Tag Archives: mindfulness

Self-care in This Chaotic Trump Era

Faye @ computer
photo by Marv

I have the privilege, twice a year, as an alumna of the Solstice Creative Writing MFA of Pine Manor program, to audit classes. This past Friday, I participated in an intimate community gathering in which Nicole Terez Dutton (poetry faculty) and Dr. Prabakar Thyaragajan (psychiatrist and poet) presented and led students, faculty and staff in a discussion of Writing as Balm, Armor and Resistance.

The Solstice group is diverse in gender, identity, age, and experience. United by the bond of writing, we are, as a group engaged, informed and sensitive to information and the world in which we live. To say that writers as a whole are more sensitive than most might be a stretch. Yet, I believe it to be true.

Writers read voraciously. Writers scan their universe, both wide and intimate, for the details of what is apparent and what is beneath the surface. Story, above all else draws us like a moth to flame. We watch on the subway, we listen at the train station, and in the coffee line at Peets. We observe couples, families, friends. Wired to story, we absorb and chronicle.

In this context, Nicole Terez Dutton set the stage to step back and identify all the variable assaults to our dignity as a nation, as a people of diversity, as a group of involved individuals struggling to live through and manage this wild, chaotic Trump era and its effects of what was once reliable and, for the most part, with precedence.

When she highlighted the U.S. Holocaust Museum’s 14 warning signs of Fascism and ticked them off, one by one, with incidents of this past year, we grasped the full sweep of the dangerous trajectory of leadership in our country.

We have to work against Fascism, we have to help each other to survive, she said.

In introducing Dr. Prabakar Thyaragajan, she said, we need strategies to be well, stay well, to be with each other.

In this spirit, I am grateful to share a brief account of Prabakar’s positivity philosophy of self- care.

  • All creatures deserve to be happy; should is a terrible word
  • Listen to the self; adopt gifting to the self; practice foregiveness of the self

I experienced delight when Prabakar said, the simplest way to listen to the self is to keep a journal (he keeps his on his phone, a novel idea to me). His directions to track sensations are simple and basic to the practice of mindfulness.

  • keep a close ear to the ground; give weight to the everyday experience
  • what does the first taste of morning coffee taste like? I am drinking my first cup as I write this: the taste is slightly bitter yet buttery sweet from the mix with coconut milk.
  • what does the walk in air feel like?
  • what does disgust feel like—i.e., I want to vomit when…
  • include mixed feelings—I often struggle with ambivalence and find it helpful to write them out and reflect on the pluses and minuses.
  • On foregiveness of the self :Not fair to judge thoughts and emotions which are not under our control. Okay to feel anger. Aggression is a choice.

Nicole ended with inviting the audience to respond and state how each of us are managing. Solstice writers stood and spoke out about their own struggle and efforts to bring self to the page, to speak to systems of oppression, to take on projects that are satisfying and not too demanding, to bring solace and sustained work to ourselves.

I shared how writing this gratitude blog sustains my creativity while trying to make a difference. I ask each of you reading today to add to the conversation. Please contribute your approach and point of view and write a comment!

ON GRATITUDE STRATEGIES

Faye in Reflection

Given the preponderance of awfulness—awful violence, awful weather, awful words, awful politics— over the past two weeks, I turn to a consideration of simple, effective gratitude strategies that can be helpful in shifting our attention away from the negatives that swirl around us.

  • Intentionality is the key
  • Decide on a practice
  • Make gratitude a habit
  • Select a strategy

In this post, I will review 4 four key research-based principles for turning gratitude into a lasting habit recommended by The Greater Good in Action Website https://greatergood.berkley.edu/article/item/four_gratitude_strategies

  • COUNT YOUR BLESSINGS. Select a dedicated notebook. At the end of the day, write in detail about three things, large or small, that went well. Spend time with the details of the why and how each event left you with a sense of appreciation, happiness, or well-being.

Over this past weekend, my 13 year- old granddaughter, Zoe, accompanied my son, Craig, for a visit. One night, she prepared caramelized onions and asked, if I had a pair of protective eye goggles she could wear while cutting onions. “Will swimming goggles work,” I asked, pulling a wide framed pair from my catch-all drawer. Goggles in place, she cut and prepared the Vidalia onions like a pro. I experienced such pleasure in watching how carefully she positioned the cutting knife and how patiently she stirred until she perfected the texture.

  • MENTAL SUBTRACTION. This is a “what if” exercise that results in expanding the sense of positivity of a positive event. Consider a positive event such as a job opportunity, the meeting of a friend, an educational achievement. Reflect on what your life would be like without them.

Where would I be without this blog? Without the blog, I would not have the ongoing inspiration or motivation to continue to expand my dedicated gratitude practice and to step up on a regular basis to impart what I am experiencing and learning. The effect is a sense of aliveness in the challenge of daily living in these unprecedented times.

  • I’ve written at length about my practice of soul tracking where I suggest choosing a place in nature and paying attention to what attracts you— sights, sounds, smells— and pausing to reflect and savor. Researchers have coined this process The Savoring Walk—noting a 20-minute walk by yourself once a week, ideally a different route each time, has lasting effects one week later.

I am grateful for my winding garden path and tiny frog pond. Every day brings new possibility as unexpected lily blossoms open in October and tall zinnias continue to bloom. A ten-minute very slow walk can shift my mood and leave me content and happy for hours after.

  • SAY THANK YOU. All forms of acknowledgement of appreciation to others can make a difference to both the giver and the receiver. Research indicates that the effect of writing and delivering a gratitude letter has the greatest positive impact on happiness one month later.

 Dear Readers, Thanks to each and every one of you for reading this post and bringing the possible practice of gratitude into your life. I hope you will choose one strategy to try with the hope that you will find a measure and contentment as you embrace a practice. As always, please share your experiences in a comment.

Soul Tracking 2: American Beech Tree

American Beech, 2016

American Beech, 2016

In September, 2004, I laid eyes on the gray lady American Beech for the first time. Truly, it was her single-eyed, plump mouth, her roots threading and dangling down the back hillside, her quietude that beckoned me to this piece of earth I have since called home.

She sits, queen-like, front and center in a grove of grey American Beech trees. Her leafy crown is wide and high. Joined with her siblings and kin, I feel sheltered under their verdant canopy.

All these years later, the gray lady still calls out to me— in winter, when the winds whirl about, her soft gray bark darkens and gleams; in spring, when her shallow roots swell with new shoots, and all during summer, when her leaves billow forward to offer pastoral shade, a sense of the sacred.

At the base of this hill filled with decades-old, low branching trees, a hidden cache across from the Charles River, I feel grateful, even blessed, to have embraced the task of steward. American Beeches, Fagus grandiforia, are the only species of beech native to North America. Before the glacial period, beech trees thrived throughout North America. It was common for Native Americans to choose the thick, smooth tree for tribal carvings.

American Beeches are survivors, little to be done, except for a seasonal misting of natural spray to ward off gypsy and winter months. In fall, the leaves thin out and turn golden. Unlike the maples and oaks, they do not shed their leaves in short order but linger. There is one tree, very large, on the line between my neighbor and myself. It sheds a few leaves weekly throughout late fall and all during the winter, leaving a small pile in the corner of the driveway, a reminder to attend to the whole cycle by collecting leaves for recycling into mulch.

Up close and even from behind my window in the midst of winter, the gray lady holds the promise of steadiness, calm, and beauty. Alex Hutchinson, writing “How Trees Calm Us Down, in http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/what-is-a-tree-worth, writes, “ a leafy tableau is more therapeutic than a drab brick wall–­–and puzzling. Whatever curative property the trees possessed, how were they casting it though a pane of glass?

Hutchinson aptly describes elements of my own soul-tracking, emphasizing the matter of attentiveness. “Your eye is captured by the shape of a branch, a ripple in the water; your mind follows.” To receive benefits from a tree, “the environment has to have some kind of stimulation to activate your involuntary attention—your fascination.”

Natural environments provide “softly fascinating stimulation,” and truly, that day in 2004, on the edge of retiring from my long-term psychotherapy practice, I was sorely in need of a soft landing. For the bounty of trees I am privileged to behold from every window in my present home, I am grateful to the beckoning gray lady American Beech for grounding me.

 

Power Through: That’s What Women Do

Shadow & Reflection Fall, 2016

Shadow & Reflection
Fall, 2016

Hillary, on antibiotics for pneumonia, attending the September 11th ceremony, looking worn and exhausted, almost faint from dehydration, worried me. The week before, the worry had begun as I watched how difficult it was for her to control a hacking cough during an essential speech. I was so concerned I wrote a message imploring her to take care of her health and to hydrate. The next day, I was relieved to learn about the medical mandate to rest and allow her body to heal.

How many times in my lifetime have I put my head down, clenched my teeth and powered through what, at the time, seemed essential. During my multi-tasking, mother-career, midlife years, it was a habit, a bad habit that ultimately took its toll in stress related symptoms. Like Hillary, it took a diagnosis, a knock on the side of the head, to step back and consider my daily choices.

This post is not about Hillary or my enlightenments from symptoms. It is about mindfulness, how its illusive quality, like antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, is an essential component of health.

This past Tuesday, I had lunch with David, my former training partner. For over a year, we had tried, but failed to pin down a time for our yearly lunch. When Tuesday came, he e-mailed me and I, him, just to make sure. Lunch with David is always pithy, funny and rich with stories.

At one point, we came to the topic of mindfulness, how intentional effort seems to bring the best result. I prefer movement— tai-chi, indoors or sauntering in the garden, spending time breathing in the sweet smells, touching the plants. David takes three deep breaths through key points of the day, often before a meal, which sets the stage for shifting his mindset to quiet and nourishment.

I was aware that all during my lunch of salad greens, bites of tomato and salmon, I was eating slowly and mindfully. Just bringing the subject to mind slows me down. As I write this post, my mind floats on images, my fingers on the keyboard follow. I am in a meditative state.

Mindfulness is the opposite of powering through. To power through, one focuses on a goal with little attention to one’s bodily needs— hunger, thirst, fatigue, or time of day.

“Creating space in the day to stop, come down from the worried mind, and get back into the present moment has been shown to be enormously helpful in mitigating the negative effects of our stress response,” Elisha Goldstein writes in Mindful magazine. http://www.mindful.org/stressing-out-stop/

There are many roads to Rome and so it is with mindfulness. Whatever it takes to downshift, to be in the moment and present is basic to the practice of mindfulness. In this hurry-up-news sound-bite culture, mindfulness to nourish our body and mind must be intentional and perhaps, as varied and balanced as one’s choice of foods. As for me, I’m grateful for the idea of adding David’s “three breaths” exercise to my daily menu.

 

 

 

On Two Requests: Procrastination and Upbeat

 

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal

Out of the blue, on the same day, I’ve had two blog requests—one, from Marisa, a nurse friend, who suggested the subject of “procrastinating,” and the other, from my husband, Marv, on “being upbeat.” I’m grateful and curious about how it will be to write about these two different words.

On procrastination— the most common definition is “to keep putting off something that needs to be done.” I certainly procrastinate from time to time. Usually, I have good reason, as did my friend. She used the word to describe her delay to confirm a pending plan between us. She had just returned from a trip abroad and was struggling with a cold. A full-time nurse, she had hit the ground running. To my way of thinking, the plan was in place. We had time to confirm, and she likely had all she could do to manage her work and personal commitments.

I am grateful to have the opportunity to tell her that sometimes, we give ourselves a bum wrap and are over critical of our behavior to others. In this situation, my e-mail to her arrived at a too-busy time and it took two go-rounds to firm up our plans. Nowhere along the path did I feel she was procrastinating. In fact, she was humorous and upbeat in our succinct messages.

Up beat is defined as “optimistic, a contented state of being happy.” When a puzzling or unusual event occurs, I try not make assumptions and to search for possible explanations. By widening the context and considering alternatives, I often arrive at a positive way of thinking about a situation.

Three weeks ago, Marv and I were awakened at dawn by an odd, rhythmic, tinny sound emanating from the solarium next to our bedroom. Marv’s first take was that it involved our heating system and called the heating company. It was a logical possibility given there were air circulation problems earlier in the month. A quick system check was negative, leaving the chimney as the likely source.

The next time  I was awakened, I bounded out of bed, opened the fireplace glass and bent down to listen. Waves of sound, like wings brushing against metal, vibrated down the chimney flue. I recalled last spring’s event, how a young robin had fluttered headlong onto one window for days, over and over.  Could this be the sound of another bird learning to fly? Could there be a nest near the metal critter-protector at the top of the chimney? Marv recollected that he had heard bird sounds accompanying the fluttery echoes some mornings.

For three peaceful days, the flutter went silent only to briefly return again this morning. Earlier this week, I noticed a red cardinal and his red-beaked lady kissing on a ledge by the back patio. Shortly, an even more vivid male cardinal joined the couple. I felt up lifted and upbeat at the fresh redness of his youthful feathers; there is beauty in silent flight.

 

 

Not So Foolish Worry

 

Post Storm Daffodil Bouquet

Post Storm Daffodil Bouquet

The third day of April, 2016, looks like, feels like, a January day. A winter storm blew in during the night— not the light and fluffy flakes of my recent Foolish-Worry post— but a wind driven, watery, stick-to-the pavement snow cover.

My effort at gratitude is fleeting. I worry for the baby tulips and flowering primrose shivering under the flower-pots I put down yesterday. I worry for the lily plants with nubile leaves and of course, the daffodils in full bloom matted down with ice. What will become of them?

By noon, the sun radiant, the lily leaves emerged, unharmed. The daffodils were barely visible, their necks bent, their blooms buried in snow. With gratitude, I watched a well-fed robin, fresh from a snow shower, pivot the plantings.

Mid-afternoon, I dressed for wind, wearing my purple fleece and snug-over-the ear cap. Pruners in hand, I clipped daffodil stems. I was gloveless and surprised at how cold the stems felt in my palm. Many of the blossoms, though frosted, were intact. Grateful, I gathered a bouquet of two-dozen to bring inside. Given that high winds and more snow were in the forecast for the next day, I savored them all the more.

The Alberta Express came through at night, bringing near freeze. At dawn, I checked the front garden from the second floor picture window. The picture was bleak. My garden was shrouded in snow.

It snowed all day long. April 4th might just have well been January 4th except for the yellow flashes of forsythia floating above snow puffs and the bud shapes outlined along tree branches. Yes, we have had similar storms in April. At my former residence, years ago, a magnolia in full bloom was severed by the wind. It recovered, thanks to good pruning. Twenty years ago, that storm seemed like an anomaly. My garden is teaching me otherwise. The warm winter, the frigid spring, the rapid temperature changes. This spring of 2016, so unusual and unpredictable, requires a different mind-set.

This was a week beginning with bare toes and flip-flops, which progressed to winter boots and snow gear. Bottom line, I get it. A little over a month ago, on February 22nd, the headline of The New York Times Science section read—“Seas Are Rising at Fastest Rate in Last Twenty Centuries.”

The article was casual in tone, but alarmingly specific in content. The Times wrote, “The finding are yet another indication that the stable climate in which human civilization has flourished for thousands of years, with a predictable ocean permitting the growth of great coastal cities, is coming to an end.”

I am grateful for the scientists who persist and are transparent in their findings. Denial is becoming less and less possible. As a gardener, I bear witness first hand. Yes, the daffodils survived as did most of the plants; but for how long? We can no longer avoid the presence of climate change or the need to do what we can to deter or remediate it.

 

 

Late October Light

Rosy Sky

 

Sun in ascension, food shopping behind me as I step out into dusk light, strands of rose-colored clouds stream the blue sky.

I go to my car, store my bags, grab my smart phone. Energized with delight, I run the parking lot, hoping to capture the rosy images, this unexpected moment of beauty. The timing — the day before we set the cloaks back an hour, propels my effort. This could be the last late-hour sunset I catch until spring.

Like the butterflies drawn to Buddleia blooms, I am drawn to bright light. On spring and summer days, I raise the shades greedy for each new spring arrival. I note the tone and texture of the sky, the morning doves rustling in the evergreens along the driveway, the first spurt of ferns in emergence.

Spring light makes me giddy. I sleep less; my mood is high. By August, the shade hovers over a third of the garden as the sun’s angle shifts downward. I rail at friends who declare that August’s arrival marks summer’s end, grateful for how the sun’s flame sustains the crème lilies, mauve phlox and red zinnias.

Plants and I have much in common. I also wane in low light. By mid-September, I start each day with a dose of my natural spectrum “happy light.” I liken its effect to the one-a-day iron pill my physician prescribed in my thirties. A daily flip of the switch fortifies my energy, keeps me focused and able to thrive during dark days.

A born and bred New Englander, I’m wedded to the unpredictable variety of seasons, the pleasure of newness. I recall my first winter trip west, a visit with my first cousin, Paul. We were in his Walnut Creek garden filled with wide-mouthed poppies, the whirr of humming birds, a profusion of azalea shrubs in bloom. The sky was flawless, the sun high.

“I miss the clouds. Don’t you get bored with the endless blue sky?” I asked.

“Not when I consider the option of endless gray skies in winter,” he retorted.

He had a point, I concede. There is no perfection, only choices and what we make of them. During my busy life as a mother and full time therapist, winter and grey skies were challenges to manage. As I aged, I became more aware of the effect of light on my well-being, how quite without warning, shorter, shadowy days leached my energy and triggered irritability.

I’m grateful for the lessons learned in my psychotherapy practice. I’m thankful to Lois, a colleague who introduced me to light therapy and instructed me in its safe use. I shared the benefit of my experience with clients who bought those early clunky models and received the equivalence of the sun’s rays all winter long. There are gifts from the universe, like rosy streaks at dusk infusing the spirit that make a difference.

 

 

 

 

 

Gratitude Nourishes

FullSizeRender

courtesy of Don Briddell, artist

Just as food nourishes the body, gratitude nourishes the spirit. I eat three meals a day; I seek out the experience of gratitude each day.

I experience gratitude as a bane against loneliness, the arrival of resonance—a welcoming, a pleasing, a touching of the heart and an appeal to my sensibility.

Gratitude is as gratitude does is a phrase I turn to daily. It prompts me to consider and reflect upon events, discoveries, happenings, and interactions, which spark gratitude and affect my sense of well-being.

How we experience gratitude is personal and imbedded in our personal stories. For myself, gratitude arrives when I interact with another person or creature and feel appreciative of kindness or benefits received or when I interact in an environment pleasing to my mind or senses.

The spring I turned 82 was a teeter-totter spring— wet, rainy and cold with occasional warm days in the seventies prompting trees to leaf out and burst with pollen. On a morning when my eyes wept and my head felt clogged with cotton baton, I watched two young blue jays play wing tag across my back hill.

The first bird, lithe and energetic, whizzed by when another—lighter, flightier—its movement as bold as its blue feathered body lit against the lime green landscape. My blood raced with the tempo of their flight. As if to assure me that indeed there were two, they launched their winged dance center stage —up and down and around the sheltered back hill for a full five minutes—to a riveted audience of one.

I imagined a nest, for they seemed quite at home flitting in and out of the oaks and American Beeches. My spirit soared with gratitude for their choice so close to the parade of kitchen windows. I felt alert, keener to face the day.

Late morning, I was startled by the sound of birds squabbling. From the picture window facing the front garden, I watched two robins in a sparked encounter. They shrieked and circled in a winner-take-all round. Like the jays, they were young, likely fresh from the nest. A resident robin couple has nested in the garden for years. In seconds, one of the adults swooped down to break up the fight, causing the offspring to stop their encounter and fly off separately.

What were the odds on a day when my body and spirit felt weighted down, I would notice and become captivated by two bird events? For a few engaging minutes, I stepped out of my miasma into the fledglings’ world where I floated into memory and my own family.

As a young mother, I delighted in my children’s antics. Like the small jays and robins, my son and daughter scrambled, flitted, and fought with such vitality. I miss their presence, my own youthful energy, the promise of wings, of things to come. They are now full grown and parents. I am grateful for my nest of five grandchildren and their promise.

Rebel Rudbeckia

 

IMG_Y. Rudbeckia1096

Two days before Thanksgiving, a lone black-eyed rudbeckia, surrounded by dead stalks and fallen leaves, blooms in my front garden. I bend into it and smile. November, west of Boston, I check the frost warnings with hope that my pint-sized yellow friend will beat the odds. I am uneasy in my selfish wish for nurturing temperatures given the wider implications of global warming.

Do I feel guilty for the enjoyment? Yes and no. This time last year, I wrote, “a warm day, in the 60’s, a fantastic day for gardening, my body seemed fluid, bent and moved with ease as I cut back most of the perennials.” No ambivalence in that note.

The late bloomer inserted itself between two large stones at the tip of the small pond. The full sun location, next to the front steps, is prime. All the surrounding garden plants, in lock step, died off while this rebel’s blossom invited me to check daily as to whether or not it would birth open.

Late fall in the Northeast; it is unusual to find a late spring perennial growing as if the season were just beginning. How could I not be taken with its sweet youth and wonder at the possibility of how long it would withstand the frequent dawn frostings?

I kid you not; I root for this rebel, take pleasure in its steadfastness. Yet, to experience pleasure makes me uneasy given that I am rooting for more temperate days for its growth and yes, my own selfish nurturance. The connection to this black-eyed sprout helps to sustain me during the autumn of my life when many dear friends are suffering from falls and terrible diagnosis. I am grateful for my sturdiness and ability to share what warmth I can, to try to ease their challenges.

Thanksgiving arrives in two days. 60-degree weather is predicted. I have no control over the air currents or their trajectory just as I have no control over who thrives. What I know is that I will join friends and family to give thanks around my daughter’s table for my bountiful connection to family, friends and to this earth.

Through daily gratitude writing, I have learned to notice and engage with the immediate relationships in my life, be they human, animal, plant or mineral. To attend is to be mindful and caring of another. The very act fuels the possibility of meaningful connection. I am grateful to share the story of my sprouting rudbeckia with the hope that whatever moves you as the solstice descends will be shared in meaningful ways.