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Acts Of (self) Love

Okay, so, let’s ignore the fact that I haven’t written here (or anywhere, mostly) for two years. I’ve been busy. I’ve had conversations with several people lately about what we’re saying when we say that word “busy” and I have thoughts on it. But that’ll be another post, which I might even actually write sometime. For now, I’m here and making this time.

And that’s what I feel moved to write about today. Writing is good for me. It makes me feel stronger and better and more productive. And I haven’t been doing it. I haven’t been making time. I have so much else to do. And too often, when I feel like I have other, more important things to do, acts of self-care get shuffled off to the side.

I haven’t been feeling very good lately, about myself, my life, my body. I haven’t been feeling okay with what I have to offer the world or with what I’ve been offering to myself. And a lot of those feelings can’t be solved easily. I can’t just decide that I want my life to be very different from what it is now and just make that magically happen. I can start taking steps in different directions but there will still be a long way to go. I can, however, change some things much more easily, in the short-term.

I don’t feel healthy. My body doesn’t feel healthy. I’ve come to learn that there are three components of physical health for me that I need to be going well, in order to feel well. I need exercise, my body needs to move. I need to eat in a way that fuels that movement well. And my body needs to eliminate waste efficiently (I’m not going to talk about poop right now but, oh, I want to. And I might some other time so brace yourselves). These three components of my physical health form a cycle of goodness and they depend on one another- my digestive system doesn’t function if I’m eating healthfully and not exercising; I can’t exercise if I’m sick; when my body hurts from inactivity, all I want to eat is refined sugar and highly processed fat. So I’ve found that if I’m doing all three of those things in good ways, I feel a whole lot better.

But so often, I don’t do those things in good ways. No matter how sluggish and wretched I feel, it doesn’t seem important enough to make time for. It’s almost like I’m not worth it, like caring for myself is not a meaningful enough task to devote my energy to. Being “productive” (another problematic word) or making myself available to others feels more vital. Maybe it’s because I think that those things will be more spiritually fulfilling. Maybe I forget that my physical well-being is really a component of my emotional health. Maybe I just don’t always remember the power of being loved.

You know how sometimes you can have a cold and it just makes you feel so much better when someone takes care of you? It’s not like you need serious medical intervention or anything. But someone shows up to bring you homemade soup and a carton of orange juice and suddenly, even if the cold is just as fierce as it’s been all day, you feel a lot better. Why? I think it’s because someone took the time to show you love. You’re being cared for, you’re being nurtured. And it just feels better. Yes, some physical needs are being addressed- the healing powers of soup and vitamin C are present. But also, emotional needs are being met. Someone is saying, “I love you enough to do this for you.”

It’s like that when we take the time to take care of ourselves, too. I’m tempted to feel like I’m wasting time as I’m doing yoga or chopping veggies for my dinner. A bowl of cereal as I reply to email would be quicker. A sandwich from a fast food place would leave me extra minutes to get other things done. But setting aside time to do these necessary, nurturing tasks for myself is an act of love. It addresses some very real physical needs- I know that exercise and proper nutrition are important to me. But it also meets an emotional need. It feeds the part of me that thrives when someone shows up and says “I love you enough to do this for you.” And that part of me is worth making the time for, too.


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Big Little Moments

Okay, this is really exciting!  I have a guest blogger for you today.  She’s a brilliant and inspirational writer named Diane.  And she happens to be my mum.  I asked her a few days ago if she would write something for this space and I’m glad she sent me this today because I’m feeling a bit angsty that I’ve not had time to write anything myself.  Thanks Mommy (for writing something for me and for the beautiful reminder to appreciate the “small” things)!

On a recent morning I had to drive to a nearby city on a work related errand. It was a quintessentially beautiful fall day in New England—chilly and breezy but ablaze with golden sunlight. Leaves were falling thickly around my car like giant, pale yellow snowflakes. Pumpkins were everywhere from farmers’ markets to decorated front porches to the front yard of a church that was simply filled with them. I was so grateful to get to experience all of this seasonal glory but I was even more grateful that I was actually able to appreciate it.

We’ve all heard stories from people who have recovered from a terrible illness or injury. They talk about how their proximity to death gave them a new-found appreciation for life and every little thing in it. We nod sagely but we really don’t get it and might even think it a little lame. But if only we could get it and, as the song says, try to live like we were dying, we would live much differently. I think I trace my own appreciation for life’s beautiful moments to a very brief scare a few years ago but whatever caused it I am grateful.

There are dozens of time each week when I just stop for a few seconds and think how beautiful a shaft of sunlight is or how sweet the air smells or how golden and perfect this fall day is. It is absolutely amazing how it makes me feel. It’s like a tiny yoga or meditation island in the rough ocean of the day.

We don’t a need a scare to develop this skill. It’s like any habit. Just make a point to do it occasionally and it will eventually become so ingrained that you’ll find it hard to stop because it will make you feel so good.

Not a nature lover? Not a problem. Appreciate anything. If you’re at work stop for second and look around. Depending on where you work notice the sweetness of an adorable baby or the way the light is glowing through a window or the delicious smell of wood chips or a parent and child chatting over a meal.

Small things?  Small moments?  Yes, but small moments are what life is made of and once you start collecting these small moments you will find you are in possession of a life  full of wonder.


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The Best Mistakes

This week marks the one year anniversary of what I’m calling “the best really terrible mistake I’ve ever made in my life.”  It’s not so  important at this point what that mistake was.  What does feel huge to me is the fact that, after a year of significant pain and fall-out from the decisions I made last October, I’m kind of hesitant to call that mistake a mistake at all.  I said to a friend the other day that if, a year ago, you’d told me with absolute certainty about the way those decisions would play out, I might have made different choices.  And I feel like that truly would have been a mistake.  As difficult as this year has been (and believe me, it was pretty awful), I’m extremely grateful to have had to go through it.  It’s changed me dramatically and for the best.

I had a conversation with another friend recently about something similar.  She was feeling bad about the way her life is, about things that have happened in the past, about the fact that she doesn’t think she’s as far along in life as she should be.  And she was spending a lot of time comparing herself to other people she knows and using their progress to make herself feel worse about her own.  She was so focused on this train of thought that she was wasn’t able to do any of the things she needed to be doing to achieve her own goals.  Neither the big, ambitious stuff nor the mundane daily tasks.  She was stuck.

It made me think of how I do the same thing.  I can spend an awfully long time lamenting all the stuff I’ve done wrong.  It’s so easy to do, right?  There’s a sense of sick comfort in being able to blame past missteps, bad decisions or the harm done to me by others.  It lets me off the hook a little to compare myself to the people around me.  Look how much money that old school friend is making now.  Look how happy my ex is with a new love.  Look at all the exciting things this coworker does on the weekends.  Look at all the ways I’ve been screwed over by life.  When I’m wallowing in all that, I don’t have to bother to do anything about any of it.

So I get stuck.  I flail around and whine about injustice and resign myself to being unhappy about all the things I can’t control.  I do nothing to help me accept certain facts which are truly outside my influence and nothing to move past the rough patches.  When I’m sitting in that kind of discomfort and fear and letting myself lack the motivation to take any actual action, I’m just furthering that pain.  I have no option but to keep feeling that way.  Nothing changes if nothing changes.

What can I do instead?  Take the action!  Let go of that fear, if only for an hour or so, and do something.  Explore possibilities.  And stop feeling so dang bad about where I am.  I’ve worked really hard to be able to remember on a consistent basis that I am, at any given moment, exactly where I need to be.  There’s no point in wasting my energy on wondering why or wanting things to be better.  Because I’ll still be here, right where I am.  And everything I’ve had to go through to get right here has been important.  The joyous, the hurtful, the memorable and the mundane.  All of it has been a step on my personal path.

I don’t always love change.  I don’t always love learning lessons.  I don’t always love the way things work out.  But if I’m going to make any positive progress in my life and, more importantly, if I’m going to be able to recognize that progress for what it is, I have to remember to honor all those things I don’t love.  I have to embrace my mistakes.  I have to be grateful for all the times I didn’t get what I thought I wanted.  I have to know that not only am I most definitely going to get where I’m going but that I’m absolutely where I am now and it’s an important, beautiful place to be.  Even when it hurts.  Even when I feel like everyone else is happier and more successful than me.  Even when I have to watch another person enjoying what I feel should have been mine.  Even when all I want to do is curl up in a ball and feel bad for myself.  Especially then.  Because that’s when I have the greatest opportunity to do something about myself.

I’m so grateful that usually when someone gives me suggestions, they aren’t able to say for absolute sure how something will turn out.  I’m glad that there’s always enough uncertainty about the future that I can justify ignoring their advice and forging ahead with my own ideas.  Because I learn a lot more that way.  Maybe it would be great to be the kind of person who never makes mistakes.  But then I’d never have the opportunity to look back and say, “Wow, that was a stunning failure and it was my right as a flawed human being to have that experience.  Maybe now I can manage to not do something exactly like that ever again.”  And I’d never have the opportunity to go make my next “best really terrible mistake.”

Maybe I do sort of love all those tough lessons after all.


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The Simple Life

What a beautiful few days I’ve just had in Vermont!  I was visiting my dear, dear friend Miranda and her husband, who own a homestead in the forest.  Basically no electricity (they have off the grid solar power but it’s rarely used), no running water, no close neighbors.  It’s a five minute walk through the woods to get to the house.  So glorious and peaceful.

I took a bus to Hanover, NH on Thursday morning.  Hanover is about a 45 minute drive from Miranda’s house.  After a brief stint of people watching at Dartmouth College (my bus arrived early and M was a bit late), we found a lovely little coffee shop and started our visit.  Miranda is the kind of friend with whom I feel equally comfortable sharing the extremely personal details of my life or just enjoying contemplative silence.  On our way home, we visited a farm to pick up 100 pounds of German Butterball potatoes.  Miranda is getting the root cellar all stocked up and potatoes are going to be a major part of their winter diet.  We stopped by the coffee shop where she works a few hours a week, bringing her big city espresso making skills to her tiny community (they love her!) and the natural foods store where she buys most of her groceries.  Everyone was so friendly and welcoming.

Then on to the homestead!  The approach consisted of roads which got rougher and narrower until finally, we parked and started on foot through a leaf strewn path through the woods.  Their place is tucked several hundred feet back into the woods- a simple house, a half open guest cabin, a composting outhouse, Miranda’s writing cabin, a big garden, a yoga platform, storage sheds.  They get their drinking water from the nearby stream and wash water is gathered from roof run-off.  They have a sugar shack farther away and so much glorious peace and quiet that I almost had trouble sleeping at night with no city noises in the background of my dreams.

But I did sleep, wonderfully.  Maybe it was the bliss of being out in nature.  Maybe it was exhaustion.  Over the course of a couple of days, I helped move stuff into the root cellar, wrapped a bunch of apples in newspaper for winter storage (the wrapping keeps the stems from poking other apples and causing them to rot).  We babysat the adorable toddler daughter of some friends at their chicken farm/sawmill/home.  We pulled grass out of the garden for hours and I completely shredded my fingers up doing so.  I peed all over that garden!  One of the best parts about being somewhere with no proper bathroom is that you can pee pretty much anywhere you want as long as you aren’t in the house when you do it.

So by bedtime on Thursday and Friday, I was ready for sleep.  My bunk assignment was the guest cabin.  Unheated, no glass in the windows, camp pads in a low loft, mummy sleeping bag and down comforter.  Perfect.  I had a view of the garden and the huge, starry sky.  I prayed and cried myself to sleep both nights, simply because I felt so grateful and peaceful and loved.  Lulled by the sound of gentle rain and the rustling of nearly bare tree branches, I was safe, contemplative, hopeful.

I definitely don’t think I’m cut out for such a life full time.  For one thing, forgoing just about all of my usual hygiene routine for 58 hours was… rough.  Not unbearable but I was super happy to wash my hair when I got home.  As soon as I got home.  And I’m not sure if I would always be okay with devoting so much time to basic household tasks.  But, my goodness, it is lovely out there.  It’s kind of incredible to walk through the garden picking dinner, pulling up beets with my pockets full of green beans.

And it was so wonderful to see one of my dearest friends in the world and have her nearly to myself for a couple of days.  I seem to do tough emotional work better in her presence, even when we aren’t talking out loud about what’s happening in my head and heart.  We know each other well enough to not need to know every detail in order to help each other work through a problem but we’re close enough to share all those details without embarrassment.  It’s such a blessing to have people like that in my life.

I just barely believe sometimes that my life is my life.  I’m so blessed to know the amazing people I do and to have the experiences I’m offered.  I learned about witch grass these past few days (it’s evil!) and dandelion roots (they’re so deep, like carrots!) and proper root cellar maintenance (don’t get me started on how complicated it is to keep those little spaces properly ventilated).  I developed an appreciation and application technique for whitewash (did you know it’s mildly antibacterial?).  I got to wear the water jug yoke for a while, but only before the jugs were filled.  I fell flat on my face in the mud, tripping over a tree root in the darkness.  I saw more stars than this city girl knew existed.   And I will definitely be visiting Vermont again.  I want to see the homestead in spring.  I want to wake to the sound of birds singing in newly leafed trees.  I want to say my morning prayers in that kind of quiet again.


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Balance

I got the tattoo on my left ankle in the spring of 2002.  I woke up one Saturday morning and my roommate announced she was going to get her navel pierced.  Did I want to come along and get something done?  We gathered up a couple of friends, got high on the way there and I picked something out of a book in the waiting room.  It was the Chinese character for “peace.”  I was stoned and I was manic and it was pretty.

For three weeks afterwards, the site was swollen and infected and intensely painful.  I was unconcerned.  I was extremely unhealthy at the time, locked in the misery of fear and addiction and self-injury.  Physical pain was a bit of a relief to me in those days.  It was an almost welcome distraction.

I found out soon after I got it done that the character was not so much about “peace on earth, goodwill towards men,” as “balance.”  It was laughable.  The most balance I ever achieved was my ability to, already legless, prop myself upright enough to pound back five shots of tequila in a somewhat festive manner, before collapsing again at the feet of my friends.  I was always afraid of something and frequently angry, lashing out at anyone in my path.  I was not a balanced girl; I was not peaceful.

One year went by, then more, at least seven.  And the ink never really took.  Or my body never took to it.  The skin remained raised and often sore.  If I scratched it lightly, it hurt for hours.  Sometimes, the rubbing of my sock could set it off, especially if I was sweaty.  I caught it once with the sharp edge of a ring I wore at the time and it stung for days.

I seem to have no problems with tattoos in general.  My first, years earlier, had healed fine.  Van Gogh’s “Sorrow” wound itself into my skin as if it had always been there.  The reminder of courage I had placed on my pale wrist bled only slightly and became part of me in a matter of days.  But my flesh continued to rebel against the symbol on my ankle, as if it could push it up and out, away.  As if it had no place in me.  I learned to accept the constant rejection.  As I struggled, flailingly, through my existence and then later, as I learned to stop struggling and accept help, I wound up forgetting about it. 

About a year and a half ago, I was sitting on the floor with some friends, listening to them talk about God and love and service. My hand was wrapped around my ankle and it suddenly occurred to me that there was no pain beneath my fingers.  My skin felt smooth and undisturbed, so that I had to actually look and make sure I was touching the ink.  I was but it felt like any other part of me.  I realized I couldn’t recall the last time the tattoo had hurt, the last time the touch of my fingernails had caused it pain.  It had been absorbed into me, finally.   

I’ve spent these past few years trying to learn, trying to figure out how to be me.  My dearest friends these days speak of forgetting their own fear and self-pity and instead focusing on loving others.  They talk about the freedom this gives them and the relief.  These are things I’ve learned, too.  Sometimes, when I pray most desperately for God’s assistance, what I’m given is the gift of someone else who is asking for the same thing.  And it’s always what I need.  Feeling better is no longer about escaping or denying.  It’s about accepting my humanness, my flaws and discomfort, and recognizing that they are not as devastating or unique as I tend to think.  When I reach out and connect with someone just as human as I am and we help each other simply by needing the help, we balance out.  It’s a spiritual and emotional levelling of the scales.

I don’t know exactly when balance became a seamless part of me.  I have no memory of the moment my body accepted it.  But sitting in that room that night with a bunch of people who were listening intently, gratefully breathing together, being honest in their need and faith, I was suddenly very aware of, though not at all pained by, the smooth, cool feeling of the Serenity Prayer ring I now wear pressing against that peace.

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