When 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.
November is the month when I became a mother. Twice. Both girls have their birthdays this month. It makes for a fair amount of craziness, with parties, presents, and the December holidays right around the corner.
My friend Amie always sends a greeting to her mom friends for the occasion: “Happy birth day to you!” It’s so true — the occasion of your child turning a year older is a milestone for you, as well. You think about the events surrounding their entry into the world: how you felt, how it went, how long it took, the funny moments, the scary moments. Every year I remind each of them of the time of day they were born, and when we get to that hour and minute of the day, we acknowledge it. I do that on my own birthday, as well.
I think about how I handled motherhood then, and how I manage it now. How far I’ve come.
My girls are 8 and (almost) 6, and being a mother feels much, much better now than it did, say, six years ago. With a newborn and a 2-year-old, I was the very picture of a complete wreck. I was wracked with guilt over not being able to be 100 percent there for each daughter 100 percent of the time. That’s impossible, of course. Nevertheless, I flogged myself emotionally because I could not attain that level of perfection. I felt like I was barely keeping my head above water. Sometimes I’d go under, anger and despair flooding my lungs. When I emerged again, I’d be exhausted. I’d sleep (for as long as I could in those days with very young kids) and just desperately hope for the best the next day.
I crashed and burned, hit my own personal rock bottom. And then I started the careful climb back up. Yoga has been a huge part of that for me. It helped me find my center again — or maybe truly find it for the very first time. It helped me to learn balance, and acceptance, and to practice being in the present moment. It helped me to create a container for my emotions, a way to process them from a safe and strong place. It helped me to feel more certain when things are uncertain.
Today in class, my teacher Lisa’s words really resonated with my thoughts about motherhood. There is no perfection in the universe, she said; if everything was perfectly balanced, all we’d have would be stasis. And that’s impossible, because there’s always movement, always a pulsation, or spanda, starting with our own breath.
In nature, in the world, there’s never absolute perfection. Everything is always slightly off, slightly crooked or uneven. That doesn’t mean there can’t be balance; it means that in any given situation, the balancing point is different. We’re always trying to achieve that balance. But if we start from the assumption of perfection, we’ll never get there. Perfection is rigid, and rigidity doesn’t offer stability. We need a bit of leeway in order to find the balancing point. We need to be self-aware enough to know how much energy to apply to bring something into balance. Sometimes it’ll be more, and sometimes less. There’s no one thing we can do to nail it every single time. That concept doesn’t even truly exist.
As mothers we are constantly fighting against our need to be perfect, our need to compare ourselves to other women and the job they’re doing, and to beat ourselves up whenever we make a mistake or a misstep. We don’t always trust our instincts, even though with time and experience every mother realizes that her instinct about her own children is the truest and wisest voice she can listen to. What’s more important than striving for perfection is striving to know ourselves well enough that we can decide in each situation, in each moment, how much energy and exertion to apply in order to bring something that’s a little off into balance.
We’ve got everything we need. The one thing we really don’t need, that we should let go of with joy and relief, is the need to be perfect.
There’s a thing on Facebook right now that looks like a happy face, except it’s made up of letters, like a word search. You’re supposed to look at it and write down the first four words that pop out at you, which supposedly describe you. One of mine was “patient.” (The other three were charismatic, passionate, and sweet. Sweet?)
I know, it’s just some random Facebook thing. But patience has been on my mind this week. And I don’t usually think of myself as patient. I suppose I could have just as easily seen “impatient” in the word search. But I didn’t. That’s kind of interesting. I’ll take it as a compliment.
I just got back from Chicago, where I’m from, and where I went for a few days to see my mom, who is recovering from surgery. My aunt and uncle were generous enough to offer to let her stay with them while she recuperates, which was such a relief to my sister and me, since we are both on the East Coast and neither of us could get back home for an extended period of time. (Yes, we feel sufficiently guilty about it.)
She had a tumor removed from her intestine, and thankfully it was benign. But it was major, invasive surgery that also removed part of her stomach and parts of several other organs. And she’s a 73-year-old new widow. It’s a lot for one person to take.
As I expected, she was weak and tired. She wasn’t in much pain from the incision, which was good. But she couldn’t really eat — not because the thought made her feel sick, but because she couldn’t really taste or smell properly, she said. She was uncharacteristically down, which you would also expect. My sister and I even noted that the fact that she’s sad and frustrated, though it’s hard to watch, actually means she’s showing more honest feeling than she usually does (she is of the “it’s all going to be fine!” school of emoting).
I didn’t love seeing her sick and sad, of course. I tried to help her by offering some perspective on just how short a time it’s been since her surgery (three weeks this Wednesday). I pointed out that just from Thursday, when I arrived, to Saturday, when I left, she seemed better. I tried to help her stay in the moment and not get too frustrated about her tiredness and how hard it was to move the way she wanted to (she can get up and around by herself, and was doing laps in the hallway, but it was wearing her out pretty quickly).
She’s not generally a patient person. She always needs to be going, going, going. Her mind works that way too. Since my dad died in March, she’s been attending a meditation class once a week, which was really a huge step for someone like her. So she is practicing slowing down and being present. And who really wants to be present when the present sucks — you’re in a bed, you’re tired, there are tubes sticking out of you, and suddenly you feel old?
I really felt for her. But I hope, too, that a bit of what I said got through. Accepting her extreme tiredness and just letting her body have the rest it needs is really the best thing she can do. The body knows what it needs, and hers needs to repair itself extensively. It needs her to be patient with it, to let it do its work.
I did an okay job being patient myself, I think. Though she didn’t want to eat, I tried along with my aunt and uncle to suggest things. When she refused outright, it felt a bit frustrating, but I also reminded myself that it will come, in time.
It’s nice, and easy, to remain present when you’re somewhere beautiful, like the forest preserve near my home on a gorgeous fall day, where I was this morning. It’s harder when you’re in a bed in a house that’s not your own, by yourself, thinking about all the decisions you need to make and hoping and praying you actually will be okay after a surgery you really didn’t expect to take you down the way it has.
I hope she’ll be able to be patient with herself when it’s not easy to be.
There is a lot to be said for being deliberate. For making decisions from a calm, collected place. So many times we (or at least I) make the most critical choices from a place of panic and stress and heightened emotion, whether it’s warranted or not. But I’ve realized this: Aside from snap decisions made in an emergency, there’s next to nothing that can’t wait for you to gather yourself, consider, and then decide rationally.
I find that I can trust my instincts better if I first take some time to listen to them.
Most of the time when I just react, it turns out to be a mistake. We all have those moments etched in our mind, those situations we think back on and wish we’d waited — a day, an hour, even a second — before we acted a certain way or said a certain thing. There can be a lot of regret and guilt associated with reacting without thinking first.
My mother, a new widow, is feeling overwhelmed by all the things she’s had to do since my father passed away, only about six weeks ago. All the paperwork, thank-you notes, visits to the social security office. Then there are the larger decisions she has yet to make, actions she has yet to take, such as packing up his things, deciding whether she’ll move out of our house, deciding whether she’ll move out of the Chicago area. She can’t bring herself to go there yet, which I completely understand and support. She shouldn’t, yet. But I do keep reminding her that even the littler things (like the thank-you notes) don’t all need to happen right this minute.
Of course, the details keep her occupied, which obviously helps her right now, so there’s that. But to address that overwhelmed-ness a bit, at least, I always suggest to her that she slow down and take her time.
This is easier said than done, I realize. I used to be horrible at it. I was one big ball of reaction. It wasn’t always a total disaster, but I often felt like I hadn’t reacted in the best way I could, or the way I truly wanted to. It takes practice to take the time you need — and to let others know you need it, sometimes. It’s like learning to say no when you’re a “yes” girl. Ultimately, though, creating these boundaries for yourself gives you the space to make the choices that are right for you, and you’ll be more satisfied with the outcomes and even with your interactions.
This works on not completely critical moments too — on annoying little snafus, problems and disagreements that crop up in your daily activities. Recently a small setback in a project had me lying awake at night stressing out. I was trying to think of alternatives, and none of them seemed right. The issue wasn’t a big deal, but it was sort of the icing on a project I’d worked hard on and that I’m proud of. I wanted it to be great, not just good enough.
There wasn’t much I could do, so I didn’t really do anything but stew a bit — and then it all worked out. A friend’s brother had the solution, fixed the file, and just like that, the problem evaporated.
Sometimes, if you don’t do anything, obstacles just give up on their own.
It’s pretty great to think there’s power in slowing things down, in taking time and space. In actually doing nothing. If you enjoy being in control, you could actually look at this as a way of maintaining control, instead of feeling out of control in your premature reaction. By doing nothing, you are doing something.
It’s also a relief to realize you don’t have to instantly know the right answer or have the right comeback or have an inside line on exactly which action is right. I used to consider it my own personal failing that I couldn’t do that. But now I know I don’t have to. Really, that I shouldn’t.
Last year I was introduced to this very fabulous little book called The Four Agreements. It was written by a man named don Miguel Ruiz, who came by his expertise in ancient Toltec wisdom honestly — it’s basically the family business. He trained as surgeon but eventually went back to study with his parents. The Toltecs were known throughout Mexico thousands of years ago as “women and men of knowledge.” They had a city called Teotihuacan, near modern-day Mexico City, where masters (known as naguals) and students came together to study, explore and conserve spiritual knowledge. This knowledge was passed down through generations, through Ruiz’s family, for one, and he has distilled it into a wonderful list of four amazingly simple life concepts.
The book, which is readable in one or two sittings, has religious overtones that you can take or leave, or interpret in whatever way works for you, and it’s a little new-agey. But these “agreements” — which you are to make with yourself — are easy to grasp make an incredible amount of sense. They’ve been quite useful to me.
Agreement number one is: Be Impeccable with Your Word.
From the book jacket:
Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.
Instead of just reporting on what Don Ruiz says (you can read his book yourself, of course, and you should) — apart from the fact that “it sounds very simple, but it is very, very powerful” — I’m going to write about what I think it means.
Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. I like to think of this as choosing your words carefully. To do that, you need to actually think and consider before you speak. It’s so easy not to do this — to just start spouting off, or to have what you say come from a place of strong, raw emotion or insecurity. That’s what often gets us into trouble. It’s easy for the other person to misinterpret or misunderstand you. If you say only what you mean, to impart information and feelings without cloaking them in innuendo or other passive-aggressive stuff, it makes the interaction a lot simpler and more pleasant and useful.
Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love. So seemingly easy, but so actually hard. How much time do we spend listing our flaws to ourselves, telling ourselves we’re not good enough? Not accepting compliments and credit we deserve? Why not resolve to be kind when you speak about yourself, or even think about yourself? Yes, it’s a practice, but it’s a fulfilling one.
The gossip thing is interesting. You don’t need to be a mean-spirited shrew to indulge in gossip. We all do it. Sometimes it’s fun. But often — at least I find this for myself — it’s grounded in jealousy, insecurity, or other negative feelings toward the person or people you’re talking about behind their back. It doesn’t actually make you feel good, right? It usually makes me feel kind of uneasy, and downright yucky.
Not to gossip, but — I’m going somewhere with this. I used to have a friend who constantly talked badly about everyone we knew. I remember often smiling to myself and thinking, “I wonder what she says about me when I’m not around?” I mean, I couldn’t have been the only one about whom she had nothing negative to say. For her own reasons, which I don’t profess to know, this was her M.O. That friendship has ended, and in retrospect, that aspect of it was really quite exhausting to be around. Who needs any more negative energy than we already must confront and handle every day?
I like the word “impeccable.” It means “without sin.” If you try to speak impeccably, in the direction of truth and love, you’ll bypass those places where words lead you into the muck, where they make you feel bad, angry, jealous, uncomfortable, guilty. You’ll say only what you mean, only what needs to be said. It doesn’t mean you’ll go around talking about peaches and cotton candy all day (an editor once inserted those words into a piece I wrote, ruining any chance of my ever using it as a clip — oy!). Difficult and, yes, negative things sometimes need to be said. But you can choose to do it impeccably. I kind of love that.