FlightAt the gate I hold my French roast, nervous not to spill. My view is short and flooded with detail. People surround me. I observe the curious facts of each – the eccentric and the banal. Pretty, plain, plump. Loud. Bold stripes, baggage. Phones … everywhere phones. Intriguing accents. Details, details, all crowding me. Concrete and current.

The goal: get on flight #2116 from LAX to Mpls.

My emotions are tangled strings of struggles to arrive at this moment. I breath deeply into calm. I ground myself in the present. I shed the moody sequelae of all that is misshapen and confusing in my life. I am here now. It is okay.

Soon I am in window seat 32-A. Taking off, I feel my heart rising up over all of it. The magnified messy reality of the gate and this life become small and remote.

The wing of the plane stretches out, pointing to the expanding Pacific coastline. All is transformed as I climb higher and higher. Far below an expansive view emerges.  It shifts into a pattern of sublime intricacy and order. It’s vastness and beauty become more striking each moment. The design becomes clear. An endless beach, Catalina Island, the sprawling City of Angels, layers and layers of mountains.

My perspective changes in seat 32-A.

I rise higher and higher. A new elevation. The world becomes one gorgeous canvas, each piece carefully holding its place and purpose. A larger scheme develops. I sense its order and submit to its calling. I rest in a new clarity.

The tangles unravel. I am spirit, soul, being. No distractions, demands, or itsy-bitsy things tug on me. Life is large. Everything fits.

Released from the mire of the gate I reach an elevation that feels like freedom.


“See over there a created splendor, made by one individual of things residual.”    -Patrick Cavenaugh, poet

“When the bird and the book disagree, always believe the bird.”   -J. Audubon, Pedagogy and Poems

Gardening Picture

Since I moved to Southern California, I have been astounded by the small amount of time people spend outside. This is especially puzzling given that we have one of the most perfect climates on earth. It is a gardener’s dream.

Why not enjoy this marvelous weather and the beautiful vegetation it allows? I want to appreciate it every time I step out of my house. Having grown up in Minneapolis, the prospect of sipping morning coffee out on the patio amid blooming flowers year round makes this place seem like paradise. I want a yard that invites this. And now I have one. But this wasn’t the case last spring.

Since we got a dog a few years before, our yard had become a bit of an embarrassment.

I didn’t expect the Gardens of Versailles. But I needed something more than this dry dirt wasteland … whose only signs of life were random patches of grass, weeds and dog poop, decorated by naked wicker furniture whose cushions were long before devoured by Winston, our big yellow dog.

Even Winston went out there as little as possible. When the poor pooch doesn’t want to go out in the yard it’s time to take some action. So step-by-step, my husband and I started the dreaded project of rehabilitating the yard.

First came the removal of several trees that were so misplaced and overgrown that they threatened to uproot not only the patio, but the house’s actual foundation. Then came the laying of sod. After some tiring weeks of watering by hose, we fixed the built-in sprinklers. Yeah! I knew my time was worth more than functioning as a human irrigation system. The grass was taking root and staying green. Before long it was looking almost respectable.

That’s when I got invested in creating beauty.

I began pulling out the weeds in the many overgrown flowerbeds lining the periphery of the entire property. What an amazing workout – I decided an afternoon of gardening was no easier than a five mile run. The results were immediate and visible – a parcel of earth ready to be cultivated. I found muscles I didn’t know I had; it was such satisfying labor.

I went to sleep visualizing my budding oasis. I imagined the glory of an array of plants and flowers. I daydreamed about transforming the existing but long neglected citrus trees, and considered even putting in a vegetable garden. Oh the possibilities! My dinner table would be adorned with freshly cut day lillies. I could cook delicious meals from tender fruits, savory herbs, and heart healthy vegetables harvested from my own backyard. This was part of the California dream I anticipated when we moved here years ago.

The momentum of getting started, combined with the dramatic results of making the most basic changes, fueled my energy to create something wonderful. That’s when the fun started.

I found myself researching the best options for our climate, soil, and light conditions. I discovered the wonder of Pinterest. The Internet served as my endless source of botanical brilliance. Visiting garden stores became play. (And I won’t lie, a bit expensive). Digging my hands deep into the cool soil felt soul nourishing. I was as happy as a barefoot child in summer. Even pulling out the clumps of weeds provided a grueling satisfaction.

Then came the planting.

The tender placing of each little life in the ground and watching it grow was captivating. I included flowers for big showy color like bougainvillea, mandevilla, impatiens, geraniums, and petunias. Between the perennials and the bulbs like daffodils, calla lilly, and tulips I could expect year-round splendor. The borders would become lush with sweet white alyssum and green ivy. Even the shady spaces below the lemon, orange, peach, and lime trees would eventually be covered in periwinkle. I went wild with succulents and put mixed varieties in various pots.

I was proud to greet every visitor to my fertile sanctuary. I found myself asking a friend, “Won’t you come and have tea in my garden?” Making unexpected spots pretty through use of contrasting and complimentary form, color, and texture made me feel like an artist.

The hours flew by – I was in “flow”.

Each day’s pleasure was only softened by bits of grief I felt when one of my little ones didn’t make it. Yet, even this loss was overcome by learning what change I must make in my method. I also discovered the process of propagation. Now I was generating my own plants rather than merely buying them. This suited my thrifty nature.

My husband built an impressive raised vegetable garden producing a bounty of tomatoes, lettuce, carrots, spinach, kale and peppers. I watched him oversee his miniature crop with the commitment and concern of a Midwest farmer.

Every morning I woke up eager to go out and weed, water, and tend. I sprung out of bed on a mission. At the end of the day I strolled around it and let myself pause for a while – simply to be present and appreciate. With nothing short of love, I watched it flourish. Sitting in my garden I felt fulfilled and connected.

Carefully observing any signs of too much water, not enough light, or the threat of a weed satisfied my need to take care of something. I wasn’t just a gardener, I was a caretaker and protector – a giver of life. Not unlike being a mom. How surprising that tending and toiling in my humble little yard taught me how essential it is for me to invest in reproducing and sustaining life. It is primal.

Gardening made me realize my powerful need for an outlet for my nurturing instinct at this “empty nest” time in my life. Since the children went off to college and became busy with their own lives, supporting the development of other living things satisfies a deep desire. Cultivating my garden provided that. This is grace.

 

 

Heart2, Hands

The holiday season is over, the last decoration is packed away, and my officially “adult” children have gone off to faraway places. The house is quiet. At the moment, this suits me.

I have some thinking to do – envisioning the year that is well underway, and reflecting on the last one.

My thoughts hover around a noble idea – to become more wholehearted.

Webster defines wholehearted as “completely and sincerely devoted, determined, or enthusiastic” and “marked by complete earnest commitment; free from all reserve or hesitation.”

In this confusing and ephemeral world – so filled with ambiguity and uncertainty – it seems to me that wholeheartedness is something to strive for. To put my best effort into all that I do – in work, marriage, parenting, friendship, faith, wellness, writing, sports, learning … all of my pursuits.

The biggest challenge I faced last year shows me that I have a terrific capacity for wholeheartedness, but I also can be woefully self-limited by its opposite: half-heartedness. The latter functions rather like a skeptical older sibling, always whispering some seemingly prudent words of caution: Watch out! Be careful. Prepare for the worst. Don’t let yourself get hurt. Don’t expect too much.

Here is the situation: I applied for a job. A really big job. One that requires a great deal of experience, talent, and leadership ability. One with an opportunity to have a broad impact on a large community. One that is far more complex and difficult than the program director job I have enjoyed for nearly ten years. One that pays a lot of money! Spoiler alert: I didn’t get it.

But looking back over the process I went through as I prepared for the challenge and waited for the outcome, I recognize that there is a valuable lesson for me. It is about the importance of maximizing my strength of wholeheartedness, and managing my tendency to become half-hearted and self-doubting.

When I was first encouraged to apply, I dismissed the idea as ridiculous. But as I learned more about the position and began to consider what I may have to offer, I changed my mind. I began getting energized and excited about the possibilities. I was determined to give it my absolute best effort, even though I admitted that it was a long shot.

I was filled with love.

As I studied and practiced for the interview I felt entirely focused and bolstered by vision and courage. I even called upon my “Scottish Warrior” (that part of myself that can fight a great battle and prevail). I pictured my past, present, and future and began to detect a red ribbon that was woven through it. Therein I found a spiritual meaning and direction – an essential purpose for so much of what had happened in my life, both joys and sorrows. I saw it all leading up to this imminent challenge. I prayed that God would equip me and trusted that he would.

And he did. I got through the interview with confidence and grace. I quickly recovered from what was a grueling but pretty decent interview. I waited weeks for an answer. A litany of questions soon surrounded my mind.

Then the fear crept in.

No longer full of love, I was full of fear. This was unsettling and unpleasant. It left me feeling uninspired and riddled with self-doubt. I began asking: Who am I to think I can take this on? How grandiose and reckless of me. I allowed the tedium of waiting to generate troubling questions like: What if? What if I get a second interview and it is a flop? What if I get the job and I am not smart enough? What if it is too hard? What if it is too stressful? What if I fail miserably? What if it sends me over the edge? I pictured the jeers of my critics. Of course this left me feeling less capable, less courageous, and more cynical.

I decided I needed to block out that negative energy. I needed to “guard my gates” and not invite in self-limiting messages. But they came so innocently – masquerading as armor and self-protection.

The deception goes like this: I can’t set myself up for a fall. Don’t invest too much. I must regulate my enthusiasm. It makes me too vulnerable. I won’t let myself be disappointed.

Yet this defensive stance becomes incredibly self-limiting. It prevents me from applying my best energy and chokes out what might otherwise be one of my greatest strengths – my wholeheartedness.

I decided to reject the fear-based mentality of self-protection. It causes me to hold back, be too cautious, and ultimately makes me half-hearted.

The logic goes like this: If I give my whole heart and lose, it will be too devastating. I must prepare myself for the big NO or I will be caught off guard when it comes. Don’t invest too much or expect too much and I won’t be disappointed.

But in doing this, I became smaller. Passion was replaced with protectionism. Love was replaced by fear. I trudged through my days barely able to lead myself through my next task much less lead others to inspired work.

ENOUGH! I said to myself. That self-protective instinct is not serving me well. It only resulted in diminished energy, limited joy, and an absence of vision for my life’s possibilities.

I recalled the advice of my dear friend and mentor Yvette. She said, “Lisa, you need to let it go and let it flow. Do not sell yourself short.”

As I remembered her loving words I decided that I would prevail. Regardless of the outcome, I would win the battle. I would be wholehearted.

Guess what? I didn’t get a second interview. But as far as the battle went, I triumphed.

 

“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”
― T.S. Eliot

 

Everyone experiences some level of anxiety.  But it’s so unpleasant. Wouldn’t it be nice to always feel calm, cool, and collected?

Interestingly, research suggests that the only people who never feel anxious are those with sociopathic tendencies. The worry-free life may not be available to folks with a conscience.

Although it is one of the less popular emotions, anxiety actually serves a very useful purpose. You may be asking, “Are you serious?  What good is something that makes me feel nervous, sick in my stomach, shaky all over, sweaty, obsessive, and like my heart is going to jump out of my chest?”

Consider this: without a certain amount of anxiety we would never get our paperwork done, do the taxes, or schedule that mammogram. And in an emergency, without huge doses of it, we wouldn’t have the adrenaline rush needed for the “fight, flight, or freeze” response that may save our life!

The problem with anxiety is that it doesn’t often come in the right dose at the right time. It can come on like a flood and overwhelm our capacity to cope. The trick is to maximize its benefits, and develop the ability to regulate it so that it doesn’t interfere with our performance or, in its worst extreme, diminish our quality of life.

                       Fear sharpens the senses. Anxiety paralyzes them. (Scott Stossel quoting Kurt Goldstein).

A multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical industry is founded on our incapacity to regulate it naturally. Medication may be beneficial for the worst variety, but first consider what is possible with your “internal pharmacy” (i.e. the dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin elevating benefits of things like exercise, hobbies, or even sex).

I thought I knew a great deal about anxiety as an experienced licensed clinical social worker, who also, ten years ago, overcame an extreme form of depression with anxiety. But having just finished My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind by Scott Stossel, I discovered there was so much more to understand, integrate, and apply to my life.

Stossel

Stossel, who happens to be the highly respected editor of The Atlantic, is an incredible writer – witty, intelligent, clear, and absolutely thorough. He also suffers from the most oppressive case of lifelong anxiety I have ever known. It was his heroic effort to solve his own troubles with anxiety that led him to chronicle it in his self-revelatory book. My Age of Anxiety is refreshingly unique and hard to categorize: it is a 400 page encyclopedic montage of memoir, historical analysis, cultural commentary, philosophical exploration, and medical examination of anxiety from the beginning of recorded history to the present time.

Stossel’s determination to always get it just right makes for comically embarrassing personal stories and extreme psycho-educational learning. The man never took a short cut in his life. A self-described neurotic – and perfectionist to the core – he is not given to approximations nor willing to withhold a single nuance. Nothing is easy. Nothing is black or white. And nothing is explained from a single perspective or theory. It is all very complicated and subject to interpretation – not unlike the neurological mystery of our brains, the worldview of an anxious mind, or life itself. Never simple … but infinitely interesting.

I filled up the white space on so many pages as I recorded my own reactions to Stossel’s thought-provoking discussion of anxiety. Stossel examines the source of anxiety (the proverbial nature versus nurture question) by mining the writings of Plato, Epictetus, Darwin, Kierkegaard, and Freud, to name just a few. Despite the aggregate wisdom of this great pantheon of thinkers, we continue to be flummoxed by anxiety. National Institute of Mental Health data indicates that 18% of individuals suffer from a clinical anxiety disorder. This is an issue central to our nation’s health and well-being.

I found myself interacting with this book deeply and without restraint, because frankly, I feel that I am a bit of an expert on the subject. I present as evidence the fact that, as a junior high student, when my peers were enthralled with John Hughes movies and Star Wars mania, my favorites were of the Woody Allen variety.  Annie Hall was my role model. Need I say more?

There is hope for those suffering with mild and even extreme anxiety. I have had more than my share of anxiety and have found some effective methods of managing it. The concept of neuroplasticity suggests that new ways of being can strengthen one’s capacity for anxiety-busting qualities like resilience and self-efficacy.

Extensive research on veterans has demonstrated that certain characteristics such as resilience and acceptance are what have allowed some people to maintain or reclaim mental health. These qualities may be in-born, but can also be learned.  As Stossel describes, “These include optimism, altruism, having a moral compass or set of beliefs that cannot be shattered, faith and spirituality, humor, having a role model, social supports, facing fear (or leaving one’s comfort zone), having a mission or meaning in life, and practice in meeting and overcoming challenges.”

Another important concept for preventing and overcoming anxiety is “self-efficacy.” Cognitive psychologist Albert Bandura wrote brilliantly on this subject. Stossel reports, “… repeatedly proving to oneself one’s competence and ability to master situations, and doing so in spite of feelings of anxiety, depression, or vulnerability, builds up self-confidence and psychological strength that can provide a bulwark against anxiety and depression.”

YES! I know this through my experience as a runner. I find that each run is a lesson in self-efficacy. Yesterday, preparing for the Fontana half-marathon, my running club had an 8-mile, race-pace training run to get through. When I woke up, I was tired, still stressed from a difficult work week, and not sure that I was up for the challenge.

But getting into my routine, putting on my gear without any thought of having another option, enjoying my morning coffee … I set off at 7 am to meet my running group. And sure enough, surrounded by the support and camaraderie of others with a shared goal, I was able to rise to a higher purpose and not be dragged down by my weakest impulses (e.g. parking myself in my cozy reading chair all morning). The anxiety receded. As it churned a bit during the run (Can I do it? Do I have the energy?) being part of the group and putting one foot in front of the other helped me remain focused on the goal. Before I knew it, my self-doubt was eliminated; the 8-mile run was finished. And, the beautiful end product was a feeling of accomplishment and calm. My internal pharmacy was well stocked.

You are not your anxiety. You can find methods to regulate it and have your best possible life. I recommend The Age of Anxiety as a means of understanding anxiety and exploring the many avenues for hope and healing. And, might I suggest running (or any other form of exercise)? It has been a lifesaver for me, and has left me – if only for brief periods – calm, cool, and collected.

 

 

 

 

 

Symbiosis

After the worst drought Southern California has had on record, our elusive wet friend has finally arrived. The precious rain came with a stormy ferocity – thrilling the farmers, confounding the commuters, and inciting the news teams.

I personally welcomed it by taking a four-mile run in the morning downpour with my yellow Lab Winston. Even though I was getting soaked to the bone I felt exhilarated … strengthened … refreshed. Judging by Winston’s jaunty gait and wagging tail, he also found it heavenly. For me, running has always been a source of replenishment; the rain was not going to stop me. And Winston? He was born for the water.

But, regardless of whether we take pleasure in the precipitation or consider it a nuisance, there is no denying one fact: rain is essential for renewing life.

As spring arrives, we think not only of April showers, we think of growth, rebirth, and restoration. As the rains enriched our parched land, I encourage you to ask yourself a few key questions: Has my life become a little dry? Could I use a fresh source of nourishment? What might I do this season to promote personal renewal?

Parched

There is no better time than Spring for growth. Consider the many aspects of yourself that may need recharging: the social, physical, emotional, intellectual, or spiritual. Try focusing on one key domain that could use some revitalization. (To explore further see my October, 2013 post Keeping Your Balance with a Wellness Wheel). Write down a few steps you can take to bolster that area. Start today. 

One area that most of us would benefit from stimulating is our physical health. How about focusing on getting more exercise, or even just incorporating more movement into your day? This will also have a reviving impact on other life areas.

In his new book Eat, Move, Sleep, author Tom Rath suggests, with research to back it up, that increasing the amount you move each day will have a powerful effect on your mood, risk of disease, cognitive functioning, and energy level. It will even make you live longer.

He describes how our ancestors had a physical way of life that supported greater health. Daily survival required them to expend a body-enriching amount of energy. They spent most of every day moving about on foot, without the “benefit” of state-of-the-art conveniences and technology. But us moderns spend more time sitting down than sleeping. This is terribly damaging to the human body. Obesity, heart disease, and diabetes are but a few of the consequences. Isn’t it a sad paradox that our “advancements” have inadvertently set us back?

You can make changes today to counteract this problem of a dangerously sedentary lifestyle. Start moving more. Expend more energy to have more energy.

Rath offers a number of helpful ideas. During your workday – about every 30 minutes – get up and stretch, walk around, and perhaps step outside. If you find it helpful, set your smart phone timer to prompt you. This movement will enhance your productivity, brighten your mood, and help your body deal with the demands of hours of sitting in an office.

I have incorporated Rath’s advice into my workday in the last few weeks. Getting up from my desk and walking around the office, as well as taking a few minutes in the morning and the afternoon to do some stretches has made me more relaxed and efficient. I have felt less fatigued and more energetic when I leave work. This new habit, among others, has been like a delightful spring shower – just the kind of renewal I needed.

Tulips

“I want to live like a river flows, carried by the surprise of its own unfolding.”  (John O’Donahue, Irish Poet)

 

 

 

Although I have been a mental health professional for 28 years, I learned most about my own stigma through having lived experience with mental illness. This was 12 years ago … when I developed severe major depression.

My family had moved to Southern California from the Seattle area only 9 months before, when my husband accepted a new pastoral call. I was 36, had two elementary age children, went through a stressful re-location, and then landed the worst job of my life after arriving in California.

I had always been a goal-focused person: able to take on challenges and, in most instances, succeed.  But it seemed there were too many challenges happening all at once. I was rapidly developing anxiety problems, losing my focus and confidence, and, worst of all, finding myself unable to sleep. Combine all this with a genetic vulnerability toward mental illness … and swiftly, it became too much for me.

Although it had rarely been discussed openly, I had long been aware of  the mental illness on my mother’s side of the family. Early in life, I developed a steely determination to avoid such a fate. One of my deepest drives was to never have problems like my mother.

My grandmother had an unnamed mental illness. Nobody talked about Grandma’s ailment, and I’m not sure they knew what it was. But my father told me one day, in a rare moment of openness, that one time Grandma was psychiatrically hospitalized. It seemed she tried to jump off the roof of the house – she thought she could fly.

When I was a child, we had to be very quiet around her because of her “nerves.” Although grandma was gentle and loving, she could not tolerate lights, noise, television, or active children.

My mother is diagnosed with bipolar disorder. While I was growing up she had to be hospitalized a number of times for what was then called “nervous breakdowns.” She was treated with Electro Convulsive Shock Therapy (ECT), and took medication that made her seem less lively, detached, and kind of dull. She hid the bottles of medication in her bedroom dresser, tucked between her nightgowns. She never let us four kids see her take it.

As an observant young girl, I got the impression this medicine was something to be ashamed of because it must be hidden from others. I also learned early on that the kind of hospital she went to was not something to tell people about. Not if you want them to like you. I sure wanted to be normal and accepted, so I learned the rules quickly.

Rules we learn from our families aren’t easily changed. So, as an adult, even though I was a therapist myself, when I began having symptoms, I felt too ashamed and overwhelmed to seek help until it was too late. I plunged into the most devastating depression imaginable. Seemingly overnight, I went from being the treatment provider to being the treated patient. I no longer knew myself. I felt like I had shattered into a million pieces.

Why take the risk to share this story publicly? Why violate the rules and beliefs that I learned as a child? Especially that mental illness is something to be ashamed of, and that it is not something nice people talk about? Why? Because I have come to believe that those are lies.

In recovering from my own depression, I learned how profoundly I was affected by stigma – both external (which came from the culture surrounding me) and internal (which came from within me).

The stigma I held – about my mother’s mental illness, and eventually my own, kept me from properly addressing my symptoms as they arose.  This was not a recipe for healing. Instead, it was the key ingredient for disaster.

When I finally got treatment, my stigma was a gargantuan wall I had to break down to fully accept treatment for my life-threatening case of depression. It’s not an exaggeration then, to suggest to you this: My stigma almost killed me.

Am I a little scared to write about this? Yes. But stories need to be told. And … I spent enough years being ashamed. All it did was contribute to me getting sick and staying sick. It compromised my humanity and robbed me of my joy. My wise mother had a good reason for giving me the middle name Joy. I intend to live up to it!

The great American writer Maya Angelou said this, “You may not control all of the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”

It is critical to do everything we can to combat stigma in all its forms. It was stigma that kept my mother from ever properly managing her mental illness. It was stigma that made me wait dangerously long before seeking therapy. It was stigma that prevented me from benefitting from treatment for many long months. I consider it a miracle that I even survived those terrible days.

But, fortunately, I have not only recovered, I have pro-covered. In short, to me that means I came out of it an upgraded edition of myself – Lisa 2.0 if you will. My life is fuller, more joyful and abundant than ever. I now have a better understanding of myself – both my strengths and my vulnerabilities.  I am acutely aware of the many holistic and healthy practices that are necessary for sustained wellness. My effectiveness as a social worker has been deeply enhanced. I have even worked through most of my stigma.

Overcoming my stigma allows me to share a bit of my story. I hope it may give you some understanding and help you overcome any stigma that you have toward those living with mental illness.

10 Recovery Lessons I learned the Hard Way:

  1. The pathway to joy is gratitude.
  2. What other people think of me is none of my business.
  3. Mental illness can strike anyone, at any time.
  4. It is no one’s fault.
  5. I can choose to forgive myself and others for not knowing or doing what was best in times of trouble.
  6. People recover, and often develop lives that are more purposeful and satisfying than the ones they had before their illness.
  7. Wellness requires a holistic approach – supporting all aspects of the human being.
  8. Wellness is a lifelong commitment and a daily lifestyle.
  9. Getting well and staying well isn’t possible without “grit.” (Definition of grit: “the tendency to work strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failures, adversity, and plateaus in progress”).
  10. Resources, education, and support are extremely important. Here are a few I recommend:

NAMI (link)

Pacific Clinics (link)

Each Mind Matters (link)

Bring Change 2 Mind (link)

 

“If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.”                -Barry Lopez, author of Arctic Dreams

 

 

Sweet Honey in the Rock

Sweet Honey in the Rock

Have you ever had the splendid surprise of a long-held prayer being abruptly and abundantly answered?

This prayer was on my lips in the daytime, the nighttime, quietly and loudly, indoors and outdoors, humbly and willfully, in whispers and bellows, in faithful expectancy and dull habit. But I have kept on praying – with a stubborn willingness to speak in God’s ear like a relentless dripping faucet.

Viola! God has answered my tired plea with not merely a “yes” but with a “YES, absolutely, no problem, of course, you got it and more” kind of abundance. I am bursting with gratitude.

I reflected on this blessing as Pastor Chineta gave an amazing sermon at New Hope Presbyterian Church in Orange, California. She spoke on Mathew 5, in which Jesus affirms and warns his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? Furthermore, “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.”

Pastor Chineta shared tales from her story-infused childhood, when her elders continually guided her with a dual-sided message of affirmation and warning.  Her deep loving voice and authentic smile resonated through the sanctuary. We sat motionless – riveted by her passion, as she urged us to apply these words of Christ to our lives.

She brought it home as she lifted into song the well loved lyrics of the civil rights movement, anointed with the conviction of one who has lived it …

Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around,

turn me around,

turn me around.

Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around

I’m gonna keep on walking,

keep on talking,

 marching to freedom land.”

 (Click below to hear the song “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round” performed by Sweet Honey in the Rock”)

We congregants were inspired by her powerful message of hope, reconciliation, and “affirming warnings” as she put it. Pouring out of the satin-robed, gospel music infused, ‘preach on sister’ call-and-response banter and community hug-fest that was this service, my husband Steve and I felt challenged and bolstered by this largely African-American community of faith.

We milled about in the narthex, discussing our reaction with friend and church member Antoinette. She has a Ph.D. in Sociology and a demanding career providing services to reach under-privileged, 0 – 5 age children in LA County. What she said struck me as prophetic.

She described how every December, she takes stock of what the last year has meant in her life, and prays for God’s blessing on the year to come. She explained, “For several years now, it seems God gives me a vision of what the coming year will be. And I have been amazed to witness, that it comes about in exactly that way. It becomes the year’s theme for not only my life, but for so many of my loved ones and people I come into contact with. This year, God’s message was, ‘This is the year of the Lord’s favor.’ I just can’t deny that it is coming to pass.”

Antoinette has recently gotten a promotion and is positioned to make a much bigger impact in the work that she loves, to benefit impoverished little people she has never met. I was touched by her humble sincerity, and wondered, “Does this woman have a gift of prophesy? We joked and rubbed against her, hoping her blessing would be contagious. But I knew in my heart, God’s favor had already come.

I claim the divine promise voiced by Antoinette. I thought about my answered prayer, and thanked God for hearing me, and confirming his intention through Antoinette. To many, this may sound superstitious.

Does God do this? Does he give a faithful servant a message, and then deliver on it to those who have ears to hear? Could 2014 be a year of God’s favor? I choose to believe.

You may be wondering about the answered prayer. You see, my husband has been an ordained Lutheran pastor for 25 years. We came to Southern California in 2001 for him to serve a church that after nine years, had to be buried. Even though it became financially unsustainable, he continued to shepherd his flock for a year without pay. This is just before our children were headed off to college. I was scared and frankly, a bit indignant with God. What a disaster! It broke my husband’s heart and shook his confidence.

But I knew, that as sure as God had seen me through the darkest times in healing me from depression, he would sustain and deliver Steve and our family from this hardship. I clung to the promise “weeping lasts for a night, but joy comes in the morning.”

Steve subsequently went through a total career and identity change to become a leadership consultant, starting a business called TurningWest. He has showed incredible resiliency, determination, creativity, and courage to forge through this transition. The first three years have been lean and a bit scary for a security-minded person like myself. However, Steve has remained fastidious and hopeful, despite the odds in this post-recession economy. And God has slowly and steadily blessed his efforts.

But suddenly, during the last couple of weeks, the contracts have been rolling in at an astounding rate. His home office is lit afire with phone calls and emails from the many people he has reached out to in boldness. Now, and for the foreseeable future, he not only has enough work for himself, but for several other colleagues partnering with him – all with families, losses, needs, and dreams like ours.

This work is a win-win proposition.  Each job is producing phenomenal results for the clients – all who have largely humanitarian, justice-oriented missions. Steve will make the world a better place through the work of Turning West. I am so proud of my husband. And I am indescribably thankful to God, who has heard and answered my prayers.

I believe that for me, 2014 is “the year of the Lord’s favor.” May it also be so for you.

For these promises are ancient, and prophesied in the sacred book of Isaiah:

Isaiah 61:1-3

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
 to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, 
to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes,
 the oil of joy instead of mourning,
 and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.
 They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.

 

 

 

Now that I have been blogging for nearly a year, I guess I can be honest with you about one more thing: I have serious food issues. This will be no surprise to my colleagues who witness me foraging through their desktop candy dishes for late afternoon chocolate fixes. It’s probably obvious to anyone who knows me: food and body image have been core struggles of mine since puberty. My deepest fear is not flying, earthquakes, abandonment, disfigurement, death, or even damnation. My biggest fear is getting fat.

A rational person could point out, that since I am so obsessed and hyper-vigilant about my food intake and exercise output, serious weight gain seems highly unlikely. But in this one area, I admit, I am not rational.

The strange part is, I have always been pretty close to what the medical charts say is my “ideal weight.” But, paradoxically, I have usually lived far outside of my “ideal body image.” My concept of my body size is a pretty good barometer for my mood. If I feel crummy, it typically means “I feel fat.” If I feel great, you guessed it, “I feel thin.” But I am actually usually at the same weight, despite these divergent feelings and discordant self-concepts. I know it sounds completely crazy … can anyone identify with this?

I can’t stop evaluating my size, weight, and fat content. I am on a constant and vigilant search to determine whether I have gotten fatter or thinner since yesterday. And trying to account for salt intake? That takes it to an impossible level of analysis. Each angle, article of clothing, or change of lighting brings the prospect of revealing whether indeed I am fatter or thinner. This is a never-ending source of self-satisfaction or misery.

I find myself assessing the quality of any day by the number of calories I consumed (e.g. less calories = better day). And, believe me, it is usually too many. Thank goodness I am so diligent with exercise or I would be as big as a house. It is absurd, I know. It’s self-defeating, irrational, unhealthy, perhaps misogynistic, and certainly vain. But I can’t seem to stop!

My desperate goal is always this: to lose 10 pounds. That’s it. That is the source of my unhappiness. Ten fricking pounds! Why can’t I let this go?

I am hesitant to continue on this subject. It’s grueling to write about something that I don’t feel any mastery over. I find myself in a daily battle with my weight and body image – seriously, right now I can quote to you the caloric content of every morsel I have eaten today.

The topic of women and weight is so emotionally charged, so politicized, so fraught with potential for misunderstanding. Will overweight women hate me for being so self-obsessed and neurotic when I am actually NOT FAT? Will goal-oriented fitness buffs discount me as a low-self-esteem wreck? Will Birkenstock-clad make-up free therapists shake their heads in dismay? At age 48 and out of the dating pool for almost three decades, shouldn’t I be, well, over this? Perhaps the malevolent face of Madison Avenue notions of feminine beauty smiles at my distress.

I learned years ago to adopt a mindset of “What other people think of me is none of my business.” But this weight issue is more about what I think of myself, and that’s where I get stuck. It seems to me there are two choices: accept how I am, embrace it, and be happy. Or, decide to make a change, apply my best effort, and achieve it, like I would any other life goal. Why is this so hard?

The weight fixation actually gets more intense and obsessive when my stress level is up. But that is precisely when my desire to eat everything in sight ratchets up as well. It creates a ridiculous kind of push-me-pull-you sort of double-bind; my competing drives declare war on each other. Sure, it’s obviously a control issue. I’ve taken enough psychology classes to get that much. One could argue that, because so much of life seems arbitrary and uncontrollable, I zero in on some matter like weight, body size, and calorie consumption to offer an alternative method of feeling in charge of my life. Sounds like a recipe for an eating disorder. That’s not what I want for myself. There must be a better way.

I just finished reading Women, Food, and God and am attempting to apply some of the principles that author Geneen Roth suggests. She talks about how we use food to numb ourselves and to avoid experiencing our feelings.  She tells attendees at her seminars, “Compulsive eating is a way we leave ourselves when life gets hard. When we don’t want to notice what is going on. Compulsive eating is a way we distance ourselves from the way things are when they are not how we want them to be. Ending the obsession with food is all about the capacity to stay in the present moment.” She suggests that “Staying where you are with what you are feeling or seeing or sensing is the first step in ending the obsession with food.”

This is the question I keep trying to answer: Do I need to try harder, or stop trying so hard? Perhaps I just need to approach it differently. What may be most needed is an attitude of acceptance and surrender. Acceptance of who I am, what I am feeling, and how things are, NOW. Surrendering to what life has brought today. And acknowledging the choices I bring along the way. Accept what is, and embrace my capacity to make choices. Be aware of, and willing to change poor habits. Don’t numb out, don’t turn on “automatic pilot”. Really feel. Really choose. Fully experience the feelings and fully experience the food. The weight will take care of itself.

Being more gentle and flexible with myself helps with the control issues. I like the 80/20 rule. If I eat well 80% of the time, the other 20% of “not so great” eating will be okay. Disaster will not ensue. This helps rid me of an “all or nothing” mindset – which is a set up for disordered thinking and disordered eating. I also am working on living by Ms. Roth’s Eating Guidelines:

1. Eat when you are hungry.

2. Eat sitting down in a calm environment. (This does not include the car).

3. Eat without distractions. Distractions include radio, television, newspapers, books, intense or anxiety-producing  conversations or music.

4. Eat what your body wants

5. Eat until you are satisfied.

6. Eat (with the intention of being) in full view of others.

7. Eat with enjoyment, gusto and pleasure.

 

A few books on the subject of diet, health, and exercise that have provided some wisdom and guidance to me are:

Fat is a Feminist Issue (by Susie Orbach)

-Feed Your Body, Feed Your Brain (by Daniel Aman)

-Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy (by Walter Willett)

-Secrets of Skinny Chicks (by Karen Bridson)

-Eating Mindfully (by Susan Albers)

-Women, Food, and God (by Geneen Roth)

 

 

“Sometimes it is necessary to reteach a thing its loveliness.”

-poet Galway Kinnell

 

 

 

 

My Life as a Dog

As I was walking Winston today, happily wandering the rugged trails of Chino Hills, a vexing question came to mind. Is it possible that I am unconsciously projecting my own worries, fears, and anxieties on my Dog?

I hold the general belief that I am well-adjusted, healthy, hopeful, and even filled with a cheerful holiday spirit.  And I can find reliable evidence to back up these assertions.

But for some reason, I seem to be worrying a lot about my dog. It happens in many ways: in my private thoughts, in my one-on-one “conversations” with Winston, and even as I discuss him with others.

I have been alone with him for the last week. I find myself  thinking …  poor Winston, he’s so lonely. He misses his Daddy (Steve). He misses Johnny and Grace – they need to hurry home for Christmas, because he gets so sad without them. He doesn’t like the house so quiet. I turn on some Christmas carols to soothe him.

I cuddle and caress his coarse curly back. “Poor Winston. Don’t worry, we-re gonna have a great Christmas. You wait and see.” I brush him head to toe – his favorite form of massage. “Don’t you worry at all poor baby, cuz it will be special – we’ll watch It’s a Wonderful Life” I stroke his golden velvet ears. “Good doggie. Such a good doggie. Your mommy loves you … you’re the best doggie in the whole world.”

When people inquire about me, I assure them, “Oh, I don’t mind Steve traveling. I love time to myself. And as far as the ‘empty nest’? Now it’s actually clean, and I have so much time to do what I want. I read more, I write more, I see friends and have fun! This may be one of the best times of life.”

But poor, poor Winston. That doggie; he just gets so sad. He nuzzles up to me, and nearly breaks my heart with his old soul brown eyes.

Here’s where I need to rely on my psychologist friends. Tell me truly, is this some form of neurosis? Denial? Repression? Is it serious, or even pathological? What is your professional opinion?

I admit – there’s more. You see … I also worry about Winston’s health. I want him to have a long life, free of knee problems or heart disease. That’s why I worry about how much he weighs.  But me? No, I am strong and fit. My diet and weight? Now that’s nothing to be concerned about. (Except for the sad fact that avoiding weight gain is my second religion, sometimes my first).

Yet, Winnie, now he is entirely too focused on food – its his obsession! He’s looking rather thick around the middle lately. He can’t seem to curtail his ferocious appetite, and love for all types of food that cross his path. It’s not his fault though. He runs and walks everyday. Getting fat is in his genes. I explain this to people, wanting to be sure they understand. “Labs have a genetic risk of obesity. They are quite naturally, a stout breed. And their instinct to continually eat dates back to the old days, when they lived in cold climates, and worked all day. They just can’t help it.”

So, Labs tend to get a little on the chubby side. As a responsible owner, I must be vigilant so he doesn’t become overweight. Poor, Poor Doggie!

Winston’s so hungry all the time. So I put him on the “weight control” food. We have to be disciplined about this – no cheating! He gets a full bowl every morning and night, but I guess because its lower fat, he is never satiated. He always wants more! It’s so hard when you’re always wanting more. Poor doggie.

And then, I admit, I have some concerns about his overall lifestyle. Does he have enough time for play? Maybe he has too much time alone at home. Could he even be getting too sedentary, or even, God forbid, lazy? Lately he would rather scarf down a treat, than chase rabbits through the field– that’s a bad sign.  Poor Doggie!

What about his social life? Is he too isolated? Maybe he is spending excessive time sitting around the house, when he should be out romping with the other dogs and making new friends! What about play dates and the doggie park? He would probably be happier if he got off the porch, and ran with the big dogs. But here he sits. Poor, tired doggie.

As his owner, I’m simply concerned for his well-being. A dog is a big responsibility. MY responsibility! He is one of God’s precious creatures. He deserves a good life. He deserves to be happy, healthy, and loved. His life could pass him by, and what would he have to show for it?  Was each day lived to its fullest? Did he give and receive every possible ounce of joy? You never know how many dog years you will have – and then suddenly, bam, its all over.

That’s it.  For New Years, I will have to make some resolutions for Winston. Poor doggie!
Winston

Winston

 

Keeping Your Balance with a Wellness Wheel

 I love the word balance. It conjures up images of living well – with strength and resilience, enjoying the best times and transcending the tough times. For most of us, balance isn’t spontaneously achieved. It takes awareness, sustained effort, and continual adjustment over time. One tool I have used and taught to others in my work is the use of the “Wellness Wheel.”

Wellness Wheel

The Wellness Wheel incorporates a holistic notion of health, recognizing that people are multi-dimensional, with a variety of needs. It suggests that being healthy involves an integrated combination of different domains. Individuals may have varying words to label these, but they typically include: social, physical, emotional, intellectual, environmental, and spiritual. It is important to work within each domain to optimize overall health. Impairment in any area has the potential to impact all the other areas. When that happens, a person may eventually feel like they are falling apart.

Think of a time in your life when one of these areas was even temporarily compromised. Then try to identify how this impacted the other areas.  Neglecting even one dimension will often contribute to problems in the others. It is important to intervene in this process of deterioration before our problems become so big and pervasive that they feel insurmountable.

For example, I have a friend I’ll call “Jennifer” who is smart, hard working, and quite capable. However, she is struggling to perform well in her work and feels unhappy in her personal life. It seems to me that the source may be her tendency to neglect the intellectual dimension of the wellness wheel. Jennifer doesn’t readily seek growth – rarely reading or taking on new ventures, risks, trainings, or challenges.  Watching TV is her only hobby. Maintaining her routine is paramount to her. Due to her tendency to resist new ideas and change, she doesn’t explore new relationships (social realm), challenge herself to a higher fitness level (physical), or seek more stimulating surroundings (environmental). She also acts overly sensitive to criticism (emotional). It is sad to observe that Jennifer’s life is not what it could be. She trudges through each day feeling dissatisfied with every area of her life.

What if Jennifer sought out some intellectual challenges? It could start with simply taking a class or reading a new book. Any positive results would likely spill over into the other life areas, and start producing changes in those as well.  With a few small steps, there is potential for her to be much happier and more fulfilled.

When I experienced depression 10 years ago I went through an even more extreme version of this phenomena. For me, one of the earliest signs of trouble was in the physical realm: I developed severe insomnia. This was combined with another physical ingredient: my genetic vulnerability toward mental illness. Another factor was the emotional/psychological realm; I wasn’t effectively managing stress. This played out in the context of a cascade of life changes that left me bewildered – without any stability. By the time the depression was full blown, every area of my life was profoundly and horribly impacted.

Getting educated about wellness and being proactive and self-aware can help you avoid the trouble I had. You may want to start with assessing your life by examining each area of the wellness wheel.

To start with, identify what you currently do to support wellness in each domain.  You may even want to rate your level of satisfaction on a 1 – 10 scale. Then identify the things that undermine your wellness pertaining to that area. Finally, brainstorm the things you can begin doing (or stop doing) that will contribute to a greater fullness and improved functioning in that area.

If looking at all dimensions is overwhelming, just start with one. As I described above, making a change in one can start a domino effect and lead to enhancements in other dimensions. This can be the beginning of a powerful process of change for you.

In addition to working holistically within each life domain, two additional variables are critical to wellness: stability and change. They sound like opposites but they are actually dialectical. By that I mean, that for one to be fully expressed, the other is equally essential. Neither can be optimized without the other.

Stability provides a strong foundation to grow from – a base of continuity. It enhances a sense of the core self. Change enables growth and development – the part of you that is evolving and becoming. Consider my friend Jennifer, clinging too tightly to stability, and not open enough to change. How stifling! On the other hand, consider me at the onset of my depression, facing so much change I lost my footing. Both Jennifer and I need balance. When you can strike a nice balance between stability and change, you will likely enjoy a quality of life that has a necessary level of safety but is also vibrant and rich with vitality.

I chose the seashore image at the top of this blog because it represents this crucial dynamic. The rocks signify stability and the waves signify change. The interaction of the two forces creates something beautiful – simultaneously calming and energizing. It suggests the value of embracing what is ancient and eternal as well as what is new and emerging. An exciting synergy of the two is how I want to live my life. Working holistically on wellness and striving for both stability and change are powerful ways that you and I can be well and stay well.