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My Surrender Experiment Part I

To surrender, I have to release my grip on the steering wheel of life. For thirty days, I’m practicing letting go and trusting life. Want to join me? We can start now, during this full moon, and go until the next full moon in August. I call it “The Surrender Experiment” after Michael Singer’s book by the same name. 

The idea was born when I woke up angry one morning because nothing was going my way, despite my best efforts. My plan that day was to promote my memoir, Fierce Joy. “Oh great!” I thought. “I’m supposed to be the spokesperson for joy and all I feel is anger.” 

I want to find a different way. Can I surrender to life without trying to make everything go the way I want it to go? What if I used my strong will to engage with life rather than fight it? What if I trusted that life usually works out, sometimes even better than I imagined? 

The rules:

  1. No news or social media for 30 days 
  2. If life presents me with an opportunity, I must say yes
  3. I can use my will to take action, but I can’t plan or push my agenda forward

Day 1 of the experiment: 

The heat of the day is getting to me. To surrender to it instead of fight what I cannot control, I make dinner in my underwear. I am slicing a tomato when Susanne, the woman who is housesitting next door, walks right into our kitchen. (I forgot the front door was open.)

“The recycling truck comes tomorrow. Can I put some of my recycling in your bin?” She asks, without noticing or caring that I am half-naked. I hold a tea towel in front of me and try to be neighborly, offering to help with the recycling and asking her how she likes living on our street. “I love living this close to the mountains!” She says. “In fact, I’m waking up at 3:30 am to watch the sun rise tomorrow. Want to come?”

Oh no. Rule #2 says I must say yes. 

“Yes?” I answer, with some hesitancy. Who wakes up voluntarily in the 3s?

I set two alarms, stumble in the dark to find my headlamp and meet her in the street the next morning. What happens next is strange. The road is blocked with police cars because of an accident. With the road closed, the mountain is closed, too. There goes our morning hike. But then we make a u-turn and there is another mountain looking at us. We decide to try to summit it instead before dawn. We end up on a steep, unfamiliar trail in the darkness. On the way up, we talk about how each of us is unsure of our next step in life. I hear myself say, “I just have to figure it out.” 

At the top, I am certain that we need to sit in a particular spot to get the best view, but there is no way to get there safely. We try three times in three different ways, with no luck. Life leads us instead to a scrappy patch of ground. We sit down just as the flaming red sun breaks the horizon line and washes us in a rinse of warm air. Birds, as if on cue, start singing. A chipmunk runs by, then stops, and kisses my hand. A goldfinch feeds her young in a nest nearby. It’s all very Disney, and spectacular. 

A few minutes earlier, I was frustrated because I couldn’t figure out how to reach the “best” place to sit. But the spot life chose for us was better than anything I could have imagined. And I didn’t have to do anything. It makes me laugh out loud with delight. I can relax! Yesterday, I didn’t know I was going to come on this hike, and now I am sitting in a stunningly beautiful place with a new friend. I didn’t plan this or see it coming. 

Maybe I don’t need to “figure out” my next step so much as I need to be open to it walking into my kitchen while I am in my underwear. If this is Day 1, what are the next 29 days going to be like?

Stay tuned for Part II of my “Surrender Experiment” in the August newsletter…

Love,

Susie  

 

real truth of publishing a book

The Real Truth About Publishing

I had been looking forward to my book launch day for years. I fantasized about it, actually. In one of my fantasies of life after publishing, I am sitting in a white leather chair across from an interviewer on TV when she asks, “How does it feel to be a published author?” Before responding, I lean back with all the relaxed confidence in the world. I take a sip of my mimosa and say, “It feels amazing. I finally feel complete. Worthy. Free.” And the interviewer smiles a proud smile and the live studio audience jumps to their feet, applauding wildly.

The reality is that I woke up the morning of my book launch and took our daughter to the orthodontist. Then the drywall guy arrived because the ceiling in our kitchen was falling in chunks onto our stove. I had coffee with a dear friend, and that was nice. But a nurse called and interrupted us to let me know that my mammogram results were in, and they needed me to come back in for a biopsy. I walked home in the rain and sat down at my computer, writing a little and paying bills, before going to get groceries and making dinner. (By the way, the biopsy revealed benign little calcium nothings.)

I assumed that the day my book launched, the world would feel different. Sunnier. More loving. All that hard work would feel worth it. But like Mother’s Day, anniversaries, and birthdays, a book launch is just a day. And because of all the expectations and build-up, I found it hard to access gratitude. I began to feel resentful, like maybe my husband should have bought me flowers. Then I felt guilty for wanting the attention, and for the environmental impact of the cut-flower industry. Then I remembered that the book exposed my husband, and our family in a way that he never asked for, and that if anyone should receive flowers, maybe it should be him.

I also thought something would change in me on the inside; not only would the world feel different, but I would feel different. At peace. Happy. And it would be the kind of happy that stuck around forever. But I woke up feeling exactly the same as I did the day before the book launch. What I am learning is that I am just me. I am not some fantasy version of me. And this is my life. It is not flashy. I accept that those visions of leather chairs, TV audiences, and mimosas are just fantasies. There is no magic wand that turns my third cup of drip coffee into a mimosa. But I am also learning that that’s OK. I don’t even like mimosas.

I feel the truth in what the writer Anne Lamott says about publishing, “Publication is not all it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do—the actual act of writing—turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.”

What does it mean to have written this book? It means I understand myself and the world better. It means I made something with my own hands. It means I finished something I started. And it means that maybe others won’t need to go through several craniotomies to gain some of the wisdom I found.

The fantasies of accolades, TV interviews, and flowers are all great. But would I give everything for those? Would I give up my time with my children and friends? All my money? My walks in the mountains? No. Not likely.

Would I give up a lot in order to write? Yes. Absolutely.

In acceptance of the real is the true reward. In my real life, I get to write. I get to discover what I really think and feel by the simple act of putting pen to paper. I get to string words together on a page until they reveal a truth that is not just mine, but ours. I get to try to make sense of a world that often feels like it is in disarray, unfair, even chaotic. I get to face what I fear and work through it, one word at a time. I get to scribble and scratch and scribble again until my words create a summer landscape that anyone can step into, even when it’s winter. If you ask me, that is magic. And that is a fantasy worth living.

Love,

Susie

Please order a copy of Fierce Joy for yourself, a friend, a doctor’s office, or hospital waiting room.

 

When Holiday Spirit Spirals into Holiday Stress

I need to be at two recitals and a holiday event right now. I have stress about time, money, and not having enough of either. I am driving too fast to one of the recitals, trying to “win” a traffic jam by changing lanes a lot.

My holiday spirit can quickly spiral into holiday stress. The world tells us to do it all, buy it all, and be it all for everyone. We want to create lasting, magical memories for our families, and we want to spread gratitude and light in our neighborhoods. But life often interrupts my idea of a perfect holiday. This morning, for example, we had a carbon monoxide scare, discovered that we needed a new furnace, and found lice on one of our children’s heads. Then there were all those holiday events on the same night.

That’s when my car starts talking to me. It had done this before. It beeps when roads are icy, or when someone is in my blind spot (we had to buy this car after I couldn’t turn my head as well from my neck fusion). But never before has it sounded an alarm and said in big letters on the dash: TAKE A BREAK.

Even my car knows that my stress is not normal; it is dangerous. I wait for the message to go away to keep “winning” the traffic jam. Instead, an image of a steaming cup of tea appears, a new alarm sounds, and those words flash again: TAKE A BREAK.

I get off at the next exit. I call my child and apologize for not making the recital. She says, “Don’t worry! There will be more!” Then I drive home, slowly, on a back road, and think about what is in my control to change. Here is what I’m learning about the least expensive ways to manage stress, and how stress affects our brain, and health.  

The next morning I drag my tired bones to yoga. Of course, my teacher, Sukhraj, is talking about stress. She insists that the best way to deal with stress is to hug it out. She quotes the respected family therapist, Virginia Satir, “We need four hugs a day to survive, eight hugs to keep us as we are, and 12 hugs to grow.”

I think, Please don’t make me hug someone now. I’m here at yoga because I want to move my body, not touch other people’s bodies. I close my eyes and act as though I am too busy breathing to engage with others.

Sukhraj persists, “The average hug is 3 seconds. But to make changes happen in your brain and nervous system, we need to hug for 20 seconds. ”

Thankfully, she does not force us to hug each other in class. I go home and check her science. She’s right. When someone hugs us, important changes take place immediately in the brain. There is an increase of dopamine and oxytocin, sometimes called “love’s hormones,” and a notable decrease of cortisol “the stress hormone.” There are abundant studies that say that 20-second hugs can lower heart rates, blood pressure, and activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which acts as a kind of brake when we are under stress.

The next day, when I ask our son and daughter for 20-second hugs, they ask if they can eat something first. “It’s not a hike, just a hug!” I protest. After a few of these, they are used to it. Now they meet me in the kitchen, open-armed.

When my husband tries to squirm out of my hug to go to work, I say, “I know. You hate hugs.” He says, “Nah, I don’t totally hate hugs.” When I tell him about needing “12 hugs a day to grow,” he says, “I don’t think I’m going to grow much at this point.” He lets me give him a 20-second hug anyway, as often as I can.  

What if you live alone? Some studies show hugging pets has the same effects on the brain, and holding hands (as in taking up ballroom dancing 😉 reduces stress levels substantially.

Hugs just may be the least expensive way to manage stress.

I want to add one more way to manage stress. Getting outside in nature is the quickest way to boost my mood and lift me out of a depressed state.

When my car demanded me to “Take a Break,” I finally listened. I pulled over. What I didn’t tell you is that I sat on a rock under a pine tree for a few minutes. I listened to the chickadees call to one another. I watched the sun turn the clouds yellow, then orange, then red, in a glorious light show. It only took a moment to come back to myself, and to feel connected to what matters. And when I stood up to go, I am not embarrassed to tell you that I hugged that tree and whispered, “Thank you.”

Love,

Susie

image credit: Janaina de Oliveira, Flick’r

***

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How to write a book (or finish any big project) in 30 minutes at a time

Before, my secret way to write was to procrastinate forever then to work in frantic, uneven bursts; I insisted that I needed big chunks of time and a clean desk in order to write. I thought it was the only way to be inspired, and to find flow. But since my surgeries, I have a fraction of the energy I used to have. If I was going to write a book and start a business, I needed to find a new way. How do I get anything done if I have to lie down all the time? Aim for progress, not perfection.

For example, I just handed in my memoir to the publisher; it’s about 70,000 words. I wrote the book 30 minutes at a time, with multiple naps in between. A friend was curious about my system. She asked me to share what I do, reminding me that, “None of us have the energy we used to have!” So maybe my “progress over perfect” strategy is helpful to you, too.

My new secret way to amplifying focus and minimizing procrastination is not so secret. It is fundamentally the same as the fantastic Pomodoro Technique, with a twist. It waves goodbye to multi-tasking and goal-setting. And says hello to rest and moving forward. When I was in the hospital, the key to my mental and physical health was to focus on small victories. It’s important to shift our gaze from the overwhelming size of any project and toward progress.

It starts with the night before. I decide what tiny piece of writing (or task) I want to work on the next day. When I put my computer to sleep, I make sure that the page I open to in the morning is not my email inbox, and not a blank document (too much pressure!) but a document with some of my scribbles already on it. My friend Teresa, who is a single mom, a scientist, and a PhD candidate, starts each morning by filling in the lines and points on a single graph. She is going to finish her dissertation this year, one graph at a time.

When I wake up, I light a candle for luck and light, and I set my watch timer to 30 minutes before I do anything else. Yes, I still have a watch, and No, I don’t recommend that you use your phone. I need to keep my phone in another room, on airplane mode, because it is too distracting.

I like the Pomodoro idea of using a kitchen timer, but is anyone else sensitive to the loud ticking? It made me feel like there was a bomb on my desk and inside my head. I tried muffling the timer with a pillow, but that is just weird. Then I realized that any cheap digital timer will do. I love this Miracle TimeCube timer because it doesn’t tick and it’s so simple.  

Next, I write for 30 minutes without judgment. Why 30 minutes? Because it is an amount of time that 1) I can usually carve out without interruption 2) It’s not so short that I don’t get into a flow, and it’s not so long that my mind finds reasons why I can’t do it 3) It’s not finicky or gimmicky; it’s easy for me to remember.

By the way, this is how I used to race ultramarathons: 30 minutes at a time. It was too intimidating to think about the whole race and how many hours I would be on my feet. So I broke it down into 30-minute chunks. Run for 30 minutes, eat and drink something, then run for another 30. You can run for a whole day like this, or longer. It reminds me of what E.L Doctorow once said (and Anne Lamott quoted) about writing a novel, “(It’s) like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”  

To start fresh each morning, I usually move all those words I had on the page from yesterday down below the screen. I need to know that they are there, but I don’t want to get sucked into editing them, because then I don’t move forward. And that’s the key. Make progress. Once you make it about “finishing a chapter,” you’re focused on an outcome and a product, which can send your creative mind into fight, freeze, or flight mode. Focus on time, not task.

After 30 minutes, I clap at least three times to give myself a mini round of applause, and take a 5-min break. I stand up, refresh my coffee, and stare out the window.

I do this 30-minute routine three times, then take a nap. If you can’t nap because you are a teacher or a doctor or a mechanic, do something to rest and recover. In an office, I used to leave and walk around the block. And, on those days when a child is home sick, the furnace is broken, the car needs snow tires, and bills need to be paid, I still write. I do a single 30-minute interval of scribbling without judging, then I give myself a standing ovation.

To review:

  • Set yourself up for success the night before
  • Write/work for 30 min
  • Stop & applaud yourself
  • Rest: take a 5 min break
  • Do three more intervals on the same or different tasks (30 min + 5 min rest x 3)
  • Rest: take a longer break (I like the rhythm of also taking a 30-min break)
  • Repeat

One important note: to begin or wrap up a creative project, I still need long swaths of uninterrupted time. There is nothing more valuable than a long weekend totally alone, devoted to writing. But in the messy middle of a difficult task or a creative endeavor, just make progress, 30 minutes at a time, without multitasking.

Oh, and don’t skimp on the applause! When you are tackling something big, you better do it by loving yourself along the way, or why do it at all?

Love,

Susie

****

The Sex Talk I Never Got, For My 15-yr-old Son

I want to talk about intimacy and sex with you. At school, you’ll get lectures about protection and diseases. Good. And yet, sex is not just about love and babies, or herpes and condoms, but about mutual respect, and curiosity.

You may feel like you are supposed to know what to do before getting intimate with someone. You may want to show up perfect. But the point of intimacy is exploration and freedom, not perfection. Everyone is, literally, feeling their way around in the dark when it comes to sex. When perfectionism enters the bedroom, it’s not just dull, it’s dangerous.

Terrible things can happen when your desire to be perfect makes you pretend to know what you’re doing. The first things to go are honest communication and vulnerability. Without them, you are not having sex, you are just satisfying an urge and taking advantage of someone. Worse, you may try to force another person to do what you want, because it feels easier than being rejected, maybe even easier than asking permission. But you must never take another’s freedom and dignity; it is a trauma that stays with someone for life. Your responsibility during sex is to remember that you are with another human being, and someone’s child; treat that person with care. 

As a teenager, you may experiment with illegal substances, because you think they make you brave. But drugs and alcohol don’t make you brave, they make you deaf and dumb. When you are drunk or high, especially in a group, it’s really tough to hear the voices of reason, or compassion, or a single, scared voice telling you to STOP. Listen. There is nothing attractive about drunk sex. The sexiest thing is to touch and be touched once you and the other person in the room have said an enthusiastic, undeniable YES. But to say yes, you need to talk, you need to ask for communication.

“Use your words,” I encouraged you at two years old. I’ll keep encouraging you now to speak your feelings. It’s ok to say, “I was feeling great a minute ago. But something is changing. Let’s pause and explore.” Don’t make it your goal to be in charge. Make it your goal to slow down, and discover what makes it fun for both of you. Intimacy and sex are apart of the process of knowing who we are, who someone else is, and what it means to be human. Notice how it feels when there is no fear, because there is trust, because there is conversation, because there is connection.

Maybe the repair of the world starts in the bedroom when two people see each other not as opposites, but as equals. When you choose to have sex or not is up to you, but please go armed with condoms and kindness. And then when you say yes, say it confidently, and let fear drive someone else’s car. Remember, if you ever feel stuck or uncomfortable, even if you feel that you got yourself into the situation, call me anytime. I’ll pick you up, no questions asked, and bring you home.”

If these words were helpful to you parents, use them, copy them, make a video with a cat saying them, just please don’t avoid the subject with your teens anymore. Christine Carter, my partner on the Brave over Perfect site, has these excellent 3 tips on how to get started

And, because it’s difficult to talk to our kids when they are rolling their eyes and slipping out the window, telling us they’ve “got this,” I offer one last strategy. Write a letter to your teenager(s) about relationships and intimacy that is more positive than negative. Start with the prompt: “The sex talk I never got, but wish I had…” I believe that the next best thing to talking openly about sex is writing down your thoughts and feelings, and giving those scribbles to your children, not as a report of your trauma, but as a map to healthy, positive relationships. It might seem like they don’t care. But I’d argue that they do, and that it might be one of the most important letters you ever write. 

Love,

Susie

 

image credit: Flick’r, Blue Skyz

Awe

The Days of Awe; A Poem for You

Today, I headed to the nearest ditch with water in it and a bag of stale bread. I asked, What do I want to let go of from last year? What do I need to do differently, if anything, to be my true self? Then I tossed the bread into the flow, naming each crumb after behaviors I’d rather not repeat this year: worrying, doubting, hustling, yelling, judging, hesitating, playing small...This is a tradition I do each fall, based on the Jewish ritual of Tashlikh. I am not Jewish. But it feels right to celebrate the New Year in September (that’s what two decades of teaching does to you!) I wrote this poem about what I’ve learned from the river and the breadcrumbs, so I never forget.

The Days of Awe
These are the days of awe.
Lie back in summer’s last green grasses.
Listen.
Each cricket’s song is slower now,
the wind smells of ripe apples,
the soil devours rain
and coughs up stones.
Blackbirds rise up from the fields
Like mist off a pond.
Trees gain color and restraint overnight,
act like old ladies who
snap their purses shut
in anticipation of a need.
Remember
The sun isn’t journeying
east to west.
We are
spinning — west to east,
setting to rising,
beginnings growing out of endings,
not the other way around.
Lie back in the wet grass.
Wait for the sky to grow dark.
Breathe in the moon
like a question
you’re not quite ready to ask.
Be like the river
Who moves toward the unknown,
who doesn’t turn around
and ask the mountain for directions.
Listen to the grace of insects,
then drop, swell, and release
like bread in cool, swirling waters.

Love,

Susie

 

CAN vs USA; ME vs HIM

We sat side by side on our couch, enthusiastically cheering for opposite teams during the gold medal Women’s hockey game. I was screaming at the Canadian women, “Set up and SCORE!” My husband, Kurt, was chanting “USA! USA!”

I am competitive. I am also Canadian, born and raised in Toronto. My husband is American, born and raised in Des Moines. Neither of us likes to lose. But for some reason, his rooting for a different team was getting under my skin. Kurt doesn’t even care about hockey. He should be cheering for Canada to support me. He should always have my back.

My husband wasn’t doing anything wrong. In fact, he wasn’t doing anything at all. He was literally just sitting there, cheering on his country. But I took his stance personally. I felt like he was cheering against me.

Fine, I thought. If he is going to cheer for USA, then prepare to be crushed.

Many of you know the outcome of the game: Tied up in the 3rd period at 2-2, the gold medal final went into sudden death overtime. After twenty minutes of 4-on-4 play, the score was still tied at 2-2. Then everything stopped while they re-surfaced the ice before a shootout. In a shootout, one player skates with the puck straight at the goalie. “Nail-biting” isn’t dramatic enough to describe the tension. It felt more like “arm-biting” or “arm-and-leg biting.”

Each team gets five chances to score a goal, what officials call “a winner.” This time, at the end of ten shots, both teams scored the same number of winners. The game was still tied.  

By now it was 2:30 in the morning in Toronto, and past midnight in Boulder. Kurt and I were no longer looking at each other or speaking to one another. We were leaning forward with the skaters, and diving for pucks with the goalies. Then they began a second, sudden-death shootout: five more shots on goal each. Finally, the American women scored one more goal than the Canadians. Game over. USA won the gold.  

I slammed the door. I stomped around the house. I turned to my husband and said, “You’re American and all Americans are obnoxious.”

“What?” He looked at me, concerned. The “polite and friendly” Canadian was yelling aggressively, and stereotyping her own husband.

In that moment, I felt angry and helpless. When I feel helpless, I attack. When I feel empowered, I connect with others. Note to self for the future: Can I create a feeling of empowerment by deliberately connecting with others, rather than letting helplessness take over my body and my voice?

Kurt was just doing what he always does: cheering for the underdog. This time, the underdog was the United States. When I make my husband stand for all men or all Americans, I objectify him. But I don’t ever want to be objectified. I have to be able to empathize with him on a calm, sunny morning, and also during moments of high stress, if I expect to be treated with respect and compassion.

He wasn’t cheering against me; he was just being him. I want to let go of my expectation that unified means “the same.” Kurt doesn’t have to be the same as me or the same as some fantasy husband to be the right guy for me. We are different. I want to let him be who he is and be fully who I am. If I begin there — we are different — there is a better chance of us finding our unique ways to battle life’s struggles with unified force.

Love,

Susie

***

How much can we really expect of our spouses and still be happy?  If expectations create relationship-killers, like nagging, contempt, and criticism, how can we respond constructively when our expectations aren’t met?

 Learn more or enroll now. 

Our next group coaching live call is Friday, March 16. We’ll be digging deeper into the misery of high expectations, and more specifically what to do when our partners don’t measure up.

Join now and you can listen in to our March 2nd recording and get instant access to all of our Love & Marriage online resources.

(photo credits: Usman Malik/Flick’r & Jamie Squire/Getty Images)