On Baby Steps

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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.

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On Being A Scaredy Cat

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

On Mindfulness

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Mindfulness sketchnote by Doug Neill

 

How much time do you spend living in present time? Think about it. 

The syndrome of regret and fret has our minds bouncing back and forth from the past to the future like a ping pong ball. Perhaps we touch down for brief intervals in the present, The Now. More likely, however, we sail right past what’s actually happening in this moment as if The Now were the net on the pingpong table and we are the bouncing ball.

The mind does not know the difference between a real and imagined scenario. This is what makes anxiety so compelling. If you fear the plane is crashing every time it hits turbulence, and your mind supplies you with scary images, you are not only not in present time (where in fact the plane is fine, just bouncing its way through choppy air currents), but you are activating the stress hormones of adrenaline and cortisol. As if the plane were actually going down. How many life-or-death scenarios (that in fact weren’t life-or-death) have you actually lived through? Dreaded? What has the toll of this been on your body? Your experience of life? Your wellbeing? I can tell you right now that I have endured more calamity and duress and life-threatening scenarios in my mind than I can possibly count, and there is no question that these imagined experiences have worn  me out—at times, literally. I have let worry run down my fuel to the point where I have felt and been seriously depleted.

Likewise with the cycle of Shoulda Woulda Coulda, when your mind keeps luring you back into the past—a mistake you made, an argument, or painful experience—and you keep re-living it, your mind does not know you are not actually there again. Because as far as the mind is concerned, you are there: that is where the mind is. Perhaps it’s like Groundhog Day, and you go through the same scenario over and over again. Repeating the exact horrible mistake in your mind, re-living the shame, the remorse. Or maybe your mind trots out all the ways you could enact a Redo, things you could have said, done differently, not done at all. That one great come-back line that got away: you get to say it now, honed to perfection, delivered with just the right flourish and body language over and over again. What is the impact of this? Of spending all that time in the past (which by the way is over, long gone in fact). Does it create an obsessive thought loop? What might you be missing out on when you get caught up in this?

Having a mindfulness practice is extraordinarily simple. Simple does not necessarily mean easy – because corralling the pingpong ball of our mind to sit still, to pause, to rest against the net for a moment and notice what’s going on right here right now is akin to a feat. But the feat has a payoff, and the payoff is peace. Mindfulness weakens the chain of associations in the brain that lead to obsessive anxious thought loops. Mindfulness strengthens the ability to self-regulate, to manage behaviors in real time, which in turn enhances leadership, performance, and wellbeing. So how do we do it?

Here’s the good news: we happen to live inside of our very own mindfulness kit. Our body. One quick mindfulness practice is to tune into our five senses. Focussing on the five senses brings us back to our body–which lives right here, right now, in the present. Let’s do that now. What are three things you see, right now, right where you are? Notice them. Tune into your body, your sense of touch, what do you feel? The clothes against your skin, your finger on your face? Feel it. What do you smell? Let yourself tune into whatever aroma (or stench) is in your midst right now. How about taste? Is there a taste in your mouth? Something right near you like a piece of gum or a cup of tea that you could taste in this moment? And what about your ears: what do you hear? What sounds? Is the voice in your head louder than the sounds outside of you? If so, just notice that, as non-judgmentally as you can—which is what it means to be mindful: practicing non-judgmental awareness of what is. Then gently guide your ears to tune into the sounds outside of your head. Tuning to what is actually happening in the moment allows your body to come into present time. Which—unless your present moment happens to contain a terrifying stressor like a member of Isis right there aiming a gun at you—tends to be a lot less intense or scary or remorse-laden than where the mind goes in the Regret/Fret syndrome. Tuning into the five senses and coming into present time tends to land us in a fairly pleasant fairly safe moment, unworthy of generating undue stress hormones.

If you want to lower your anxiety and tendency to obsess, and strengthen your leadership capabilities as well as your immune system (by lowering the activation of stress hormones), do this Five Senses practice systematically, routinely.  Try setting a reminder on one of your devices to go through your five senses for thirty seconds to a minute every hour. You can do this wherever you are: in a business meeting, a traffic jam, a doctor’s office, a conflict. Becoming mindful does not impede functioning, in fact, it improves it.