December 22, 2011

Quality Time

During the holiday season we often think about gifts to give the special people in our lives. These dark days of December are a cozy time to reflect on all the blessings in our lives, and perhaps particularly on the people in our lives. I purposefully (and with deep gratitude) surround myself with people who energize, accept, inspire, understand, and love me. Sometimes, I find a special gift to give these dear ones. But gifts are not something I force. In fact, an inauthentic gift does not reflect how deeply I value my loved ones. Yet what I can always give and give authentically is quality time: time when I'm fully present for and open-hearted with the special people in my life.

Last weekend, I took my dad to San Antonio for the women's volleyball final four. (This was a surprise birthday/Christmas present for him, and it was SO much fun to make it all work.) The trip was an excellent example of quality time. While in San Antonio, we were in the moment and we truly enjoyed each other's company. This was a special gift for both of us.

It's interesting that during the holidays our culture is focused on gift giving and socialization, yet many of us feel exhausted by it all; perhaps because it's not quality time, but rushed obligation or habituated internal expectations. Yet if we make just a little space, this can be a natural time for reflection. As Mary Oliver asks in "The Summer Day": "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"

Maybe we can give ourselves and others the gift of open-hearted presence--a gift of quality time.

December 8, 2011

Reset Button

In early November, Mark and I attended a meditation retreat in Madison lead by teachers Cheri Maples and Sharon Salzberg. After months of prioritizing the "doing" part of me, I allowed myself to reacquaint and develop the "being" part of me. What a welcome relief! This was a lovely reset button for my soul.

I found myself reflecting on the teachings and the retreat experience as I re-immersed in busy academic life. For example, a typical distraction from the present moment (and the sometimes difficult emotions and feelings we experience there) is to ruminate on the past or plan obsessively for the future. Sharon told a story about someone who missed an airline flight, and then constructed an elaborate plan about what would happen for the rest of the travel day, ending with the person in despair about whether a cab could be found at midnight in Portland. (We can all imagine ourselves constructing similar stories in a variety of situations.) As Sharon says, we can lose ourselves in the future, OR we can choose to stay in the present and simply remind ourselves, "something will happen." What a great reminder. I gently said this phrase ("and then something will happen") to myself each time I found myself lost in a story of the future (e.g., how will I wrap up my courses? what exactly will my students learn? how will the students feel about the course?).

If we cultivate the practice of being, then we're more mindful of the gaps--e.g., the gap between experiencing a situation and responding to it, the gap between intention and action, or the gap between emotion and speech. If we allow for it, there are many gaps throughout our day, and we can decide how to mind those gaps most skillfully (as skillfully as we can in that moment).

During loving-kindness meditation, phrases (rather than the breath) are the focus of concentration. These phrases (e.g., may I be safe, may I be happy, may I be healthy, may I live with ease) are repeated for ourselves, then a benefactor, then a good friend, then a neutral person, then a difficult person, and then to all beings. (There are actually many different ways to do loving-kindness meditation). At the Madison retreat, we spent time both in seated meditation and walking meditation. Some of the walking meditation was done outside. Mark commented that it's really easy to send loving-kindness to ducks (how true!):

Duck or no duck,
May you be safe,
may you be happy,
may you be healthy,
may you live with ease.

October 16, 2011

Lovely Reminder

Each fall, I get caught in the busyness of the new academic year. This initially comes from a positive place: students bring excited, happy energy into the classroom. I'm energized by them and by my own creative plans for my courses. The first week is magic--it's exhausting, but deeply fulfilling (reminds me why I love my job). Gradually, though, the busyness takes a turn. In fact, it's not the external busyness, but my own internal busyness--the busyness of ego, unrealistic expectations of myself, and the need for control.

Whenever I feel vulnerable, control is my go-to habit. Yet it's a cage; it clips my wings. So I've developed some new, more freeing--yet not as familiar--habits to replace the cage. But what happens when my vulnerability is ramped up? I not surprisingly revert back to familiar--if unhealthful--habits. This has been the back and forth of my days and weeks. Sometimes I quickly realize my need for a genuine pause to recenter; other times I plow through the day without a single deep breath. Such is the work of creating a new habit.

Quality time with my nieces and nephews always brings me back to my authentic self. Being with them allows me to easily access mindfulness, joy, perspective, and play. These are things I always carry with me, but sometimes (like in the middle of the term) I need a reminder. I got that pleasant reminder last weekend.

Yay for that! And yay for cookie monster cupcakes:

October 2, 2011

Real Self

Last week was up and down. Some days I felt completely connected, real, and free. Other days I felt obsessed by externals and allowed ego to drive my actions. And some days were a mix of both (ah, as is much of life :)). I pushed hard at work on Friday, but then relaxed into a wonderful evening of delicious food, great beer, and tap-your-toes music. Saturday began leisurely. Then was filled with emotion, support, friendship, and sharing at the Down Syndrome Awareness walk in Neenah. (Bless you, Madeline Mae, for bringing us all together.) But then ego hooked me again, and I raced right from the lovely walk to hours of errands.

I know, what was I thinking? Well, I can tell you what my ego/non-truth-telling voice was saying: "If you complete all these errands now, then you'll be okay, and you can relax tomorrow." But wait! My fear-based ego voice never lets me relax. There's never a time I'll have everything wrapped up. So, again, why did I listen yesterday? Who knows. Perhaps because I was filled with difficult emotions. Or maybe it was just old habit.

The good news is I more quickly realize when I'm in the throes of non-stop doing (with little being and feeling). Yay! I realize it. Yesterday that aha moment came at the grocery store. I took out my grocery list and on the list I saw "real self." I paused for a moment--did Mark find my list and add "real self" as a reminder for me? No, this was my writing. But I didn't purposely write it. YET, it seemed so poignant: of course I should find my real self at the grocery store--why wait another second?

Then I recognized what I actually wrote: "Real Salt" (it's my salt brand of choice). I laughed out loud in the produce aisle. In fact, I couldn't stop chuckling during the whole grocery run. And, in that process, I did actually find my real self.

[Here's a picture of my real self playing an arcade game when my nephew visited in July.]

September 17, 2011


Self-reflection is an integral part of my life. It allows me to walk a more authentic and sustainable path. Reflection, in general, is something we educators promote. Reflection about what has been learned, how it ties together, and how it applies more broadly. This type of reflection, which can be applied to academic topics, is actually useful in all aspects of our lives.

Yet true reflection requires space. We need space to breathe,to listen inwardly, and to connect with that place in ourselves that speaks--perhaps only whispers--our genuine longings, needs, feelings, and insights. Interestingly, though, that space need not be grandiose or sacred or for a long period. Sometimes I sabotage my own self-reflection by thinking it requires hours of time or can only be done in a certain location (the list of reasons goes on). In its simplest form, reflection merely requires I pay attention to my breath (or body or mind or feelings), perhaps only for 1 minute.

So easy to forget at the beginning of an academic year. This first week was filled with magical energy, connections with students, important conversations, laughter, creative pedagogical work, and worthwhile gatherings of the Lawrence community. Yet I also spent very long hours at the office with minimal reflection. But here's the great news: I can start again today. Hurray! Everything hasn't gone to hell simply because I didn't reflect as much as I wanted during the first week of school (oh, the stories we tell ourselves).

I celebrate self-reflection in all its different forms. And I celebrate the ability to start anew each and every day.

July 10, 2011

Magical Moments

Sometimes magical things happen. Not magical in a big, spectacular way, but magical in a soft, soul-filling way--as if the Universe specifically gives me a boost when I really need it, yet actually that boost is always there (just like Dorothy's ruby slippers).

Sometimes a bee lands on a flower just before I take the picture:

Or two of my closest friends (on separate days) say things that both rock my world and prod me to see more clearly. And this leads me to take a terror-barrier leap (my therapist's term) into the unknown; a leap that is true to my soul yet comes with an emotional hangover. But then the magical moment of realizing I'm okay! That I'm worthy of loving myself fully and unabashedly (wow!). Then I share my feelings with another close friend and she understands in a visceral way--a connection that comforts me deeply.

Or I put on a bright summer dress and go out to dinner with my husband and our best friends, where we share, laugh, eat good food, and celebrate. We celebrate the little things, because that's what all of life is about.

Or Mark gives me a long, wrapped-in-love hug and I linger in that safe space. Or we share a  wholesome, yummy, home-cooked meal while on our back porch--always stopping conversation to savor the food or watch the chipmunks. Or Mark says something that makes me laugh out loud--especially good if I'm in a funk and I laugh at myself.

Or Mark whimsically snaps two photos of me at which I don't cringe, but I look at and think, "yes, that is me and there's nothing to hide":