Protect Your Spirit

I was listening to a radio show a few months ago just after the election, and the radio host was interviewing a minister about his view of the state of the world. This kind of interview would not normally be of interest to me, but I found myself riveted because the minister was funny and irreverent and not preachy at all. And he said something that I never forgot:  “Whatever you do, remember to protect your spirit.” That statement stopped me in my tracks because I had never heard the concept.  Lots of people talk about the importance of taking care of your body or your stress levels or your emotional health, but I had never had anyone tell me to protect my spirit.  To be honest, I wasn’t sure what he meant at first, but after the rancor of the last year–first with a mean-spirited election and then with all the craziness of Trump’s transition and first few days in office–I know now what the minister meant.  He meant that you need to buffer yourself against the insanity of the world right now, because it’s not good for your spirit.

We know that when our bodies are feeling run down or when we get sick, that we are weaker in other ways.  It’s hard to feel loving and generous when you’ve been up all night coughing.  I got a really bad cold recently that completely knocked me off my feet.  I ended up in bed for several days, canceling everything possible.  My body was grateful that I was able to stop and rest. We also know what it feels like when are emotions are run down, in small ways, like after a fight with our spouse or a confrontation at work, but also in large ways, such as after a divorce or death.  Sometimes writing in a journal can help or talking it over with a friend.  But if the stress is much bigger, it may take months or years to regain our equilibrium. Five years ago, my family bought a new home and sold our old one simultaneously in very complicated real estate deals (with a bridge loan so we could carry two houses) and then we renovated for two years, then I was in coaching school to get certified, and then we planned for and executed a six month trip through Asia and Oceania, while my husband did research and I homeschooled our kids.  All of it was important and wonderful, but the ongoing stress did a number on my body and my emotions due to the constant demands.  I developed unrelenting eye pain, which has forced me to slow down and look at how I can heal my body and my mind.

Now that every day there is bad news about the White House and Trump’s erratic behavior and decisions, I am acutely aware that my spirit is taking a hit from the constant barrage of negativity.  I read the New York Times daily and go on Facebook regularly, but I don’t watch tv news. Even still, I feel spiritually drained in a way that I never have before.  Emotional drain usually comes from something you can understand– a move, going back to school, extensive travel– and mind and body often go hand in hand.  But spiritual drain is another animal altogether, because it’s like a slow erosion of peace from one’s soul. I’ve always been a very up-beat and joyful person and very trusting of others to do the right thing.  Now I’m starting to question that.  Every time I go on Facebook, there’s one “Friend” or another who is RANTING about what happened today in the news and how we need to give money and march and petition right now.  Whether we like it or not, our spirits need tending as well, so that we don’t lose hope or become hardened and cynical, or just stop trying or caring, like the learned helplessness rats in the cage, who stop trying to eat the Fruit Loops because they keep getting shocked.  Many of us feel shocked by the fact that we have an angry, unstable president with access to the nuclear codes, who is single- handedly trying to dismantle so much of what we have fought for over the years.

The answer for all of us is to take a break from the onslaught of bad news, and do things that are life affirming and joyful.  It doesn’t mean that we can’t write letters and call our representatives.  It does mean that we choose to do what makes sense for us and let go of needing to plug into the hysteria.  For me, I’ve been going on long walks, meditating daily, taking hot baths with Epsom Salts (the magnesium helps clear negativity) and surrounding myself with positive people as much as possible. Yesterday, I got out my Bach and played piano and then went on a long walk with a friend and then played with her eight month-old baby. Babies have a way of putting everything into perspective; they know how to protect their spirits because they live in the moment and love to play.  Sometimes it’s easy to lose this as we get older, but if we have, it’s never too late to refocus on the things that make us happy.

To find your world stage, remember to protect your spirit.  If you start to feel down or out of sorts and don’t know why, it may very well be that your spirit needs tending.  Take time to be alone, go on long walks in nature, and turn to the arts to lift your spirit.  And if you’re religious, there’s nothing like singing an old hymn to set your spirit right.

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The Perfect Age

When my son was six and about to turn seven, he confessed that he didn’t want to become seven because it seemed like too much work.  Even though adults tend to view all of childhood as easy and fun, I knew what he meant.  Seven was the end of first grade and the beginning of second grade with real homework.  I told him that every age has good parts and bad parts.  I reminded him that when he was only five, that he didn’t have homework, but he wasn’t old enough to play on a soccer team yet and he couldn’t have sleep overs.  I think that made him feel better.

We tend as humans to imagine that another time in our lives was or will be easier.  When my husband and I were 35, we bought our first home and it needed a lot of renovations.  When we looked at the endless work and costs ahead of us, I do confess that I wished that I was 25 again.  After all, at that age, I didn’t own anything, except a used electric piano and a cheap bed, and I wasn’t married.  I didn’t have to deal with picking out china patterns or pleasing in-laws.  I had a job but it wasn’t a career yet.  It didn’t matter, because I was only 25. And yet, I remember distinctly the year before when I turned 24, I cried off and on through the day, because I realized that the doors of childhood had shut behind me.  I wasn’t in college, I wasn’t living at home, I had to support myself completely, and the world was not the sweet, supportive world of my childhood; I was on my own.

It’s so easy for us to believe that whatever age we are right now or whatever stage of life we’re experiencing is not as easy as a previous time, or maybe a future time. Maybe we wish we were back in school and didn’t have work obligations, or not married and carefree, or with grown kids so we didn’t have the day to day stress of parenting.  I’m fortunate as a parent and life coach to have witnessed most decades at this point, and each has its pluses and minuses.  My kids have loved being kids, but even little kids want to be big kids, until  they are about 12  and then they are desperate to hold on to some of childhood.  Joni Mitchell wrote in her gorgeous song, The Circle Game, “And they tell you take your time, it won’t be long now, before you drag your feet just to slow the circles down.” Among my high school clients, they are desperate to have the simplicity of childhood and to escape all the pressures and expectations of getting into college.  College students feel pressure even more acutely, now that college is so expensive.  The days of lying on the grass and reading old Victorian poems for the fun of it are gone.  Parents want business degrees and results and students are staggering under the weight of student loans and pressure to get a great job to justify their degree.

My clients in their twenties struggle with finding love in an era of Tinder, which is a “dating” app– you swipe right or left, depending on whether you want to meet that stranger.  (Note:  this is not the path to long term love, but rather short term sex.) They are trying to find themselves, pay off debt, deal with roommates, adjust to the stress of their first real job with demanding bosses and travel, and learning all the boring rites of adulthood, like insurance and mortgages and investment strategies.  Clients in their thirties realize that the minute they turn 30, people expect them to be married.  And for women, their ovaries are open for discussion, since the pressure is now on for having kids before it’s too late. For clients in their forties and fifties, as well as many friends, it’s a mad dash against the clock to attend to work, kids, home repairs, and investing.  For those who are single still, the pressure is even greater, because they feel that maybe it’s too late.  And for those in their sixties and beyond, there’s a freedom for a lot of people that they didn’t have when they were younger– the kids are grown and dogs are dead– but they are dealing with health issues and money concerns and a lot more logisitics. The fact is that none of it is easy and all of it is wonderful.  Turning 7 is as magical and stressful as turning 87.

We tend also to think there might be a perfect age in history that was somehow easier.  But I’m reminded of the pioneer women who bore and raised children while traveling in a covered wagon, or women who were burned at the stake for being too powerful in the middle ages, or leaders like Queen Victoria, who weren’t afraid to rule, but were terrified of childbirth since so many women didn’t get through it alive. As we Americans accept, for better or worse, the passing of the guard today of American presidents, let us remember that this time in history is no easier or harder than other times.  Just like personal ages we experience, it’s the same yin and yang.

As my grandfather used to say, “This too shall pass.” When we are in a particularly hard time in our lives or in history, it’s important to remember that all things change, some things for the better and some for the worse.  As you connect with what your world stage is, remember to accept the age you’re in, both how old you are and where in history you are.  It’s important to honor all the stages of our lives and to be present in the moment of history in which we find ourselves. And if you feel stuck or afraid, find one small way to celebrate your current age.  Remember the great poet Rumi’s words:  “There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”

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Remember the Dream

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech and none of it was planned.  The night before, King asked his aides for advice about the speech, as to whether he should use the “I Have a Dream” line, which he had used a few times before.  His advisor, Wyatt Walker, said, “It’s trite, it’s cliche.  You’ve used it too many times already.” The next day, King did not plan to use it.  He wanted something as powerful as Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address but just couldn’t seem to nail it.  When he reached the podium, it was almost 90 degrees and the crowd of 250,000 people had been standing in the heat for hours.  King was 16th on the program, almost at the very end.  As Norman Mailer wrote, “there was… an air of subtle depression, of wistful apathy which existed in many. One felt a little of the muted disappointment which attacks a crowd in the seventh inning of a very important baseball game when the score has gone 11-3.” King delivered a rather staid address, reading from his notes, but it clearly wasn’t as passionate as other speeches he had given in the past.  As he neared the end, Mahalia Jackson, who was behind him, having sung earlier, cried out: “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin!” King paused, put down his notes and decided to preach like the Baptist minister he was, and the rest is history:

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood…I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character… I have a dream that…one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” (The Guardian: Aug 9, 2013.)

Over 50 years later, some of the dream has come to fruition, like having a black president in the White House the past eight years, but racial tensions continue, with white cops killing innocent blacks and blacks retaliating.  Most recently in the news, there was a very sad and disturbing story of four angry black teens kidnapping and torturing a disabled white teen to seek revenge on all white people.  The ordeal was videotaped by the teens and posted to social media because I guess getting noticed for their hatred was far more important than not getting caught.  Still, it makes me so sad and angry that all these years after the Civil Rights Movement, there continues to be more racial hatred and violence.  Dr. King would be so disheartened to see this, and yet I’m sure he wouldn’t be surprised.  Racism is taught at home and anti-racism has to be taught as well.  Children don’t just grow up knowing the importance of not judging by the color of one’s skin. It has to be taught.  Children aren’t born racist.  Babies love all colors; they love people who play with them.  It is adults who teach them to be mean and judgmental and afraid of people not like them.  And we should be ashamed.

My family is fortunate in that we can afford to live in a town that is very racially and religiously diverse, with 30% Jews and many Asians and African Americans.  My son’s classroom last year was 50% non white, his teacher was Indian-American and his aide was African-American.  The year before, his teacher was Costa Rican. My daughter’s school is an international school with 75 countries represented. At her birthday party, half of all the girls spoke another language as their first language.  My husband’s best friend is Japanese, and our kids have grown up thinking that “Crazy Uncle Dave” is somehow blood related, even though we are pale white people.   My kids know that discriminating against people because of the color of their skin is like choosing friends because of the color of their tennis shoes– it’s pretty random and unfair. But not all parents teach this.  Some white children are taught to hate and fear blacks and visa versa, and that’s sad, because the cycle will never end until all of us learn and teach the right thing.

As you begin this new year, committed to finding and living your world stage, remember the brave preacher that one hot August day, who had a dream that someday black children would be equal to white.  This is also a man who took a chance, against the advice of his aides, and put his speech down, knowing he had no other words to read from, and followed his heart in order to inspire a crowd of hundreds of thousands of people looking for direction and hope.  Remember to ask yourself how you are helping Martin Luther King’s dream to live on in the way you live your life.  And ask yourself what your “I Have A Dream” speech is, and what would happen if just once, you lay down your notes and spoke from your heart.  You might just make history too.

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New Beginnings

January is always such a great time for new beginnings, particularly for those of us no longer in school and sharpening our new pencils every September. To me, January is a time for a fresh start, for goal setting, and for the space to move forward in areas that matter.  Even though I’m ambivalent about the snow, ice and cold of northeastern winters, since I am a born and bred California girl, what I do love is the sound and pace of winter. There’s a hush here this time of year, particularly after a snow fall. There are no loud leaf blowers or graduation parties.  The sound of traffic is even muted and everything slows down, probably because it has to; if you need to drive 10 miles an hour due to a storm, then you are forced to slow down.  January also means that the holidays are over (for better or worse) and the rush of the fall season has subsided.  I remember when my kids were babies, my husband went on a business trip to Asia and two feet of snow dumped on Boston while he was away.  Since I didn’t need to go anywhere or do anything (except endless nursing and diaper changing and toddler wrangling), I avoided shoveling until my husband returned.  Instead, my kids and I watched the snow fall from the warmth inside, read books and played games, and then ventured outside to make snowmen. That’s what is magical about winter to me.

But January also comes with a lot of pressure and potential conflicts.  Those of us who write New Year’s resolutions every year– and mine have sometimes been pages long!– find that our new commitments are too long to be able to handle, and sometimes they are contradictory.  I once had a goal to get more sleep every night but also had a goal to get up at 6am to get to the gym, but since I’m a natural night owl, I found myself regularly in conflict with myself.  Should I sleep in and get more sleep or get up and get to the gym? For those of us committed to eating more healthfully as well as saving and investing even more money this year, how do we approach the grocery store?  It’s a little crazy making when you’re battling with yourself as to which matters more– cheaper or healthier– since they both matter. How do you buy organic when you’re also trying to save money?  I found myself frozen in the produce aisle, asking myself whether $3 per pound for organic broccoli was more important, since it honored my health goals, or whether getting cheaper conventional broccoli made more sense, since the amount saved invested over 30 years adds up. We all have these dialogues in our head, but if we have competing goals, we won’t be able to move forward easily.

In addition to competing goals, just sticking to one really hard goal is difficult enough.  My husband and I realized that as our lives got busier, we were falling into the trap of more take out and easily prepared foods, in addition to crepe with Nutella every Sunday and way too many cookies and chips for the kids, until we realized that we were in fact doggin’ it.  Our kids are thankfully healthy regardless, but it wasn’t until we realized that we weren’t feeling our best and weren’t cooking green vegetables daily but more like weekly, and the ingredients in Nutella are in fact scary sounding, that we decided to change. It has not been easy in this first week, because– who would have thunk it!– we actually have to plan and shop and cook A LOT more than we were.  Getting off of caffeine has not been a picnic and we’re eating foods like parsnips and Jerusalem artichoke and radishes, that I’m guessing most people don’t crave.  (I don’t!)  But my skin is glowing, I’m dropping some stubborn pounds, and my husband and I are spending more time together in the kitchen.  (He’s a much better cook, so I really need his help.) And most amazingly, our kids were fighting over the artichokes the other night, begging us for more, and that’s only a few days in.  Imagine a few months in.

And yet, with new beginnings come new doubts and struggles.  Since there are only 24 hours in the day, I’m having to cut out other things to make the time and space to cook and eat really well.  Cutting back on Facebook to maybe five minutes per day and responding to emails, except pressing ones, in a few days instead of a few hours helps a lot.  Once again laundry is piling up to the extent that the clean laundry is now interspersed with dirty socks tossed on top.  And the thank you notes, that I used to religiously send out within 24 hours of receiving a gift, are waiting to be written.  They can’t be my top priority right now.

What I realize as I try to change is that I’m being unduly hard on myself, thinking that everyone else has already been eating these weird healthy vegetables for years and not feeding their kids Nutella, and that we are the last people to get on board, and shame on us.  Then I take a breath and remember that there is a guy I read about who only eats at McDonalds for all of his meals every day, year after year, and I feel a little better.  I remind myself to give myself grace, because in the end the best way to make changes is to be patient and kind with oneself, just as you are with a baby learning to talk.  When my daughter first put two words together, there was what seemed like a minute space between her first and second word.  I feared that this would be some weird habit once she started really speaking, but then I just reminded myself that she was a beginner and was learning, just as I am now.

To find your world stage, just pick a few goals to commit to that don’t contradict each other, and be patient with the process.  The more kind we can be to ourselves, the more we can be to others.  Ultimately, as Ram Dass once said, “We are all just walking each other home.”  I love that because it reminds me that we are all on a journey and are beginners throughout our lives, until we reach our final stop.

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