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CAN vs USA; ME vs HIM

We sat side by side on our couch, enthusiastically cheering for opposite teams during the gold medal Women’s hockey game. I was screaming at the Canadian women, “Set up and SCORE!” My husband, Kurt, was chanting “USA! USA!”

I am competitive. I am also Canadian, born and raised in Toronto. My husband is American, born and raised in Des Moines. Neither of us likes to lose. But for some reason, his rooting for a different team was getting under my skin. Kurt doesn’t even care about hockey. He should be cheering for Canada to support me. He should always have my back.

My husband wasn’t doing anything wrong. In fact, he wasn’t doing anything at all. He was literally just sitting there, cheering on his country. But I took his stance personally. I felt like he was cheering against me.

Fine, I thought. If he is going to cheer for USA, then prepare to be crushed.

Many of you know the outcome of the game: Tied up in the 3rd period at 2-2, the gold medal final went into sudden death overtime. After twenty minutes of 4-on-4 play, the score was still tied at 2-2. Then everything stopped while they re-surfaced the ice before a shootout. In a shootout, one player skates with the puck straight at the goalie. “Nail-biting” isn’t dramatic enough to describe the tension. It felt more like “arm-biting” or “arm-and-leg biting.”

Each team gets five chances to score a goal, what officials call “a winner.” This time, at the end of ten shots, both teams scored the same number of winners. The game was still tied.  

By now it was 2:30 in the morning in Toronto, and past midnight in Boulder. Kurt and I were no longer looking at each other or speaking to one another. We were leaning forward with the skaters, and diving for pucks with the goalies. Then they began a second, sudden-death shootout: five more shots on goal each. Finally, the American women scored one more goal than the Canadians. Game over. USA won the gold.  

I slammed the door. I stomped around the house. I turned to my husband and said, “You’re American and all Americans are obnoxious.”

“What?” He looked at me, concerned. The “polite and friendly” Canadian was yelling aggressively, and stereotyping her own husband.

In that moment, I felt angry and helpless. When I feel helpless, I attack. When I feel empowered, I connect with others. Note to self for the future: Can I create a feeling of empowerment by deliberately connecting with others, rather than letting helplessness take over my body and my voice?

Kurt was just doing what he always does: cheering for the underdog. This time, the underdog was the United States. When I make my husband stand for all men or all Americans, I objectify him. But I don’t ever want to be objectified. I have to be able to empathize with him on a calm, sunny morning, and also during moments of high stress, if I expect to be treated with respect and compassion.

He wasn’t cheering against me; he was just being him. I want to let go of my expectation that unified means “the same.” Kurt doesn’t have to be the same as me or the same as some fantasy husband to be the right guy for me. We are different. I want to let him be who he is and be fully who I am. If I begin there — we are different — there is a better chance of us finding our unique ways to battle life’s struggles with unified force.

Love,

Susie

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(photo credits: Usman Malik/Flick’r & Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

 

 

 

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The Solution is Not Self-Help

I should have sent this post out before Valentine’s Day. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. I should be more focused. What’s wrong with me?

Earlier, I passed a neighbor in the grocery store and she looked at me strangely. I immediately went to the first seven things I must have done wrong. Am I wearing pants? Did I not respond to an email? Was I supposed to pick up her daughter? Did I forget her birthday? Is she sick and I didn’t reach out? Did I talk too much last time I saw her? Am I supposed to somewhere else?

I have an inner critic who takes her job really seriously. She has me thinking, I’m selfish. I’m lazy. I’m distracted. Floral, Hawaiian pajamas are not okay to wear to the store.

Turns out, my neighbor didn’t even notice my pajamas. And I didn’t forget her birthday or her daughter. She forgot her glasses at home. She wasn’t looking at me strangely. She was just squinting, because she couldn’t see.

This month, I am learning to be kind to myself. Kristin Neff, a psychologist and researcher out of the University of Texas in Austin says that self-compassion is really no different from compassion for others. When you notice that someone is hurting, like the Olympians who fell during their figure skating routines, your heart responds with care and tenderness. You want to offer kindness to them instead of judging them harshly. Self-compassion suggests that we act the same way towards ourselves when we make mistakes or notice something we don’t like about us.

Too often, we don’t just say, “I did that wrong,” we say, “I’m wrong.” So how do we stop being so self-judgmental?

My friend and I signed up for a self-compassion class with a yoga teacher we both love.

“What did you get out of it?” I asked my friend.

“I don’t know. I spent the whole class thinking, I’m an idiot. I wore jeans to a class in a yoga studio.”

This is not a post about how we have to love ourselves first before we can love another. If that were true, I am not sure there would be any couples in the world. This is about how we can never really relax if we are always trying to fix who we are. The solution is not self-improvement; it is self-compassion.

This month, my goal is not to end the critic’s monologue in my head, because I am not sure that is possible. All I want is to catch her unkind thoughts faster, recover quicker, and not spin out so often.

We can’t make the negative, critical thoughts go away. We can practice First-Aid: apply pressure with both hands to the bleeding places and hold steady. Say, “Ouch.” Say, “Suffering is a human experience.” By thinking about how others are suffering at this same moment, we gain perspective. We step out of self-pity and into our common humanity. Finally, we give ourselves kindness and say, “I’ve got your back.” If we don’t have our own backs, no one else will.

When my friend admitted that she couldn’t stop thinking about how stupid she was to wear jeans, the teacher, Taylor White Moffitt, told the story of a southern woman she knew who would stop when she heard her inner critic and put her hands over her heart. Then she’d say with tender empathy to herself, “Oh, Darling! You’re suffering, that’s all.”

Today I accept that I am a contradictory, confusing creature. I scribble down these words in my journal:

This is who I am: I am lazy and I am disciplined. I am distracted and I am focused. I am a mess and I am inspiring. I am selfish and I am thoughtful. I have a bad temper and I am calm. I am fragile and I am strong. Oh, and I am a person who thinks floral, Hawaiian pajama bottoms are pants. This is who I am.

But even now, my inner critic is saying, “This blog post is very late.” So excuse me a minute while I stop, put my hands over my heart and say, “Oh Darling!”

Love,

Susie

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photocredits: Roses: LaSara Flick’r, Inner Art Critic: Slimdandy, Flick’r

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I follow Ben Franklin’s morning routine. Here’s why.

When I think about the future, it’s tempting to think we’re going to hell in a handbasket. But I’d be wrong. There are innumerable ways to make the world better. One is to start the day with a morning routine that asks a powerful question.

Humans have always felt that the good days are behind them and the times they are living in must be the worst. Ask the mothers of the middle ages when the plague killed twenty-five million people. Ask the generation of the late 1960s when they lived through the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., both Kennedy brothers, and an endless war in Vietnam. Is it really true that this is the worst time?

Maybe believing that we are living in terrible times makes us feel important. Or maybe we think it is motivating to believe things are bad and getting worse. I used to think that if I stopped feeling angry about the state of the world, I would stop caring. I pictured myself on the couch, feet up, eating bonbons. But not anymore. I know that anger works like sugar to give me a short burst of adrenaline, but I end up feeling depressed and helpless. Now I know that there is a motivator that is stronger and more lasting than anger. How can I believe that things will improve?

Let me tell you about a conversation I just had with friends in California. We were visiting them in Santa Barbara, over New Year’s, in the wake of the largest wildfire in the state’s history and right before the devastating mudslides. These dear friends, Linda and Tom Cole, have dedicated their lives as Humanitarian Aid workers in post-war regions of Africa. When things can’t possibly get worse in South Sudan or Uganda, they call Tom and Linda. The two of them match local knowledge with education to grow food and wealth in and out of refugee camps.

We ate dinner together. I was feeling pessimistic, a little depressed by the sight of black, lifeless hillsides after the fires. Then another friend at the table asked Tom and Linda about their vision of the future,

“Where do you stand on the spectrum of things are going to be great to things are going to be terrible?”

“I don’t ever really think about that,” said Tom without hesitating.

“C’mon–how can you not feel that things are getting worse and worse?”

“I see people, with 1-5% of the resources we have, waking up every morning, brushing themselves off, and walking forwards, prepared to do whatever it takes to make life a little better. If they can do it, we can too,” said Tom.

That conversation has me thinking. When we get up in the morning, we do what we can to make the future better for us and for our children. When things change, when we have fewer resources and comforts, will we just give up? Stop working to make the world better? I don’t think so. Yet most people, when pressed, are pessimistic about the future.

What works for me to take positive action is to ask this one question every morning: “What good shall I do this day?” And then I identify something small and doable to say out loud: “Write a letter to Moustapha.” (He is a friend who lost his house in the fire in Ventura, CA.) But my answer could be, “Be kind,” or “Call a friend in need.”

I stole the question from Benjamin Franklin. He kept the same daily schedule for years and documented it. This is what he writes about his morning routine, “Rise, wash, and address Powerful Goodness. Take the resolution of the day…and breakfast.” In bed by 10, he asked every night, “What good have I done this day?” Here’s the catch: it doesn’t work if you beat yourself up for not doing enough good. Because, as Jack Kornfield said, “If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.” (If you find you keep falling short of “doing good,” your daily goal might be too big. Be kind to yourself and make it smaller. For ex) “I will write the first sentence of that letter to my friend in need.”)

I love the questions, but I love the phrase Powerful Goodness even more. It names the feeling I have when I think of Tom and Linda. It names the motivating force I feel when I think of our kids. The future is made from millions of immeasurable moments of Powerful Goodness. So forgive me, I have to go now. I have a letter to write and breakfast to take.

Love,

Susie

(photo credits: featured photo: Kevin Thomas, Flickr. Schedule: Lifehack.org)

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Murder, Mystery, & Magic

I am a big fan of mystery and magic. I want our children to grow up unafraid of the unknown, even relishing it. When my daughter asked me to write a murder mystery birthday party for 12 of her closest friends, I responded too quickly, “Of course!” Here is a brave over perfect opportunity!

I’ve never written a murder mystery. I’ve never been to a murder mystery party. And the last time I watched “Murder She Wrote,” I had feathered hair and wore blue eyeliner, which is to say, a long time ago. Then I thought, this is not brave. This is stupid. 

“How hard can it be?” Those words are my equivalent of the ill-fated phrase, “Hold my beer. Watch this.” They should send off alarm bells and flashing lights in my head. But not this time. Our daughter was turning 12 on 12/12. It felt big enough to do something special. I went online to see if I could buy my way out of this promise. But she caught me.

“Mom! Don’t buy a kit. You’re a writer!”

“But I don’t know anything about murder mysteries!” I protested.

“You’ve got this,” she said, and patted me on the shoulder. She deliberately used the same words I say to her before every test and dance performance. And she knew that I prefer to fight boredom with “stuff to do with stuff there is” rather than to buy entertainment. She had me. I had to lead by example.

How’s this for leading by example? The night before her birthday, I went to my husband’s work holiday party and drank too much. We stumbled home and I couldn’t imagine working on the murder mystery. So what did I do? Instead of going to bed, I stayed up and watched Guardians of the Galaxy II, a long movie, starting at 11pm. With the kids. So everyone went to bed after 1 in the morning, a brilliant set-up for hosting a complex party the next day.

I woke up at 5 in the morning to finish the script. What came out was a mix of an escape room and a murder mystery play. The premise was this: The Duchess of Cantabarre dies a mysterious death and the guests are invited to her manor for the reading of her will. The guests were told ahead of time about their characters and encouraged to arrive in costume. They had to work together to figure out who killed the Duchess, why, and with what weapon. No one knew who the murderer was, not even the person who did it. To “unlock” the clues, they had to overcome challenges. Some challenges were easy: a hidden word search, and others were hard: a web of symbols and string to open a mysterious lock box.

The night of the party, I could have used earplugs. There was a lot of shrieking. At one point, we brought out a rope to play a team-building challenge called “All Aboard.” The girls screamed the minute we brought out the rope.

“Are you going to strangle us?” They shrieked.

“Maybe,” I answered.

The kids had a great time. I was exhausted. If I were to do it again, I’d make it looser, and leave more space for the guests’ creative, imaginative ideas. I was too concerned that it wouldn’t work, that something would go wrong. I forgot the first principle of mystery: trust. Instead of thinking of what could go wrong, why not imagine what could go wildly right? The kids didn’t solve the mystery, but they loved the challenges and the surprise ending.

I can’t help but make a connection between the mystery party and this crazy experience called life. It’s easy to get scared facing big uncertainties. We worry that that there isn’t a next clue, or if there is one, we’ll miss it. But I’m here to tell you what I told my daughter when she was nervous during the party: There will always be a next clue, and you will always find it.

I believe that if you live with bravery and deep trust, then life becomes an adventurous game that is our privilege to play. All we can do is move bravely from clue to clue and love the surprises and mystery.

I forgot the second principle of mystery, too: slow down. It’s so easy to get caught up in the busyness of making magic happen. But magic occurs when you take the time to soak it all in. After the party, Hazel and I lay on the couch eating cookies. I breathed in and out, and finally relaxed. I noticed how big she was, next to me. And I thought about how tiny she used to be. She has grown so much, and yet she still wants to lie next to me on the couch. That’s worth celebrating. Only, I think I’ll keep things simple next time.

**You can share the Murder Mystery by sharing this link: FREE Murder Mystery Party Script & Resources

Love,

Susie


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One Realistic Goal for 2018

I’m going to spend the year with Mary Oliver’s poetry. What can her words teach me about how to live? They remind me to slow down and look. Notice the hawk, but also the cold stones, and winter’s weeds. I believe attention is a form of prayer. So does Mary Oliver:

It doesn’t have to be

the blue iris, it could be

weeds in a vacant lot; just

pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try

to make them elaborate, this isn’t

a contest but the doorway

into thanks…

–Mary Oliver. From “Praying” in Thirst. 2006.

My resolution for 2018 is to Pay Attention. In 2018, I will know the names of all the plants near my home and the birds who leave their tracks on my windowsill. I will learn the names of the neighbors I don’t yet know. Knowing the names of things is the difference between familiarity and intimacy. I will also pay attention to my body, not just to my thoughts, and unlock wisdom.

Love,

Susie

 


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Cheers to making 2018 your happiest year yet!

photo credit: Blue Iris, William Warby, Flickr

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Why Guadalupe Reigns in my World

Today is Hazel’s birthday. It is December 12th, the day Mexicans show their devotion to the Virgin Mary, known to them as La Virgen de Guadalupe. Pilgrimages, parades, and dazzling fireworks are broadcast live throughout the country. Up until this moment, I was too chicken to say that I pray to Guadalupe because it sounds like I am saying I pray to guacamole. I also thought my intellectual friends would smile politely, but never speak to me again. But I am not afraid anymore. I believe that the Virgin Mary might be the most powerful woman in the world.

Ever since Hazel could talk, we have had a special tradition of waking up before dawn on her birthday and participating in a celebration of Guadalupe, no matter where we are. This morning I woke Hazel up at four thirty. She crawled out of bed and put her down jacket and snow boots on over her footie pajamas. We walked hand in hand through the dark to the Catholic church a few blocks away. When she was younger, I wrapped her in a sleeping bag and carried her. One year, I pulled her in a sled through the heavy snow. Every December 12th, the church’s large hispanic congregation dances and sings in honor of Guadalupe from five in the morning until seven, when the sun comes up. You wouldn’t believe me if I told you how many people turn out for this celebration in Boulder, Colorado. Hazel and I tried to count when we were in the church. Five hundred people? Four hundred at least.

The legend goes that Guadalupe appeared to Juan Diego in rural Mexico in 1531, at sunrise. When the bishop didn’t believe the story that this powerful woman would appear to a poor native, Diego unfolded his cloak. Rose petals scattered on the floor, and where they had been folded inside his shirt was now a clear image of el Virgen, below a moon, surrounded by light. Ever since then, Mexicans believe they are under the Virgin Mary’s special protection.

Hazel and I walked in silence, watching the snow sparkle under the streetlights. Everything else was dark. I led the way past the middle school and to the top of the hill. Then as soon as we crested the hill, we heard the drumbeat, a steady boom boom boom cutting through the icy darkness. Hazel took the lead and ran toward the dancers and music.

As we approached, it felt like we had gone through the back of a wardrobe and into a different world; one full of bright colors, lights, and the music of drums and accordions. Parking attendants did their best to keep the river of cars flowing smoothly. A young woman greeted us at the door of the church. “Buenos Dias,” she said and handed us a thick bulletin with the lyrics of at least twenty-one songs that would be sung that morning. She carried an infant in one arm and several bouquets of red roses in the other. Grown men paraded in through the doors and knelt to pray, wearing white jackets with sequined images of Guadalupe on the back. As soon as we sat down, children and teenagers in beaded costumes danced down the center aisle, shaking the leg rattles attached to their ankles.

When I was very pregnant with Hazel, I went into a used furniture store looking for a bed and came home with a painting. It was a very large portrait of Guadalupe wearing a blue cape covered in stars and surrounded by golden light. I had to buy it. I don’t know why. I didn’t even know who she was or what she stood for in those days. But I was drawn to her calm beauty.

At home, I hung the painting over the hallway in our apartment. As I did laundry or tried to reason with our toddler, I talked to Guadalupe. “Can you give me a hand through bedtime? Or I may start drinking heavily and that would be bad for the baby.” At the time, Kurt was living in another state tracking wildlife, while I was the assistant director at a small residential school in Vermont. I was alone, responsible for our two year old boy and the twelve teenage boys who lived directly above me, in one of the five dormitories on campus. Guadalupe’s mature, female energy was welcome.

As my due date came and went, I talked to Guadalupe nightly. It was as if she was on the other end of a phone line. I’d call her to say, “I’m scared. What if this baby isn’t healthy? I don’t know if I can handle that.” She just listened quietly. It felt good to talk to an adult, even if she was a painting. She was a funny kind of confidante, but one I came to rely on. It helped that she couldn’t gossip. At a time when I was feeling alone and unsure, she represented deep love and faith in the unknown.

My water broke during a dorm meeting. I stood up to say goodnight to the boys and water poured out of me onto the floor where they usually wrestled and play-boxed. The boys panicked. Teenage boys panicking doesn’t look like much. There is a rare moment of silence, then everyone runs away. One boy was sweet enough to walk me down the stairs. But he kept muttering, “I don’t know how to deliver a baby. I don’t know how to deliver a baby.” Kurt drove home through a snowstorm and we made it to the hospital in time.

Hazel was born early in the morning on December 12th. She came out screaming. I remember watching the sun rise pink through the window and singing to this tiny baby to soothe her. Then my dear friend Teza called from Collingwood, Ontario to say she had just given birth to a baby girl. Together we figured out that it was also Guadalupe’s “birthday.” What are the odds of best friends having their daughters on the same day, and not just any day, but the one devoted to unconditional love and healing? We often talk to Hazel and Rozlyn (our “z girls”) about the gift of being born under the protective fire of the most powerful kind of maternal love.

For twelve years, Hazel and I have been waking up before dawn on her birthday to honor Guadalupe in one way or another, usually with five hundred hispanic strangers. But I only recently discovered that Guadalupe, or the Virgin Mary, is revered by more people than Catholics. Muslim men and women are also devoted to her. She is the only woman mentioned by name in the Koran and her name appears more in the Koran than in the new testament. It’s not unusual to see young Muslim women in headscarves visiting the Virgin Mary at a Christian shrine. When asked, the women speak of her resiliency, her ability to prevail through hardships, and her example of love. That’s why I think the Virgin Mary might be the most powerful woman in the world and a force for unity and peace.

This is not the story of how I prayed to Guadalupe before my surgeries and promised that I would go to church every week if I came out alive. No, this is the story of how I am living each day as though I may die tomorrow and therefore I am no longer afraid to say I believe in Guadalupe. What I’ve learned throughout these challenging months is that it is silly to hold back love. I still don’t know where I belong; I have shopped for the right church/temple/mosque for years. But I do know that I can kneel before a divine presence like the Virgin Mary who stands for love. She is for all people, no matter their background or religion. Her compassionate gaze doesn’t suggest that one way is the only way, but instead finds room for all of our beautiful brokenness.

I reminded Hazel about Guadalupe’s unconditional love and protection right before I went in for surgery, when I was not sure I was going to come out alive. I wrote,

“Dear Hazel,

Every night, you sing yourself to sleep because you are afraid. Sometimes, you find your way through the dark into our room and ask to crawl in bed with us. Within minutes, I hear your breath deepen as you fall asleep. You say you feel safe next to me. But you are always safe, even if I am not around. Not everyone is born under such a fierce, protective gaze, but you were. When you feel scared, remember that you are not alone. Picture the rays of light reaching out from Guadalupe and surrounding you with protection. Dark, lonely thoughts may seem so close that they could touch your lips and take you over, but they won’t. They are bouncing off that shield of light. I am sending you that light and love. Guadalupe is also sending you her light and love. And you know what? To me, you seem to shine with a golden protective light whose energy says: all will be well. I believe that too; all will be well.

Love, Mama.”

This morning, Hazel and I stayed in the church for the dancing, the offering of candlelight and armful after armful of flowers, and then walked back home. It was barely six am. The streets were still dark. Kurt and Cole were tucked in, asleep. All is well.

Love,

Susie

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Dance with me

Stressed about the Holidays? Just Beat It.

Today I danced behind a tiny nun and a married couple in their eighties, wearing matching tank tops. Real people, not costumes. How did I get here? The other day I confessed to my friend Lisa that I wanted to beat holiday stress, and my tension around budget meetings with my husband, plus upcoming doctor appointments. She suggested I dance.

I have always loved dancing. When I was in my twenties and thirties and someone would ask, “If money and time were no issue, what would you do for a year?” My answer was always, “Travel the world and dance.” The catch is that now, my spine is fused from the base of my skull to just above my shoulders. It was a necessary consequence of removing the tumor last year. That means that there is a whole lot of hardware keeping my neck stable. And, since 70% of our rotation comes from those top vertebrae, I can’t move my head from side to side or shake it up and down like I want to when dancing. I can’t even strike the Stayin’ Alive pose with my right arm pointed toward the heavens and my face tilted forwards and to the left. My head just sort of follows my arm, like I’m wanting the disco ball to slap me in the forehead.

I wasn’t excited about going to a dance class and feeling how much mobility I have lost. I didn’t think I could take looking at myself in the wall-to-wall mirror, and seeing how stiff I am now. Nor did I want to be around other people, twisting and shouting and swinging their hair around like they were made of supple somethings.

This is also Boulder. I didn’t feel ready to be in the same room with superstars. Most dance or yoga classes you go to in this town, everyone looks like they just returned from a retreat in India or Mexico; they are tanned and smell of sand and lotus petals. They wear Lululemon tops and leggings with expensive mandala patterns on their thighs. So when Lisa said the class was at the local recreation center and not at one of the fancier studios in town, I felt less intimidated. I paid my $7.50 and went in.  

When I arrived in my sweats, a bearded man in his fifties wearing Adidas shorts and a tie-dye t-shirt showed me where the water fountain was in the hall. He asked me if I was there for Juliet’s dance class called Ayre. When I said yes, he smiled and responded, “I can’t imagine my life without it.” Then the eighty-year-old, married couple in matching tank tops marched right through the door of the room, up to the mirror, and claimed space in the front row. I tried to stay in the back row, but my friend Lisa called me forward. I didn’t want to move up, in case I caught my image in the mirror. I was chicken. But then a tiny, elderly nun in a navy blue track suit, still in her wimple and veil, walked past me and stood in power pose up front. I accepted her wordless challenge and moved up, at least into the middle of the room.

The music starts. First, soul tunes from Cee Lo Green to warm up followed by Blackstreet’s “No Diggity.” Before I know it, I am moving. My mind has no choice but to go along. It has to drop the to-do list if I’m going to keep up with the beat. I am counting 1-2-3-4 in my head and I can’t take my eyes off the nun’s quick feet. Then the songs get faster, the lyrics more explicit, and our instructor has us stepping right, left, forwards, backwards and punching the air. Several people in the class shout out “Yes!” when no one has asked them a question. About thirty minutes in, I am drinking the Kool-Aid and feeling it. I’ve left my holiday stress behind. I shake the parts of me that I can still shake. I feel loose, even sexy. I close my eyes. Then the group kicks forwards when I kick back. I hear a grunt, and turn around to see the bearded man bent over a little. I keep moving, knowing that I may have given the hippie a charlie horse.

Two minutes later, I find my new favorite dance move. Strut to the left, then strike a pose with the back of your hand to your forehead, Scarlet O’Hara style, like you’re saying, “Alas! I cannot go on.” It’s how I feel about the world sometimes, and the holidays, but turning it into a dance pose made me laugh at myself and my unproductive despair.


This time of year, I get caught trying to keep up with the Jones: I want the holidays to be perfect. This morning, it was good to try to keep up with a tiny nun instead. Going to the dance class was my “brave over perfect” move of the week. It only cost me $7.50 and an hour of my time to change my state of being from tense to free.

Joy during the holidays is dazzling, brilliant, and magnificent. It is also fickle. One hint of a cool breeze of perfectionism, and joy leaves the building. To invite it back in, try getting out of your head and into your body. Step together step, then strike a Scarlet O’Hara pose, spin, and shake it off. I’ll see you on the dance floor.

Love,

Susie

********

I love our Brave Over Perfect coaching group!! And we’re so thrilled to get so much great feedback. One participant just wrote:

“I would recommend [this group coaching] to friends and some of my own coaching clients, both for Christine’s teaching content and the group coaching experience, which helps people feel they are not alone in their struggles.”

If you’re intrigued, now is a great time to join us, as you’ll get two themes for the price of one. November’s three call recordings (about authenticity and dealing with difficult people) will remain online until the end of December.

We’re kicking off our next theme on January 1st, 2018! You’ll learn everything you need to know to succeed with your goals and resolutions in the New Year.  Learn more or enroll now.

Image credits: featured: betterhealthforwomen.com, Stayin’ Alive: dailymail.co.uk, dancing nun: b3ta.com, Michael Jackson: bet.com, fainting gesture: tvtropes.org.

***

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Do What Matters

I am home after two weeks traveling in Guatemala. A year ago, when I was recovering from multiple skull surgeries, I swore that one day I would return to the land of chocolate, coffee, and cardamom, and bring people I love there with me. My doctor told me that it wasn’t a priority. But I knew that it was. I want to do what matters with people who matter to me.

I spent one week traveling with my mom, plus Natasha, my dear friend, and her mom, connecting as mothers and daughters. The second week, I spent with my best girlfriends from childhood. We were celebrating our 45th birthdays (a year late), a whole year of health, and over thirty-three years of friendship. While we were there, a group of young, indigenous women graduated from high school, the first person in their families to do so.

Why Guatemala? Because the land and its people teach grace and grit. Three years ago, I met some remarkable girls from Starfish; an indigenous-led organization that gives girls the education and mentorship they need to keep studying despite being born with triple discrimination (female, indigenous, poor) and the practical tools to transform their communities out of poverty. I wanted my mom and my friends to meet these young women. I wanted them to experience the depth of inspiration that I felt the first time I met them.

While traveling, time slows and we slow down with it. Gradually, we shed our armor built from the busyness of life to notice the color of the hummingbirds. My mom wakes early and discovers orchids, roses, and jasmine plants just steps from her door. A fisherman asks me how long I have been in the country and I confess that I have no idea: A week? Ten days? I forget. I forget my age, too. I assume I am in my early twenties, because that is how I feel. My go-to feeling of responsibility is replaced with curiosity. I speak Spanish and listen to my tongue roll r’s in a way it hasn’t done in years. The funny thing is my voice feels more true in a foreign language, because I listen more intently and speak to connect, not to impress. This curiosity also inspires me to wake before sunrise, load my flashlight with new batteries, and head to the dock to watch a papaya sunrise over a green lake.

That same day, we are invited to a small town across the lake, into the home of Sara, a Starfish pioneer, just days before she graduates from high school. A few of her peers tag along. The house is simple with cinder block walls, a wood-fired stove, an outhouse, and a skinny strip of corrugated metal for a roof. The floor is immaculately swept. We sit knee-to-knee with the girls, Sara, Petronila, and Rosa, as they teach us to make tortillas. They giggle at our clumsiness, and urge us to keep trying. We share a meal of poorly-shaped tortillas, eggs, and beans. Then we share our stories.

The girls want to be doctors, entrepreneurs, teachers, and writers. I listen and worry that their dreams are too big, too unrealistic. I think, Maybe I should help them make more practical goals. Petronila, Sara, and Rosa describe their greatest achievements as moments of perseverance: “I am most proud of continuing to study even after my mom died,” or “after my dad got sick and couldn’t work,” or “after our crops were wiped out by a landslide.” I feel the emotion in my throat. I fight back tears. They have been through so much, and have every reason to give up, but choose instead to rise each morning and dig in to do what matters. In the narrow moments between working and caring for their families, the girls study. Lately, in my day-to-day life, I have been feeling tired and overwhelmed. I can’t access positive thoughts easily. I am full of doubt. But Sara, Petronila, and Mari remind me of the batteries I loaded in my flashlight that morning–they line up behind each other, facing positive. The girls inspire me to be tenacious and to keep doing what matters. Sitting there, I recognize that the problem isn’t that their dreams are too big; Could my dreams be too small?

Sara’s father speaks humbly, “I am so proud. My daughter is very smart. She sees solutions to problems quickly.” I look over at my mom who introduces herself the same way wherever we go on this trip, “I am Lyn, mother of Susie.” I let my tears finally fall, out of wonder and gratitude.

Later, my friend Alli says wisely, “If the land shapes who we are, no wonder Guatemalans are resilient.” She is referring to the way that the landscape is dominated by tall, volcanic mountains, deep lakes, and steep cliffs. There is no easy way to get around; there are no shortcuts.

We experience this fact of geography when the moms, the girlfriends, and a few Starfish graduates and staff members climb a near-vertical slope together to celebrate the Day of the Dead. To honor their ancestors, Guatemalans gather in families at cemeteries and hillsides. They roast corn and chicken on steel drums, and build giant paper kites, the size of two-story homes. They write messages on the kites or on pieces of paper that they tie to the kite tails. One note I saw said, “My only wish is that this message finds you, and that you are happy.”

The words remind the dead that they are not forgotten. Actually, most of the messages on the kites remind the living not to forget the gift of life. The kites are shaped like bears or the Earth, and often feature a woman at the center, surrounded by water, birds, and trees. We walk among the kites as three generations of women (moms, friends, and graduates), humbled by the people’s commitment to make something so beautiful that will be gone tomorrow.

I buy a small kite for 20Q (about 3 dollars). My girlfriends and I are determined to fly it, but we are lacking skills and such basic equipment as kite string and a tail. We try anyway to get it into the air. It reminds me of when we first met at age 12, just like the Starfish girls, entering 7th grade at a large public school. Together, we made impossible things happen. In the 8th grade, we ran for student council and when we won all seats except the top one, we convinced the newly-elected president to step aside and let us steer the direction of the school without him. I think he handed the reins over because he saw how much work it was to make change happen. But we kept our eyes forward, on the possibilities and impact. When we asked the principal for our own office at the back of the cafeteria, we didn’t doubt that he would say yes. We were already picking out paint colors for the office walls.

As teenagers, we were stubborn and overly confident, brace-faced and brave. I remember painting our new office walls blue while planning the first-ever fundraiser to support families devastated by a tornado. I remember licking hundreds of envelopes with letters inside to every parent, trying to get the 100% approval we needed to host dances at night at the school. Somehow, we did it. We accomplished more stuff too; I just don’t remember all of it. What I do remember is the feeling I still have when I am with these friends traveling together over thirty years later: that anything is possible. I tell Rosa and Sara this story because I want them to know that if they work at it, their friendships won’t end when they graduate.

When our kite won’t fly, we try again. I ask a man for a little string and he generously shows us how much to use and how to attach it securely. Next the moms toss us advice as well as plastic bag scraps to help build a kite tail. My friends Natasha and Teza get the kite in the air, but it crashes down with force onto the ground. We get the kite in the air again, and this time it lands like a hat on the head of a little boy. He is surprised, but unhurt. The locals smile at these foolish gringas who won’t give up.

When nothing works, my girlfriends and I pool our resources and find another kite. I scribble a note and attach it to the string. It says, “We will not forget how much family matters, how much friends matter, and how serving others allows us to do what matters. Thank you for the gifts of life, perseverance, and shared time together.” This time, the kite launches easily into the air and stays up, sending our message high on the wind.

***

Love,

Susie

This month in the group coaching program, we’re focusing on how to dig deep and accept ourselves as we are.

It’s only $20 to join our live coaching calls, thriving online community, and online resources. We’ll talk about how we often need to muster considerable courage to lead our most authentic lives—and work together on just how to do that. Learn more or enroll now.

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How to be a kid again

How To Be a Kid Again

Recently, some of my friends with older children were lamenting that the days of trick-or-treating are over for them. But why? Does it have to end when you turn a certain age? My friend Deb doesn’t think so. Last year, she put on a wolf mask and a fake fur coat and went out on Halloween. “When you’re 5’2,” she told me, “you can trick-or-treat forever.”

I love Halloween. But my appreciation for it really has nothing to do with candy. I like the childlike invitation to dress up. I love the idea that you can throw on a wig or a beret and a mustache and Voila! You are instantly anyone or any thing you want to be. There’s the imagination phase, where you spend time wondering what you want to become, and then there’s the creation phase, the scramble to pull the pieces together and get up the courage to go out in public as, say, a BLT sandwich. I once dressed up as a BLT. Another time, I painted cardboard until I was a bagel, and then I cut foam into a misshapen circle to be a “Queen” Bolete mushroom. Those were in the category of things I liked to eat. Other years I went as Katy Perry or Grover, the blue muppet from Sesame Street. They were in the category of someones I wanted to be. Dressing up is about as creative as it gets; you make something out of nothing. Even if your costume comes in a plastic bag from Amazon.com, it’s still magical if you own the character you’ve decided to become. Take my friend’s three-year-old son Jaxson, who wasn’t just Tigger, but T-I-Double G-Errrrr.

This year, Halloween had a certain poignancy. I was not at home and I missed my kids, but I also missed all the children in the neighborhood, dressed up and believing they were animals or superheroes or superstars. Then there was the heartbreak of seeing the children at Mass General hospital. Every morning when I show up for my radiation treatments, there are always kids in the waiting room. They are doing chemotherapy and radiation at the same time, so most have lost all of their hair and are doing several energy-sucking, nausea-inducing sessions a day. I have come to know a few of them: two-year old Clayton, five-year old Aïsha, and three-year old Felicia, or Feliz (not their real names). These children go joyfully into the treatment room and come skipping back out. They don’t weigh down their experience with worry and premature grief. The other day, Aïsha found a toy xylophone, banged on its bright tin keys and belted out for all of us in the waiting room, “Everybody, yeah, eve-rrry-body is IMPORTANT!”

But it was Feliz who told me that the light around our radiation machine can change colors. I just assumed, in my grown-up way, that it was always blue. But noooo…this thing has a remote control and there are multiple shades of neon. It even has a “Disco Mode” where the blue light switches to pink to yellow to green. When I found that out, I had an idea.

On Halloween morning, Feliz came running over to me in her bright superhero costume, pulled out her pacifier, and said with a big smile, “I’m Supergirl!”

“Yes you are!” I responded and we flexed muscles for a while.

Then she asked, “What are you?”

“I’m a Disco Queen,” I said matter-of-factly, in my blonde afro wig and disco-ball earrings.

“Oh,” she said, and popped her pacifier back in her mouth before flying away. I turned to her mother and said, “Feliz is teaching me how to bring joy to my radiation treatments.” “All of us, ” she responded, “She teaches all of us so much.” 

Inspired, I felt lighter going into my treatment. Maybe I could even have some fun. I seized the remote control and put the lights on “Disco Mode” then I asked the nurses to change the Pandora Radio station to ABBA and I danced. Not for very long, and not very well, but still, I was dancing in the radiation room! The nurses laughed and said, “You’re being such a kid!”

“Thank you!” I said.

And thank you Feliz, Aïsha, and Clayton for teaching me how to embrace the joy that is in every situation, no matter where I am and what I am doing.

Happy Halloween everyone!

** Release your inner kid again and find JOY! Join our new Brave Over Perfect coaching group; our next one begins Nov. 1st. It’s only $20 for 3 calls, plus an online classroom full of resources, and access to an online community of smart people with solutions. Learn more here: Brave Over Perfect Coaching.
*****

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What Does it Mean to be Brave Over Perfect?

Susie:

In the summer of 2016, when I received some horrible news about my health, I sent my family camping and sat on my bed for two days, spinning in thoughts of despair and sorrow. “I’m going to die and never see my children grow up. I’ll never write a book. We’ll go broke.”

After 48 hours of fighting like Muhammad Ali against my diagnosis, I did something radical. I asked, “What if I accept my situation? What would that feel like?” It felt TERRIBLE at first. My thoughts rushed in to yell at me, “You’re going to give up? You’re so weak!”

So I tried something new. I meditated on each of my thoughts and realized that what was causing me suffering was not the tumor that I could not feel in my body. Instead, my thoughts about the tumor were killing me, even before I spoke to a specialist. I needed to stop blindly believing everything I was thinking. I was going to have enough real physical pain to deal with; I didn’t need to make it worse with my thinking!

Then, something strange happened: I noticed that there was no difference between the thought “I’m going to die young,” and “I’m going to come out of this better than before” except for the way those thoughts made me feel. The relief I felt when I recognized this truth was enormous. I felt big, light, and free. I even laughed.

The minute I laughed at my most desperate thoughts, they lost their hold on me and seemed to disappear. It was as if they knew the gig was up, and moved on to someone else: “C’mon guys, let’s go bug another middle-aged woman who believes us.” Accepting my situation, while questioning my thoughts before letting them go, was making enough space in my head for wisdom.

Wisdom said, “No matter how bad your diagnosis, you still have a choice. You can spin and believe the stories that fill you with panic and despair. Or you can choose to see them not as reality, but just as stories.” I wrote down eight words in my journal: I choose joy over fear, brave over perfect.

What does it mean to be “brave over perfect? To me it means radically accepting myself and things as they are, and moving forward anyway. I am discovering that the world is far friendlier without my scary thoughts driving the bus. I procrastinate less and take more risks. I don’t need to please others as much anymore. I write and post my work publicly. I’ve gone from believing that my writing is not worthy of an audience to feeling, Oh well. It is good enough.

I, too, feel good enough for the world. I say no without guilt. For example, I just said no to a party that we go to every year. I called my friend to tell her honestly, “I love your family. I’m sorry I won’t be there. Sunday is my best writing day.” My friend laughed and surprised me by saying, “Good for you. Let’s go for a walk later instead.”

The best news? I feel freer and happier now than I did before my diagnosis.
* * * * *

Christine:

I wake up at 3am as the wind roars outside, rattling windows, pelting the house with pine needles and seed pods from the trees. I feel panic; hot, dry winds like these started the recent Northern California wildfires. Have we prepared enough for an emergency evacuation?

Less than a week into the horrific wildfires near our home, I had to leave town for work. The fires raged only a few miles away. Evacuees and their pets filled our house. People we knew were losing their homes left and right.

To make myself feel better, I typed up three pages of detailed instructions for what my family should do in case of fire or earthquake. Everyone in my family knew that the unspoken title of this little manual was “Memorize This in Case Mom’s Not Here to Tell You Precisely What to Do in an Emergency.”

I further tried to soothe my anxiety about leaving home in the middle of a natural disaster by making my family practice an emergency evacuation. Tanner volunteered to take care of the family heirlooms. I drilled him, dead serious: “Which are the high priority photo albums?” Macie, who shares my ever-present desire to control everything, asked clarifying questions about our family meeting place.

Molly was drawing on her ankle with a ballpoint pen. “Molly! Pay attention! When you get Buster into the car, what else do you need to make sure you have with you?”

My husband rolled his eyes.

Now, two weeks later, I am lying in bed in the middle of the night, again away from home. This time I am with my family in hot and dusty Ojai, California. The dry winds howl against the house. I know fire is an always-present danger. I try not to imagine the hills around us bursting into flames.

And then I slowly realize: Oh. My. God. No one is home to execute my detailed evacuation plan in case of fire. We would be safe, but like so many families we know, we would lose absolutely everything, the carefully crafted (and now laminated) emergency plan included.

Until recently, I’d thought that I’d more or less conquered perfectionism. Perfectionism, I’d become fond of saying, is a particular form of unhappiness. Thank GOD I’m not a perfectionist anymore.

Hah.

While it is true that I am no longer as afraid of making a mistake or disappointing others as I was in my youth, I have obviously not yet rid my life of perfectionism. I’ve just turned it outward, to the world, and especially to others.

Every time I try to control anything other than my own thoughts–the weather, my husband, my children–I’m sending a message to the world and the people around me that they are not good enough. This absolutely is perfectionism, and indeed, it is a particular form of unhappiness.

No matter how hard I try, I cannot control what is happening outside of my own head. Click To Tweet

No matter how hard I try, I cannot control what is happening outside of my own head. This makes the world we live in tremendously uncertain. And because I am human, uncertainty makes me anxious.

Although I often forget it, I know that soothing my anxiety by trying to control everything and everyone doesn’t ever work in the end. The only thing that does work is acceptance: to accept that life (or a particular circumstance) is tremendously uncertain. Or maybe not what I wanted. And also to accept my feelings about any given situation.

For example, I accept that there are wildfires raging, and also that I feel sad and anxious about the destruction that is all around me. Acceptance is not the same as resignation, and it’s definitely not despair. It’s okay to prepare for the worst while hoping for the best.

Most importantly, acceptance is about simply trusting that it’s going to work out better to meet life where it is, and move forward from there, without trying to manipulate or control everything and everyone.

This not-controlling business? It is not for the faint of heart. Acceptance takes a huge amount of courage.

Neither Susie nor I have fully recovered from perfectionism. Perfectionism is a little like an addiction, and recovery from it is a little like sobriety. We take it one day at a time.

What Brave over Perfect means to us today is this: We choose to accept uncertainty and take action from a place of trust. Saying yes to life and all of its unknowns now feels relaxing and expansive. It’s like finally having a great night’s sleep and waking up with wings.
* * * * *

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Our Brave Over Perfect coaching group is a highly effective and extremely inexpensive alternative to life coaching and, for some people, therapy. If you’re interested in personal growth, this is less a lot less work than reading a book (and at only $20 for three calls, it’s totally affordable).

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