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The Gift of Mom; a Life of Curiosity over Concern

My mom is visiting on her annual migration from Mexico to Toronto, by way of Colorado. She lives six months of the year outside Guadalajara, six months in Toronto. Many might think it’s dangerous to live alone, in Mexico, as a single woman in her eighties, but she brushes off their concerns. “People underestimate the people of Mexico. And me.”

To Mom, life is meant to be lived as an adventure, full of discovery and learning. 

While I was growing up in Toronto, Mom held an Honors degree in Physical Education. She coached her Track and Field teams to record-breaking victories at the Ontario Provincial finals. (Her way of coaching me was to toss my running shoes outside, then me, and shut the door.)

When Mom was 49, she changed course. She went back to school to get her Masters in Art History. To others, it was an unexpected divergence, but it made sense to her. She loved sports and she also loved Art. Where was the contradiction? Again, life was meant to be lived as an adventure, and one immersed fully in learning and discovery.

When people questioned her decision to switch from what she knew to something new and different, Mom marveled at how people could ignore the gravitational pull of their curiosity. She’d say, “Doesn’t everybody look at a painting and wonder, Who came up with that idea? and What does it say about who we are as humans?” She often took us to the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto and had us notice the small details in giant paintings. How many tulips do you count in the bottom right? What else can you learn about it while looking? For Mom, studying Art was the next logical step in a life devoted to discovery.

Each spring, when she arrives at our home in Colorado, we make a new painting to hang on the front wall of our home. It’s kind of a funny thing to do to display Art outside the house, but it makes me happy. I am not a painter, but I love color and paint. Plus it feels good to do something for the sheer delight of it. We include Mom, her grandchildren, and many of the neighborhood kids in the making of the painting. The tradition started when I wanted to paint the whole house a different color and my husband did not. Until we could agree on what to do, he suggested I paint a giant canvas and hang it next to our front door.

Eventually, I let go of the idea of painting our brick house, but we continue to make fresh paintings for the wall out front every season. They are less like paintings and more like posters, with bold blocks of color and almost no shading. Shading takes skill and time, something we don’t have. 

It’s raining outside so Mom, my daughter Hazel, and I work on the living room floor. The Brave over Perfect moment here is allowing the painting to be bad. We think of it as play, not product. We have to work fast before the dog walks across the fresh paint. As we paint, we talk. Hazel asks Mom, “What was it like being in your 20s during the 1960s?” Mom responds quickly, “If you remember the 60s, you weren’t there.” She can always make me laugh. 

Minutes later, Mom wants to show Hazel a picture of Leonardo DaVinci’s “The Last Supper.” She accidentally types into Google, “DaVinci Last SUMMER.” Google understands what she means and offers up images of the famous painting, but it’s too late. The idea is too absurd. Mom takes hold of it and comes up with different scenarios for DaVinci’s last summer. “Can you imagine DaVinci on the beach, frail in a speedo, ordering his last fruity drink with an umbrella in it?” We get the giggles and can’t stop. We have to put our paintbrushes down. 

I’m writing on the cusp of Mother’s day, thinking about the many gifts my mother has given me. Laughter, yes. A love of athletics, literature and Art, yes. But the gift I am most grateful for at the middle place in my life is Mom’s ability to follow her curiosity without concern.

It’s easy for me to be hard on myself when I take the time to paint instead of work or write, for example. I see it as a flaw, like I don’t have the metal it takes to pick one thing and go all the way with it. 

My mother doesn’t ruminate or dwell; she prefers to lean toward what is delicious and delightful.

Today, I am choosing to look at life through Mom’s radiant lens. I am crawling around a canvas on the living room floor with my daughter and my mother, wondering what shade of pink to use for clouds at sunset. I want to capture this moment and frame it. I am keenly aware of how precious it is and fleeting. So while I am already on my knees, covered in paint, I bow down in gratitude for the gift of my Mom. 

Happy Mother’s Day!!

Love,

Susie

 

Don’t Let Go, Let Loose

I’m playing with the idea of let loose instead of let go. Here’s what I mean. To let go completely is too much pressure. But to let loose is bite-sized, doable, a step forward in the right direction. I want to let go of control. I’ve been gripping too tightly to things not working out the way I want them to lately and it’s making me suffer. The Brave over Perfect move this week is to let loose instead of let go. 

A few examples. When my child doesn’t do her homework, I play a high-speed game called “Then what?” in my head. It goes like this: “If she doesn’t do her homework. Then what? Then she doesn’t pass the class. Then what? Then she won’t get into a good Arts college. Then what? Then she won’t make it as an adult, alone. Then what? She’ll end up on the streets with really high credit card debt and it’s my fault because I didn’t teach her responsibility.” Except I’ve been playing this game so long that my mind goes straight from “missing homework” to “kid on the streets” with a heavy dose of “it will be my fault.”

I think, Let go. She’ll be fine. Who cares about homework? But the next minute, I walk into her room, see her on her phone, and lose my mind. Instead of letting go, I pull her school books out of her backpack for her. What am I doing? Why can’t I let go? Well, in part, because she is still my responsibility. So maybe I can’t let go because it feels irresponsible. 

But can I let loose? Can I loosen the tunnel vision I’ve had of her ending up on the streets to a wider view? A view that includes at least one alternative? Like maybe she misses a few credit card payments as an adult like I did, has consequences, learns to take responsibility, and is fine. Like maybe she does end up on the streets, but now I see her busking, and doing pretty well. When I wiggle my tight grip loose like a tooth, I feel expansive, lighter. It reminds me of when I discovered the beauty of the word Sometimes

Another example. A friend of mine’s son didn’t get into the college he wanted. Worse, his two best friends did get in. My friend is watching her son’s pain and feels terrible for him. She is trying to let go, but she can’t. She wants to fix this for him. She keeps calling the admissions office to see if he can appeal. It’s a natural response to fight for the people we love. Until, at some point, there is nothing we can do to help them. 

If we trust the universe when we get in somewhere, then we also have to trust the universe when we don’t.

She is having a tough time sleeping. She tells me, “I know I need to let go, but I can’t.” So we try this idea of “let loose.” Can she widen or loosen her gaze? Can she imagine a future for her son that is less tight than landing at the perfect school? I also suggest that maybe she is trying too hard to let go. After all, our biological nature is to protect our children. But is her long term view of her son’s path too tight? What part of the story can she loosen by widening her gaze?

She calls me back to say that she is sleeping better. “Want to know the crazy thing? She asks. “It is like wiggling a tooth loose. I didn’t have to yank it out; it just fell out on its own! My version of letting loose was saying, ‘I’ll call the admissions office on Friday, but not today.’ I didn’t let go completely, but just a little. Then by the time Friday came around, I FORGOT to call. And I didn’t feel bad. I felt better. Now we’re planning a fun trip to visit the schools that he got into.”

In my experience, it works out well in the end, we just can’t see how from our limited vantage point. But it’s too much pressure to try to let go of our vision of how things should go completely. It feels doable to let loose – to look out at the world with our peripheral vision. It helps me to remember how much my own path has zig-zagged. And how happy I am that I didn’t follow the narrow, tight vision that my parents may have had, or I may have had for myself in the beginning.  

This week, don’t try so hard to let go. Instead, can you loosen just one part of your grip or your view? Can you take one tiny step forward by seeing the world with your full, peripheral vision: expansive, open, loose? Notice how the twigs on each branch are loosening their tight buds and opening up. Tender dark shoots uncurling now. Soon, loose, green leaves waving in the sun. 

Love,

Susie

***

What We’ve Done to Women’s History Month

Did you know that International Women’s Day was started in 1910 by a Ukrainian-born woman named Theresa Malkiel? She was a labor activist who collaborated with Clara Zetkin in Europe and Helen Todd in the U.S. and thousands of other female laborers around the world. They marched to demand voting rights and better pay for women.

More recently, what we’ve done to International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month is change it from a collective movement for equal rights to a spotlight on individual female achievements. That shift does two things: 

1) It makes many women feel like they are supposed to achieve great, heroic things on their own

2) It diminishes the need for men and women to work collectively for workplaces that are truly equal and inclusive. 

The interesting thing about Theresa Malkiel, Clara Zetkin, and Helen Todd, is that they all admitted that it wasn’t until women were workers in the formal economy that they saw themselves as worthy of rights. 

As women, they didn’t see their worth or value. 

In the spirit of collective action, I asked my friends in four different countries,

What does it mean to be a woman in the workforce? 

One friend reminded me: 

“Women, especially women of color, have ALWAYS worked. It’s often unpaid, often unrecognized labor, while their counterparts’ efforts are considered formal work and included in the formal economy.”

 Yes!

This is why the collective is so powerful. She gave voice to an essential aspect that I had missed. Women have always worked, and yet that work is perennially undervalued. 

“Together we are invincible” –Isabel Allende

I asked more wise friends to chime in. 

Being a woman in the workforce means…

  • Pumping in a tiny closet on a 20 min lunch break during a 12 hr shift because no one thought of these things
  • Little hands reaching for me, asking me not to leave to work
  • Ignoring certain colleagues and comments 
  • Feeling guilty about leaving my kids, then feeling guilty for leaving work to go to kids
  • It means exhaustion and pride
  • Feeling like I have no idea what I’m doing
  • It means fighting for space to be an equal and valued member of the team
  • Trying to lead in a way that brings my whole self to the table
  • Being patient and sticking to my guns
  • It’s a dance between biting my tongue and and speaking up, and often feeling like I’m passing the buck to someone else to speak up 

They also gave voice to what they love about working in the formal economy:

  • Reading the room
  • Knowing the numbers
  • Finding things to learn in every project and in every person
  • Feeling alive and empowered
  • Connecting with people all day
  • Contributing
  • Having a voice
  • Making a difference because I make my own $
  • Being a role model for my kids and my nieces and nephews

Their responses resonated with me and gave me a feeling of connection that I’ve been craving for, well, two years now!

What we’re going for in life is not just outer achievement, but inner strength and a state of peace and wellbeing. Helen Todd spoke about the goal of equal rights for women as “Bread and Roses” –not just ALL the work, but ALL the pleasure, too!

International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month is about our collective courage, not individual heroism. 

This month, every month, it’s not just about showing up and honoring a few individual heroes, it’s about HOW we show up each day for ourselves and for each other. 

It’s about how powerful we are when we see ourselves as having value. It’s about linking arms together to get sh** done at home, in the formal workplace, and everywhere in between until we finally close the gap in gender equity.

Love,

Susie

***

image credits:

top: Internationalwomensday.com image of 2022 theme #breakthebias

middle: Chicago labor organizing poster. Image courtesy Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/resource/ds.13465/

bottom: poster from women’s march in 2017 from womenshistorymonth.gov

 

Why Climbing a Volcano is a Metaphor for Life

Our son Cole is alone on a gap year in Guatemala. Recently, we visited him and hiked a volcano. The plan was to climb up dormant Volcán Acatenango, spend the night, and watch active Volcán Fuego’s strombolian eruptions in the dark. 

Before the trip, the anticipation of all the unknowns kept me up at night. Fear flared and ruptured my sleep. Will we make it? What if I did all that work to heal only to die on a volcano? 

I’ve learned that Fear never goes away, no matter how skilled I get at facing it. I am mostly healthy, feeling great, but my mind is convinced that another shoe is going to drop at any moment.

The Brave over Perfect move is to recognize the difference between Fear and Fact, and move forward anyway.

Part I 

The start is steep and in some ways, the toughest portion. This is not how most hikes are, but it is, in my experience, how most of life’s challenges are. Lukas, our wonderful guide from Old Town Outfitters, reminds us to go slow and take many breaks. 

We walk uphill in deep volcanic sand. I take one step forward then slide back half a step. Cole is hiking in jeans and basketball shoes, carrying the tent and our water, so he slides even further back than I do. We laugh, but we’re out of breath. It hits me that we are hiking through corn fields. This breathtakingly-steep ascent is a local farmer’s daily commute. 

While in Guatemala, Cole is living with a coffee farmer, Eduardo, and his family. To reach his coffee fields, Eduardo climbs straight up for over an hour every day. I look around me in awe. 

Part II

Soon, farms give way to jungle in a cloud forest dominated by giant Canak trees. We stand inside one of the older trunks in wonder.

The higher we climb, the closer the clouds. It’s the dry season, but it’s raining. My mood falls; I’m worried that it’s too cloudy to see Fuego. Kurt and Cole are not worried; they are happily talking about Formula 1 racing. 

Then the clouds lift, and there is Fuego. On cue, it erupts. All thoughts empty from my mind as rocks roar out the top and rumble down to the valley. It’s more stunning than scary. At least it is while we stand over here, on a totally different mountain. I stare in awe.

click here to see short volcanoerupts movie.

At basecamp, it’s time to set up our tent. Lukas asks, “Do you want to see the sunset from the summit? Another hour, maybe two, of hiking?”

We are not at the summit yet? I’ll skip it; my bed is right here and it’s warm. No. I have to stand back up. 

The “trail” is more like a vertical black beach. I think about the indigenous girls who live nearby, who go to the MAIA impact school that I have been connected to for some time. They have a steep climb ahead of them. The girls entering 7th grade have not been to school since 4th grade because of Covid. And the number of families in extreme poverty has doubled. Thinking of their perseverance helps me to get back on my feet. 

Part III

I remind myself to focus on five, breaking up the ascent into small, five-minute chunks. We’re at about 13,000 feet. The going is slow, but I feel good. We’ve come so far.

At the top, the sun is a fiery red rinse as it sets over all of Guatemala and the Pacific ocean. The clouds are no longer a threat to the view; they are the view.

I worked through a lot of stuff on the way up this volcano. I am not my fear, my frustration, or my doubt. They are clouds, moving by. I just watch in wonder.  

We walk down by the light of our dimming headlamps and bright stars. Cole gives up on walking and sleds down on his shoes.

 

All night, we listen to Fuego’s explosions and don’t sleep much. We wake early to watch the sunrise over Volcán Agua. After a cup of coffee, I am feeling full of gratitude and wonder. 

We head straight to the village where Cole’s host family lives. We gather with Eduardo and Francisca, their children and grandchildren for a Thanksgiving meal of traditional Pepián. Cole translates. I am moved to tears by how this country that has been important to me is now important to him. And by how many amazing mothers Cole has now 😉

There isn’t a tidy moral or metaphor at the end of this story. It’s rough out there right now with a warming environment, the Omicron variant, and a widening gap between rich and poor. But this planet is so beautiful and there are incredible people fighting hard to make things better. If life is a string of challenges, I choose to face them by putting myself in the path of awe and wonder.

This holiday season, may you find a little awe and wonder too.

Love,

Susie

***

 

How to Turn Sh** into Shinola; Lessons From a Dung Beetle

Sometimes the world feels like a big ball of poop and I am the dung beetle, pushing it uphill and backwards, blind to where I am going. Do you know what I mean? 

This act of staying alive is hard work and yet the hill keeps getting steeper with the Delta variant raging, wildfires multiplying, and humans screaming at each other over wearing masks. There is no immediate cure, and the challenge continues. I felt overwhelmed, depleted, and worn down by it all. Then my friend and I stumbled upon a few dung beetles on the trail. 

“it is a serious thing // just to be alive / on this fresh morning / in this broken world.”

Mary Oliver, Red Bird

I didn’t know we had dung beetles in Colorado. But there they were, hard at work, pushing dung balls three times their size, uphill. Watch the video to see how they do it. It’s incredible. They steer their manure pile upside down and backwards, using only their hind legs. 

It’s not easy being a dung beetle. I mean, How do they roll the balls of dung in a straight line when their heads are down? 

click here to see short movie I took of a dungbeetle

I did a little reading. Studies show that dung beetles use the path of the sun and the stars to guide them. When researchers placed tiny cardboard hats on the beetles that blocked their views of the stars, the scientists observed that the beetles just “rolled around and around and around in circles.” Once the hats were off, the beetles moved their balls of dung on a straight course. But how? Sometimes, the dung beetles climb atop their globes of manure, raise their little arms to the sky, and do what looks like a dance. 

Scientists have since discovered that when the beetles do this dance, they are taking a mental snapshot of the sky. They use this snapshot to navigate in a straight line when they go back to work, heads down. 

It turns out that one mental picture of the night sky is all they need to navigate a clear path. Until the way forward is no longer obvious. Then they climb back atop the dung, do another dance, and take a fresh picture.

We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars. –Oscar Wilde

If tiny, tiny brains can solve complex problems, so can we. 

If we are the dung beetles, feeling the full weight of this planet, it’s easy to get lost and spin in circles. It’s time to climb above the sh** and get a new picture of the way forward.

To gain perspective, take stock of where you are. See clearly what’s around you. Then plot your course. You may end up changing directions based on where you are now. A straight path doesn’t mean no jogs or tacks; it means that on average, looking back, it was a straight course. 

Maybe the dung beetles are giving us the recipe for how to get through a personal crisis, plus another day worrying about Afghanistan, Haiti, the next hurricane, or the next variant. 

Discipline and dream. Head down and eyes to the sky. They are not opposites. They are the key ingredients to turning sh** into Shinola. And for moving forward in uncertainty. Do the work, yes, but stay loose, open to change. Continually trust that there is more to see than this massive ball of manure. Go somewhere with a little height and a clear view of the skies, and dance. 

Love,

Susie

***

5 Year Anniversary & Lessons From Vagus

This month marks the 5 year anniversary of my major surgeries! Can you believe it?! I don’t take this life for granted.  But every year since then I’ve had some kind of recurrence or treatment. This summer is the first one since 2016 that I haven’t had to go back under the knife (knock on wood)! I celebrated by immersing myself fully in the natural world, foraging for mushrooms, visiting with family and friends. I haven’t written in months because I’ve been trying to squeeze the most out of summer and light!

Five years ago, I was focused on surviving. Multiple recurrences later, being a “three time survivor”, as they say, my focus is on health and wellness in the throws of uncertainty. It seems powerfully relevant for all of us right now. But where is the heart of my work?

“It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work, and that when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”–Wendell Berry

Should I focus my coaching work on young people or on school leaders? I asked a spiritual advisor/friend. We sat in a room full of crystals, candles, and white sheepskin rugs. She guided me on a meditation deep into my unconscious. I told her I saw a cave, and a green pool of water, and light coming from the water. I must have described what I saw for ten minutes, before she stopped me. 

“I don’t usually interrupt people, but I can’t take it anymore. It’s so obvious.” 

“Excuse me?”

“Work with young people!”

“Is that what the green pool of water is about?”

“Who knows?! Your experiences and your skills are with mentoring young people. They need you. Go to them.”

We both laughed out loud. Sometimes, the spiritual leader needs to state the facts, not interpret the cave. And often, we can’t see our own strengths. We need others to help us see the obvious.

  • I am focusing my coaching practice on 17-27 year olds. I mentor them through their college essays, and help them with every anxiety-provoking transition after that.
  • I am focusing my writing practice on what delights me and what makes us well. 

As for my work in wellness? Currently, I’m in an intensive workshop designed to regulate our nervous systems, so that we can boost our immune systems and better handle uncertainty. 

I am learning fascinating things about the vagus nerve and how to condition it. This nerve superhighway begins in our brain stem and wraps around our lungs, heart, and every major organ. Our vagus nerve communicates to the brain everything about our internal world. It helps us with calmness, relaxation, and digestion.

“I have a lot of faith and a lot of fear a lot of the time.” –Anne Lamott

Through specially-filtered music and restorative yoga with Patricia Gipple, we’re training our nervous system to unstick itself from being perpetually agitated into a place of being able to handle anything. 

It’s powerful work. I can already feel a shift in my mood from “I am exhausted and scared” to “I don’t know how this is going to work out, but I know it’s going to work out.” 

I’m excited to bring this work to the young people I coach, and to you, through my writing.

In August, the work we all need to do is pay attention to abundance; notice the peaches and ripening apples. Notice the roadsides full of milkweed and sunflowers. Notice each other.  Tonight, notice the light the rare “Blue” moon shines down on us. 

Love,

Susie

Dear Cole; a letter to my son on graduation

Dear Cole,

I’m writing you from our front porch, on the eve of your high school graduation. 

Life is not easy. You know that. You have lived that. It’s not about building a life that is easy–without pain or confusion–it’s about living life fully, completely, and compassionately. I know you can do that because you already have.

You have backbone in you now that will never leave you. You just have to talk to your courage, ask it for a clue as to what the next best step might be.

Talk to me, too, wherever I may be. As Anne Sexton, the poet, said to her daughter, “Talk to your heart. I am in it.”

I’ve lived a good life, a life full of adventure, and love. You can, too. Go for it! Risk discomfort for meaningful experience.

Do you remember how scary it was to disassemble your car and how fulfilling it was to put it back together, figuring it out as you went along? It’s not a bad analogy for how to make it through tough times. 

Or do you remember the story about the time I was learning to surf and was embarrassed by how terrible I was? And how I didn’t want to tell anyone I was surfing until I got really good? And how, at a party with interesting, cool people, I went to shake a fascinating woman’s hand and just as I did, sea water streamed out my nose? I apologized and tried to explain that I had just been surfing, but not very well, and that I was sorry, and excuse me while I went to get a tissue. Do you know what the fascinating woman replied? 

“When I see the surfers as I drive home from work at sunset, I think, what a beautiful painting! But you–you are not looking at the painting, you are in the painting. Don’t ever apologize for being in the painting!”

Aim for a life where you are in the painting–out in the world, trying things, throwing your whole, messy self into it, instead of waiting for mastery to begin. 

There is a Taoist story of an old farmer and his son. Maybe you know it. 

One day the farmer’s horse ran away.

“What bad luck!” His neighbors said.

“We’ll see,” replied the farmer.

The next day, the horse returned with three wild horses.

“How wonderful!” said the neighbors.

“We’ll see,” said the farmer.

Then the farmer’s son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. 

“How terrible!” said the neighbors as they brought food and flowers.

“We’ll see,” said the farmer. 

The next week, military officials came to the village to draft young men to the army. They saw that the son’s leg was broken, and passed him by. When his neighbors came around once again to say “What good luck!”

“We’ll see,” the farmer said.

Only time can tell the whole story. We never know whether something is good or bad luck when we are in a situation.

Trust that every time you’ve been challenged, you’ve learned something. When you broke your foot, you learned to beat Papa at chess. When I was diagnosed, you learned how to be a good friend to Joako. When Covid cancelled in-person classes, you learned to replace the clutch in your car. It doesn’t help to divide life into good and bad events, because we can’t see the future. 

Experience life as it is and don’t fight the moments. Being an adult doesn’t just happen because you turn 18 or graduate. Adulthood is a process of becoming. You have to earn it by facing difficult times with openness and curiosity, not just fear.

At dinner table arguments with your sister, I see how often you are right. I also see how important it is for you to be right. Remember, don’t take yourself, or the world, too seriously. Go lightly. Practice being kind rather than right. It feels good to “win” an argument, but it feels better to boost others up and see them discover what is right for them. 

Recently you spoke about your need to let go of trying to know everything. You said that you feel more comfortable in uncertainty now. The way you put it was, “it’s okay to wonder.” I love that. It reminds me of something the brilliant Toni Morrison said, “Meet the unfamiliar with unflinching friendliness.”

You are perfect now, you were perfect when you were born. It is okay to wonder. You don’t need to know everything, or to be right all the time, to earn love.

Papa and I love you unconditionally, Cole. Go into the world knowing that, and watch the way the world responds with love.

xox mama
more published letters:

 

Poetry for Peace (of Mind)

Are you up for a 21-Day Poetry for Peace (of Mind) Challenge? It’s one way to celebrate April as Poetry Month!

When I was in the hospital and could not speak, I recited poetry to myself. After a 36-hour surgery to remove a tumor on my brainstem, I couldn’t read or write. I couldn’t even watch TV because it was too much stimulus. The only thing I could do was recite lines of poetry. The words calmed me down. My racing heart slowed. My anxious thoughts faded away. There is brain science behind this. There is also the practical truth that reciting lines focused my mind just enough to quiet my fears and soothe my pain.

Nelson Mandela, when he was in prison, recited the poem “Invictus” to remind him of his inner strength. It begins, “Out of the night that covers me/Black as the Pit from pole to pole/I thank whatever gods may be/ for my unconquerable soul…” 

In the hospital, I counted on Wendell Berry’s “The Peace of Wild Things” for solace. Berry published the poem in 1968, at the peak of the Vietnam War, and after the assassinations of JFK and Dr. King. Berry finds peace in nature and creatures that remind him of our place in the world. His lines “And I feel, above me, the day blind stars waiting with their light” gave me hope that something bright was coming.

I also leaned on Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese” for comfort when I was feeling useless, because it begins, “You do not have to be good.” Indigenous poet Joy Harjo’s poem “Remember” worked like a spell to put me to sleep. The repeated invitation to feel how we belong to the universe grounded me on the earth and soothed my safety instinct. “Remember the sun…Remember the moon…Remember your birth…” By the fifth or sixth “remember” I was nodding off.

Moments will come up in your life when you feel utterly alone. Poetry is a way to not feel alone. It was a way for me to connect to the world beyond my hospital bed. It was a way for Nelson Mandela to connect deeply to his inner strength. Right now, poetry gives us a way to connect to one another.

This is also the year I turn 50. I am so utterly astonished and happy to be here. More, I’m so glad you are here with me. Poetry can connect us.

When you share lines of your favorite poems with me, I feel you very near to me. I picture us on the same couch, having a cup of tea and stretching a cozy blanket to cover all of our feet. Or maybe we are in a grassy meadow, under those “day blind stars” with our journals open. We are paying attention, being students of the hum of bees and the shape of clouds.

I hope you’ll join me for a special 21-Day Poetry Challenge from April 5-26, 2021 during Poetry Month. You pick a poem. Or I give you one. You have 21 days to learn it by heart. I offer support and resources on 4 live calls on Monday nights. You gain freedom from mind tailspins during troubling times!

Love,

Susie

The Most Radical Response to Despair

What is the most radical response to despair?

Last night, I didn’t sleep much. I was cycling through feelings of sadness and anger at the stupidity of another mass shooting, this time in my hometown of Boulder, CO. Ten people died, including a police officer. As I write this, I still don’t know the victims’ names. What if we lost a teacher or a friend who was just trying to buy her groceries? (Take Action Here)

Luckily, we are not at home. On spring vacation, we’re staying at a YMCA in the mountains, here to x-country ski and rest. We are safe, but rest is hard to come by. Hazel, in tears, keeps asking, “Why would someone do that?” and “How can we play when others are hurting?”

I stumbled through an answer when we went for a walk, “We may never know why. And it’s okay to feel deep sadness for the victims’ families and to play in the sunshine, at the same time. Play just might bring balance back to this world.”

We discovered a small chapel on the property. We walked in and knelt awkwardly before an empty altar, beneath a simple, stained-glass window. I remembered that in a few days, it would be the anniversary of my friend Lisa’s death. 

Hazel and I cobbled together a prayer for all the families of the victims, for Lisa, for the living who are sad and scared. It all felt too much. My friend Katherine texted me this poem,  

“I am in need of music that would flow

Over my fretful, feeling finger-tips

Over my bitter-tainted, trembling lips,

With melody, deep, clear, and liquid slow…-Elizabeth Bishop, “Sonnet” (1928)

Then, outside, Hazel spotted a fox running toward us. The fox was so light on the fresh snow, it looked as if it were floating. When the fox saw our little dog, it stopped. It sat down. It looked like it was trying to decide if we were bad or good. 

“Yes, we’re capable of the most awful atrocities…

we (also) have a fantastic capacity for goodness.”–Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Before the fox could decide, a car drove by. It turned and floated away, its thick red tail waving like a flag. 

We went looking for solace and found it in wildness. 

I also found it in the back of the car: Easter candy and plastic eggs that I bought last week.

While my family slept last night, I hid plastic eggs filled with candy everywhere in our motel room. On lamp-tops, under folded towels, in the mini fridge, between the covers of a book, in boots and socks, and tucked gently into pockets. 

Cole woke up when he rolled over and broke a plastic egg in his bed. 

Half-asleep, he asked, “What’s going on?”

“Easter came two weeks early. At least the egg hunt part,” I said.

“Why?” 

“Because we need to be on the hunt for goodness today.” 

The kids, now giant teenagers, crawled all over the room, and all over us, looking for eggs. They let out satisfied sighs when they found them. The best music was hearing them laugh.  

Sometimes, I get too caught up in the statistics and the dark truths of living and dying. But today I am a little jacked up on too little sleep and too much candy. I feel more determined than ever to celebrate what we have and to be on the hunt for goodness.

Our kids need our help to see the good in the world. Too many of them are struggling to see it. 

That doesn’t mean we have to turn our backs on the atrocities. It means we double down on action. We discipline ourselves to uncover the beauty and the compassion around us. We make it visible. We say it aloud: “See the way young people were helping older people get to safety in the grocery store? People who did not know each other at all?”  

“Listen. Did you hear that our neighbors are sitting with victims, holding space for them to grieve? And Colorado moms are taking action to end gun violence forever?”

“Look! Over here, see the fox and the snow falling on the steady pines?”

We have to work to find the beauty. To make beauty, too. It might be the most radical response to despair.

How am I right now? Awake, safe, sad, angry, and grateful. The kids are wired on sugar. In a minute we’ll head out into the woods on a hunt for goodness. We’ll look for moose sign, fox tracks, and acrobatic starlings, while holding you all in our hearts. 

Once restored, we’ll go back to Boulder and take the baton from our exhausted neighbors. We’ll show up, pitch in, and do our best to make sure lives were not lost for nothing. #BoulderStrong

Love,

Susie

Take Action:

#BoulderStrong

act.everytown.org

#Morethanthoughtsandprayers

 

Make Waiting Easier; 3 of My Favorite Techniques

Waiting is not my forté. Though I’ve gotten much better at it. I’ll show you how. I am waiting for scan test results (every 3 months I have routine scans to watch for tumor activity), Cole is waiting to hear back from colleges, Hazel is waiting for a package she ordered, Leo is waiting to go for a walk, and Kurt is waiting for all of us to be a little less anxious and cranky while we wait. 

Even if you are not waiting for something in particular, we are all waiting for COVID-19 to be a thing of the past. Aren’t we? Katharine Sweeny, PhD, researches how to make waiting easier and has come up with two surprising techniques. I’ve added a third that works for me and many of my clients. 

Sweeny’s research found that common strategies like distraction and bracing for the worst actually exacerbate the pain of waiting. What helps? 

  1. Focus on the present with 15 minutes of meditation a week

Regret keeps us stuck in the past and worry throws us into an unstable future, so continually recover your balance in the present. Think of three things that you are grateful for today and say them out loud. Feel all the feelings now rather than push them away. And even you restless folks might want to give meditation another chance when you hear about Kate Sweeny’s study. She focused on 150 California Law students who took the bar exam and were waiting for their exam results. During the four-month waiting period, the students were asked to participate in a 15-minute audio-guided meditation session at least once a week. “Meditation isn’t for everyone, but our study shows that you don’t have to be a master meditator…to benefit from mindfulness,” Sweeny said. “Even 15 minutes once a week, which was the average amount of meditation practiced by our participants, was enough to ease the stress of waiting.”

2. Cultivate a sense of wonder. Have a mini awe-inspiring moment

Sweeny and her team did a second study. This time over 700 students took a fake intelligence exam. While they waited for results, the researchers showed one group a powerful video of a sunrise set to instrumental music, a second group a happy-but-not-awe-inducing video of cute animal couples, and a third group a neutral video of how padlocks are made. “Our research shows that watching even a short video that makes you feel awe can make waiting easier, boosting positive emotions that can counteract stress in those moments,” Sweeny said. This study validated my wacky idea that cultivating wonder is a precursor to joy. But how do we define “awe”? Scientists agree that it involves a feeling of vastness. Some simple ways to induce awe include: watch a Planet Earth video, commit to going somewhere to catch the sunset or sunrise, look up at the stars on a dark night, listen to an audio clip of Carl Sagan’s A Pale Blue Dot while watching footage of the Earth as seen from space, consider how the trees have been dormant for months and yet come back to life each spring. How do you cultivate a state of wonder, especially now? Where do you find mini awe-inspiring moments?

3. Flip What If? To Why Not? 

My friend Kari inspired me to try this simple, effective technique. When we are waiting, it’s easy to worry and spiral down the negative “What if?” chain, “What if the medical test results are bad? What if I get rejected from every college? What if my package is lost? Often “What if?” questions feel like predictions and they catapult us out of the present into a scary future. They are not predictions, they are only the mind trying to respond to uncertainty. 

Try flipping the question from What if? to Why not? 

  • Why not picture everything working out for the best? 
  • Why not give yourself permission to rest or play while you wait? 
  • Why not trust that you are resilient and resourceful, no matter what the results?  

Waiting can be brutal. But it doesn’t have to take over our lives. These techniques might be worth trying. Why not? 😉

Love,

Susie

image credit: ignant.com