To Hear and Respond

Sharing our stories, and welcoming the stories of others, can be avenues for hope, learning, and growth

Close up of a shiny black mug of coffee with three steamed milk hearts

The other day, I went to two churches… one, the place where I am experiencing some healing through welcome and kindness. The other, the place where some of my deepest pain originated.

As I sat in the one service, tears came to my eyes multiple times. The singing was authentically beautiful. Words from the scripture passage in Luke leapt at me. The pastor’s words were full of grace, compassion, and truth. Tears flowed down my cheeks as the pastor said, “the very nature of God is to hear and respond.”

My son lay down on the pew and fell asleep for a while. The woman next to us smiled and shifted down so he could have more room. When he woke up and started to rock and flap his hands, no one stared or even gave us looks. When we needed to leave in the middle of a prayer, all the embarrassment I felt seemed to come only from me, not from the judgement of others.

This, for me, has been a space I could enter tentatively, my uncertainty offered grace without even knowing my story. It has been a place that has reminded me of home… of the little country church where I grew up, where people still love me after (and through) everything. 

It has become one of very few spaces in my life where I feel I can let my guard down a bit with my son, my hypervigilance in this public gathering reduced by the kindness I feel in the very air around me.

As I left that space to go to the next church, I had a visceral sense of anxiety… my chest tightened and my shoulders tensed. Even as I got in my car, I considered just going home. The excuses began running readily through my head… all the ways I could justify not going to the place I had said I would go. 

But I had said I would go. My daughter had asked me to come. She was singing her favorite songs and was excited. I had told her I would go. So I would go.

Pulling into the parking lot, I recognized every person. Some had aged, some had grown up, some seemed to have stayed just the same. Some waved, friendly. Most paid no attention, or just looked at me, perhaps wondering if they recognized me. 

I could have told you each of their names. I had made it my job to know each one.

Walking in, I passed some people who did not smile, did not greet me.

Was it because it was me, or because they would not have greeted anyone?

I made it through the doors and hid for a moment in the bathroom, gathering myself together.  Then I stepped out again. The service had started. I could hear my daughter singing.

I breathed deeply and looked in at the sanctuary to try to find a seat. A wave of relief washed over me as I spotted one of my best friends sitting with her family in an otherwise empty row. I made a beeline and sat down. It was right up front, on the side. No hiding here. Breathe.

My friend’s son saw me first and smiled, getting his mom’s attention. Welcome. A smile and a hug. “Come over here, beside me. I’m so glad you’re here.” She knew how hard it was.

Then my daughter spotted me and smiled from up on stage. I had made it. I was there for her. I forgot everything else and focused on the beautiful human up on that stage, nervous and excited, helping to lead worship. My girl.

I watched people notice and recognize me slowly. One by one, eye contact, few smiles. Perhaps it was just the space… not the time for smiling. Perhaps it was me.

The striking contrast I was feeling between churches continued as the scripture was read… a Psalm calling out to God for justice against enemies. A delineation between “us” and “them” in which the writer is the dove and his enemies are wild beasts.

My self-righteousness reared its ugly head as I related to the Psalm. The part of me that wants that kind of justice could have laughed out loud at the irony of the moment.

That part of me wants to tell my story and all of its particulars to the world. That part of me wants to blame others for the mistakes I made, to justify my failings with a childish “he made me do it” complete with a pointing finger and red-faced tears.

In some way, I know I must find expression for that part of me too. She is the hurt child who just wanted someone in a position of power to protect her, to stand up and defend her. To tell her they believed her, that what was done to her was wrong, that those who did it would have to be reprimanded, that it would not be allowed to continue any longer.

That is the part of me that feels so deeply betrayed and abandoned.

And as I let those thoughts and feelings wash over me, they were followed other thoughts…

The recurring realization that God’s justice does not look like ours. God’s justice is for everyone, not just me. God’s justice says there is no “us” and “them,” but we are all one. Loved and delighted in. God’s justice means that God wants good for me just as much as good for those who hurt me.

Indignation followed close behind. Because how will I ever find my voice if I keep being this egalitarian empathic freak?!?!? It would seem to me that one cannot tell a story about pain, without discussing the reason for the pain.

My child comes to me with a cut on his finger, and my first question is, “oh baby, what happened?”

If someone said that to me, how would I respond?

The question brought me up short. Because that is exactly how God comes to me, comes to each of us, in our pain.  “Oh my child, what happened?” Spoken tenderly. The Unconditionally Loving Parent bends down to be with us and hear our story, holding us while we cry.  That same Parent knows the best way to heal the wound, carefully tending it. And like a child, we might resist… “No!!!! That will sting!!!” But when we embrace the care, and give it time, healing does come.

God has more than enough good, more than enough healing for everyone.  For me, and for those who hurt me.

When I find my voice from this internal space, sharing my story can be for the benefit of those in similar situations.  To let them know they are not alone. To offer some hope that they, too, can make it through. It can also be for the learning and growth of those who caused pain, that they might not repeat what they did before.

As I’ve reflected on these two church services, it struck me that they are a reflection of our culture. 

For the past few years I have felt that we are at a crossroads… on one hand, devolving into “us” and “them,” in which anyone who is “them” is ridiculous, or stupid, or aggregiously wrong and “I can’t even listen to you because you are clearly insane.”  This path leads us to division and pain… to everyone losing.  

On the other hand, we could notice this time in history as an opportunity… we could allow our nature to be like God’s, ready to hear and respond. 

We could take time to listen to the painful stories others share about their experience and simply believe them without defending ourselves (“but we didn’t mean to,” or “that may have happened, but it wasn’t me,” or “but you are not the only one in pain here, I’m in pain too”).

We could choose kindness, graciousness, and welcome, instead of dividing those around us into the camps of doves and wild beasts.

I believe with every fiber of my being that everyone is doing the best they can, and the path to healing involves radical belief in the highest good existing in every one of us.  

I believe that the vast majority of people do not intend to harm others, but they do.  And those who do intend harm are filled with pain in such a way that it overflows to those around them.

It is my deep hope that each of us can experience the healing of welcome, kindness, grace, and understanding… and that we can, in turn, offer the same to others in the best way we are able each moment.

Where have you experienced welcome and kindness?

Where have you experienced pain?

We each have a story to tell.  Sometimes the particulars are things we share only with our closest, most trusted friends.  Sometimes we pour them out only to God. May our stories bring us together. May they be vehicles of hope, learning, and growth for those willing to hear and respond.

Chronic Grief

Opening ourselves to grief can make room for joy

Sunrise over the ocean

I will never forget the first time my daughter rolled over. She was just two months old, and by some fluke she managed to flip over while laying on the bed. I made a huge deal of it, as only a first time mom can, talking to her, cheering, and immediately beginning to anticipate when she would roll over again. Days turned into weeks, and weeks into months. Then one day she did it. And then again. And again. Suddenly she was rolling across the living room, going wherever she wanted.

Her development continued in this way… she would consistently do the next “big” milestone, like sitting up, or crawling, or walking, one time and very early. Then she wouldn’t do it again for at least two weeks. But once she did it the next time, she had it nailed. Seriously, once that child started to actually walk, she rarely fell. It was like from the beginning of her life she was wired to only do something if she could do it well (yikes, I know).

Her brother was quite different. He took forever to hold his head up in a way that made me confident he could sustain it. Every developmental milestone was delayed, heightening my search to figure out what was going on. I think I thought if I knew what was happening, I could fix it. There must be some therapy, some medicine, some diet that would help him.

But no one seemed to have answers, and even when answers came, solutions did not follow.

It was the first time I’ve felt so completely powerless.

We would go to church and I would stay in the nursery to help, watching all the other babies doing things mine could not do.

Comparison to his sister or to his peers was excruciatingly painful. I knew I shouldn’t do it. I had heard all the people say, ” he will do it in his own time.” And I knew that if he was going to do anything, it would be in his own time. The problem for me was not the delay, but the unknown… it wasn’t about doing it in his own time, it was about what he would or wouldn’t do at all.

Each milestone that passed brought a fresh wave of grief.

Would he learn to sit up?

Would he crawl?

Would he walk?

When would he say words I could understand?

He cries so much, if he could just speak, maybe he could tell me what’s wrong and I could make it better…

Then came school, and all the things were hard. Fine motor, reading, writing, math, peer relationships, gym class, recess, field trips…

And with each struggle, grief. We can say all the nice things about developing character and growing through adversity, and I can accept that to be true for myself. But for my child? Sure, to a certain extent, yes. But not like this. When everything is hard, that doesn’t grow you, that defeats you. There has got to be a limit to what a person has to bear.

Of course, this was really just my struggle. I would guess that if my son could tell me about his early school experience, he would say it was fun. He knew he was loved, and I have entire scrapbooks filled with joyful pictures of shaving cream projects and sensory tables, PT’s balance beams and OT’s scissors.

He might have been behind his peers, but I am pretty positive he was blissfully unaware of any difference.

No, this was mostly my problem. But it really was a problem. Grief seemed to ooze from my pores, like too much garlic. Grief over the unknown, grief over the unfixable. It never quite left and it never quite consumed me. I pushed it off with prayers focusing on what I had to be grateful for, and all the things I could do to make things the best they could be. I believed in cures and new medications and miracles. But just underneath the surface, I questioned God’s goodness, and felt plagued with the why of it all.

Then one night, in the middle of the night, laying in my son’s bed as he rocked back and forth beside me, unable to sleep, I heard very clearly, “I am not going to heal your son. This is something both of you need.”

Tears welled up in my eyes and ran silently down my cheeks. This was not the answer I wanted. This was not the clarity I sought. And yet I knew it was true. Deeply and unshakably true.

Since that night, I have experienced varying degrees of acceptance, from raging against it to hesitantly embracing it. The words that God placed on my heart from that time on have been trust and surrender, neither of which seem to be my forte as I am still working on them over a decade later.

Through all these years of grief, it seemed like no one really had the right words for my experience and yet I knew it was not unique. Many other parents I talked with experienced similar sadnesses as they raised their children with special needs. This grief was not a one time event, as in the death of a loved one, with lasting impact. Instead, it was a series of events (or non-events like missed developmental milestones), each like a dull ache, lingering… chronic grief.

Sometimes I felt guilty for feeling the sadness at all… my child was not typically developing, but as far as I knew his disorder was not life threatening. How could I grieve when other parents have lost their children?

But I’ve learned that grief doesn’t follow rules, and feeling guilty for feeling what we feel rarely makes us feel any better. In fact, more often it leads to despair and stuck-ness.

Instead, I have come to expect this chronic grief. It seems to be a natural partner to chronic illness, but I never know when it will show up, I just know that it will. And when it does, the only thing to do is to acknowledge it. Look at it, full-on, without hiding. Much like a storm, it is here now. It was not yesterday, and it likely will move through by tomorrow. Somehow acknowledging this makes it both less surprising and less overwhelming. I feel more able to roll with it, and not be drowned.

And just like an unexpected rainbow immediately following a storm, as I have come to expect grief, I have also been amazed by joy. As I get better at letting go of my own expectations for what “should” be and accept what is, I am finding that what is can be exquisite. Joy springs up in the recognition of goodness that still surrounds and upholds us. Joy slips in in the simplicity of mutual care, expressed through small acts of kindness. Joy underpins the creation of our own path, making a unique life that works for us. Joy overflows in watching my children grow at their own pace, in their own ways, light-bearers all.

Grief still settles in beside me at times, usually accompanied by some worry about the future, or perhaps some present pain, but it is a familiar presence, lacking the power it used to hold. This life, all of it, is making me soft and strong. It is forming me and my family into the shape of grace.

Wherever you are on this journey, may hope accompany you. May you see dawn breaking on the horizon, because even if circumstances don’t change, you can. May this path open you up and fill you with grace.

So much love,

~A

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

I want to be a Wiping Wizard

It’s all about the small moments

Close up of hands rinsing a soapy white cloth under running water in a sink

When I was staying home with my very young children, I used to joke that my primary job as “Mom” was to wipe… wipe noses, wipe bottoms, wipe tables, counters, floors.

If you were to add up all the hours spent wiping, it would be around 27 hours a day. That’s right, more than 100% of any given day as a SAHM of multiple youngsters is spent wiping something. Spilled milk, my shirt, drool, my pants, my child’s shirt, spit up, poo, the potty seat, my child’s face, my face, my hair, my child’s hands…

You get the picture. All. The. Time. Wiping. I dreamt about wiping… messes too big for any cloth. Laundry piling up. Washing machines breaking under the strain. My flabby triceps becoming svelt and defined from the constant effort of it all. (There’s always a silver lining, folks)

Then one day it dawned on me that really, honestly, being a good mom to my kids could actually be all about the quality of my wiping. I realized that this thing I do constantly mattered deeply.

We spend so much of our time worrying about how we are doing as a parent… how many months (or years) of therapy will our kids need as grown-ups because of us? Are we providing enough support? Too much? Are they having too much screen time? Do they need more activities or more rest? How are they when they are away from us? Are they respectful? Kind? Do they tease other children the way they tease their siblings? Are they hitting their developmental milestones on time? Are they hitting other people?

What I’ve learned over the years working in attachment is that it is all about the small moments. We get caught up in those questions and miss the fact that our child’s face flashed with shame when their milk spilled on the carpet, right before they started to cry.

If we are doing a good job of wiping, we are present. We notice not only that the milk spilled on the carpet, but also that our child feels bad about it.

If we are doing a good job of wiping, we selfregulate. Rather than letting our initial annoyance or frustration take the lead and cause us to say or do things we later regret, we take a deep breath (or five) and lead with compassion.

If we are doing a good job of wiping, we are responsive. We might be worried about getting the milk up or the possibility of lingering stink if it’s not cleaned properly, but we choose to respond first to our child’s emotional need. It might only take a moment, getting down to our kid’s level with a hug… “oh dear, your milk spilled! That’s ok, I know it was an accident. We’ll get it cleaned up, don’t worry. You can help! We’ll work together.” Or we might need to spend a little more time with our kiddo before it’s ok to start wiping, responding first to their needs and then to the task.

If we are doing a good job of wiping, we are kind. This may be the 7 millionth spill we’ve cleaned up in the past 30 minutes, we might be ready to lose our minds, but we recognize that our child is not the bad guy. Our child is just that, a child. And children spill things. Kindness allows us to treat our children as we would want to be treated. Kindness allows us to look past the momentary frustration to see the beautiful little person we value more than life itself, and to treat them accordingly.

We can learn a great deal about ourselves in these small moments… Are we patient or do we lose control of our emotions? Are we servant leaders or dictators? Do we understand our children or miss them entirely? However we are, our children soak us up.

In these small moments, I have the unique and weighty opportunity to be the person I want my children to become.

I no longer feel exasperated by all the wiping (though, admittedly it has lessened somewhat). It has become for me a sort of barometer for how I am doing… on good days I am present, regulated, responsive, and kind. Other days I might struggle with one or all of those things, and then know I need to give myself a little care in order to get back on track.

These days, my parenting goal is to be a wiping wizard.

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

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