Tag Archive for: life lessons

Last weekend I went to visit my mom for the first time since she moved to a memory care facility. It’s been a long time coming and while I felt good about this particular place, it was also good to visit a few times over a few days to really absorb the feel of the place, the vibe of the caregivers, understand how it all works.

The first time I went, my dear friend Susan came with me. We’ve known each other for almost 40 years and she and Mom were friends for a couple decades, so having her there felt really natural.

Without oversharing, I will say that the first ten minutes or so were hard. There were some difficult things to witness and if you’ve ever spent time with a loved one who has Alzheimer’s, you might understand. Knowing this woman who was so independent and capable for most of my life, it is sometimes hard to acknowledge all that she has lost, how reliant she is on others to care for her.

Susan and I sat at her kitchen counter the following morning, talking about it over coffee, and I was reminded of how strong the pull is to DO something when we feel that way. And then, almost immediately, I was reminded of how grateful I am that I’ve cultivated the ability to not respond to that compulsion in the moment.

If you’re like me, you grew up being taught that any time you felt scared or uncertain or really sad, that was a call to action; that the thing to do was to assess the situation and put a plan in place to both alleviate those feelings and prevent them from happening again. Over time, I got really good at doing that – I became a control freak. I prided myself on my ability to anticipate potential disasters and keep them from occurring, mitigate the possibility that I would be blindsided.

When things happened that I couldn’t have predicted, I allowed myself a brief moment of intense emotion (flashes of anger, a crying jag, a mini panic attack), steeled myself, and moved on.

Eventually, that did several things:

  • fed the false notion that I am in control (and thus, that when disaster does strike, it’s because I am not smart enough to accurately predict or prevent it), 
  • turned me in to a DOING person instead of a FEELING person (which reduced my ability to empathize with others and to feel the full range of emotions human beings are designed to feel), 
  • exhausted my reserves because I was racing around putting out fires all the time – the vast majority of which weren’t mine to put out, 
  • reinforced the idea that it’s perfectly normal to avoid feeling certain emotions that are uncomfortable (and thus, justified that glass of wine or piece of cake or other unhealthy coping mechanism I utilized when I ran out of ideas about how to eliminate sadness/fear/anger),
  • put me at the center of the situation, as though my feelings were the most important consideration.
I became an alternately frantic and depleted half-person who was ultimately incredibly unhappy, despite all of my efforts to the contrary. 
But as I sat with Mom the other night, I reminded myself that difficult feelings do not compel me to act. Just because something is hard to witness doesn’t mean I have to DO anything about it. [Obviously, there are exceptions. If someone is in physical pain or imminent danger – yup, I’m diving in if I can.] And if I can ground myself in that moment enough to just acknowledge that what I’m experiencing is really hard and I’d rather not be feeling it, it helps me to focus my efforts. It may be that an hour or more later I will decide that there’s something I can do that will help – but those acts are purposeful, effective, and efficient. The way I used to handle things like that was scattershot – come up with all of the things I could do to cover any potentiality, make lists, call people, insert myself into the situation to “fix” things so that they wouldn’t make me uncomfortable. 
For the record, Susan didn’t like this conversation at all, and I totally get it. There is something seductive about knowing that we can effect change in any situation, especially ones that make us sad or scared or angry. And often we can be in control. For a while. Until we wear out. For me, learning to sit with painful feelings was a survival mechanism. I wouldn’t have lasted long at the pace I was going if I continued to think that I had to address every unpleasant situation I found myself in. I can say that my life isn’t any easier now, but I’m a heck of a lot happier and I believe that the things I choose to do are making a much bigger difference than before. 
Last Thursday, I gave myself permission to take a hot bath.
In the middle of the day. With piles of laundry yet to be washed, a dog that desperately
wanted a walk, and a dinner plan yet to be determined.  I ran a deep, hot bath, added a few
drops of lavender essential oil, lit a candle, and stepped in. 
The tub is set in the corner of the room with large windows
framing two sides, frosted below for privacy, and open to the sky on top.  Lying back, I could see a triangle of
roof with the downspout attached, a few bare tree branches, and grey sky.  We have enjoyed a lot of sunshine in
the last week and temperatures in the upper 50s, but today was grey with
spitting rain and that soft light that makes it impossible to tell what time of
day it is without consulting a clock. 
As I let my thoughts drift away a smile appeared on the
right side of my lips.  My nostrils
flared slightly and the left side of my mouth followed until I was positively
grinning.  For no reason. I hadn’t
just remembered something funny or sweet or thought about something exciting in
the near future.  I just
As I pondered this strange, unprompted grin, I recalled
something my nine-year-old said to me once. And I finally understood what she
When she said it, we were leaving the hospital after having
just paid a visit to her favorite teacher.  Mrs. H had suffered a severe bout of pain and dizziness the
night before and was rushed to the ER and evaluated for a stroke.  She was disoriented and confused and,
at the time of our visit, still in some measure of discomfort.  And the doctors had no real answers.  Despite that, she was delighted to see
Lola and I walk in to her room and she immediately squeezed us both tightly and
began talking in her rushed, irreverent way.  The three of us were laughing within minutes and Lola
perched on the side of the hospital bed with Mrs. H’s arm draped over her.  We bounced from topic to topic, dipping
our toes in the waters of concern, but mostly skipping lightly around school,
pets, and things we were looking forward to.  When Mrs. H began to get tired, Lola and I left, promising
to check back later in the day.
As we walked down the hospital corridor, I began to feel a
bit melancholy.  I caught glimpses
of other patients, lying in bed asleep with mouths agape, struggling to get out
of bed, pushing IV poles down the hallway as they steadied themselves against a
nurse or a loved-one.  I thought
about Mrs. H and all she has meant to us and our family over the years and
found myself sending an urgent wish out to the Universe that she heal quickly
and completely.  I was lost in my
own thoughts until I felt Lola’s bouncing gait next to me and looked at her.
She was half-walking, half-skipping down the hall, bopping
her head from shoulder to shoulder and singing a little song under her
breath.  Her eyes twinkled with
mischief and she wore a huge grin.
“What are you so happy about, little one?” I asked, relieved.
I had originally resisted bringing her, worried that it might upset her to see
her beloved teacher sick or in pain.
Lola stopped mid-stride, cocked her head up at me in
confusion and let out a laugh.
“Mom. You don’t need any reason at all to be happy. You need
a reason to be sad or upset or angry, but you can be happy just because you’re
I laughed, too, thinking that it was such a “Lola” thing to
say. She truly believes it. She lives it.
It wasn’t until today in the bathtub that it sank in for
me.  As the smile crept across my
face, the first thought I had was, ‘what
are you smiling about?’
answer that came to me first was, ‘Nothing.
And everything.

I don’t need a reason
to be happy.’

*This essay is one of several that originally appeared in BuddhaChick Life Magazine. As the magazine is no longer available, I am reposting it here so readers can find it. 

It occurred to me this morning that I’ve spent much of the last three weeks borrowing trouble. I am feeling a little frantic, fairly depleted, and terrifically confused and I have brought it all on myself.

I have been relying on my tendency to be a ‘fixer’ instead of sitting back and owning what is mine to own. To borrow a phrase, I have been “leaning in” far too much.  As a parent, it is difficult for me to separate what is mine from what belongs to my daughters, but every time I get entangled in their stuff, I learn the same painful lesson – namely, that nobody is getting what they need when I jump in and try to make things better.

Over the last three weeks, I’ve been fooling myself that I wasn’t really getting involved. Instead of telling my girls what to do, I simply went and did a ton of research and offered up the Cliff Notes versions as potential solutions. I have done a great deal of listening, given many hugs and words of encouragement and left them with strategically-placed notes that I fervently hoped they would take to heart.  And then I have left the room and entered my own head. I have spent hours debating strategies, ordering and reading books that I thought might give me important insight, reached out to other mothers for ideas, and basically ignored all of my own stuff in an effort to help my girls.

I understand that it is important for my kids to experience pain and disappointment and come out the other side.  It is horrible to watch, but as a parent, I know it is more harmful to try and shield them from the slings and arrows of life than it is to let them feel the sting and discover that they will survive despite it.  That much I am clear on.  What I realized this morning is that because it is uncomfortable for me to see them suffer, my agenda involves them acknowledging their suffering and moving on quickly. I want them to take the fast lane to enlightenment, drawing on my experience and knowledge instead of taking the time to form their own, and have an “a-ha” moment in record time. I want their wounds to heal completely within days or hours and leave a scar that will help them incorporate this wisdom into their lives forever. Voila!


The other night when I pushed my way into Eve’s room to offer all of the information I had gathered while she was at school, she got angry with me.  She tolerated my 20-minute download, but just barely, and then asked me to leave. My feelings were hurt. I felt unappreciated and instantly angry that she didn’t see how I had sacrificed hours of my day to ruminate, investigate, and collate on her behalf.

Within minutes, I got a text message from her that made me sit down hard.

“I’m sorry I was rude. But I didn’t ask you to do all of that. I have a plan. I am figuring out how to deal with this and you have to give me a chance to do it my way.”

She was right. In running around searching for answers and spending time and energy fixating on how to help my girls deal with the disappointments they experience, I am serving my own need to be useful, to solve a problem, to fix something.  There is a fine line between giving thoughtful advice when it is asked for and projecting my own stuff onto someone else. In my experience, it is always easier to see how to solve someone else’s problems than it is to work on my own.  When I hover over my kids and offer solutions, even if I’m not advocating for one over another, the message I’m sending is that I don’t trust them to figure it out on their own (at least not as quickly as I would like). I am also not giving them the chance to truly integrate the lessons of these challenges into their lives. They can’t remember pain from the scars I carry and as much as I might talk to them about my personal mistakes, in order to learn, they have to make their own.

All of this isn’t to say that I can’t love my girls fiercely and worry about them and offer my two cents. I will also not hesitate to jump in if I think there is a situation they absolutely are not equipped to handle yet, but getting emotionally tied up to the point where I set aside my own life in order to spend hours thinking about how to help my kids is a waste of energy. This morning I found myself exploring several scenarios in an effort to help Lola with something she hasn’t asked for help with and it stopped me short. I have a lot to do today and Lola’s got this. If she doesn’t, she’ll let me know one way or the other, but indulging my desire to have things tied up neatly and see my kids happy is only going to make us all crazy.

In 2013 our beloved dog, CB, was diagnosed with melanoma. It was a stunning blow to all of us and even the veterinarian had a hard time with the test results. The tumor was in one of the bones that made up his first toe on the right foot and we made the decision to remove the entire toe as a precaution. The vet assured me that he would do just fine without it and she was right.  Following several weeks of healing, he was right back to bounding up the stairs behind me every evening on our way to bed, back to three or four walks around the neighborhood every day.  You would never know he was missing a toe.

Six weeks after the surgery, the vet said we ought to give him the once-over to see whether there were any more tumors or spots we needed to check out.  As a nearly-10-year-old purebred, he had sprouted odd bumps and lesions here and there that we hadn’t ever really thought twice about. I pointed out a few that were larger but didn’t seem to give him trouble or pain and we did biopsies.

Most of the remainder of 2013 was spent either in surgery or recovery for our poor boy after discovering another large tumor on his back that had wrapped around his spine.  I learned several big lessons from all of this, but the one that I hope to remember for the rest of my life is how to act when you’re diagnosed with cancer, just in case I ever am.

During the visits where we first attempted to figure out what was going on with CB’s foot, he was the same as ever.  Happy, goofy, loyal, exuberant. For as long as we have known him, he has loved people (especially children his height), other dogs, water, balls, stuffed animals, and food. He loves nothing more than a walk around the neighborhood and sleeping on the floor in the same room where there is a person. Any person. He hates being alone.  He follows me from room to room all day long as I empty the dishwasher, run downstairs to do a load of laundry, sit at the kitchen table to write for a few hours, walk out to the alley to dump the garbage, and head upstairs to shower. If we walk past a car with a door or the hatchback open, he sees an open invitation for a ride, even if he doesn’t know the owner of the car. He doesn’t mind going to the vet in the slightest because it just means that someone else is going to pet him and scratch behind his ears.

After his cancer diagnosis, nothing changed. He was slowed down a bit by the bandages and stitches and a little dopey from the anesthetic, but he wasn’t angry or morose or withdrawn. His tail still thumped on the hardwood floor in anticipation of some attention every time someone walked by. He still struggled to all four feet upon hearing the word “walk” uttered by anyone anywhere.  He still perked his ears up at the sound of Bubba locking his car at the end of the day before heading up the stairs to come inside.

Even after five surgeries in nine months and weekly visits to the vet, he was unchanged with regard to his most basic personality. He was a little more hesitant to get in the car because that generally meant we were headed for some more poking and prodding, but I can hardly blame him. I was, too, because for me, it generally meant a huge bill and more heartache.

I don’t know whether it’s because he has very little control over most of the aspects of his life that he has chosen to embrace the things that matter most to him – connection with his human companions and pleasure-seeking – or if it’s even a “choice” at all. I just know that watching him continue to be exactly who he always was even as physical parts of him got chipped away steadily through most of a year was inspirational and touching. He never stopped trusting me to change his bandages and give him pain meds. He never refused to get up and walk or greet me with a huge tail wag. He never lost his enthusiasm for meeting other dogs or new people or carrying some goofy toy around in his mouth. Through it all, he stayed CB. CB with melanoma, to be sure, but CB nonetheless.

If I am ever diagnosed with a disease that requires me to undergo painful or debilitating treatment and is potentially life-threatening, I hope that I can remember how CB handled it. I hope that I can make my way, one day at a time, through the treatments, rely on others to help me, and never let it change who I truly am.  I hope that I can continue to focus on the things that make me happy and let them make me just as happy as they always have even if I don’t have the same energy to enjoy them that I once did.

As of now, CB is mostly back to his old self. I suspect that he has more tumors growing that we don’t know about, but he is living a good life and is very active thus far. We have decided that five surgeries is enough for one dog and, while we won’t let him live with debilitating amounts of pain, we are going to let him enjoy the time he has left without anesthesia or stitches or casts.  Every morning when the two of us get up to start the day, I am grateful for the gifts he has given me, not the least of which is the constant reminder to just be who I really am as much as possible.

I’m fairly certain that growing up in the 1970s and 1980s was, for me, the moral equivalent of being sold a mirage in the Sahara. Coming of age in that era of instant-gratification and get-rich-quick schemes and ever-present celebrity news (MTV, anyone?) gave me the impression that life comes in bursts and at any moment I could expect all of my wishes to be granted simultaneously, thereby changing my life forever in a millisecond.

I still sometimes believe that.
Turns out that what actually comes in bursts (at least for me) are the revelations that this is all nonsense.
For so many years I believed that goals were seminal events. That to accomplish one of the milestones I set out to reach would profoundly change the landscape of my life going forward. With a few exceptions, that is total BS. But somehow, I manage to hold on to the exceptions in my mind as reality. Marriage was one of those exceptions, or at least I used to think so. In all honesty, though, Bubba and I lived together, sharing expenses and household duties for nearly a year before we actually had the wedding ceremony. And while the honeymoon rocked, when we returned to our tiny apartment with our two cats and our full-time jobs, except for the part where I had to stand in line forEVER at the DMV to legally change my name on my driver’s license, nothing much changed.
Having babies changed our lives markedly. I’ll give you that one. And graduating high school and college necessitated a drastic shift in the way I spent my days. Beyond those things, though, when I stop to think about it, there aren’t many things I can point to that created dramatic change in my daily life. And even the build-up to graduations and childbirth were gradual, so I can’t really say that any of those things came all at once.
So why is it that when I fantasize about a particular writing project or personal milestone, I expect things to change radically for me? When I finished my first manuscript I felt an enormous sense of accomplishment – the culmination of three years of research and two years of writing and re-writing. But the next morning, I still got up, made breakfast for the girls, had my latte and drove them to school. Even if I had sold the manuscript, my life wouldn’t have become unrecognizably altered.
I have a few friends who successfully published their work in the last year and while I was tremendously pleased for them and a tiny bit jealous, I have to admit that their lives are still essentially the same as they were before. Yes, maybe they are getting more exposure in the literary world. Yes, I suspect they spend some portion of each and every day selling or marketing or talking about their writing. But when it comes down to it, the most basic parts of their lives are still the same – raising children, finding time for self-care (or not), struggling to write new material. So where is that Shangri-La? That, “Oh. My. God. I’m famous. I have ‘arrived.’ I am [fill in the blank]!”
It doesn’t exist. That is truly the exception. If it even happens. Because I suspect that even those folks who become famous overnight or win a trillion dollars in the lottery ultimately revert back to who they really are. If you loved junk food and reality TV before you were elected governor of your state, you might move to the mansion the day of your inauguration, but I won’t give you long before the cupboards are full of cheesy poofs and Oreos and someone has set the DVR to catch “Survivor.”
Much like the lesson I learned from looking back on 2011 with Eve and Lola, I am reminded that it is the daily things we do that add up. Those moments where we are truly ourselves, doing what we do best without pretense or expectation determine the path our lives take.
Call it a “Duh” moment. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t qualify as an “Aha.”

I like maps. And my GPS. Even when I think I know where I’m going, I like to plug the address in to my iPhone and get directions as a back up.

When we were in Tuscany with the girls in 2004, I found the Italian approach to road maps a tad frustrating, to say the least. Not only do they seem to lack accuracy in scale, they don’t note the toll plazas and when you’re faced with the prospect of changing lanes to exit when you don’t have any change and there are locals whizzing by you at 125 mph, it often seems easier to just stay on the motorway. Except that the next opportunity to get off might be miles and miles down the road. And it is probably getting dark. And the two- and four-year-olds in the back seat are most likely getting hungry.
I decided that the Italians, who truly enjoy their hours-long lunches, complete with wine, might be better off outsourcing their mapping jobs to the Germans. They were the only ones who seemed more perturbed about the lack of accuracy than I was.
So I like to know where I’m going. And how long it will take me to get there. And I hate being late. So sue me. I get that it’s a control thing. And I’m working on that – the being comfortable not being in control part, I mean. But I still need a knock on the head every once in a while.
Cue David Whyte and his amazing book, “The Three Marriages.” I have written about it before, but I am reading the book again, having decided that I would get more out of it if I read it with some friends. So we have a mini-book-club thing going and I am much more mindful and deliberate about reading it this time and am able to go another layer deeper in to the subject matter.
It came as no surprise to me that, after a day of pinging around the house, lost to purpose and wondering when I might get some inkling of energy back to begin to engage in writing and creating, I read these words:
“Eventually we realize that not knowing what to do is just as real and just as useful as knowing what to do. Not knowing stops us from taking false directions. Not knowing what to do, we start to pay real attention. Just as people lost in the wilderness, on a cliff face or in a blizzard pay attention with a kind of acuity they would not have if they thought they knew where they were. Why? Because for those who are really lost, their life depends on paying real attention. If you think you know where you are, you stop looking.”
It was the last line that really stopped me in my tracks. If you think you know where you are, you stop looking.
And sometimes, when I am desperately seeking a path TO somewhere (home, the dentist, Eve’s friend’s house), my vision hones in so tightly as I look for clues that I fail to notice the breadth of the world around me. I am so focused on the end point, the goal, and what I imagine it to look like, that I might drive right past it because it doesn’t seem to fit my expectations.
In the case of my writing goals, I am reminded that it is more fruitful to pay attention to where I am right now and simply take the next step than it might be to fantasize about what the final product will look like or how it will be received. I may well discover an entirely new path that contains delightful surprises or challenges me beyond what I thought I could do or leads me on the journey of a lifetime.
I need to get lost more often so that I can pay more attention.

I was helping out a friend. And, if I’m being totally honest, I have to say I was intrigued. I can’t imagine being able to justify hiring a Life Coach, either to myself or Bubba. It seems like such a frivolous, privileged thing to do, and my life is pretty damn good. But the notion that someone could look at my life objectively and help me figure out where to go from here is pretty tempting. I am a person who likes a road map. Give me some expectations and I will deliver the goods. Give me some vague idea of a goal and trust me to figure out the details by myself and I’m scared. What if I don’t do it right? What if I make a mistake along the way? What if I waste precious time mucking about and learning things other people already know?

So when my yoga instructor announced that she needed to complete ten hours of Life Coaching in order to get her certification, I leaped at the chance. You know, to help her out and all….

At our first meeting she explained that she was there to help me with whatever I wanted – solidifying career objectives, clarifying personal relationships, creating emotional health, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, etc. And so I began by talking about what is nearest and dearest to my heart – writing. I talked about my need to create balance in my life so that I can have time to write consistently in the midst of parenting and managing the household. I talked about my first book project and how the research and writing lit me absolutely on fire but the agent-querying/selling/marketing portion gave me the creeps.

It took her all of five minutes to break it down. She asked some insightful questions, many of which I have answered before for prospective agents and publishers. She wanted to know why I wrote the book and what my ultimate goal was for it. I explained that I write primarily to create dialogue around difficult issues. My purpose is to offer the reader a perspective that seems unique at first but becomes universal. I want to get people thinking about their own lives and how they relate to others and prompt them to talk to others about those situations. Being able to make money is so far down the list of priorities (Bubba is cringing right now, poor guy). It makes me feel almost dirty to look at creative ways to convince people that they ought to pay me to write like this.

I know that money is how we express worth in this culture and, if I’m being pragmatic, I spend a lot of my valuable time writing and thinking about writing and engaging in dialogue with others. The thing is, doing so is part of what makes my life so full. I believe that, in this currency of worth, I deserve to be paid for my time and efforts. It is just that asking for that feels skeevy. I was the girl who felt bad hawking Girl Scout Cookies to my neighbors. I felt as though I was intruding on their lives in order to make money (even if the money didn’t necessarily go to me, personally). If they came to me and asked, I’d gladly sell them as many boxes as they wanted. But going to them always made me wonder if they truly wanted the cookies or if they felt coerced. This could be part and parcel of the fact that I have a tremendously difficult time saying no to little entrepreneurs attempting to sell me things.

In any case, Jen was able to re-frame the entire situation for me. She fully accepted my discomfort with “selling” the book to an agent or publisher. She asked how committed I was to “sharing” my work with the world and I assured her I was. I fervently believe that this subject is one that desperately needs the spotlight of dialogue in American society and would be thrilled if my book could help spark that.

“What if you changed the focus from ‘selling’ to ‘sharing’?”

It took a moment to sink in, but when it did, it was like a drop of food coloring in a glass of water. The notion spread out and filled up the space. Yeah. In effect, selling my manuscript would achieve the goal of sharing the message. If I hone in on my desire to spread the word and see selling the book as a means to that end, it suddenly feels much less smarmy. And even, dare I say it, exciting.

I’m so glad I could help her out.

Not everyone wants to play.

Even if CB is always up for a high-speed game of chase followed by a wrestling match in the boggiest part of the grass, not every other dog we come across on our walks is as eager to play as him. He can spot another dog two blocks away and from my position behind him, I watch the tops of his floppy ears begin to flatten out, his neck straighten, the tail wagging increases to warp speed and the most pathetic whimper stutters out of his throat. I’m pretty sure it means, “Hurry, Mom! Let’s go meet that dog! Hurry up!” This is when I’m so glad I remembered to put the prong collar on him because he uses every ounce of his 80 pounds to drag me closer and closer to the other dog.
But more often than not, once we get to the other dog, they are not about to play. Either the dog’s owner has decided they are out for a walk and that’s it, or the dog is closer in size to my cat than CB and begins barking that “I’m Godzilla, don’t mess with me!” bark, or the dog is closer in size to a horse and feels the need to eat my dog to demonstrate just exactly who is in charge. Occasionally, we come across a dog and owner who are happy to meet CB on his terms, uncontrollably enthusiastic, and we have a bit of playtime before resuming our stroll. When that happens, CB is reluctant to leave and spends the first half-block looking back at his new friend, sincerely hoping they are following us and ready for another romp. But he is truly happy. Not satisfied, but happy.
When we come across another dog that doesn’t want to play, CB cocks his head in that questioning way all dogs have and looks at me as if to say, “Doesn’t that dog know he’s a dog? Doesn’t he know playing is what we do?”
He’s right, you know, but it’s not for us to pass judgement. Some want to play. Some are in the mood to play but circumstances prevent it. Some aren’t in the space to understand play. Some are frightened or intimidated or just don’t get it. But some do play and when they do, it is wholehearted and enjoyable and fulfilling. And CB is grateful. And then he comes home and has a drink and takes a nap. Today, I’m taking my cues from him. I’ll be on the lookout for people who want to play, but if they don’t or can’t, that’s okay. I’ll just smile and move on. And when I find someone to engage with, I’ll do it 100% until I’m done and then I’ll get a drink and relax.