Healthy Habit: Spit it out!

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“Cervical cancer. You’ll need chemotherapy and radiation.”

This was the way my dear friend was told she was sick.  No emotion at all in the delivery, flung from across the room.  Like a clean, crisp swipe of a sword through the wisp of hope reaching for a false alarm.

“Do you have any questions?”  So many.  But even I, sitting as support, and rarely at a loss for words, had a difficult time imagining which to ask first.  So, we said no.  And the doctor left the room.  So much for my role.

I was dumbfounded.  How could an oncologist share that diagnosis in such a cold way? I imagined him breaking the worst news to people day after day, and I wondered how he dealt with such a difficult task. Maybe he had to numb himself just to cope. Regardless of his reasons, I wanted him to acknowledge my friend’s feelings, to sit next to her while he shared the news, and exhibit some sense of empathy.

Instead, it felt like there was no room or time for emotion. There were labs to be drawn, paperwork to sign.  My friend never shed a tear until she was alone at home. What happens to our bodies when we don’t feel safe expressing emotions? I know from personal experience that what goes on in the privacy of our minds directly influences the way our bodies function.

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During my pregnancy with my second child, I had silently stressed about my very sensitive boy having some sort of toddler breakdown when a newborn stole the show. I did realize that first kids survive the arrival of a sibling all the time, so I chalked it up to pregnancy hormone-induced anxiety and kept my craziness to myself.

Once I went into labor, my body decided not to cooperate. Despite laboring actively for more time than it would have taken me to walk a marathon, really slowly, I was stuck. Not even halfway there. As the hospital staff readied an operating room for my cesarian section, my brilliant doula quietly asked me if there wasn’t anything I was worried about. That I should verbalize any concern I might have.  I let the cat out of the bag and told her I worried that my son might never forgive me for producing a sibling.

Well, guess what?  Instantaneously, I became violently ill; one of the delightful signs that birth is imminent.  Well, imminent, as in after an hour of pushing.  My doctor was floored.  Note to self: do NOT stuff feelings.  Ever.

So what does that mean for my friend, for health care professionals that deal with sad situations every day, for worried parents or children, or anyone who happens to feel feelings? According to social psychologist James W. Pennebaker, talking or writing about problems or worries helps improve health. In his book, “Opening Up,” Pennebaker reveals that individuals who experience the death of a loved one frequently develop health problems the year following the death if they choose not to talk about it.  Those who are able to express their emotions end up developing significantly fewer health problems during that time period than their silent counterparts.

Actually talking about how we feel also helps us process and resolve fears.  One UCLA study took a group of spider-phobes and exposed each to a spider. Out of four groups, only the one in which subjects expressed their feelings about the spider (“I’m terrified!”) were able to move closer to it at the end of the experiment. Even using language to disempower the spider (“that spider can’t hurt me”) had no effect on the subjects’ fear.

So? Feelings should be aired out. Talk about them. Maybe not with the  person standing next to you in line at the post office; choose someone you can trust, and who won’t judge, correct or fix you.  It doesn’t mean the situation that created those feelings will be resolved, of course, but it may prevent any further harm that harbored fear, sadness, or worry can cause.

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If you’re not one to talk about your personal business, or your trusted, non-judgmental ear is unavailable at that moment, write about it instead.  You don’t need to show anyone else your writing, so if you’re not into sharing, this is the method for you. Take the time to put pen to paper when you are going through a tough time.  Write about the incident that upset you, or whatever you may be feeling, and don’t hold back.  Let those ugly, crazy, perhaps embarrassing, emotions spill out on paper, and if you want, destroy your writing when you finish.

It is so easy to shelve our feelings as we move through our days. For many, keeping busy creates a safe distance from those feelings, but the price of avoidance may be high.  For your own wellbeing, steel yourself and address even the hardest emotions at some point.  Sit with them, feel them, and express.  Moving them along and bringing light to them will make you happier and healthier.

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What if I have to eat lunch alone?

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Day two.  The calm, quiet of a mostly empty (my teen son won’t get out of bed for a while still) house soothes my tired mama soul.  Two kids back, one to go. The week leading up to the new school year worked me over a bit.  I’m restoring energy to prepare for the next first day.

Why is it that no one tells you that once you’re a parent, your children’s anxieties flutter even more frantically in your own gut, even as you comfort and feign confidence that all will be well? What if I can’t make any friends?  What if I’m not smart enough for third grade math?  Will my teacher be nice?  What if I’m the slowest running the mile in my P.E. class?  What should I do if my old friends no longer speak to me?  What if I say something stupid in class?  And for the grand finale of worries from out of the blue, Mom, what if you die before I learn how to drive?

It will all work out.  You will have friends.  You might be the slowest, but that would be okay.  You jam on the guitar. Remember?  If your old friends vanish, new ones will fill their places.  You are strong, and always becoming stronger.  You are smart.  You are beautiful, inside and out.  You will succeed. You are loved and supported.  I will eat my greens and exercise regularly.  And, I will drive carefully.

We shape teen brows.  We buy fun shoes.  We draw, we walk and talk, and we make up outrageous responses to hypothetical jerky remarks and questions. We cry. We sing silly songs, and blurt out private part names while in the car. Hilarity ensues. We hope and we worry.  We talk about practicing yoga together and meditating.

And I haven’t even started with my rising high school junior, switching schools for the first time since kindergarten.

How I wish I could install like software the wisdom I have gathered after surviving the downfall of friendships, falling down a flight of stairs as the cool kids sat on the sides laughing, the heartbreaks, being shoved into the lily pond, the mistakes.  It all passes.  It hurts for a bit, and fades away, leaving us more resilient, better able to discern who and what to make important in our lives.  To focus on each beautiful moment and let the ugly ones teach us and then, wash away.

We parents must be warriors of love.  Ready to face the ugliest, scariest, saddest scenes, and administer warm, soft, gushy love that will fill in the cracks left by worry, fear, and hurt.  We must remember to refill our own supply by loving ourselves just as ferociously.  Making space for quiet connection, dancing away the anxieties, running off the frustration, walking in nature, and dosing ourselves with whatever it is that provides the most joy.

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Perhaps, watching us plug into our own ever-flowing source of wellness will inspire our littles to do the same.  Eating lunch alone is actually not so bad.

Peace, please. Surviving summer.

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I am a big fan of summer. More time just hanging out and connecting with my kids, instead of herding them to school on time, policing homework, being a safe place to unload stress. Summer is a different, happier kind of busy. Until it’s not.

It’s not all laughter and sunshine. (I’d say rainbows, but rain is scarce here in California right now). All this togetherness also means more negotiation, mediation, coordinating, and, wow, driving. Okay, a lot of driving. Oh, and getting my work done in the process.

I find my valuable quiet time slipping away some days. Which leads to me feeling a bit less patient, less kind, and less present. (Telemarketers and “me first!” drivers, beware). It’s not how I want to spend this time, really.

So, back to my rising earlier than the others. Back to my quiet solo yoga, or listening to mellow music, or just writing while the sun rises. Back to noticing the sound of birds. I’m counting on peace to help me back.

Back to Life after 5 Days of Extreme Self-Care

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I recently took unprecedented action in my life.  It was the opposite of being on one of those reality TV survival shows.  I removed myself, for the first time in the 15 years since becoming a mom, from taking care of anyone but myself.  For 5 days.  Okay, that was kind of a lie.  Honestly, I was cared for.  Well, I still had to brush my teeth and shower.  Does that count?  It ROCKED.  The icing on the cake?  I engaged in this being-cared-for practice in the mountains of Umbria, Italy.

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This was my work.

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I was more relaxed than I’ve been in I-don’t-know-how-long. Ever, perhaps. Seventeen other women and I were sequestered away, freed up to meditate, express, dance, cry, hug, reflect and connect.  We showed up three times a day to savor delicious, fresh food lovingly prepared by a chef as we talked, laughed, and soaked in the views of lavender, rosemary, cyprus tress, surrounding mountains and abandoned, far-off castles. We walked and ate wild blackberries.  We made fresh pasta.  We tasted wines. We even had a day of shopping.  Oh, and we had massages.

Everything was planned and provided.  Really, I’m not sure a girl can be in a more nurturing environment than the one in which our lucky group of women was immersed for almost a week.  Heaven.  Our two lovely leaders, Christine Arylo and Kristine Carlson, teamed up their very different styles to help us identify and surrender those things that deplete us, and to receive more of what buoys us.  They helped foster a safe sisterhood that made us feel supported and connected.  I left that retreat full of energy, love, and optimism.

So, here I am, in the process of re-entry.  My precious family, who cheered and showered me with affection when I walked in the front door after returning, is back to a bit of bickering about chores and critiquing my choice of family meals.  Four days after returning from Italy, I got back on a plane with my 13 year old daughter and her two friends to see One Direction in concert at the Rose Bowl.  It was so fun to watch the girls bursting with joy and melting over these coiffed boys, but really, trust me when I say I probably paid sufficient penance for my time savoring quiet and relaxation. I’m not a great crowd person.  I may have even dropped a few quiet f-bombs in the middle of the pushing and shoving of that teenage estrogen-fueled frenzy.

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Do you feel the contrast in energy from the above pictures?

What’s a girl to do?  I don’t want my spirit to start rolling up into a cocoon amid the rush to get to appointments on time, less than cheery news stories, and the treadmill of busy to-dos of everyday life.  I want to live open and joyfully, despite and, perhaps, especially with the darkness that lurks in our world.

So here’s what I’m thinking might work for me.  As a regular practice, I’ve decided to:

1.  Make space.  Space in time and in environment.  I bought a sparkly watch while in Italy to remind myself that I am allowed to set aside time for ME.  In my life, this looks like waking up before the rest of my household.  It means taking time each afternoon before school’s out to break out my yoga props and drop into a restorative pose.  20 minutes should do just fine.

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It also means to keep the clutter to a minimum.  I don’t know about you, but nothing sucks the happy out of me quicker than a pile of stuff on my desk.  That nagging reminder that I have bills to pay, papers to file, invitations to answer is not ringing with joy.  I aim to clear out for a few minutes each day and make space to live presently without the burden of have-tos.

Another way I make space is to sit in my backyard and commune with our big old oak tree.  Its strength, stability, beauty, and patience soothes my soul in a way that’s hard for me to explain.  If I lived next to a creek, I know the sound of water would do the same for me.  Nature, nature, nature.  Always there to remind us that life goes on, even when an unanswered jury summons remains on the kitchen counter.  Life is bigger than our everyday tasks.  Finding a bench, a walking path, a flowering plant in our surroundings where we can go for just a few minutes each day can provide a gateway into our bliss.

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2.  Connect.  Yes, it would be nice to have our closest, most unconditional-love-filled people available to us at any moment.  Having these people on speed-dial is a great idea, but the reality is that connection can and should happen on so many different levels all the time.  It makes my day to hit the grocery store check-out line and know the name (and kids’ names) of the person helping me.  I love running to the dry cleaner and talking about family, life, and whatever comes to mind.  This week, my acupuncturist/therapist/friend and I laughed so hard during my session that his colleague had to shush us.  This is the stuff that lifts me.   Connection provides such healing energy, even though it’s rarely about baring your soul in a protected space, holding hands, and hugging.  Although, don’t get me wrong, I do love those sacred moments, too.  Especially the hugging.

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My guaranteed sources of unconditional love.

3.  Breathe.  (Does this fall into the space category?)  I always come back to this tool, but it always works.  Pause, breathe, and feel tension melt away.  Slow it down regularly.  It’s hard to feel inspired and joyful when you’re gunning it to your next appointment, fists clenched around the steering wheel.  Slow down and breathe.  Chances are you’ll get where you need to go just as quickly, and you’ll bring way better energy with you when you get there.  Which then helps you to connect.  And, it’s a lot easier to notice beauty in life when you slow down and breathe.  It’s there, at the ready to soothe your soul and dose you with joy.

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So, here’s to occasional get-aways that remind us how peaceful life can be.  And, here’s to creating some of that slowed-down, nurturing feeling in the every day.  Cin cin!

Hey! Let’s go Jolly Catching! 7 Ways to Boost Your Mood.

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Am I wrong in thinking this is what we most need right now?  Really, there’s been a lot to digest over the past week or so.  I’m not going to rehash it all, because we have continuous news stations that will provide examples at any given moment.  What I could use, and I’m guessing, you too, is a big old dose of the JOLLIES!

Guffawing, warmth, peace, hugs, ooey-gooey love, all up and over our everything.  I found myself happily mesmerized by a video of a cat in a shark suit riding a vacuum cleaner this morning.  And, truly, I am a committed dog person.  This signaled to me the need for a spirit cleanse.  STAT.

So, here are the best places I can think of to go on a Sunshine-for-the-Soul Safari.  I have no doubt that you have many other ideas, and I would LOVE to hear them.  Really, there will never be too many sources of jolly for this world.

1.  Your Friends.

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Let me qualify this suggestion, because not all people we consider friends will work here.  I’m talking about the friends who are your true-blues.  The ones who leave you feeling like you’re smart, gorgeous, kind, and loved.  There may be one or two of these precious people in your life.  If you have more, you should be buying lottery tickets regularly.  It may also be that this friend happens to be a dog, a cat, or a bird.  Frenemies, drama-seekers, and energy vacuums need not apply to the Soul-Sunshine Safari.

Once you identify and contact a friend of this rare and precious nature, combine with one of the following options, or just hang out for a talk.  Better yet, have a talk while feeding your body some sort of delicious and healthy food.  A double dose of yummy is always helpful.

2.  Mother.  Mother Nature, that is.

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Get outside and breathe some fresh air.  Contemplate clouds.  Listen to water running.  Look at a body of water, the bigger the better.  Climb a hill.  Sit under a big tree.  Watch grass blow in the breeze.  Let raindrops serenade you.  Dive into the ocean.  Let the sun caress your skin.  Pick ripe fruit and take a big old bite.  Harvest vegetables from a garden and  eat them with a meal.  Lie on the grass.  Walk on the grass barefoot.  Nature is a reliable source of peace and comfort.  I’m not saying you’ll be giggling wildly as you sit in a forest.  I’m pretty sure you’ll feel comforted, though.  You are an important and lovely part of a very big picture.

3.  Work it Out

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The power of exercise to lift a mood is well established.  That doesn’t mean you should go out for a long run if running isn’t your thing.  Or take a Pilates class if it makes you feel uncoordinated and you watch the clock the whole time.  Move joyfully.  What feels like play to you? Do that!  Even better, combine your happy workout of choice with one of the preceding suggestions and your results will be even better.

A good dance class taken with friends works wonders for me, and is my fallback.  I once practiced yoga in the middle of a majestic redwood forest, chanting and all, and felt completely renewed.  I might mention that this was with a group, all clothed, and in Mendocino County, where such an activity is totally acceptable and expected.

If an all-out sprint down the beach or around a track is cathartic to you, do that!  If you need some cheer, get up off the couch and move around.

4.  Laugh!  A Lot!

Hang out with those people who inspire laughter.  With whom you can let go and see the humor in everyday situations.  My favorite is to hang out with friends and start laughing so hard, our laughter becomes a  silent clucking, tears sliding down our cheeks, stomach muscles in a bind.  That kind of laughter must be like medicine for our souls.  Watch funny movies over dramas.  Go out and sing karaoke with your people.  Play Cards Against Humanity.  But, only with people who already love you no matter what comes out of your mouth, please.  This is a game that will get you rolling.

Alone and in need of a chuckle?  Turn on your computer and search the word “funny”.  Look through Netflix and Hulu for movies that make you laugh, or TV shows to make you smile.  My kids and I keep a good supply of Ellen Degeneres on DVR for light comic relief.  Whatever it is that takes you away from your worries for a bit should be kept at your fingertips for easy access.  Important stuff.

5.  Be Positive about Yourself

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You are amazing!  Own it!  Live it!  Self-depracation can be too much, really.  I’m not saying you should go out and have a parade in honor of yourself, but make an effort to gracefully accept compliments and appreciation.  When someone tells you how good you look in a certain color, or that your efforts have really paid off, say, “thank you.”  Let it sink in and swish around until you are a little bit taller with a little more color in your cheeks.  Save a little in your pocket for use at some later date.  If no one is around to notice the excellent action you’ve taken, don’t be afraid to give yourself a little “nicely done!” and a smile.

Also, when you look in the mirror in the morning and your eyes immediately zero in on a percolating pimple, take your focus to your shiny teeth, to the definition in your shoulder, or to your sparkling eyes.  See the good.  There’s so much there.

Are the voices of doom chanting at you as you head off to give a talk or interview for a new job?  Thank them for their concern, but remind them that you are a capable individual ready to succeed, but able to survive a fail.  No need to scare yourself out of reaching farther or trying new things.  Each day is an opportunity to step out a little farther from our limiting comfort zones.

6.  Be Positive about Others Too

Gossip is another joy-kill.  Eliminate any put-downs or criticism for a week and see how it affects you!  I bet you’ll feel better about life.  Remember that none of us are perfect, and we all do the best we are capable of doing at any given time.  Appreciate that you may be having an easier day or life than that person who gunned it to beat you to a coveted parking space.  It can’t be easy going around all day worried that there’s not enough.  Wish that individual happiness and abundance.  Lift others up whenever possible.  Make karma your bestie and not that other “b” word.

7.  Sleep

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I don’t know about you, but when I get less than my 7 hours of sleep, every issue of potential concern becomes a hairy monster breathing down my neck.  I also tend to find everything exceedingly irritating.  My behavior, I’m sure, is charming at these moments (ha!).

Sometimes, sleep is elusive when the world feels hostile or unsafe.  In times like this, I love going to a guided meditation recording (thank you, Deepak and Oprah), or just listening to soothing music.  Don’t forget to practice your slow, deep breaths.  Read a happy book.  Take a few minutes to rest with your legs up the wall before going to bed.   End your screen time an hour before going to sleep.  Make your room dark, and try to keep it cool.

Getting adequate sleep will make the previously discussed Soul Safari steps more accessible for you, and will lighten your load.  What do you do to make your days happier?

 

 

 

 

Aloha, Dad. And Aloha, Self-Compassion.

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Sometimes, the Universe decides it’s time for you to learn or practice skills.  You notice the same lesson or situation repeating itself until you figure it out.  I believe that if you open your eyes to subtle messages, support and solutions, they are usually waiting in the wings at the ready.  Well, apparently, it’s my time to further hone my self-compassion and quiet the droning voice of criticism and not-enoughism.  Universe, I hear you loud and clear, and I am working on it.  Dude.  Uncle.  Whatever.

Let me set the scene.  Last week, I was visiting family on O’ahu.  Yes, I realize the fact that my people are all in Hawai’i is a good thing when I make my yearly visit home.  My kids spend a week hiking trails tourists don’t usually visit, eating shaved ice known by locals to be the best, playing on uncrowded, breathtaking, and a little harder to find beaches and hanging out with other kids.  Not a bad deal.

For me, it was a little more complicated, of course, as visits home often are.  My dad passed away almost a year ago, and his ashes have been waiting to be scattered.  My sister and I had a distant and difficult relationship with our dad.  As an adult, I see that his life was bubbling over with challenges.  I can understand why he wasn’t fully available to anyone.  He drank, he cheated, he fought hard, and sometimes, he didn’t come home.  When he was home, it wasn’t peaceful.  Police showed up.  I went to sleep praying for quiet at home.  He didn’t remember our birthdays.  Not sure he was certain of his grandkids’ names.

When he was given 6 months to live, my father’s communication with us ramped up.  He told us he loved us.  He wasn’t afraid of death.  He donated his body to the medical school, and asked that we scatter his ashes in a bay that just happens to be a wildlife preserve with deadly currents.  Seriously, Dad?

A month before he died, his girlfriend of 20 years evicted him from her apartment.  He rented a room with a bed, a desk and a tv in an apartment with three men he had never met before.  He deteriorated steadily and relied on my sister to deliver groceries and do his laundry.  Hospice nurses checked on him, but there was no bed available for him in the facility.  He died sitting up in his bed, tv blaring, roommates home but unaware.  Not the best death, but somehow fitting.

Last week, my sister and I paddled a canoe out from the beach in our hometown early Saturday morning.  We shared memories, tears, and laughter, and forgave our dad for his dreaded fish stew, among other things. We remembered him singing happily along with the Beatles, the Everly Brothers, and Simon and Garfunkel. We prepped the water with flowers, and together, dropped his ashes, contained in a sea salt urn, into the ocean that he so loved.

My Guilt

Here’s where the self-flagellation comes in.  And trust, I excel at the self-flagellation.  Imagine each of these statements delivered with a pointing finger and head shaking, brows furrowed:

Didn’t Dad deserve to end up where he wanted?  The thought of hiking the rocky ridge to the water’s threatening edge with my kids scared the BeJesus out of me, but, really did he ask for much?  It was yet another disappointment in the picture of his life.

Was he scared and lonely as he left this Earth?  I flew all the way across the Pacific to see him before he passed, only to leave his apartment hours before he died.

Maybe I should have traveled back more while he was dying.  My sister was stuck with so much responsibility.

Should I have taken him into my home?

During our vacation, I brooded, I cried, I snapped at my family.  I wanted someone to take care of me.  I had to cancel a client call that was scheduled on a particularly rough day for me.  That was a first, and I didn’t feel like much of a professional.

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Here’s where I found support in unexpected places. I gratefully received it.

I decided earlier this summer to participate in an online retreat with two inspiring and rocking women, Christine Arylo and Kristine Carlson.  Immediately after I returned from this trip, our group call centered on the topic of Self-Compassion.  One woman shared her experience of choosing to cancel a work meeting so that she could be available to her family amid a collective emotional crisis.  It was an act of self-compassion. Necessary and forgivable.  I could so relate, having just done the same thing.  Thank you, Universe. I so needed that.

Christine spreads the message of self-love to women and girls, and Kristine, who exudes calm and grace, helps others navigate life and its rocky times with greater ease.  I had no idea when I signed up for their program that I would find both of these women so instrumental in helping me recognize and shake off my self-imposed guilt.  On our trip to O’ahu, the book atop the bedside table of our rental house was a collection of Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff writings by both Kristine and her late husband, Richard Carlson.  Bedtime doses of kindness, comfort, and inspiration.  Thank you, Universe.

Divine timing.  One of my most intuitive and present friends in Oakland just happened to text me a message of support as I drove to the cemetery to have my father’s ashes transferred into a biodegradable urn.  I was torn about where to scatter him.  I was upset.  Her words healed and lifted me.  The urn available for my dad was hella heavy.  That took the hiking idea out of the picture.  The mortician was a young, warm, and affable woman (another surprise) who assured me that I was doing the right thing.  Salve for the soul. Thank you, Universe.

I got the message.  I was supported. Now it was my turn to treat myself with kindness and compassion.

My dad’s story was his, not mine.  As much as I would have liked to give him the fairy tale ending, it was not to be.  Honestly, I was as present as being a wife and mother of three living across the ocean could be.  I called weekly and flew home as often as possible.   He would have been miserable at our house, having little patience for children and spaces in which he could not smoke, and being displaced from his home of over 50 years.

I thank my father for teaching me, in his own way, how important it is to be present for my kids.  I will do everything in my power to make my family know that they are precious, safe, and my priority.   Many of my childhood experiences have led me to choose to live in love.  I honor him with a legacy of presence and connection I hope he can find in his new journey.

I am at peace now.  I know I gave me as much as I could, without compromising my own family and wellbeing.  I know I did my best.

So, here’s what I suggest if you need to practice self-compassion:

Remember, you do the best you can in any given circumstance.  We are always learning and growing.  Each experience provides new lessons and opportunities to evolve.  You are being the best you at any given time.

Give yourself the benefit of the doubt.  Are you as generous with yourself as you  are with loved ones? Do you speak to yourself as kindly as you do your friends and family?  If not, what do you expect to gain from punishing yourself?  We learn more when relaxed and open.  You deserve love too.

If you seek guidance, watch for it.  It may appear in your surroundings in a lesson from a mentor, in a feeling you just know to be true, or in an image or message you seem to hear repeatedly.  Practice connecting to your intuition.  You’ll be surprised at how much it reveals.  The wise voice deep inside knows the truth, and if given the floor, will stand up in your favor.

 

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