What are We Without Our Memories?

My mom forgot my birthday for the first time six years ago. As an almost-forty-something, I didn’t need a big birthday party or lots of attention or anything like that. But it is a stunning milestone for a mother to forget the day that she brought her baby into the world. And for said baby, it was incredibly painful the first time it happened. There are some things that seem like they would be impossible to forget.

Especially for my mom, a woman who embraced motherhood fully and in every way. Raising my brothers and I was the best job she could dream of. That’s not just me putting on rose-colored glasses and saying so – she told me that. When I say our mom was our biggest fan, I am not exaggerating. She showed up in so many ways. She was on the sidelines for all of our games, only missing them if there was a conflict with another sibling’s schedule. She attended every ballet recital (a bouquet of flowers in hand), swim meet (day-long affairs in over-hot, heavily-chlorinated air to see your kid swim for 30 seconds), soccer game (sometimes taking up entire weekends for months on end, game after game), hours and hours of shuttling us to music lessons, baseball practice, soccer, tennis – you name it, we played it. Even in the early stages of Alzheimer’s she was there on the sidelines for Kindergarten soccer and witnessed her grandson’s first goal ever. It was 28 degrees, the field was covered in frost, her memory was failing, she was frightened about the future, her world was shrinking – and there she was. She showed up time and again – for us, for everyone in her family, and for her friends.

Don’t get me wrong, we were far from perfect and I am pretty sure she had her moments when she wanted to run out of the house screaming to escape from us and the insanity we were causing her. In fact, she actually did so on at least one occasion, prompting our next-door neighbor, who had been out gardening, to come over and put his arm around her to comfort her. It kind of became neighborhood lore. So I know she thought we were royal pains in the ass sometimes – and we were – and surely she was overwhelmed keeping track of us and our schedules and our issues and, of course, the never-ending laundry. I imagine she had her moments of cursing us quietly under her breath, or venting to her friends or sisters on the phone. I am certain there were lots of things that got missed. My mom was chronically last minute in her approach to life. Her desk was a jumble of papers, binders, and – to my mind – complete and utter chaos. It looked like she didn’t sweat the small stuff, but I think the truth is that she was the world’s biggest procrastinator. You could count on her, but she’d make you sweat it out, tumbling through the door with the cake or hors d’oeuvres or whatever she had promised to bring just seconds before the start of a big event.

For my birthday, she would hang streamers in the dining room and bake a cake from scratch. She took cake-decorating classes to improve her skills, and – as cliche as it is to say it – she baked love into every morsel of every item she made. She planned epic treasure hunts in the woods for my friends and I – two-hour hikes with elaborate clues and “treasure” hidden along the way that ended at a river where we would feed the ducks with stale bread she had been collecting and freezing for months. It only occurs to me to wonder in hindsight how she got the clues placed and the treasure hidden all while baking and decorating the cake, organizing the party, and keeping up with my brothers and I. While those more elaborate birthday celebrations faded away as I got older, if I was home my mom would always bake her famous chocolate chip vanilla cake with cream cheese frosting (recipe below). If I was away, she sent a card and called. She was never extravagant, more of a simple but elegant woman. But she always acknowledged what a special day my arrival was for both of my parents and how much I meant to them. Like I said, this is the stuff that you would think you could never forget.

But forget she did, first six years ago and increasingly each year since as time for her becomes more and more of a loose construct and words and their meaning elude her. This year I baked her famous cake for my daughter’s birthday and brought her a slice to see if the taste brought back any recognition of all of these wonderful, deeply held memories. She liked the cake, smiled while she ate it, but otherwise was blank. For my birthday, I brought tea and cookies to her care home to celebrate. Because, really, my birthday is about us, maybe even more about her than it is about me if you think about it! She was happy as usual to see me, springing from her chair with delight, her hands swinging dramatically in the air to wave me over, a huge smile across her face. She loved the idea of a party, but I don’t think she really understood the birthday part. She used to break into song, part of her brain holding onto familiar tunes like Happy Birthday better than other things. But she didn’t sing this time. She just enjoyed her cookie and her tea, and I enjoyed her company. Despite all that I have lost of her, I still have that.

I am left wondering time and again as we face into Alzheimer’s ever more deeply, what is life without a memory? I read Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End and, while inspired, grateful for this new perspective, and appreciative of the recommendations for aging and dying well, I found myself wondering how one can have a meaningful, purpose-filled life and live life to the fullest until the very end if you can’t remember anything. Who are we without our past? It’s one thing to live in the moment, moment to moment. That’s enlightenment. But isn’t life, ultimately, a collection of memories? Isn’t that what we all aim for, to create wonderful memories? So many of my conversations start with, “Remember when?” What happens when you don’t? Without memories, what does it mean to be alive?

I don’t have any good answers. I just wonder. And I wonder what goes on inside my mom’s head, what she is seeing when she points to things that aren’t there, what she is trying to describe when she can’t find the words, what it feels like to entrust yourself and your well-being completely to another person.

Where is the hope in this? I don’t know. But there is definitely connection. There is some deep, biological recognition of one’s own, no matter what else has departed. And I guess there’s hope – or magic of some sort – in that. And there’s always cake.

Bethie O’s Famous Chocolate Chip Vanilla Cake

1 cup yogurt (plain or vanilla)

1 cup oil

2 cups sugar

3 cups flour

2 heaping teaspoons baking powder

3-4 eggs

1 bag mini chocolate chips

2 teaspoons vanilla

Mix. Bake at 350.

Tube cake – at least 1 hour

Flat cake – 30 – 35 minutes

Cupcakes – 20 – 25 minutes

Cream Cheese Frosting

1 teaspoon vanilla

3 ounces cream cheese

Confectioners sugar

Dab of milk

Mix to taste and consistency. And enjoy!

Just because you carry it well

 

I Ran Two Marathons in One Month

Literally it took me a whole month. As in, I ran a couple miles at a time and over the course of a month somehow I managed to run 52.4 miles, the equivalent of two marathons. Could I have run a marathon, or even a half marathon, in one fell swoop? Heck NO. But I accomplished this and it is a pleasant surprise!

I am participating in the Acadia to Katahdin virtual race series to raise money for Acadia National Park and Millinocket, the gateway town to Baxter State Park, both of which are in the state of Maine. It has been a great experience. The race app helps me track not only how many miles I have run, but also where those miles would put me if I were actually running on the roads around Acadia and Katahdin. And, not that it’s a competition (at least for me), but it also tells me where I am in comparison to the other runners who are participating.

My racing stats are far from impressive, logging my progress in one- to four-mile bite-size chunks and averaging about 12 miles per week and about 9 minutes per mile. Some of those miles are walking, some are running. But that’s not the point! The point is that I am doing it. Like anything in life, it’s putting one foot in front of the other and making progress toward a goal. As an RA (Rheumatoid Arthritis) patient, tying up the laces to my sneakers again and going out for even a mile run consistently is nothing short of a miracle. The days of barely being able to hobble around the block are behind me for the moment. Your guess is as good as mine as to why my RA is behaving itself currently, whether it’s diet or exercise or stress management or better sleep or the super perfect prescription cocktail, but I am running with it (literally) while it lasts!

Will I complete the race’s entire 328.5 miles before December 31, 2019? I would say that’s doubtful. Will I run the actual Millinocket Marathon and a Half that will take place this year on December 7, 2019? No, my long distance days are over. I am a short distance runner these days (and a swimmer – low impact is where it’s at!). BUT, I will be there to cheer on the runners, including my husband, as well as that community that is so dear to me. And in October I will attempt to climb Katahdin for the first time in almost two decades, weather gods permitting. And I can’t wait! My heart has ached to walk those trails I used to clamber up like a mountain goat for fun on a day off. I cannot wait to look out from the peak over the vast and serene landscape of the North Maine Woods, to feel the solidarity of accomplishment with fellow hikers, and the peace and calm that comes from being part of that wild world for a short time. I thought having RA had relegated me to only the low-lying, pond-side trails. And I made my peace with that – the view from there is beautiful, too. But, wow, to climb the mountain!??! What an unexpected gift. This hike will be one of deep gratitude, both that I am healthy for now and that I get another chance.

Life is short and life is also unpredictable. Next year is not a guarantee. October is not a guarantee! I am riding the wave while I can. Sometimes you just have to grab a latte, be bold, be brave, and go for it! And, always, always, be grateful.

 

 

 

 

In the Shadow of a Blood Moon

I used to earn $50 per week.

Accommodation was provided as part of my job, and we pooled our resources to purchase food in a family meal plan. I lived in T2R9 in the unorganized territories* of Maine at the time, a one hour drive to the closest town. We made one trip to town per week, family-style in a lumbering repurposed Suburban. The town trip consisted of food shopping (family plan), collecting and sending mail, doing laundry at the laundromat, and using the payphone – yes, for real, the payphone. If you’ve never seen one, I included a picture here. There weren’t a ton of extras to spend money on in Millinocket, ME, which suited me just fine since I didn’t have any money to spend anyway. Somehow I managed to break even each week.

Well, every week except for the week that I got my period. Tampons and pads weren’t part of the family plan. And, guess what? They are expensive and, also, essential. The other women on the crew lamented the same issue – every month we slid further into debt. And there was really nothing we could do about it.

You would think that this experience might have made me wonder as I traveled in developing countries how women there handled this issue. I guess I assumed there was some practice handed down woman to girl about feminine hygiene and how female bodies work. I often assumed other cultures were more evolved and open than my own close-lipped, grin and bear it Irish-Catholic heritage. I made those assumptions and didn’t think much more about it.

It turns out, there isn’t a good practice in most developing countries for handling basic health education on this issue. In many countries, girls miss school, are sent to huts together to wait out their “time,” or sit on a piece of cardboard alone in a room until it’s over. Every single month. I only figured this out recently when one of the women I was traveling with in Guatemala brought kits from Days for Girls to distribute to the students at the MAIA Impact School.

Do you understand how vulnerable a group of girls in a hut alone could be? Or how much school is missed when this happens every month? Or, simply, how unhygienic it is not to have a means to deal with this, or a cultural support system to explain why it is happening and what it means? Does teenage pregnancy in these circumstances, inequitable educational attainment between girls and boys, or high maternal death rates really come as a surprise in a world where this completely natural and necessary process isn’t discussed, in many cases is feared, where tampons, pads or pharmacies don’t exist, and where earning $50 per week is more the norm than the aberration?

To begin to address this problem and solve the many ancillary issues it creates, Days for Girls (DfG) developed reusable sanitary supply kits that are hand-made in the United States by individuals and groups committed to creating change for these girls. Sewing groups gather regularly or sewists work independently to make pads that can be discreetly hung on a washing line to dry and that last for approximately three years. The design has evolved over time – 28 different iterations to date – into an effective, durable, reliable and environmentally friendly product. Over the years, Days for Girls has earned the trust of village elders and other decision-makers, winning some semblance of freedom for girls worldwide.

Wisely, these kits aren’t just distributed to anyone who asks. Days for Girls requires the person distributing them to be trained and to teach the recipients about how to use the pads and care for them properly, but also about what is happening with their bodies and why. Kits go where people involved with Days for Girls travel. The number of kits available depends on how many each chapter is able to produce.

My local Days for Girls chapter sent this recent status update: “212 kits will go to Uganda in a week, to help girls stay in school. 10 kits will head to Guatemala in July as a pilot project. 10 more travel to Zambia soon. The last 20 will be donated to Days for Girls’ refugee project. They will be taking 11,000 kits to each of three refugee camps. Imagine fleeing your homeland and arriving somewhere unfamiliar, then living in a camp with thousands of other people, none of whom have access to sanitary supplies. The conditions under which many others live is challenging, to say the least. We hope to relieve some of the misery. The kits have been extremely well-received in the camps in which they have been distributed in small numbers in the past. We will also be sending some kits to Ghana in December.”

I am astonished both by the thoughtfulness and impact of this program as well as by my own ignorance. The provision of these basic supplies has an immense effect on a girl’s well-being, dignity, and potential. Globally, countries that have greater levels of gender equality are safer and more prosperous (World Economic Forum). Educating girls is also among the top forms of combating climate change (The Unsung Solution to Climate Change). In Guatemala specifically, “if women had equal economic participation, in 10 years the Guatemalan GDP would grow by 46%, or $40 billion, or $2,460 per person. In a country with an average per capita income of $4,060, that’s a big deal” (MAIA Impact School). Reducing the number of school days that girls miss matters enormously. This is a really big deal.

To follow are a couple of examples of videos from the Days for Girls website that more fully display the results of providing these basic necessities alongside health education. #daysforgirls #maiaimpact #girlsforgirls.bracelets

*Side note – I know it says unorganized, and I get now what it means (no local, incorporated municipal government – essentially vast swaths of territory with very few human beings), but in my early days in T2R9 I kept thinking the word was “disorganized.” I remember thinking what an odd way that was to describe a place, but, fine, own it, you disorganized territories. Whoever heard of moose and black bear getting organized anyway. That may just be me and it may only truly be funny when you’ve been living in the woods with the same 8 people for months on end, but it still cracks me up.

Update – check out legislation that just passed in New Hampshire! Lack of access to feminine hygiene products should never keep girls out of school – in the US or anywhere else!

Article: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/new-hampshire-passes-bill-requiring-free-menstrual-products-in-all-public-schools_n_5d31bd0de4b0419fd32bd119 

On Becoming Powerful and Empowered

I have been writing a lot recently about the MAIA Impact School and my fight for girls’ education (rights, life – hope!) in Guatemala. Today I am bringing empowerment Stateside.

A couple of years ago, my Rheumatologist recommended adding weight-bearing exercise to my routine. Instead of doing what normal people do, you know, lift some weights here and there at the gym, maybe do the circuit equipment, I joined CrossFit Launchpad (CFLP). My Rheumatologist’s jaw dropped when I told her that. It was pretty funny, actually. I could see the wheels turning in her head, “Crossfit? Really? Do you always have to push the outside edge with this disease?” Why, yes, yes I do.

You see, I know myself, and it’s a fact that I will not pick up a weight unless I am instructed to do so. Accountability counts. Plus, the gym owner, Ronda Rockett, is a Primary Care Physician, so she knows all about body mechanics and physiology. When I told her that I have RA I felt safer knowing that she knew exactly what that meant. Plus, she seriously knows about health and fitness.

Crossfit Coach
Crossfit Coach and Athlete Ronda Rockett

Needless to say, I started showing up to these classes, at first cutting workouts in half and still hobbling around on pulled and tired muscles for days afterwards. I have been going long enough now that not much fazes me, the lingo all sounds familiar, and I have watched our crossfit community grow. The other day it struck me as I watched people moving around the gym, stretching and warming up, gearing up for the workout, asking questions of the coach – this small gym is a microcosm of society, a seemingly ever more rare reflection of what an inclusive, supportive, caring community looks like. The idea is to work hard personally, but not to leave anyone behind (even the family dog).

This tenet applies to everyone who comes to the gym – men, women, and children. People join CFLP for a whole range of reasons, including some who haven’t exercised in a long time; who weren’t “athletes”; who have weight they want to lose that just won’t budge or health issues they can’t shake and are sick of not feeling well. I notice them shyly standing in the corner, hoping to blend into the walls and go unnoticed, deferentially allowing others to go first, reviewing the WOD (Workout of the Day) saying things like, “I don’t think I can do this.” The weekly schedule reflects the scaled workouts and WOD modifications designed for them. I see how hard they work, and how it just wipes them out, sweaty, panting, red-faced, and exhausted at the end.

Over time, I witness a slow evolution brought about by hard work and perseverance. Not only are these budding athletes literally becoming more powerful by lifting ever heavier weights or accomplishing more sets in a workout, but they are also becoming more empowered. Being part of this community ignites a light within. Here, a strong core means much more than six-pack abs – it’s about your spirit and celebrating everything that makes you you. Given the right support and encouragement, it turns out you can do anything – in the gym and outside of it.

Scientific studies suggest that strong, healthy, active parents raise strong, healthy, active kids. According to Dr. Christine Carter, “the first step in the science of raising happy kids is to actually be happy yourself.” Check out this Time magazine article from 2014 about how to raise happy kids (10 steps backed by science). Here’s the summary list:

  1. Get Happy Yourself
  2. Teach Them To Build Relationships
  3. Expect Effort, Not Perfection
  4. Teach Optimism
  5. Teach Emotional Intelligence
  6. Form Happiness Habits
  7. Teach Self-Discipline
  8. More Playtime
  9. Rig Their Environment For Happiness
  10. Eat Dinner Together

At CFLP, Ronda and the other coaches encourage us beyond the amount of weight we can lift. We talk about setting (achievable) goals, forming new habits, nutrition and sitting down for a healthy meal as a family (not in front of the TV!), working hard, and gratitude. We are creating new pathways for ourselves, and also setting an example for our children. We are modeling what it means to be healthy and strong and to expect effort, but not perfection. We are also teaching them about building relationships and how a supportive and caring community behaves. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – no one goes it alone. Everyone needs support and encouragement somewhere along the line.

The other day, we finished the prescribed workout with a little time to spare. One member, the one guy in the room that class, suggested that we add on a little extra to finish out the time. This particular athlete had finished the workout well before the rest of us, and then stood there patiently swigging his water, cheering for each of us, and waiting for us to finish. When the coach asked him what he wanted to do for extra work, he responded, “whatever the team wants.” This is an attitude to emulate. Imagine our world if everyone strove to lift others up versus pushing them down; where unity was sought over division, support given versus criticism; where we meet face to face, put the screens away (for an hour!), and cheer hardest for the one who is coming in last; where our common humanity – our community – is celebrated and flourishes. Go team!

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.” ― Theodore Roosevelt

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Extraordinarily Ordinary

This weekend the skies were clear and blue, the breeze a gentle relief from the heat. You never know what you are going to get around here, the only guarantee is that you can’t count on it. For months the weather has been soggy, gray, cool, and grim. So when the sun is actually shining; when you go outside and don’t have to brace yourself against the chill or run back in for another layer; when your rainboots and umbrella are traded for sunscreen, and the wind isn’t even ruining the moment by blustering on, it feels rather miraculous.

One of the most extraordinary aspects of this weekend, though, was that apart from the weather it was totally ordinary. We didn’t have tickets to a big event. We didn’t go on a trip. No big plans or agenda. We gathered spontaneously with friends. We went to a BBQ. We rode bikes and played in the backyard. There was actual time to pause and reflect and, gasp, relax. It was totally decadent in its simplicity.

It’s one of life’s great ironies that the pursuit of more actually results in less. If you are treadmilling your way through life, manically pursuing more and governed by the next event on your schedule or to-do list, remember this: the deepest and most profound fulfillment doesn’t come from things to do or from things you buy. What matters most, what sustains us through the darkest days, where the real magic lies, is in noticing and cherishing life’s small moments, in teasing them out amid the fray of responsibilities, challenges, and disappointments. They happen organically and in some of the most mundane circumstances (and they are also, usually, free).

Find joy every day.

Delight in the small pleasures.

Be compassionate.

Embrace ordinary.

Live with gratitude.
Eagle with flag Memorial Day

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The Fixer

Life is such a committed and earnest teacher. Everyone has their stuff. And life dutifully provides opportunities, over and over again, to practice navigating whatever yours might be.

I like to fix things. Not like broken machines, but like broken people or uncomfortable situations or disorder. In fact, now that I think about it, I don’t like the feeling of anything that I feel responsible for being out of place. And I feel responsible for a whole bunch of stuff. That goes for people as well as a leaky faucet. I. Just. Can’t. Ignore. It.

I am experienced enough now (read: old) that I can see it happening, and I actually recognize it for what it is. I discover a “problem,” a switch flips in my mind, adrenaline floods in, and I hone in with laser focus on “solving the situation.” Everything else going on around me becomes annoying distraction. It’s really primitive. And if it weren’t so uncomfortable and I weren’t so focused on whatever the perceived threat might be, it’s also quite fascinating. I know what I am supposed to do here – lots of deep breaths and comforting reassurance to my anxious parts. But my brain keeps tacking back to the VERY BIG PROBLEM THAT NEEDS TO BE FIXED. In those moments, all I really, really want is to fix it so I can put this horrible feeling away and chillax.

The way this manifests when it comes to people who need help is much less obvious than when something breaks in my house. When I say “need help,” I don’t mean like they are hurt or that their house is on fire. Surely I’d go into adrenaline-driven fixer mode in those cases. No, in this case, I mean they need help with something emotional. There isn’t the flood of adrenaline or the laser-like focus, but it’s still a problem to be solved. Internally, it feels like some sort of calling, that it’s my job to fix the bad feelings, or at least temporarily to take away the pain. That’s a lot of pressure and, rationally speaking, it’s totally unrealistic. But who ever said this behavior was rational?

I noticed long ago that very often one’s best attribute or character trait doubles as one’s worst. For me, this is where being reliable and dependable kind of backfires. I am dependable and reliable so people find any number of ways to depend and rely on me. And, of course, then I feel the need to continue to prove my dependability and reliability and to not let anyone down. And it goes on like this in a sort of self-fulfilling cycle for ever and ever…until I crash and burn because I have lent out so much of myself to so many people that I have completely hollowed out my own core. Emotional problems tend to have a longer-running course than physical, house-on-fire problems. They require the pacing of a marathon versus a sprint. But when it comes to fixing things, I have the mindset of a sprinter and, inevitably, I hit a wall and start to get awfully tired…

I think a lot of moms suffer from the feeling of having only so much to give, being needed by many, torn in too many directions, and wanting to fix things that are out of their control. That’s certainly the case for me, and I fully support little getaways here and there to revive oneself and actually be able to think and breathe and just be.

But, for me, this internal fixer is a lifelong pattern. Only after I completely lost myself with the responsibilities of parenting (I don’t even need to explain that kids have needs), childing (also known as: being a reliable and dependable daughter), working (see also: proving I am a productive citizen and “pulling my weight” because, obviously, only a paycheck tells you that), being a good friend (“you can count on me!”), did it become clear to me that the two most-used phrases in my vocabulary are “I’m sorry” and “I should.” I’m either a disappointment/failure/inadequate (“I’m sorry”) and/or I’m driven to prove my worth/worthiness/value (“I should”). Nowhere in there am I thinking, “gosh, I’d love to do that.” It got to the point where I would ask myself, “What stirs your soul?” and I had literally no idea how to answer. Because, I’m sorry, I am so selfish, I should not be thinking about myself when so many people need me.

It turns out that it just isn’t possible to save everyone without totally tanking yourself. Another disappointing life lesson, but a true one. That’s the whole reason my blog has the title it does – it’s a reminder that you can’t run around putting everyone else’s oxygen masks on while simultaneously allowing yourself to be asphyxiated. It won’t end well.

None of this is to say be selfish. Not at all. I certainly struggle with that notion, because that’s how it feels: I am letting people down. I am selfish. I should just try harder. And, of course, there are plenty of things that just need to be done, whether they fill your cup or not. That’s life, and I spend the majority of my day doing just that. Most days, I do much of my to-do list, in all its mundane glory, joyfully. And I admittedly love knowing that people can count on me, and that they know that I am loyal and reliable no matter the circumstances. The trouble strikes when I need a break and don’t know how to say no. It would seem to be such a simple word. Two letters, and virtually the same spelling and pronunciation in multiple languages. And, yet, I am much more apt to say “maybe,” which really isn’t super helpful to anyone involved because it leaves the door open to a road I already know I don’t want to go down. SO, take it from me – when your plate is full and your cup is spilling over with responsibility to and for others, make sure there is a little time carved out in there for you. And if there’s a “no” screaming in your head, say it. It’s not indulgence, it’s self-preservation.

You can be more effective, not to mention more fulfilled, if you actually replenish yourself along the way. Find your inner compass, actually listen to it, and let it guide you. Prioritize. Be in charge of your to-do list, not subjugated by it. Evaluate the opportunity cost of the choices you make – what do you sacrifice by committing to x, y, z? Be intentional with how you spend your time. Think “if I say yes to ‘x’, what will I have to say ‘no’ to?” Say no sometimes. Be true to you. Make sure you are filling your cup. I can assure you, life will provide ample opportunity to practice.

 

Can Your Skin Cream Transform Your Mind?

“Our teachers weren’t kidding when they said we’d take lots of walks and that people in the villages are very content to do nothing. No plans, nothing. I thought I’d handle that well because I, too, like to do nothing. But I only really do nothing for brief interludes during the day, in between finding something else to do. When I sit and knit, read, write letters, make necklaces, etc., I consider that pretty much doing nothing. Here they just sit. It’s not an easy lifestyle to adjust to.” – me, March 2, 1996

I had to laugh when I read this journal entry from my village homestay in Madagascar. In the U.S. we live in a culture that is so go-go-go that I didn’t even recognize that my doing nothing was still doing something. That was true 20 years ago, and it remains true today. I just happen to be more aware of it now. Doing nothing and remembering to breathe are literally things I need to practice. Five minutes sitting still without my mind wandering to a hundred different items on my to-do list is impossible. Truly. Try it and you’ll see it’s not just me! “Monkey mind” is the Buddhist term for the incessant chatter and sense of unsettledness in one’s mind. It looks like this:

Monkey Mind image
This is what a monkey mind looks like; illustration by Lilian Leahy

That phrase evokes images that just crack me up, quite like this Lilian Leahy illustration. The ring-tailed lemurs shown in the following photos that I took in Madagascar also crack me up. They are very Zen. This is NOT what having a “monkey mind” looks like.

When I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis, and finally accepted it (that’s another story altogether), I considered all options for how to live my healthiest life given the cards I had been dealt. Besides doing all the regular stuff my doctor asks – take all the prescribed medications, see her every three months, have bloodwork done at the lab regularly, get exercise – I wondered if there was anything else that would help. I had two very little kids when I was diagnosed. And I love leading a busy and active life. I want to be as healthy as possible and have left no stone unturned in my quest.

Having RA has taught me many, many philosophical but also practical things about life. My diagnosis and subsequent eventual acceptance was like a massive 2×4 smacked across the head saying, “ummm, hellooooo, for real, you need to pay attention.” It has taught me about cherishing the little things in life, and not taking any day or any thing for granted. It’s like a constant anatomy lesson – yes! that pain I was wishing could be solved by a root canal is in fact a jaw joint (too bad for me). It has taught me about control, and that it turns out I am not in it. And, it has taught me about how stress and my monkey mind can be implicated in RA flares and general feelings of being overwhelmed.

After a bit of research and a lot of finagling of schedules, five years ago I enrolled in an 8-week course at the Benson Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine (BHI) at Massachusetts General Hospital. This course introduced me to the term “monkey mind,” not to mention to the fact that I have an extremely active monkey. You may have already figured that out from the sheer breadth of subjects I write about. I am not exactly focused on one thing, rarely one thing at a time, and I am passionate about many!

For the record, I am not one to buy into the concepts of meditation and relaxation easily. The term self-care makes me cringe, as do the words snuggle and cuddle (but that’s an aside). Bluck. All that touchy-feely stuff gives me the shivers. So you could say that I entered BHI skeptical at best. But I figured since I had devoted my time to this, I might as well go all in and have an open mind (pun intended).

Did my life change overnight and was my RA banished for good? No. It takes a long time to learn new habits, and the brain tends to tack back to its well-trod neural pathways. It takes effort and practice to become aware of the mind’s motivation. For me, sitting still and doing nothing were bad words. My inclination is still more towards whirling dervish than calm Buddha.

But I learned an incredible amount about how important the act of doing nothing and sitting still is for the brain. It’s a biological reality that is now backed up with MRI studies and scientific data. The scientifically validated benefits of mindfulness include: decreased stress; reduced symptoms associated with depression, anxiety disorders, pain and insomnia; an enhanced ability to pay attention; and a higher quality of life. Don’t believe me? Check out Harvard researcher Sara Lazar’s TEDx talk on the effect of meditation on the brain.

Or Dan Harris, the ABC anchor who had a panic attack on live television that led him to meditation and eventually to writing the book 10% Happier.

Personally, my most notable takeaway from the course happened on the first night. The instructor flashed a powerpoint slide that read, “If you can’t make room for exercise now, you’ll have to make room for illness later.”

I was already making room, lots of room, for illness. But I wasn’t prioritizing myself. AT ALL. This one quote completely changed the way I viewed my calendar and what was and was not negotiable on it. I began swimming and made it a permanent item on my calendar. I trained myself to take a deep breath every time I come to a stop sign or stoplight. I downloaded a million mindfulness apps (still working on pausing long enough to actually use them).

My message to you is this – skin creams may help with wrinkles and dry skin, but meditation enhances a wrinkled mind. 

Breathe. Deeply. And often. It helps.

Serenity Prayer

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Reinhold Neibuhr