The first few months of this year have been marked by loss. Between the two of us, my husband and I said goodbye to a beloved Grandfather, a Great Aunt, a friend, and a business partner. Some of the passings were expected - the end of long lives filled with love and devotion to family and dear friends. Others were untimely - a man in the prime of his life who left behind a wife and two young children, a successful business woman with much left to give.
While the lives of these men and women couldn't have been more different, the remembrances held to commemorate them shared a common thread. At each gathering, people huddled around collections of photographs capturing the moments - big and small - that comprised their lives. These snapshots provided comfort to those who grieved. They sparked joy among those who spied themselves in the scenes and celebrations depicted. They elicited laughs at the styles of years past. They offered closure for those who wanted to say goodbye.
In each instance, the images that most moved those gathered weren't the stylish, staged family portraits or the postcard-quality scenes from epic travels, but rather the spontaneous shot of children at play in the backyard, hands held while strolling down the street, a little girl smiling on her Great Grandfather's lap while riding his scooter on a sunny afternoon. Full of silly faces, messy hair, and unflattering angles - these were the pictures that caused onlookers to linger.
We all have in our minds an idea of how we want to present ourselves and what memories we want to leave behind. We take great pains to project our best selves and fill our lives - and the lives of those we love - with meaningful experiences, travels, and activities. But our most foundational memories and enduring connections are forged in the seemingly uneventful days that lie between - tucking in for a reading marathon on a rainy day, spending a lazy afternoon around a jigsaw puzzle, lingering at the family dinner table - the easy, unforced rhythms that make up our lives.
As we approach the expanse of Summer and all its potential for memory making, many of us seek to fill our calendars with great experiences and grand adventures - and why not?! But as you map out your agenda, I encourage you to give equal attention to the everyday. Allow space for the unexpected - impromptu park visits, spontaneous dance parties, a glass of wine with a girlfriend that turns into dinner - and give them your full focus. Capture these images in your mind and heart (and maybe even a camera). Create joy in the present that leads to fond memories in the future.
Beginning at an early age we were conditioned to answer questions about ourselves. From teachers to new friends to strangers in the grocery store we learned to converse by responding to simple queries: What is your name? How old are you? How are you doing?
As we grew, the questions become more complex - perhaps even requiring some introspection: What is your favorite subject? Why do you want to attend our university? What makes you the right candidate for this job? While they may at first have generated some anxiety, over time we learned to anticipate them, prepare a response, and deliver it with confidence.
At some point along our path, we also encountered questions we didn’t want to - or felt we couldn’t - answer. Questions for which there was no automatic response. Questions that may have been asked with the best of intentions. But they nonetheless triggered fear, guilt, and feelings of inadequacy: How are you still single? When are you going to get a "real" job? Are you sure you want that dessert? And rather than investing time in considering how to respond, we instead learned how to avoid the people and situations most likely to introduce the undesirable query.
Eventually - and usually when we least expect it - someone or something discovers a way through the fortresses we build to protect ourselves, and we are faced with the questions (and feelings) we fear. I found myself in such a situation recently while spending time with a dear friend in a houseful of rambunctious little ones (including my own). Standing in the middle of the chaos, she smiled and asked,"Aren't you glad you only have one to deal with?!"
It was a simple question. Posed without malice. But I went silent. Turned inward. And extricated myself from the situation as quickly as I could.
Later, in the comfort and safety of solitude, I seethed. I surrendered to the internal drama: Do you have any idea how many times I have dreamed of soothing sisterly squabbles or refereeing a wrestling match between brothers?! Do you know how much I mourn the opportunities my daughter misses for spontaneous silliness because she is stuck with me as her primary playmate?! Do you not realize I blame myself EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. for my inability to grow our family?!
After the torrent subsided I was able to gain much-needed perspective. While my pain was (and is) real and valid, it wasn't caused by my friend - or her question. But I needed to give myself permission to experience the full force of emotions in order to move past my pity party and prepare for the inevitability of the next time I am asked a similar question.
With the clarity of hindsight, I recognized that an appropriate - and honest - response could be as simple as, "Yes." Because I am grateful - even if not for the reasons the inquirer assumed. I am incredibly grateful for the gift of a smart, sweet girl. For perspective. For the tools to be present and soak up as much as I can of the incredible opportunity I have to parent.
Whatever your state in life, chances are you have been asked tough questions - and more than likely, you have realized you can't avoid them forever. Rather than will the questions away, can you allow yourself to sit with them and the emotions they evoke? I encourage you to spend some time reflecting on what lies beneath your resistance. Consider how you can respond in a way that is authentic and kind - to the questioner - and yourself...
Last week I sat down, put pen to paper, and reflected on the closing of another year. 2018 was full of adventures, memorable travels, professional achievements, and personal growth. I traveled to areas of the world I had never seen, brought hope and healing to new communities of women facing the heartbreak of infertility, peacefully navigated a challenging relationship conflict, welcomed my daughter into her fifth (?!?) year of life, and inched closer to a milestone birthday of my own. Yes - 2018 was a year worthy of celebration.
No - you didn't catch me in a typo (though I'm sure that has happened...) - nor did I lose track of the year (though that often does happen...). I simply closed my eyes and anticipated how I want to feel about the year we are just beginning. The exercise was both inspiring and instructive.
If you are anything like me (and I would wager many of you are), despite your best intentions for a positive outlook, your mind is susceptible to being pulled into incessant, unrelenting, unhelpful chatter. You circle back to conversations you wish had gone a different way, fret about future events over which you have little (or no) control, and attempt to micromanage the minutiae of your daily existence. These thoughts have the power to cast a dark shadow over even the best of days - and they threaten to throw us off the course of the fully realized life we want to lead.
What if you instead filled your brain with enticing snapshots of a life well lived - and allowed those desires to not only brighten your perspective but also shape what comes next?
The lovely Lisa Eaves from Heal from Within, describes an exercise called "Skillful Imagination" that can serve as a framework for your efforts. To start, choose a point of time in the future: perhaps next year, five years from now, or even 50. Envision your future self reflecting back on the year or years that have passed. What did you experience? Where did you go? With whom did you spend time? What did you discover?
When you have answered these questions consider how these experiences made you feel. What was most meaningful or rewarding? Where was your time best spent? Even if it feels a bit silly, I encourage you to jot down a list of the highlights and hold onto it. Refer back to it on regular intervals - or use it to re-energize yourself when you are feeling mired in the details of daily life.
Allow your answers to these questions to guide your actions, decisions, and priorities in this moment. What decisions do you need to make today to ensure you arrive where you want to be? Create a vision of the life you desire, then turn anticipation into reality. Your future self will thank you...
Over the holiday break I had the opportunity to connect with a few dear friends I hadn't seen in far too long. During our conversations, they each asked, "What's next?" The question made me smile. At the outset of another new year, I have been thinking a lot about what lies ahead, and I have found myself downright giddy about the possibilities...
And I know I am not alone in experiencing this phenomenon. Research has long validated the power of anticipation to affect our outlook and overall wellbeing. A study released in 2010 argued the pleasure of anticipating an upcoming trip surpassed the enjoyment of the travel itself. Author and life coach Valorie Burton goes so far as to say anticipation is a critical first step toward living a happier - and better - life.
Intuitively the principle makes sense. When we are looking forward to something, we not only reap the benefits of a positive perspective, we also become more willing to do the work necessary to achieve a desired result. Think of your own goals and resolutions for 2018. Perhaps you have committed to implementing a new fitness routine, eating better, or beginning a meditation practice. Whatever your aims, I am willing to guess you are fueled more by the anticipated outcome than the intervening steps. Is anyone truly excited about the prospect of sore muscles, more spinach, or waking earlier in the morning?!
Of course, like most things, anticipation is not exclusively about sunshine and rainbows. We all know the discomfort that comes as we prepare for a dreaded but unavoidable obligation, learn of an unwelcome medical diagnosis, or endure a seemingly interminable wait for a deeply desired outcome.
In our ongoing pursuit of living a more full and fulfilling life, I want to explore the power of anticipation in all its forms. I am eager to see what lessons we can learn as we consider - and wait for - what's next. Won't you join me?
THIS will be the year we learn a new language! Organize our closets! Write more letters! Run a marathon! Or perhaps your desires are more consequential: you want to realize your long-held dream of becoming a parent - meet your life partner - attain your dream job.
And you may!
But you may not... Because as much as we plan, prepare, and pray, we control (at most) only a small part of our lives, living instead in the messy midst of family, community, and a higher power whose designs are far beyond our capacity for understanding.
Instead of the outcomes you desire, the new year may present you with events and experiences you didn't expect - or want: the loss of a loved one, the diagnosis you feared, the phone call you never imagined. Or you may achieve your goals only to discover they fall short of your ideal. Parenting is hard work. Your partner is as imperfect as you. Your dream job isn't so dreamy...
But balanced betwixt our desires and fears is life in all its richness and beauty. A major disappointment might put you in a position for an unexpected opportunity. A loss could free you to embrace something even more fulfilling. Boredom may inspire a depth of creativity you didn't know existed.
In this final month of the year, go ahead and plan. Prepare carefully. Pray earnestly. But also allow yourself to walk forward with eyes and arms open and ready to welcome the myriad of experiences you can't anticipate. The outcomes you didn't choose. Allow yourself to embrace whatever is next...
Late last month I traversed the country to visit a dear friend who had recently relocated to the Golden State. We planned our weekend rendezvous around a yoga retreat that would provide an opportunity to reconnect and recharge far removed from the demands of daily life.
I was eager to see my friend and begin my first [!?!] yoga retreat. We kicked off the weekend with a Qigong class (a wonderful discovery!), booked massage appointments, and entered the first yoga session relaxed and ready to learn. The teacher under whose guidance we would be practicing and studying is considered a master in the field - with decades of experience in teaching and training teachers. I was sure he would provide insights that would enrich my practice and my teaching.
After a brief introduction, we began to move, and he offered an alignment cue I found puzzling. It seemed at odds with what I had been taught during my own training - and counter to what I have been teaching for more than a decade. At first I wondered whether I had misheard, but the instruction was repeated several times during the practice. I found it unsettling but tried to dismiss what was, in reality, a minor discrepancy.
As the weekend wore on and the information was repeated and reinforced, a seed of dissent lodged itself in my mind. This doesn't sound right and it doesn't feel right. Attempts to ignore the instruction left me physically tense. I found myself feeling defensive and agitated.
During a quiet moment between sessions I stopped to consider the source of my discomfort. Why was I so resistant to something so simple? Hadn't it been my intention in studying with a new teacher to try new things?
It wasn't long before I realized that at its heart, my resistance stemmed from fear: If he is right, then I am wrong. And if my understanding is off base, then I have been misleading my students...
In that moment of humility I recognized I owed it to my students - and myself - to set aside my ego, listen, and learn. I entered our final session with an open mind, and for the next 90 minutes I simply explored. Slowly I began to see how this alternative approach complemented - rather than conflicted with - the principles I have been practicing and teaching. I left the weekend with a deeper understanding and more balanced approach to share with my students.
How many times have you seen similar patterns play out in your life? How often do we reflexively reject an idea because it is unfamiliar or uncomfortable only to later see its merit? How much time and energy could we save by instead approaching new perspectives with an open mind?
As we tiptoe toward the impending holiday season, many of us will find ourselves surrounded by family and friends with whom we do not see eye to eye. In these environments, we can choose to shut down and refuse to engage, put up our defenses and prepare for battle, or take a deep breath and enter into the conversation with grace.
Listening to another perspective needn't threaten our own values a beliefs - and a sincere exchange may serve to enlighten all sides. Next time you encounter a conflicting point of view, set aside your ego and listen carefully. Allow yourself to be open to the possibility of discovery. Give yourself an opportunity to to learn and grow...
Thirteen years ago this month, my husband and I exchanged our marriage vows in the middle of a meadow on a beautiful Fall morning. Later that evening, we celebrated with dinner and dancing under the stars surrounded by family and dear friends. Full of love and enthusiasm, we marveled at the seemingly endless adventures that awaited in this next chapter of life...
On a recent visit to the Midwest, we found ourselves back in the same setting enjoying a similarly beautiful evening with family. At some point our conversation turned back to that memorable day, and I expressed regret that we never took part in the tradition of sharing a piece of our wedding cake on our first anniversary.
My mother smiled, "It is still in the freezer..."
We laughed, and before I could weigh the wisdom of my decision, I leapt up from the table to investigate. As I carefully peeled off layer after layer of wrapping, I was delighted to discover the cake was not a freezer-burned brick but instead a clearly recognizable layer of cake. I warmed, sliced, and plated the nearly THIRTEEN YEAR OLD dessert, and delivered it to our guests.
Between giggles, we raised our forks and took a bite. While the flavor and texture were undoubtedly compromised, everyone agreed it had held up remarkably well. As I continued with a second bite, then a third, my mother cautioned, "Just because you can finish it doesn't mean you should..."
Her caution reverberated in my thoughts as we returned home from our travels and found ourselves in the midst of the frenzy of Fall. New teaching opportunities presented themselves, and I found myself devising creative ways to accommodate the increased demand while attending to the logistical realities of shuttling the babe to school and related activities. The pace was initially invigorating after a Summer of ease, but after a mere two weeks I found myself exhausted. By the end of most days I was irritable and frazzled. As I collapsed into bed each evening, I chastised myself for this perceived weakness: What's wrong with you? It's time to step it up a notch. Let's go!
But as I continued to struggle, I kept returning to a few simple questions: What am I gaining by ignoring what my body and heart are telling me? Do I need to add more to my schedule? How do these new commitments align with my priorities? Will they make make me a better mother or spouse? Do they allow bandwidth for activities that fulfill me or bless others?
My mother's voice whispered clearly: Just because you CAN doesn't mean you should...
In different seasons of life and growth, we are presented with new opportunities, but we also encounter new limitations. Just because we CAN push up against the very boundaries of our abilities doesn't mean we are best served by doing so.
Simple questions and reflections often provide the guidance we need. Does dread begin to creep in when you consider a certain activity, engagement, or commitment? Perhaps it is time to reevaluate your participation. Has your longstanding exercise routine begun to drain rather than energize you? Maybe you need to integrate something more restorative into your routine. Do certain relationships create more insecurity than comfort? It might be time to part ways.
As we enter the final quarter of the year, I encourage you to listen to your heart and acknowledge your limitations. Rather than try to ignore or push past them, consider whether they are offering you a much needed caution. Let's learn to embrace our limits so we can live more fully.
In a span of a little more than one month, my husband and I will have made two separate trips to our hometown for our respective 20 year high school reunions. These events have loomed large in my mind since adding them to the calendar late last year. Every time I envisioned the gatherings, I found myself reflecting on how life has unfolded over the past two decades.
During these strolls down memory lane, I often paused to consider the many pivotal moments within those years that changed the trajectory of my life: the places I traveled and subjects I studied. The decision to pursue an internship - and subsequently a job - in Washington. (Re)meeting the childhood friend who would become my husband. Our long and difficult road to parenthood.
I lingered on images of the friends, mentors, and peers who had a tremendous influence on my journey and considered what I know - and imagine - of their lives today. As I reflected upon how seemingly small changes can transform who we are and where we find ourselves, I considered the endless "what ifs" along my own path. What if I had chosen Boston over Nashville for school? What if my husband and I had moved back to our hometown rather than building a life in a city halfway across the country? What if I hadn't pursued my first yoga teacher training? What if I had accepted the prognosis that I would not be able to have a child?
As I followed each of these rabbit trails to their logical (or not so logical) conclusion, I envisioned an alternate reality - one that seemed, in some respects, precariously enticing... I found myself critical of what I deemed to be mistakes and missed opportunities.
After a week of uncharacteristic irritability, I paused to sit with my agitation. Why did I feel so unsettled? Why was I questioning elements and experiences and relationships that are otherwise reliable sources of joy? I asked myself hard questions: If I could change one thing about my life today, what would it be? What action could I take to bring about a more full and fulfilled life?
The more I meditated on these ideas, the more I realized the root of my dissatisfaction was not any decision, consequence, or circumstance. Rather, it derived from a false comparison between real life and an imaginary ideal. No matter how wonderful our relationships, pursuits, and surroundings, we ALL experience frustration, boredom, and aggravation. Regardless of how well obscured, these moments are part of the lives of EVERY. PERSON. WE. ENCOUNTER.
I don't mean to suggest there aren't occasions when meaningful, large scale change is necessary. We may need to overcome an unhealthy pattern or break free from a toxic relationship. But more often, the only thing standing between us and joy is a misplaced yearning for something that simply doesn't exist. By tapping into gratitude and focusing on the blessings that surround us from moment to moment, we can (re)discover the peace that grounds and sustains us.
Next time you find yourself struggling with dissatisfaction, stop questioning what you are missing. Silence your inner critic and invite a more full appreciation of who - and where - you are. Let's embrace...what is.
Physical affection is NOT my love language. Sure, I can recall giving and receiving plenty of hugs as a young child, but at some point, I adopted the arms-length approach more characteristic of my family, where I remain (quite comfortably) to this day.
My fellow introverts will recognize the struggle inherent in balancing the desire to be polite and reciprocal alongside the visceral need to guard one's own personal space. Naturally, when we encounter a fellow non-hugger, we feel extreme gratitude to be with someone to whom we needn't explain our predicament.
Which is why I was caught off guard upon receiving an open-armed greeting from an equally reserved friend when we ran into one another in our neighborhood. The gentleman in question was the partner of a former client with whom I worked for nearly four years. We met in their home every week without fail until a decline in the health of my client required his transition into an assisted living facility. Though they are often on my mind, it had been more than a month since I had checked in. After exchanging pleasantries I inquired, "How is Robert?"
"He passed away on Tuesday - it was fateful that we ran into each other today."
I was immediately flooded with empathy. I can only imagine the strain of watching a loved one slip away. Having observed Robert's steady decline from week to week I had a glimpse of the struggle his partner faced and the labor of love he endured. As we finished our conversation I regretted not being able to offer the perfect words to convey my sympathy. At a loss, I instead offered a hug.
Walking away, it occurred to me how many times in my own life an embrace has transcended a gap no words could bridge: receiving support after learning of the loss of a pregnancy - comforting a friend after the passing of her mentor - assuaging the fears of an anxious toddler.
The encounter also served as a powerful reminder of the need to connect on a more human level in today's technologically dominated reality. We are wired for physical connection, and simple gestures can be incredibly healing - even (or should I say especially) when it is not our go-to reaction.
I don't mean to suggest anyone needs to embark on an uncomfortable new touchy-feely reality. Start small: accept a hug from a niece or nephew - or reach for the hand of a partner or friend. Open yourself up to the benefits of giving - and receiving - meaningful contact. What might you gain by embracing...people?
As my daughter neared the end of her first year of preschool I began anticipating Summer. Channeling my own schoolgirl days, I envisioned lazy afternoons at the pool, picnics in the park, and other simple joys that for too long have long taken a backseat to the demands of work, parenting, and keeping up with life. Full of ideas and enthusiasm, I declared this year would be different!
With our mornings free from the constraints of a school schedule, there were adventures to imagine, play dates to plan, sights to see, and camps to consider. I did my due diligence and crafted a schedule that I thought would provide the perfect balance of structure and spontaneity.
Meanwhile, our evenings and weekends slowly filled with visits from family and friends, connections with members of our D.C. tribe, and our own planned escapes from the heat and humidity of the nation's capitol. It wasn't until a dear friend reached out to suggest a family outing that I realized our first free date was in SEPTEMBER and I knew something needed to change.
Despite being enthusiastic about everything I had placed on the calendar, I began to regard the flurry of activity with dread. Summer had yet to begin and already it seemed over.
We want so much to create the "perfect" experience that we find ourselves driven by a (false) urgency to fill every moment - even though we know better. Research has demonstrated what our hearts tell us: what kiddos (and grownups) need most is freedom and space. Unstructured time to play and relax. The boredom that breeds creativity and spontaneity.
So as we enter (what is actually only) the second full week of Summer, I am changing course. Instead of asking, "What fabulous activities can I find?" I am looking for opportunities to pull back - to create space and time in our lives to just be.
As you dream up your own perfect Summer, I encourage you to scale back your ambitions and give yourself the gift of freedom. Let's embrace less so we can experience more.