Eureka!

Guess what?! I struck gold!

While maintaining that the main objective of this blog is to share some of my experiences on this journey through life, I will admit that I have been hoping that anyone who reads my blog finds something to take along on his or her own journey as well. We are all in this together! I only say this now because if you are reading this, you are someone I care about or someone who someone I care about cares about and I really want you to pay attention.

So today is all about sharing my gold. I am very new to this, so bear with me. I am no expert, I can’t take credit for it, and I’m not even sure I fully understand it, but I think I am on to something HUGE! I am beginning to see that any journey worth taking (i.e., life) must begin with a healthy practice of self-compassion. Of course, like many things I’ve encountered lately, this is something I have read or heard about in the past and thought, “Well, of course! Duh!” while not putting it into practice.

My last post was about truth and how being authentic, or honest, might be painful, but can open the door to compassion for others, and for myself. I knew I was balancing on the very tippy top of the iceberg because I couldn’t keep up with my thoughts on the matter. Since then I have learned a little more about self-compassion and how there is so much more to it than a simple acknowledgment that all is well.

It started with this article that Ken the Angel Life coach asked me to read. And, of course, I didn’t read it when he first suggested it. I was too busy (or, enter Twilight Zone theme music – this is something my parents always did when I was a kid – I was resisting it…). Anyway, here it is Self compassion may matter more than self-esteem. So, basically, this woman Kristin Neff, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, researched self-compassion and found that (drum roll) it matters more than self-esteem. Sorry, I am feeling punchy. In all seriousness, there are elements of self-esteem that are desirable and those that are not. Cultivating self-compassion allows for all the desirable elements and none of the undesirable ones. This is really important for those of us raising children, and even more important for those of us shuttling said children from competitive sport to competitive (insert sport or other event) in hopes of instilling a strong sense of self in these children. We all want the best for our children and frankly, it seems to be a bit of a crap shoot as to whether or not we are achieving “the best” in our efforts. Only time will tell.

Cultivating self-compassion is not just for our children though, my friends. The article mentions Neff’s recent book, Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind (William Morrow, 2011). Being the book whore that I am (punchy!), I immediately searched for Neff’s book on amazon.com. And this is where I think I found gold. As I poked around, I found a multitude of other books about self-compassion and…weight-loss, among other things. The funny thing is, I even remember writing about how my own desire to lose weight, or get fit, or however you want to say it, would need to come from a place of self-love, rather than self-loathing, in order to be put into action. I knew that then, but somehow I haven’t incorporated it entirely into my journey. Just last week I was telling someone about my inner punk who keeps insisting on french fries. Um, call me crazy, but I don’t think calling myself a punk is very compassionate?!

According to Neff, compassion entails recognizing suffering and feelings of kindness for those who are suffering, so that eventually we feel an urge to help or stop the suffering. Compassion also means understanding that we all suffer, that suffering is part of the human experience. Read: when you are suffering, YOU ARE NOT ALONE (I am yelling for my own benefit). Self-compassion involves all the same things.

I think one of our challenges is to show the very same compassion we show toward others to ourselves. And, I think this is what I really meant in my last post…that by virtue of practicing compassion toward others, I learn to practice self-compassion. It sounds so simple, but if we’re being honest, we know it is not that simple. I know not a single soul who lets herself off the hook with the same gracious spirit in which she would let me off the hook. Or her children, or her mother, or the grocery attendant at VG’s. We are all so hard on ourselves. We come by it naturally though. We live in a very competitive society. We grew up competing in sports, competing for good grades, competing to get into college, competing for jobs, competing to raise perfect children…we are competing all the time. Have you ever told someone what a bad day you are having only to have them respond with the details of their own much worse, much more complicated, much more trying bad day? We even compete for compassion! I’m not saying that participating in healthy competition doesn’t have value, of course it does. It is worth mentioning, however, that a competitive culture such as ours encourages us to feel as if we don’t measure up to others when we fail at something. Perhaps recognizing that sense of failure as “suffering,” instead of proof that we aren’t good enough, opens our hearts right up to understanding that as humans we all suffer, we all fail, and we are all worthy of compassion.

Speaking of suffering, I have to say that celebrating Father’s Day without a father sucks. There is no way around it. As I practiced self-compassion this weekend, I first recognized how lucky I am to have had a dad worth missing. He was such a great guy. I thought about all the little kiddos out there who don’t have dads and I realized just how blessed I am to have had my dad for 37 years. I started to think that maybe it was time to suck it up, you know, that this was my second Father’s Day without a father so I should be really good at it by now. But then I thought of myself as a little girl. I know that no matter how old I am, there will always be a little Anna inside me, longing to run to the solace of her daddy’s arms. He had the biggest, strongest arms. He gave the best hugs. I miss those hugs…

That little girl will never be expected to suck it up. That little girl is suffering still. That little girl has my utmost compassion. And that too, is golden.

Liar, Liar Pants on Fire

I haven’t been much of a blogger lately. I can’t seem stick with one idea long enough to see it through. But since this is my travel journal (on my hat trick – mind, body, spirit journey), I decided to just write something. Anything is better than nothing, right?

The one thing I keep coming back to is truth. We receive a lot of different messages about truth, like the truth hurts, honesty is the best policy, and the truth will set you free – just to name a few. In yoga there is satya, a commitment to speaking the truth. On this quest of mine, toward a deeper connection between my mind, body, and spirit, I think the truth is very important. Plus, “truth” keeps creeping up on me, and that means it needs some attention.

As I’ve thought about truth, I’ve mostly been thinking about if and when and how I share my truth with others. Will it really matter if I speak up in a situation where my truth is pounding on the door of my throat to get out? Is it worth it? Will it make a difference? I’ve been thinking about how being honest, or authentic, might impact the people around me. Recently though, I discovered that the most powerful, and maybe even the most important, thing I can do with truth right now, is to be honest with myself.

At some point, in the last ten years or so, I went to my mom with a dilemma. I think I was complaining about someone. She said something like, “You know Anna, they say, that when you have a complaint about someone, it is usually because they remind you of something you don’t like about yourself.” (By the way, who is they anyway?) All I really wanted was for my mom to agree that whomever I was talking about sucked and that I was awesome. But no, like any good mother, she challenged me to reconsider the situation. I vowed never to complain to her about someone else again.

In the back of my mind, anytime someone irritates me, I can hear my mother’s voice and I wonder, what does it say about me, that I am bothered by this person, or by his or her behavior? And then I wonder whether I really want to know what it says about me? Typically, my answer was no. This reminds me of the court scene in A Few Good Men where Jack Nicholson’s character screams on the stand, “YOU WANT THE TRUTH? YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!” I didn’t think I could handle the truth, or maybe I just didn’t want to deal with the truth.

No matter what my mom says, I decided that some people can be just plain irritating. But when I raised something similar with Ken the Angel Life Coach he said, “you spot it, you got it,” meaning, once again, that if something someone did triggered an emotional reaction in me, it was likely because I saw myself in them, or in their behavior. Then I was in a pickle. It was time to dig deeper. I will save you the heartache of the details of my digging. Again with Ken’s help, this little gem of wisdom is what I found: rather than stomp away angry or hurt, or spend hours of therapy or sleepless nights trying to figure out exactly what it says about me that this behavior bothers me, if I were to show compassion toward the person behaving badly, so to speak, I might just open myself up to having deeper compassion for myself.

More relevant than what it says about me to be bothered by punk-ass behavior (just off the top of my head), is the idea that in having compassion for the punk, I open myself to compassion for myself. I’m sure this can work in a lot of different ways, but on the simplest level, for me, it means that I choose not to let the punk bother me, to maybe think, “Wow, I bet he is having a hard day, poor guy…” or whatever, then move on, letting myself off the hook for anything I (think I) may have done to deserve being bullied by a punk. His choices are not about me.

On a deeper level, this might mean that my own inner punk needs to be let off the hook. I recognize punk-like behavior because I know I can be a bully and I don’t feel great about it. Instead of leaving the punk thinking, “what an ass,” (therefore, I must be an ass), I might just recognize that he is what he is in that moment, as am I. Whew, I’m getting a headache. I think I need to stop before it gets too complicated…

Along the same line, today I read something about how forgiveness opens space once held by hurt in our hearts. Space for what? Love? Fun? Compassion? I think this is really powerful stuff. I know there are a lot of things, hurtful experiences, that I have been holding in my heart for a very long time. I guess I have been protecting them there. And while I’ve been able to move on in my life, I am finding that any little bit of grudge I hold toward someone else, or something else, is a waste of energy. My precious life energy. And I need that energy for my three crazy kids and our big yellow dog. I need it for myself!

So, now I see that the truth, whether it be about me or someone else, really does hurt sometimes. But I don’t have to hang on to the hurt. Feeling that hurt and being honest about it, rather than denying it or questioning it or saving it for later, really, truly sets me free.

I Want My Mommy

My mom and I held each other, crying, when she looked at me and said, You girls think I’m so strong. I’m not strong. I got all my strength from your dad. I couldn’t believe my ears. It was the night my dad died and we were understandably shocked. I wondered when I would wake up from the horrible nightmare I was having. We were both terrified as the coroner did his thing with my dad and we waited for someone to tell us what to do next. We hoped someone could tell us what to do next. I panicked, briefly, but I knew she was wrong. I knew she was strong. Maybe she did draw some, maybe even a lot of strength from my dad, but I also knew that deep inside her lived a wellspring of strength that pumped up and through her veins like blood. Strength is in her nature.

During my grandmother’s funeral (this was my mom’s mom or Mumma, as my mom and her siblings called her), I remember noticing something similar in each of my cousins. I’m not sure exactly what to call it, but it basically says, “Don’t fuck with me.” It’s not a total tough guy kind of thing, but more of a strong and silent confidence. I watched my cousins closely for a while as I considered the fact that each of us had my grandmother’s blood pumping through our veins. I was so proud of all of us. We came from a long line of strength and we carried it with us, we kept it going, and now we pass it on to our children.

When my son James was born, nine years ago, my understanding of Mother’s Day shifted. Now, I was the mom. I never abandoned an effort to celebrate my mom and my mother-in-law on Mother’s Day, but I certainly felt the day was really more about me now. Me, my kids, my family, and what I wanted to do on this one day. But today was different. I didn’t even see my mom today – we celebrated together with my sister and her family yesterday – but I couldn’t stop thinking about her. I couldn’t stop thinking about how even if she wasn’t my mom, I would admire her. I would love her. I couldn’t stop thinking about how, at age 38, my need for her presence in my life is more pressing than ever. I need her strength.

My mom is human, let’s be clear about that. I even remember hating her at times when I was a teenager. I remember one time, I was bent over, looking for something in the car, and she was outside the car by my feet. She was on my case about something and I actually, albeit briefly, considered kicking her in the face. We did the typical mother-daughter thing. The thing I dread doing with my daughter.

In addition to being human, my mom is an angel. As I reconnected with girlfriends from the past over Facebook, many of them recalled how sweet my mom was as our Brownie leader. Keep in mind, we are well past old enough to have our own Brownies. When my class, the class of ’91, entered high school none of the teachers would agree to be our class sponsor, as was tradition. My mom did it. She helped us build floats for Homecoming, she planned fundraisers with us, and she connected with a lot of the kids in my class. She still speaks of them fondly, with a smile and usually a funny memory.

She was always there for me. And she has always been there for a lot of people. Until a few years ago she was a school nurse at an alternative school in Flint. She taught childbirth education to pregnant teens. A job fit only for an angel and she did it with strength and grace and respect for those girls like I’m quite sure some of them had never experienced. I loved hearing stories about her students and their babies. They weren’t always happy stories though. There were many, many stories that were tough to hear and many I’m sure I will never hear. I thought those girls were so lucky to have a woman like my mom on their side.

Just like me. I call my mom before I call the pediatrician. God only knows how many times I asked her questions through each of my pregnancies as I anticipated labor and delivery. And when those little bundles of need, and joy like I had never known arrived, my mom was by my side. She gave me the confidence to try new strategies for sleeping, eating, and cleaning up messes. She believed in me. She guided me gently, lovingly, and with compassion. She continues to parent me, even as I parent.

And without skipping a beat, she grandparents. Yesterday she and my two younger children were having a piano concert. Each of them took a turn playing their “piece” and then everyone clapped. The pianist bowed. I’m pretty sure my kids couldn’t have been more into it if they were performing at Carnegie Hall. My mom has this way of engaging children. Somehow she makes it seem that whatever is happening, from cleaning toys up from the floor to picking rocks up from the beach, to looking up at the stars, is the most exciting thing that could be happening in that moment. She makes up songs and stories and my kids laugh and sing and really, simply, bask in her glow.

People love my mom. I love my mom. I am eternally grateful for all she is and all she does. She has been through so much in her life. She lost her husband, the love of her life. That kind of loss can break a person. But no matter what, she never fails to show up. She is always there. She may be late, but mostly she walks through the door with her sparkling blue eyes and a mischievous smile. I say something silly to greet her and she laughs out loud. She is steadfast in her love for her family, her garden, her home, and all her works of art. Like her mother and the many, many mothers before her, my mom is as strong and fierce as she is gentle and kind.

Now that I think I get it a little better, what it truly means to be a mother, and that it doesn’t end, I feel a little dumb for ever thinking that Mother’s Day was more about me in my first months of motherhood. Not that new mothers are not in their own category of angel, but I still had so much to learn…I still have so much to learn. Sitting at dinner today with my mother-in-law and two of her three sons and her grandchildren, I thought about how lucky I am to have such incredible role models. When I stop to think about it, I am blown away by the strength it takes to be a mother. It is a full mind and body experience. My dad may continue to be a source of strength for my mom, like we couldn’t have known he would be on the night we lost him, but at her core, my mom is just as strong, in fact stronger, than her girls ever thought she was. She is the true source of her strength and I am so proud of her. I am honored to share this day with her. Happy Mother’s Day Mom!