One Year Later

A couple of weeks ago, a good friend commented that she couldn’t figure out how I have time for everything I am juggling currently. From trying to keep up with my writing to spreading the word about the MAIA Impact School to keeping things together at work and at home, I am busy with a capital B. This got me thinking – where did the time and head space for all of this come from suddenly? Ostensibly all of my responsibilities are the same, so what changed?

I spent some time reflecting on this question and I’ve come up with a couple thoughts. One factor, surely, is that my kids are older. With greater self-sufficiency on their part, I have a longer leash. The time saved by them being able to apply their own sunscreen, tie their own shoes, or put on their own snowsuits is immeasurable. Well, okay, it’s probably 5 minutes each day, but those are some of the more tedious daily demands of motherhood so these milestones matter.

The term “labor of love” also keeps popping into my head. While all of my current endeavors involve work, time, and sacrifice, they also fill my cup. My life is purpose- and passion-filled, and that’s energizing. I used to have a real problem saying “no” so I devoted a lot of time and energy to activities and jobs that left me feeling depleted – or downright stupid and worthless. I am just slightly more strategic about how I spend my time these days. When time becomes a precious commodity, even the most self-sacrificial person learns to guard it more wisely. While I am still horrible at saying “no,” often lapsing into its almost worse cousin “maybe,” I do appear to finally be learning a modicum of boundary setting. Ahhh, your 40’s are good for something!

Fill Your Cup

All that is meaningful and certainly adds up. However, I also lost my aunt this year, the amazing Fancy Nancy, and that sent me into an emotional morasse for a bit. The start of this calendar year I found myself sluggishly crawling through the days after she passed away, trying to get my head around the idea that this woman who was my guiding light and kindred spirit was suddenly gone. I quite honestly still can’t believe it. But these days when I feel scared or uncertain or sad, I can hear her faint but clear voice whispering, “Go. Live!” I think that she has made me braver and more determined.

And then there’s the fact that we moved our mom into a memory care facility last June. As the anniversary of that absolutely gut-wrenching decision and day came and went, I  marveled at what a difference a year can make. I knew as my mom’s primary and long distance caregiver that I was working hard on her behalf, and I was aware that her well-being took up a huge amount of space in my life, but until she was settled into a care home I had no idea exactly how much.

Initially, the interventions necessary for my mom to maintain a mostly independent life were relatively minimal. Over time, as the course of her Alzheimers progressed, though, I spent more and more time triaging issues: making health care decisions, as well doctor and dentist appointments; ensuring communication about appointment outcomes and necessary follow up; staying on top of prescription medications; acting in an HR capacity hiring, replacing, and advising aides; organizing payroll and the weekly schedule; paying bills; sorting through clothes that no longer fit and paperwork that was piling up in her office; fielding calls from her aides and her friends with questions, observations, or concerns, and then doing the research to determine if what we were seeing was to be expected and what to do about it. That’s just a sample. Countless other little things would come up to turn an otherwise uneventful day into a fire drill.

For a while, it was all worth it. And then last spring after a visit to see her, I got the distinct sensation that we had reached the zone beyond the peak of the bell curve. My efforts to prop up my mom’s faux independence were less and less noticed by her and more and more consuming for me. I spent incredible amounts of time working on my mom’s behalf, but had almost no time to actually spend with her. After some intense reflection, I realized that if she had perspective on the situation, she wouldn’t want me to feel so sad and torn between my life with my young family and my responsibility for her life hundreds of miles away. And with that knowledge, I began to visit, and eventually chose, a care home for her.

I’ll tell you what. That process, culminating in leaving her for her first night there, was utter hell. I literally cried into my dinner of a bowl of ice cream accompanied by a glass of wine the day I moved her in. I then put myself to bed early, like an overtired, weepy child, both missing my mom as I grieved this moment in our lives and feeling overwhelmed by the responsibility for her happiness. Rationally, I know that’s crazy – you can’t make other people happy – but I still wish I could sometimes.

Heschel quote

So here we are one year later. She is in fact perfectly happy. I don’t know that she has had one unhappy day since she moved to memory care. Her life exists in this exact moment. There is no past to dwell on, no ruminating about the future. There is just right now for her, and she seems to be quite amused by it. She knows she is loved, by the staff at her home as well as her family, and I think that’s what she always wanted. She has always been guided by what is in her heart, and that emotional clarity remains.

For me, I am my mom’s daughter again, not her business – heck LIFE – manager. It is one of my greatest joys in this mostly horrible Alzheimer’s journey to have my mom close to me again. She doesn’t know my name, but she knows I am hers (maybe her sister, maybe a friend, but sometimes “her little girl”). She lights up when I walk into the room and trusts me absolutely. We go for walks, and we have lunch. Sometimes I just stop in for 15 minutes to check on her. She comforts me when I cry, not understanding at all that I cry for her, for who she was.

Our mom always wanted us to be fulfilled and happy, and whatever our passions were became hers. She championed our efforts and was our biggest fan – always. One year later, I have achieved more balance and found greater purpose. One year later, I spend less time applying sunscreen to others, and more time with my mom. While I am still my mom’s biggest advocate and primary caregiver, it’s not all-consuming. This unexpected time in my life and space in my mind have allowed in more joy and light. If my mom could understand, I can visualize the smile that would break across her face and how her chest would swell in satisfaction. I am doing the best I can with the cards I’ve been dealt, and playing them to the best of my ability. Just like she and her sister taught me. Go! Live!

What if I fall quote

 

Working to Enhance the Voice of Women

I mentioned in a previous post that I have been doing a lot of writing, it just happens to not be happening on this blog site! It occurred to me that I should share some of my recently published writing here. So, in case you missed it, here is a link to an article in the local paper, or you can read below and view extra pictures and a video!

Meg Steere was recently appointed as the first New England-based Board member for the MAIA Impact School (www.maiaimpact.org), a school for indigenous girls located in Sololá, Guatemala. In its third year of operation, MAIA exists to “unlock and maximize the potential of young women to lead transformational change.” Guatemala is consistently rated by the World Economic Forum as the least equitable society in the Western Hemisphere. Meanwhile, countries that have greater levels of gender equality are safer and more prosperous. Educating girls is also among the top ways of combating climate change.

Guatemala Ranking SDG Gender Index

Meg traveled to Guatemala in October 2018 to attend the inauguration of the new school building. She was impressed by the caliber of the school leadership, and that, by design, the school is run primarily by indigenous women with an emphasis on empowering the local community. The school’s model markedly changes the trajectory of its student’s lives. In recognition of their success and their potential, in January 2019 MAIA was awarded the Zayed Sustainability Prize (see video at bottom of this post), demonstrating “impact, innovation, and inspiration to enable inclusive and equitable access to quality education.”

MAIA students are girls who have the talent, courage, vision, and desire to succeed but lack the opportunity. Through education, these women can lead their families and communities out of poverty. One key aspect of their education beyond academics is vocal empowerment. These girls have been raised in a culture that tells them to be quiet—that they are silly and stupid, unworthy and worthless. At school, they learn to trust their voices, to speak up, and to prevent societal judgment from defining their self-worth. This message transcends borders.

Susie Caldwell Rinehart—brain stem tumor survivor, ultramarathoner, mother, life coach, and Colorado-based MAIA Board member —released her memoir Fierce Joy: Choosing Brave over Perfect to Find My True Voice on May 15. Hers is a story of miraculous survival; motherhood; losing her voice, literally and figuratively, and then finding it again; and choosing to conquer her fear of imperfection in order to live her most authentic life. Susie and Meg have both found inspiration and strength in the courage of the Guatemalan girl pioneers. Through Susie’s medical journey, which brought her to MGH and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Susie discovered that “the opposite of joy isn’t sadness, it’s perfectionism.” She began to write her memoir as she underwent months of recovery, radiation, and separation from her family in Colorado. She returned to Boston in early June for her book launch.

MAIA’s impact continues to expand, boldly challenging the narrative and compelling us all to be braver and to rethink what our expectations are—of ourselves and others—and why. Join this brave movement working to close the gender gap in education and catalyzing positive change globally. A portion of the proceeds from sales of Fierce Joy will be donated to MAIA Impact School. 100% of donated funds to MAIA go directly to the students, mentors, educators, and families.

 

The View from a Chicken Bus

This is an exciting day! My essay, The View from a Chicken Bus, was published today in Sky Island Journal, an online magazine!!! Click the link to read the full text. Here’s the intro:

The chicken bus dives and weaves along the tight switchbacks, sandwiched between lushly green, undulating volcanic cliffs to one side and a vast, deep cavern open to the expansive lake below on the other. The retired yellow school bus migrated from the United States to rural Guatemala. Here it was given new life and transformed with wild paint, flashing lights, and blaring music into a chicken bus, a form of public transit.

Outside the dirty bus window, an overwhelming cacophony for the senses unfolds – the scenic natural beauty; the chaotic, crowded, narrow road; scents of cooking, burning wood, exhaust; sounds of honking, birds chirping, dogs yapping. Overloaded motorbikes swerve in and out of traffic carrying 2, 3, 4 people. Small 1990s pickup trucks, their beds full of standing riders, scream downhill inches away.

Read on here: https://www.skyislandjournal.com/issues#/issue-9-summer2019/

 

 

 

 

Setting Goals and Facing Failure

First of all, please excuse my absence on the blogosphere recently. I have been writing and writing and writing, but I can’t put anything I’ve been working on here because I have submitted it all to various journals and newspapers to try to get it published!!! As a result, much of my allotted writing time has been dedicated to that pursuit. Happily, I just received word this week that a creative nonfiction essay I wrote will be published June 15 in Sky Island Journal! Woohoo!

And, with that, let me write about some of the highlights of what has been in my mind – setting goals, and also failure, rejection, making mistakes, and trying anyway.

For some reason, I have a terrible time setting goals. I know the SMART goal recommendations – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-sensitive. I love the list, but I still can’t come up with a goal.

I took a little online blog branding course several months ago after I started this blog. I was trying to figure out if there was some sort of methodology I should be following so you, dear readers, don’t wonder where on earth my head is every single time you read one of my blog posts. In other words, is there some sort of path or a strategy to building a blog that I have as yet not followed? (Answer: yes; but, see, it requires setting goals and focusing…so please proceed to the next paragraph…).

One of the first exercises was to come up with 3 goals. Oh cripe. My crossfit coach is always encouraging us to come up with goals, too. I have dodged that bullet for two straight years now. Both cases have got me thinking about how really and truly awful I am at setting goals and why that might be. I am 100% not awful at all at achieving things, I am just terrible at setting goals and answering questions like “what would success look like?” I don’t like to be hemmed in. In fact, probably if I set some goals I’d achieve them before I even wrote them down. Start a blog. See? That could have been a goal. But I did it already. Figure out how to pitch for publication. Done. I am a do-er. But I am also a planner, so I am slightly mystified about why this task both eludes me and causes me so much agita.

In the end, I’ve decided that my problem isn’t so much the task itself as the destination. I understand full well that if I knew where I was going and took actual concrete steps (i.e.: goals) to get there I might actually get there (or get there faster). I do get places, it just tends to be a more circuitous, scenic route. I’ll be the first to say that there’s a lot to be learned by not going from point A to point B. But if I am being completely honest, there’s also the reality (which I know is real thanks to decades of journaling because I would never remember this) that I re-learn truths I discovered already over and over again. My cousin wrote this great book called Things I Want to Remember Not to Forget (by Chris Waddell). I so thoroughly relate to that title. Is this life (asking for a friend)?

Anyhoo…I suspect my brain block about goals has at least a little to do with the unpleasantness of failure and rejection. If I set a goal and don’t achieve it, well that’s no good. Who wants that? If I set a goal and fixate on achieving it, that wouldn’t be great either, to be fair. Pitching to journals, even blogging, sets me up to be rejected and to push that old fear-mongering anxiety button that says I am not enough – not good enough, not smart enough, not worthy enough, a failure. Jeez. Tough crowd. But here’s the beauty of getting older – I get now that I am the one telling myself all these horrible untruths. Sure, I was helped along with material by the horror of being a rule-following, nerdy kid in middle school (fact: kids at that age are mean). But, ultimately, it’s down to me to face those negative storylines, check the narrative (“the feelings are real, but is the story they are telling true?”), and strive to make great mistakes. Then try again. This is what my husband and I teach our children. My goal is to be a good example. And, FINE, @crossfitlaunchpad, I’ll get my first strict pull-up, too.

Mountain proverb

 

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.

 

The Untold Story of a Little Town with a Big Heart and a Lot of Sole

Rural communities are suffering. Highways bypass historic downtowns, big box stores cannibalize revenues from local retailers, and there are limited employment options, forcing young people to leave in search of opportunity. These issues are not unique to rural areas, but are exacerbated there by the lack of a critical population mass, and more piecemeal and sporadic services and resources. In some places, “homecomers” have led the way back to the rural communities where they were raised. Many communities are expanding high speed broadband and e-connectivity resources to improve education, health care, and business opportunities. And some communities band together to painstakingly plan for renewal by focusing on the vital role of their most historic structures in anchoring their past while launching a new future.

The Industrial Revolution spurred the creation out of farmland or forest of many of our nation’s cities and towns. Factories sprung up along the shores of powerful rivers to capitalize on the harnessed hydropower. Immigrants in search of work flocked to what, at the time, were outposts of civilization, eventually building homes and a community around their livelihoods. Homes, churches, performance halls, and other civic institutions emerged from the wildlands.

For a time, the paper industry of Millinocket, ME; the appliance and railroad industries of Fort Wayne, IN; the textiles of Lawrence, MA; the shoes of North Brookfield, MA; and the steel, textile, and tanneries of North Philadelphia, PA, to name just a few, thrived. But then manufacturing practices became more mechanized. Companies found cheaper labor in the southern U.S. or abroad. Demand for paper declined. More modern manufacturing facilities evolved and the original production methods and buildings became obsolete.

Slowly, insidiously, the industries that had built these cities, towns, and neighborhoods shuttered their doors, moving elsewhere or closing entirely. What remains are vacant mill buildings, deteriorating opera houses, empty storefronts – the dilapidated, decaying nucleus of the country’s manufacturing communities. What happens when the primary source of employment evaporates but a community has set down roots and traditions; has built ornate civic structures, but doesn’t have the resources to maintain them? When the city or town itself loses its spark and stagnates? And when it barely recovers from the last recession before the next one begins?

According to the Economic Innovation Group’s 2018 Distressed Communities Report, recovery from the most recent recession has been unevenly distributed. Since the 1990s, there has been an “intensifying ruralization of distress,” said John Lettieri, EIG’s president. The challenges facing rural America are complex and stubborn and difficult to solve. At the same time, our current “period of national prosperity is our chance to reinvest in communities and rekindle the economy’s dynamic forces.” (EIG report)

A new future requires some sort of catalyst to forge forward out of stagnation. What is it that finally ignites revitalization in some communities, while others continue to languish? I have a few theories after two decades working in real estate analysis and community development. One is an engaged and competent local government. Another is a devoted group of local citizens with a strong leader. A cohesive vision and implementable plan, both with short- and long-term goals, is critical. Usually success takes years of coordinated effort between local and state government and committed volunteers. Surely sprinkled in there is a bit of luck and good timing.

In North Brookfield, MA, a rural community of 4,800 people about 25 minutes from Worcester and 60 miles west of Boston, residents and town leaders have rallied around the historic Townhouse as the focal point for their community’s redevelopment efforts. Designed by Eldridge Boyden, a locally accomplished architect, the Townhouse was one of the first public spaces in this country built in the French Second Empire and Italianate styles. The building was constructed in 1864, and served as a hub of political, cultural, and community activity for the broader region.

Then times changed. The Batcheller Shoe Company closed in the early 1900s, and with that and the evolution of retail towards big box stores and online shopping most of the family-owned businesses in downtown North Brookfield also eventually closed. Currently, the almost 14,500 square foot Townhouse is vacant, and the main street is quiet. The Bell Tower was damaged in Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 and determined to be structurally unsound.

But North Brookfield is a small, tight-knit community with a ton of heart. Manufacturing continues on a smaller scale, with Vibram, the Italian shoe sole company, operating the former Quabog Corporation rubber manufacturing plant across the street from the Townhouse. The Friends of the North Brookfield Townhouse, a non-profit group brimming with volunteers, ideas, and passion, was organized over a decade ago with the mission of preserving and renovating the Townhouse to re-establish it as the center of civic, political, social, and cultural activities. The Friends and the town have worked arduously to preserve the building, hiring a local craftsman to replace the Bell Tower in 2014 and, in 2015, thanks to state funding, securing the building from water infiltration by replacing the roof, windows, dormers and gutters.

Among many other initiatives, including applying for and being awarded an allocation of historic tax credits to help finance a renovation, in the fall of 2018 the Friends facilitated the painting of the building’s exterior. They collected donations for all of the supplies, and brought in lunch daily for the workers, a number of whom were prisoners from the Worcester County Sheriff’s office work release program. Townspeople passing by would see what was happening and stop to ask how they could help. Some literally picked up a paintbrush and worked for a couple of days, some gave money for supplies, while others brought chocolate chip cookies, brownies or homemade pumpkin bread to share. There was no cost to the town. The results speak for themselves.

The Townhouse is a building with high emotional content. It has the capacity to stir one’s soul. In the traditional metrics of market conditions, it’s a challenge and the Friends will need financial support from grants to private donations to pull it off. But not everything that is worthwhile in life is quantifiable. In fact, I would argue, that the things that matter most have no intrinsic monetary value – like community, integrity, hard work, passion, and hope. The town of North Brookfield has these in spades. The Townhouse is a center piece of the town architecturally and a vital link between its past and its future. That future is being constructed with vision and dedication, strong leadership, and a plan based in solid fundamentals that will capture the imagination of the town and the region. Maybe sprinkled with a bit of luck for good measure.

Welcome to North Brookfield – the heart and sole of Massachusetts!

“Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be…”
― from William Wordsworth’s Ode: Intimations of Immortality

“Let me tell you the secret that has led to my goal. My strength lies solely in my tenacity.” – Louis Pasteur 

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