Like a page out of a book or, at the very least, a very finely crafted itinerary, I was off to the annual girl’s trip with great expectations. I was ready for a break. I was “crispy” in all aspects of my life. I thought maybe some time away would solve my quest for perspective. The plans were made, accommodations and transportation booked, and now it just needed to come together as great as it played out in my head.
My girl’s trip comrades shared the first of my three-part journey. We have been making these girl trips for more than 13 years, and they never disappoint. This trip would be the furthest we had ever traveled in search of forests of colorful trees. New England would be the backdrop, and what a destination it turned out to be; full of colors, small towns, great food, and crisp temperatures. This part of my trip delivered on every aspect of what I hoped to be my own “Eat, Pray, Love” adventure. We ate until we popped! We prayed in the solace of the quiet moments. We loved so hard it hurt.
I think it is fair to say that the expectation for every girl’s trip is written in Elizabeth Gilbert’s book “Eat, Pray, Love.” Gilbert’s book would be the user manual for every nervous breakdown since it was first published in 2006. Women worldwide would be given the permission and courage to pick themselves up off the bathroom floor and leave their lives to go on a fiercely independent journey from heartache to healing. While the destinations would differ, the intention would not. How do we take a break from our lives with the hope that disconnecting would allow us to reconnect better?
The second part of my three-part journey would be a solitary trip to a retreat. I have ventured out on this journey many times. Last year would be the most dramatic of these trips as I ventured to Boone, NC, to participate in a Silent Retreat at the Art of Living Retreat Center. It would be the most challenging spiritual journey that I had ever embarked on and one that, a year later, I am still reeling from. I learned a lot about myself; most importantly, I could do it. I could practice silence in full compliance and come out better for it.
This year I contemplated if I should partake in another silent retreat and decided against it. This year, I intended to be more gentle in exploring a new retreat center and program. My expectations are less, but my anxiety is high. I don’t expect this to be as hard as the silent retreat; however, I want to come out of this weekend balanced. This is a large ask for a weekend when I have not been able to manage it for over a year.
While I am not crying on a bathroom floor, I am so far out of balance that picking myself up will take renewed discipline and a bit of stubbornness to do what is right for me. I have traded meditation for Oreos. I have given up running for dinners in front of the television. I have remained silent long after the retreat, as my writing has become less and less throughout the past year. My health has declined, my patience has diminished, and my happiness has become a measurement of productivity that leaves me exhausted.
My expectation of what will become the third part of my journey, resuming life, is to practice what I know to be true for me. Allow my actions to be the judge and not define my actions by judgment. Allow my efforts to be worthy of all things in my life without sacrificing anything. I recognize these are significant asks, but I do not feel put out as I am only asking myself.
Today I sit in a quiet inn on the side of a mountain, preparing for the day ahead. Preparing to check into the retreat center and, more importantly, to silence “my” life, if only for a few days. This time, I will do silence on my terms. I have eaten more food than I needed. I have prayed, in my way, by setting the intention of what I want out of this retreat and worrying little about what I don’t. I will focus on self-love with the only expectation of walking away with a resolve that will bring me back to whom I want to be. The “me” stuck in this cycle will be given the silence and the freedom to redefine. It is the only thing I “have” to do for the next three days.
Quietly departing, silently slinking away, to get back to the core. Shhh, silence on my terms.
Arrival was abrupt. Unpacking my car and starting the klutzy balance of suitcase, duffel bag, yoga mat and other “essentials” into the building that welcomes you more like a prison and less like a resort. Three steps up into the foyer (very loose concept) and realizing it is 100 degrees inside and there are no elevators would be my first reality checks, this was not intended to be a vacation. I walk down the hallway to check that the “2” before my room number “200” would suggest that I am on the second floor, secretly hoping that these ground floor rooms were not numbered like hotel rooms. It is confirmed, I am on the second floor. Lugging my luggage (ironic the two words…ha!) up the stairs and down to the last room in the hall I find room 200 and I am not sure if I am relieved or reticent to see what lies behind the door.
I open the door to my room I am hit with a more intense wave of heat and am reminded that the website said there was no a/c but “there are box fans for your comfort”. I immediately open all of the windows and doors and find that luxury item, box fan, that I would power up on max. As I look around the room I am almost giddy with the realization that this is far from the luxury hotels that I sell for a living. It is vanilla and nondescript. This would be the last time I would recall anything about the décor of this room and instead would regard this space as a respite from the intense work we were doing. It would become a “retreat” indeed allowing me to ground myself and center myself once again.
The views were absolutely stunning and once the windows were open it was apparent why no a/c would be needed. The fresh air blowing in from the tops of the trees was magnificent and would have been missed otherwise.
I set up my laptop and iPad and put all of my notebooks and journals on to the desk as if I was getting ready to work. That would be the last time I would visit that space. As it turned out there is much to do in silence and none of it involves a desk, a laptop or books. Wow, what was I in for, this was going to be an experience for sure.
Here we go…
On day one I wake early and start searching on my Uber Eats app for Starbucks. Yep, there is one, but there are no drivers. Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore! I get up and get dressed and decide I will drive down the mountain to get my two cappuccinos. This would inevitably become my new morning routine for the week. As with everything that has happened thus far, I would come to realize the gift of being able to experience the drive down the mountain and back up again. The familiarity of the winding roads and silhouettes of houses as the sun would rise brought me back to the many visits to my mom in Virginia. I would wake up in the coming days looking forward to this drive. The gratitude in places I was not seeking would become a familiar theme of this experience.
I would start my mornings with that drive, those cappuccinos a sunrise every morning that reminded me that there is always a reason to rise again. New beginnings and new horizons are always ours for the taking; every 24 hours.
As I make my way down the stunning walk to the place we would practice silence for the week I was joined by 36 other silent-seekers and one eclectic couple that would become our spiritual guides. The room was brimming with anxious energy as we all sat pensively on our yoga mats. I realize now coming out on the other side how naïve I was on that first day. As I sat there staring at our instructors I had no way of knowing how hard the next three days would be and the range of emotions that we would go through. In hindsight, I find the courage of our instructors to be inspiring as they were the only ones in the room on that first day that knew what was going to happen…and they did it anyway.
After orientations and breathing practices we were partnered up with a “buddy” that had been chosen for us based on proximity. Our first introduction to our “buddy” would be to tell our life story in ten minutes in the third person. What. The. Heck! My initial response was fear of telling my story to someone that surely could not understand where I came from, how was I going to tell a complete stranger my choices and consequences in this life and still be respected? It was decided that the person in the pair with the longest hair would go first, whew, I was off the hook, at least for ten minutes. She (my buddy) began to tell her story in the third person and I was wholly impressed at how good she was at this and then her story started to wash over me and I found myself sitting, paralyzed by her words. How could this be? Her story was so similar, yet so different. Could it be that this person that had been chosen for me was more like me than different? This would become another proof point that I was exactly where I was supposed to be; on that mountain, in that room, on that yoga mat, sitting in front of her; another moment of divine intervention as my buddy was surely chosen FOR me.
All of this chatting created a cacophony of voices, laughter and nervous energy that of course would lead up to the announcement that we were going to step into silence. We had been in session for 24-hours and now were presumably ready to be thrust into silence as the session was ending. We walked out of our class into silence with little instruction outside of “stay in silence”. There were hints during the day of the more obvious “rules”, no talking, no phones, no tv, but we were mostly left to our own devices, or not. I walked back to my room in the dark, wondering where in the world I was that I could be instructed to walk the half-mile up the mountain to my room alone. As with previous themes, this would be the last time I would worry, let alone think, about walking alone in the dark. This mountain was washing over me like a security blanket and in safety, vulnerability is allowed. As I entered my room I was immediately aware of the sounds around me. We had only started this journey and it seemed as though everything was amplified. As I turned on the water to brush my teeth I was acutely aware of the faucet and powerful flow of water. This heightened awareness of sound would continue throughout my time in silence, at times revealing nature’s wonders and other times annoying the shit out of me.
I would go to bed without tv as I had done the night before only as a trial and now as a sentence. These would be my first victories as I have always fallen asleep to tv as long as I can remember. Even as a young child, I remember there being a black and white tv in my room that had no reception, I would fall asleep to the sound of “snow” every night. I am not sure what my parent’s attempt was in that added “amenity”, but it set a habit in stone for life.
When I woke in the morning, still in silence, I would begin to see the range of emotions that would become a roller coaster ride as warned that it might. My trip to Starbucks was uneventful. Our mornings would always start the same with yoga and then breakfast with some alone time in between the break until our 10a session would start. Somewhere in that “break”, the emotion of the few hours of silence realized and the days of silence pending in front of me hit like a ton of bricks. As I sat on the side of the hill in front of our classroom I would completely lose it, crying until I was sobbing. I was grateful that we were in silence as I could not explain where the emotion was coming from or why I was crying. I just was and at the moment I knew I was “in it”.
As the days would go on the meditations would as well. We would meditate for hours on end. Meanwhile, emotions were on a roller coaster that ranged from the rockiness of a wooden coaster to some, few, that was as smooth as silk. When you sit in meditation you are doing the “work” you are inevitably here to do. You are training the mind. Sit, close your eyes, take a deep breath in…and we’re off! I would spend hours fighting back the thoughts that would flood in like a tsunami of randomness, contemplations and plans for the future. I would try to swat them away like the flies that they were but realize that when the flies are in the ointment your swatter is defenseless.
I would find that range of emotions at its height on Day Two as I was ready to quit. Was this normal or was it my typical “MO” of always finding an escape hatch when things got uncomfortable? I was pissed that we were going to meditate again and again and again. I would submit a question for that night’s Q&A asking why we were meditating so much to which our instructor would offer his wisdom after reading the question out loud. His answer was, so appropriate, “Well, you did sign up for a meditation retreat.” HA!!! I would find the ridiculousness of the question and his answer the comical break I needed to let it happen. As the meditations wore on I would come to realize that this is the process of finding the “self”. It does not happen in a few meditations. It happens from the constant practice, one right after another, of quieting the mind. This realization would happen days after this Q&A and when it did it was existential.
Embracing the present
One of the things that became very clear early on was the amount of control that one has to turn over to truly be taken (sometimes dragged) into this process. The only way to get to the “self” is to allow yourself to be guided by trusting the process. For many of the people in the room, this was an effort in itself. “What are we going to do next?” “How, why, when…” “What do you mean I cannot go to the bathroom when I want?” Control; is a bitch. You come to realize (or you don’t) that you have to relinquish it because all that you are wielding in your own hands prevents you from seeing what you can become.
To be present is sometimes not knowing what will happen next. You are aware that there is more on the horizon and you pick your head up for brief checks to make sure you are still on the path otherwise you keep your head down and focus. This thought of keeping my head down occurred to me many times on my journey into silence. When I went on hikes, which is one of the very few things we were allowed to do, you had to keep your head down to avoid tripping on a rock or a root, and would only look up to make sure you were still on the path. Head down = Good. When I would walk around the grounds I would keep my head down to avoid eye contact, since simply pleasantries would threaten my silence. Head down = Good. Keeping your head down became a “good thing” and as with all things in life what is good is also bad, but in these moments “head down” equaled “focus” and that was “good”.
Breaking the Silence
As the final moments of the retreat had arrived we were prepared to “break the silence” in a ritual that would bring value to the first words that you would speak. It would be ceremonious because after all of the silence surely you would have something to say that deserved to be heard. We gathered in a circle and were asked to say one word that would break our silence. This would be the most powerful moment in what had already felt like millions of powerful moments. As we went around the circle each person would reveal their voice in a word and then share why they had come to the silent retreat. The last part of sharing was not asked of us but something that seemed to come as a release and felt natural after spending hours of silence together. We had gotten to know each other through wide eyes hidden on masked faces, passing each other back and forth between breaks, finding safety in our silent numbers. Now we were hearing the voices of those that had come to be our brethren and felt a responsibility of sorts to share. As the stories came flowing into the circle it created a centrifugal force that was apropos for the roller coaster to come to a final stop.
My “word” changed numerous times as the emotions of their stories came tumbling out in front of me. “Acceptance”, “fear”, wait…no, the words, every one of them said by the 22 people that stood in the circle before I applied, how could I choose one? When it was my turn, I stood up holding on to the column beside me and said the only thing I felt at that moment “OVERWHELMED”. It is not only what I was feeling at that moment but inevitably what brought me to that circle. Overwhelmed by my thoughts and my emotions now in front of these warriors and ironically also the reason I had driven up the mountain originally. I was overwhelmed by life, my life, thoughts that had no longer become a choice to act on but instead, had become a directive summoning emotions and reactions at a dizzying pace, literally as I was suffering from vertigo brought on in silence.
There I stood and spoke my testimony. “My word is “overwhelmed” because that is how I feel right now. I am brimming with energy feeling a tingling sensation throughout my body. My word is also “acceptance”. I realized I was in good company on Day One and that allowed me to be vulnerable to this process. My word is also “responsibility” because I owe it to myself to carry everything I have learned into my life and I take the responsibility of each and every one of your stories as mine to keep in solace. My final word is “fear”. Fear is what I felt when I was driving in and realizing that the last time I was in silence was as I sat at my mother’s bedside the last three weeks of her life until she took her last breath. I did not know if I could ever sit in silence again, but I did.” …and then I sat down into a puddle of my own tears. This must be the definition of cathartic…
This word has always fascinated me and at this moment of release, I fully came to understand not only the definition of the word but the weight of it. This word would become a defining word for the “silent” retreat to be used for me and only me. It is not a word I would repeat or use to describe my experience to others but acknowledge deep within. We use “heavy” words to express our emotions, to place emphasis on our stories without ever truly understanding the true meaning. I realized in this moment of “catharsis” that there were very few times in my life that I had been here, truly.
Everyone has one, a story, your story, our story. All of our stories begin with “Once upon a time…” and inevitably we spend all of our lives seeking our “…happily ever after”.
So many themes revealed themselves this week as a final conclusion to a novel that had more ups and downs than a harlequin romance. Your story is my story and my story is yours and by telling my story I share OUR story. We have all been through something, everything and ironically nothing. Every single one of us can tell a tale of tragedy in our lives as easily as one of victory. The degree to which that story affects us is personal. Your story is no less tragic, better or mundane than mine, it is simply your story, which is ours collectively.
“When all you have is eye contact, devoid of speech you see yourself through the eyes of others.” – Lori Kiel, silent retreat revelation.
I saw myself in the exuberant girl so full of energy she could barely contain herself in silence. Her giggles, moans, grunts and loud motions drew the attention of the room. At first, what felt like a distraction soon came to be a mirror of myself. I recognized myself in her “bull in a china shop” persona and immediately knew why she was there.
I saw myself in the woman two yoga mats over from me that would look at me as if she could see into my soul. She was just a bit older, a tad wiser, summoning me with her gaze that told me “she saw me”. As we broke the silence she would come to me to sit and share, of course, she would because surely she felt that energy as well.
I saw myself in the “buddy” I was assigned the day I first laid eyes on her on Day One. Tattoos, gorgeous skin, long flowing hair and a fierceness to her eyes that let you know, she was not to be messed with; just like me. As we were tasked with sharing our life story (in the third person, in ten minutes) her words would flow so eloquently from her soul revealing a life that was shattered, shocking and leaving me absolutely speechless. It would be my turn to tell my story and I would fumble for the words, not even sure of my name in the third person. What she could not know is that as she told her story, it was mine as well. How could that be? I am immediately reminded that we are all more alike than different. She was as shocked as I revealed that I too had walked a similar path. Her assumption of me, my appearance, my demeanor, never let on that I too had seen life like hers, we were safe, together.
I saw others, those familiar to me my mother, my friends, my kids, in those warriors that surrounded me in silence. I saw my friends in the eyes of three others as we were tasked with a “gazing exercise”. We sat in front of three people and could only stare into each other’s eyes to reveal if we were ready to come out of silence. The first two people I sat in front of were new to me. We had not come into contact during the retreat and in gazing into each other’s masked faces I recognized their eyes. The first was younger, scared, kind eyes that were holding back. So familiar to me and reminded me that the kindness behind those eyes should not be confused with weakness, I know her and she is fierce. The second was familiar. She looked like me, 35 years of me. Round, soft, sweet, flowing hair and a gaze that seemed to create compression on my heart. It was physical. I could feel her squeezing my heart, how, what was this…later when she spoke her final word I would come to know her name. Of course, it was that of my childhood best friend. Of course.
Driving Down the Mountain
I thought a lot about what the departure from silence would look like, would I talk, would I stay silent, turns out much like life, it just happened. When you are in a cocoon, enveloped in silence, safe on the top of a mountain, the idea of driving out of that space is daunting. I had been warned before going that how you come out is as important as the work you do during the retreat.
As I got into the car to take the 9+ hour drive home, I was incredibly energized. This again was to be expected, or not, as expectations are “the thief of joy” as one of the many lessons I have learned this last week. Having experienced the range of emotions and feelings I had come to know I was grateful that today I was energized where days before I was exhausted.
GPS set, water in the cup holder and let’s roll!
I call my husband first to tell him I am out of silence and find my first attempt to explain what I had just experienced. I had already decided that I would not share, at least not verbally, this experience with many others as putting it into words would only fall short. He of course knows why I went and was ready to listen and of course support the changes I am coming away with. He is relieved to hear that my resolve is much of what he has told me, begged of me and offered in wisdom through the years. Ironic that it takes a silent retreat to get it to sink in.
The next phone call comes in from my youngest son interrupting my husband and I’s call to tell my husband that he has locked the keys to his car in the trunk. AND HERE WE GO, cue the song “…back to life, back to reality” – Soul II Soul.
After solving his crisis my youngest son, who is now driving the long ride home from his friends, calls and just wants to talk. This is golden. As a parent of three sons, you come to learn that conversations like this one are precious. They are not the “What are you doing today?” calls, they are not trivial, these are the ones that when they happen you cherish and stay present. This time I am present on an entirely different level, good for him, awesome for me. This is a gift.
The last call on my drive home is my oldest son and his wife to “check on me”. They are always light-hearted and make it easy to share without effort. As he is the quieter one in our family his first question is if I made it through the silence without talking. We share some laughs about my experience and I am left feeling loved, as always. He is so gentle with me. This word “gentle” is one I would hear many times throughout my meditations and would remind myself again and again. This is a tattooable word…not that I would…but noting in the case I ever get the itch.
She’s SAFE, Sliding into Home
In between the calls from my family, the best call I had on my drive home was from the one person I had just experienced this retreat with, Jill.
She and I met 15 years ago when working for the same company. We came fast friends and long after going our separate ways and career paths we have remained close. We have an affinity for wellness and Buddhism and we are each other’s “go-to” for retreats. When this idea of going on a silent retreat came to me she was the first one I called to see if she wanted to join me. Of course, she said “yes”.
It’s interesting going through a period of silence with someone as you cannot communicate verbally yet you soon realize that knowing each other is all the communication you need. The energy, the eye contact, the moments…are as comforting and telling as the words you cannot say. We would hike the mountains around us every day using sign language and caveman-like grunts to communicate. We laughed, a lot! We would even get into a bit of trouble as we accidentally wandered off of a trail and onto the land of a very disgruntled man and his two very loud dogs! Uh Oh…
As we were not able to speak until the very end of the retreat we had a lot to talk about in downloading our shared experience on our long drive home, she back to DC and me to Orlando. Jill had left before me and had already experienced “life” in her new mindset. She shared her few experiences with me as a warning of what was to come.
As we downloaded it was a resolve in closing the experience and unexpectedly necessary. My very wise friend and fellow meditator dispelled her wisdom and takeaways with me with her best advice being…
“You can now access silence anytime you want it.” Ironically I always could.
As it turns out silence was always available to me. Accessing it was not. I have now been equipped with tools to truly access that space in which the quiet can resolve and ready my mind for the noise as I decide to allow it access.
What I am taking away
There were many lessons through stories that were told to us throughout the retreat. Again the facilitators had a captive audience; we sat like kindergarteners on the floor looking up at them as our teachers. We were captive indeed, voices silenced and seeking wisdom by the two that seemingly knew how to find peace. I would later tell them (when granted my voice again) that I was in awe of their courage to take a group through this process as the emotions that would bubble up would sometimes be focused on them; anger, disbelief, love…yes by end of this retreat I would come to love these two courageous humans.
While we were not able to use pad and paper during silence I would have to remember the lessons I learned based on what resonated and “stuck” versus what I voraciously consumed in notes. This as many that know me is tough. I rarely sit and do anything without a keyboard in front of me allowing all that enters to produce on the page in front of me. Again, another blessing in disguise as I realized that much of that notetaking was more about keeping “busy” so I did not have to simply sit within myself. Lessons learned. One at a time. Here are some that were taught and others that I came up with within my own observations of the “self”:
When the water hits the rock, the water is not interrupted, it is not harmed by the rock, it remains unfazed. It simply splashes back unto itself and proceeds to flow around the rock. The rock does not stop the flow, it changes it ever so slightly but it still flows. Be the water, not the rock. I am the water.
When you walk like a flame everything you come into contact with becomes fuel.
The body is the wick and the mind is the glow.
What we resist persists.
Vicious cycle involves thought that evokes emotion that elicits reaction. Allowing the thought to present itself dismiss itself without emotion or reaction is the key to peace.
Jill’s favorite story of wisdom is that of the “empty boat” and I have been regarding it since coming home as well so I share it here as taken from the web for better clarity:
There’s a Zen story in which a man is enjoying himself on a river at dusk. He sees another boat coming down the river toward him. At first, it seems so nice to him that someone else is also enjoying the river on a nice summer evening. Then he realizes that the boat is coming right toward him, faster and faster. He begins to yell, “Hey, hey, watch out! For Pete’s sake, turn aside!” But the boat just comes right at him faster and faster. By this time he’s standing up in his boat, screaming and shaking his fist, and then the boat smashes right into him. He sees that it’s an empty boat.
The other boat is always empty, even when there’s someone steering it. There is never anyone to get angry with. Even if the person steering the other boat deliberately rammed our boat, his behavior had nothing to do with us. Anything anyone else does is done for their own reasons, and much of the time they don’t even know the reasons. When we see life as it is, rather than our thoughts about it, we see that every time we look for an enemy, someone to hate, someone to blame, there’s never anyone there. Just an empty boat on a foggy lake.
My own epiphany occurred on the final sunrise. Of course, it did. As I was sitting at the very top of the steps of the main meditation hall, two cappuccinos beside me, shivering from the 40 degrees of cool air blowing I took these pictures and the following came to me…
HBR article “In Praise of Extreme Moderation” spoke to me this morning. This is an article that will resonate with every one of us regardless of where we fall; moderate or extreme. It calls out the new norm of practicing extremism in all that we do. It calls out the “new” need to do everything to a level of excess. Earning badges of courage and worthiness is where we find our value in today’s society. A society that reveres everyone as “something” whatever the label or title. A new world where competitiveness is a label that has become the norm and when lacking it speaks to ones drive, or lack thereof.
We are swept up in extremism so easily as companies push their products and services as only best consumed in excess. The tell us to:
Only write if you have an audience and are working on a bestseller.
Only run if you can get a PR every time and not only win a medal but rank.
Only eat what you are prescribed via a specific diet and track to prove you are doing it.
Post everything you do publicly as proof that you are doing what you say you are and therefore validating.
It is so easy to sucked into this way of living, or at least attempted living. It is maddening when we are in it and it is reckless when we are not.
The article brings us back to what is “enough”. When is enough enough. That is as personal a decision as it is public. It is when one-by-one we start removing the value assigned to extremes. It stops when we applaud those living in the middle and calm the accolades around those that are pushing the bar so far that reaching for it threatens everything you are if you don’t land on top.
The best way to conclude is to quote the author who sums it up perfectly.
But I have spent a lifetime honing my daily practice, worshipping at the altar of “good enough.” Today, I am neither superrich nor superfit nor supersuccessful. But I have just enough of each to qualify in my own personal marathon, the race for a balanced life. In the end, maybe this only really matters to me and my dog, who does get a lot of good walks out of it. To me, that’s enough. – Avivah Wittenberg-Cox
Overwhelmed without a plan to decide everything! Here is how I am overcoming “overwhelmed”.
Wow, I pulled up this my treasured blog and realizing that it has been two months since I wrote anything and then realized that the final blog post was on my mom’s anniversary of her passing, more than two months ago. Isn’t that profound. Yet again another ending. But it is not. Here I am back writing. Back to making the time to explore the creative outlet that I embrace as a passion, secretly and yet through my medium publicly here for the world to read or disregard.
As I start writing today I asked myself “Where have you been?” Busy? Distracted? Overwhelmed? Yes, that last word…overwhelmed! I have used this word more times in the last week than I have ever. I have literally buried myself in To Do’s, deadlines, pressures, and commitments that have all but taken over my life. And before the assumption can be made I am reminded that it is not all from my work/career. There are as many personal To Do’s, deadlines, and pressures in my “personal life” than in my “work-life”. What I am realizing in hindsight is that those routines, those things that I was doing to keep it all in check got abandoned in the last two months because I was “too busy” not realizing that the sheer abandonment of those things would be my undoing. Overwhelmed is a state of being when my life has taken me, prisoner, because I have relinquished control. I allow all of the outside pressures to creep in so far that they determine my sleep schedule, take away my time to write or read, and ultimately take over. I fool myself into believing that I don’t have time…when in reality I have the same time I had two months ago, I am just spending it differently.
Realization is key here because it was the moment that I was realizing that I gave up this control that everything became overwhelming. And it was in that realization that I got up and decided to take control back. How? Through deciding. Deciding what I will do when I will do it and with who and how. Boom. I have preached so many times in my life to others the power to decide and that ultimately YOU DECIDE always what is yours. Regardless of how it manifests or plays out in front of you; that you are “there” is your decision. These are lessons I have always known and yet forget to deploy when the going gets tough.
Time Blocking — Schedule in the non-negotiables to see what time is left in your day
The first place to take it back was in first divvying up my time. Time is the factor, time is where I am losing the fight. I took the time to sit down and look at a blank calendar, of one 7-day week. I then started dividing it up into those non-negotiables and crossed out the time allotted for work and the time allotted for sleep. Okay, now what is left. WHOA!!! The big realization here is why I feel overwhelmed! On any given weekday I only have four hours that are unidentified; two before work and two after work. Those four hours are the same four I need to get ready to start and end my day. That became the first real perspective in the exercise I was taking on. It is no wonder I am overwhelmed because what I am trying to accomplish in four hours cannot be done in eight! It is unrealistic. So I continued to fill-in my calendar with time to read, write, get ready, make dinner, workout, etc. Perspective was key here as I could feel a weight lifting in realizing that I was not overwhelmed I was overcommitted. I then moved into the weekend where time is more forgiving and made sure to play out those things that are key to my quality of life (aka sanity) so that the lack of routine on a weekend did not derail me. Voila, here I am back reading, writing, and enjoying a peaceful morning…two months later.
Routines — Create Auto-Pilot Decisions to allow room for the “real” decisions to be made
The second place I had to go to shake the “overwhelm” off was in my decisions. Ironically after working to “right-side” this world of mine, I read an article on Medium that summed it all up, “These Micro-Habits Gave me 1 Hour per Day Back” by Tim Denning. It was a reiteration of everything I had done that day and this next piece which was “auto-deciding”. Tim calls it “Create Auto-Pilot Decisions” in the article. There have to be things that you can put on auto-pilot in your life so everything does not require a decision because decisions take effort and energy. For me, I have put my schedule on auto-pilot after writing it out and it now directs me on where I need to be and when without me having to give the energy of thought or decision. I also put my meal plan on auto-pilot, because like most humans, I eat the same thing daily. Not having to come up with a new meal plan every day or at the moment leaves one less decision. I recall hearing that Steve Jobs, Simon Cowell, and Mark Zuckerberg also put on auto-pilot their wardrobes. They found a look that works for them and that is what they wore every single day. Not having to make that decision every morning left energy to be used in a place that could be more productive and likely in their cases more defining.
Be flexible and realistic — Nothing ever goes as planned
Now that the structure has been laid out it is time to simply follow it, or is it really that simple. I love the quote “We plan and God laughs” because nothing is more true. A plan is a great way to architect your life however as our days unfold and priorities shift so must our “plan”. Don’t allow your plan to be yet another stressor and don’t abandon the plan because of unforeseen stressors. Simply following the plan when things are “on track” will give you the “room” or energy needed when things go off-plan. Being flexible and realistic is what makes it work not to be able to stay on the plan stringently. This week I stayed close to the plan but not tied to it. The fact that I had a plan gave me the structure and forgiveness in those things that took me off course to remember that they are one-offs and not the norm. Sometimes just realizing that one-offs are just that…one-off…is all the resolve we need as we are more forgiving of the distraction.
Last and most important now is just doing it. You can set the greatest plan in motion however if you never execute it is simply a plan. Plans don’t define us, they don’t amount to anything more than an intention or a great idea. When you put a plan in motion, well now you are moving in a direction. Right, wrong, or indifferent is irrelevant! The fact that you are “in motion” is enough.
Aunt’s are important, no doubt about it. What I have been privy to in my life is that more than important, Aunt’s are vital. While I value my Uncle’s they have not had the profound affect in my life that my Aunt’s have and as I look around me I realize that Aunt’s are truly our second Mom’s. They stand beside and stand-in when necessary. They are the backing of the Mother, necessary because we all know we don’t listen to our Mother’s. I have had the pleasure of having the most amazing Aunt’s and being an Aunt myself. I have also had the privilege of witnessing the dedication of Aunt’s that have become Mom’s as if it were their calling.
I have four Aunt’s and each of them have been profound in my life:
My youngest Aunt, only years older than me, was a key figure in my teenage years offering friendship and guidance when I needed it the most. We shared the greatest laughs, some that I still remember vividly today and still bring a smile to my face. She taught me how to keep a smile despite your circumstances as I watched her always make the best of what she was given…and later…taken away.
My closest Aunt has truly been a second mother to me and in most cases standing in where my parents were absent. Not taking away from my own parents, she was simply ALWAYS there. She cared about me as if I were one of her own, and has made me believe I am, I was and always will be. Her children became my brothers and sisters which was a much needed respite for an only child and today still provide that reach I would be lonely without.
My last two Aunt’s are called “The Aunts” because they are a pair and one is only as great as the other. They are the perfect pairing of kindness and sarcasm. They are honest and humorous. They are gracious and critical. They are the perfect yin and yang. They push me hard knowing I need it and yet offer a loving understanding when I cannot push any more. The secret weapon of the duo is the one that is so much like my Mom that I have to take a deep breath at times for the breath that is taken away when she makes a familiar look, response or shares that part of our history that only she could know.
I am so blessed to be an only child with a HUGE family thanks mostly to the Cuban side of my family. As much as I have enjoyed my own Aunt’s I have also had the privilege of being an Aunt to many. Many of my nieces have moved on to their own lives however there is the one that continues to hold me close and reminds me of my own need for Aunt’s in life. The only thing better than understanding the “case for Aunt’s” is seeing when my niece understands the case so well that she takes on her role as Aunt as expected, stepping in without being asked and passing on this important relationship to yet another niece or nephew. She is repeating what was done for her and is blessed for having an Aunt that gave her life, for the sake of making sure hers and her siblings were uninterrupted.
Last but never least, are those Aunt’s that are titled by heart and not bloodline. As an only child and only having a brother-in-law my children were never meant to have Aunt’s. However, don’t tell them that because they know a world full of Aunt’s that have been as significant in their lives as if blood, if not more. Cousins that became sisters became their first Aunt’s. Best Friends that love my children as if they were their own became Aunt’s. Best of all is that MY Aunt’s immediately took the responsibility of a second-generation of Aunt-rearing that has served my children well.
So today I make a “Case for Aunts” the closest and the most extended. Today I am reminded that without my Aunt’s I would be “less than”. I am better because of them, they are changed because of me and together we are one. One…whole and never apart.
This was the reality check I was given as I found myself in a puddle of tears. “Even concrete cracks” is the resolve to understanding why even the strongest of the strong humans crack. In this case it was me, cracked wide open. While the release is necessary the reality causes as much reeling as the pressure rising to its boiling point within. We easily forget this when we are at that boiling point which tends to be our weakest moments.
My crack started to form as I was rounding two weeks post-op and still dealing with daily pain. The key to managing pain is to find a baseline that you can tolerate however it is in that tolerance that you wear out. When you are in active pain, it too is exhausting, however with a remedy it is resolved. When you are managing a “pain baseline” the tolerance requires a managed effort. This is effort that requires energy from stores that are depleted. At this point it goes beyond the physical and begins to overwhelm you mentally making everything bigger than it is and the entire environment becomes overwhelming. It is in these moments that you hope you are surrounded by “your village”. I was. I am.
Healing may be the biggest effort I make in my lifetime. This physical healing has unfortunately become familiar to me however regardless of how many times I repeat the process it does not get easier. I am healing faster this time, but I am no less exhausted and emotionally spent. I knew what was coming and how to make the best of it and that preparation may have been my secret weapon. I can only imagine where I would be right now if I had not prepped. My village tells me how much worse it could be…that does not help. My village tells me how well I am doing…that does not help. What helps? Sometimes just crying it out or screaming irrationally; any outlet as for all the input there has to be a release. Where is that written in the textbooks? Where is that in the hospital discharge notes? It needs to be states somewhere, “when it all gets to be too much just scream!” Ha, yes that is a prescription worth noting.
I am a lover of music unlike anyone else I know. That is not to say that others do not love music or are not fanatics but it seems that my connection is more personal, more bloodline than energy. I hear songs and they immediately take me right back to the place I was when I first heard them. In true technicolor, vivid, all senses come to life. I get this honest as both of my parents were also music lovers and music has/had always been a part of our/my life. Today I am reminded of this as I am sitting this morning enjoying my favorite place these days, my back porch, and listening to my favorite morning station on Apple Music. The song that inspires this blog today is “Sober” by Demi Lovato. Listen first and then maybe come along on my morning writing journey…
I love music written in tragedy. This is not to be confused with me loving tragedy, I am not that sadistic. I love music as an art form, as an outlet, for the artist that is willing to pour it all out in song. Demi has gone through the fight of her life, again, and in pure vulnerability pours it out. I feel it, in my heart, my soul, my bones. I get it on a very raw level. Sober is a condition of healing, righting wrongs regardless of the substance. I get it. I am not Sober, either. Being sober means that your imperfections are not noticed externally and ultimate sobriety is full internal resolve. How many of us are really sober? In these terms…hmmm…hard to admit.
For my mother’s eulogy I weaved the music of our lifetime into the words spoken from my soul and it gave the context, it gave the sentiment I could not have otherwise expressed with words alone. It wasn’t about creating a false presence of emotion but allowing those in my world with me at that moment in time to be brought back to the place, the very place I longed to be in that moment…a place where she still existed. A place she still lived, loved and laughed. It worked. It worked for me…it was all that mattered. In that moment on that day, I was talking for her and music was as much my voice as the words coming from my mouth.
I use music like a heartbeat, a rhythm to inspire the action before me. When I run the music matches the tempo I need to keep, when I walk the music is resolved in the journey without fight for breath, when I work the music creates the background noise to keep me focused. It is how I relate to this world. It is nutrients and as needed as water, food, and breath. A life without music is not a world I wish to know; empty, quiet, meaningless.
Music is culture, it unites us, all races, languages and classes. One song has the power to move a nation. Another can be so private and only known to the listener absorbed in the secret only known between the lyrics and the soul.
Music is my language and those that know me best speak to me in my native tongue. This week alone I received songs from those that know me best and love me most. Those songs were genuine communication from them to me with nothing more needed to be said except, “I heard this song and it made me think of you.” How perfect. I conclude by sharing those songs with you as my Thank You to those that sent them to me and my want to pay it forward to my reader that may not have the fortune to know music in this form, may this be your entree into something more, a new language of love, friendship and vulnerability.
Lyrics “…and it gets you down But that’s ok You’ve been pushed round You feel the pain And when you fall Just lean on me Cause you’ve never known Never seen Never smelt Never felt The rain Rain, never felt the rain, rain rain”
Lyrics “.Once I get a house that I can hang my hat on, I bet I’ll want to build a bigger one if I could, yeah, I’m thinking, once I learn to grow right where I’m planted, Maybe that’s when life starts getting good…”
This theme has been with me for weeks now and so here I go to give life to the theme. It is plaguing me with something pressing to say, to communicate, to shout from the rooftops…maybe.
It is too obvious to suggest that what we, as a world, have gone through in the last three months will leave a lasting impression that will be defined far greater than “leaving a mark”. What we have gone through in pandemic, protests and riots and politics will go down in history. We can only hope that all of the strife will change the future to allow recount of “how it used to be” versus “why it is this way”. This will all remain to be seen.
What is not obvious is the “mark” that is being left on you, on me, on each one of us mentally, transforming us physically. We are taking in images subconsciously that we are not used to processing. We attempt to create context around these images but we realize the internal struggle when we feel the anxiety, insomnia and otherwise unrest internally. We try to put a name on it, we try to diagnose it and yet we are left with discord and diagnosis undefined. We as a nation are not used to seeing violence in the form of protests in our streets, body bags being loaded into semi-trucks from the fallout of a pandemic that has not found its end and the lack of a leader to guide us out of chaos and into peace. Those images go in and then bounce around like the ricochet of a bullet leaving in its wake, damage. Minor damage for those that have the tools or resolve to digest it and flush it out and catastrophe for those that cannot imagine what they are experiencing.
I have had the benefit of talking to groups of friends and colleagues that all share their experience. The same experience that I am party to however my experience being different based on my resolve. It is your internal resolve that will drive you to act or retreat. It is that resolve that will show resource or surrender. Anxiety is the theme, regardless of the individual. Why do I feel emotional? Why am I angry? Why do I want to retreat or rebel? These are the questions we are ALL asking. It is now that we are forced to come to terms with the inside voice that has its own monologue, those thoughts that show up in neon lights that dare you to act…before you think. But don’t! Stop. Stop everything. Take it in. Allow it to show itself. STOP. Then decide…what’s next. Yes, it always comes back to this one fact, you decide. Even in today’s world; you decide what risk you are willing to take, what opinion you will have and who you will follow. YOU DECIDE.
It is indeed fair to say that this will leave a “mark”. Yes it will, it has to, as nothing this extreme will depart quietly. Whatever is eating you today, you must meet yourself where you are and find a way to digest it. Decide what is right for you. Be careful of what you are taking in as not everything is fortifying. Let the mark that is left be partnered with a time you can look back and be proud of how you handled yourself, always meeting yourself where you are and not defining yourself by the moment. Anxious yes, it is impossible not to be, but taking that moment to stop and realize that the resources that I have can reduce it all and make sure that the mark left is not a scar but a battle wound!
And just like that it occurs to me. That I have indeed manifested this, the life I always dreamed of without realizing I was heading right for it. It just occurred to me this morning as I was finishing a 12-week program via the “The Artist’s Way”, that everything that I have done for the last 49 years has prepared me for the next chapter. I always said that when I turned 50-years old that I wanted to teach, I wanted to transition into a new chapter; and while I struggled to see the forest for the trees along the route today I have walked out of that forest, at the end of that path and turned around and there it is…every single tree, every sapling, every seed that was ever planted is now the forest. It is a wealth of experiences, paths and journeys; thorns, bites and equal amounts of sun shining through that will catapult me into my dream. Wow, I am in awe as I write this and the realization shows itself clear as the day that is beginning.
The irony is that I realize now, in this moment, that all of the work in raising my children, cultivating a partnership and friendship that has served as my marriage to the very best partner for me and building a career that can sustain it all has brought me to this place that I can realize the next chapter that lies in front of me. All along I thought my dream would not come to pass because of my lack of realization that the additional education I thought i needed was being attained all along. I dreamed of being a Professor and yet I am. I thought it would be teaching hospitality however I have just realized that it is that and so much more. I thought it would require another degree and yet I realize that there is no more that I can be taught in a structured environment that I have not learned through experience. It is taking what I have learned on these paths that will now be my next chapter. I have learned how to share, I have learned from the masters and I am not afraid. For the reality is that I have earned a doctorate in life studies, learned in a classroom that has been my last 49 years of life.
The epiphany is so profound, the realization that it, all of it, that I have worked for has lifted me to the place that I dreamed of, the place I wished to be, and now it is my only task to take the next steps. So now I walk back through the paths that I have beaten and worn and now reminiscing those walks with eyes wide open, I am able to see in hindsight those things that were beneath the surface. I will feel those things all over again with renewed senses and the benefit of maturity. The only task left “to do” is to simply to release the constraints that I have allowed to weigh me down through my own imprisonment and realize that I am free to go, to soar, to realize this new life, reality and existence without obstacle.
This is real, this is how it occurred to me on this morning as I was doing my “Morning Pages” and had this immense realization and thought enough to capture the moment in my writing. There are so many themes in this realization that are worth pointing out to avoid anything going missed.
The epiphany is simply as defined, “a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience.” I have been doing the work and through the work it suddenly appeared, my future, my dream in realization, in full color, right in front of me.
The power of manifestation as defined, “being able to harness your true destinies and desires in life, subconsciously put into vision, and then into reality. Everything you want of the universe is already yours the clearer your thoughts and thinking on the matter, the more timely and precise the delivery will come.” Put whatever it is out there, a goal, a FINISH LINE, a dream; whatever you want to call it simply put it out there and return to it often, doing the work along the way that you believe will bring you to that place…and it will be yours.
The faith as defined, “complete trust or confidence in something or someone.” If you believe in yourself and trust that what you want will be yours as long as you are willing to do the work, walk the path and have “faith” despite a guarantee that it will be, it will come, if you only believe.
I give this to you as my gift. A glimpse into my soul, my beliefs, my heart. I give back to myself the gift of documenting this moment to allow myself the privilege of revisiting this moment in all of its power. I look forward to the hindsight it will provide in ten years when I will be grateful that I took a chance on myself and willingness to share with YOU.
This last week of every year starts my mind thinking through what I want in the coming year. Being someone who admittedly is “Always Starting…” I don’t need a New Year to start again. In my dieting days it was a Monday that would be the “start” and of course the ultimate for all large weight-loss goals was always New Years Day. The issue was admittedly that it meant that the days leading up to the Monday or New Years Day would be an all-out binge! It is with this this theme that I offer a “Life as I see it” moment or two for you to think on in the next week.
First in determining what those goals should be is defining your priorities. I have numerous priorities in my life but interesting as it might be to admit it those will get pushed to the side when they are too hard, I am too tired, someone needs me to be/do something else…or…SQUIRREL! How can something be a priority and not take center-stage every minute of every day?
In my life there are a number of things that I regard as priority; health, family, career and then everything else that does not fit into one of those buckets comes in behind…or does it. When it’s hard, not fun or simply not offering immediate pleasure, priorities become last on the list. I struggle with this first point because I do it all too often. Let me share…
Running is a priority because it keeps me healthy both physically and mentally. I don’t love getting up in the morning to run yet because my evening schedule can be admittedly unpredictable evening runs are not realistic. What I can control to make sure this priority has its place in my life is to get up early enough to make it happen insuring that nothing gets in the way, but..it is not ideal. I just admitted that I don’t “love” it…
Priorities are important regardless of time and like. I don’t like apples more than cookies but if I want to be healthy I have to choose the apple. Make sure your priorities “serve you” in the right ways, of course as you define.
Second is establishing a routine. In order to make anything a “priority” you have to establish a routine which creates the habit and makes it a reality. Many of our routines are automatic, like getting ready in the morning. I promise that if you put my routine on tape you would see me trace the exact same steps every single morning. This routine was created without thought and is simply the path I follow without thinking to get ready for the day. It might be the reason that when trying to fit something new into that routine, especially the mindless routines, the “add-on” can feel arduous.
Third is a mix of tolerance and leniency, after all we do what we do, set the goals that we set because they “serve us” however when they do not, we must “meet ourselves where we are” in that moment and for that moment. Our priorities and routines require both tolerance and leniency as life is going to get in the way and when it does we must relent for that moment without throwing the entire plan down the drain. The best example of this is in dieting. I cannot count on five million hands how many times I was headstrong into a diet and then found myself throwing the entire effort to the side because I “messed up”. One cookie does not have to create a binge…but it did. It’s that mentality of perfection that “if I don’t do it perfect every minute of the day then…” the whole thing goes down the drain. In what world does this make sense? Moderation, should likely be added to this list as “everything in moderation” is also key to living our best lives.
I am going to write my New Years Resolutions over the next week. I am also going to practice doing exactly what I say I am going to do and determining new routines to make sure those things I define as priorities find their place in my life. I will remind myself that when life gets in the way, it is a temporary fork in the road and not a permanent detour.
I think the best way to conclude is to remind that you can have the life you want if you are willing to do the work. What is in that life? What are the priorities? What does a day in that life look like? What ultimately do you have to sacrifice to have that life? Sleep, cookies, TV…?
Define it, Own it and then be rewarded by the fruits of your labor by living your BEST life. Life as I attempt it – L.