Vegan Lentil Masala

Close up of orange and yellow carrots and a bunch of tomatoes on a table

(GF, oil free, sugar free)

This recipe is adapted from Red Lentil Masala with Spinach from naturallyella.com

This is a meal I would make weekly. It is SO good! SO GOOD. The key is pinch of yum’s masala paste, found here: pinchofyum.com/life-changing-30-minute-masala-sauce

I always have some of this masala paste in the freezer to make cauliflower masala, veggie tikka masala, pinch of yum’s vegetarian meatballs, and before I started the vegan thing, chicken tikka masala. Lindsay was not exaggerating when she called this “life-changing.”

Here’s what you’ll need:

1 “puck” frozen masala paste (about 1/3C.)

1 small red onion, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 cup diced tomatoes

1 cup chopped carrots

1/2 cup lentils

1 cup vegetable broth

1/2-1 teaspoon salt

2 cups fresh spinach, packed

Hot rice

Combine all except coconut milk and spinach (and rice, of course) together in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Stirring occasionally, bring to a boil, then add coconut milk, reduce heat, and simmer at least until lentils are soft. Turning down to low and allowing it to sit on the stove for a while is even better. About 30 minutes before serving, cook rice in a separate pan. A few minutes before serving, add spinach to the masala, allowing it to wilt, and stirring to incorporate.

This recipe doubles well and tastes even better the next day!

So much love,

~A

How to thrive in the face of the unfixable

Acceptance carries with it an active, courageous honesty that brings freedom

Small tree and mushroom growing out of a log

There is an anonymous quote that goes something along the lines of, “when you can’t find a solution to the problem, it’s probably not a problem to be solved, but a truth to be accepted.”

The first time I read that I balked. It hit something in me that made me want to scream. Acceptance seemed like such a passive thing to me at the time, like if I accept this, then I lay down and die. There is nothing more to be done. And that was a place I was not willing to go. In my small world, one doesn’t have a child with exceptional needs and simply accept it. One learns and digs and fights and figures things out and FIXES IT. Seriously.

But that dumb little quote would not get out of my head.

“Not a problem to be solved, but a truth to be accepted.”

Read that again in a more mocking tone.

Once more, a little whiny and nasally.

There you go. Just like that, through my head.

Everywhere I turned, there were truths to be accepted. BAH!

I’m certain it was God twisting that little sucker into my heart, and it was relentless. Nudging, pushing, prodding at my stubbornness and egoic savior complex like a big dog with a wet nose who needs a pat and is certain you are the one to provide it.

And just like that dog, underneath the annoyance of being pushed, there was also a warmth and affection for that stupid quote. Probably because I knew it was a truth to be accepted… by me… because truth is good for us.

I’ve since learned, and am learning still, that acceptance is entirely different from giving up and giving in. Acceptance is not the same as resignation. Acceptance carries with it an active, courageous honesty that can be searing at times, and that honesty brings freedom, and ultimately peace.

It’s also important to distinguish between peace and resignation… peace carries with it hope and joy, while resignation’s companions are despair and hopelessness. Peace enlivens, while resignation is like a wet blanket.

So how do we get there?? I believe the path to acceptance is the way of thriving in the face of the unfixable, and that path will take its own meandering course in anyone’s life, but there are useful common threads to be noted. I will caution you, as you read there will be things that irk and annoy, things no one really wants to hear. And I will encourage you to stay with that discomfort… allow it to lead you to the things you need to accept. And give yourself grace, and time to get there.

Expectations

Perhaps one of the most important things we need to accept in order to thrive when we are living with unfixable things are more realistic expectations. Right away I hear the argument: we have to have high expectations or my loved one will never… (what? walk again, talk, hold down a job, write her or his name, etc.). Good. Okay. And can we consider the possibility that our high expectations are not what produce results? What if our loved ones accomplish any of the things they accomplish not because we expect them to, but because we love, support, and encourage them? You might be thinking now that I’m splitting hairs, but I assure you this is an important distinction.

Let’s look at an example. When I think about high or unrealistic expectations, vacations immediately come to mind. My expectations for vacation are good rest, doing fun things in nature all together as a family, reading at least one great novel, and going out for at least one really nice dinner. And while those may not seem wildly unrealistic, I can personally attest to the fact that those very expectations have made me and my family miserable on numerous family vacations over the years.

Because you know what actually happens on vacations in my family?

No. one. rests.

Why?

We are in a strange place doing things that are out of the ordinary and completely out of routine.

This is the perfect scenario for meltdowns, tears, and screaming, not sleep, novels, and nice dinners. This is not the scenario in which mom gets to sit back and relax while the kids play happily together. This is the scenario where mom is actively involved every second or things go off the rails… and fast.

I promise you that my expectations for rest and happy family activities on vacation do not produce rest and happy family activities on vacation. In fact, I submit to you that those very expectations, due to their disconnect from reality, produce exactly the opposite of what I want, and I end up supremely grumpy and frustrated right along with my kiddos.

However, this past summer I expected vacation to be completely hands on and exhausting. Why go then?!? Well, my expectation was that, while it might not be restful and I might not pick up a book at all, we would have a fun and different experience. I would immerse myself in child-led activities and fall in bed exhausted every night. And guess what?! We had the most fun vacation I can remember as a parent. After all these years, I was finally able to align my expectations with reality and it was fun… and even a bit relaxing.

Attitude

This brings me to the next way to thrive… paying attention to our attitude. While high or unrealistic expectations are most often a source of unnecessary suffering, an attitude that is searching out the best, looking for good, and practicing gratitude, can make any situation more livable.

Did you know that we can actually wire our brains to be more positive? When we practice gratitude, the very act of looking for things to be grateful for trains our brains to seek out the positive. Notice the use of “practice” and “train” here… because rewiring our brains takes time and effort. We must not think that just because being grateful didn’t help today that it won’t ever help.

Think of it like weight lifting. If I were to pick up a 20 pound weight today it would feel pretty heavy. I don’t lift weights and have no idea what I’m doing. But if I take some time to learn, and practice lifting weights regularly, with time I will find that 20 pound weight can be lifted with ease.

This doesn’t mean that we put on a facade of always being happy. It definitely doesn’t mean we refuse to acknowledge the hard stuff. Instead, as we accept reality, we face the difficult things with clear eyes and then look for ways these very things can teach us or cause us to grow.

Help

This brings me to the third way to thrive… enlisting and accepting help. Sometimes help might come in the form of a teacher, spiritual director, mentor, or counselor who can teach us new ways of seeing and being in the world that allow us to thrive.

Sometimes the help we need to accept is at a practical, everyday level, with chores like cooking, cleaning, or getting organized.

Sometimes the help we need takes the form of respite care for our loved one which frees us up to do some other, much needed things.

As caregivers, we are very good at being competent and capable. We often over-perform to provide care, and even then we feel like we aren’t doing enough. Asking for help can make us feel like a burden, or even make us feel less worthy, as we so often draw a sense of worth and take pride in the ways we are able to help other people. These and a plethora of other factors (like how challenging it is to find respite care, or the cost of help, etc.) can leave us feeling stuck and alone when we desperately need a “village” to participate in for mutual edification and sustenance.

In the past, “villages” formed naturally through extended family and proximity. Men and women would come together to accomplish tasks, care for children and elders, and create and consume meals. In my idealistic version of our shared history, it seems it could have been simple to feel like an integral and necessary part of the whole, contributing and receiving in equal measure.

Natural villages now are rare for most of us. However we might do it, we need to get creative about enlisting help and becoming part of a true community, finding our people and welcoming each other into the messy, vulnerable spaces of our lives.

Self-care

Self-care is integrated into each of the previous components of thriving, as it’s less about doing the easy “feel good”thing, and more about doing the (often hard) work of becoming and maintaining the healthiest version of ourselves. Good self-care practices nurture each part of our being: our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health. This will look different for everyone, and it’s important to be realistic with our expectations here as well. No season of life is perfect, and various pieces of self-care will be more or less well-suited to each season.

Accepting ourselves and our own needs is foundational to self-care. What do we need today? Is it more sleep, a colorful salad, a long run, some quiet meditation, or good conversation with a close friend? We cannot continuously bring our best selves to those we care for without intentionally refueling our minds, bodies, and spirits.

Think about your current practices of self-care…

Do you move your body frequently throughout the day?

Do you eat food that provides the nutrients your body needs?

Do you have a spiritual practice that is meaningful and uplifting?

Do you have ways to process your emotions that allows you to stay open and regulated most of the time?

Do you engage in relationships that are deeply fulfilling, and find healthy ways to protect yourself in relationships that are needlessly painful?

In what ways do you need to take better care of yourself?

In what ways are you doing really well?

Compassion

Acceptance will come more readily over time. For now, my expectations are bound to miss the mark, cause suffering, and require re-evaluation. Even then, things will be hard and my attitude will stink sometimes. Help will not be available when I need it, and self-care will suffer. Life is far from perfect, and our acceptance of that imperfection allows us the space for compassion.

As caregivers, we may find it easy to offer compassion to others, while at the same time holding ourselves to an unrealistic standard of perfection, and berating ourselves for even minor shortcomings and failures.

Sadly, this way of being in the world sets us up for bitterness and resentment. We may seem to offer an over-abundance of compassion on the surface, while underneath we feel put upon or taken advantage of. Over time, this lack of compassion for ourselves hardens us, closing us off more and more from true, selfless compassion for others.

We cannot change this in the blink of an eye.

Our first step toward compassion for ourselves is to notice when we are not offering it.

And then we work on noticing without judgement.

And then we try to do something more kind, whether that’s speaking kind words to ourselves in our minds, or treating ourselves more kindly when we’ve fallen short.

And then we work on turning that small kindness into a practice.

This compassion for ourselves sets us up to be more open, instead of hardening. It sets us up to have compassion flow, without thought of ourselves, to those around us.

Expectations, attitude, help, self-care, and compassion are the components that lead us down the path of acceptance. What is the problem you have tried so long to solve, that is actually a truth you are being given the opportunity to accept?

May you offer yourself the grace to find your way to the joy of acceptance. May you thrive as you face the things no one can fix.

So much love,

~A

Interrupted

As I write, I am holding and rocking my two year old who I’ve been trying to get down for a nap for two hours. The child needs a nap… or, at least, I need the child to have a nap.

I had plans, my friends, plans to do laundry and clean, to work on supper and my blog. There is zero chance I would get all that done, but I won’t get any of it done if he doesn’t sleep… at least that’s what my anxiety tells me… and to be clear, my anxiety isn’t always wrong.

Caregiving involves having our plans interrupted, whether it’s the nap that didn’t happen, or the stomach virus that took over, a fall, lice, or any number of other unforeseen incidents that step in and turn our plans upside down.

And while I often tell people I have Gumby-like flexibility, and I do, it can almost vanish when I have to change plans that are important to me. Then it is challenging to change course… and there are no guarantees about my attitude. That part of me frequently takes even longer to get back around to something resembling contentment or joy.

We have very few options in those moments when our plans fall apart due to caregiving needs… we can move forward with our plans and let someone else care for our loved one… or we can change course and offer the care ourselves. Can I tell you something really freeing? Neither one is wrong.

Can you hear that, friend?

It’s okay for you to let someone else provide care for your loved one so that you can move forward with a plan that’s important to you.

It’s also okay to drop whatever you’re doing to be there for your loved one when they have a need.

Do you know what we usually get stuck on that makes the whole thing hard? We can’t decide which option is best. We agonize over our decision. Why??

Guilt.

We feel guilty if we don’t drop everything.

We feel guilty if we do drop everything.

Our feelings of guilt might come from our sense of duty or responsibility. After all, this is my ______________! (Insert “mom,” “child,” “aunt,” job,” “friend,” etc.)

Our feelings of guilt might stem from a sense that we are the only ones who can actually do ______________. (the caregiving, the laundry, the task at work, etc.)

Our feelings of guilt might also spring from an abiding sense of insufficiency, that whatever we do is never enough.

All of these can cause us to feel stuck, and lead us to bitterness and frustration.

Instead of enjoying our time caring for our loved one, we might be short with them, annoyed with the change of plans, or their high level of need.

Instead of enjoying following through with our plans while someone else cares for our loved one, we might spend the time fretting, worrying about how they are, or wondering if we really should be there.

Left unchecked, we can start to feel contempt for whatever (or whomever) we have identified as the source of our difficulty. Instead of just being a change of plans, it can become a blow to our relationships. And healthy relationships are the very thing we most need.

What would happen if we did something different? What if we could do whatever we do with confidence and peace instead of the annoyance or frantic scrambling that so often results from an unexpected change?

Today there is no one else to take care of my toddler. I can (and did) get irritated, worn out by his inability to fall asleep like he does every. other. day. But my only good choice is to pause, breathe deep, adjust my plans, and be present with him. I might not finish this post until late tonight, or maybe even tomorrow. I might not get the house clean, or the laundry finished. Supper might be made after my husband walks through the door.

And if I can bring my attitude up to speed with this change, I can experience the deep, deep joy of feeling this little boy curled up in my arms. I can smell his sweet hair and stare at his amazing little toes while we rock quietly. I can remember to savor this, because it will not last. These moments are fleeting, and if I could spend my time on anything at all, it would be this. Just this:

Young boy asleep in mother’s arms

So much love,

~A

Pasta Bowls!

Close up of tri-color rotini pasta

This has been a fun meal my whole family enjoys. Again, with the bowls. Seriously. Flexible, simple meals free of complaining.

This particular bowl is highly adaptable… choose your pasta: regular, gluten-free, egg, shapes… You can do Alfredo bowls or Marinara bowls, or olive oil and herb bowls, or offer all of those as toppings.

I like to sauté some mushrooms, onions, spinach, shrimp, and fresh tomatoes all separately and with some minced garlic for additional toppings. You can offer some grated Parmesan cheese as well, or even try a vegan Parmesan option.

Serve this with a fresh green salad, maybe some French bread, and just about any human could sit down at your dinner table and find a way to enjoy filling their belly.

Each of the following components can be placed in a serving dish for folks to fill their own bowls. As you fill serving dishes, they can be placed in the oven to keep warm as you sauté the next ingredient. Amounts will vary based on the number of people you want to serve and what those people love to eat. The good news is that leftover bowls are great for work lunches the next day, so when in doubt, make more 🙂

Components of Pasta Bowls:

Pasta of your choice, cooked, drizzled with a bit of olive oil, and stirred through to keep the sticking to a minimum

Alfredo Sauce (recipe below)

Marinara Sauce (recipe below)

Olive oil with oregano, basil, thyme, salt, and pepper (I don’t actually measure here… you do you)

Shiitake, cremini, or baby bella mushrooms, sautéed with minced garlic

Onions, chopped or sliced and sautéed (or, if you have time, caramelized!)

Baby spinach sautéed with minced garlic

Fresh tomatoes, chopped and sautéed with minced garlic

Shrimp sautéed with mince garlic

Grated Parmesan cheese

Vegan Parmesan cheese (recipe below)

For the Alfredo sauce:

In saucepan, melt 4T (1/2 stick) of butter over medium heat. Stir in 1 can of condensed milk and 1/2C. Parmesan cheese, continuing to stir until cheese is melty. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Note: if you prefer Alfredo sauce that doesn’t separate, add a couple tablespoons (or up to 1/4C.) of flour… simply place flour in the saucepan at the beginning and stir to combine it with the melting butter.

For the Marinara Sauce:

18oz. tomato paste

4-6C. water

2tsp. of each, basil, oregano, and parsley

1tsp. of each, salt and sugar

1/2tsp. thyme

1/4tsp. pepper

1 bay leaf

1/4C. red wine (optional)

Combine all together. This can sit all day on low on the stove or in a crockpot. Taste and season more as desired.

For the vegan Parmesan:

(From Minimalist Baker — http://www.minimalistbaker.com)

Place 3/4C. cashews, 3T. nutritional yeast, 3/4tsp. salt, and 1/4tsp. garlic powder in food processor and process until everything is a fine meal. Store in refrigerator to maintain freshness.

I hope you and your family enjoy pasta bowls as much as we do!

So much love,

~A

Happy Holidays??

Experiencing joy in our open, exhausted hearts

Sunlight on icy, delicate, dried flowers

I’ve been struggling to write the past several days, and I was just about to chalk it up to writer’s block, when something made me pause.

“Writer’s block?!? Maybe. But seriously, have you considered what the last week has been?” The skeptical little truth teller voice in my head likes to jump right in during my introspective moments.

I took a minute to consider this… the past week has been full of good things and very challenging ones. School was only in session two days, after a four day weekend due to snow days at the end of the previous week. And then it was off to the grandparents for Thanksgiving, leaving at different times because my husband needed to work late Wednesday, which we have NEVER done before. Not once. This kind of unusual schedule throws us all for a loop… and that’s a nice, mild euphemism.

And while I love love love being home with my parents, my thrown-for-a-loop youngest children were almost literally bouncing off the walls the entire time we were there.

Not kidding.

Not even exaggerating.

It was mind-numbingly exhausting and I became less patient than usual. If you had been a fly on the wall three days in, you might possibly have caught me screaming into a pillow.

Maybe.

I won’t bore you with the details of insufficient sleep and unrelenting teasing and sugar highs (and sugar lows!! why do we never talk about the crash, my friends?!? The crash is a terrible time of misery for anyone within ear shot of my youngest child).

We got home, and I sat at the table with my husband as our seemingly feral children ran circles around us, and I asked, “am I unreasonably impatient right now? I mean, could this be a side effect of the new supplement I’m taking, or do our circumstances warrant my short fuse?”

He looked at me, half smiled, and said, “oh, our circumstances warrant it. For sure.”

Perfect.

Happy Thanksgiving! And here’s to doing the same thing to the nth degree in just a few short weeks.

Now, today, my littlest guy has been running around playing with his toys. They are all saying, “Happy Holidays!” to each other.

We’ve been putting up Christmas decorations, and he’s been playing with Mary, “Jofuss,” and baby Jesus.

This evening we tried watching a family Christmas movie together. It was not to his liking. And as he cried heartbroken, wailing, gasping tears about wanting a monster movie instead, his big brother went and found him his pjs and his nighttime diaper. The same child who has been teasing this little one mercilessly for days, was the most tender, sweet sibling for him tonight.

Both of the youngest balls of energy are now fast asleep, and I am feeling not unlike day old bread… kind of stiff and bland, not too far from molding.

In previous years I have been aware of my expectations being too high or too different from reality, killing my joy. This year, I think I had a win on that front. I’m pretty sure my expectations were almost nonexistent and therefore impossible to be unfulfilled. I am thankful for the joy which opened up in unexpected places because of that.

And maybe this is what holidays are… exhaustion with joy sprinkled on top. Like some kind of stale cupcake with superb icing. Maybe crawling in bed early tonight is not only a gift to myself, but a reasonable response to the week we have had. And maybe, tomorrow morning we’ll wake up ready for a new Monday. Or maybe not. But at least I’ll have gotten enough rest to get me through whatever the day might hold. I hope. And if not, there’s always coffee.

Here’s to happy holidays in all their forms. May you and yours be conscious of unexpected joy springing up inside your open, exhausted hearts.

So much love,

~A

Repairing Relationships

It could be the best thing you ever do

Black and silver hammer laying on a piece of wood with various nails driven into it with varying degrees of success — some are bent, others only part way in

Relationships are complex! We are in a continual dance with those around us, sometimes one that flows and feels amazing, other times stepping on toes and tripping each other. When relationships are going well, we can feel on top of the world. Burdens are lighter. We have less anxiety and feel more capable of facing challenges. But when relationships crumble, we can crumble too, falling apart in ways we never dreamed possible.

I have experienced this in my own life, and as a therapist working from an attachment perspective, I’ve walked with clients through the highs and lows, beginnings and endings of their relationships.

One of the biggest reasons I am so in love with Bowlby’s attachment theory is the concept of repair. Maybe this shouldn’t feel so novel to me. After all, I take my car in for repairs regularly. We repair things around the house. I’ve had some teeth repaired. Repair is a normal part of life!

But somehow, when it comes to relationships, we tend to not think about repair. We might think about “making up” after a fight, or “making it up to” someone we’ve wronged, and those things can get at repair if done well, but real relationship repair runs a bit deeper.

Think about any close relationship in your life (because this will happen in every one of them at some point — much more than once). Remember the last time you were really excited about something, or really sad, or just filled with fear, and you went to your person. You tried to tell them about it. But they were busy, or distracted, maybe feeling overwhelmed by their own emotions, and you didn’t feel understood. Or you felt brushed off, unimportant. Hurt.

A small rupture just happened in your relationship with that person.

What did you do next? Depending on the situation, you might have done any number of things… perhaps you tried to talk it out, told your person how you felt, they listened, understood, and the relationship was repaired; or you were too upset to do that, so you yelled, or shut down, or just walked away.

The interactions following a relationship rupture determine the depth and breadth of what needs to be repaired. What started out as a small thing can become huge. A moment of pain can become a pattern. We can begin to close ourselves off from the other in an attempt to protect ourselves. We can feel less safe, less secure.

But wait! All is not lost. Repair is the beacon of hope in relationships. Research tells us that not only can repair happen after hurt, it can actually make the relationship stronger than it was before!

That’s right. Messing up can actually benefit you and those you love when relationship ruptures are repaired well.

So what is it? What does repair look like in relationships?*

Step 1

Repair begins with openness toward the other, a desire to maintain connection, and a courageous vulnerability to examine oneself and one’s behaviors without defensiveness.

Step 2

The next step is empathy. When we empathize with someone, we are able to see things from their perspective without offering to fix it or change it. This is vital because there are at least three things going on when people relate with one another: there is my experience; there is your experience; and there is a third, a co-created experience of us, who and how we are in relationship with one another.

When we are able to be open to hear the other’s story, to empathize with how it was for them, and to examine our own thoughts and actions without defensiveness, we have a solid foundation for repairing the rupture in any relationship.

Step 3

After those pieces are in place (and this may be quick and easy, or long and arduous, depending on the situation), the next step is for each person to think about what I need to do to make it right. You might be thinking, “I don’t need to do anything! They hurt me!” And sometimes that is totally true, but this goes back to openness. Perhaps what I need to do is forgive, let go of my bitterness or desire for some form of revenge.

Then more hard work of introspection… are we willing to be open to the possibility that it is not entirely the other’s fault? Are we willing to look at ourselves first, not to take blame, but to own what is ours? Just as defensiveness has no place in repair, blame will kill the process.

Likewise, we do not do anyone any favors by taking responsibility for what is theirs. When you are vulnerable enough to examine yourself, also be wise and discerning enough to only own what is yours. This isn’t about blame! You can own what’s yours and allow the other to own what’s theirs without blame. Repair is about each person taking responsibility for themselves.

It’s kind of a spiral process that builds on itself: begin with openness and vulnerability; empathize; take responsibility.

When each of these steps is done with thoughtfulness and kindness, repair is most likely to be successful and the relationship made stronger.

So next time you trip up in the dance, or get your whole foot crushed, remember: repairing relationships is not only possible, it could be the best thing you ever do.

So much love,

~A

*Repair cannot happen in abusive relationships. What happens in the cycle of violence is not repair. It is not good, nor healthy, for the victim to try to be open and vulnerable with someone whose intent is to harm them emotionally or physically. If you are in an abusive relationship, protecting yourself is both reasonable and healthy. You can get help. Call the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233, or go to their website at thehotline.org for live chat.

5 Practices to Reduce Anxiety

Simple tools to use when anxiety strikes

Pink and blue sunset over misty blue mountains

The door closed and she fell back against it, sinking to the floor. Her heart was pounding, tears welling up in her eyes as she gasped for breath. The news had been a direct hit. Even though it was confirmation instead of surprise, it seemed the world had tilted the wrong way on its axis. Everything she had believed in for so long twisted, crumbling beneath the weight of hope denied.

“Come back to breath. Just breathe. Just breathe.”

Her usual mantra was one from a long ago Catholic mystic… “All shall be well…” it began, but right now she couldn’t bring herself to say it. It didn’t feel true.

Anxiety can crash in upon us any time. Bad news (or terrible news), fears about the future, and feelings of isolation can drop us to the floor.

In these moments, there are things we can do to keep anxiety from crushing us, but like anything new, they take time and intentionality to truly be effective. The following practices are tools I share with my clients all the time, and while I believe they can help anyone, please don’t be afraid to seek out your own therapist if anxiety is frequently overwhelming.

1) Gratitude Journal

For this exercise, you’ll want two clean journal pages for each entry. I like to use this tool before bed, as it allows time for reflection over one’s day and allows the mind to relax before sleeping.

On the left-hand page, make a list of all the things that are currently causing anxiety. These are the things you want to let go of, and as you write them on the page, visualize releasing them.

Then, on the right-hand page, make a list of all the things you are grateful for. These are the things you want to hold on to, and as you write them on the page, visualize them filling you up.

It is important to be as detailed with your gratitude as you are with your worries… for instance, instead of writing, “I’m thankful for my house,” try “I’m thankful for the wood stove that warms my home.” Generalities are more difficult to hold on to than specifics.

It is also important to do your best to make the gratitude list longer, and for it to contain some novel items each day. While there may be some things you consistently want to include, an entirely rote list often becomes less meaningful.

Ending with gratitude is also significant. This makes it the last thing on your mind before you sleep and allows the positive thoughts to stay with you.

2) Happy Place Visualization

This exercise can be practiced anywhere, any time you are able to close your eyes for a couple minutes. It takes time to develop it, but once you have, you will be able to access your happy place any time you need it.

So, close your eyes, slow your breathing, and think of your favorite place… perhaps a place you loved during your childhood or a current retreat. If you don’t have a space that comes to mind, think of what it might be like if you had it… in the woods? at the beach? in a big cozy chair by a warm wood-burning fireplace?

Then spend some time engaging your five senses there…

What do you see?

What do you hear?

What do you smell?

What do you touch?

What do you taste?

Take your time with this. Make that place as real in your mind as it would be if you were actually there. Maybe you are drinking some lemonade, or hot chocolate, or tea. Maybe you are running your fingers through the sand, or curled under a super soft blanket. Perhaps you hear birds singing, or waves crashing, or a fire crackling. Perhaps you smell the salt air, or the fallen leaves, or a favorite candle.

Once you are there, remember to continue to breathe slow and deep. Rest there for a few minutes and enjoy this space. When you are ready, open your eyes. Notice how you feel and remember you can get back there whenever you need it.

3) Comfort Box

This is a practice I learned from my own therapist years ago, and have been sharing with my clients ever since. The idea is to think about your favorite things, things that soothe you, and gather them into one place. For some people that place is a basket, for others a box they decorate, or a crate they like.

Whatever you choose, it should be large enough to fit several items… Once again, we are going to try to engage the five senses.

First, think of music that calms you. You might have a favorite CD or a relaxing playlist on your phone.

Next, think of something you enjoy tasting, like a particular tea or even a hard candy. Tea is a personal favorite because it covers three of the five senses by holding the warm mug in your hand, breathing in the aroma, and sipping the tea.

Think about other things you find calming to touch… a soft blanket or favorite sweatshirt?

Are there aromas you find calming in a candle or diffuser scent?

And finally, do you have a favorite book, perhaps poetry or even a coloring book that you enjoy looking at or coloring?

Gathering these items together when you are calm, makes them accessible during more difficult moments. Make sure you put everything you need in the basket, box, or crate (i.e., if you want to have a candle, remember to include matches; if you have a coloring book remember colored pencils, crayons, or markers). Find a space to keep your box near a spot you like to curl up in when you are stressed.

4) Progressive Muscle Relaxation

This practice has several variations. I’ll share my favorite here, but if you like this there might be a variation you prefer over this one.

To begin, have a seat and get comfortable. Close your eyes and notice your body. How is your back? Your neck? Do you need to shift at all?

Breathe slowly in through your nose, expanding your diaphragm as well as your lungs, for a count of five. Then slowly breathe out through your mouth, exhaling all the air out of your body, for a count of five. Repeat this five times.

Now, continuing to breathe slow and deep, turn your attention to your feet. Contract the muscles in your feet, making them as tight as you can (watch out for foot cramps!). Squeeze!!! For a count of five, then release, making the muscles in your feet as loose as Jell-O.

Next, contract your calf muscles and your thighs. As tight as you can! Squeeze!!! For a count of five, then relax, loose and pliable, like Jell-O.

Continue this with your hamstrings and glutes, then your abdomen and lower back.

Make fists with your hands, squeezing your hands and arms tight, shoulders to ears. Squeeze!!! For a count of five. Then drop your shoulders, release your fists, relax your arms, drop your head, chin to chest.

Slowly raise your head and turn your face toward the ceiling. Come back slowly to a comfortable center.

Finally tighten your jaw. Clench your teeth. And relax. Let your jaw hang loose.

Breathe in, slow and deep, through your nose for a count of five. Then out, through your mouth, for a count of five. Repeat this cycle five times.

Open your eyes.

How do you feel?

5) Visual Journal

This final practice is the most open-ended. Any size sketch book will work, but I prefer medium to large with spiral ring binding for ease of use. You’ll also want a variety of drawing/coloring implements such as pastels, crayons, pencils, and charcoal.

Put your emotions on the paper. Use color, texture, shape and size to externalize what you may not be able to verbalize. There are no rules here except to allow yourself the freedom to be imperfect. Give yourself time to create, allowing yourself to be fully immersed in the experience.

When you are done, decide what you want to do with it. Is it something you want to share, or something to keep and reflect on for a while? Don’t rush. Breathe.

When you are ready, it is useful to put words to what you created, whether that means writing about it or talking about it. Words help us make sense of our experience. Journaling is a good first step, where our words can be unfiltered and then sifted through for clarity. If you choose to share, make sure it is with those who are safe and understanding.

——————————————————————-

Time passed, she didn’t know how long. Slowly, she stood up and walked to the corner of her bedroom. The basket was there, beside her favorite chair. Her mug was on top with a packet of lemon tea inside. She walked to the kitchen in a daze and filled the kettle… poured her tea… added honey. Back in her bedroom with her warm mug in hand, she started the music. It played soft and low, reaching in to her soul, reminding her she was not alone. The candle was next. She placed it on the table with her tea and struck the match. Light. Such a tiny light changes everything. She pulled out the blanket, silky soft between her fingers, and wrapped it around her shoulders. Sinking into the chair, she curled her feet under her and closed her eyes for a moment.

All shall be well…

So much love,

~A

The Human Garbage Disposal

Caregiving is complex, both in the reward it offers and in the toll it exacts

Plate of spaghetti Alfredo with Parmesan sprinkled on top

Several years ago I called myself the human garbage disposal… it was sort of in jest, but like all jokes, had a pretty solid thread of truth.

Two of my kids were quite little and not only did I rarely have a moment to myself, I frequently didn’t have time to sit down and eat. I was busy preparing and serving food, cutting it up, and helping my kids eat, only to become the referee, or the bath-giver, or the naptime rocker almost immediately after they were done. When I had a chance to eat, it was what I could grab easily, and since I hate wasting food, it was most often the things my kids hadn’t eaten.

The result was a pretty sad food existence… Not only was I not eating the things I wanted, I had diversely picky eaters dictating the food I prepared.

Don’t get me wrong, I have thoroughly enjoyed a good homemade mac’n’cheese in my day, but we all know that a steady diet of refined carbs and dairy does not a happy body make.

Through the years I have frequently resolved to treat my body better by eating more veggies, less sugar, and only whole grains, but my resolutions have consistently failed in the face of uneaten food that I can’t bear to throw out (hello, awful-day-old-cookies-sitting-out-in-the-open-on-the-cooling-rack-getting-stale). But with the birth of my youngest son a couple years ago, my body decided to stage a sit-in and get my attention.

It started in my hands as I was driving long distances for work: sharp pain around my thumbs. Then numbness and tingling in my hands and up my arms. Then in my feet and legs. My body needed my attention.

“A whole-foods plant-based diet is great,” my doctor said, “try to reduce your stress and get some exercise as well. Yoga would be good.”

So while my doctor is running tests, I am trying to eat better. I cook oil-free vegan food every chance I get and research kid-friendly options for my picky eaters. I throw away more things that they aren’t finishing, and have just about eliminated added sugars and caffeine.

The food part of taking care of my body is going a whole lot better. But the exercise? Not so much.

When does one fit such a thing in? 4am seemed like my best bet. By 5am my middle son is almost always awake. My youngest is a natural night owl, so by the time we outlast him with the bedtime routine I am a virtual zombie, unable to walk up stairs let alone get into some at-home exercise routine from YouTube.

Getting up ridiculously early didn’t work. My body was also telling me it needed sleep, the rarest gem in my life for over a decade. My next idea was to exercise during my toddler’s naps on the days I was home. That went well for about two weeks.

Last Saturday I sat on the couch with my husband and started to cry. “What is the balance?” I asked, tears streaming down my face. “How do I balance taking care of everyone else and taking care of myself?”

Like the good man he is, he listened. He heard the whole thing… all the reasons why cooking is so hard and exercising is even harder… all the struggles to take care of our family and not slowly kill myself in the process.

You know there’s some octopus (maybe all octopuses??) who lays her eggs and spends all she has left nurturing them into being. Then she dies.

Melodramatic me feels like that octopus sometimes… like raising these kids is going to take everything I’ve got. They’ll grow up, move out, and I’ll be dead.

Totally over the top. Untrue.

Maybe.

The honest truth is raising kids is hard. Special needs ups the ante. How do we, as parents, do this well and not die trying? Even better, how do we truly, deeply enjoy the life we are living? I want to thrive!!

But there are many times when taking care of ourselves is in direct opposition to taking care of another. How do we manage that? Is there such a thing as balance?

Caregiving is complex, both in the rewards it offers and in the toll it exacts.

So I come back to breath. I come back to this moment. Today I ate wonderful, healthy vegetables. Today I fit in exercise by playing with my toddler. Today my kids enjoyed their food and, most importantly, they enjoyed being with their mama.

It is not as simple as putting the oxygen mask on my own face first, nor is it as sad as being a human garbage disposal. It is a dance… a moving, flowing creativity of caring for myself as I care for my babies, constantly changing and growing with each other. Rough patches and false starts interwoven with deep connection and overflowing hearts.

We may not be able to make a fixed plan that works like a charm, but we can be attentive to ourselves and our loved ones in each moment and discover new ways for everyone to have all that they need.

So much love,

~A

Who you are

You are the love and joy beneath the pain

“Be the silent watcher of your thoughts and behavior. You are beneath the thinker. You are the stillness beneath the mental noise. You are the love and joy beneath the pain”.

~ Eckhart Tolle

Ice covered tree in winter in front of a bright blue sky

For some of us, the idea that we are not our thoughts or emotions, but the one who observes them, is absolutely mind-blowing. We have been raised on the philosophical proposition that “I think, therefore I am.” Descartes’ postulation has helped us identify ourselves primarily with our minds, our ability to reason. We pride ourselves in our ability to think through problems and find effective solutions, and this isn’t wrong. It is GOOD to have a fully developed and functioning prefrontal cortex. It is good to be able to use both the left and right sides of our brains. But our thoughts are also limited and can be limiting.

In this present moment, our perceptions are impacted by every experience we have had so far in life. Our emotions are activated by the way we perceive things, and our thoughts, our plans, are carried out based on the whole mix of previous experience, activated emotions, and current experience.

Sometimes those plans work out beautifully… we witness the efficacy of our thoughts put into action, and it builds our confidence and self-esteem. But when those plans don’t work out, or worse, create a terrible mess, the opposite can happen. We can begin to see ourselves as “not good enough” or somehow defective.

When we identify ourselves as our thoughts and emotions, we are tossed around by the ever-changing landscape of our internal life.

This can get particularly tricky when we have experienced trauma. Trauma is a strong undercurrent to our everyday experiences, influencing how we see and make sense of the world, and activating our emotions so that we react to some situations as if we are in danger, instead of opening ourselves to a more thoughtful response.

The good news, whether or not we have experienced trauma, is that we can disentangle ourselves from our thoughts and emotions as our identity. When we do this, we are opened up to a peaceful, expansive stance toward our circumstances as the one who observes our thoughts and feelings about the things that are happening.

We can notice, acknowledge, and wait.

We can open ourselves up to our thoughts… we may think something, but that does not necessarily make it true. And we can experience the freedom of not needing to know. We can notice our thoughts without getting tied up in them, allowing them to flow rather than run circles through our minds that fuel our anxieties.

We can open ourselves up to experiencing our emotions without being overwhelmed by them, because we know they will pass and change, ebb and flow.

Give it a try

A good exercise to help us practice being the observer of our thoughts and feelings is a common mindfulness practice.

While seated, close your eyes and notice your body. Get comfortable… do you need to shift your legs? Your arms? Relax your shoulders, your jaw. Perhaps drop your head, chin to chest, and give a slow, gentle roll, side to side.

Once you are comfortable, imagine you are floating underwater in a river and your thoughts are ships passing overhead. You notice them and let them flow past. Often there will be a thought that captures you, a ship you board. Notice. Then get back into the river, under the water, and let that thought flow away from you without judgement.

At first, you can set a timer for just two minutes and practice observing the flow of your thoughts. With time, you can increase the length to 20 minutes or more.

This is a good practice when we are already calm. For me, first thing in the morning works best. During good moments, we train ourselves, so that in the future we can access this space during more difficult moments. This practice allows us to disentangle ourselves from our thoughts and emotions, to observe with kindness the things that flow through our minds.

As we practice, we become more and more aware of ourselves as the stillness beneath the mental noise. Our identity is settled more and more in the love and joy beneath the pain.

So much love,

~A

Mediterranean Bowls

Mediterranean dressing, tomatoes, and red onion beside a bowl of feta cheese, olives, and spinach

A dinner that’s quickly becoming a favorite in our home is Mediterranean Bowls…  Perhaps because I am a huge fan of all things BOWL.  This is like deconstructed casserole, my friends, or like a small scale buffet.  And the best part is I can actually make one easy meal and every. single. person. loves. it.

To make it super simple, I buy baby spinach and grape tomatoes for less cutting, but you can use whatever greens you like, and feel free to chop some big tomatoes, if you prefer!

My family loves roasted chickpeas (well, the portion of my family that will TRY roasted chickpeas loves them), so that’s a necessity.  Sometimes I go the extra mile for my meat eaters and do chicken souvlaki; sometimes I have no chicken in the house and they enjoy the meal anyway.

All in all, this is a super flexible dinner that can be pulled together quickly.  Add more elements, or take some out, whatever you wish!

To enjoy Mediterranean Bowls, prepare one serving bowl of each of the following:

Chicken Souvlaki (see recipe below)

Roasted Chickpeas (see recipe below)

Grape Tomatoes

Cucumber, cut in bite-sized chunks

Kalamata Olives, pitted whole or sliced

Finely diced Red Onion

Crumbled Feta Cheese

Baby Spinach

Cooked Farro (see recipe below)

Greek Salad Dressing (see recipe below)

Then all you need to do is sit back and let your family fill their bowls with the ingredients they want!  It’s miraculous, I’m telling you.  Bowls are miraculous.

For the chicken souvlaki, I’ve adapted a recipe from The Healthy Foodie that is really fantastic without any adaptation, I just need my life to be as simple as possible, so I skipped a few steps.

What you’ll need:

2lbs. chicken breasts, cut into chunks

2tbsp. lemon juice

2tbsp. white wine vinegar (I’ve also happily used ACV)

3 cloves garlic, minced

1tbsp. dried oregano

1tsp. Himalayan salt (other salt is fine too)

1tsp. freshly ground pepper

Mix all the ingredients together and marinate in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes, or put it together in the morning and let it sit all day.  When you’re ready to cook, just put it all in a covered pan (add a little oil, if you want — I prefer to use a copper pan and no oil) and cook, stirring/flipping once or twice, until chicken is no longer pink in the center.  Transfer to serving bowl.

For the roasted chickpeas:

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Drain and rinse one or two cans of chickpeas, according to your family size.  If you use oil, toss them with a tablespoon or two of avocado or extra virgin olive oil, but they turn out well without the oil too.  Spread them on a baking sheet and sprinkle with the following spices:  cumin, paprika, garlic powder, salt and pepper.  Roast for 20-30 minutes, stirring once, just until they are starting to brown.  Transfer to serving bowl.

For the farro:

Rinse one cup of farro and place in a pot with 3 cups of vegetable stock (I like Vegetable Better Than Boullion).  Bring to a boil, stir, and reduce heat.  Continue to simmer for about 20 minutes until the grain is soft.  Transfer to serving dish.

For the Greek dressing:

I love this recipe from afamilyfeast.com.  I leave out the sugar and mint from the original recipe.

Mix together the following:  2 large garlic cloves, crushed; 2tsp. dried basil; 1tsp. salt; 1tsp. freshly ground black pepper; 1/4tsp. onion powder; 1tbsp. dried oregano; 1/8C. lemon juice; 2tbsp. red wine vinegar; 2tbsp. water; 1tsp. Dijon mustard; 1/2C. extra virgin olive oil (if desired, substitute more water to taste, if you prefer not to use oil).

If you don’t have the time or energy to make the dressing, using whatever store bought dressings are in your refrigerator will be just fine. Enjoy the gift of the grocery store.

I hope you enjoy this meal as much as we do!

So much love,

~A