Masterpiece

11817183_10206405009697407_8440405729264954038_nWhen love and skill work together, expect a masterpiece. — John Ruskin

I’ve been thinking about how we are each responsible for our own care.

So often, so many other things and people come first: boss, kids, spouse, parents, friends. We beat ourselves up for not hitting the mark, for not being everything we can to them, not realizing that we can’t even come near that (unrealistic) goal if our focus veers so very far away from ourselves.

We pay lip service to the “Take some me time” concept. But in general we put ourselves at the bottom of the to-do list. “Me” is the line item we let slide, the one that can wait.

We treat hearts, our minds, our bodies like a tin can or a paper bag: disposable, temporary, unimportant. We should treat ourselves like a masterpiece — fragile, rare, special — and care for ourselves in kind.

This takes two things: love and skill.

The first step is being kind to yourself.

Most people are used to being hard on themselves, noticing every flaw and every slip-up and then punishing themselves for it, over and over and over. They’re so willing to let other people pile on with their actions and comments — so willing to let other people’s issues cut to their quick. They eschew boundaries completely and leave themselves open to any hurt that might float their way, or they build a wall so tall and strong that nothing is getting in or out. They dismiss their feelings and opinions as worthless, not valuable. They work so hard to make others happy that there’s nothing left for them.

Being kind to yourself is a choice. You can decide to take care of yourself, to love yourself, to know yourself better. There are lots of ways to do it. Eating better. Exercise. Therapy. Meditation. Books. Music. Friends with a ready shoulder and ear. Taking real, quality time away from work and other responsibilities. Considering what you love and what makes you happy, and making it a priority to get more of that into your life. Making all of these things a priority — scheduling them in like you do everything else, all the meetings and errands and things that don’t matter nearly as much.

Then you need skill. Tools for creating the proper boundaries — ones that leave space around your protected center, your heart, but that are also porous, allowing you be open to other people, to life. Tools for identifying your emotions and learning how to engage with them and move through them instead of letting them control and hurt you. Tools for learning how to let go and believe that the universe has your back. Tools for learning to engage with yourself, the people around you, and the world, so that you can feel real joy and freedom.

The most important part? Engaging with yourself. That’s what we let ourselves look at the least, what we’re least practiced at.

It’s a huge responsibility, but we need to take it on if we want our experience here on earth to be as full and deep as it can be. And truth be told, shouldering it is not nearly as exhausting as avoiding it.

You don’t have to do it alone. There are people around you who love you and will be happy to remind you of it, who will tell you in minute detail exactly what’s amazing about you, whenever you need them to. (To that end, I highly recommend a regular Dharma Dinner.) All you need to do is reach out and ask.

All the work will be worth it. Feeling yourself transformed into a masterpiece is true bliss.

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Don’t Make Assumptions

It’s been a while since I raved about the book The Four Agreements, by Don Miguel Ruiz. Last year I wrote about the first agreement, Be impeccable with your word, and the second, Don’t take anything personally.

The third of the Four Agreements is Don’t make assumptions.

Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness, and drama. With this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.

Once again, it sounds simple, but it’s not, quite. It can be scary to be straight with someone, especially if they’re wound up tight. But consider how much grief you could avoid, for yourself and for others. Think about how often you get bogged down in things because you assumed someone meant something by a look, or a comment, or an email. Think about how many times a friend has told you another friend did this, said this, and asked you what you make of it, or urged to you agree that the other person is a jerk. It’s also true that we often make assumptions about other people’s actions based on our own issues and feelings, though we may not even be aware of it.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could all just look one another in the eye and say “What did you mean by that?” or “I was hurt by what you said” or “It made me angry when you took credit for the work I did”? Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could just clarify complicated things? In so many instances, a potentially charged situation could be quickly diffused.

I just did a workshop with my older daughter through the Girls Leadership Institute, an organization co-founded by Rachel Simmons, who wrote The Curse of the Good Girl, which you should read if you’re the parent of a girl, if you used to be a girl, or if you’ve ever met a girl or a woman. If you are female, I guarantee that you’ll see yourself in this book: as a schoolgirl, a teenager, a college girl, a woman. It’s about how girls communicate (or fail to), how we often sabotage ourselves and our friendships by not expressing our feelings or even letting ourselves feel them, by not letting others know what we need and want.

This workshop, for second and third grade girls and their moms, met for a month, once a week. The girls (and we) came away excited about their new pals and empowered to communicate better with their friends, their siblings, and their parents. The workshop literally gave them tools for standing up for themselves and being the wonderful, beautiful, authentic girls they are. Things like:

Say how I feel.

Ask for what I need.

Be honest.

Make eye contact.

Stand on both feet.

Use a firm, clear tone of voice.

Ask a question.

Apologize if you’ve done something to make the situation worse.

Remind the other person what it means to be a friend.

Instead of assuming a friend was “just kidding,” didn’t mean to hurt them, or that their hurt or sad feeling doesn’t matter–that they’re “too sensitive” or that they overreacted–they are now able to identify how something made them feel, talk about it, and do something about it.

Needless to say, these are skills for everyone, not just 8- and 9-year-old girls. I’m so grateful that Kate is starting to learn about this now, though, because it takes many of us a lifetime to figure it out. A lifetime of unnecessary anger, resentment, and hurt.

It’s so easy to see how learning not to make assumptions can indeed transform your life.


Spring Is the Cruelest

32325_10200524237241771_571497803_nUsually that’s something to say about April, but this late March is a doozy. My throat won’t stop itching, and now my nose itches too. Eyes are watery. The air outside feels toxic to my lungs. I hardly even want to look at a picture of a flower or a cherry blossom, much less be near one.

But it’s lovely out there. This is such an annoying combination.

Even without the allergy symptoms (which I only started experiencing maybe 10 years ago), I’ve always found spring-to-winter to be a difficult transition. It’s supposed to be amazing and joyful and a relief after the harshness of winter, but I often find that I have trouble coming out of my cold-weather cocoon into the sunlight. I feel like a turtle without a shell. It’s too much, too soon.

It’s interesting that this season of new life and new beginnings can also feel difficult. It truly is a big deal for the earth to wake up again and start the important, amazing business of growing new things. It makes sense that the change can feel a little overwhelming. Giving birth (not to mention being born) is overwhelming.

I’m trying hard not to complain too much or to lock myself away from the outdoors. This year I’ll attempt to take it in stride. This is my body waking up to the fact that things are starting over. There are drugs I can take to lessen the symptoms (and believe you me, I’ve already begun to take them).

Here are some new things I can celebrate:

— My girls just got their first bikes, and Kate taught herself to ride, sans any training wheels, in a day. Sara opted for the wheels but is determined, as always, not to fall too far behind.

— My tulips are coming up out front. I actually planted bulbs about three years ago that have come up again and again. That’s a pretty major gardening accomplishment for me.

— Also, my hydrangea bushes, which had a few rough years, seem to be coming back with a vengeance. They’re my very favorite blooms, so this is a triumph.

— I’m one weekend away from being done with yoga teacher training. This means that in a matter of months you could be taking a yoga class from me. That’s certainly something new and exciting.

— There are new beginnings in my yoga practice. I’ve been reveling in backbends lately. And today in class I realized that my sacrum is finally tipping forward when I sit in upavistha konasana (wide-legged straddle), something I’ve always been horrible at. The body, when coached gently and consistently, ultimately chooses to do what feels right and good.

So there you have it: My pledge to not be completely cranky for the next month (for my allergies always seem to resolve themselves by the time May rolls around).

Here’s to spring.


Holiday Quiet

These waning months of the year are heavy with meaning. I suppose it’s the cold and the way everything starts to turn inward to protect against it. We take all the joy and pain from the year, all the celebration and grieving, and we sort of plant it deep within ourselves and wait for the spring, when everything starts to bloom again. It’s a good time to center yourself, to sit with everything the year has brought, given, and taken away from you, and to contemplate it calmly and quietly.

Of course, the way we celebrate the December holidays makes this supremely difficult to do.

When I was growing up, my parents owned a store called Guth’s Luggage. It had been my grandfather’s business, and my dad took it over from his father when he died, before I was born. They sold luggage, purses, leather goods, travel accessories. Most of the year, this was sort of fun for my sister and me. We would go visit sometimes and “play” store, or hang out in the back room stealing sugar cubes from their dish and chatting up our parents’ employees. We loved the summer sidewalk sales, when we’d get to sit outside and help make change.

But December was hard. I noticed it more as I got older and could sense my parents’ stress more clearly. The pressure was on to finish out the year on a strong note, and of course during the holidays the store was crowded with more cranky and demanding customers. Some threatened to go to the mall, to the department stores, for better prices if we wouldn’t or couldn’t accept what they wanted to pay. My parents worked days and nights and came up for breath on Christmas Day, then dove back in the day after for returns.

When I was in high school and college I worked in the mall myself (at Express) and got my own taste of the annoyance and exhaustion working in retail can bring, even when you just have a part-time job in your teens.

The biggest thing that came out of all of this for me was a fervent love for the simplicity of Thanksgiving.

Now that I’m a parent, I appreciate and enjoy Christmas more again, because it’s for my daughters now. But I try to keep as quiet as I can during December. I do love decorating our tree and listening to mellow holiday tunes (Vince Guaraldi’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is my very favorite), and I celebrate with friends (my neighbor and I just hosted our second-annual cookie exchange party). But beyond that, I make an attempt to avoid the mall, especially when it’s crowded, and if we’re traveling, we attempt to fly at more low-key times (ha), or even drive, if we can (14 hours to Chicago is doable if you stop overnight).

This year it will be easy, because we’re having a simple Christmas at home, just the four of us. Then we plan to spend time with close friends on Christmas Day and over the New Year’s weekend. Just the way I like it.

It was a tough year for my family, and there is a lot to think about as it draws to its close. I look forward the new year — time to set a new intention and see what 2012 holds in store.


The Crux of Mothering

Mother’s Day used to mean figuring out something nice to give my own mom, or to do for her. An hour of flowers, homemade breakfast of questionable quality, saccharine presents, and “we love you”s — then back to mindlessly depending on her for everything.

These days, it makes me think about what a challenging, exhausting, but also exhilarating and satisfying job this is. And it makes me appreciate all the incredible women I’ve met in the past seven years — those I’ve commiserated with, cried and laughed with, shared cocktails with, run and practiced yoga with and established strong, close friendships with as we’ve grown into our new role together.

Having children changes your life in a lot of ways, most (all?) of which you are totally unprepared for. How would you prepare even if you knew to? I think intellectually we all know it’s going to make things different. But I don’t think I had any idea what a trial by fire it would be for me. It changed me down to the core. Perhaps it was always destined to be the experience that was going to help me figure myself out. I imagine it has that effect on a lot of women, though I’d never deign to say that it’s been for everyone what it’s been for me.

Becoming a mother challenged my idea of myself as a capable person. It made my M.O. of always having to be good at things, to master them, pretty useless as I quickly realized that this was one project I wasn’t going to be able to ace through sheer work, talent and brain power. Kate wasn’t a project. She was a little person whom I was suddenly responsible for 24-7. Motherhood wasn’t a job title with a business card and a nice view out the window of a Manhattan office. It was a daily slog, one that also included the benefits of a group of fellow moms of October and November babies in Park Slope, Brooklyn, a gorgeous park we could wander through with our coffee and sleep deprivation, amazing conversations with women I’d never have met if our first kids weren’t a few weeks apart in age.

And of course, that yummy little baby. I can still see her face in my seven-and-a-half-year-old.

There were a lot of lovely things about it in those early days, as I’ve written about here before. But as time went by and we moved out to South Orange and added Sara to our family, I struggled more and more. Adding another kid, as much as I loved and adored her, exposed my own flaws to me more and more. I struggled to consider myself a decent mom, a decent person. I had lots of other women around me who were in the same boat, and although we all empathized with one another, part of me, I think, just felt like I was the worst of the bunch — the truly rotten apple. I just could not do this job right, or well. I was doing my girls a disservice. Someone else would do so much better for them.

At some point I couldn’t hold it together anymore, and that was the beginning of the beginning. Therapy, my supportive husband and my truest friends helped me to see that my feelings were normal, even typical, and that Kate and Sara are fantastic, well-adjusted little people, despite what I thought I was doing to them. My daughters have helped me to really find myself under the guise I’d created over all the years of my life to present myself to the world. Not that it was ever a mask that hid the true me from everyone else; there were just some adjustments to make, ones that actually made life easier, and truer. And that made mothering — even the hard parts — feel so much more doable.

I thought a lot about my relationship with my own mother, and how it shaped me. It’s the central relationship of everyone’s life, isn’t it, for better or for worse? I adore my mom, and lately I’ve been witness to her incredible strength. For a long time I felt disappointed that she and I couldn’t connect the way I wanted us to. I often felt I was too emotional in her eyes, while she seemed not emotional enough to me. As I get older and see her as a person and an adult with a past and her own coping mechanisms, I understand that we both did the best we could. I never doubted her intense love and support. She did an amazing job with my sister and me. And now her emotional boundaries even stand as an example for me.

I’m grateful to be where I am and who I am. I live in a community of some of the smartest, savviest, funniest, most creative and just plain best women and mothers there must be anywhere.

Kate and Sara — well, what else can I say about those two. They have my heart.

Happy Mother’s Day.


Poser, Part 2

In lieu of New Year’s resolutions, lately I’ve selected a word for the year. It serves as a kind of touchstone for the following 12 months. (This lady Christine Kane has created a bit of a cottage industry out of the idea — if you want to select a word, her site might inspire you.) Your word might be something you want to remind yourself of, or a personal goal for the coming year. For example, in 2009, my word was expansion. Last year it was joy — and that worked out pretty nicely for me, I’m happy to say.

This year I picked a few — presence, openness, simplicity and empathy. And they ended up spelling another word: pose.

I know, it all seems a bit too adorable. But I swear I didn’t do it on purpose. I didn’t even think of them in that order. The first one I chose was presence, and the others seemed to add themselves on from there.

With presence I was thinking about being in the moment. Being present. Just being here now. That sounds cliché, I know. But I’ve learned that with some practice, accepting that all you actually can do is live in the moment gets easier, and doing so removes a lot of anxiety. Yoga and running have been good ways for me to learn how to do this — to just be where I am, feeling what I feel. Sure, my mind wanders sometimes in yoga class, but focusing on the pose, my breathing and my alignment tends to pull me back into the present. With running, I’ve learned that thinking about how much farther I have to go is a surefire way to get tired and want to stop. Focusing on where I actually am on the trail is better. If I’m tired, I figure I’m probably going up a small incline (I am from the flatlands, after all, so inclines affect me); once I get to the top and start going down again, it’ll become easier. And it always does. I’ve learned that if I just stay with it, even if I feel uncomfortable, I’ll get to a better place eventually, a more pleasurable place, where I’ll feel stronger. Worrying about that place or taking myself out of the moment I’m in doesn’t make it feel better. Just staying present does.

If I stay present, I worry less about upcoming interactions, tasks and events that I can’t do much about until they actually get here. It doesn’t mean I don’t plan, organize and prepare for things that need it. It just means I use my energy for what’s currently in front of me. If what’s in front of me requires freaking out, by all means, I’ll freak out. But it’s no use to me to freak out about something I haven’t come to yet.

By openness, I don’t mean take-your-best-shot, do-with-me-what-you-will, wear-my-heart-on-my-sleeve openness. I’m thoroughly done with that, thank you. It’s more about being receptive, with appropriate boundaries. It’s more like opening shades to let the light shine in and through, if I might borrow an image from Emma’s yoga class today. This goes along nicely with being present, now that I think about it.

Simplicity is about trying not to make things any more complicated than they have to be. There’s enough stuff piled up in life most days that I don’t really want to pile on any more. It’s also been about trying to be more minimalist in general — cleaning out or throwing away things I don’t need anymore, or at least putting them away or organizing them differently, so that I have more space around me. I’m fairly good at organizing my own head, so that’s been a good start. I’m finding that when I try to keep things simpler, they look and feel more beautiful to me, as well. And I feel more at peace, and more graceful as I move through the world.

By empathy I mean trying to be accepting about who other people are and where they’re coming from. Accepting that they have their own motives and limitations, even if I don’t understand them, agree with them or like them. Keeping in mind that I don’t need to — in fact, that I shouldn’t — take the actions and words of others personally every time. But regardless of that, still reaching out and letting my friends and family, all the people I love, know I’m here for them. That I’ll be present with them, and I’ll try to be open, and that I resolve to keep things simple.

Altogether, this pose isn’t nearly as challenging as it seems. It’s kind of a pleasure.