Next week marks a major milestone in the New Beginnings household: Our daughter turns five-and-three-quarter years old. You read that correctly - not five years old (been there and done that) - not five-and-a-half years old (checked that box too) - but five-and-three-quarter years old. And there will be a celebration!
Now before you roll your eyes and bemoan the way modern parents are raising snowflake babies who need constant adulation, let me scale back your vision of excessive indulgence. We are not hosting a party. She will not receive gifts. There will not be a cake (though a candle may find its way into something on the plate...). This tradition simply provides an opportunity to come together in the midst of an otherwise unremarkable day to reflect on the passing of time, share smiles, and enjoy each other's company.
I think we need more of this in our world right now.
Yes, we are in the midst of the "most wonderful time of the year" - full of festivities, family gatherings, and faith traditions. Celebration is never on more prominent display than during this five-and-a-half week stretch. But for many, the holiday season generates far more anxiety than joy - perhaps highlighting physical and emotional distance from family and friends, triggering painful memories of a lost loved one, or drawing attention to a lack of material resources enjoyed by seemingly everyone else.
But even these very real and deeply felt challenges do not preclude the ability to find and appreciate small, simple pleasures. It could be the release of a new book you have been eagerly anticipating. Tiny signs of improvement during a long and slow recovery from an injury. Eggnog appearing in the grocery store cooler (or is that just me?). The magnitude of the occasion and how you choose to commemorate it are less important than the simple act of celebration - making way for the holistic shift that occurs when you intentionally reorient your mind to the good that surrounds you.
Whatever your feelings about this period of pomp and circumstance, I encourage you to identify one reason to celebrate today. The exercise just might spark sources of joy you didn't know existed. Anticipate celebration - and watch as the opportunities for more continue to grow...
Can we start with a check in? How have you been? How was the past month? Did the breathing exercise help? If so, great! If not - or if trying to remember how or when to do it was just one more looming task on your list - then ditch it. It won’t hurt my feelings. Let's be honest: I won’t even know!
In fact, this month, I would like to invite you to get rid of a few things - perhaps even many things. Wouldn't it feel good to shed some of the unnecessary clutter clamoring for your attention as we hurtle toward the end of the calendar year? Doesn't something about it just seem right - even seasonal?
As it happens, the trees in Washington, D.C. are shedding more than their leaves this season. Acorn-strewn streets and sidewalks have transformed otherwise casual strolls into veritable obstacle courses.
The deluge is due to what arborists call "masting." Most years, oak trees produce just enough acorns to feed surrounding wildlife - playing their role in the circle of life. In a masting year, however, the oaks produce and shed more acorns than the squirrels and their furry friends can consume, ensuring some will take root and grow into new trees - replenishing and renewing the forest.
Why should you care?
Because I think it sets a beautiful example for us. Like the oaks, we bear a responsibility for the care and feeding of our wildlife - whether our families, communities, or workplaces. But unlike the oaks, we humans are not programmed to regularly invest in our own welfare. We instead pour nearly every ounce of our precious energy into our life and work. If we are lucky, we have just enough left over to meet our basic needs, but over time our wells run dry - to the detriment of not only ourselves but also those who depend on us.
Perhaps you are the exception to the rule: you already have replenishment rhythms in place and feel fully equipped to graciously and generously pour into those around you. But I suspect at least a few of you are feeling depleted - in which case, I recommend you enter your own masting season.
For many of us, that involves shedding those things that no longer serve us. It might be the monthly volunteer commitment that fills you with more dread than purpose. Maybe it takes the form of a relationship that produces more frustration than encouragement. Perhaps it is something as simple as choosing a beautiful treat from a local bakery for that upcoming holiday potluck instead of spending hours in the kitchen to bake it yourself.
Others may instead need a simple change of routine to create more space. Can you find time for meditation, contemplation, or prayer by turning off your headphones or car radio on your daily commute? Are you willing to swap out five minutes of social media to instead take a few deep breaths?
Whatever form it takes, I encourage you to take stock and take action. Identify one way you can renew your reserves for the month ahead. You - and those around you - will be glad you did.
Before you dive in to the following note, I invite you to take a deep breath. I mean it. Literally. Pause. Put your hands on your knees. Breathe in as deeply as you can (even more deeply than you think you can), and then let it out (with an audible sigh if you're willing!).
How did that feel? Maybe try it again. We all need this (and other tools) in our kit right now. I've heard it from clients over and over. I've seen it in the agitation simmering under the surface in routine exchanges at the grocery store and coffee shop. I have felt it myself: angst and anxiety about the state of the world. It feels heavy. It seems overwhelming. It's both vast and deeply personal. It is hard to know how to go about "life as usual."
So when the time came to board planes twice in as many weeks for weddings we had committed to attend, I struggled. After a season of heavy travel and on the heels of an unsettling tragedy just blocks from our home, I considered changing course and staying put. Though I wanted to be there for the brides and their families, the pull of home - of hibernation - was strong.
But as we considered the women we had the opportunity to celebrate, we decided to proceed as planned. And I couldn't be happier that we did: both occasions proved powerful (and greatly needed) medicine. For two weekends, we focused on incredible young women of character and integrity. We celebrated lives well lived and paths less traveled. We connected with family and friends. We met fascinating people. We explored a beautiful, historic Southern city and a rugged, rustic Midwestern retreat. We steeped ourselves in joy.
It felt like an escape from reality, but as the weekends unfolded it occurred to me that this, too, IS reality.
Because while turmoil, distress, and unease so often dominate our mindspace, they do not have an exclusive right to determine our experience of the world. Moment by moment, joy lingers patiently on the periphery waiting to be noticed. Ready to spring into action.
Sometimes it comes with great fanfare in the form of major milestones and grand events. But just as often - if not more so - it whispers through a sun-dappled day after weeks of rain, a chance to catch up with a dear friend, or an unexpected kindness from a stranger.
We cannot control our circumstances or environment, but we can choose where to focus our attention. As we head into a new month (with one more wedding celebration to go!), I am looking for more chances to smile. To surround myself with laughter. To breathe deeply. To anticipate - and share - joy. Won't you join me?
As we prepare for the official arrival of Fall, I find myself wistful about the season to which we are bidding farewell. The past few months have been magical. Our Summer was replete with travels to places near and far: training up to New York for a quick mother-daughter weekend to celebrate the end of the school year, taking in the College World Series with family and friends in the Midwest, relaxing in the mountains with dear friends, visiting others at their cozy lakeside retreat, and embarking on our first family trek across the pond. The brief interludes between these adventures were filled with time at the pool, playing at the park, and hours and hours of reading. It was a season of familiar joys and new discoveries. Exciting adventure and delicious boredom.
Upon our return from our final jaunt, however, I was ready for routine. I eagerly sat down with the calendar to map out our Fall. As I noted the events, engagements, and activities to which we have committed; sifted through the flurry of Fall wedding celebrations taking place from coast to coast (and points in between); and reviewed new professional opportunities that have presented themselves in recent months, my enthusiasm began to evaporate. The season had yet to begin and already I felt overextended and overwhelmed. Week by week I witnessed as all possible windows for a spontaneous coffee date with a friend or a lazy family weekend closed one by one.
My craving for the security of structure battled with a desire to carry forward the delicious ease of Summer. As I sat in the tension between the two, it occurred to me that what I really need in this season is neither a rigid routine nor a free flowing spontaneity, but a rhythm that incorporates both - a stable but flexible underlying design that provides predictability AND space for improvisation.
So I started over. I considered questions: What activities and commitments truly nourish me? What commitments give - rather than drain - my energy? How can I serve and contribute in ways that bless our community without leaving me depleted?
With those answers in mind I began saying "no" and "not now." I passed along enticing, but impractical, professional opportunities to fellow teachers. I declined invitations to appealing, but inconvenient, events. I decreased the number of enriching, but exhausting activities for the kiddo. I crafted (what I THINK will be) a more sustainable rhythm. With windows to connect. With space to be still. And an acknowledgement that when the balance shifts too far in either direction, I can revisit and revise.
Whether your Summer was full of delight or characterized by chaos and unease, Fall presents a wonderful opportunity to reset your rhythm - to pause and choose intentionally what elements will support you in living the life you desire. Join me in anticipating - and enjoying - the season to come...
Last month we enjoyed our annual escape to the mountains with dear family friends. In the weeks leading up to the trip each year both families create and execute a detailed plan to ensure we have everything we could possibly need to eat, wear, and play for the week. With cars packed to their limits, we set out for the nearly four hour drive with logistical details and mental lists still swirling in our heads. But within an hour of arriving, our lungs are full of mountain air and our hearts are light. Before long, we lose sight of any agenda we had for our time together and experience a powerful shift into a more restful, peaceful state.
It was in this blissful mindset that my husband and I set out early one morning for a family "nature walk" with our budding explorer. Having become familiar with the wildlife in the area over the past five years, we prepared her for sightings of bears, deer, unique birds, and unfamiliar plant life. Less than five minutes into our walk, however, she spied a small worm making its way s...l...o...w...l...y... across the road. My husband and I acknowledged it and proceeded with our mission, but she was transfixed. "I think it's a baby worm! Where do you think its mama is? Can we follow it?"
My initial inclination was to push back. There are so many far more interesting things to see! We have worms in D.C. We haven't even reached the beginning of the trail. Let's go! I tried (calmly) to impart this sentiment, but she was having none of it. So we stopped. And followed a worm.
I would love to tell you I was able to tap into her sweet and sincere fascination with the simple creature. I tried to be fully present with her in that moment, but it was to little avail. I fell immediately back into planning-executing-checking-boxes mode and impatiently scanned the horizon for something more "special." I wanted her to see the beauty of nature I knew lay just steps ahead of where we stood.
It wasn't until we returned to the house and she regaled our friends with an elaborate account of our worm sighting that I was seized by a pang of regret. With the benefit of hindsight, I wanted to rewind time, abandon my agenda, and share her wonder. While a worm isn’t MY idea of unique wildlife, it was special in her eyes. And that should have been sufficient.
How often does our (often misplaced) focus on a particular vision of how things "should" be cause us to miss a beautiful moment? How many times have we failed to fully experience something special with someone we love because of our unwillingness to appreciate the simple pleasures in life?
As we enter the final month of Summer, I encourage you to pause, set aside your agenda, and open your eyes - and minds - to the simple joys around you. I am committing to let go of what I think is “best” and allowing the day/journey to unfold in surprising ways. Won’t you join me?
I recently had the good fortune of reconnecting with a dear friend from my youth. I remembered her fondly as a remarkably talented and accomplished young lady, and her path has continued along the same trajectory for the 15 years since we were last together.
We made plans to meet for tea while she was passing through our nation's capitol. I had a general knowledge of her aims and accomplishments, and as the date approached, I engaged in some social media sleuthing to fill in the blanks.
My initial enthusiasm began to wane as I envisioned our conversation. Here is a woman who not only pursued her passions but also excelled in the execution. From her prestigious academic pedigree as a student and professor at the most elite institutions of higher education in our country to her ambitious efforts to change the way music is experienced, I found myself feeling inadequate. We shared many interests in our youth and started our journeys at an academy focused on empowering young women to pursue - and achieve - their dreams while contributing to the greater good. She was doing just that. And I was doing...what exactly??
I entered our date with trepidation. She looked marvelous - more confident and composed than in our youth - and as I learned more of the details of her current station in life, I was in awe. Dividing her time between my beloved Big Apple and the idyllic climes of Northern California. A heady romance with a leading intellectual. A thriving career in the arts and academia. Achievements. Acclaim. Accolades.
But as we spoke, something within me shifted. It was wonderful to celebrate her success. It was captivating to consider an alternative present that more closely mirrored hers. But my desire to make excuses and justify my current path disappeared. I began to relax into an increasing certainty that where - and who - I am today is where - and who - I should be. I found myself at peace.
Each of us has a different path to follow, but we all share the same journey. Your life may be exactly as you imagined it - or even better than you dreamed, but no one is immune to comparisons. Next time you find yourself seized by the temptation to measure yourself against someone or something external, can you instead embrace and celebrate who and where you are today? Can you free yourself to experience peace?
For the better part of the past month, our nation's capital has been on the receiving end of record rainfalls. It started with SEVEN STRAIGHT DAYS of precipitation - much of it in the form of thunderstorms. After a brief two day reprieve, we were plunged back into gloom, where we have remained, wet and crabby (with no end in sight...).
Spring rain is to be expected, but awakening day after day to yet another grey sky - another day of cancelled outdoor activities - another flowering plant surrendering under its own waterlogged weight - begins to take a toll on even the most ardent all-weather-is-good-weather enthusiasts.
Despite my own well-documented disdain for all things rain-related, I tried to make the best of it. I donned my rubber boots, grabbed an umbrella, and charged out into the gale. I took the babe for a puddle-splashing stroll, patted myself on the back for commuting by foot despite the downpours, and force-marched my family to the farmer's market on Mother's Day. But on each and every occasion, rather than returning refreshed, I ended up soggy and frustrated.
While commiserating with a client, she pivoted, "Oh well - there's no point in complaining about something we can't change." The simplicity and veracity of her statement silenced me. She was right, of course: grumbling is no more effective in changing the weather than in transforming other inevitabilities in our lives. Your baby will eventually grow up and leave home. Someone you love will hurt you. You will hurt someone you love.
Whether we are inconvenienced by something as trivial as the weather or devastated by a significant loss, sometimes we simply need to abide in our discomfort and acknowledge our lack of ability to change circumstances. Yes - there are times to fight and refuse to accept no for an answer. There are occasions for pep-talks from your “better” self. But we too often waste precious time and energy battling something over which we have no power.
We all encounter circumstances beyond our control. Next time you find yourself up against something inevitable and unpleasant, how will you respond? Can you release your resistance? Can you preserve your precious time and energy for what matters most?
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...
As a child I LOVED to perform. From school plays and assemblies to dance and voice recitals to various sporting events, if there was a chance be in the spotlight, I was the first to volunteer.
Fast forward a few decades, and that couldn't be further from the truth. I still love performance, but I am far more comfortable in a supporting role - or the audience. As a Congressional speechwriter, I learned how to help others shine and share their message. My favorite part of the process was the performance of the finished product - which I enjoyed from my anonymous, out of the way perch.
So when an opportunity recently presented itself to appear ON TELEVISION to share the benefits of yoga for women experiencing infertility, my first instinct was to politely decline. As much as I love helping women who are struggling to start a family, television means lights, cameras, and an audience far larger than the small group and one-on-one settings in which I usually present such information...
As I began to dismiss the offer, a little voice within whispered, "Yes it's scary, but are you going to let a little stage fright get in the way of reaching people who need help? And would it be so bad to gain a new skill set?"
So I said yes, and the next thing I knew I was discussing timelines and talking points with a producer. While I was excited about sharing tools and resources with a new audience, I remained terrified by the prospect of appearing on screen. As the day approached, I began to second-guess my decision, but when I arrived at the studio, I took a deep breath, walked onto the set, and gave it a try.
Perhaps not surprisingly, I survived the experience. And while it wasn't perfect, it also wasn't a disaster. It may have even been somewhat...fun. More importantly, minutes after the segment aired, I began to hear from women who were eager to learn more and others who were grateful for the reminder they are not alone in their struggles. While I am not seeking to repeat the experience anytime soon, I will be that much more prepared should another opportunity present itself in the future - and I am glad to have pushed past discomfort and experienced a little growth along the way.
Opportunities to grow often appear quite frightening, but we have much to gain by summoning the courage to try. Next time opportunity knocks, can you answer the door? You might be surprised by what you discover...