Thursday, January 18, 2018

Zen and the Slow Leak

My New Year’s Resolution sprung a slow leak that morphed into a gaping hole.

Ok, so in Australia it is Friday…but not last Friday. Nor is it Tuesday. Blog Fail warning horns are blaring everywhere here. Each day I have written BLOG in my bullet journal in increasingly larger letters. Today the word is about an inch high. And fancy.

Even now, I am forcing myself to write—mostly because the alternative is “grade history midterms”. Procrastination priorities are in order, at least…

One of the things I have come to realize is that I have a very limited emotional/mental gas tank. I work really hard to try and keep it full, or at least full-ish. For me, that refilling is a work, it doesn’t just happen. But there are things that put a slow leak to gaping hole kind of kibosh on my tank.

Last week was hospital week. Reports were good. Things are stable. I am grateful.

And yet those days take every bit of mental/emotional energy reserve I have.

I figured Wednesday/Thursday appointments, I’ll be golden to write Friday, heck, I can use my time at the hospital to write!

Silly rabbit, Trix are for kids. There is no concentrating at the hospital when you are holding a TGI Friday’s style beeper thing waiting for your child to come out of sedation. There is CERTAINLY no concentration when the time gets long, and then the hospital CALLS YOU ON YOUR CELL PHONE while your child is in the scanner, because your TGI Friday’s beeper didn’t work. Yikes. There is no concentration when you wait several hours past your appointment time to view the scans with a pediatric neuro-oncologist. I pulled out my school papers, looked at them, and put them back in my bag. I just had nothing left to use to think about that. 8+ hours total driving time over two days…car time left no mental room for metacognition. I just can’t concentrate on anything beyond National Geographic or looking out the window/praying for the WaWa coffee cart people to come.

Hospital stuff is just a keep on going kind of moment. I wish that this many years into it I could be less frozen by these days. I am less psycho about them than I used to be, but they still freeze me solid.  In the days after these hospital visits I had to set up the SAME series of appointments for another kid…more chillin’ in the quagmire…but it’s done.

Now that I understand how my brain works, I can plan for it, at least somewhat—but I can’t seem to find a way around that resource suck of hospital days/appointment making/planning/processing—and tackling things I dread. I made some appointments for myself in the last week—gave myself a gold star…and then went and sorted papers kind of mindlessly while listening to Daily Show clips on YouTube. That kind of task is a mental resource suck, too. I just can’t find a way around it.

I just have to make peace with it, and try to keep moving.

So in Australia it’s Friday already—I should be continuing to write about the Happiness Project, and I will get back to that. One of the valuable lessons of that book is to let yourself BE YOURSELF. It’s ok to be who you are, you will find more happiness in NOT trying to force yourself to be something you are not. Being Kristin means acknowledging that I have to regroup after challenging days.  I can’t just breeze through things. And that’s ok. Even when it doesn’t feel ok—that IS ok.  Being Kristin means I hate making phone calls and I have to bribe myself to do it. That’s ok. Being Kristin means even if we are running low on data, I might need to stream some Sia in the car to remind myself I’m unstoppable. That even on these days where I seem stopped, I really am only “like, totally paused”. ;) 

Just keep movin’ right along. If I miss a day, the internet won’t break.

But now, I really do have to go grade those midterms. Or eat lunch.  Hm….wonder which option will win?

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Zen and Writing Down the New Year

So did you write down any resolutions this year?

New Year’s resolutions are SO last week, I know—but I love writing down goals, even if they are belatedly shared. I actually love writing down EVERYTHING.  Writing is the only way I can sort out my brain, which is why my few years of mostly silent was kind of alarming for me. The physical act of putting words on a page is very therapeutic.

One of the great gifts of using a bullet journal is that most of my random writing ends up in the journal and not all over my house…although full disclosure, the base of my laptop keyboard is currently set on top of 4 post it notes covered with flight information and hospital notes for this week’s appointments.  But I have far fewer scraps of paper now.

This year, led by the example of my sisters-- not some kind of cosmic sisters, I mean my actual sisters, at least the 4 who happened to be home when I stumbled into their goal setting session-- I wrote “18 for ‘18”—a list of 18 goals for the year.  The “18 for ‘18” caught my imagination. I still have a few slots open in case I get inspired (and I do have one big goal that I don’t want to announce, but I think I am going to write it down when I’m done writing here—when I achieve it I will share. I am determined to beat my brain at its own game)…but most of my goals are set.

Some are big. Some are creative. Some are professional. Some are improbable (will I master an inversion in yoga, like a legit head stand? Going to try!).  Some are scary. But just the act of writing things down helps my zen.  Setting goals helps my zen.  The feeling of getting a fresh start helps my zen. Writing all of these things in colorful felt tip pens brings my zen a whole new level of hooray.

I am trying to encourage my family to try to embrace the zen of writing things down, but right now I am still a voice crying out in the wilderness on that front, even though I got them nice colorful felt tip pens, too.

One of the things I have gained by writing things down is a dual sense of progress (hey, I have been exercising/praying/doing yoga/practicing gratitude  regularly for months!) and a sense of where I am still paralyzed (I am now 4 months past needing to set up certain annual appointments. One of my January goals is “make the darn appointments already”).  Putting the mayhem of my brain into some kind of order, even if that order reveals that I put off scheduling a haircut for 3 months, that order helps my sense of peace. Giving myself gold stars for the things I get done (a Happiness Project insight) gives me a sense of accomplishment. A “W” is a “W”, no matter how small ...from one of Dr. Seuss’s lesser known projects, Horton Keeps On Moving.

I also realize, in writing down calendars and notes about my day, where outside circumstances feed my anxiety. Schedule chaos at work creates a particular set of challenges for my brain.  Unexpected small annoyances get in my head—like how can ShopRite be out of bananas? Literally ONE SAD SOFT BUNCH LEFT??  Sick kids, needing to reschedule very stressful hospital appointments, car problems—all of these normal life things can throw me off my A-game pretty fast, a paradigm I am working hard to shift this year.  Jotting down notes about my day helps me see where my goals are challenged by my sometimes lack of skill in dealing with small adversities. I see how far I still have to go.

 I know that some of this is a product of the Tsunami of Adversity we rode out for years. But I know in 2018 I do not need to be a prisoner to past ways of dealing with things. And writing down goals, habits, resolutions, gratitude, and ongoing progress/paralysis points creates a path towards freedom.

Writing everything down, even in extremely abbreviated form (no long form journal entries—teeny bullet points at best) helps me be more aware of everything, really, instead of being overwhelmed by a sea of swirling stresses. Anxiety thrives in that particular figurative oceanic habitat, and I want to create a different environment for my brain where possible—and work through the moments where anxiety fed by circumstance or otherwise rears its ugly head. 

Starting to keep a bullet journal for my schedule and to-do lists was a goal I made in September, and one that is now a habit. I hope to use this in the New Year to keep track of my progress on my “18 for ‘18”, and to understand why sometimes my progress is at best negligible, or even a weird backflop.

How do you keep track of goals/resolutions? Does any kind of tracking system work for you? If you live with anxiety or generalized ugh, have you found any particular writing strategies helpful?

Next Tuesday I will explain the bullet journal a bit more—this Friday I will continue the Happiness Project conversation. 

Now I have to go put a gold star in my journal because I blogged. J Yay!

Friday, January 5, 2018

Zen and the Happiness Project

On Fridays I plan to write about some of the books I’ve found helpful in my continuing attempts at finding the Lost Kingdom of Zen. Today’s choice: Gretchen Rubin’s “The Happiness Project”.
Info about The Happiness Project

A few years ago, as I was just figuring out that I might need to try and improve my mental health a speck (*cough, understatement), I discovered Gretchen Rubin’s book, The Happiness Project.  This book details Rubin’s yearlong study/quest to improve her own personal happiness, and to determine if in fact certain practices CAN increase happiness.
Spoiler alert: Yes. Certain practices CAN increase happiness. Yay!

I like projects. I like research. I knew I would like this book, and I did.  I re-read it at the beginning of last year as part of my quest to get some zen COME HELL OR HIGH WATER…er, I mean, work peacefully at becoming happy and chill and zentastic instead of just frantically waiting for the other shoe to drop as we entered a new season of less frequent MRIs and hopefully less medical smite, after a decade plus of hospital time galore, topped off with several months in 2016 of highly improbable medical ugh. 
Obviously, the work continues, as I am now repeating, “I did not just jinx us. I did not just jinx us. I did not just jinx us.”
Ergh. Zen.

ANYWAY, there are a lot of things in Rubin’s book that have really stuck with me since I first read it. When I decided to write ABOUT the book as part of this blog, I resisted the urge to go back and flip through the pages. What are the lessons/ideas that STAYED with me? THESE were the things that I should include in any writings, because really—the things I remember without looking back at the book are the things that stuck with me the most.
There are many. I highly recommend this book.

Probably the most important one, the one I reference the most in daily zen-pursuit, is “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good”.

Reading through Rubin’s meticulous and conversational record of her research methods, I was a speck intimidated by HER perfection (she would probably argue that point, but really—she is intensely talented and driven; her process inspires me). Still—this has become a mantra that I repeat OFTEN.

I am perhaps a bit of a perfectionist. 

Sorry, I should have told you to sit down before I unleashed that shocker on you.

Sadly, I am not the “house in perfect order/always perfectly coiffed/entertaining goddess/paint the cookies with replicas of the Sistine Chapel ceiling” kind of perfectionist. I just get paralyzed by things NOT being perfect, and turn into a speed bump. Especially as I navigated years of medical ugh, I got buried by my life because I just couldn’t figure out the perfect way to hold everything together—and so everything sort of got figuratively MacGyvered or ignored.

This does not create zen.

Although really, how awkward would it be to eat a Sistine Chapel ceiling cookie?
Taking to heart Rubin’s mantra “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” has really, really helped me get more done in my life and NOT be constantly stressed with how not perfect things are. So not every seam was perfect in my daughter’s memory quilt I sewed for Christmas—but it was good. Really good. So I didn’t waste time ripping out tiny imperfections my visually impaired kid would never notice. So the PowerPoint I put together to help my students who need printed out aids for note taking doesn’t have cool animation or interesting graphics—it is good, and serves the purpose for which it’s designed.

Honestly, I frequently say “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” out loud, when I am doing anything creative especially. Perfectionism is the opposite of zen. And for far, far too long I have been sort of tangled in an impossible perfectionistic paralysis.  Just for this one mantra, reading The Happiness Project was a win.
If only just to make myself get that second blog entry out in the first week or January—"Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good" is a win. Still have 1 hour and 46 minutes left in the day! Woo! I will get to put a gold star in my bullet journal…another Happiness Project insight for next week. J  

If you are so inclined, pick up a copy and check it out for yourself—or listen to Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Gretchen Rubin on the most recent Super Soul Sunday podcast.  That’s a great way to get a quick version of some of the key points of the book.

Just Don’t Let the Perfect be the Enemy of the Good!

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

New Year, New Resolve

Happy 2018!

So one of my resolutions for the New Year is….drum roll…

To actually blog 2 times a week like I intended to.


I realized I had to address one timing issue (I can’t do my lesson planning for the week on Monday AND blog), and I needed to get determined and just write. Game face on! Carpe all them diems and all that! Go For It!

And then our home became The House of Contagion, starting on Christmas Eve, extending through the entirety of Christmas week, finally easing on New Year’s Day…at which point a different child took the baton of contagion and ran with it—

--In the process, unfortunately running right out of the possibility of making it to today’s 6 month MRI and neuro-oncology appointment in Philadelphia.

After an hour or two of freak out over not knowing what to do, and about 8 phone calls, we received the official radiological word that We Shall Not Scan today.

Instead, we went to the pediatrician to rule out flu, and then spent hours trying to reschedule all of today’s appointments …twice (don’t ask).

And in all of this, I really tried to zen. Ish. Well, depending on the moment. Not going to lie, I did have 20 minutes of lying on my living room rug. Yerp. But I know that in 13.5 years we have never had to reschedule an MRI due to illness. We are so lucky to be able to deal with regular kid sick and not some of the other really awful things we’ve faced in Decembers/Januaries gone by.

Still—blogging about zen seemed a little disingenuous today.

When things get all wonky, out of my control, I get totally thrown off my game.  Order helps me remain calm—and the complete upset of this day for which I had mentally prepared for weeks (and I packed a Just In Case Bag and chose a book to read)…well, that had me completely discombobulated.  In some ways it was a bit of a reminder as to why I struggled so much when my daughter was on treatment and more days were like this than not.  My brain gets rattled with all the logistics and questions and temperature taking and bedding washing and such. Focus is hard, even with taking a few minutes to ride the stationary bike and do a New Year’s yoga routine. I wonder as I wander…actually. Wondering and wandering happen.

So I guess today is really a question for all of you—what the heck do you do when your day spirals so far off course you are left in the middle of your kitchen yelling “you are killing me, Smalls!” at the hold music that repeats and repeats and repeats relentlessly? How do you focus/stay on track/regroup?

I am realizing this is something I really, REALLY need to work on this year. Life is just too unpredictable to NOT work on this. So—any ideas? How do you keep things together when nothing is holding together? How do you keep the herd of kittens of life all heading in the same direction?

Peace & purell to you all—and hey, this isn’t pretty, but the Tuesday blog happened. Win!

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Gratitude and the Darkness

December darkness creates a lot of challenge for me. Only in the last couple of years have I begun to identify exactly how much I struggle with shorter days and early nightfall, a darkness that coincides with some really challenging medical anniversaries for us. December has long, long been a challenging month—and my inability to type words seems somehow connected to that.

And yet I LOVE December, too—decorating the house, pulling out my collection of nativity sets, baking mountains of cookies, working on secret projects for my family and friends. Sometimes I can just barely stay on the edge of my funk by diving into all of these things.

About this time last year, through the recommendation of a friend, I started a daily gratitude practice. I know that the idea of gratitude being a useful tool against pervasive funk isn’t by any means a new thing I discovered—certainly the idea has gotten a lot of press and even research to support it over the years. For me, the PRACTICE of gratitude was something new.

Each day, making myself think of (and share) 3 things I am grateful for—from big stuff to days where all I can say is “I am grateful for socks”—has been transformative.  It really is a PRACTICE, something I have to do, just like yoga or exercise or the piano (which I never did, hence my utter lack of piano skill, to my own dismay. Gosh I hated practicing).

But gratitude is so easy to practice.  We used to have our kids write grateful notes on little leaves that we would stick on a paper tree I taped to our pantry door during the month of November—and honestly, I meant to post about gratitude IN November. But keeping that practice alive throughout the year has really helped me to reframe even the most challenging days as not just a sum of yikes, but a yikes that is superseded by the good.

Granted, some days the practice is REALLY CHALLENGING. Like, Hanon finger exercises END of the book challenging. (I knew they were there, even if my practicing was anemic at best). The last several weeks have had a lot of challenges in a variety of areas—and yet in all of those challenges, or at least around them, I am learning how to find something to be grateful for—and I share it.

Gratitude shared becomes a little point of light—and reading OTHER people’s gratitude becomes MORE points of light—and while the darkness is not dispelled completely, at least I know for certain that the darkness will never win. We always have something to be grateful for. Always.

This day is the anniversary of my daughter’s last relapse/shunt revision/descent back into brain tumor treatment.  Facebook keeps reminding me not only of the terrible fear and despair of that week, but more of all of the people who posted on our behalf, seeking prayers and support for our family. Even as I struggle with reliving the pain of those days, I am also so, so grateful and comforted by the people who surrounded us with love and support.

A dear friend of our family suffered a terrible heart attack a day ago—he is a former colleague—his daughter, also my friend, brought our family a meal on my daughter’s ORIGINAL diagnosis day, an act of love I am forever grateful for. (side note, Jen makes a fabulous chicken divan). John (her dad) was my son’s teacher when my daughter was at the most dire parts of her treatment back in 2006. We were inpatient at a hospital out of state for 22 days during that school year—and that was in addition to regular chemo trips, scan days, etc. John’s kindness to my son during that year, the way he carried him through the challenges our family was facing—that is something I will always be grateful for. John’s son is a pediatric cancer survivor, and thus he truly understood what our family was going through—and addressed the fallout of our family’s trial (as it played out in my 10 year old son) with compassion.  I am so grateful, and in this present awful time for John’s family, I am reminded of all of these gratitude moments even as I pray for my friends.

The frustrations are real. The anxiety—super real. The search for purpose is real. The challenges of painful memories have so long been my reality. And yet the practice of gratitude is helping me find a path through these things.

So November is over. (Yeah, news flash). But the opportunity for gratitude continues.

Give it a try. I promise it helps, even –or maybe especially- on the days where finding gratitude requires some stretching.  The practice of gratitude is truly transformative, and it doesn’t require any special equipment or infomercial paraphernalia—just an open mind.

I am grateful for all of you who slog through these ramblings. Grateful for the opportunity to share words and thus my own journey. Grateful that I am on my 3rd bag of Cadbury and still have multiple bags left in the cupboard. Grateful my son spent so long in the shower I had time to actually write the first draft of this after procrastinating since Thanksgiving. Ahem. See—it’s easy. J

Give the practice of gratitude a try.

And please, please pray for my friend, John Stein, and his family.

Monday, November 20, 2017

The Slug Returneth

I wish I could say that I missed a full week because 
           a)      I won the lottery
           b)      Tim Gunn called and said, “We should do lunch, let’s make it work!” and I spent the rest of the week figuring out what to wear.
           c)      We were so busy raising money/doing advocacy work/saving the world that I had No Time to Write.

Unfortunately, the correct reason is 
d)      I am a slug.
Even this photo is sluggy.
But if I try to get it perfect, I may retreat into utter procrastination again. 

I guess self-awareness is the first step to improvement, but ugh. Slug-o-ramba. 
I have words. 
I have plans for words. 
I simply had no oomph to sit and type words. 
Some weeks are more ugh filled than others, for whatever reason. Chemical imbalance + work stress + schedule stress + a lot of friends getting medically smote AGAIN + holidays on the horizon just left me wandering the house a bit and trying to breathe deeply. I did get a lot done, but I just could not rouse myself to write anything down.
That is ok.
Ok, so it’s really not, the whole POINT of a deadline, even a self-imposed deadline, is to create some self-accountability. But in the big picture of life—so what? I missed a few days. 
This can be a tough time of year. Last year at this time things were very difficult. We lost a few good friends to the same medical situation my daughters face.  Facebook kept reminding me of our terrible December 5 years ago (and the weeks leading up to that, which in retrospect read like a horror novel where you know something bad will happen as soon as the protagonist opens the door, and you are like NOOOOOOOOO Don’t open the door! But they do anyway…ugh).  The early dark really oppresses my brain.

In listening to a podcast last week, the speakers referenced how when we try to get ourselves together, all sorts of things hit the fan or pop up—this has so much been my experience the last month or so. But they went on to add that things come up so they can be healed and worked through. Woo! 
But yeah, it still is a WORK. 
This year I am in a better place mentally, physically, emotionally. Cadbury made a fall chocolate, which helped take the edge off the early dark and kept me going until the Christmas ones appeared at Target last week. Even so—I have to be ok with the occasional slug week. 
I read a pretty mind-blowing little meditation this morning, written by a man named John Hull.  He spoke of how he needed to set “little, immediate goals” to get through the days:
“I must be content with little answers. This requires the careful planning of each day, which must be broken into its compartments. Each hour must have its particular skills, its various techniques, its little routines which enable something to be accomplished successfully. Otherwise, I will have a sense of pointless desolation, a feeling of being carried helplessly deeper and deeper into it. This becomes so sharp that I am almost overwhelmed….one fights such a thing by minute steps. One adopts tiny techniques which help one to do tiny things step by step.” 

Get. Out. Of. My. Head.
I am not the only one.

Tiny steps keep us moving right along. And I am not the only one who some days can only take tiny steps, or who needs to actively map tiny steps forward (like, writing “walk dog” on my to-do list in my bullet journal so I feel like I got something done, even if I add it after I actually walked her). 
I am grateful for the podcasts and writings that push me forward, and for the bullet journal that gives me a place to organize my distracted brain.  I am grateful (AGAIN, times infinity) for the medical respite that allows me to work on getting in better shape mentally and emotionally.  I MUST use this respite to be there for our friends in the thick of the battle—to be there for my children, who are growing up (or already grown up) before I could even say “Bob’s Your Uncle”—to be there for myself instead of avoiding thinking about life. 

So slug week is past. Onward. I can do it. We can do it!

Peace out, friends.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Zen Playlist (ish)

Ok, so apparently any time I post about the continuing work of Zen, the Universe hears that as a challenge…and a cosmic “Challenge accepteeeeeeeeeed” echoes eerily through my home. Something like that.

Sometimes things just don’t get better, or other things pile on, or the cumulative effect of many small irritations in my life becomes  a pile of “be a speed bump”itis.

Today is one of those days. But I have to go to work/circus/get G/home/deal with ongoing car woes/youth group stuff for R/grades are due/etc. No time for speed bump.

So today, I upped my time with the light box thing (yeah, still waiting on that to help, but the Mayo Clinic says sometimes it does).  I did my praying time.  I worked out with weights and felt like Beast Mode. I ate a donut (thanks, mom!). And now I am listening to loud music. LOUD.

Today the work of Zen is riding the wave of What the What?? that has marked the last few weeks by listening to motivational music and dancing it off.

I cannot dance.

Like, not at all.

Like, robots have actually travelled from the future to ask me to please never do the robot. I have the rhythm and coordination of a gourd. Those inflatable guys you see outside car dealerships have better moves than I do.

So what?

Today’s Zen is embracing the value of dancing/singing the irritation and frustration of many situations out, even if dancing looks a bit like frantic flailing and the singing is…what it is. The dog isn't howling along, so that is something.

“I can dance if I want to…” (currently playing in background). Yeah. That. So two of our cars are dead. So we have family situations and work situations and school situations.  “We can dance!”

Weirdly, it helps.

And when my family is home, and they find my manic happy dancing annoying, that is just a bonus. ;) Then I can say “you don’t want dancing? Challenge Accepteeeeeeed!” as I flail around them to “Walk Like an Egyptian” or “Safety Dance” or the B-52s or Sia.  They love that so very much. 

Fun Fact:  It is hard to stay crabby or stressed when you are trying to be the crazy medieval lady from the Safety Dance video.

So this is no newsflash, again—but today, all I have is a playlist of happy/determined music and a dog who woofs when I tell Alexa what to play next.

What’s your Greatly Annoying Season Playlist? What songs do you use to tell the universe you are ready for whatever challenge it sends?

Some of my favorites:
Shiny Happy People, REM
Not Afraid, Eminem
The Greatest, Sia
O Fortuna, Carl Orff
Unstoppable, Sia
Anything ever by the B-52s, the sillier the better (Mesopotamia!)
Tubthumping, Chumbawamba
All Star, Smash Mouth
Safety Dance, Men Without Hats
Walk Like an Egyptian (super silly), the Bangles
I am a Rock, Simon & Garfunkel (more if I am mad)
Won’t Back Down, Tom Petty
Lose Yourself, Eminem
Shake it Off, Taylor Swift

I could go on (and on and on and on)—so what’s on YOUR playlist of YEAH, BRING IT!?