Kris, posted something on her Facebook page yesterday that gave me pause. I watched it again this morning before taking the dogs for a walk and let it filter through my brain as we sidestepped puddles and admired the fat cherry blossoms and smelled the daphne perfuming the air.
Kris was talking about inspiration and how, sometimes, we sit and wait for inspiration to push us to action, and as we wait, we are frustrated and discontent. She wondered whether it is the discontent that is actually the source of inspiration, that if we take that first step toward action, the path will open up and we will begin to feel the motivation to continue. What if the frustration is the sense that there is a difference between what we say we want and what we are doing to get there, and that is actually the driving force, but our desire to wait for a clear sign to begin keeps us from doing anything?
Well, yeah, when you put it that way.
I have been feeling stuck a lot lately and as I walked and ruminated on Kris' words, it struck me that I have been using that stuck feeling as an excuse not to change some things in my life that I can actually control.
I have long felt that I rely on wine and chocolate as crutches to make myself feel better, but since I am not overweight and I never get drunk, I haven't sensed a reason to change my behavior.
But here's the thing: when I indulge in those things in the evening, the narrative that goes through my head sounds a little something like this - I deserve this. It's been a long day. Or - It's a pretty small vice and I don't do it every night.
More often than not, the next morning, I shake my head at myself, wishing I hadn't had that extra piece of Easter candy (damn you, Cadbury mini-eggs!), and sometimes I even go so far as to come downstairs and throw the remainder of the bag away. And I wonder what message I'm sending to my girls when they see me with a glass of wine almost every night.
The incongruence between what I say I want - to be mindful of food as fuel, to be active and physically healthy - and how I act is grating. And this shows up in other places in my life, too. I see in my Facebook groups that there are other writers who are getting their freelance work published once a week and I feel guilty - I should be out there hustling more work that is visible because the memoir I'm working on won't see the light of day for a year or more.
Often, the way for me to get clarity on things like this is to let my mind create a picture, and this morning was no exception. I imagined myself standing on a beautiful beach, dazzled by all the little, shiny things dotting the sand. There are rocks polished by the surf, fully intact shells, smooth pieces of driftwood. I walk along and gather the ones that are the most intriguing to me, filling my hands and pockets and not really thinking about what I'll do with them or where I will put them. I'll figure that out later. Right now, they are a tangible sign of what I have - like publishing credits or a wine cellar that's full. I feel the land beneath my feet and I am grounded. This is real. I can walk like this forever, back and forth.
But eventually, my hands are full and I've walked the length of the beach. And I realize that what I really want is to be out there, in the ocean, floating, being lifted and held and open to possibilities. When I'm in the water, that's my inspiration, my true passion, my purpose. It is where I can be fully supported and I'm able to really get some perspective. When I float in the water, I can look back at all of the glittery gifts on the beach in their entirety and really discern which ones speak to me. I don't have to gather armfuls of things just because they are lovely, I can truly choose the things that are congruent with the big picture of who I am and what I truly want. And I can come back in to the beach at any time, but when I remember that the floating, the be-ing is where I am most grounded, that it is here where I draw my inspiration, the beach seems like a place for occasional visits, not someplace to dwell and get caught up in the doing and the gathering.
Friday, April 07, 2017
Wednesday, March 15, 2017
I fixed the salt cellar this morning. It wasn’t terribly complicated, but it took a little bit of ingenuity and some focus and a real desire to have it fixed. I made it last year at one of those paint-your-own-ceramic workshops. Eve and I were having a mom-daughter day and I decided the last thing our cupboards needed was another coffee mug, so I chose this ceramic salt container with a rubber flange on the lid to keep it air tight and Eve pronounced it “cute,” which is an enormous compliment coming from a 16-year old girl who is your daughter.
It lasted about a week before the wooden lid came loose from the part with the rubber seal and Lola decided shove it farther down inside rather than trying to pry it loose. This resulted in the container being full of salt beneath part of the lid that was firmly stuck halfway down, and no way to remove it. We left it like that for months, filling the upper part of the container with salt and calling it good.
But this morning as I stood over a pan of hash browns, imagining what it is going to be like to pack Mom’s stuff up and move her to memory care in the next week or so, I took on a project I thought I could fix. As tears tracked slowly down my cheeks, I contemplated what it would take to pry the lid out. I started by running a sharp knife around the edge of the rubber, hoping to ease it loose, but abandoned that after imagining the knife slipping out and slicing my finger. Next, I got a corkscrew and tried to drive it into the center of the wood to get ahold of it and lift up, but the wood was too dense. When I went to the junk drawer to get a screwdriver and screw, I heard Dad’s voice in my head, telling me this was the ticket.
I screwed it in until it just took hold and then grabbed the vice grips, stopping for a second to wonder how many other households have a pair of vice grips in the kitchen drawer and mentally patting myself on the back for my cleverness. I clamped them over the top of the screw and gently rocked the vice grips back and forth until the lid slid up and out.
I flipped Eve’s hash browns to crisp up on the other side, put the tools away and grabbed the superglue. Within minutes, the potatoes were on a plate and the two halves of the lid were tightly bonded back together. I washed out the salt cellar, refilled it with fresh salt, and wiped down the counter.
When Eve came in to eat, she opened it up, pinched out a bit of salt, and sprinkled it on her potatoes. She didn’t even notice that it was fixed. Par for the course with a teenager in the morning, I suppose, but it didn’t diminish either my sense of pride or the immense feeling of relief I had that I had found something I could accomplish today.
Wednesday, March 01, 2017
But last Wednesday I had one of those days. Despite all my (herculean) efforts to craft a workable plan for the day, things went awry. I had known for months that this particular day was going to be logistically challenging on many different levels and I did my best to cross all of my t's and dot all of my i's, but I still couldn't plan for every contingency. And I couldn't have known what other emotional things would be lurking in the background, so despite the fact that the day was supposed to be filled with activities that were generative and collaborative and working toward something I am passionate about, I was a bit anxious and split-minded.
And then, during the first morning break, I saw I had a voice mail from an unknown number and when I listened to it, my anxiety ratcheted up four levels.
By lunch time, my chest was tight, my shoulders were hunched up near my earlobes, my heart was racing, palms sweaty, jaw clenched - all the hallmarks of a near panic attack. I left to grab some takeout and came close to bursting in to tears as I placed my order. I sucked air, swallowed hard, and sat on the cushioned bench to wait for my food. And then I remembered that while my mind can only be in the past or the future, my body can only be in the present moment. What my body was trying to tell me by freaking out was that I was hating this present reality. I didn't want to be in this emotional place I was in. I was feeling overwhelmed.
That might sound like a "Duh" moment as opposed to a revelation, but let me tell you what happened next.
I articulated that very thing in my mind. I said to myself:
I do not want to be feeling this way right now.
I am really uncomfortable with all of this anxiety and the things going on in my life right now that are leading me to feel unhappy and stressed.
And there's nowhere else I can be in this moment.
In that moment, the stress response left my body and the words floated in my head. It was as if, by giving myself permission to feel what I was feeling and acknowledging that it really sucked, the response moved from my body into my head and suddenly it wasn't so unbearable. I had figured out how to soothe myself by recognizing that what I was going through was really hard, and that's all it took to shift things. I finished the afternoon in a much clearer, calmer state. While none of the stressors had disappeared, it seems that they had agreed to move to the side once they were recognized and let me do what I had to do.
Since that moment, I've had a few other experiences where I was able to simply notice in my head that I was in a less than ideal situation without feeling it in my gut or my chest or my jaw. It is a pretty cool thing to be able to do and I'm under no illusion that I'll be able to do this every time I feel anxious or stressed, but for now, it is a reminder that mindfulness works.
I know, another "Duh" moment. But even as someone who has practiced mindfulness for years, I am realizing that there are breakthrough moments where I can continue to learn more about my own responses to different scenarios just by going through the motions of things I've done a million times before. Even if I "know" something works, it is altogether different to feel it working in my own experience and I'm truly grateful for the progressive leaps like this because they help me remember that there is always more to learn.
Sunday, February 12, 2017
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
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
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 email@example.com
Thursday, December 08, 2016
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.