Monday, November 24, 2014

Holiday Grace


May we all have compassion for ourselves, and for those around us.

That is what I pray for this time of year - compassion for myself and compassion for others. Over and over. It is actually more of a mantra than a prayer.

This time of year is so tricky for me, and I suspect it is tricky for a lot of other people too. Okay, I know it is tricky. It is so easy to fall prey to expectations - those that come from others and our own - of what we "should" be doing. What we should be planning, cooking, baking, eating, decorating, buying, selling, and how we should be doing it - gracefully, effortlessly, joyfully, gratefully, and with ease. Surrounded by loved ones.

I struggle enough with day to day life when it is not the holiday season. There is a pile of papers on my kitchen counter that is so tall, it could be dangerous. I don't know what to do with it so I move it from one place to another. I'm tempted to throw it all away. It overwhelms me. In the past several months I have missed appointments that I never thought I'd miss and forgotten to respond to a zillion different requests. My voice mailbox is full. I owe people money. My bedroom is a disaster. And, I have no idea what we're having for dinner.

I'm weary. It's only Monday. And, it's GO time. No rest for the weary here. On Thursday we're having Thanksgiving dinner at our house and Pierogi Day on Friday. Two days of crazy, busy, super messy fun.

These are fun days for sure, but they are exhausting days too, and in as much as it makes me happy to spend this time with my family during the holidays, it also makes me sad. When I look around the room at all the faces of those I love most, I am hyper-aware that certain other loved ones are missing. Their absence hits me when I least expect it. One minute I could be helping my husband whip the mashed potatoes and the next minute I am longing to crawl back into bed and hide under the covers because my dad isn't here to play his guitar and sing Amazing Grace before dinner.

You know the woman who just stole your parking spot? She might be grieving.

The man who cut in front of you in line at the grocery store? He might be wondering how he will pay his bill.

The friend who seems to be ignoring you? She might be fighting for her marriage.

That flaky mom from school who won't return your call? She could be waiting… waiting for test results… wondering what the future holds.

We just cannot know what is on another person's heart or mind. We cannot know what keeps her up at night or what keeps her from wanting to get out of bed in the morning. Sometimes we wonder, and yet we don't really need to know. Do we? Couldn't we all just drop the inquiry? What if we stopped speculating, comparing, and judging? What if we decided not to take things personally? What if we decided to take responsibility for ourselves, and to trust that others can do the same?

What if we stepped out of our own heads and hearts for just a moment to let love in - to make space for compassion?

What if we just loved each other? I think that would be so amazing.


Because this time of year is so very tricky and our hearts are tender and our minds are over-stressed, maybe we could start with a bit more compassion right now and give it a go through the end of December? Let's just try it. Shall we? What have we got to lose? We have so much to gain. So much.

I'll keep praying… I know you will too.

May we all have compassion for ourselves, and for those around us.
May we trust that we are all doing our best.
May we release judgment.
And, may we make way for love.
And so it is. Amen. Aho! xoxo

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 3, 2014

On Gratitude



This is my second try at this post. I wanted to share how I got here - to November 3, 2014 in relation to gratitude - and how my commitment to a daily gratitude practice has evolved over time. That seemed important to me. I was being defensive. Defending something I started years ago as a way of healing and holding on to hope, when I really only wanted to crawl into a hole and stay there through the holiday season. Something that a few of my Facebook friends were finding trite over time, and decided to complain about and tease in their own status updates… I thought I needed to clarify, to defend, and to justify why I think November is a great month for people to express gratitude on their own and in public.

I don't want to do any of that.

A few months ago I began reading One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp. On page 58 of her book, Voskamp says the following: 

"I know there is poor and hideous suffering, and I've seen the hungry and the guns that go to war. I have lived pain, and my life can tell: I only deepen the wound of the world when I neglect to give thanks for early light dappled through leaves and the heavy perfume of wild roses in early July and the song of crickets on humid nights and the rivers that run and the stars that rise and the rain that falls and all the good things that a good God gives. Why would the world need more anger, more outrage? How does it save the world to reject unabashed joy when it is joy that saves us? Rejecting joy to stand in solidarity with the suffering doesn't rescue the suffering. The converse does. The brave who focus on all things good and all things beautiful and all things true, even in the small, who give thanks for it and discover joy even in the here and now, they are the change agents who bring fullest Light to all the world. When we lay the soil of our hard lives open to the rain of grace and let joy penetrate our cracked and dry places, let joy soak into our broken skin and deep crevices, life grows. How can this not be the best thing for the world? For us? The clouds open when we mouth thanks."

That is why I do what I do and why I want to do it (THANK YOU ANN VOSKAMP!). I want to embrace joy, to be brave, to focus on all thing good and beautiful and true. I want to give thanks for all things, even the small things because I want to bring the fullest Light to all the world.

I don't care if it makes other people uncomfortable. In fact, I -kind-of like that it makes some people uncomfortable. I would invite you to explore the discomfort if and when it bothers you to witness another's expression of joy. That discomfort will tell you more about you than it does about the other person. Go there.

In the past, I have used an art journal as a means to capture my gratitude each day. I have been on  a mission to figure out the easiest, least expensive way to make an art journal because I LOVE art journaling, and find it to be healing and hopeful and fun. This is what I've come up with so far…

Junk Mail Art Journal

I took a catalog I received in the mail (it was a Williams-Sonoma Fall catalog). I glued 2-3 pages together throughout the catalog with a glue stick, to form a series of new, thicker pages. I used plain old cheap craft acrylic paint to cover each page. I glued tissue paper to the covers of the catalog - I used two pieces to completely cover the catalog cover. Some of the words and images from the catalog show through the paint, and I love that. It was so easy to make and it was virtually free because the catalog was junk mail and I had the paint on hand.

Each day this month, my family and I will choose one word to express that for which we are most grateful that day. We will record the words on a piece of paper and at the end of the month we will have a special journal filled with our gratitude. I look forward to seeing how this evolves.

Our first page. 
I stamped part of the quote from Ann Voskamp on the first page, and left the
Williams Sonoma Thanksgiving table, rather than painting it.
I love how the quote turned out.
My sister made a Junk Mail journal too! I love it!

Each and every day, in every minute even, we have a choice about whether to "deepen the wound of the world" with our voices and actions or "bring fullest Light to all the world." Hands down, I choose light. It is absolutely a choice. It is not always easy, but I make it because I believe it makes a difference to me, my children, my husband, and our community.  I make it because I want to experience joy while I'm here on Earth - to balance out the pain.

Gratitude manifests joy. It's been proven time and again. Try it - big or small, in whatever way works for you. Share what you find.

With love and gratitude. Especially to Ann Voskamp. I don't know her, but I LOVE her and her beautiful words. xoxo

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Hope in the Holes

Looking Up

I was in eighth grade when I first considered suicide. I decided on pills. That is as far as I got. In the space between knowing without a doubt that the people in my life would be better off without me, and swallowing pills, I found the holes in my story. I saw hope in those holes.

There have been times since then when I have imagined dying. About four years ago, after my dad died and all the pain I had stuffed deep down inside came rushing out and over me, I wanted to disappear. I thought about how the people I love most in the world would go on without me. I knew they would be happier. They would have less to worry about. Their lives would be more peaceful. They could move on. I imagined being shot. Getting hit by a car. Having a heart attack on the treadmill. These were times where I felt hopeless. Helpless. I knew I had to snap out of it - suck it up and get on with my life, and I didn't know how to keep going.

Can you imagine being that desperate? In so much pain that I would even consider welcoming the possibility of leaving this behind?

My people.

It is an infinite amount of pain.

It is painful thinking about it now. I cannot even imagine being in such a dark place now, and yet I have been there. Sitting here in this moment, I am at a loss for words to describe my gratitude for the people I love. I am grateful for every second I spend with them. I know they love me. I know I am blessed. 

In my darkest moments, I still lose sight of the beauty that surrounds me. It is truly unimaginable now - when I am grateful and at peace - sitting in the sunshine. In the darkness, I feel lost. Hopeless. Helpless. Worthless. I lose faith.

There are numerous triggers - things that happen that can send me down a dark path. I run anxious and I always have. In an average day any of the seemingly small things that a person faces can stress me out. Things like social situations, having to make small talk, returning items to the store, driving in heavy traffic… Depending on what else is happening in my life, I might fall into depression.

Mostly, looking back over my life, my depression occurs when I believe I am falling short. It comes from the belief that I am not enough. It comes from my certainty that other people also believe that I am not enough. All the lists of the reasons that I am not enough compiled in my head are the impetus for shame. As I grew older, and especially since I've become a wife and a mother, there was guilt. There is always something to feel guilty about.

With a lot of soul searching and some anti-anxiety medication, with time and yoga and writing and art, with therapy and life coaching, and the support of my husband, I cleared space to come up for air. For the most part, anything that was ever a source of shame is now just a piece of me and my story. It has been rendered powerless. In retrospect it is usually an opportunity to transform into something meaningful. Something beautiful.

I try not to stuff the pain anymore. I don't like to let it fester. I sit with it. I feel it. I look for lessons in it. I thank it. I let it go.

None of this is easy for me. I am not always good at it. It is messy. It can be really ugly. The process of working through it though makes all the sweetness waiting on the other side even sweeter. The beauty is more beautiful. The glory is more glorious. I can appreciate all the goodness in a much richer way now that I allow myself to experience and move through the pain. I am grateful I can say I know what it's like on the other side of the pain. I am grateful for the courage and support required to look up, to move on and out of it.

I haven't solved anything. I'm not cured. Living and working through my depression is a process. Life is a process for me. It is a practice. With practice and knowledge and support, I get stronger. I bounce back more quickly. Things don't look quite as bleak as they used to. I have faith that there is something bigger than me at work in the world, and that I can be of service to that force. I know I am loved. I try to keep my blessings in focus - when I acknowledge those blessings it is harder to fall down the rabbit hole.

This, obviously, comes in the wake of the death of Robin Williams, another great talent gone too soon. He was one of my favorites. I'm taking this opportunity to share a bit of what I know to be true. That even when things look fine on the outside, it can be a facade. Behind the scenes there might be turmoil. 

This is a truth that more of us are coming to accept as we see past the misconception of neat packages, nice clothes, good hair, pretty faces, hot bodies, successful careers, power, money, big houses, and fast cars. Behind it all, we are just people doing the best we can. 

A lot of us are encouraging those who suffer with depression to seek help. I think that is sound counsel. And, I also invite each of us to be a little kinder to each other. To be more compassionate. To search for the beauty and the love and the sweetness in the bramble of the berry patch that is life. The good is in there and there is a lot of it - enough for everyone.

Suicide is not a selfish act. It can feel that way to those of us left behind. Suicide is a desperate act. Of course, it isn't something that can really be generalized. And yet, I feel confident in saying that a person who takes his or her own life is not doing it for selfish reasons. I believe suicide occurs when the victim thinks the world would be a better place without them.

It is an infinite amount of pain.

It us up to each of us to prove to one another that we are each here for a reason - to enjoy the uniqueness of one other and the beautiful experiences that life has to offer. The world is a better place because of us, not in spite of us. That is our challenge actually - to accept that it is better because of us, and to keep working to make it even better. And better. And better.

It would be fun if we did it together.

************

My sister is a social worker who works with Veterans at the VA Hospital in Ann, Arbor, Michigan. I asked her to share some of what she and her colleagues use as a safety plan for clients with suicidal ideation. While seeking professional help is the very best option for those who need it, I thought this might be of use too:

Very General Components for A Safety Plan

  1. These are the thoughts, feelings and behaviors that describe how I am experiencing...
  2. These are things I can do to feel better, or to distract myself from these thoughts…
  3. These are people I can talk to when I'm feeling down (make sure to have contact information handy)…
  4. These are the professionals I can reach out to… Include the National Suicide Prevention Line, and keep in mind that loved ones can call support lines for help too: 1-800-273-8255 (also include 911)
  5. What can I do to make my environment safe...
  6. How will you ensure you use this plan? (where will you keep it, etc.)

Consider signing it to seal the contract.

XOXOXOXO

Monday, June 30, 2014

It's Worth Celebrating

I was so shy when I was a child that I used to hide behind my dad's legs when he introduced me to someone new.

I wanted nothing more than to stay hidden in the safety of what I knew.

A little over four years ago my dad died, and everything I thought I knew was called to question. I didn't feel safe. Nothing helped me to feel safe.

I had friends who had lost loved ones and yet we rarely talked about it. I always knew that someday when I experienced a similar loss it would be awful, but I never knew how awful. Until it happened. Even knowing that there were others like me, I imagined I was all alone.

This is a truth about grief - that even though there are many of us trying to make sense of the world after a significant loss, we still feel so alone, and we don't talk about it. Each of us will experience loss in a different way - in our own unique way, and at the same time we can relate to each other. I have experienced that understanding - the connection that comes from acknowledging a shared story between two - and while there is some comfort in knowing that I am not alone, instead of feeling better, I usually end up feeling sorry for both of us.

After my dad's death I wrote a lot to help me try to make sense of it all - of life and loss and what comes next for both the living and the lost. Writing about things is the way I've always tried to make sense of them. As I wrote and made discoveries, I felt called to share what I found along the way. That is how I came to this place in my life - a place of creating and sharing. Sharing is rarely easy for me, but I keep doing it because I know there is a chance that something I say or write or make could help someone else feel less alone. As much as I would have liked to stay hidden, I had to come out from behind my dad's legs...

As soon as my dad departed and the funeral had passed and our friends and family went back to their everyday lives, I was left wondering "WHAT THE HELL? WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO DO NOW?" As I continue to move away from my dad's departure there are still no answers to my questions. There is no way to know whether it is normal to get pissed four years after a loss because all of a sudden I remember that my dad isn't coming back.

After a life altering incident, you hear a lot about the "new normal" and for some people maybe that makes sense. Maybe the promise of a new normal is comforting to them. Some of us, however, were okay with the previous version of normal. We dig our heels in and refuse to accept this new version of life as normal. It will never be "normal". What I now know is that there is no normal - new or otherwise. The unexpected surges of grief, the anger, the sadness, the joy in memories that come to mind - none of it is normal or abnormal, it just is.

I try to deal with whatever comes up as it surfaces. The gift in that is that I get to decide what to do with it. I can write my own guide book on a daily basis.

My parents would have celebrated their 42nd wedding anniversary today. My mom and I are together with my family in northern Michigan and we talked a bit about whether a widow could still celebrate her anniversary, even though her husband has passed. We decided she can. And, she should.

She dipped her feet in a fountain…



We toasted love and its legacy over a beautiful lunch with our sweet friend Suzanne...


We did some shopping, and my mom even picked out a beautiful turquoise ring as an anniversary gift! Here she is pointing to our location on a map of Michigan…



And we topped it all off with some ice cream…


Isn't she the cutest?!?! Look at her beautiful new ring!

I have actually come to love the fact that so few of the answers I sought were available to me after my dad's death. It gave me an opportunity to look within, and to decide what was true for me and what was not. As I trusted in my own authority, I was liberated - bound only by my own self-imposed limitations. 

My mom and I could have decided that it isn't necessary for a widow to celebrate her anniversary once her husband has passed, and that would have been fine too. Even without my dad though, June 30, 1972 marked the beginning of something that continues to be worth celebrating. I am so grateful we chose to celebrate it.

Happy Anniversary Mom and Dad! Cheers! xoxo




Monday, May 19, 2014

A Matter of Perspective

I am in awe of Spring.

This year in particular it seems that she has had to work extra hard to come forth from behind the dark veil of Winter. Here in Michigan, our Winter was longer and snowier than ever before - both in my opinion, and in meteorological history.

Now my backyard is an oasis of growth, a beacon of hope for what is sure to come out of the darkness, even when it doesn't seem possible.

Not long ago, I stared from inside my house out to my backyard and this is what I saw….


I took that picture during one of our last snowfalls near the end of March (March 25 to be exact). I couldn't believe it was snowing again. I didn't think any of us could tolerate another flake of snow. Even though I typically enjoy the beauty of winter, I was so tired of the colorless landscape that this snowfall was depressing. Even after the snow melted, I stared at the naked trees not believing they would ever bear leaves again. It just didn't seem possible after the brutal weather we experienced - that something so desolate could ever be lush again.

Today my backyard looks like this…


I watched in awe as the little leaf buds popped, the grass began to turn from brown to green, the sky returned to its trademark blue, and finally the buds turned to full grown leaves. It is amazing, isn't it?

Same creek in the back. Same trees. I'm looking out from the same house. The same person. And everything looks completely different.

This change in perspective is a simple yet powerful thing. Seeing these trees from Spring's window is so completely different than seeing them from Winter's. Yes, the trees themselves are different too, but does that really matter? What if when I looked out the window on March 25th, I chose to see the potential for growth I see now?

What if when I looked in the mirror this morning, irritated by the way my shirt stretched across my large chest, I saw her…


Instead of her…



Would there have been less grumbling? Would there have been such doubt in her reflection - her beauty, her worthiness, her capacity to shine?

Last week in our online coaching circle for our e-course Make Space to Shine, my dear friend and teaching partner, Libby and I began to explore perspective with the class. Libby brought her life coaching tool - her Perspective Wheel to the table and blew me away with the insights that came with it.

Surprisingly, the new insights were mostly mine. With Libby's gentle nudge, I began to see what for me was a stumbling block in growing my business from a few different perspectives - from my daughter's perspective, my future self's perspective, and even from the perspective of a painting hanging on my wall. Same stumbling block. Different perspective.

Usually our perspectives are the result of a story we have come to believe about ourselves. A story someone else may have helped us write. A story that may not even be true. Sometimes a story we carry for our entire lives was written in a matter of minutes, even seconds.

Exploring these stories - how they came to be and who helped us write them gives us the opportunity to dig deep, and sometimes we don't like what we find. The beauty in digging though is that we get to decide what to keep and what to throw away. We get to decide. WE get to decide.

The skills we lacked when the story was written are more developed now. Whether the story came into being twenty years ago or 20 minutes ago, we now have the capacity to see it in retrospect. Consequently, we can choose whether we want to rewrite the story from a new perspective or keep it like it is.

Accepting our stories as is opens us to the possibility that there were lessons learned or gifts given. Acceptance is as powerful as revision. Acceptance neutralizes what was once a source of shame or guilt. By digging into this story and accepting what came of it, we disempower it. No longer does it have a hold on us.

We can completely rewrite our stories. Or, maybe we can keep the essence of the story, but change how it impacts our lives. A story of what was lost when a loved one passes becomes a story of what was gained in knowing this person. We can decide whether we want a co-author or whether we will go it alone. We can take it slow. We can stop and start again. We can crumple up our latest draft and start fresh. All along the way, we get to decide.

I write my story. You write yours.

Where could you benefit from seeing a situation in your life through a fresh set of eyes? Will you try it? Will you choose hope? Growth? Potential? Or will you choose something different? It's all up to you.

xoxoxo


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

More Snow, Tax Day, Toxic Thinking, and MAKING SPACE to SHINE.

Morning view. Undoubtedly gorgeous. And cold.

My kids are on Spring Break this week. We are spending this precious family time cozied up in our family cottage in Northern Michigan. This morning we woke up to a fresh blanket of snow on the ground. Due to wishful thinking (and perhaps a wee bit of oversight on my part), "we" didn't pack winter clothing. 

When I asked my kids where their coats were, they said "Mom, it's SPRING break!"

Right. Spring MICHIGAN! Clearly they are too young to know that while Spring in Michigan may conjure up images of new blooms and mud pies, it can also mean frigid temperatures and falling snow.

This winter has been brutal. This assessment from someone who has heat and food and a reliable vehicle. Yes, all that and I still felt the impact of dark skies, cold air, and lingering doubt about whether winter would ever really end. 

I am prone to the winter blues. This particular winter was flat out depressing. There were many days I had to play mind tricks with myself to get my body out of bed. Fortunately, I'm pretty good at transforming my hopelessness into something more positive. I've had a lot of practice. And still, the sight of more snow makes my heart ache. Thank God for today's beautiful blue skies and bright shining sun though (see how I did that? I found something to be grateful for in the midst of feeling doubtful.).

Before I really even got out of bed this morning, I heard news of a tragic accident that took the life of a nine year-old girl. In her school parking lot. Devastating.

Today, Tuesday April 15, is the IRS tax filing deadline. Anxiety-ridden.

My neck hurts. Again. I hold my tension in my neck and shoulders and while it isn't too much to bear, I am in discomfort every day.

A little bit ago my kids went from playing peacefully together to arguing.

My dog is barking at me.

I'm not sure what to make for dinner tonight…

There are many, many thoughts swirling around in my head at any given moment. I have heard that the average person has between 50,000 and 70,000 thoughts a day. Many of which are the same thoughts we have every day. Many, many of which are negative.

Some of us, especially those prone to anxiety and depression - like me, can get bogged down in negative thinking. It can be debilitating. 

There are many books, tools, and experts dedicated to finding ways to help people eliminate negative thinking, or at least alleviate the devastating impact it can have on people. I have worked with many of these resources. One of the prevailing lessons of this work is that in most things worth pursuing, a great deal of practice is required. I felt some sadness when I finally realized that because what I really wanted was a cure for what has ailed me most in my life… pain, loss, grief, shame, anxiety, depression. I have wanted it all to end. I have devoured texts and spoken to professionals trying to find ways to make it end. 

What I discovered is that none of it ever really ends. I can't stop it; however, I can learn to live with it. To live with it, to live with all of it - what I was born with, what I have learned along the way, and what I am exposed to each day - requires an ongoing practice of determining what is true and what isn't, what can be changed and what can't, and what can be held or released.

It sounds so simple. I probably should have gotten it the first time I heard Reinhold Niebuhr's Serentity Prayer

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.


I didn't get it all those years ago though. I then thought I only had to say the prayer and POOF! I would be okay again. I didn't understand that an ongoing practice went along with this prayer. I couldn't have comprehended that there will always be things. That every single day more things arise. That as I grew older, the things would become more complicated. That the longer I ignored these things instead of facing them, the more painful they would be when they surfaced.
And why does it even matter? Why would I care to undertake such a practice?
Because I want to be free. And, I have work to do.
Several years ago, when the new mom fog that surrounded me began to rise and I realized that life is really really short, I came to know that I had work I wanted to do here on Earth. I was fortunate enough to learn many tools that helped me feel more at ease in my life and I felt called to share what I've learned to help others. I started with a little blog and then a business. 
I can't continue to move forward if I continue to let my negative thinking weigh me down. None of us needs to stay bogged down in negative thinking. We were never meant to live in that dark, heavy, bogged down place. We were meant to experience freedom, light, and JOY! It's true. 
As soon as I opened up to that possibility, that maybe part of my purpose is to share what I've learned, I committed to practicing what I learn along the way. I'm so much happier for it.
Now it's time to share what I've learned in an even more powerful way.
My dear friend Libby Nelson is a life coach. She recently shared this on Facebook, "Friends, here's what I know to be true: each of us is here on Earth for a special purpose. We have gifts and callings that are uniquely ours to share. When we allow that to happen and we let our lights SHINE, the world is a better place and we are happier, more alive and a force for love and good in the lives of the people we encounter. So often, the way we think about and talk to ourselves gets in the way of all of that. We beat up on ourselves, we fall into overwhelm, we believe the myth that we aren't good enough, smart enough, thin enough or lovable enough. We hold ourselves back, we hide our precious lights and we suffer for it. So does the world."
Libby and I have created an e-course called Make Space to Shine: Transform Your Toxic Thinking and Let the Light In. Our intention is to help other people determine what is holding them back, and to help clear that space out so they can shine as they were meant to shine. 
About our e-course Libby says, "We'll share five weeks of rich, life changing and easy to manage course content including techniques to transform the way you think about and communicate with yourself. We'll combine coaching with easy-to-follow art projects (no experience or fancy supplies required!) which will give you access to yourself in a whole new way...we promise that you will leave this experience feeling more connected with yourself and other women. You'll have made more space to really SHINE -- and when you do that, anything is possible."
Imagine this if you will…a world where we shine together. Close your eyes and let that image sink in for a minute. Our minds are free of clutter, our hearts are open to the love that surrounds us, we are in community together, shining brighter than ever. I LOVE that vision. I love what Libby and I created together and I cannot wait to share it with you.
I hope you will join us. It's time. Make Space to Shine.
To learn more and to register for Make Space to Shine, click here. Earlybird pricing ends Friday!
Thank you! I'll see you in class! xoxo
Libby and I in Santa Fe, NM getting ready to help you SHINE!



Friday, March 14, 2014

Making Time for Connection + Creativity

This is something I have been meaning to share for a long time. I couldn't bring myself to share it though, and I now think it is because what I want to share is sacred. It is a story about me bearing witness to a dream unfolding into reality before my very eyes.

It all happened in a little cottage on an unspoiled beach on the shore of Lake Michigan.

I asked my mom, Kathleen, to describe this place. She said, "Imagine yourself being plucked out of your everyday life and immersed in a vintage cottage setting with nature - water, sand, trees, and lake breezes blowing against your skin. It is enchanting, and it allows one to be heart connected with self and nature."

Heaven on Earth

It was a dream come true to gather with a group of soulful women in this magical place, a place that is very dear to me and a place that somehow seems to capture the hearts of all who visit. For years and years I had dreamed of holding retreats for women, and one day I decided to go for it - to have a retreat in my family's cottage on the beach.

My mom went on to say, "We just don't give ourselves enough opportunities to step out of what we know into something new - to be nurtured in a safe environment where all our needs are met and we have the freedom to be creative and express ourselves." 

Stepping out of what I know...

The women who gathered with me last September will always hold a special place in my heart. This was my very first retreat in my family's cottage in Kewadin, Michigan. It is a great honor and privilege to be entrusted with another woman's time. Time is such a huge, incredible gift in this day and age. Time is precious. I did not want to take that gift of another's time for granted.

My intention was to make the most of that time - to take away the daily worries that can bog us down, like what to eat and how to prepare it. I wanted each woman to enjoy the freedom of owning her time - to spend it in the ways that work for her, rather than to spend it in ways that revolve around what works best for others. And also to hold space for thoughtful, deliberate experiences centered around art and opening our hearts to each other, our surroundings, and most importantly - to ourselves.

Beauties on the Beach

I asked my long time friend Andi, our personal chef for our time together, to create meals that she would eat if she was taking the absolute best care of herself. She walked in with the most colorful, nutritious, local, and organic fruits and vegetables I have ever seen. Her meals were feasts for our eyes and our stomachs. We were very well fed. And, the best part was, none of us even had to think about it!

Andi's delectable offerings

I asked my dear friend and yogini, Heather to lead us through some heart opening stretching and breathing exercises. Her first class, looking out on the Lake, was one of my favorite yoga classes ever.

Namaste

As I prepare for my next retreat in May, I wonder what it is that makes a retreat so appealing? For me, the retreat experience is about returning to what we, as women, were made to do - to connect and to create in community. This - connecting and creating - is something that comes so naturally to us, and yet very few of us are in the practice of  allowing ourselves to do it. Instead, we spend much of our time helping others to connect and create.

I believe we think we are doing what is best for ourselves, our families, and the people with whom we work. I believe we trust that our time to connect and create will come later. The truth is, with so much being asked of us, we are worn out. We are exhausted and depleted. We can't go on like this. We need to recharge, restore, and renew. We need to fill the well that provides so many in our lives with running water. When we allow ourselves this time for renewal, we come back FULL and we are way more effective at whatever it is we set out to do.

Group selfie!

Making art together

Whenever I find myself in the midst of women creating together, I look around me, and it is almost as if I can see our mothers, our grandmothers, and all the women who came before us, gathered around a fire making meals together or circled around a quilt sewing together. Together, women empower each other. We reflect each other's lights right back to each other. We lift and hold and support each other.

Because we are all connected, we gain so much from connecting with each other. And, feeling safe in the community of one another, with all our needs met and surrounded by the beauty of nature, we can connect to ourselves - to our own hearts and souls and all the wisdom and power that resides within.

Something powerful has occurred in each of my retreat experiences. I have made lifelong friends from complete strangers. I have created beautiful things and eaten delicious foods. I leave feeling blissful and inspired. In reflecting upon these life changing moments, what I appreciate most is that time I carved out for myself. It wasn't easy to do. It always requires a lot of coordinating. It can be a bit of a logistical nightmare.

I never regret it though. Attending a retreat is like opening the front door to my own heart and inviting myself in. Retreats provide time and space to reconnect to myself. That connection - between the me you see scrambling around town and who I am on the inside - that is what it means to be heart connected. Being heart connected means coming home to yourself and living from that sacred space.

The story I came here to tell continues… I'm not done making dreams come true for myself, or helping other women to make their dreams come true. It has become a habit. We all deserve the gift of time and a beautiful place in which to spend it.

I have a few spots left in my upcoming retreat May 1-4...

Your Heart Connected Guides, Kathleen, Andi, Heather, and Anna

And I would love nothing more than for you to join us! Come on, get heart connected!

For more information, click here.
To register for May's retreat, click here.

xoxoxo

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

I've Had Enough...


I am in a bit of a pickle.

You see, for the last two years or so I have been engaged in a whole lot of soul work. Along the way I have come in contact with hundreds of women both in person and in online groups and classes, and the one thing that keeps coming up for all of us is the belief that we are lacking in some way, or in most cases, in a lot of ways.

It is almost like a rash we have been infected with - this belief that we are not enough.

It isn't all that complicated either. We are born - whole, precious, miraculous, pure, soft-skinned packages filled with goodness. Then, somewhere along the way, we begin to believe a tale that involves the numerous ways in which we are not enough. Each of our stories is different… Mine is "I am not smart enough. I am not experienced enough. I am not likable enough. I am not pretty enough. My hair is not long enough. I am not skinny enough…" It makes my stomach churn to share that with you. There were other variations that included all the ways I didn't have enough.

I remember what it felt like the first time someone said to me: "You are enough." I was shocked. I was afraid to respond because I knew anything I said would prove to her how wrong she really was. I even felt like a fraud unsure of how I could convince anyone that I was enough when clearly I was not. Now, I know I am enough even though I forget sometimes.

I know my story. I know how painful it was to see it all come together over the years. I remember the people who helped me write it - most likely without the intention of causing me harm. It was a long and lonely story. It has been a HUGE amount of work to rewrite it.

I also know so many other stories that are a lot like mine. I see the hurt in the eyes of these beautiful women as they tell their stories. Some of them believe that they are not enough. It breaks my heart that they cannot see the whole, precious, miraculous, pure, maybe not so soft-skinned but still better than ever being that I see when I look at them. I want them to know the story they are telling is based on lies. So much work goes into rewriting our stories… that is if we even have the heart to rewrite them. Some of us never will.

And now, I am watching in disbelief as my very own son's story begins to take shape. His spirit cannot be contained in a 2x2 place at a table full of other children. He likes to wiggle and squirm. He starts conversations when he is asked to be quiet.

My son's story already has a chapter detailing all the ways that he is not enough. The adults in his life have written it for him by telling him that he isn't okay as is - that he isn't good enough.

He is 8 years-old. He is at a crucial point in his development because this is when the stories start to really stick. This is where a seemingly small slight or joke made at his expense can make a huge impact. It can be devastating. It can change the course of his life.

So, what do I do? I can't control the storytellers. Even if I could - how long can that go on? Will it be enough for him to hear my husband and me whisper in his ear each night "you are enough" when all day long he hears otherwise?

This is my cry for help.

If you are an adult who has children or who works with children, please be mindful of the ways in which you communicate with them.

It may be true that my son makes it difficult for you to maintain a sense of control over the space you are in. It may be true that his tendency to get distracted is distracting to others. I would by lying if I said I wasn't experiencing the same child at home. Here's the thing though: my son's behavior is directly related to a need he has and cannot express. Could you maybe take a minute to check in with him before shaming him in front of his peers? I think you could.

Don't destroy a child's sense of self because what he or she is doing isn't convenient for you.

You can be honest and kind at the same time. I'm not suggesting you allow the children in your life to reenact Lord of the Flies when you're with them. I am suggesting you be careful about the ways you respond to children. In any response you have to a child's behavior, I estimate there is about a 99% chance that your response has nothing to do with the child and everything to do with you. Your response is a projection of you and your life experience - the way you were parented, the way you were taught, the stories you've come to believe about yourself. Your negative response comes from a place of discomfort with what the child is doing.

My friend Mariah Belt calls this place - where we respond from a need to control - the Dominant  Paradigm. The alternative is the Peaceful Paradigm (Mariah teaches the Peaceful Paradigm in her work as a Peaceful Parenting coach). Here, we come from a place of curiosity with the intention of connection. We might notice a disruptive behavior then head on over to a child like my son and say, "What's up little guy? Can you tell me more about that?" Rather than, "Stop it! You are being bad! Go sit on the bench…" It's a shift, but it can happen.

I love the Peaceful Paradigm. It feels right to me. I understand that it may not resonate with everyone. I also recognize that the words we use are powerful. So, after experiencing and witnessing the pain that results from a lifetime of being told that any of us are lacking in any way - that any of us could possibly not be enough - I beg of you, please stop the madness. Stop helping children to write these fictional stories about themselves. Be kind. Be mindful of the ways you speak to children, knowing that what you say, even if it was never intended to cause pain, can be devastating.

Thank you.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Rest of the Story


My son Alexander turned 8 years-old today. I have told his birth story before. In short, my pregnancy was without incident. He came earth side fast, like he was on a mission. He was purple when he made his debut. He had severe meconium aspiration. My poor little buddy. 

He was rushed off to the NICU rather quickly after a very brief plop on my emptied belly. We hadn't even named him yet. We were leaning toward Henry. It all happened very fast. My husband Dan named Alexander in the NICU in a moment of knowing that our little guy needed name. Once Alexander was settled into the NICU I got to see him again. He seemed to be nestled in a forest of machinery. A nurse asked me if I wanted a priest to come and baptize him. His little life was in danger. It was awful. A few hours later Dan and I squished together like spoons in my hospital bed. Sobbing. 

Alexander was transferred to a different hospital as a candidate for ECMO - a heart and lung bypass procedure that might help his lungs to recover. My midwife discharged me several hours later so I could join him. Alexander was in a small plastic incubator when I saw him next. He was in a medically induced coma under a maze of tubes. We were instructed on the acceptable ways to touch him. On the top of his head and the bottom of his feet. I remember staring at his little body in utter disbelief. There were tubes everywhere. And needles. My heart was broken. 

In the end Alexander didn't need ECMO. Three days later he returned to the hospital where he was born. His new NICU bed was one with fewer contraptions and the first order of business, according to his new nurse, was to be held by his parents. We were elated. 10 days after Alexander's birth we welcomed him home.

Baby Alexander and his big brother James

What I haven't really talked about is what happened once we came home. Things must have looked pretty normal. We were a happy family - a young couple with a pre-school son and a newborn baby. Dan had missed a lot of work while Alexander was in the hospital. He had to jump right back into his job. I was at home with my two little guys. Life moved on. Two years later we welcomed a baby girl, Sophia, into our family. 

When I look back, I can't say I was unhappy. I loved my life. I'm not going to lie though, as anyone will tell you, it isn't easy being at home day after day with three small children. It is an emotionally and physically challenging undertaking - to grow people. No, I wasn't unhappy. I was numb.

I operated on auto pilot for another two years. I think I lived most of my life feeling more anxious than the average person. I didn't know I was "anxious" because that word wasn't even part of my vocabulary. I worried a lot, and mostly about things that would never happen. I felt things deeply as a child. I was told I was too sensitive, too nice, too quiet, too shy. I learned to adapt. I learned to hide my feelings. I learned to smile when people looked at me. It is amazing what one can hide behind a smile…

I felt incredibly lonely at times, usually in the midst of friends and family. When I felt uncomfortable - sad, angry, scared, and so on - I stuffed those feelings way down deep in my soul.

Next month it will be four years since I lost my dad. His death was a huge shock. It felt like everything I ever knew to be true came crumbling down around me. My dad's death was devastating, and what it stirred up inside me was painful too. Every little hurt I had ever buried, rose up and out of me. A miscarriage before Alexander was born, then Alexander's birth, and truly every bit of heartache that came before that. It all wanted to be healed.

My grief in the face of losing my dad gave me space to feel things I hadn't allowed myself to feel before. I couldn't stuff another hurt. I allowed myself to feel the pain of loss. It was really hard for me to feel AND to function in my daily life. I remembered a dear friend telling me about how she had started taking an anti-depressant. I'll never forget the way she looked at me as I told her some of my own stories about living with depression and anxiety (I had learned those words by that point). She said, "Anna, you don't have to live like that."

I come from a long line of Polish women. We are tough. We suck it up. When my dad died, I just couldn't suck it up anymore. I felt weak and tired and sad and I had no shame about any of it. I no longer felt the need to put on a happy face. I didn't care at all what anybody thought about any of it. I wasn't going to pretend that everything was okay. I marched right into my doctor's office and said, "I am sad and my husband can't sit here holding my hand anymore because he has to go to work. I have three little kids to take care of and my entire support system is grieving. I need help."

I started taking medication for my anxiety. At that point I didn't consider how it might impact me, I just wanted some relief. What I experienced was a newfound ability to be the me I always wanted to be - calm on the outside AND the inside. At last! My exterior reflected my interior. I wasn't faking it. I felt like a miracle was occurring within my very own body. 

I know I was very lucky and not all people have a positive experience like mine. I know that if they do have a positive outcome, it might come after a lot of trial and error. It can be a long, painful, confusing road. 

I am eternally grateful for my stroke of medicinal luck. Easing my anxiety about every little aspect of my life freed some space for me to dig deep into what needed to be healed with a therapist and in my own soul work. It may have even helped me to let go more and to reconnect with my creativity, which has been a very large part of my journey. Am I healed? I don't think it is that simple. For me, healing is a practice. Every day I try to do something that soothes my soul. I can't always get to it. The longer I go without it, the more likely I am to begin to feel anxious, and eventually depressed. 

So, no, I'm not suggesting that if you are feeling depressed, you should absolutely get medicated. Not at all. I share this story here because I believe that in this time of celebrities overdosing on drugs and non-celebrities overdosing too, I think it is more important than ever to understand two things about being human. 1) Things are not always as they appear; and 2) It is actually a sign of strength to ask for help. Asking for help is one of the strongest, bravest things a person can do.

Please ask for help if you need it. Ask for help even if you suspect you might need it.

I am off to get the birthday boy off the bus. One last thing before I go - the greatest gift I receive in allowing myself to really, truly feel my pain is the opportunity to also really, truly appreciate my joy. Celebrations are sweeter than ever before.

With so much love… xoxoxo


Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Make Your Own Sunshine: 20 Quick and Easy Ideas for Beating the Winter Blues


I have had the hardest time removing myself from my bed in the morning lately. I keep thinking that maybe I'm fighting something… The truth is that no matter what my body is fighting (I think it's a head cold?!) my whole self is fighting depression.

I'm an easy target for depression in the winter. It happens every year actually: I find it harder and harder to stay positive and get motivated as the winter drags on.

There are mounds of snow everywhere I look outside and icicles hanging from various points on our roof. The highs have been in the single digits. Today it is super sunny outside and I am loving every ray. Mostly though, the winter skies are gray in Michigan. It can be downright depressing.

Knowing that I'm susceptible to singing the winter blues, I'm trying extra hard to stay on the sunny side of life, as they say. It isn't easy. I haven't perfected it. And, I am completely committed to keeping it a consistent practice. Some days are easier than others, as is true for most everything in life. Also knowing that so many of my friends and family members are feeling the impact of this winter, I thought I'd share some of what's working well for me… I hope you find something here that works for you.

Before I get started though, I want to be clear that I am not taking the term depression lightly here. When it comes to depression, I have found that one of the challenges we face is discerning the difference between what we can control and what we can't. In a world where appearing to be "in control" is the way to be, it is sometimes hard to admit defeat… that we just can't control everything.

So, no, we can't control the weather or any of the outcomes we face along with frigid temperatures and piles of snow. Here at my house, my kids have had numerous days of school due to weather and that has really made an impact on the way we live our lives. None of that is in the realm of my control. How I react to it however - that is all me. None of us can change the weather; we can however, change our perception of the weather and what it means for us in our lives. Okay, here we go...

1. Make Art.


A scene from one of my art journals


It doesn't have to be complicated. I find that coloring in a coloring book with my daughter can be very relaxing (as long as I follow her directions!?!). I suggest working on something that isn't outcome focused - something that is about the process of making art rather than the work of itself.

Try coloring in a coloring book with crayons or markers, your own painting or a paint by number, Zentangle, doodling, sketching, modeling clay, anything that gets your hands moving and your head focusing on something other than the weather.

2. Let the Cold Shock You


Go outside with your regular clothes on - no bundling allowed. Stand in the cold for a minute (or less if there are frostbite warnings in your area), and allow yourself to really feel the cold. It's like an electric shock (only cold)! As you feel the shock of the cold on your skin, you get a new lease on life. It's like receiving CPR without the drama. I think there's something to it too because there are so many places that use variations between hot and cold to help heal. Try it!

3. Take a Photo Hike or Drive


Pretend you are a photo journalist on location - in the Arctic maybe. Use any old camera or your phone and snap pictures. Try taking photos of things you might ordinarily miss, like snow covered branches, tracks in the snow, or the winter sky. Take close-ups - try to catch the unique formation of an individual snowflake. It is incredible to look real close and see that each snowflake really is so intricately designed. If you can capture that on film, I would love to see it!

Wire scrolling on our balcony

A snow covered branch in my yard
4. Install a Bird Feeder Where You Can See It From Your House

This could open a whole word of bird watching...

This has been so much fun. Okay, I'm a bit of a nature geek… but I do think anyone would enjoy it. I installed this feeder right outside my bedroom window. Part two of this tip is to allow yourself to just sit and watch the birds. It is amazing! As you watch, think about how great it feels to provide some food to the birds. Watch them closely. Admire their feathers. Their colors. Their flight pattern to and from the feeder. The way they move around. Birds are fascinating creatures!

5. Play in the Snow

My family playing in the snow

No explanation needed. Make an angel. Go sledding. Let the flakes melt on your tongue. Drink something warm when you're back inside.

6. Hibernate


So you're stuck inside? Make the most of it. Cuddle with your people, your pets, yourself. Wrap yourself in a blankie. Build a fire. Sip something yummy. Read a good book. Start a new one that you've been wanting to read. Flip through a magazine. Play games. Allow yourself to be still in the quiet of winter. No judgment. No place else to go… Allow yourself to really truly rest. Enjoy it.

7. Nourish Yourself Wisely

My lovely sister arranged this. Cute, huh?

This is a year-round charge; however, when you're feeling down it can be harder than usual to muster up the energy to eat nutritious foods. Some of us crave comfort foods in the winter, and for some of us that means carbohydrates… Get creative.

Years ago, three of my neighbors and I started a Supper Club. For four nights of the week we took turns making meals for all four of our families. We made simple meals that were easy to make in larger quantities. It was a huge treat to enjoy a homemade meal with my family that I didn't have to make, and to cook only once in that four day stretch. Plus, making food for other people can be good for your soul, AND it ensured we communicated with each other on a regular basis so there wasn't space for feeling isolated.

I am also hearing more and more about different places that deliver nutritious meals or the ingredients for you to make the meals yourself. Ah-mazing!

8. Do Something Nice for Someone


Again, no explanation needed. Just do it. Reach out to someone you love or a complete stranger and do something that you know will make a positive difference in their life. Send a note, make a meal, clear their driveway, let them go ahead of you in the checkout lane… even flash a great, big happy smile. You never know what a huge impact a simple of act of kindness can make.

9. Reclaim Your Space


This can entail anything from painting an entire room in your house, to rearranging your furniture, to buying a new candle and lighting it when the sun goes down. If you're going to be stuck inside, make sure you are surrounded by things that make you feel good. A new knit throw, a couple cute pillows, a picture frame, a BOUQUET of FLOWERS!!! We respond to smells so find a candle that reminds you of summer, or burn your favorite incense, or use essential oils.

It's your space, take charge and brighten it right up. Own it. Suddenly, you are no longer "stuck" inside, you now have the privilege of being there in a space you love.

10. Re-live Your Summer Highlight Reel


There was a winter not long ago that lasted so forever and a day long that I actually thought it might never end. I honestly wondered "what if the sun never shines again…?" I had to remind myself that in all my life I had never witnessed a never-ending winter. That every year of my life the sun came out to shine on me again. Revisiting pictures from summers past helped. I even felt transported to the times when the sun was warming my skin, my kids and I swam in the lake, and the nights seemed to last into the next day. Ahhh…. those days, they are a coming… eventually.

11. Make a Mix Tape


A playlist. Here Comes the Sun might be a good place to start. Get lost in the music. Listen to your favorites and find some new songs to lift your soul. Music is transformative. Click play and let yourself sway. You can thank me later.

12. Bake


Sometimes a girl just needs a cookie. It's okay. Enjoy the process of baking and the joy of biting into something homemade (space and grace around #7… all things in moderation, right?).

13. Call on Your Tribe


Vent if you need to or simply check-in. Call a friend or loved one. Tell dumb jokes. Share favorite memories. Laugh hard. Repeat. Plan a date night and reconnect with your beloved. If you can, meet someone you love for coffee or breakfast. If school is closed, gather at home… let the kids run wild together and look into your bestie's eyes. Ask her what she is working on these days? What she dreams about at night? Keep each other warm with your company.

14. Plan a Tropical Vacation


Assuming we can't all just pick up and fly south, we can plan a vacation. Where will you stay? What will you do? Even if you have no intention or ability to take this vacation, plan it. Make a collage even. Surprise yourself. Go wild. Dream big. Think SUNSHINE on your face by day and a huge star filled sky over your head at night. Campfires? Hikes? Swim up bar? Whatever suits your fancy…

15. Move


Not to Florida, move your body. Breathe, stretch, practice yoga, play Twister, wrestle, dance, do Zumba, get intimate with your lover (or yourself). Just. Move. And. Groove. Your. Body.

16. See Through the Eyes of a Child


Last night when I told my son school was cancelled for today due to sub zero temperatures (it's a Frozen Day he told me), he cheered like his team just won the Super Bowl. Children have very little attachment to the ramifications of inclement weather. They aren't worried about freezing pipes, shoveling the driveway, driving on slippery roads, or rearranging their schedules. Allow yourself to experience your life through the eyes of a child. Imagine you are seeing snow for the very first time. What would that be like? What if today was the first day you woke up? Tasted coffee? Enjoyed a bowl of oatmeal? Imagine. Be curious about what you see. Observe. Enjoy the experience of trying something you've never tried before. Even if it something you actually do every day…

17. Celebrate the Sunshine


Let the sun shine in...


When the sun does come out to light up the sky and everything below it, RELISH IT! Do a dance. Wear your sunglasses. If you can, feel the warmth of the sun on your skin. Stare out the window. Watch the way the snow sparkles when the sun hits it (truly divine!). Take a walk. Take more pictures. Watch the shadows dance. Thank God and the Heavens for the SUN and everything it does for us. Promise to never again take its light for granted. Soak it all in. Act like you're never going to see it again (it might be a while…).

18. Do an Outdoor Activity Indoors


Last weekend I played catch with two little ones in my father-in-law's garage. We have used the garage for field hockey too. If you can ride a bike in your basement, that is always fun. Play hopscotch. Blow bubbles. Find a place with an indoor pool and swim. If all else fails, take a bath. Fill it with salts, essential oils, bubbles, or take it straight up. Water has magical healing powers. Even in the winter. Especially in the winter.

19. Be Gentle with Yourself

A little latte love

Yesterday I was rushing to get a whole bunch of stuff together for a meeting, and then rushing to bundle myself up to face the cold. As I got into the car, my purse got caught on my scarf. My coat is so big and puffy that I could barely reach behind myself to untangle my purse. I wanted to cry. I wanted to rip off all the layers and go back inside and crawl into my bed. It takes a lot of extra energy to do business as usual in the winter. Allow yourself to take more time. Allow yourself to move slowly if you need to. Give yourself a lot of space to figure out what will work best for you in light of whatever comes up this winter. Whatever you do, do it gently.

20. Be Gentle with Everyone Else


Remember: whatever it is that you are feeling, the chances are very good that everyone around you is feeling the same (or worse). Let's give each other some grace to show up in whatever way we need to in order to make it through this unusually harsh winter. We are all cold. Some of us are bitter. Some of us feel like we can't take another flake of snow. Some of us ski and hope it will last forever. Wherever you are on the spectrum, know you are not alone, and that there are all kinds of other points on the spectrum too. Let's be good to each other.

Please feel free to share your ideas here too!
xoxoxo