How to Get Unstuck

trapped, unstuck, stuck, mindfulness, Pema Chodron

There is a theory that trauma lives in the body, that our memories are experienced through our senses, and stored in our bodies (Bessel van der Kolk). I believe it’s not just traumas, but all events. Just like you can see stressors or major events in a tree’s rings, these impact our bodies in ways that leave marks that you may not be able to see on the outside.

I can physically feel my angst and anxiety live in my body, in the pit of my stomach, deep in the back of my heart, tight in my shoulders and neck. I can feel these spaces fire up when I get anxious or afraid or sad. I know these familiar friends, they are old reflexes, my body responds like it always knew how.

When my body and my mind and my heart automatically react in these ways, I’m tensing up, anticipating what might happen next. I’m pushing up against possible outcomes. I’m trying to control the future. I’m doing all of that because I’m hoping for something different than what’s happening right now that’s triggered the reaction. I want different circumstances, a different outcome.

When I’m reactive and looking for what might happen next is precisely when I need to embrace all the unknowns as it unfolds in its own time. This is exactly when I need to accept the current circumstances life is offering right now, without judging them as good or bad or confusing. But accepting it all just as it is. I need to practice acting in different ways, instead of reacting. I need to practice viewing the triggers in different ways.

Sometimes doing hard things is really hard for me. I have good intentions and I try really hard, but sometimes I get a bit neurotic and become a whirling dervish of blathering emotions. Sometimes I get stuck in a familiar place of confusion or sadness or anxiety, and despite knowing intellectually how to get unstuck, I stay stuck. And then I judge myself more for that, and stay stucker.

Sometimes it just takes different words, a reframe, to shift my perspective and understanding of the situation, and then I’m not so stuck. Pema Chodron writes, “…you begin to think of your life as offering endless opportunities to start to do things differently.”

That, I can do. I can start to do things differently. I used to think of it as: “I’ve got to stop giving in to my fears,” or “I’ve got to stop panicking or getting anxious when I think about potential future outcomes I cannot control,” or essentially, “I’ve got to stop doing all the things I used to do. On such a larger level, I’ve got to stop being who I used to be.”

When I think in those words, it’s difficult for me to just stop doing it. I have been able to do so to some degree, but it’s still a pretty tumultuous place. But I have also learned to offer myself the same loving kindness I would offer a child. That includes how I talk to myself, what words I use.

A useful and effective strategy when working with children is to ask that they do something as an alternative, instead of asking the child to just stop a behavior. For example, instead of saying, “Stop running!” it is oftentimes more effective to say, “Please walk!”

People oftentimes know they should stop a behavior, but are at a loss as to what behavior should be in its place. We need to give people alternatives to fill the void. They need to know how to act in addition to what they need to stop doing. Losing weight is too amorphous. Teaching someone what specific things to change in one’s diet and activity level makes it doable.

This is also why we role play in therapy. Telling someone to be better with boundaries is wonderful and necessary. But we need to practice using words in a safe place to be able to actually be better with boundaries in real life.

These slight shifts make all the difference. So I can be kind and gentle with myself and stop flagellating myself with thoughts that I should know better, and instead just bear witness to current circumstances and how I automatically react. And then I can start to do things differently.

I can start by acting like the person I want to be. I want to be someone who is full of grace and empathy and compassion even while feeling anxious. I want to be gentle and kind even while feeling sad. I want to be someone who is patient and accepting even while feeling confused. I want to be someone who trusts life’s unfolding. This is a shift from the old thoughts of “I shouldn’t freak out,” or “I shouldn’t feel hurt,” or “I shouldn’t try to control things.”

Instead of what I shouldn’t do, I’m practicing being active in what I do want, in being the person I want to be. I’m practicing not fighting with myself, fighting against myself. Instead, I’m starting to do things differently.

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Peace: Simple, Yet Hard

meditation, mindfulness, peace

When I was much younger, I sought out meditation practice in the hopes of quieting my mind enough to give me inner peace. Back then, I thought peace was a quiet destination. A calm bliss. I thought it would relieve my suffering, my angst, my qualms. I had a lot of those. It’s no surprise that I wasn’t very successful with my earlier attempts at meditation.

Then came the day that I embarked again on this journey, and oh, the difference it makes when you learn to relinquish your perception of, and attempts at, control. I’ve since learned that life is generous in offering opportunities to feel fully alive–to experience the full spectrum of feelings. This includes joy and despair, anticipation and fear, anger and contentment. Life’s generosity is boundless, to the point where I say, “No, no, that’s much too much. Please, don’t.” in that pleading voice you use with your Aunt Betsey when she brings over armloads of presents she ordered from infomercials. But life continues to not hear you, like when Aunt Betsey’s hearing aid doesn’t work, and continues to give us circumstances where we succeed and fail, love and hurt, laugh and whimper.

I used to fear the negative feelings. Because I feel too much. I lack the moderation gene, so all my feelings are on steroids. I’m a little extreme, a little intense, a little passionate. By “a little,” I mean “a lotta.”And I used to fear I would be consumed by them. I used to fear that if I felt fear or despair, that I would spiral deep down into that pit and never be able to come up for air. So the irony is that at the hint of a negative feeling, I would step down into a pit of fear, and that fear would weave complicated stories about all the horrible possibilities and outcomes that my overthinking mind could imagine. And I can certainly tell stories.

So it took me a long time to muster up the courage to truly embrace fear and despair and sadness. Doesn’t that sound silly? That I needed to be brave enough to feel sad? Yet to this day, it requires courage for me to decide not to blunt the pain, or avoid the pain, or deflect the pain. It requires courage to not try to outrun the fear, or shop away the anxiety, or overwork to deflect unhappiness. For a long time, I didn’t want to feel that pain, because it hurts. And you know what? I’ve learned that when I fully feel the pain, it hurts.

And that’s OK. That’s kinda pain’s charm–that it’s a hurty sort of feeling. I’ve learned that there’s no avoiding opportunities for pain and hurts. I’ve learned it’s not the events in life that cause the suffering from the pain, but it’s the storylines we tell ourselves about the pain that cause the suffering.

It’s the storylines we tell ourselves about how of course this would happen, things like this always happen to me. It’s the storylines we tell ourselves that once again, I’m not enough. It’s the storylines we tell ourselves as we project into the future and see the potential obstacles, and we tell ourselves things can’t possibly work out, so why bother, may as well throw in the towel now.

It is these stories we tell ourselves that cause suffering. When we tell ourselves these stories, we must remember we are writing these scripts. We are the authors. Fear is not the author. Despair is not the author. Hopelessness is not the author. We can always write another story. It’s really that simple. But simple can be hard. Sometimes simple isn’t easy.

And peace can be found in this space, in this space in between simple and hard. Peace is the place where positive and negative feelings pass through, and you hold each one gently, and then put it down. Peace is holding the feelings without the stories. Peace is trusting that you can hold each feeling without being consumed by it. Peace is a place where the only certain thing is uncertainty.

Peace is treading through life gently and kindly, while holding these feelings without the storylines, the judgments, the labels of good or bad. Instead, knowing they just are. Peace is running into jagged, sharp edges and riding smooth carpet rides with equanimity. Peace is the space where you allow life to unfold and allowing the uncertainty to be uncertain.

Uncertainty because telling storylines can provide the ending to your story by becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy or a forced ending. But that’s where suffering lives. Peace is being open to it all, observing it all, and just being in that space. Peace is knowing you need not do or say anything sometimes. Not everything needs to be said out loud. Not everything needs an action or response. Sometimes things just need to sit, to be, for a while.

I’ve found the strange byproduct of being mindful to practice living in this space is that I’m much more compassionate and empathic. Letting go of the narratives we write that keep us imprisoned in our past or fears or unrealized potentials frees us to remember others have the same fears and hurts and anger. And in that place of connection with others, the anxiety and sadness and fears and pain soften. And this is peace.

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Why I Must Tell My Children I Was Raped

rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, #MeTooA friend asked the other day if there’s anyone left in Hollywood, referencing the daily news stories of women sharing their stories of being sexually assaulted by powerful men. Hollywood? This isn’t confined to the entertainment industry.

I’m conflicted about all the coverage. Honestly, it’s breaking my heart. I’m having a difficult time absorbing all of this. On one hand I’m so glad this is all finally coming to light. On the other hand, I’m so sad it’s so common and pervasive, it breaks my heart that so many people have been hurt for so long. It is the magnitude of this avalanche that overwhelms me.

It has made me think about things. About how my first assailant now lives in the same town as my boyfriend. About how my second assailant only dated Asians. About how my third assailant has a dimple in his chin. About how I hadn’t really thought much about the second and third rapes until now, and how I’d never told anyone about those until yesterday.

It has made me think about the statistics about repeat victimization–that a woman’s chances of being raped again increases by double to ten-fold, depending on the number of assaults. It made me think about how we don’t know exactly why this holds true.

One theory is that there is a learned silence, and then an inability to enforce boundaries. This has forced me to really look back and examine why and how there was a second and third. And I come up empty. I said no both times, Both times they ignored me. I enforced a boundary. I was not silent. They trampled right over the boundary. And it was then I became silent.

And it is in the silence that abuse of power thrives. So for all these brave people publicly sharing their stories, I’m grateful. I realize I’ve been too silent, and thus I’ve contributed to this breeding ground that perpetuates this violence. I realize I need to do a better job at empowering myself and my children so that we can be agents of change.

I realize I need to be proactive in raising my children, all of our children, to speak up and speak out. To do so, I realize I need to tell my kids about these assaults. As parents we struggle with how much we decide to disclose to our children about our past behaviors–cutting classes in school, alcohol or drug use, general mischief. I never planned on telling them about being raped once, much less three times, but I realize now we need to have a difficult and honest conversation so that they can be active in making positive changes in this world.

Survivors become empowered when the assailant loses power. They become empowered when they see other victims being validated. They become empowered when there’s safety in numbers. There is strength in numbers. This is why we’re seeing all of these women speaking their truths about so many men in recent weeks, speaking their truths after all these years.

They’ve stayed silent for so long. They’ve accepted, we’ve accepted, this dynamic as the norm. We might not like it, but we’ve accepted it. We must teach our children to speak up if they’re assaulted or harassed. We must teach our children to speak up if they witness or hear of such behavior. I taught my kids when they were younger that if they need help, they need to continue telling adults until they find one who will listen to them and help them. We must continue to tell our stories until someone will listen and help.

To teach our children to do so, we need to give them words. Of what an assault or harassment looks like–it can be so unexpected. We’ve heard so many women say they were caught off guard, didn’t know what to do, their minds racing–so many of these stories recently highlight how they were caught off guard by odd requests or sudden groping. We need to talk about the different scenarios that are inappropriate and what are red flags signaling you to run.

We need to talk about what to say and what to do when you find yourself in this situation. We need to teach our children that No is a complete sentence. We need to teach our children what their options might be if No is ignored. We need to teach our children how to react to this abuse of power differential. We need to practice using the words, or this concept is useless.

We need to teach our children how to confront someone if they bear witness to or learn of someone who has harassed or assaulted someone. We need to teach them it is their duty and responsibility as a human being. We need to teach our children that it is hard yet necessary to stand up to powerful people. We need to practice using these words too.

Words. Give them the words. We teach children what a house fire might look and smell and feel like. We teach them where the exits are and the escape plan. We teach them where to meet outside. We’ve given them words to empower them to stay safe. We practice fire drills. We must do the same for rapes and sexual harassment. This is not a drill.

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Ninja Princess

ninja princessI hold great disdain for the princess culture. The nauseating pink and batting eyelashes and the requirement of being saved by someone. There’s something helpless and vapid and useless about these personalities that are heavily marketed towards young girls. Yet there’s something magnetic about these princesses that draw girls towards them.

It’s no secret I loathe princesses. I firmly believe girls should aim to be the Queen, she can behead anyone, so why choose to be #2 in the land? La Chica pretends to be ambivalent about princesses because she knows how I feel about them. But she fell for the marketing too. She is also a quiet soul. She sits back and observes and soaks things in. She has this ridiculously wispy voice that sounds like a church mouse that’s out of breath. She speaks in short sentences and uses silly words.

This drives me crazy. Because I fear she uses this to rely on the world to save her. Because I fear she plays the damsel in distress a little too well, because everyone thinks she’s so adorable they bend over backwards for her. Because a good friend once told me I’m a force of energy and opinion, and that I’m very demanding. So it drives me insane to consider that my own child might be a helpless, vapid damsel.

And then I met one of her former teachers who knew her for three years. I mentioned my fears, and she pointed out that there is no mistaking she is my daughter. She said the wispy voice is one thing, but the content is something entirely different. She said La Chica has no problem being clear with her opinions, and frankly, she doesn’t take crap from anyone, and has a strong core.

I was stunned. It’s always so interesting to discover different facets and perspectives of your child. Then it made me laugh. She’s like a Ninja Princess. People think she’s docile and delicate, but apparently, she has no issue with taking you down when you underestimate her. Which leads me to conclude I really need to learn to sleep with one eye open.

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Sitting, Waiting, Wishing


I never had any intention of being a parent, for good reasons. One of which is that it is very hard. I want to also point out that it is very, very hard. A third, yet related reason is that it is extremely difficult. I truly don’t think I was meant to be a parent, but my thoughts on the matter are a moot point now.

When my first child was born, he and I were both clueless. I held a genuine tabula rasa. The first few years were magical, staring down at a truly blank slate. There was magic in witnessing this child soak in observations, make correlations, find delight and sorrow. That innocence humbled me, connected me to humanity, taught me unconditional love.

I used to think parenting was hard when we were potty training, or learning to ride bikes, or learning Common Core math. I’ve come to understand perspective is everything. That was just batting practice. This, this right now is what really matters. This is the hard stuff.

As the children grew older, their worlds expanded. From home, to playdates, to preschool, to elementary school. To recreational soccer, to ice skating lessons, to horseback riding lessons. To the movies, to the mall, to sleep-overs.

Along the way, they met people, made friends, learned things. Our little ones, they’re sponges. Their blank slates get filled with each of these interactions. Along the way, they not only pick up athletic skills and new words, they pick up all of humanity. Like it or not, society, family, and friends raise human beings.

They soak up how you cope with a bad day at work. They soak up how you deal with a friend who has betrayed you. They soak up how you don’t notify the cashier that you’ve been given too much change. They soak up how easily frustrated and overwhelmed you get. They soak up how you talk about your mother-in-law.

They soak up how you don’t challenge the friend who told a joke about kids with autism. They soak up how you scream at the tailgater. They soak up how you don’t make eye contact with the homeless man on the corner. They soak up how you allow others to make jokes about you at your expense. They soak up how you take care of everyone else but yourself.

They soak up how movies tell you falling in love is everything, and getting married is the end goal because the movie ends there with soaring music and a sunset. They soak up how reality shows and Instagram tell you what sexy looks like, what popular looks like, what success looks like, what they should look like. They soak up how how awkward kids get treated.

Every moment, every day, they take all these in. And as a parent, you have little control over that. As a parent, you have no control over how they process all that data, how they perceive all that information, how they incorporate it into their world views, belief systems, and sense of self.

As a parent, you can have the uncomfortable conversations about sex and relationships and self-image. As a parent, you can have the conversations about kindness and supporting the underdog and compassion. As a parent, you can model all this appropriate behavior.

But the sponges have soaked in all this stuff that you can’t wring out of them–all these images and beliefs and thoughts and behaviors that you can’t wipe clean from their minds. It is this juncture that is hard. It is this place as a parent where you can’t scream and throw a fit when, not if, your child makes decisions that harm him/herself, behaves in ways that you know you’ve discussed a thousandgazillionbazillion times before, when your child should know better.

Because you know your child is a good child. But good children get confused, or get curious, or get really down on him/herself. Because your child is human. Because life is complicated. Because we all make mistakes. Because some days are better than others.

The hard part is in the sitting and watching, waiting for life to unfold as it will. Waiting, hoping, that this sponge soaked up all the good stuff too, and will sort it all out. Soon. The hard part is in the delicate balance of letting go and holding on. The hard part is bearing witness to all the good and bad and unknown, while not holding on too tightly. Sitting, Waiting, Wishing, like Jack Johnson does so well.

The hard part is providing the space for your child to make mistakes and not rescuing him/her so that your child can take ownership in learning from those mistakes. The hard part is not yelling about that mistake or ignoring it so that it can turn into a true teaching moment. The hard part is waiting to see how that lesson takes hold. Or doesn’t take hold. And the only thing you can hold is the knowledge that you have no control over that. And your breath. You can hold your breath.

The hard part is learning to trust yourself, that you provided a good foundation as a parent, that you did the best you could. The hard part is learning to trust your child, that even when he/she makes mistakes or falters, that he/she will figure it out in the end. The hard part is learning to trust that life will unfold in ways you cannot control, and that “in the end” could mean it takes your child years to grow into an adult to finally figure things out. This terrifies me.

The hard part is remembering that this hopeful but fear-filled time of waiting, of just being, as you watch life proceed–this is a gift. A gift of allowing your child to be the author of his/her own story. Of realizing we all make mistakes and we are not defined by these mistakes. The hard part is knowing where they begin and you end, and holding space for them to hurt and heal and grow. It is in this stillness that the healing and growing occur.

What beautiful gifts: one for you, as you write your own story of bearing witness to a life unfolding, and one for your child, to have his/her own byline to his/her own story. What a gift, to write stories where the sky is not falling, to write stories of resilience, self-forgiveness, and self-kindness. What a gift, to show your children that they have the power to introduce the character actors Grace and Lovingkindness into their storylines. This gift-giving: beautiful, hard, brutal, wondrous.

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Harvey and a Clockmaker


HurricaneHarvey, Hurricane Harvey, #HurricaneHarvey, Houston, death, family

My paternal grandmother died almost 15 years ago. I accompanied my father back down to Texas to gather her belongings, bury her, and settle her estate. I was born there, but had not been back since I was a very young child. It was odd to recognize so much of the physical surroundings, like they were a part of my psyche, yet not know it like it was home.

I discovered I was pregnant when I came back home. The discovery felt surreal. Almost like it was a circle of life thing. One generation passes away, another generation is born. It was the beginning of a time of expansion for our family. I had two children, my sister had a child. Cousins were born.

Through time, my maternal aunts and their husbands passed away. My mother passed away this summer, leaving one sister left on her side of the family. My mother’s death hit my father very deeply. He had just regained his appetite when it started to rain.

It’s still raining. They’re still in rescue mode in Houston. They don’t know how many people have been displaced, and how many people have died. They do know my father’s youngest brother, my uncle, was one of the first fatalities of Hurricane Harvey. They found his body in his flooded store 14 hours after the rains started.

I was alerted to the mention of his death making the front page of the Washington Post this morning. I logged on, and gasped. He looked just like my father. My whole life, up until I saw him for the last time 15 years ago, he looked slimmer, darker, younger. Life has a way of catching up to you and making you honest in your elderly years. The day he died, he looked just like my father.

I stare at my computer screen, and I see my father in that face. I read about his clock shop–a store my father started and owned when we were children. I remember growing up in the storerooms until we were old enough to work out front behind the register. And by “old enough,” that was about 8 years old. I wonder if my poor math skills contributed to my father never making much of a profit.

I’m realizing it’s the end of that chain of clock stores that raised me. My father’s doppelganger reminds me that my father may very well be next. I’m witnessing the fabric of my family start to unravel. In a few years my children will leave this house, and we will have buried a few more relatives in that time period I’m sure. One by one, slowly unraveling.

This unraveling feels very fast these days. It reminds me of how each person, each event created the fabric of my own being. There’s a fear of my own stitching unraveling now too. This reminds me to take perspective, that self-care is important, that lovingkindness to others is important. That your profession is probably not worth your life.

Though my last trip to Texas felt like the continuation of circles of life, it no longer feels like a continuation. I’m of the age now where it just feels like fewer and fewer people in old family photographs are around to tell us about that party or that trip or that joke. As the photographs fade, as the fabric of my family unravels, I worry about my father. His soul gets heavier with each loss, as his connections lighten with each loss.

I try to remember this could also be reframed as life continuing on as it will, as it does. And that the fabric of our families, of our beings, continue to be stitched and unraveled each moment in different ways. In many of those ways, we cannot control. I try to remember it’s not necessarily a destruction, but just a change. And change can be difficult because we are human.

It will stop raining. The flood waters will recede. A body will be buried. A store will be cleaned out. My father will go home and continue to stitch.

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The Natural Order of Things

death, parent, adult parent death, natural order of things, grief, funeral

I tell myself this is the natural order of things. This is the way it should be. Knowing this doesn’t make it any easier. Your brain understands this. Your heart protests.

You’re born into this world with unshakable tenets. Such as, the sky is blue. Such as, falling on the pavement hurts. Such as, cold ice cream on a hot day is magical. Such as, you’re born to parents who help you navigate through the hallways of your home. Parents who teach you how to navigate down the paths of your life. Parents who watch you slowly drift away to create your own life. Separate, yet tethered.

And one day, one of the strings breaks, and you find yourself flapping in the wind a bit lopsided. This is the way it’s supposed to be–you’re supposed to bury your parents, not the other way around. It’s tragic when parents bury a child. This is how life unfolds, they tell you, this circle of life.

Is this how it’s supposed to be? A life stopped suddenly and everyday objects left askew like Pompeii artifacts? Her handbag draped easily over the chair. Her last load of laundry folded neatly at the foot of her bed. Her lipstick perched on the bathroom countertop. Everywhere I turn, she is there. Yet everywhere I turn, she is not there. And she won’t be ever again.

It’s strange to reconcile this juxtaposition in each moment of the day, in every moment of the day. Because she lived here. But she doesn’t live anywhere anymore in these moments today, tomorrow, next week. Next Thanksgiving, next Christmas, next birthday. She is here, but she’s not here, and she won’t be here. It’s a strange assault of being overwhelmed with this contradiction, yet feeling a void of nothing, an absence of feeling, a numbness.

It’s strange to live moments and make memories without one of your life pillars. It’s strange to watch your mother lowered into a deep hole in the ground. It’s strange to comfort your father and your sister some moments, and wonder where the wailing noise is emanating from the next moment. (The answer is you, the wailing is coming from deep inside you, from a place you did not know existed.)

It’s strange to hear stories about her childhood, her past, her other roles in life. It’s strange to integrate all this new knowledge of someone you thought you knew intimately, and end the day with a new understanding of her. It’s strange to step back and see the bigger picture of her personhood and life and impact, because nothing more will be written about her; she has no more stories to live out. It’s strange to summarize your mother’s 79 years into a five minute eulogy.

I understand this is the natural order of things. My heart protests.

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