Feedback or Criticism? Your Choice.

I’ve been told that yoga is the gateway to self-realization. Me-thinks this is a ridiculously tall order for a stretching and breathing routine. And yet, I can’t deny that magical things (not always glorious) happen when I practice.

Enter Yoga Bitch – a tyrant of an instructor in a Barbie doll body. I purposely avoid her classes because of her uber-corrective style of teaching. I prefer a more subtle approach – the kind that favors ‘come as you are and do your best.’ But here she was, filled to the brim with critique and ready to release it with fervor.

Her perpetual corrections to each student amounted to a barrage of noise in my head that threatened to fracture my composure and release the hateful thoughts swirling around in my head. As my annoyance escalated, I tried desperately to force benevolence. But so convinced was I of my rightness and the teacher’s wrongness, that I couldn’t concentrate.

‘This is a test.’ I thought. ‘FOCUS!’

The harder I fought to block her out, the greater my anxiety.

Yoga Bitch broke protocol and began circling the room like a shark which further deteriorated my resolve. I feared for her safety as I imagined an unrestrained Hulk emerging from within me. Then the unthinkable happened – she TOUCHED a fellow yogi!

A quick disclaimer followed – she wouldn’t touch a student unless she had known them for a long time and had his or her permission. Note to self: don’t become too friendly with yoga instructor.

Assuming that my fellow yogi felt as agitated as I did for him, I glued my attention in his direction, expecting and maybe even hoping that he would lash out at her and send her scrambling back to the front of the room where she belonged. Instead, he softly and sincerely said, “Thank you.”

Thank you?! Cue the scratching record sound. I could hardly believe my ears. Did he mean that sarcastically like, ‘Thank you sir, I’ll have another?’

I froze in my posture, stunned, while my brain flipped over, showing me the other side of the coin.

Tails: She’s so critical and annoying.
Heads: She’s trying to help. Say thank you.
Tails: But it’s not helpful. I don’t want to say thank you.
Heads: Don’t be childish. It’s for your benefit. Just make a different choice and you will find peace.

The ability to reframe my perspective so completely and with such speed came as a sort of shock. One second I was raging and the next I was mollified, simply by choosing a new thought.

I’ve been known to preach that everything in life is a gift for which we can be grateful – even criticism. Hadn’t I just told my 12 year old as much when she complained that her English teacher’s review of an essay was unfair? It’s so easy to hold onto pride and so difficult to swallow it in the name of self-improvement.

Later that day I tried my gratitude trick on other difficult situations. “Thank you,” I replied to the boss who micromanages my work. “I won’t make that mistake again.”

Choosing this response, albeit with an experimental amount of sincerity, changed me. There was no resentment or anger or impatience for this person or the situation. And it changed the woman’s response to me. In the absence of defensiveness, both sides were free to be kind. My appreciation for her ‘help’ generated an in-kind donation of gratitude for all my ‘hard work and commitment to growth.’ Go figure.

I’ve read that a good yoga teacher will show you the way toward yourself. She cannot bring you there. You must find your own way. And should you run into your shadow along the way, you’ll know that you’re on the right path.

I’m not going to lie and say that I suddenly love being critiqued. But I do have a more mature appreciation for it and a sense of gratitude to those who are brave enough to dole it out. Which simply means that my beloved yoga studio, and the world, are (for now) safe from the defensive beast that is me.

The Scenic Vista

scenic vistaA friend who is ahead of me in the parenting timeline predicted that my first-born would return from college with a grateful heart. The distance from home and family would create the necessary space for a paradigm shift. And so it happened in the form of a letter.

‘Dear Fam,’ it began. ‘I never realized….’

Principessa, overflowing with new-found insight, detailed aspects of our family values, traditions, and relationships like a seasoned philosopher. She thanked us for our support and expressed pride in our family. I was humbled by the sentiment. But the real reward was a section on self-reflection in which Prinicipessa’s blossoming confidence shined through.

She listed an inventory of attributes that have served her well in her first semester at college – her ‘toolkit’ she called it. It included communication skills, resilience, self-worth, humility, responsibility, hopefulness and faith – all of which she attributed to parenting skills.

When I recovered my tear-soaked eyesight, I breathed a sigh that I might have been holding onto for 18 years. Since the onset of motherhood I wondered if I was doing parenting ‘right.’ Even with the knowledge that right and perfect don’t exist, I longed for reassurance that my choices would, at the very least, have a net positive effect.

I’m still on the parenting highway with a long way to go. But this brief return of a college-aged daughter has been like a rest stop with a scenic vista. A chance to get out and stretch my weary self, breathe in the big picture, and offer gratitude for the journey.

I look back on the road we’ve travelled and wonder how we arrived safely at this point. Husband and I knew we wanted to take this family trip through life, but let’s face it, we had no idea where we were headed or how to get there. None of us do. We hop on board with the vaguest idea of what parenting has to offer.

Taking stock from this spot, I realize that this is for the best. No human can trump the trip-planning skills of life. We can prep and plan but life will take us off-road through adventures we never dreamed of.

Like a good geocacher who has found a treasure, before I leave this resting place, I will offer these nuggets of observation for those who trail me in time and space, in hopes that it will ease their journey.

  1. It’s all going to be okay. This is not to be confused with ‘nothing bad will ever happen.’ Trials will arise and roads will be blocked. Each is an invitation. You will either find your way around them or you will crash mightily. Either way, life will go on and so will you. Find comfort in that.
  2. The fact that you don’t know where you’re going doesn’t mean you won’t arrive. Just follow the signs and dare to explore. You have what it takes. I promise.
  3. Love really does conquer all. At the end of the trip, love is all that matters. Loving each other, loving the self, and loving life is the hardest, simplest, and most valuable aspiration in the world. Return to it as many times as you stray from it and it will welcome you home.

Life beckons me to return to the reality of the road where I likely will lose sight of this sweet perspective, at least temporarily. Letters of reassurance from grateful children may be far and few between. Rough travel is bound to surface and challenge my bolstered confidence in parenting. But having reached this point, I can say with certainty that the view is worth the struggle.  Stop and enjoy it when you get the chance.

A Girl’s Wishes

sad butterfly 1I wish my father would have been kinder about fat girls. Perhaps I wouldn’t have starved myself in order to appear well-under the imagined weight that was the threshold of his love.

I wish the schoolboys wouldn’t have judged other girls harshly, finding fault with models and actresses and teachers. Every criticism, though not directed at me, prompted my own inner critic to register a list of unacceptable traits and unrealistic expectations of perfection.

I wish that advertisements would have been honest about beauty and the need for improvement. Perhaps I wouldn’t have wasted so much money and time on fixing myself.

I wish my boyfriends didn’t believe me when I pretended not to care that they flirted with other girls. I might not have crumbled on the inside while learning to put on a pretty face.

I wish my friend’s father knew that nicknames aren’t always welcome. Perhaps I wouldn’t have doubted the me I knew, compared to the me he labeled.

I wish someone had taught my high school crush to be gentle and kind when letting a girl know that he’s just not into her. Perhaps my veins wouldn’t have turned to ice and colored my future relationships.

I wish I would have had the courage to say ‘no’ and to register my honest opinion.  It might have spared me regret.

I wish I hadn’t needed boys to affirm my self-esteem. But I did. I was human. And I was girl.

The New You

brand-new-you1

image credit purefunfit.com

Dearest Daughter,

I love that you so clearly wrote your feelings in response to my spontaneous comment about not liking the New You.  I am equally unhappy that your email was written at 1:00 a.m.!  Why? Because that is very late and I worry, as mothers do.

I try hard not to share my worries because I want to project confidence for you.  Deep down, I believe that you’ll be fine, even when you make poor choices or even good choices that I don’t like.  I believe in fate and God and the goodness of Life.  But my human-ness and my mom-ness continue to plague me with what-if scenarios.

When you were a clumsy toddler, I watched with fear as you climbed a playground structure.  My hands were never far from your body, waiting – expecting – to have to catch you.  My mothering instinct is to protect.  Over the years, I’ve learned to subdue the urge to rescue you, even when you begged me.  Case in point: making you call the orthodontist to let him know that, again, you need to replace your retainer.  And that you will be paying for it.

While punishing me as a child, my mother told me, “This hurts me more than it hurts you.”  I didn’t believe her.  I do now.  It hurts me to see you struggle, even when I know it will result in your favor.

As the first-born you bear the task of paving roads.  All along the way, my parental inexperience has been your guide.  You are my first child to leave the nest and I am learning how to reconcile my heartbreak with my pride.  Both emotions are strong and are battling for victory.

Last night, you captured a heartfelt but selfish comment from me.  When I said that I don’t like the new you, I misspoke.  I love all versions of you.  What I dislike is the feeling that my world is changing so drastically and so quickly.  You are living life your way, not my way, as it should be.  I envision myself grasping for the rope that tethers your boat to the dock.  But your ship is ready to sail.

You are branching out toward unfamiliar experiences, taking advantage of the bounty of youth, and it’s difficult for me to watch.  But my skepticism is not an indication of the rightness or wrongness of your choices.  As you pointed out in defense, you are consciously taking risks and risks are essential to growth.

Principessa, I trust in your core values.  I believe your intentions are pure.  You don’t disappoint me.  And I could never think less of you.

Thank you for pointing out that it’s also hard for you to see yourself changing.  We know that change is essential and beneficial but it’s often scary.  Now that we’ve exposed our mutual fear and shined a light on it, it looks less daunting.  Let’s agree that we won’t let fear get the best of us.

You worry that you’ll become someone you don’t recognize.  It’s true that you’ll stray from the person you’ve been, but you can’t lose yourself.  There is a part in each of us that is connected to our source. It cannot be severed. You are, and always will be, uniquely you by divine design.

If you forget who you are, how special and precious, just ask me.  I will pour my love into your heart and remind you of your value. As always, I will be here, with arms outstretched, ready to catch you if you fall.

Loving you more than you can imagine,

Mom

dr seuss you

The Secret to Life

savor-the-flavorA well-intentioned adult gave our soon-to-be high school graduate this advice: “Savor everything right now. This is the best time of your life!”

This one thought stimulated a frenzy of conversation about what it means to savor. Afraid that she would not grasp the concept and would miss an important passage into young adulthood, Principessa desperately tried to hold on to every Senior experience. One would have thought that she was living the last few breaths of her life the way she attacked each day.

We began to unwind her desperation with the help of our old friend Merriam-Webster who told us to
 savor the best in life: give oneself to the enjoyment of:

As Principessa headed off for her first parentless weekend away with friends, I had to check my emotions in the driveway and remind myself that perhaps I, too, needed to work more on savoring and less on sadness as I prepared to send her off to college.

Of many neighborhood parties that we’ve hosted, this weekend would mark the first at which Principessa wouldn’t be present. Her absence was palpable, to me at least. It’s a strange feeling to be without our family cheerleader.

I was tempted to lament the impermanence of these gatherings, but as I looked around at a field of families laughing and playing, and felt the palpable energy of their joy, I couldn’t deny the completeness of the moment. Life, and happiness, was happening, as it does.

I immersed myself so deeply into the experience, in fact, that I found myself wearing a silly grin from ear to ear. The pitch of his voice. The animation in her face. The sight of frolicking. The sound of laughter. I leaned in and felt it all while simultaneously stepping back to appreciate it.

In this savoring state, I burst forth with a toast of gratitude, “For this!” I said. It was a feeling of love that couldn’t be held be back. I’m fairly certain that at least a couple neighbors wondered how much alcohol I had consumed. But truthfully, I hadn’t had a drop. I was drunk on the moment. I had experienced savoring.

When Principessa returned home, she had a similar tale to share about her carefree time with friends. “I didn’t want the weekend to end because it was SO much fun. But I wasn’t sad either because I enjoyed each moment. I just went with it.”

Principessa discovered, as I did, that savoring is exactly the opposite of holding on. Trying to grasp experiences and freeze time is an exercise in futility that leads to regret. In contrast, being present for this moment, and this moment, and this one…never holding on for longer than it lasts, is the magic formula for savoring.

Be present. Feel. Appreciate. Let go. And life will be savored.

The secret to life is enjoying the passage of time.” James Taylor

Super-Connected

universeIt was a dark, rainy night on a slick highway….

A very cliché but accurate backdrop that begins my creepy story.

Principessa was at crew practice and due to arrive home soon. The rest of the family were at home going about their business in various rooms.  Out of the blue, we each heard a sound that was mutually described as eerie.  It sounded as if Principessa was crying out in distress.  I might have second-guessed my hearing if Peach hadn’t nervously called out, “Did anyone else hear that?  It sounded like P. screaming. Is she home?”

No.

Unable to determine another likely source of the mysterious sound, we returned to our individual activities.  I hope that wasn’t one of those crazy stories where a person is really in trouble and her loved ones sense it, I thought.  All manner of tragic situations ran through my mind.  Principesssa was rowing at night on a river in the frigid early spring weather. I offered a fervent prayer for her safety.

When Principessa walked through the door looking unscathed, I greeted her casually.  “How was practice?”

“Fine.” she replied, giving no hint of emotion.

“Good, because the weirdest thing happened a half hour ago.  We all heard you scream.”

Principessa burst into hysterical tears on the spot and started trembling all over.  “I ALMOST GOT KILLED ON THE HIGHWAY A HALF HOUR AGO!!!”

A car had swerved into her lane and nearly pushed her into the guardrail.  Principessa skidded off the road but managed to recover without further incident.

Of course we phoned family and friends immediately – some of whom have had similar experiences. Each had his or her own explanation of the event.  But none could remove the feeling that a force beyond our human understanding was afoot. One doesn’t have to be spiritual or cosmic or crazy to be awed by the whole affair.  Sister-in-law deepened the mystery when she reminded us that this date was Prinicpessa’s deceased grandfather’s birthday.  And this year marks the 20th anniversary of his passing. Perhaps his spirit had a hand in her ultimate safety.

Principessa has recently expressed her fear that we will forget her when she goes off to college in a few months.  She will be 400 miles from home and worries that her place in the family will become less important.  We may have dispelled this concern with our evidence of super-connectedness.

I know one thing for sure: if ever I hear Principessa cry out while she is at college, I will be sending  campus police on a manhunt for her.

louise hay quote

Self-loathing vs. Self-love

Body-dysmorphic-disorderBringing a scale into my house would be akin to loading the cupboards of a reformed alcoholic with vodka.  The temptation to feed my history of number addiction would be strong and may threaten to resurrect my teen obsession with weight-watching.

My Italian family, oddly enough, was fat-phobic.  They repeatedly cautioned against a genetic predisposition toward obesity whilst pushing heaping plates of pasta across the dinner table.  So I did the pseudo-anorexic thing, starving myself just enough to remain well-below the arbitrary threshold of acceptable body size.

As is typical of addictions, it began as a benign practice and was rationalized as a helpful and harmless avenue to my greater good.  But use became abuse and abuse led to addiction.  Addictions, no matter how long they’ve been held at bay, can challenge you with surprise attacks down the road.

I had just had an annual physical and discovered a 5-pound weight gain.  By default, my inner critic perked up in search of blame and shame.  It took some work to wrestle it to the ground.  The next day, when 17 year old Principessa asked for a scale for Christmas, I LOST IT.  Weight watching, in my experience, is like chasing your body with a stick in a threatening, ‘I’m going to beat you’ sort of way.  I’m not willing to support any product that promotes this unhealthy practice.

Self-aggression is epidemic, especially among girls and women.  Instead of looking into our hearts for the answer to the question, ‘Am I lovable?’ we ask the scale, or the pair of skinny jeans, or the fashion magazine.  Our preoccupation with comparison to unrealistic standards leaves us feeling bereft.

Recently, I stumbled across a photo of a young woman on social media who was quoted as saying, “I try not to hate my body.  I like my fingers, but the rest I’d change if I could.”  I wanted to jump into the post and hug her.  Poor dear.  She is playing the cut-and-paste game, trying to eliminate parts of herself in order to assemble her damaged idea of acceptable.  She has no idea how valuable she is.

I want to stop the madness.  I want to scoop up every girl in the world and MAKE her see her inherent goodness.  I want self-love to become the most popular phrase in her vocabulary.  But self-love is misunderstood.  Often it’s mistaken for vanity or is cast aside as a low priority.

Self-love can’t be over-emphasized.  It’s the key to inner peace.  If we care for ourselves and protect ourselves with compassion, we thrive.  It really is that simple.  If our motivation to eat, exercise, work, play and rest is prompted by our love for our bodies, not hate, we make good choices.

Thus far, I’ve been successful in protecting my daughters from the black hole of body dysmorphia.  We focus on function of the body instead of form.  Health consciousness is king.  But I am ever on-guard because I’ve been to that dark place and know that if you step close, it will suck you in.

Wake Up By Dreaming

dream1Husband indicated that we’d be having guests so I made a salad.  (A salad?)  It was unclear how many we’d be entertaining or when.  For some reason, I wasn’t privy to the details.

In this dream, when I opened the front door to my house and peered out into the dimly lit drive, I saw a line of people extending past the end of my street.  Some I knew well, others I recognized with the vaguest recall – a brief flash of a memory connected to a stranger’s face.  Each person wore a similarly jovial and strangely familiar affect as I welcomed him or her with a handshake.  They all seemed to be in on a secret that I hadn’t yet discovered.

There were thousands of people.  In typical dream fashion, they somehow fit in my house.  And all were eating a plate of salad from the one bowl I’d made, rather like the Bible story of the Fish and The Loaves.

This wacky scene unfolded bit by bit until I realized that I was in the midst of an after-party.  All of these people were actors in a production that I starred in.  It was called ‘Deb’s Life.’  By all accounts it was a smashing success.

My guests waxed on about their favorite parts and shared hearty laughter when recalling the outtakes.  The actors and I conversed with detached amusement as if My Life wasn’t real – at least not in the sense that I thought it was.

Here we were, looking every bit authentic in our human costumes, but devoid of the personalities that were connected to the characters we played.  It was a shocking revelation that Life, and the people in it, was just a drama – a series of events concocted for…what? Entertainment? Learning?

The one common thread was that each of the players in my story loved me.  They had been cast in my life by a legendary director and they cherished the chance to be a part of it.

Even the people with whom I had known only angst appeared now to be such close friends.  “I love you so much that I agreed to the role of aggressor,”  a man said.  “You were brilliant – the way you played the victim, and the way you overcame it!”

I began to see each person , each event, in symbolic terms, without emotion or judgment.  The friend who had betrayed me in Life embraced me now and I returned the gesture.  There was no need for apologies, for there was nothing to forgive.  Life, the show, had been perfectly executed.

The lesson in the dream was clear:  Life is an illusion, one that easily sucks you into the belief in its realness.  But things are never exactly as they seem.  Trials are not punishments, they are gifts.  And nothing , no one, is insignificant in this adventure.  The discoveries and contributions of every single life, no matter how large or small, difficult or easy, are added to the whole perfect picture.  Each soul has its place and purpose.  Each gives and receives to the others to create one big, beautiful, perpetual story.

“And so it comes to pass that each precious heart beats in all subsequent generations forevermore.”  – Mike Dooley

Halfway – Reflections From a Birthday Girl

twin peaks with flagI’ve reached an imagined halfway point – halfway between birth and death.  Research tells me that barring fatal accident or illness I could live to 90 years old, which sounds like a long time but it’s tricky to resist the ‘getting old’ mentality when wrinkles and joint aches pile up.

I’ve flirted with the idea of death and decline before, as have an increasing number of my middle-aged friends thanks to the ‘Big C’ and other cradle-robbing diagnoses.  What I’ve discovered is that if you marinate in fear of aging you’ll turn sour and ruin any chance of enjoying a delicious life.

I’m not the first philosopher to uncover the revelation that what matters is not how long one lives but rather how.  How have I lived? In themed decades, it seems.

In my teens I worried a lot. (About being popular and pretty and smart.)

In my twenties I dreamed a lot. (About success and family)

In my thirties I did a lot. (Bore children, cared for a house and a career.)

And in my forties, so far, I’ve learned a lot. About life.

Mainly I’ve learned that the older I get the less I know. In young adulthood I was so sure of everything.  The sky was blue, personal safety was my birthright and friends would be friends forever.  But maturity has a way of blending black and white certainty into a canvas of gray.  Losses and disappointments pile up alongside victories – twin peaks of the same mountain – and blur what once seemed so clear.  One day, maybe on a birthday, you stand atop the mountain and gaze across the horizon wondering, ‘what’s it all about and what happens now?’

In many ways I am at my peak.  I suspect I’ll spend some time here enjoying the view from the top. But I already feel the pull to begin my descent.  Life calls me to finish my journey in forward motion and not squander it with wishful thinking, refusing to budge from this sweet, sweet spot.

I know I won’t travel the same path down the mountain that I chose on the way up. I’ll bypass the gullies of naïveté and ambition and stop more frequently to cherish a loving gesture. I’ll be in less of a hurry to reach my destination and more willing to put aside my agenda in favor of lending a hand.  And I will love every step and misstep because it will remind me that I am still living.  Not just alive, but living.

In a sense I’ll be un-learning all the things that sustained me on the first half of my journey; gracefully (I hope) unraveling the knots of the rope that I climbed on the way up.  When all is said and done and I return to my starting point, I hope to look back with satisfaction knowing that no matter how many travel this way again, the mountain will never be climbed exactly as I climbed it.  No one can do or see or be exactly like me.  Each of us is unrepeatable.

 

“And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.” – Abraham Lincoln

Getting Noticed

trophyIt’s awards season at school and not every child is receiving an award.  This is great news for families with high achievers but not so great for the remainder.  Or is it?

Sure, it’s fun to be on top, to be part of that crowd, to be selected.  We want to be recognized and appreciated, deserving or not.  When we’re overlooked, it can be deflating, as if our ‘doing’ wasn’t enough.  The problem is that the not doing enough feels more like not being enough, which is a slippery slope to travel.

Winning can be treacherous.  It’s addictive, like caffeine.  If we become praise-dependent, we are in danger when the winning ends, (as it eventually will) because the high goes with it and takes a chunk of self-image along for the ride.  We recover,yes, but do we ever stop seeking the reward?  If you love coffee, do you ever stop being wistful when you smell that aroma?

We humans enjoy praise and approval.  Sometimes, a simple pat on the back is all we need to stay motivated.  How many times have you heard a person complain about being unappreciated by a boss or a spouse?  A little recognition goes a long way.  The problem is, there’s no guarantee in life that you’ll be given due accolades.  The truth is, it’s no one’s job to approve of us – except us.

When Principessa lamented that she had been passed over for an award which she felt she had earned, her perception was one of bewilderment and frustration.  “What do I have to do to get noticed?”  Therein lies the problem.  When the self-satisfaction in a job well-done is dependent on recognition, we suffer.

“Go ahead,” I advised.  “If you want a ‘doing’ award, then DO.”  Do the parlor tricks where you hit a ball 90 mph or block the most goals, or get the highest test grades.  Practice as hard as you can.  Stay up late studying.  Worry yourself silly.  Pile your efforts on top of your talent and go for it.  Teachers and coaches will notice you with a certificate and a handshake.  You may even get a scholarship, which will make your parents extra happy.  But none of these things guarantees your success.  You may have more choices for college; colleges like people who achieve on paper and in the field.  It’s a bonus if you end up being a good kid too.  But these admirers can’t promise you happiness, or even a good career.

There will be no awards for most mature teen.  If there were, you would win.  There is no prize money for most honest and loyal.  You’d win those, too.  Heck, I could list a hundred things you do ‘better’ than your peers.  But the point is not to feel better than.  Your job, my dear teen, is to figure yourself out – how you want to contribute to the world and who you want to be. If you never win an award in the process, smile and say thank you for the not noticing.  While all eyes are looking in the other direction, you are working on humbleness and self-motivation. Without the complication of external feedback, you are free to explore yourself and develop your own unique purpose that is not dependent on another’s opinion.

You don’t need people telling you you’re doing a good job at life.  There is no such thing.  There is no good life or bad life.  There is only life, full of limitless potential.  What you do with that potential is your choice.  What others think of your choices -the way they do or don’t take notice – is their business.

Principessa, I admire you.  I don’t tell you all the time because I don’t want you to rely on my admiration.  My words are of better use in helping you find what will sustain you for the long haul.  My job is to nurture your passions and  help you discover the greatness  in yourself, for yourself.  Because when all the award ceremonies are over, you still have to live with you, even when no one is watching.

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