I’m Thankful That I’m Not a Robot

Like any good student of self care, stress management, or wellness, I have a daily gratitude practice. Every morning or early afternoon (because, really, there’s no wrong time to be grateful), I write down a few things in my life that I’m thankful for.

I’m not going to lie, for months it’s read like a Gratitude Greatest Hits. Notable, good, sometimes even authentic, but also overplayed and lacking in meaning the more I cycle through the usual list. The list has become automatic. My home. My dogs. Schweetie. My friends. My neighbors. My family. New opportunities (a wonderfully vague way to be grateful without actually having to come up with anything). Now, I am actually grateful that these things are in my life. My world is bigger, happier, brighter, and more filled with love because of all them. However, I was just parroting these same few things back to myself every day. Anything overdone loses its power and its intended effect. I realized that there must be more. There must be some finer points of gratitude…Gratitude B Sides or Deep Cuts (to continue the album analogy), if you will.

And so, I’ve spent the last two mornings looking for the lesser appreciated moments in my life. The smaller things. The little instances that are bright and beautiful and perfect. Taking the time to zero in on new and less obvious things has helped me to feel more connected and truly appreciative.

I noticed how delightful the sun is when it shines brightly through my bathroom window. I’m thankful for the stranger on the street that wished me a hearty “Happy New Year!” in a moment where I was feeling a bit out of sorts. I am grateful for a relatively healthy body that allows me to take a walk each day.

It feels good to try being more specific with my gratitude practice and I am thankful that I feel renewed and reconnected to it.

First Resolution of the New Year: No more robotic gratitude lists.

I’ve Meditated for 187 Days Straight

And boy, is my mind tired! (Ha ha!)

But really, I have. And I’ve done yoga for that length of time, too, give or take a day or four. And this is why I started and why I’ve kept up with it….

Back in June of this year, I felt like I was losing my grip on my peace of mind, my emotional balance, and my overall world order. I wanted everything to stop so that I could take a break for awhile. I wanted to wrap myself up in a blanket and rock back and forth to save my soul. I wanted to be left alone, but I also felt lonely. The funny thing is, there was nothing really specific happening other than I was alone for almost two months straight while dealing with a rescue dog who wasn’t a perfect angel right out of the gate. That made me feel even worse. I felt like I was overly anxious and emotional without a “good” reason to be so. (If you read this, BoBo the Chiweenie, please know that the problem was me not you and you’re an awesome doggie!)

I’d had the feeling before that I was experiencing anxiety, maybe even panic attacks. I didn’t want to admit it to myself, much less talk about it with others. I’d feel a pressure like a fist squeezing my chest. It would hurt. It would be hard to breathe. I’d get very light headed, almost faint. I would break out in a sweat. When I look back, I see that I’d been experiencing this type of thing off and on for most of my adult life. The frequency of these episodes had been steadily increasing. I have pulmonary issues because of my autoimmune disease and these attacks do not do my lungs any favors. I used my emergency inhaler just in case.

I was feeling this way again in June and knew that I had to get myself back on track or I would be headed toward an unhealthy place that I had no interest in visiting. I had a flash of something I thought could help, something that my body and mind seemed to be asking for when I sat still quietly enough to listen. I decided to commit to 30 days of meditation and yoga. I set a minimum goal of 5 minutes of each daily, figuring that no matter what was going on, I could find 10 minutes in my day to care for myself and my mental health. At the time, it was so important to me to get myself better, that a daily practice was immediately non-negotiable. I used guided meditations from a variety of sources. (Still do! Having someone else talk me through it gives me something to focus on so that my mind doesn’t wander too much.) Initially, I focused on reducing anxiety and achieving a calmer mind. Within a week, I was feeling more calm and able to focus. Within two weeks, I realized I was happier, more optimistic, and starting to feel less physical pain. I kept going….

And now, here I am at 187 days straight. I am even happier. I feel more balanced. I still have periods of anxiety (I had one this morning!) and I assume I will for life, but they are less frequent and less likely to be triggered by something trivial. I am better able to manage the episodes that I do have. I stand taller. I am more confident and less socially anxious. I reduced my reliance on things like alcohol, social media, and retail therapy. I am in considerably less physical pain and have been able to reduce medication that helps me manage it (this was Ok’d by my rheumatologist). I’m thinking about becoming a vegetarian (again). My skin is clearer and my eyes are brighter. I feel more grounded and connected to the world outside my head. If I feel my chest starting to tighten or my heart starting to beat out of my chest, I immediately turn to focusing on my breath or, if location and time permit, I run through a yoga sequence. I’m going to keep going. Can I make it to a year straight? Can I make it to 1000 days?

Through this journey and process, I’ve had a lot of realizations and have been able to process patterns of behavior, choices I’ve made, and aspects of my personality that I’ve never been in love with. I’ve been able to release things that it does not serve me to put energy toward and I’ve been able to better consciously choose what I bring into my life. I’ve become clearer about that all important life goal: “the Purpose”.

It is my intention to start sharing what I’ve learned about myself and how I’m dealing with life after the acceptance of the role anxiety plays in it. (I should probably be super spiritual here and express gratitude to my meditation practice for connecting me with awareness for how anxiety was manifesting itself and disrupting my life, but I’m not there yet. Maybe I’ll be grateful after 374 days straight, but at Day 187, I’m still not thrilled.)

 

Now is Not the Time to Knit That Sweater

As a person that wears a lot of hats, one of them being someone with an autoimmune disease, I often struggle with overwhelm and getting burned out quickly. I can feel like a superhero if I go grocery shopping, walk the dog, and do laundry all in one day. In fact, the ability to complete basic household tasks without needing a day to recuperate might be an autoimmune super power.

Sometimes, I overwhelm myself with things that are potentially good for me. “I’m going to start this yoga challenge and revamp my diet and journal and meditate every day and start painting and read all of those unread books and put on real pants all right now!” I can be very all or nothing. Needless to say, I can also burn out very quickly.

My Schweetie is currently out of town for five weeks for work. I was looking at this time as a way to finally do all of those things and more. (Side note: I’m SO amazing at putting on real pants now!) One of the things I had planned was to start to knit my first sweater. I tried. I started and restarted about 4 times. I asked for help. I consulted with a very knitterly friend. I spent an entire Sunday trying to start knitting this sweater correctly. It wasn’t happening. I was frustrated and defeated. Then that spiraled into all of the other super awesome things that I was supposed to be doing to be a super awesome person while Schweetie is out of town.

Then it hit me: Now is not the time to knit that sweater.

In fact, now is not the time to do all of the things, even if many of those things are good for me. It’s time to focus on what is important and to even decide what hats to take off for a bit.

I started to think about what my main goals are for the rest of the year (only about 8 months left!) and I started to think about how I could comfortably make progress. As much as I like to be a creative, idea generating tornado, I thrive best when I have structure, a schedule, and clear expectations. I decide to operate from a list of my Can Dos, Have Tos, and Want Tos.

A Can Do is a thing that will move me toward a goal. They’re more free form choices and are usually remotely enjoyable. They include things like researching business card designs, studying information for a course I’m going to take, or contacting friends to ask if they’d be willing to let me practice skills with them. I try to keep the tasks short and sweet. This blog post is a Can Do.

My Have Tos are the less fun things. Much like the title says, they are things that I have to do. Things like checking my email, returning a business phone call, scheduling a doctor’s appointment, or household things like laundry.

I use these lists to determine my Want Tos. I ask myself: “Out of these things, which do I want to do today?” Note that the Want Tos are still focused on achieving goals and getting work done, it just makes it a more comfortable process for me. I’m motivated to keep moving forward because I’ve got specific actions to choose from and most of them I really want to do.

I try to pick three to four things to tackle in a day. After those are completed, I might decide to take on more. After that, I do something just for fun…something that I really want to do like play with my dog or read a magazine or watch the latest episode of America’s Next Top Model or online shop for more pants.

 

One Foot in Front of the Other

Whether we like it or not, we’re always moving forward in life. Constantly. Every day moves us closer to something new. We grow older, hopefully wiser. We’re constantly in motion.

We set goals for our journey. We have dreams. We hold the pictures of our ideal destinations in our hearts and minds. They’re often big and wonderful, and feel like they need to be done in total this minute, or they’re not going to happen…ever. “I need to sell everything and move to Montana and buy a tiny house and write a novel RIGHT NOW!” These goals can feel so big that they become overwhelming.

Sometimes it’s not our dreams, but the circumstances of life that overwhelm us: An illness, a death, a job loss, financial issues. We don’t feel like we can ever move past these things. We feel stuck, stagnant. We definitely don’t feel like we’re advancing while dealing with the very real things we’re given. Life itself might feel impossible.

In both cases of overwhelm, things slow drastically. Maybe we spend days on our couch watching re-runs of sitcoms, eating takeout, and not wearing real clothes. Maybe we withdraw from the world and feel like we’re spiraling downward. Maybe we don’t feel like moving forward anymore at all.

In 2009, I was experiencing a whole lot of overwhelm. All kinds of doors were closing around me. I’d lost a business. My first marriage was ending. I fractured my spine. These are just some of the events I was dealing with. Nothing seemed like it was going right. To say I was overwhelmed might be an understatement. I spent plenty of time on the couch eating junk and wearing my pajamas. I definitely wanted to stop moving forward. I wanted everything to stop.

Somewhere during this time, I had to go pick up some medication from a pharmacy. I pulled my car into the parking space, shut off the engine, and I broke down. Full on sobbing…out loud…in my car…in public. It was a wailing, ugly cry that surprised me. I knew there was a bigger, better world for me, but I was tired of moving through all of the crap around me. I wanted good things to happen and bad things to stop. Neither felt like they were happening quickly enough and I felt like I was drowning in stagnant water.

Then a thought came very clearly to me: All you have to do right now is go pick up that prescription. That’s it.

The smallest thing I had to do to move forward in a positive direction was to walk into the pharmacy and pick up medication that would help me feel better.

It was a revelation. First, realizing that action makes things better. Second, realizing that the action didn’t have to be huge and immediately life changing.

I still use this to focus and ground myself when things feel like they’re out of control in either a good or a bad way. I step back, find some quiet, take a deep breath, and ask myself:

What’s the smallest thing I can do in this moment to move forward in a positive way?

Try that. Think about something you’re currently struggling with at the moment. What’s the smallest thing you can do to take action? Is it opening an envelope that you’re afraid might contain unwelcome news? (Note: you don’t even have to read the letter right now, if that feels too big. That can be your next small step.) Is it taking five minutes to brainstorm names for your super awesome novel you’re going to write in that tiny house in Montana? Whatever that small step is, name it and take it. There is power in action. There is a gain of strength and confidence in action.

What’s the smallest thing you can do in this moment to move forward in a positive way?

Do that.

 

Most Optimistic

A definition of optimism:
op·ti·mism
ˈäptəˌmizəm/
noun
1. hopefulness and confidence about the future or the successful outcome of something.
One of the superlative titles that my high school class awarded was Most Optimistic. It’s a title that I won by, no doubt, popular vote as a high school senior. At the time, it wasn’t a title that I wanted and I wasn’t even sure why that particular honor was given to me.
Most Optimistic wasn’t a hotly contested or desired high school superlative. It wasn’t Class Clown or Most Likely to Succeed or Most Fun to be Around. To me, optimism wasn’t cool. It wasn’t popular. It certainly did not increase my social standing among my peers. It implied a detached from reality, Pollyanna type outlook that I didn’t connect with. My understanding was that an optimist was someone who “always looked on the bright side of life” at the expense of ignoring the truth of what was actually there. I wasn’t a negative, doom and gloom personality by any stretch, but I was certainly grounded in the real world.
Twenty plus years on, and I’ve come to better understand my optimism and what it means define oneself as such today. Often we explain optimism versus pessimism by using the glass half full/glass half empty comparison. I propose a different way of explaining optimism. An explanation that sees optimism as recognizing the beauty that there is water in the glass at all, regardless of how it is measured. Optimism is seeing the value of the existence of water, not the quantity of it. Optimism isn’t giving power to the empty space, it’s giving power to the water. It’s believing in the potential of the water to do some good (quenching thirst, sustaining the life of a houseplant). It’s not worrying about what isn’t there.
Let me say that again: Optimists do not worry about what isn’t there. It’s about seeing what exists and then seeing the best future potential. It’s rooted in reality (there is water in the glass) but also in the hope and good that the water represents.
Cheers to the water in the glass!
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Variations on the Theme (Aging, Loneliness)

I was never a person that really wanted children. I never wanted to babysit. I never volunteered to be a kindergarten class helper. I’ve been married twice and I’ve never felt the need to procreate. (I do like kids and kids like me. I just don’t want them to be my own.)

I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease in 2005, and one of the first things the rheumatologist told me was that it carried the risk of having a baby with a fatal heart defect and that I would have a high risk pregnancy. That set my decision. No babies, ever.

I was also never a person that thought they’d freak out when they turned 40. And I didn’t…not really…not a full scale freak out anyway. I certainly did some reflection and life analysis and thought about what I wanted for the next 40 plus years. I accepted that I was not ever going to be younger than I was in that moment.

And then these two “nevers” collided and I realized what it might mean. I am over 40, I am married to someone that is older than I am, and, in all likelihood, I’m setting myself up to be elderly and alone. This is not a fun thought. It’s not set in stone, but it’s not fun to entertain it as a realistic possibility. Children take care of their parents, right? It’s part of the deal for a lifetime of care and support. You feed, clothe, and house them for a decade or several and then they return the favor. At least that’s how it works in my oversimplified, “perfect world” thinking. I chose not to have that support and I might have to deal with the consequences of that someday.

Reality check: I know fully well that we are not promised a day in this life and that there is no way of knowing how much time any one of us has. I still do not want and do not regret having children. But I don’t want to be alone either. I don’t want a stranger making decisions about my care and treatment. I don’t want to be the old lady in the nursing home without visitors. I don’t want to celebrate holidays by myself. I don’t want to be old and alone.

I do have a niece and a nephew who at (almost) 11 and 8 enthusiastically declare that they want to live next door to me when they grow up. That makes me happy on a deep soul level. However, I don’t want to assume they’ll accept responsibility for my elder care (or even that they’d be able to). I’m not sure there’s an answer to these concerns and I’m wondering if it’s something other people who’ve decided not to have children think about? Or it could be just me. Is it just me?

In the meantime, I’ll keep sending my niece and nephew really awesome presents. It can’t hurt.

Ozzy, R.I.P.

I underestimated how long it would take me to get over the death of my dog. Today marks one year since I unexpectedly had to make the decision to let him go. It was traumatic. It was the most emotionally painful thing I’ve ever gone through (and I’ve been through some shit). I lost my best friend.

I fully admit to being a “crazy dog lady”. I like dogs better than most people and if there’s a dog at a social event, you’ll find me with it. I knew that losing Ozzy would be hard, but I don’t think I expected real and full grief.

I was in denial. I was angry. I questioned my choice and whether or not anything could have been done. (Nothing could, but I insisted on torturing myself with the “what ifs”.) I spent a few days just above catatonic, moving only to eat and use the bathroom. I saw Ozzy everywhere. I blamed my husband for not being there and blamed him for being the one who ultimately delivered the decision to the vet. (He was out of town for work, but I asked him to call the vet’s office and tell them we were going to let him go). It put a good amount of stress on our marriage.

I was grieving and depressed for months. In some ways I still am. There’s even a new little pup in our household and he is sweet and cute and a total love bug, but he’s no Ozzy.

Ozzy hated pretty much everyone. He would growl, snap, and bite when he was afraid. He didn’t like other dogs (with the exception of our neighbor, Babe, the senior lady Pug) and wasn’t too fond of humans either. He chased squirrels and pigeons and just about anything else. He had to wear a vest that said “Do Not Pet”. But, he was adorable and attracted a lot of attention. He had a deep soul and a lot of spirit. And, at the risk of going into full crazy dog lady land, he had a sense of humor. Seriously, that dog was hilarious. Needless to say, we understood each other on a soul level. I referred to myself as his Emotional Support Human. After he died, I realized just how much emotional support he gave me too.

It’s ok to take the time you need for grief and it’s ok to grieve for the loss of a pet. It’s ok to miss that pet and to tell stories about it and to look at pictures. It’s ok to get another pet. There is no “standard of mourning” as far as I know and, from my experience, the pain will start to lessen, but it might no go away. And that’s ok, too. It’s what makes us human.

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Beauty Fades, Awesome is Forever

On my last visit back to New York, I had a really great catch up dinner with a lifelong friend. I was getting out of her car after saying good night and heard her call out “You look like your mom!” I laughed and thanked her, knowing it was true. My mom is pretty awesome and I know that my friend meant it as a compliment…

BUT…

My mom is in her seventies and now I’m in my forties and, for the first time in my life, I’m acutely aware that I’m aging and that my outer appearance might actually start to reflect this aging.

It starts with no longer being asked for ID and then men in their twenties start calling you “Ma’am”. People automatically assume you’re a Missus and not a Miss. Then you start to feel a bit invisible or disposable or not so important anymore. Maybe you don’t. Maybe I don’t really either, but I am aware that how I’m viewed has changed in the past few years, albeit subtly. I’m sad that this bothers me.

I wasn’t really ever the pretty one. I was the smart one or the funny one or the adventurous one. (And these are all good things!) But I never felt pretty. I don’t remember anyone really telling me I was pretty, least of all myself. I’m a bit embarrassed to say that I tied an awful lot of my self-worth to whether or not my attractiveness could be confirmed by sources that mattered at the time. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that confirmation of my attractiveness seems to have mattered to me a fair amount.

It’s only in the past few years that I’ve loved myself enough to start to let that go and to revel in what I have, including my intelligence, my sense of humor, my personal style, and the opportunities I have to travel. I’ve also started to appreciate my physical attributes for what they are and try to practice being happy in my skin.

But that skin is changing…literally. A reminder that there are many phases and stops on this journey. Life is a process full of constant growth and change. It is also the beginning of the end from Day One and that’s a concept that I find strangely full of optimism.

Now I’m off to slather on some sunscreen, drink some water and hope for the best. I’m optimistic about that, too.

Comfortable Being Unconventional

I am comfortable being unconventional.

I’ve been using that as a mantra of sorts lately. Self reflection has taken me back in time and helped connect me to my present in some really fantastic ways. It’s led to a peace and acceptance that I’m reveling in.

I’ve always felt different, not like other people…like I move through the world in a way all my own. I’ve spent my life dancing to the music nobody likes. (Back in the day, when all my friends were into Madonna, I thought Neil Diamond was awesome.) I have never, ever felt “normal”. In part, this is because I’ve spent my life defining normal as being like every one else.

I recently read an interview in Darling magazine with musician Melissa Helser and a quote of hers stuck with me: “Give in to the significance of your normal.” Yes, MY normal. A normal just like me and just for me. The unique collection of thoughts, actions, qualities, and characteristics that make me, me. I was looking at normal the wrong way. Normal isn’t a broad definition. It’s not one size fits all. It’s individual and evolves, changes depending on where we are on our life path. We’re always normal. Every single one of us on this planet is normal. (Side note: normal does not equal morally upstanding or good.)

How much time and worry do we devote to living what we think normal should be? Over the course of a lifetime, how many days are spent comparing ourselves to someone else’s normal? How much significance do we give their normal while minimizing the importance of our own?

Maybe when we find ourselves unhappy, unsatisfied, unbalanced, it’s because we’re not letting our own normal hold its weight. Go ahead…take a deep breath…let go and give in. Make friends with your normal. Get to know it. Take it out for coffee or go for a hike. Feel how important it is for you to be your normal. Above all, delight in your normal. Find the joy in it. Let it make you smile.

Then take it one step further and let the world know how normal you are.

Less is More

The above is often said in reference to many things: fashion, food, home decor. I can’t help but think the currently popular Tiny House movement was born directly from these three words.

I’m sure you’ve all seen these minuscule dwellings and their prospective owners. Often young, idealistic couples craving a simpler life unencumbered by unnecessary belongings. The idea is that living with less physical bad stuff gives you more emotional good stuff.

I often watch these shows and am left wanting to see a follow up a year or two down the road. How many of these people stick with the lifestyle (especially those with children or larger pets)? Do they now view it as an interesting, but temporary, experiment or have they committed and made “tiny living” their life?

How many divorces or separations have Tiny Houses caused?

I’ve taken a lesson and inspiration from the idea of living with less. I’ve recently been paring down my belongings in an attempt to have only what I love, use, or need. I’ve found that having too much stuff has lead to a feeling of stagnation, of being overwhelmed, and even some sadness. This year, I’m working on shifting energy and on opening up space in my life to let the good in.

It feels good to release things that no longer serve me and to let go of the negative energy attached to them. It amazes me what I’ve held onto and for how long. Why have I considered these things necessary or, worse yet, why have I not considered them at all for years? Why was I holding on to books that I read once and hated? Why was the back of my closet filled with clothes that feel like costumes now that I have a clearer sense of my personal style? Why, why, why, was my bathroom stuffed with cosmetics products that could possibly be classified as biohazards due to their advanced age?

I’m not sure I have a good answer to these questions. At least, not one that I could come up with without the necessary introspection and questioning. I can say that all of the above mentioned things are now out of the house and have been regifted, donated, or disposed of as appropriate.

It feels good. My small (though not technically tiny) house feels brighter, more open, and nicer to be in. I feel brighter and more receptive to what the world brings my way. Maybe there is something to this living with less thing.

But I still want to see Tiny House two year follow ups.