Acceptance and Resistance

Acceptance could be the most important New Year’s resolution for all of us

Close up of praying mantis on wood siding

Let’s talk about acceptance and resistance, shall we? And let’s get real. Today I hurt all over… my left elbow, my back, my neck, my right ankle and foot, my knees, my head, my hands, my abdomen. My hands and arms tingled and felt numb. I was home with my littlest guy who wanted to jump on me, slide down my legs, hang on my arms, but everywhere he touched hurt.

It hurt my body to play with my baby.

And I have not done very well at acceptance. Nope. I have resisted this bullishly for months, and today was prime resistance material. In fact, by this evening I was angry. I do not want this to be a real thing. I do not want to feel this way. I completely sabotaged my healing diet by eating Christmas candies and cookies filled with sugar and gluten.  I drank a rum and Coke.  It is New Year’s Eve and I want some semblance of “normal.”

And as I brushed my teeth, grumbling about the unfairness of life, melting into my own pity party like it’s its own New Year’s celebration, Eckart Tolle’s words came loudly into my mind… “whatever the present moment contains, accept it as though you had chosen it…”

Chosen it?!?? What would it look like if I had chosen this? Why in the world would I have chosen this???

And then, quietly, like a silent tidal wave, I was overwhelmed once again with a realization (because I simply don’t catch on quickly, my friends, not at all)… this whole thing is an invitation to take care of myself like I never have before. To notice my body, give it what it needs, move it, feed it, sit it only on soft seats, and give it many pillows. It is a chance unlike any other to nurture myself.

I know that self-care is important as a caregiver. I have tried to practice good self-care for many years. But this thing takes it up a notch… or ten. This thing is demanding my attention and forcing my focus on deep self-care. I cannot be the caregiver my son needs for the rest of my life if I don’t take care of myself now, figure out this body of mine, and give it what it needs.

So, this year, my New Year’s resolution looks a little different. This year, my goals are not big in the traditional sense. This year my goal is to fully accept this thing… to listen to and care for this one body of mine.

We all have ways in which we resist ourselves, turning away from our deepest needs as if they aren’t real. For some of us, it is the need for emotional connection that scares us most. For some of us, our need for food gets ignored. We kick against our needs as if somehow being human is itself wrong or a nuisance. We work harder, longer, faster, and get exhausted, but we can’t pause long enough to really refuel. We resist being the vulnerable, limited beings we all are.

But somehow it is really those very vulnerabilities and limitations that we need. We need the humility. We need the realization of how much we need others. We need the unity of understanding how connected we all are. We need the openness, kindness, and compassion these things can grow in us.

We need acceptance.

Acceptance of ourselves in all of our glorious complexity. Acceptance of our weaknesses and the things that make us tender. Acceptance of others, in all of their complexity, glory, and flaws.

Tonight we celebrate the end of a year and the beginning of a new one. Whatever the past year has held, it is closing. We are being given a fresh start, a chance to try new things, to begin again.

We have an opportunity to practice acceptance rather than resistance. To move peacefully instead of reactively.

How do you want to begin again? In what ways do you need to accept yourself and your needs? Who or what motivates you to do that well?

So much love,

~A

4 Ways to Find Rest When It Seems Impossible

Rest is a vital part of resilience. Here are four ways to sneak some rest into any day.

As anyone who is a caregiver will tell you, one of the hardest needs to meet when taking care of another person is the need for rest. Sometimes it can seem like we are barely making it through the day, only to find the rest we so desperately need is also elusive at night, whether due to our loved one’s night wakings, or our own struggle to stop (physically or mentally) and sleep.

From boosting our immunity to improving memory, there are a multitude of reasons why rest is a necessity, but as caregivers it can seem impossible to get all we need. Here are four tools to help you squeeze a little rest into almost any impossible situation.

Black and white cat asleep on a table with a vase of small white flowers

Mindful moment

Simply put, mindfulness is any act of being entirely present in this moment. Mindfulness has been shown to reduce anxiety, improve immune function, and enhance relationships, among other things. The great news for caregivers is that anything can be done with mindfulness.

Breathe in deeply through your nose. Exhale through your mouth. Continue breathing this way as you engage your five senses.

What do you see?

What do you hear?

What are you touching?

What do you smell?

What do you taste?

Allow yourself to be fully present where you are… let thoughts about what you need to do, or what you wish you had done, float away. Take as long as you can… just a few moments, five minutes, even 20 minutes, if you are able.

Incorporating mindfulness into caregiving might look something like this: while making a smoothie for your loved one, you allow yourself to totally engage your five senses in the task, breathing deeply in through your nose and out through your mouth as you notice the smell of the blender as you take off the lid, the feeling of cold on your hands from adding frozen fruit, the sound of the bag, the appearance of the ice on each piece of fruit, the sound of them hitting the blender cup, the swirl of the blender mixing each element, the rattle settling into a loud whir as the ingredients become smooth, and the taste of the smoothie you’ve just created. Add in an element of gratitude for each of those sensory experiences, and you’ll raise the benefit of the entire experience tenfold.

Energy medicine

Donna Eden offers a quick afternoon pick-me-up exercise: stand with your feet shoulder width apart, hold your left shoulder firmly with your right hand, then run it across your body down to your right hip (think about following the line of a cross-body bag) and let your right hand rest. Take your left hand and hold your right shoulder firmly. Then run it across your body down to your left hip. Let your left hand rest. Repeat the whole process a few times and notice how you feel rejuvenated. For Donna’s daily energy routine, check out this video: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Di5Ua44iuXc

15 minute nap

Let me just be clear: I hate naps. Always have. Not because I don’t need them, but most often because they are either interrupted, insufficient, or (rarely) I sleep too long and wake feeling worse. But when they’re done correctly, naps give us an energy boost and enhance our ability to think clearly.

Make sure you set a timer for this, because oversleeping (anything longer than 20-25 minutes) will have you feeling worse when you wake.

It’s also important to note that if you suffer from insomnia or depression, naps might make things worse instead of better… perhaps choose one of the other options instead.

Sometimes we can have so much going on that we find it hard to fall asleep (we are thinking of all the things that need to be done while we have 15 quiet minutes, or wondering if we even have 15 quiet minutes). Don’t get upset about this. Close your eyes and try to let go of those thoughts. Remind yourself that everything that needs to be done will be done better if you have a little rest first. Breathe deeply. Rest your body and your mind. Even if you don’t fall asleep, this 15 minutes can be rejuvenating.

Stretching and breathing

Here is another restful break that can be done almost any time. Choose any stretches you enjoy, or try any combination of these: side stretches (one arm over your head while leaning to the opposite side, then switch), lunges, standing toe touches, or any number of yoga poses. While stretching, focus on breathing deeply and notice how your body feels. Focus on stretches that meet your body’s needs for opening and loosening. Ending with some jumping jacks or running in place will help you feel energized.

Close up of black and brown hound dog sleeping curled in a willow basket

Rest is a vital part of resilience. While a solid 7-9 hours of sleep each night is still important, these activities will help you make it through when ideal sleep is out of reach. What do you do to rest?

So much love,

April

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

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

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

Spinach and Self-Care

True self-care begins with kindness and compassion for ourselves

My toddler LOVES candy.  Not just a little bit.  Like, if I would let him, he would eat candy exclusively.  I’m not even sure he would get sick.  He would be the one child who can eat mounds of sugar in every form and feel the best.  And even if he wasn’t that child, he would sure like me to let him try.

Sadly enough for him, I set limits to his inhalation of all things sweet.  We talk about healthy food, and what foods are actually healthy.  We talk about how our bodies need healthy food to grow and be strong.  We talk about how delicious healthy food is at meals and snacks all day long.  Every day.

And this has gotten me thinking… healthy eating is really an act of self-care.

I don’t know about you, but when I hear people talking about self-care, it usually goes something like this, “Wine and Netflix in my pjs!  Self-care night!”  And just like my son with candy, if given the opportunity, I would not turn down a night of wine and Netflix in pjs (though I might modify the wine part to some decadent chocolate dessert… the apple really doesn’t fall far from the tree, my friends).

And while this sounds like a great night, the unfortunate news is that’s not actually self-care.

I know. Bummer.

Wine (or chocolate truffle cheesecake, if you will) and Netflix are like our adult version of all the candy.  We like it, we might even crave it, it might be difficult to stop, but it’s not helping us.  It’s not self-care.  In fact, if we allowed ourselves to have wine (or chocolate lava cake) and Netflix every night, we would not be healthier.  We would not feel better.  Ultimately, we would feel a great deal worse.  With time, our bodies would feel the effects of our sedentary consumption and not work as well.  Our souls would be uncomfortable, our emotions low.

Self-care isn’t about what feels good in the moment (like fudgy mocha brownies) and eventually makes us sick.  True self-care is about doing things for ourselves that promote our emotional, physical, spiritual, and mental health.

True self-care begins with kindness and compassion for ourselves.

When we are kind to our bodies by feeding ourselves nourishing food, we are practicing self-care.

Think about that for a moment…  How much easier does self-care become when it is embedded in the very food we eat?  Have some berry-banana oatmeal for breakfast and practice self-care!  Have some carrots and hummus as a mid-morning snack.  Self-care!  Have a roasted fall vegetable salad with maple-tahini dressing for lunch.  Self-care!  An apple.  Self-care!  Spinach.  Self-care!

Kindness allows me to pay attention to my body, noticing the foods that make me feel good (even long after they are consumed), and choosing those over the foods that make me feel sick, sluggish, or give me headaches.  Kindness also offers me grace when I do choose chocolate peanut butter pie, and it allows me to smile at myself instead of berate myself for my choice.

Kindness extends to others as well, helping my toddler enjoy delicious healthy food, and also allowing him to have some candy sometimes, because he is human, just like me.

It doesn’t have to be complicated, and it certainly shouldn’t be about deprivation, but when we shift our perspective and think about being kind to ourselves with our food choices, we open up a whole world of small things that add up to big time self-care, nourishing our whole selves for long-term wellness.

In what ways can you offer yourself kindness through nourishment today?

So much love,

~A

Spinach and Self-Care

My toddler LOVES candy.  Not just a little bit.  Like, if I would let him, he would eat candy exclusively.  I’m not even sure he would get sick.  He would be the one child who can eat mounds of sugar in every form and feel the best.  And even if he wasn’t that child, he would sure like me to let him try.

Sadly enough for him, I set limits to his inhalation of all things sweet.  We talk about healthy food, and what foods are actually healthy.  We talk about how our bodies need healthy food to grow and be strong.  We talk about how delicious healthy food is at meals and snacks all day long.  Every day.

And this has gotten me thinking… healthy eating is really an act of self-care.

I don’t know about you, but when I hear people talking about self-care, it usually goes something like this, “Wine and Netflix in my pjs!  Self-care night!”  And just like my son with candy, if given the opportunity, I would not turn down a night of wine and Netflix in pjs (though I might modify the wine part to some decadent chocolate dessert… the apple really doesn’t fall far from the tree, my friends).

And while this sounds like a great night, the unfortunate news is that’s not actually self-care.

I know. Bummer.

Wine (or chocolate truffle cheesecake, if you will) and Netflix are like our adult version of all the candy.  We like it, we might even crave it, it might be difficult to stop, but it’s not helping us.  It’s not self-care.  In fact, if we allowed ourselves to have wine (or chocolate lava cake) and Netflix every night, we would not be healthier.  We would not feel better.  Ultimately, we would feel a great deal worse.  With time, our bodies would feel the effects of our sedentary consumption and not work as well.  Our souls would be uncomfortable, our emotions low.

Self-care isn’t about what feels good in the moment (like fudgy mocha brownies) and eventually makes us sick.  True self-care is about doing things for ourselves that promote our emotional, physical, spiritual, and mental health.

True self-care begins with kindness and compassion for ourselves.

When we are kind to our bodies by feeding ourselves nourishing food, we are practicing self-care.

Think about that for a moment…  How much easier does self-care become when it is embedded in the very food we eat?  Have some berry-banana oatmeal for breakfast and practice self-care!  Have some carrots and hummus as a mid-morning snack.  Self-care!  Have a roasted fall vegetable salad with maple-tahini dressing for lunch.  Self-care!  An apple.  Self-care!  Spinach.  Self-care!

Kindness allows me to pay attention to my body, noticing the foods that make me feel good (even long after they are consumed), and choosing those over the foods that make me feel sick, sluggish, or give me headaches.  Kindness also offers me grace when I do choose chocolate peanut butter pie, and it allows me to smile at myself instead of berate myself for my choice.

Kindness extends to others as well, helping my toddler enjoy delicious healthy food, and also allowing him to have some candy sometimes, because he is human, just like me.

It doesn’t have to be complicated, and it certainly shouldn’t be about deprivation, but when we shift our perspective and think about being kind to ourselves with our food choices, we open up a whole world of small things that add up to big time self-care, nourishing our whole selves for long-term wellness.

In what ways can you offer yourself kindness through nourishment today?

So much love,

April

6 Simple Steps to Make It Through the Worst Times

How to be peaceful, calm, and kind when circumstances are not

Wooden dock on a lake in the moonlight

Most of the practices for calming in the face of anxiety or panic attacks hinge on the idea that here, now, I am safe. The premise is that worry and anxiety come from being trapped by the traumatic memories of the past, or from thinking of the terrible “what ifs” of the future.

But what happens when it’s not okay here and now? What if, in this moment, I am experiencing ongoing pain, or my child is having the tenth meltdown of the morning, or my spouse is having a major medical event, or my parent is showing signs of dementia?

How do we deal with the activation of the present moment without losing our minds?

This question has been with me frequently over the past several years… how can I be peaceful, calm, and kind when circumstances are not?

Before I share some steps I’ve found effective, let me say that these are things we can do on a “good” day, when things might be hard but we’ve gotten enough rest, or we are tired but thoroughly enjoying our coffee… these are not things that work all the time and we shouldn’t expect ourselves to always be peaceful, calm, and kind. We are humans interacting with humans. We WILL mess up. We will lose it and those we love will lose it. This is not only to be expected, it is one of the things I most love about John Bowlby’s theory of attachment: we will mess up in our relationships, but when we take the time to repair well, our relationships will be stronger than they were before!

But I digress… my point is, no one is perfect and we shouldn’t expect perfection from ourselves or anyone else. That expectation alone will cause great suffering.

However, when we are able, what can we do to stay calm and steady in the face of immediate hardship?

As anyone who practices meditation will tell you, the first and most basic tool is awareness. When things are getting hard and you feel yourself getting activated, notice.

That’s all. The first step is to notice what is happening. Eckhart Tolle says, “Rather than being your thoughts and emotions, be the awareness behind them.” We are not our thoughts or emotions, we are the observer.

Once we notice, we have the opportunity to take the next step, which is to pause. Instead of impulsively acting on whatever emotion or thought is arising, we can notice it and pause. Take a deep breath.

And perhaps another.

Pausing and slowing our breathing can help us calm our amygdala, a small part of our brain responsible for keeping us safe. Except our amygdala only gives us three options: fight, flight, or freeze. Sometimes those options are useful. When dealing with loved ones, usually they are not. Usually they will make the situation worse instead of better.

So, breathing slow and deep can calm our amygdala and send it the signal that everything is ok. Then our prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that can make plans, be flexible, think through options, and let us see things from another’s point of view, can come back online and be in charge again.

We can reflect.

We can choose our response.

Unfortunately, even with our prefrontal cortex running the show, there simply are not always going to be solutions for the circumstances we face.

We’ve noticed. We’ve paused. We’ve breathed. We’ve reflected.

And our child is still screaming and throwing things.

Our pain is still curling us in a ball.

Our spouse is still sick.

Our parent is still oddly belligerent.

So the next step becomes perhaps the most difficult… acceptance. This is what is happening. I cannot change it. So I accept it.

Don’t get me wrong here, acceptance does not mean I will lay down and give up. Instead, acceptance is truly a form of courage. To face things as they are is one of the bravest things we will ever do.

We can’t rush this one. Acceptance may not happen in this moment. It may not happen today. It may not even happen next week. Or it may happen right now, but not tomorrow. Each of these steps takes practice, each one takes time.

As we give ourselves time to notice, time to pause, time to breathe, time to accept reality as it is, we are also practicing compassion. And in my mind, compassion is the crux of the whole thing. When we are able to practice compassion for ourselves as we learn and grow, we can also begin to practice compassion for those around us. And when it’s not okay, we need compassion more than any other time…

Compassion for ourselves in our own failings and shortcomings, when we don’t respond to tough situations the way we wish we would…

Compassion for those around us who are having a hard time, even when we aren’t sure we understand.

You see, compassion softens us. It allows us to open our hands and our hearts, to be present to ourselves or to another with tenderness, kindness, and care instead of bitterness, anger, or coldness. Compassion upholds and completes the cycle of finding peace when it’s not okay.

The steps are simple: notice; pause; breathe; reflect; accept; practice compassion. But they are not easy.

Most of us have not been trained to respond to hard and impossible things in these ways. Some of us might even find ourselves annoyed right now. If so, take a moment to think about how you usually respond when things really aren’t ok. What does it feel like in your body? Does your pulse quicken? Do your hands shake? Does your breathing get shallow? How does your voice sound? Do you yell? Go silent? And in the end, how do you feel? How do those around you feel?

Is what you’re doing working?

If so, then notice. Think about the things you do that work for you. Pause and appreciate them.

If not, then notice. Think about how you hope to feel in the face of difficulty. Think about how you want those around you to feel. Would you like to try something new?

There are many unfixable things we will face in our lives. If you haven’t encountered them yet, just give life time… they will come. And when they do, our only choice, our only power, lies in our response.

Notice.

So much love,

~A