my quest to understand, I had to refrain from lumping him into the box that is so handy and makes it easy to jump right back in to that zero-sum game of Wrong and Right. Goodness knows, I didn't agree with Hillary Clinton on everything she said. In fact, I vehemently disagree with her on several issues, and I know that I wouldn't want to be characterized as someone who is in full support of her positions on military spending or energy policy. Because of that, it is my responsibility to treat others the same way. I can't make a blanket statement that every single person who voted for Trump is racist, misogynistic or sexist. They may well have voted for him despite that.


The fears of folks Trump has alienated and denigrated are real.
They have every right to have their feelings validated and fight to keep their personal freedoms.


The fears of folks who don't live in urban areas where the economy is rebounding, where opportunities exist for job training and social programs are just as real. Those folks who have struggled to put food on the table for their kids, whose schools have been taken over by the state because they have failed to meet standards for years, who have been farmers and miners for generations and still want to be, but those jobs are going away or getting harder to do without the support of the government? Their feelings are just as real. Their fears are just as existential.
They have every right to fight for someone they hope can pay attention to their plight, too.

Just because I haven't lived those fears doesn't mean they aren't real. They just don't show up on my radar. Like the fears of women and immigrants and minorities don't show up on the radar of folks who haven't lived that reality.

We can continue to try and convince each other that the things that show up on our personal radars are more important than the things that show up on someone else's if we want to. We may gather bigger numbers next time and "win" elections. But we won't have addressed the underlying issues that are driving the divide and we will continue the wild swing of this pendulum that throws our country into chaos every few years. The only way to slow it down is to learn about each other, to set aside what we think we know and listen to what others live with. Unfriending each other or voting to split states off from the Union might make us feel safer, but it only deepens the divide. And it won't make the other side go away. It certainly won't make them change their minds. It is the equivalent of a parent kicking their teenage daughter out of the house because she is pregnant. It doesn't make her any less pregnant, it just leaves her with fewer supports and it means you don't have to look at her anymore when you come downstairs for breakfast. We have to face this with compassion and a genuine desire to find commonality or we will continue to break apart even more.  I truly believe that the people of this country have more in common with each other than we know. It is in our own best interest to find those goals we all share and begin talking to one another because it appears that there are some folks in power who are more interested in being Right than they are in being part of something real and honest and human.
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