On Gentleness



I have the flu. Not the flu—which would presumably prevent me from even considering the act of sitting up between sneezing and snoozing to compose a blog post about it—but a flu, a virus. I have been alive for fifty-three years. And I have gotten some kind of sickness, viral or bacterial, every single one of them.  But still, the process of coming down with something always catches me off guard. I am slow to detect a microbe, or a foreign infectious agent. I always think it’s me. That there’s something wrong with me: meaning, my personality. I fear it’s taking a giant nosedive.

I ask myself—trying to be as kind as I can—what the hell is wrong with me all of a sudden. I tell myself—again with an attempt at loving kindness, because I do love and care about myself, but the fact I need to rely on my functioning as my sole work-horse creates a little friction in my tone—to to get it together, put some pep in my step. I notice a headache, so remind myself to drink more water, perhaps gently interrogating myself about the possibility of accidental self-induced dehydration.  

And then I sneeze.  

The first sneeze, then the second, and my inner world starts to shift.

Am I sick? Is that what this is? My sinuses reveal themselves to be throbbing, the cavities around my nasal passages obviously inflamed, and remarkably: the cause of the headache becomes crystal clear. I am not a loser!  I am sick! That’s when the inner nursemaid comes rushing in, with her spoon-full of sugar to help the medicine go down. “Oh honey, you’re sick.  That’s what it is, sweetheart.  Let’s get you into bed as soon as we can.”

I now have permission to cancel my workday, and give head’s up that I will most likely need to cancel tomorrow as well. And I have a mission now, one-pointed focus, which is to get well. I put on my pajamas and gather the Kleenex, the cough drops, the tea and the juice.  A culture of inner gentleness settles in like a lullaby.  

What if this gentleness were there all the time? Would there be a cost to that? When I work with clients and students on cultivating an inner gentleness, an interior culture of self-compassion, there is often the fear that one would go soft. The worry that without the inner task-master, we would curl up on the sofa and wallow, sucking our thumbs and becoming sulky balls of self-indulgence. But honestly, I don’t think that would happen. I used to be run by an inner bully, an impatient whip-cracker who thankfully now only takes over when my reserves are down, my resources low. Yes, I hear the twisted logic in that—in what sounds like kicking me when I’m down, when I need my own support the most. But the way I interpret this phenomenon is that it takes a lot of resources to keep the inner tyrant at bay; it requires reserves to keep the voice of inner kindness amplified. When my tank is full, my health thriving, my resilience quotient on high, then my primary inner voice is (these days, after decades of working to rewire my own brain) the kind, self-loving one. And I am pleased to report—as are many others on this journey—that this inner gentleness does not lower my functioning. Does not beckon me to soften into a perma-state of immobility. In fact, it inspires me. To engage, to contribute, to savor, to receive—all of which gives me strength. Not a rigid authoritarian power, but a flexible, fluid kind of strength. It would be ideal if this voice could sustain its reign even when my resources are low—before I realize it’s not my fault, it’s a microbe!—but I’m not there yet. I hope to be, in this lifetime, but for now, that’s aspirational.

I can’t help but wonder, here in my pj’s, about the possibility of gentleness in our shared outer culture. What would that be like? In our very own country, there have been thirty mass shootings already in this new year. We have a leader who not so long ago threatened to give North Korea—a country—a bloody nose. (Code for a pre-emptive strike that could have cost tens of thousands of lives). The white supremacist movement is currently emboldened—in the modern world, in our so-called educated civilized nation. I wonder about the inner culture of those practicing hate and bigotry, threatening violence against civilians, and shooting down classmates. Are they as barbaric to themselves internally as they are to others? I can only conjecture. If the people practicing bullying, hate crimes, and violence had a practice of inner gentleness, what would the world be like? I imagine that this gentleness might make these people not only more compassionate to themselves and others, but ultimately stronger—so much so that they wouldn’t have to resort to bullying, hate and violence which are expressions of weakness. I can only hope that the more of us who cultivate inner gentleness—which is humbling work, with incremental progress—spread gentleness outwards, with contagion.

On Quiet



Noise is everywhere. The television, radio, whatever podcasts or music you might have piping through your ear buds. Traffic sounds: cars, rumbling trucks and—depending where you live—honking, sirens. Leaf blowers, snow blowers, jackhammers, coffee grinders, blenders, hair driers. People in the background: arguing, whining, laughing, crying, singing. People in the foreground: talking to you, asking you questions, giving you love, attention, advice, telling you stories, making requests, demands.  Maybe you have pets, barking for food, affection, or to be let outside, meowing for your attention.

And that’s just the external noise.

What goes on inside our heads can create even more of a cacophony. Our To Do lists barking their orders—with special addendums highlighting items on yesterday’s (last week’s, or last year’s) list still not done. The self-criticism, on an infinite loop so incessant you may not even hear it, but it’s there: the auditory landscape running you ragged. And how about the internal conflicts? We all have them, on a variety of topics, but sometimes, like the internal criticism, the internal bickering is so constant you may not even recognize it as there anymore.

Internal criticism sometimes slithers in posing as a motivational pep talk:

          Today you’re going to get your sorry ass to the gym!

          Try to be productive at work for a change!

Then the defense kicks in:

          Hey, don’t be so hard on me.  I’m a good person who deserves a _________(carton of ice cream, six pack of beer, hours of binge watching my favorite show…)

And the argument is off and running again:

          I told you not to eat/drink/watch that. Every single day I tell you not to     eat/drink/watch that and you go right ahead and do it anyway.  

          Well, why did you LET me? Why don’t you lead me to do the RIGHT things for a change?

          Because you do whatever the EFF you want no matter what we decide our goals and plans are going to be. You have no will-power whatsoever!

Or maybe your recurring internal critic pipes up every time you interact with other people:

          You shouldn’t have said that. You made yourself look like a complete fool.  Now everyone is judging you.  

Or every time you don’t speak up:

          Oh great: you could have finally SHOWN UP but instead you just hid out. Yet again! Letting the world pass you by…

Maybe these inner voices aren’t familiar, maybe they are. Maybe you address yourself as “you” internally, maybe as “I,” maybe you use your name. But whatever your internal chatter sounds like, it’s there. And chances are, if you aren’t aware of it, it’s because you’ve turned up the dial high enough on the external noise to drown it out.

The problem with all this noise is, we miss out on the important internal voice we really want to hear most, our wisdom, our inner guidance. Ghandi once said, “the only tyrant I choose to accept is the still quiet voice within me.” The voice of our internal wisdom is just that: still and quiet. In order to tune into it, we need to be still and quiet, too. This voice is not going to use a megaphone, or a frying pan to slam us in the head to get our attention. It’s too dignified for that, too secure to need to be the center of attention. Our wisdom waits peacefully inside us, quietly chilling out in the stillness, until we slow down, until we stop.

And get still.

And quiet.

This tends to require breathing our way through all the layers of noise and chatter and distraction in order to be able to listen. In order to be able to hear. We have to listen attentively to attune to its style, peacefully to receive its offerings, with curiosity and an open heart to accept the guidance however it arrives. When we do this, we will find our still quiet voice within always to be there. Our wisdom always waiting, with loving open arms to welcome us home.

On Going Vertical



The other day while giving a talk on Compassionate Straight Talk, I kept noticing my hand. It drew a line in the air from my forehead down through my heart-center into my belly. Over and over again. If I were one of those football commentators who draw diagrams on the screen to illustrate a play, my play would have looked the same every time: one straight line, headed down.

That’s because I was discussing the importance of going vertical, not horizontal, if you want to create effective communication. If you want to offer feedback that won’t put the other on the defensive. If you want to be straight, and be heard. If you want to create emotional intimacy. You have to go inside yourself, and report from your own internal experience, versus telling the other person what they’re doing wrong. Versus diagnosing them. Versus going horizontal. (The play I drew repeatedly on my imaginary screen for going horizontal was simply pointing a finger. Creating the energetic specter from the tip of my index finger of a straight line aimed at the other.)

You can successfully broach a lot of uncharted territory—or perhaps previously charted, but perilously so—if you start out by going vertical.  By exploring what goes on inside yourself in the challenging interaction, when the triggering behavior of the other happens. How do I feel in this dynamic? What’s at stake for me?  What do I wish for? Long for? Need? Getting clear first, on the vertical experience, is step one. Step two is, from a place of internal understanding, reporting on it. The late pioneer of family systems theory Dr. Murray Bowen referred to this style of relational reportage as “representing self.”

We’ve all heard about “I statements,” and the importance of “I statements” over “You statements.” Ideally, “I statements” go vertical, allowing us to report on our own experience, to represent self. “You statements” point a horizontal line at the other—the exact line the other can use to zing one right back at you! “You statements” set up the back and forth volley of “Yeah, but you…” “Oh really?  You’re the one who…”   And that imaginary line denoting the horizontal play gets thicker and thicker, traversed back and forth ad infinitum. (The only problem I observe with “I statements” is when they are a “You statement” in disguise. The ultimate satirical version of this is: “I feel like you’re an asshole.”) Used genuinely to go vertical and represent self, “I statements” clear the air, create pathways for understanding, compassion, relational peace.   

In the workplace, a manager can tell her direct report, “I want you to succeed. But I’m finding myself at a loss as to how to get through to you in this particular area.”  That’s vertical. That’s representing self.  That’s compassionate. And it’s also real. And very likely effective – certainly more so than, “You never listen” or “You’re stubborn.”  

Same goes for communicating at home. With family members, “I worry when I don’t hear from you. It would really mean a lot to me if you checked in more,” is more likely to be received than, “You never check in,” or “You make promises you don’t keep.”  Another example of going vertical might be, “I shut down and stop listening when you raise your voice; it alienates me,” versus the horizontal, “You’re hysterical,” or, “You’re crazy, I’m outta here,” or, “Shut up!” With our younger children, when we really go vertical, what are we worried about? Their safety. Their ability to thrive as humans. We may not like their behavior, but if we go vertical and get in touch with why, we can communicate from a deeper, more compassionate place. “I care about you. I want to help you learn something really important here.”

That’s what I see with my clients when they go vertical and represent self, and what I experience repeatedly in my own relationships when I do it: space opens up for compassion. When we go vertical, we are communicating on a deeper level, beneath the surface blame game, where the capacity for compassion resides. Compassion for self. Compassion for the other. And the other’s compassion for you. Compassion begets compassion; it’s the soil of intimacy in which all things healing grow.

On Hibernating



I might be part bear.  

During winter, the bear emoji, which I completely overlook on my phone for the other seasons, shows up in my oft-used section.  That furry little ursine face is how I identify myself via text, giving a visual to the low-hanging trundling-towards-the-cave state of my energy.

I cannot say enough about the comfort of my bed, the draw of the flannel sheets, the cozy containment of a pillow over my upward-facing ear, blotting out all noise and stimulation, swaddling me into another hour—or two—of sleep.  I used to think this was depression.  (The truth is, it could be. After all, it’s seasonal, and taking to the bed is a symptom of Seasonal Affective Disorder, acronym: SAD.) One January, seeing me dig my warm bathrobe out of my winter storage box and change into it before dinner, my son said, “Oh no, Mom: you’re doing your housecoat phase again?”  That was when it dawned on me I actually had a housecoat phase. (And that my eleven-year-old son somehow knew the term for that 1950’s garment.) Not great for my self-image, not at all a depiction of the fun-loving Mom I wanted to be year-round, but true.

I’ve been working on accepting this downshifting of gears my body naturally goes into the first months of every new year. I still show up where I need to show up, but beyond that, I don’t.  Beyond that, you can find me under the covers, a pillow over my ear, in my “housecoat.” I lose touch with people, see my neighborhood friends less, take a little longer to respond to the outside world. Honestly, I don’t love this. I wish it were different.  But fighting against my inner current, which I did for years, caused tension and stress, an inner civil war.

I am noticing as I move along through this journey of life how many aspects of character, personality traits and tendencies, are healed by self-acceptance. That does not mean fixed. Or cured. It means softened, chastened, made easier to handle. I see this over and over again with clients and friends, and experience this myself: the balm of accepting what we wish were different in ourselves.  I wish I loved to get up in the dark cold morning hours to brave the elements in my running sneakers—or even brave the stairs to the coffee maker! But I don’t. I like to snuggy down and lure myself back into the dreamscape I was just enjoying. I choose not to do some of the things I would normally do in lieu of more sleep. This has an obvious cost to how effective I can be, but I am coming to accept being less productive, and more self-attuned.

There is a fine line here. One I walk with mindfulness, even concern. On one side of the line is pushing oneself, which I have done, in fact done too much of, at times burning out. On the other side lies self-indulgence, torpor, lassitude—which can look an awful lot like a housecoat and a pillow over the head! So I am cautious. Is this healthy?  Does this serve my wellbeing? What are the alternatives and what happens when I try them? Does my wellbeing meter go up? Or down? These are some of the inquiries that keep me honest with myself as I walk that line. And I notice those inquiries helping others as well, on a wide range of topics where someone is walking this same kind of line. Sometimes the questions yield an honest step towards more action and more initiative, other times, they bring about the healing balm of self-gentleness, self-forgiveness, and self-acceptance.  

For me, what I’ve come to is valuing wellbeing over productivity. Yes, I have to produce. Yes, I have to show up.  And yes I want to both produce and show up.  But whenever possible, I want to do so in wellbeing. I want to have my inner reservoir full, and I want to transmit wellbeing to those in my midst. To be in wellbeing—and perhaps this is simply a synonym or definition—I need to be in synch with myself. And to be in synch with myself, I often have to adjust to and accept the reality of who and how I am, versus the myth of who and how I think I should be.  

When I work with other people and ask, “Can you forgive yourself for that?”, for me it is always obvious—and I do mean always, with no exceptions—the answer is and must be YES.  Not only are the actions or choices or personality traits in question one hundred per cent forgivable, but the cost of not forgiving self is staying stuck, living in inner conflict. Very often, the YES is not readily available. The person isn’t there yet. We might have to peel back layers, coming at the topic from a few different angles before they get to their birthright of: yes, yes I can forgive myself.  The result? Visible, palpable, contagious wellbeing.

On Baby Steps



I have set aside some time this month to revisit my manuscript, which needs a third draft. I know of writers whose process is so iterative that they might write forty drafts of the very same manuscript, over a period of five or more years, and honestly, I bow down to them. To their stamina, their stick-to-itiveness, their willingness to engage and re-engage with the same material.  

I watch Cosmo, our rescue puppy, circle a spot where he’s going to sleep, around and around and around, before plunking down. It reminds me of me right now, circling my computer, circling my material in my head, around and around and around. I’ve been doing this for two days and still haven’t plunked down!  Still haven’t found my way back in! This could very well be because I am circling instead of sitting.  

Many writers use the A.I.C. method: Ass In Chair. Mine hasn’t been. When I finally do sit, I spring back up, as if my chair has an Eject! button. I know resistance is part of the process, at least part of mine. This is what I do. I circle. I sit, then spring right up. I pace. I clean the house, pay the bills, find broken things that need to be taken to repair shops, errands I have been putting off for months if not years. I have done this so many times in my life that I’ve come to trust that all the while, in the back of my mind, I am probably already writing. And when I finally do get to A.I.C in earnest, I will be ready.

Every day after school, our nine-year-old neighbor comes over to take Cosmo out of his crate and bring him outside—because we are usually out of the house at work all afternoon.  But yesterday I was home, trying to write, aka circling, and forgot Natalia was coming.  I was not quite A.I.C., but was getting closer. I was A.I.B.—in other words, in bed with my computer and my puppy, re-reading my manuscript in search of an entry point. I heard Natalia’s footsteps in her snowboots trudging up the stairs to find Cosmo, who wasn’t in his crate as usual.

“What are you doing?’ she asked, when she came upon me A.I.B..

“Trying to write a book,” I said. “But I’m having a hard time.”

“What’s it about?”

“Well,” I said.  “It’s about two sad things that happened in our family, two accidents, that ended up turning into miracles.”

By this point, Cosmo had made his way into Natalia’s arms, tail wagging, licking her face, eager to go outside. Having doubled his size and weight since we got him over Thanksgiving, Cosmo is almost too big for Natalia to carry. She lugged his wriggling body downstairs and outside, and I went back to my manuscript (aka checking email, shopping online). I figured I’d bored Natalia with my description of my book, but when she came back in with Cosmo about ten minutes later, she brought it up.

“Um, Hilary? I think what you should do is tell people that miracles are very important.”  

So I’ll start here: Miracles are very important!

Overcoming resistance, right now, would be my minor miracle. Another is that I know exactly how: baby steps. Baby steps almost always lead to miracles. I worked with a client who felt too sedentary to overcome his exercise aversion, but committed to setting a timer for three minutes of jumping jacks a day, which over time became five, then ten minutes, until he found himself with enough energy in his system to start going regularly to the gym. For another client, spending fifteen intentional minutes a day out of her comfort zone lead her to complete two daunting goals, one personal, one professional. The trick was, and is, taking the baby step no matter what.  

Mine is revisiting my manuscript everyday, whether I feel like it or not. (I don’t.) This may feel like circling. It may feel fruitless. I may make messes in the work that I end up throwing out. The other trick is, remembering it’s all progress. Baby steps aren’t always linear. When babies learn to walk, they fall down. Maybe they crawl a little before standing up again. Then they take another step.  Or two, or three.

On Being A Scaredy Cat



I’m scared.  

It’s January 3, 2018, and I’ve spent the first few days of the new year in a fear cycle. The specific context almost doesn’t matter because I’ve been caught up in this very same cycle so many times before, but this one has to do with waiting for medical test results. The wait—for imaging results for one of my young-adult children—has been prolonged by the New Year’s holiday. These three long days and nights have not been pleasant, but nor have they been spent in unmitigated fear. There have been respites. Moments of lying on a dry island in the warm sun—until the tides of fear suck me out into the choppy seas again. Those moments of peace have been hard won.  I’ve been working my ass off, employing all my tricks, using all my tools, every method I know for cultivating wellbeing. And they work. They swim me back to shore. 

But what I keep noticing is the lure of fear. The lure, and the lore. As in: the compelling pull of fear, as well as the falsified evidence, the what if’s fear uses to suck me back into its current. I remind myself that the worst case scenario is not happening right now, is not—at least not yet—real. I repeat the acronym for FEAR: False Evidence Appearing Real.  

“But what if it’s not false,” Fear says, arguing its case.  “What if it is real?”  Fear has a very good point: the evidence could be real. The lump in question could be a malignant tumor. It also could be, and most likely is, a benign cyst. But for now, in the present moment, we don’t know. And for now, in the present moment, I have a warm cup of tea, a fire in my fireplace, and writing—a medium through which I can explore the machinations of fear. For now, in this moment, all is well. 

“What you’re doing is not safe,” Fear interrupts. “Hanging out in wellbeing without all the evidence that everything’s going to be okay is reckless. Dangerous.”

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” I challenge Fear. “How could this state—my heart rate steady, my belly easeful, my system at peace—not be safe? How could it not be good for me to feel this way?” I drop the mic. I’ve called Fear’s bluff.

Fear tries again, telling me I’m setting myself up to be blindsided. “Come with me,” Fear lures, “I’ll help you be prepared.”

I marvel at Fear’s stamina, and relentless techniques. But even though I see through its BS—and I know, in this moment, that even if the news isn’t good, we will manage, moment by moment—somehow, the riptide keeps sucking me out again. I find myself thrashing in choppy waters, panicking with vivid images of the worst case scenario, my system coursing with adrenaline and cortisol. And then I employ 1:2 breathing, move through mindfulness exercises, use Hoffman Process tools, do some yoga, to swim myself one more time back into the now, the warm dry shores of present time.  

*   *   *

It’s January 5th, and I am fully back on terra firma, humbled yet again by the complete workout provided by fear, one that would still be going on if the news had not come in as the blessing that it did. Benign: sending gratitude and relief humming through my system in the form of oxytocin, endorphins, all the feel-good hormones. I am fully aware that more workouts await. The earthsuits we live in get lumps, some benign, some malignant. Calamitous destructive events happen. Eventually, one way or another, mortality claims every one of us—the lure and lore of fear can do nothing to prevent that. Not all of us are prone to anxiety. Not all of us have an EZ pass straight to the open ocean of worst-case scenario thinking. But for those of us who have neural networks like mine, I send compassion, companionship, and championing for our mass swim, again and again, back to shore. And the prayer that maybe one of these days, no matter what happens, we can learn to stay ashore the entire time, on the warm dry land of the mindful moment til death do us part.

On Place

View from bedroom windows, Lower Farm

Our family spent the holiday at my mother’s house in Florida—presumably for the last time, since it has been sold. This is the house in which my father spent his last years, a home to which we all are deeply attached for sentimental as well as aesthetic reasons. After my parents bought the house, my mother had it razed with a bulldozer—an act that freaked us all out but turned out to be visionary. This was roughly a decade ago, when my father was starting to lose his mind and his bearings, and the house my mom designed and had built from the ground up is a humble homage to serenity. A work of art. A true sanctuary not just for my parents (or, now, my parent, singular), but for all who visit—whether for vacation or even just for a meal or game of bridge. Underfoot, big white stone squares span from terrace through central wide-open living space, where sumptuous white couches and ottomans are clustered around pots of white orchids atop stacks of books with ornate spines. My mother’s grandmother was a sculptress, and in order to display some of her sculptures, my mom had well-lit recessed shelving built, painted hydrangea blue in this otherwise white airy breeze of a space.

I love that place, in a way that feels like loving a being, not an inanimate object. I love the smell—of the jasmine and oleander, love the feel of cool flat stone under bare soles, love the short balmy walk to the beach. Time after time, I have arrived there contracted from the cold weather of the northeast, or otherwise rattled by life, and unfurled amidst the tropical jungle, found peace in this cozy uncluttered place. Even as I paced the white stone floors with my dad as he rapidly lost his lucidity and dragged the furniture around, repeating that he had to go, had to get out of here, at least we were surrounded by beauty. That meant something. It gave us something.

Before all that, we lost another place, one even more dear to me. The Lower Farm was our homestead built by my father on 180 acres overlooking the white mountains of New Hampshire, on land so remote and pristine it felt like we’d been airlifted there. Moose and black bear drank from the pond, in view of our bedroom windows. All eight grandchildren of my parents were born during the twenty-year era we grew attached to the Lower Farm, sinking emotional roots into flinty New Hampshire soil. Then my father suffered a calamity, and two forms of dementia prematurely set in, causing him to lose all his savings as a casualty of losing his mind; he made rash, spurious investments, and they had to sell. When we drove out of the Lower Farm driveway for the last time, seeing the view of the white mountains and the pond out my minivan windows to the left, and to the right the rows of blueberry bushes lining the spot where my husband and I said our marital vows, I howled. Like an amputee. The nephews who happened to be in my minivan with some of my children for this departure might have been afraid by my primal bellow, but they all joined me in that sound of grief. It was infectious, the pain of the loss, of the final goodbye.

Then we attached to the small place in Florida, and now we are saying goodbye to that—because my mother has to downsize again. Life is all about attachment and loss. We get attached to people, places, things, and then we lose them. Coping with this cycle of attachment and loss requires astounding reserves of resilience. Even the luckiest of us, people with lives referred to as charmed, cannot escape the inevitable cycle. Some people try, by not getting attached in the first place, the cost of which is isolation—its own form of perpetual loss. It’s a risk to attach. A courageous act to love. When we attach, our lives have a mind-boggling amount of loss in them. Which is why so many of us turn to substances and activities to numb and distract our minds—the aspect of us that lives presumably in our heads, that is so often boggled.  

Some places in our lives are less memorable than others. Some do less holding, less nurturing of us through a passage of time. Some do more. More cradling. When we lose our cradles, it can be brutal. As if we are leaving not just the place but the self we were there—for that time, in that place. Each chapter of self inevitably passes. But as we leave that past behind—and when necessary, the places that held us—we make room for what’s new. Whatever that may be.




On Forgiveness



December 25th is famous as the purported birthday of someone born long, long ago—apparently in a manger. I recognize that the mention of Jesus Christ can be controversial, the way he gets invoked often loaded, heated, corrupt. Max Von Sydow’s character in Hannah and Her Sisters said it best: “If Jesus came back and saw what’s going on in his name, he’d never stop throwing up.”

Jesus at his essence has a lot to teach us. The likelihood that he walked on water is right up there with the biological improbability that he was born to a mother who was a virgin. But even if the sensational aspects of his life were symbolic instead of real, who cares? Jesus shows us the potential of the human heart. The guy knew how to forgive.    

In a time rife with grudge-holding and blame within our nation, we could all stand to practice a little more forgiveness. We would profit ourselves and each other by following Jesus’ lead. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus rejects revenge and retaliation. He doesn’t call on his followers to hate or avenge their aggressors, but instead to lead, always, with love and forgiveness. Jesus lived in an era of famine and persecution, but was still able to profess turning the other cheek—this in contrast to our current times where we live in unparalleled abundance, safety, and security, yet so many of our people choose to practice hate. And that’s the operative word: choose.  It’s a choice.  

I saw an interview with a woman who’d been in the Bataclan massacre in Paris. Facedown on the floor, which was pooling with other people’s blood, she’d been separated from her boyfriend, and, besieged by the sound of incessant gunfire, had every reason to believe these were the final moments of her life. She made a choice. She decided that although the terrorists may very well take her life right then and there,  they could not take her heart. She could die feeling fear and hate, or she could die with love and forgiveness. So she willfully started to call to mind each person in her life she loved, envisioning their faces, feeling her love for them fill her heart, and whispering into the floor, “I love you.” She whispered each person’s name, one by one, with the words “I love you” and she described sensing a warmth, a glow seeming to surround her as a result. This was a dire circumstance, and yet she was able to make this noble beautiful choice. To choose love.

A loving heart is a forgiving one; they are inextricably related, love and forgiveness, siamese twins. A vengeful heart is a toxic one. You’ve seen that bumper sticker: What would Jesus do?  He’d choose the former.  We can too.

On Administrivia

The Waiting Room, by Norman Rockwell


One evening when I was about twelve, my mother walked into the house from work, heading straight for the mirrored bar my parents had built into the corner of our living room. Without taking off her coat or the big leather purse hanging over her shoulder, wordlessly my mother poured a scotch and tossed it back. My brother and I were on the floor of the living room doing our homework, and because of the effect of the mirrored glass-shelved walls of their bar, I saw the image of my mom socking back scotch duplicated ad infinitum. “That was the worst,” she said, shaking it off. “I came down the stairs to my waiting room and had three patients sitting there. Three. Waiting for me. I screwed up my schedule.”

I did not grasp the debilitating impact of over-booking, or mishandling one’s own schedule. As a pre-teen, I simply had to move through the simple daily routine of feeding pets, doing homework, going to gymnastics practice, and seeing friends.  

But now I get it.  

I live in dread of walking to my own office reception area to see more than one client waiting for me—which, truth be told, has happened more than once. I have never come upon three there, however, and shudder on behalf of my mom, a psycho-therapist, as well as on behalf of the three clients—which of course is the bottom line reason for all the shuddering: the sense of letting people down.   

Raising four kids, I routinely overlooked certain mandatory forms, field-trip notices, fees. To this day, if I am ever at a college in an audience of parents, and an announcement begins, “Will the following families please go to the bursar’s office,” I stand right up and head for the bursar’s office. Why wait until they read off our last name when I know I must be on the list of delinquent parents? Of course, I like to be prompt in my payments, to have all my i’s dotted and t’s crossed, but when it comes to screwing up, I prefer mistakes like tardy payments. Late fees tend not to be egregious and are usually waive-able. And most importantly, they’re impersonal.

It’s the times I let people down that give me the pang. The soccer games when our family was supposed to bring the oranges at half-time, and my child in soccer uniform would look at me plaintively from across the field, mouthing “Orange Duty.” I would zoom out to get something, if not oranges (because there never seemed to be a grocery store nearby when this happened), then whatever snack was closest. I would return to the field greeted by mildly disapproving looks—not only for having missed my kid’s great assist, or his or her one goal of the season, but because I brought with me instead of orange slices, something more akin to a bucket of Dunkin Munchkins. (One time, I even was that mom whose puppy darted onto the field mid-game to poop.)

What’s painful about these vaguely funny memories are only the moments when I disappointed my kids, when I caused them to cringe or feel shortchanged. Same goes for my clients and my friends. When I don’t have my act together on the logistical level, I can bear the brunt, but I feel remorse when my errors negatively impact others. To be fair to me, I am no slacker, and the majority of the time am firing on all cylinders—same goes for my mother, except for the occasional slip-ups like the one that had her B-lining for her mirrored bar circa 1976. We’re all engaged in the grand juggling act of life, often dropping balls—hoping they bounce instead of break.

As 2017 comes to a close, and I am given a blank slate, a fresh set of 365 days, I hereby intend to give admininstrivia more attention. My gifts do not lie in scheduling or tracking forms, and nor do I find administrivia one bit compelling. But rather than shoving it into the cracks, hoping my scant attention is all it needs, I am going to reserve ample time each day to tend to it—in the name of tending to the people it impacts, people who are important to me. Thinking of it as administrivia for the sake of relationships helps me make that shift, and maybe a new term would as well? Relationadmin? Administrationship?  

On Romantic Chemistry

new hil pic


While leading a workshop for married couples the other day, I introduced a concept that turned out to be, at least for some participants, provocative. What I said was, “Romantic chemistry is comprised as much by being attracted to a partner who will re-open our unhealed psychic wounds, as it is by sexual attraction.  This isn’t conscious, but I am sure that a driving force in the human mating dance is seeking out a partner who will re-wound our primal wounds.”

Wha’ … ???  Am I saying we are masochistic? Why on earth would we want someone to re-wound us? On a regular basis?

Sexual attraction—in addition to the primal desire to hop in the sack with someone—has an evolutionary function. It is the method by which we propagate the species. But re-wounding each other is also adaptive.  By seeking out someone who will re-open our unhealed wounds, we are allowing this person to do us a service. They are surfacing what needs to be healed, bringing it into the light of day—so that we can heal. This is psychologically, spiritually, emotionally (and, it could be argued physically—since all layers of our experience take place in our body) evolutionarily apt.  The more we heal, the more we evolve.

Let me make this more specific.  I’ll use a personal example, selecting one from a menu of unhealed wounds my husband and I have managed to surface in each other during our twenty-seven years of marriage (we could say twenty-nine, since the high voltage chemistry of not only sexual attraction but of re-wounding started in our courtship).  

My husband grew up with a dramatic, emotionally volatile French father, who often ranted around the house, causing my husband as a little boy to sequester himself under his sheets in what he pretended was his helicopter. While on the surface, my father-in-law and I bear no resemblance to each other, lo and behold, Pierre happened to marry a woman (me) who in certain hormonal or otherwise reactive states can become a volatile run-around-the-house freak-show. Meanwhile, I grew up with a mother who had a massive case of undiagnosed A.D.D. and was, in addition to being our mom, a real estate agent and graduate student becoming a psycho-therapist. Let’s just say she was over-extended, preoccupied, often forgetting what she was doing or saying at any given moment, which could translate into not hearing (or literally forgetting about) me. My laid-back husband in no way possesses the zip-around hummingbird energy of my mom. But as an introverted deeply creative soul, he is often lost in his own thoughts, “vers la lune” as his teachers and parents said about him as a child, and when he does not respond to me in person, or to my texts in absentia, I re-live the wound of having felt overlooked, forgotten.

So here we’ve got a his-and-hers set of unhealed wounds, me surfacing what is unhealed in my partner from having a volatile (read, when he was little and his dad was big: scary) dad, and he surfacing in me the wound of having felt overlooked (which to a kid, who needs her mommy, is also scary).  So we trigger each other into states where our nervous systems are in fight-or-flight-or-freeze. Is this pretty? Do our kids love to be around us when this two-way enactment is happening? No, and No.

But is it adaptive? Do we slowly over time unpack and heal our unresolved childhood wounds via this marital dynamic? Yes, and Yes.

The trick, as I tell couples often, is “staying in the ring.” Not running for the hills when the wound re-opens (or, if you do run for the hills, coming back for a Take Two—or Three, or Forty-Five, or Four-Hundred). Describing the wound, what is going on inside of you in this dynamic, allows your partner to see beneath your reactivity into your vulnerability. And allows you to stay with your own wound as a nurturing witness. This can be grueling, filled with pitfalls.  But when it works, the effort creates intimacy and healing, as a couple and an individual.

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