I Hide My Chocolate

Midlife observations

Category: Anxiety

Panic or Exhilaration? Your Choice.

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Viparita Dandasana

When I wrote my previous post, I was on a yoga HIGH. So high that I glossed over the moment where I almost had a panic attack. Almost. But didn’t. Maybe that’s why I was so exhilarated?

I’m not prone to panic attacks, so this was unusual, but I do tend to be anxious. Spend a few minutes in my brain around 2:17 am or 8:01 am or 3:33 pm or 9:15 pm and you’d be anxious also. It’s a constant struggle, alternating between worry that I am not good enough, fear that something bad will happen, and fantasizing about an unrealistic future.  It goes something like this:

What if I get fired? I wonder if I could make a living with writing, teaching, and Reiki? What if we lost the house? My husband would leave me. Where would I live? Would I stay in New York or move somewhere else? Back to D.C.? Why isn’t my father answering the phone? What if he is dead? How am I going to deal with the house and all his stuff when he dies? I want to be near the kids. My son thinks I love my daughter more than I love him. I am a terrible mother. How could I let that happen? Dammit. I need sleep! So I don’t lose my job. I’m breathing in. I’m breathing out. Try chanting. Abahu purusakaram. I forgot to water the plants.

And so on. However, after years of therapy and years of yoga, I’ve discovered a secret. For me, anxiety is a habit, a go-to emotion that I can change, not a disability that is inherent in my nature. It’s a learned response based on my upbringing and how my parents dealt with their anxiety and enabled my anxiety. It’s gotten me out of stuff I didn’t want to do and gotten other people to take care of me. And, let’s face it, anxiety is a terrific motivator! (If it doesn’t paralyze you.) We all have anxiety. It’s what we do with it that can make the difference between living a circumspect life versus a more open and courageous life. My biggest fear is that I will die regretting that I didn’t do more. Well, no, my biggest fear is that I will lose a child. And that is the worst anxiety that grips me at 2:17 am.

Back to my almost panic attack. After we worked on lifting our ankles and stretching our armpits, among other things, we did some back-bending poses. Back-bending poses alleviate depression and are exhilarating, though they can increase anxiety. I was a textbook case on Monday. We did a pose, similar to the one pictured above, where we used the chair to support and encourage lengthening and flexibility in the back, opening our chest, throat, and neck.   With a more familiar teacher and class, I might have stopped myself.

Sometimes, you need to get out of your comfort zone and do something different. Hear differently. See differently.

The teacher looked at me as I was wiggling my way into the chair, oh-so-cautiously preparing for the pose. (Frankly I was procrastinating.) He said he thought it might be good for my neck, providing a stretch, not a compression (as in headstand, which I currently don’t do). I was skeptical. And afraid, but proceeded. I got into the pose, and gently let my head lean backwards. My neck, throat, and heart open. Exposed.

That’s when the panic arose.

Whoa! My head is heavy. Body scan. Does this hurt? I don’t think so. But it should hurt! Breath tightens, fear arises. Is it okay? Body scan. Does this hurt? I don’t think so. But it should hurt! Breath tightens, fear arises. Can I get out of the pose? When can I get out of the pose? What if I can’t get out of the pose? Breath tightens, fear arises. Should I ask for help? He’s busy helping other students. Maybe I should get out of the pose. I need help! Breath tightens, fear arises. God Damn Iyengar Yoga. Why do they hold poses for so long? Body scan. Hmmm, maybe it doesn’t hurt. Breathe. I’m breathing in. I’m breathing out. Oh! I think I just felt my ear open up a bit. No, I must get out of this pose. Now! I’m going to regret this tomorrow. What if I really hurt myself? Breathe. Oh! I just felt my neck release. When is this pose going to end? How am I going to lift my head out of this pose without hurting myself? I must get out of this pose. Now! Breathe. I’m breathing in. I’m breathing out. Oh! My neck released some more. Phew. Pose is over. I am not doing it again. There’s no fucking way I’m doing this again. But. How about that. Hmmm. I did it!

That’s when the exhilaration arose.

There is new research released recently that studied the brains of people undergoing stress and anxiety. The brains of highly resilient people were demonstrated to acknowledge the stress and anxiety but to dampen the response. Those who were not resilient, who succumbed to the panic, didn’t respond to the anxiety and the stress until it was too late. Breathing became difficult and they overreacted, making the situation worse. One conclusion is that through mindful breathing exercises, you can become more tuned into your reactions and more able to control your response without overreacting.

Breathe. Feel. Feel fear. Feel panic. Feel exhilaration. Feel love. Feel joy. Breathe.

Photo Credit:  Viparita Dandasana by Bobby Clennell

 

Lift Your Ankles!

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Expand Your Heart

I decided to spend today’s holiday at my office even though it was closed. I have been very anxious about my workload as I more enthusiastically embrace a strategic role that involves interacting with high level decision-makers, not easy for an INFJ who would really be very happy quietly thinking by myself, at least most of the time. It was a good decision. The office was empty and I was able to concentrate and prepare for an upcoming meeting. After 4 hours, which was the equivalent of about 104 hours of a regular day filled with meetings and distracting emails, I decided to balance the day with a yoga class at The Inyengar Institute, a studio that is not particularly convenient so I don’t go very often. It is not my “home” studio and I don’t know the students nor the teachers. It took some coaxing to get myself there.

It was a Level 2 class. You’d think by now, after all these years of practicing yoga and teaching yoga, I’d have advanced to at least a Level 3. But it seems that the more yoga I do, the more I’m aware of how much I can still learn from a Level 1 or Level 2 class. And how unwilling I now am to overdo it in a more advanced class and get hurt.

The class was filled with Manhattan yogi’s. But that doesn’t mean what you might think. They weren’t young, athletic, competitive, flexible. They were Iyengar yogi’s, which are a slightly different breed, mainly older. Perhaps wiser, because they’ve dealt with injury. There were a variety of body types and abilities. What struck me was that everyone stood straight, looked you in the eye, and was welcoming. Iyengar yogi’s. A good bunch.

The teacher, a thoughtful and inspiring Matt Dreyfus, greeted me, listened to me share my physical ailments and quietly observed my anxiety and tension and physical pain. He made sure I was safe the entire class, all while keeping track of about 30 other students.

Class began. A completely normal Iyengar class. Who knows when the completely normal class that might be ho hum for one person feels transformational for another? We chanted. So slowly that the OM reverberated through my body. We started working on poses. In Iyengar Yoga, (unlike Vinyasa where you move and flow dance-like from pose to pose with the breath), you hold poses, using props, and building toward a peak pose. It is perhaps boring. The endless and precise instruction. Or it can be exhilarating. Today it was exhilarating. Matt implored us to lift our ankles! We explored the subtle movements that this entailed. We watched him lift his ankles. We laughed at the absurdity of lifting your ankles. And then we felt how different we felt when we lifted our ankles. How our legs became longer. How our spine became longer. How our chest, our heart, expanded. How our breath moved more freely. Wow.

Then we worked on back-bends, those heart-openers that alleviate depression and remind you that it’s good to be alive. Helpful when so many are dying. We worked with the chair. I found myself slightly panicking. Worried about my neck. Worried I might fall. I breathed into my fear. And felt my neck relax. Exhilarated that I did it.

It reminded me of the power of yoga. When you change your body – Stand up straight! Lift your ankles! Stretch you armpits! Expand your chest! Feel your heart! Soften you eyes and your tongue! – you change your mind. The worries of the day-to-day seem petty when compared to the vastness, the divinity of humanity.

Matt spoke about the purpose of yoga. Most of us are so absorbed in our thoughts and attach great importance to them: worrying, fantasizing, planning, hoping, regretting, wanting. Always wanting. With yoga, we focus on the breath and bring attention to the poses which allows us to take a break from all that chatter in our minds. When we can pause and find stillness, we can begin to observe all those crazy thoughts and begin to realize that they are just thoughts. They are not real. They are biased by our experiences.

He encouraged us to feel spacious. Larger than ourselves, larger than our thoughts. When you feel spacious and larger than just you, you feel connected to others and are more able to stand straight, make eye contact, and be welcoming to all. You take your yoga off the mat and into your world. A little bit closer to Martin Luther King’s dream of freedom for all.

Drawing:  Downward Facing Dog by Lovetta Reyes-Cairo

Sankalpa

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May I Be Open

Thank God Christmas is over! Too much food, too many people, too much to do. The austerity of cold and bracing January beckons. Hunker down and resolve to achieve. After all, disciplined effort is where I excel.

Funny though, how all those years of new year’s resolutions haven’t made me happier. I am still the same person at my core. Intense, curious, anxious, becoming happier, more relaxed, more generous and loving and confident. My cuticle-picking has improved slightly. (Good God, I remember resolving to not pick my nails back in college. I’m DONE with that resolution!) I don’t need to lose weight (disciplined effort is where I excel), and I’ve cut out all the meat I’m going to cut out.

So, what’s on deck for 2016? Goals? Teach more yoga! Become a Reiki Master! Take my blog to the next level! Meditate, every day! Learn to sing a new song every month! Write more thank you notes! Yes, good goals. I will work towards them. But they are still outward-facing, achievement-oriented goals with tasks attached.

What if, instead of deprivational lifestyle changes or ambitious goals that imply I am not good enough or have not achieved enough, I started with the premise that I am good enough? Just as I am? Perfect in my imperfection? What would I do?

What if you are good enough, just as you are? What would you do?

Maybe I would smile more. Laugh more. Be more open and inviting to other people. Worry and complain less. Judge less. Compete less. Say Thank You more. Forgive.

Maybe I wouldn’t need to gossip or provoke other people to gossip in order to feel good about myself. Maybe I could simply accept other people for who they are and where they are on their journey, right now, instead of wishing they were different or would change. Because maybe they are good enough just as they are. Imperfectly perfect.

What a relief!

There is a fragile moment of choice before acting. It’s a choice between being open and shutting down. Making eye contact or looking straight ahead. Saying yes or saying no. Choosing to scorn with judgment or empathize with compassion. We rely on habitual patterns of behavior and thought and expectations of what we should do or should think. But what if, at that moment of choice before acting, I checked in with my heart and gut and listened. Choosing compassion, honesty, joy, love. To decide to do the right thing, for me, not the expected thing.

There is a girl. She is painfully introverted and socially awkward. I see her walking in her bubble with her earbuds. She’s odd. Perhaps her parents are odd. It’s easy to judge, to laugh, to scorn. I’ve been that girl. With the odd parents. Afraid to make eye contact. Hoping no one notices me. They will think I’m weird! Maybe they are dangerous! How much happier I would have been if I had worried less, feared less, and smiled more, greeting my fellow humans with openness. When I put myself in her shoes, I want to smile and wave, somehow convey to her that she is okay. But she looks down and I keep my safe distance.

There is a yoga concept, Sankalpa. It means to make a promise to yourself. To resolve to act. Act on your most innermost desire, according to your life purpose. It honors that you are imperfectly perfect just as you are. That you will make mistakes. Like meditation and yoga, you will come back to the breath and try again. While it might involve breaking a negative habit, like nail-picking, or creating a new habit, like meditating daily, it comes from a deeper place of resolve from within, to love and be your best you. You need to be very still and listen to your soul to determine your sankalpa.

So, this year, instead of wishing I were something other than I am, I will pause in that fragile moment. Remember that I have a choice. I will listen to me, not what I think others expect. I will reach out to others more and worry about myself less.

Perhaps, just perhaps, it is as simple as what my friend posted about what she has learned from her dog. (Thank you Kirsten.)

Life Lessons from Beau

Wake up each morning convinced it’s going to be the best day EVER. Become giddy with excitement each time someone you love enters the room. Go for as many walks as possible. But don’t growl at the cat, because that’s not nice.

Oh, and when I forget, I will be kind. Kind to myself, kind to others, kind to my family. (It’s so easy to forget to be kind to one’s family – when really, we should greet them with giddy excitement every time we see them, like Beau.) And when I forget, I will try again.

Credit:  Heart of Gold 2, by Shannon Grissom

Believing in Reiki

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Healing Hands

“Why yes. Yes I am. I am a Reiki healer.”

Hahahahahahahaha! Cue the laughter. I am just pretending. Fooled you!

My daughter discovered Reiki through her yoga teachers. I was inclined to poo-poo Reiki as crazy hokum. How can someone heal simply by holding their hands on or near you? I want deep tissue massage! I want little needles! And maybe an occasional pill. I want proof!

My daughter shrugged and said it made her feel comfortable and relaxed and all warm and tingly. I was skeptical. I had to read up on it. That’s my way. Let me read some books. Then I tried a few sessions. My Reiki mentors would tell me they could feel the thoughts exploding out of my head. Always thinking thinking thinking! What? Isn’t everyone’s brain like that? She told me to feel the energy move down to my feet, to ground myself in the present moment. I felt comfortable and relaxed and all warm and tingly. I saw colors and images and felt more than two hands offering me healing energy. (To whom did the other hand belong?) My intuition heightened and I could sense someone’s mood or “aura” just by tuning in. When I asked for a book to read, she counseled me “Why don’t you try not reading and just focus on your experience.” Well, that’s different.

During one session, she paused, stuck on my heart. She interrupted the quiet session and asked me what was going on. I cried. And cried and cried. It was around the end of my mother’s life, though she had not yet had the fall that would break her hip and lead to the infection that ultimately would kill her. But the end of her life was near and I had sensed it for a while. So I cried. Mourning the passing of time, the words said and unsaid, the regret that we had not shared more mixed with the loss of the deep love that we had shared.

During another session, I told her about my skin picking. How I destroy my cuticles and pick and rub at the skin by my ear until it is raw. I beat myself up for this nervous habit. All my life I have had this habit and beaten myself up for it. She shrugged and said “Maybe that’s simply what you need to do to release your anxious energy.” Suddenly, the perspective shifted. Maybe it was no big deal! She gave me permission to give myself permission. That I was okay and I could be kind and forgiving. To me.

My daughter and I received Reiki 1 attunement. Then, my daughter and I received Reiki 2 attunement. It was a meaningful shared experience that brought us closer. Occasionally we practiced on each other. I offered Reiki to my husband. He is the ultimate skeptic. He fell asleep and woke up 9 hours later and said it was the best sleep he had ever had.   I offered Reiki to a beloved young woman who was struggling with a panic attack. She calmed. I offered Reiki to my mother when she was dying. She was able to let go. But mostly I secretly and somewhat embarrassedly practiced on myself when I was alone.

Secretly and somewhat embarrassedly because I don’t understand how it “works.” I can hear all the skeptics in my life poo-pooing me for believing in this crazy hokum. I didn’t want to admit to anyone that I found it comforting and relaxing and felt all warm and tingly. Like any mystery, it requires faith. Certainly, the power of touch and the effects of meditation and deep relaxation are profound, with plenty of scientific evidence. But healing energy? That’s a little woo-woo for me. And yet. I’ve felt the energy. I’ve experienced the healing. Reiki has helped with my chronic anxious insomnia. My cuticles have started healing. My skin has  started healing. I feel happier, more grounded, more able to enjoy the present moment.

This summer, a full year after receiving Reiki 2 attunement, it occurred to me that I could actually offer Reiki to other people. Truly, it was a revelation, like a voice or a gut feeling that simply but insistently turned on.

I decided that for my birthday, to kick off my new year, I would offer a Restorative Yoga and Reiki workshop. It took me a while to remember to tell my yoga students about it. (Even though I am a marketer by trade, I am not so good at marketing myself.) The first time I mentioned it, I said “Yeah, I don’t really understand how Reiki works, but it’s deeply relaxing.” My daughter laughed at me. “Mom, no one is going to come if you don’t believe in yourself and in Reiki!” Indeed. The second time I mentioned it, I sensed intense interest and acceptance. I heard myself say: “Why yes. Yes, I am. I am a Reiki healer.” One of my students looked me in the eye and said, “Well, of course you are. That makes complete sense.”

What do they see that I don’t?

I led my workshop and poured myself into offering Reiki to my students. After it was over, I saw clear eyes and relaxed bodies and love and gratitude. They felt comfortable and relaxed and all warm and tingly. I was amazed and exhilarated!

I’ve had to work a bit to hang on to that exhilaration. Back in my busy busy busy work world of Monday to Friday, it is easy to let the skepticism take over. This Reiki stuff is silly. Crazy hokum. I have important things to do at WORK! But, if I can help people sleep, help people reduce their anxiety and panic, help people die, isn’t that at least as important as being busy busy busy?

I am a Reiki healer. And I am beginning to believe it.

Image:  Healing Hands by Patricia Januszkiewicz, used with permission.  Thank you Patricia!

Forgetting to Breathe

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The Aftermath

The dreams have begun. Mainly anxiety nightmares. Like the one where the memorial service is happening for my mother and I am not ready. Confused at the presence of many people I don’t know and frantic that I haven’t written the eulogy I want to write. (I wish I had shared my blog with her.) Like the one where my new plants that seem so beautiful and alive are actually infested with microscopic bugs.  (Ugliness lurks, even when the outward appearance seems to thrive.)  Like the one where I am navigating an avalanche, struggling upstream on an iceberg. If I fail, I die. (No interpretation required.)

And then there was the one Friday night where I am sitting on a bench between my old father of my now and my vibrant mother of my youth. She is wearing one of her fantastic colorful handknit dresses and has black hair without a speck of gray. She is speaking to me, but no sound is coming from her voice. I urgently tug at my father, “Dad! Look! Mom’s alive! She’s speaking!” I am the bridge between the past and the now, between the physical and the spiritual, between my mother and my father.

It doesn’t help that it’s the holidays. The busiest time of year. Not the most joyful time of year. Bah humbug. I had promised to enjoy the holidays. That was before my mother died. Sigh. The finality of death seems, well, final. How can I possibly enjoy the holidays now?

How can I not? There is so much to live for! So I talk to myself. Fight with myself. Pretty much every waking minute is a negotiation with myself that goes something like this:

Oh my god, I have so much to do! It’s never going to get all done.

Remember, Sally, every year it gets done.

But this year is different. I’m too tired and sad.

Breathe and do what you can.

Ack! My father is coming for Christmas. Now, I’ve got to deal with my father. Is this some joke that God is playing on me?

Well, as Elizabeth Gilbert has said, our most challenging family members are the most powerful spiritual teachers of our life.

What am I going to get him for Christmas?  What am I going to get everyone for Christmas? What do I want for Christmas?

Nothing! I hate Christmas!

My kids love Christmas. Pull it together. It doesn’t have to be perfect.

Smile. Breathe. Go to yoga.

I don’t want to go to yoga. I’m too tired to breathe. I’m too busy to breathe.

Why do we resist doing what feels good for our souls?

Oh my god, I have so much to do! I want to go back to bed.

Breathe. Be kind to yourself. Do what you can.

Remember, Sally, you can choose to not be anxious and depressed. It’s not your go-to place any more. Choose life. Choose joy.

The finality of death can seem final, but life goes on. Clearly, not the same life as before. The new normal is one where my mother is no longer “declining,” but gone. The new normal is one where my father is alone and cognitively not sharp. I am his only child and feel love and sadness for what he is experiencing and anxiety about what the future holds and, frankly, some dismay and anger and selfishness. (Those evil bugs infesting my beautiful growth.) What if I don’t want to take care of him? The new normal is one where my children are growing up and leaving home. What is next for me, for my family, for this next phase of my life? The new normal is one where my mother lives in me and my dreams. Death is not final. Death changes life.

When I am sleepless from a nightmare, in the grip of anxiety, I tell myself not to shut down and close myself off. I can tackle the avalanche coming my way.

Remember to breathe.

What Would Jane Say?

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Saying Good-Bye

I had my last therapy session last week. For now. We talked about good-byes and how to make them meaningful. So many good-byes. I am saying good-bye to my daughter as she leaves for college this month. I am saying good-bye to my mother as she becomes more frail and unable to speak at the end of her life. I am saying good-bye to my younger self.

How do you know when it’s time to end therapy and say good-bye? You don’t. I am still anxious. I am still melancholy. I still wake up in the middle of the night ruminating. I didn’t change careers. I didn’t change spouses. I didn’t move to some exotic location. No – the changes were incremental. Maybe not even noticeable to others. But they are radical to me. I have learned to recognize my inner voice. You know, the one that speaks your truth. I learned to listen. I found people and activities that supported me. I found friends, making new ones and nurturing old ones.

Perhaps finding joy in one’s current life is the biggest possible accomplishment of all?

I wanted to mark our last session with some significance, to honor the therapeutic process, our relationship, and the personal growth I’ve experienced in the last (almost) three years. I found myself heading down my usual path of putting pressure on myself to come up with an amazing good-bye gift. But what do you give someone who has helped you so much? And, she pointed out, I had given much to her with my sharing and my development. Maybe a tchotchke was not necessary.

We reflected on what we had shared together. One of the big themes of our time together was what do I want? After spending my life, very successfully, being a good girl, a good daughter, a good student, a good employee, a good wife and mother, and reaching middle age wondering if this was it and alarmed at the hurtling pace of time, I needed to pause and probe who am I and how do I want to spend the next phase of my life? Our sessions were a place where I could practice saying what I think and what I want without judgment before testing it out in the real world with other people, other people who are less patient than Jane.

One of the tools she taught me was how to take a conversation at least one step further than I was used to doing. My habit was to accept whatever the other person said and leave my own thoughts to myself. As I would tell her my stories, she would ask questions. And I would say, “Ummm. I don’t know – I hadn’t thought of that!” I hadn’t thought to ask, to find out. I just accepted. Or she would make a suggestion for something I might do.  Differently. Something that would not have occurred to me, but was so obvious and natural once she suggested it. So we laughed at our last session. Perhaps one of the ways I could carry her and our experience with me will be to pause and ask myself, “What would Jane say?”

One of the gifts she gave me was to believe me. When I would tell her some of my fuzzier more painful stories, I would pause with self-doubt. Did that really happen? Maybe it didn’t happen after all. Maybe he didn’t really do that to me. Maybe he didn’t really do that to her. In one memorable session, she said, “Why would you make this up?” Why indeed? She helped remove the shame I felt from the more painful stories of my past and to understand and even be proud of the way I have coped. I learned that I could do things differently moving forward. Anxiety and shame didn’t have to be my go-to place.

It was a safe place, those weekly sessions. I could rant. I could cry. I could worry. I could share dreams, literally and figuratively. No judgment. Usually we just talked. She helped me knit together the stories of my past such that I could look at them with perspective as a broader narrative and not feel so caught up inside them. With some distance, I was able to find some understanding for the girl I was and the woman I’ve become.

One of the skills she helped me develop was to appreciate the impact I have on others. A greater sensitivity to what others are experiencing has helped me to be a more honest and compassionate wife, mother, boss, teacher, daughter, friend, though perhaps I am a less dutifully good one. (I doubt it – I am not sure I will ever be free of being a good girl.)

As I have developed my yoga, my writing, my expanding circle of friends, my voice, my intuition, she likened the process to growing a seedling. Tender. Vulnerable to swaying in the wind or being entirely uprooted. I needed to nurture this seedling with support and practice. Practice at being me – being grounded, honest. Only then, with established roots, could I think about saying good-bye. I could say good-bye to my identification of myself as anxious, overwhelmed, and sad. I could see myself as funny and cheerful and optimistic and loving and generous. (And anxious, overwhelmed, and sad. It’s all in the mix.) Me? Yes. I can feel. I can be me. Thank you Jane.

The Countdown

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Extra Strong or Maximum Strength?

My daughter moves to college one month from tomorrow. In 32 days. Exactly. Not that I’m counting the days. Except that I am. It’s this big looming day that seems to mark the end of family as we currently know it. I think I’ve been counting the days since the day she was born. Only 18 years with her! They’re going to fly by! Better enjoy it because before you know it she’ll be going to college!

So. Here we are. She is going to college. In 32 days.

We spent two days at Orientation. Thankfully, schools now include parents in the process, allowing us to familiarize ourselves with the campus, the curriculum, and all the transitional support services. It’s a massive relief to have spent those two days together — together but separate…they whisk the kids away from the parents.  It’s a massive relief to have spent those two days together in July, well Before Moving Day. I can approach the next 32 days with some familiarity about what her life will be like After Moving Day.

It’s not how it was done when I went to college. I moved into a dorm under construction into a tiny room with bunk beds and a roommate I had never met. My mother broke down in tears. Who could blame her? Except that it made it even harder for me to separate. I was very homesick. I think my daughter will miss home, a lot, but I don’t wish that kind of homesickness on her. As the mothers who have gone before me have told me would happen – I am sad and anxious but also excited and proud.  Really, all I want is for her to adjust as smoothly as possible and to find her own way as a happy and successful (whatever that means) young adult.

So. Here we are, cramming in doctors’ appointments, filling out paperwork, paying the first tuition bill, making to-do lists, and getting lost in the details of what needs to get done. In 32 days. Before Moving Day. Should I get the Extra Strong garbage bags or the Maximum Strength garbage bags? (Who is the marketing copywriter who thought those categories were clear to the consumer?) Frankly, I never would have even known that garbage bags are better than boxes if it weren’t for my amazing sister-in-law who seems to know everything I don’t know. I pretend I am more capable than her. I research stuff and come up with my own opinions. But when it comes to getting things done, she is way more capable than me. So when staring at the confusing array of garbage bag choices, I knew I had to consult her. Get the Extra Strong, she said. Extra Strong is better than Maximum Strength? Yes, she said. You can throw pillows and bedding into them. And for heavier stuff, like shoes, you just pack as much as you can carry. Okay. Well said. I completely trust you.

All this To-Do Busy-ness is a distraction from the momentous emotion of this still pause in time, between high school and college, a caesura before she leaves. I am too busy to cry. I am too busy taking care of the details to stand back and do what really matters. Be With Her.

So yesterday, we spent the afternoon together. She introduced me to Reiki a while back and we decided to do Reiki training together this year. Yes Reiki. Crazy Hokum, I know. I, the only offspring of scientist, aetheist parents, discovered Reiki through my yoga friends and my wise daughter who explained it to me, simply: “I don’t know. It feels warm and nice.” Indeed. She is so wise. Those engineering students are going to be lucky and grateful she is in their midst!

As my swirling nervous energy entered the Reiki training workshop, our wonderful Reiki Master reminded me to get out of my head and just be. Just feel the moment. Let it happen. Instead of wondering if I was doing what I was supposed to be doing and feeling what I was supposed to be feeling, just appreciate the moment. When my nervous energy wakes me up in the middle of the night, sends me walking briskly at dawn, drives me to pick my cuticles or rub that poor sore spot by my right ear, she suggested that I feel my feet on the ground. “I feel my feet on the ground, calm and peaceful.” I try to say this when I’d rather be picking at the sore spot by my right ear.

At the end of the afternoon training, my daughter and I took turns offering and receiving Reiki from each other. As I was on the table and she was offering me Reiki, she was radiating energy. Such love and warmth were emanating from her. I wondered if I could offer my mother Reiki, allowing her to rest and be peaceful, to touch her with love and warmth? I imagined (or was it a vision? I have visions when receiving Reiki. Yes, I really do. Call it crazy hokum, but it’s the truest peace I’ve found in my nearly 52 years of this life.) I saw myself as old. Old and dying. And that she, my daughter, was offering me Reiki to send me love and peace. I can’t imagine a better way to die. I just hope it’s a long time from now. But it’ll be here before I know it. So I better slow down and enjoy every day. With her. (And all the people I love.) Before Moving Day. In 32 days.

Paradise Revisited

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What is Vacation?

For me, vacation is when I have time. Time away from daily routines. Time to listen to the people I love. Time to speak to the people I love. Time to do something different and new. Time to do something familiar and comforting, but with a fresh approach.

With limited time and money for vacations, we have worked hard to make vacations a priority, planning meaningful family vacations that are an opportunity to nurture and connect, a time to take a break from our overscheduled daily lives and have fun together, and a source of memories, especially for our children’s memories of their years with us. Our vacations fall into a few categories. The visit to family and friends. The annual ski trip. And lately, our sailing trips, with my children and I learning to sail to find out if we share my husband’s passion.

For Spring Break, we traveled to the British Virgin Islands, chartering a 35’ sailboat for a week.  (We’re pretty sure it was the smallest boat in the Caribbean that week.)  We lived on the boat and crewed it ourselves for the week in what I expect will be the last official family vacation before our daughter goes away to college. My husband planned the trip. I was calm and cool (or pretended to be). After all, it was the third time we’d done this trip. But let’s face it, I have to work hard at being calm and cool and having fun is not something that comes easily to me.

What am I Going To Wear?!

Two days before vacation, I spied the cutest pair of white shorts in the store window of a local boutique. I had to have them! They were perfect. I suddenly realized that the vacation wardrobe I had decided would be fine was completely lacking in the perfect pair of white shorts and that I could not possibly have a good vacation without these shorts, not to mention the elegant gray tunic that would look perfect with my white pants. I should probably get that too. This panic over what to wear was vestigial anxiety, left over from old patterns that I’ve outgrown, but which rears up when I am under stress. For every special occasion of my life, I have dealt with my anxiety by shopping for the perfect outfit. If I had the perfect outfit, then I would: fit in; be liked; be admired; be confident; hide my flaws; mask my anxiety. I would impulsively buy whatever specific item was going to solve all my problems this time, only to regret the purchase later and still feel anxious and dissatisfied. Recognizing the old familiar anxious pattern, I did not buy the white shorts nor the elegant tunic.

What If We Die?

One day before vacation, my daughter whispered that she had a sore throat. I groaned. A cold. But then I panicked. What if it’s not just a cold? What if it’s strep and we can’t get to a doctor for antibiotics? Should we run around like lunatics the day before vacation and get a prescription? What if she dies? (I had a childhood friend who died of strep while on a family vacation when she was the age of my daughter. It Could Happen.) Recognizing the old familiar anxious pattern, I breathed, and told myself to STOP.  I was overreacting and being illogical. (I did watch the safety video on the airplane, identifying the exits and locating the flotation devices.)

Judgment Day

After my overt anxiety dissipated, I transitioned to a mixture of envy and judgment of my fellow tourists, who I deemed either fabulously wealthy, which made me jealous and feel inferior, or crass, loud and obnoxious drunks who didn’t respect the local culture nor the natural beauty, which made me scornful and feel superior. Neither feeling of inferiority or superiority, of measuring and comparison, allows for much social connection. Either way, on this third trip to the BVI, I was more acutely aware of how the tourists and the locals rubbed up against each other.  Paradise?

After the long travel day with 15 hours of taxis, planes, a ferry and customs; after our first day adjusting to cooking, sleeping, bathing and peeing on the boat (I try to poop only on land), oh and not to mention sailing; after our first quiet morning with coffee on the boat and our first evening watching the moon rise and looking for shooting stars, I began to settle. It usually takes me until Tuesday. To get out of my head. To focus on someone other than me, myself, and I. That is the antidote to anxiety. Focus on other people. Finally, with time to observe and listen to the people I love, I saw what was really going on.

My daughter was grappling with where to go to college. Not just where, but what kind of curriculum she should undertake. If she pragmatically decides to take the path of Science, Technology, Engineering, Math – underrepresented with women – what happens to her love of popular music, fashion, and pop culture? Can she be both a girly girl and a wicked smart engineer? Excited to leave home, scared to leave home, how does our relationship shift and evolve as she becomes an adult child?

My son was grappling with the hormones of puberty. Exhausted, he wanted to sleep all the time. Eager to please but afraid of making a mistake and inciting a scolding, he withdrew a bit. What does it mean to not be a little boy any more? How does he separate from us and become more independent, his own self, while still living with us, a teen child?

My husband was grappling with the responsibility of captaining the boat with us as crew, a not-very-skilled crew at that. Does he do everything himself? Does he delegate, with less than ideal results? When does he have fun? Perhaps the best day was when I said, “I am the Captain now!” I made him take a break and forced my son to take more responsibility as my first mate. Or perhaps the best day was our day off from sailing.  We just sat on the beach reading our books and taking walks and staring at the amazing clear turquoise water.

We were all grappling with the impending shift in our family. How will it be when my daughter is at college and my son is not so far behind? How will my husband and I connect when we have time for the two of us instead of pouring our energy into our children? When and what will our next family vacation be?

Jason Mraz sings “You don’t need a vacation if there is nothing to escape from.” I disagree, dear Jason. Everyone needs time and space away to reflect and reconnect. To experience the shift.

It happened, the shift. My daughter has made her decision and is behaving with a new maturity. My son is considering some options for the summer that will require some separation and independence, with awareness of his mixed feelings about this awkward, in-between state transitioning from childhood to manhood. My husband and I are talking about what our hopes and fears are as we get older and prepare for our next phase together.

Our week in the BVI was not always perfect, but it was paradise – a special and momentous vacation, with many memories.

Choosing Laughter

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Choosing to be Happy

I embrace the austere clarity and hope that is January.  I long ago gave up impossible-to-achieve, all-or-nothing New Year’s resolutions (Stop picking cuticles!  Ashtanga every day!  No meat!  and my annual favorite:  Stop procrastinating!)  in favor of gentler incremental changes working towards unmasking my true self and living authentically.  My disciplined, achievement-oriented self finds it impossible to refrain from setting goals.  Indeed, goals and dreams are valuable for staying focused on what matters to you and not getting side-tracked by what matters to someone else.  As I reflected on last year’s goals and my genuine progress towards realizing them, I deliberated on where to focus my heart this year.  Last year’s list still resonates – how shall I deepen it?  After trying on several goals, I settled on one guiding intention for my year:  choose laughter.

At first, it was “laugh more.”  But this seemed vague and not really representative of my intention, and so I added the word “choose.”  To choose to laugh means to pause before reacting in order to decide to respond with thought and purpose.  It is a habit for me to complain, to worry, to be tired, to feel overwhelmed and anxious.  The mind can choose to be happy.  Can I break out of my old patterns and choose to laugh and be happy?

When heavy snow arrives, preventing my obligatory on-site presence in the office, can I choose to be grateful for the day at home with my family instead of worrying that I “should” be in the office?  My children are thrilled with the surprise of nature and laugh joyfully.  How can I learn from them?

When a colleague shows up at my office door, can I choose to smile at them welcomingly instead of scowling at them with how busy I am? 

When it’s time to undecorate from Christmas, can I choose to reflect on what a warm and relaxing holiday it was instead of feeling burdened by the work of cleaning up and depressed about the work of returning to work?

When several newbie yoga students show up to class in January, as part of their new year’s resolutions, can I make them feel comfortable instead of worrying about whether I can modify my class properly for a larger group?

When my children suggest an activity, can I say “Yes!” instead of “Not now, I need to do the laundry.”

My inclination toward laughter and delight has been suppressed all my life.  By a mother who hovered and worried, pegging me as sensitive and shy.  By a father who judged and withheld love and praise in favor of intellect and duty.  Resulting in an anxious perfectionist who chose solitary achievement over social laughter.

No more.

Choosing laughter means changing habitual behavior that no longer serves me.  Choosing to embrace what is and not wishing for it to be different.  Choosing a lighter response over a darker heavier, more judgmental emotion.  Choosing to be social.  After all, you need other people to really laugh out loud. 

My family has rallied behind this “resolution” with great zeal.  We’ve decided to have family joke night at our family dinner on Sundays where each person tells a joke.  I love this because I realize that women historically have not been encouraged to be joke-tellers resulting in the stereotype of the woman who can’t remember the punchline or tell a joke well.  I will pick one joke a week that makes me laugh out loud (no judgment!) and share it with my family (and tweet it that evening).

When my daughter cracks up uncontrollably, she closes her eyes and is overcome with the funniness.  She’s been sharing this side of herself more and nothing makes me happier than seeing her laugh.  Perhaps if I laugh more, she will too.

Ten Books and One Musical

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A List

Recently, one of my oldest childhood friends invited me and others from his Facebook community to share the ten books that have touched them over the course of their lives.  Ah, this is perfect for me!  I was an English major, I read a lot, and I love reflecting on what has affected me (and why) as well as what has affected others (and why).  There was just one problem.  I panicked at the instructions:  Don’t think!  (Really?  Don’t think? Impossible!) List 10 books that have impacted you.  Share your list and tag 10 friends to share theirs.

My reaction went something like this:

I can’t remember anything I’ve read except for Little Women and Nancy Drew.  Why can’t I remember anything I’ve read?  How do they remember what we read in high school?  I have no memory of those books.  My list is not nearly as interesting as their list.  There are only women authors on my list.  Aren’t there any books by men that I remember reading that had an impact on me?  Maybe I should Google lists of “important” books and pick some from there.  Share with others?  So revealing and embarrassing.  To hell with this, I am not participating.  Cue:  stomp off and hide.

It’s kind of like when a new friend or colleague asks you what your favorite movie is and the only thing you can come up with is a completely childish and uncool answer, like The Sound of Music (the original version with Julie Andrews).  I have actually burned answers to some of these generic ice-breaker questions into my brain so that I am no longer caught off guard.  I now answer the movie question with more recent movies that reflect more of who I am now and are more socially sophisticated (Wall-E, The King’s Speech and Gravity…oh and dare I admit it, Star Trek:  Into Darkness).

Why is it that all the books that come to mind are from my childhood?  It makes sense that we choose books, movies, and heroines from our childhood.  This is when a book we read really could and did affect the direction we pursued. 

The more troubling question that I kept pondering was why can’t I remember more?  Every explanation comes back to trauma and anxiety and the role it has played as an undercurrent in my life. 

I read voraciously as a child.  Especially in Summer when I was considered too shy and sensitive to go to camp.  Instead, I stayed home and read.  Not just The Secret of the Old Clock, but every single Nancy Drew mystery.  Not just Little Women, but every single book by Louisa May Alcott.  It was my escape and a way of learning about others.  Girls who took risks and survived adventures were my favorite (and still are).

I remember that at my loneliest, most anxious time in my teens and early 20’s, at the height of my disordered eating, I would eat alone and read while I ate.  One bite per paragraph.  That way the meal would last a long time and I wouldn’t have to face my lonely anxiety nor my gluttonous desire to fill the emptiness with food.  It is impossible to remember what you read if you are focused on what you are eating. 

Another important part of remembering is to document your thoughts, your stories, either by writing them down or saying them aloud, perhaps multiple times.   When anxiety felled me, I hid away.  Not participating in the world, choosing instead to live in my head.  I would say what I thought I should say, but not always what I really thought.  What’s the right answer that will get me the A?  It is impossible to remember what you read if you are focused on pleasing the teacher…or some other dominant authority figure.

I was always embarrassed about revealing what I was reading.  It was not cool.  It was not sophisticated.  Or maybe it was too sophisticated.  (Who reads all of Jane Austen at 16?  That’s just weird.)  It is impossible to remember what you read if you are focused on hiding it and not sharing what you are reading and what you think about it with anyone. 

I see this with my mother.  After multiple operations over the last 25 years to remove a benign but persistent growth on her vocal chords, she has nearly lost her voice.  Indeed, metaphorically, she has lost her voice.  Unable to speak, she no longer remembers her stories, the stories of her life.  The stories in the books she reads to pass the time.  I am convinced that she does not have dementia.  She simply does not use her memory muscles because she does not speak.  She cannot speak her truth.  Andperhaps we don’t listen for it.

Memory is funny, often elusive, and changeable depending on who is remembering, who is telling the story.  The anxious, less confident self may not reveal her memory, her story, her truth.  She may defer to the more confident – or at least the more dominant or authoritative person who does speak.  For me, it has taken my writing and the increasingly less tentative telling of my stories and the expression of my thoughts to reduce my anxiety and make concrete my memories. 

Of course, perhaps the most helpful tool for finding my voice has been to be less focused on me, less judgmental of me, and more open to others.  Who cares if my list is not “right?”  So, even though I had to dig deep, here is a list (not necessarily THE list – that is too intimidating a requirement) but a list of 10 books that have had an impact on my life.

    1. Winnie-the-Pooh, by A. A. Milne.  My mother read the Pooh books aloud to me many times, inspiring a life-long love of reading and writing and sharing.  I felt very close to her.
    2. Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott.  This book seems so quaint and dated to me now, but I lost myself in it every time I read it.  Jo March showed me that girls could overcome their constraints.
    3. Nancy Drew mysteries (all of them), by “Carolyn Keene.”  Feisty, brave, smart Nancy was my heroine.
    4. The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank.  This introduction to the Holocaust and evil remains unbelievable and compelling.
    5. Mastering the Art of French Cooking, by Julia Child.  Julia Child inspired me that dinner could be more than eating chicken and potatoes in 10 minutes at the counter.
    6. A Chorus Line, book by James Kirkwood, Jr and Nicholas Dante.  Music by Marvin Hamlisch and Lyrics by Edward Kleban.  A musical, not a book, that moved me profoundly and set my course in the dance direction for better or worse for decades.
    7. The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood.  Transfixing terror.  I couldn’t put it down.  Perhaps the heroine’s name, Of-fred, was part of the fascination.
    8. A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf.  Still an amazing feminist manifesto.
    9. The House of the Spirits, by Isabel Allende.  Passionate and magical.
    10. Meditations from the Mat, by Rolf Gates.  This book changed my life, expanding my appreciation of yoga and setting me firmly on my yoga journey.
    11. Where’d You Go Bernadette?, by Maria Semple.  The first book of grown-up fiction I’ve read in years with a wonderful plot, heroine, and funny literary devices for telling the story.  It made me wonder where I went.   And to be happy that I’ve found myself.  And interested in fiction again after decades of reading nonfiction and business-oriented books.

What am I reading now?  I just finished Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins, the third and final installment of The Hunger Games Trilogy.  My daughter turned me on to the series and I found it to be a page-turning suspenseful dystopian story with a strong heroine.  My analytical engineer of a husband gave me a book on Reiki for Christmas.  Hmmm, is this a sign?  This energy stuff has always seemed like a bit of crazy hokum to me, but I am open to exploring it right now.  And impressed with his thoughtful gift-giving.  The other book that is on my nightstand is Wave, by Sonali Deraniyagala – the searing memoir by a woman who lost everyone she loved in the 2004 Tsunami.  Why I would want to read such a painful book?  I am drawn to stories of survival, women’s survival.  These stories remind me of what we are capable of, what matters most.  And, after all, I am a survivor.  We all are.

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