Don’t Freak Out. But Also, Don’t Be Cavalier: A Corona Survival Guide

I AM the vulnerable. You wouldn’t guess it to see me bouncing around on a daily basis in my Energizer Bunny way, but it’s true. I am a healthy, young (ish!), active mom, daughter, wife, sister, friend, employee, and athlete. But I also have an autoimmune disease.

Whenever you are washing your hands extra carefully or extra often, considering whether or not to cancel or attend a big event, wondering if this is all overblown, it’s not just the elderly or some hypothetical distant someone that you are protecting. It’s also people like me, the mom who lives just around the corner, who volunteers at the school, who you see cheering at the sporting events. There are more of us than you might realize, and this is a good time for everyone to understand that. Not because we need your sympathy or pity. But because we need your solidarity. Because the reason I can be an active, healthy mom and athlete is the boat load of immuno-suppressant drugs I take. I am in my 40’s but for over a decade this has been my norm:

RA Meds

You know when they review your medications when you go to the doctor? We run through my lengthy list every time and the conversation nearly always ends with the nurse saying, “Anything else?” and me responding, “Isn’t that enough?” I mean, for real. Don’t even get me started about how many doctors appointments I have in a year or how much I pay annually in co-pays for medication even though I have health insurance. That’s for another time.

For now, I am here to tell you that immuno-compromised people worry every year about the flu and infection in general. And every year I dutifully get my flu shot, as does my family, mainly to protect me. And then we go about our lives like normal. Similarly, when I went to Guatemala last fall, before I left I had to think through carefully with my physicians the potential implications of my immuno-compromised state. I got 4 vaccines and filled 2 prescriptions for antibiotics to bring with me in case I got sick while there. No one else I was traveling with needed anything. But I went (and, incidentally, I loved it!). I live my life knowing I am generally at higher risk than others, aware of the implications of both my disease and my medications, but I choose to keep on stretching and living.

I say all this so you understand my reality. It’s a reality I have mostly accepted. I live a pretty normal life, and I am grateful for that. I have learned to work with the cards I have been dealt.

In light of all that, I have been taking this Coronavirus, I think, pretty well overall. I am aware of what’s happening, but have been measured in my response. I have not been panicking or buying shelves-worth of Purel. I did not completely stop socializing or obsess over every new headline. My heart beats at a fairly normal rate, day in and day out.

But early this week my doctors advised me, for now, not be on a cruise boat, a commercial airline, in a crowd, or to have visitors who have flown recently. They are taking this seriously and, in turn, so should I.

I’ll admit that my blood pressure and heart rate increased rapidly during that doctor’s visit, as the realization of the seriousness of the situation and my vulnerability to it dawned on me more fully. While my vital signs returned to normal shortly after, it took me a while to notice that I have spent the last couple of days feeling like I am already sick. By that, I mean, that I started to think more like an incident commander, to go into prevention and protection mode, to dwell more on the news. I have been lethargic and blue, unfocused and distracted, my head spinning with headlines and what if scenarios fast-tracking through my mind. Basically I forgot to live.

And then I caught myself. I woke up and realized this is going to be a marathon and I cannot exhaust myself in the first couple of miles. It also occured to me that I could be an excellent fiction writer because I am constantly making up narratives that just are not true! It’s called anxiety. And instead of allowing my anxiety to come along for the ride, I let it drive for the last couple of days. I started contacting puppy breeders so I won’t be alone in my isolation, for goodness sake. This is not rational behavior (though it was a lovely divergence). Puppies for everyone!

Don’t you feel better already?

In all seriousness, I suspect – I KNOW – that I am not alone. Anxiety buttons are being pushed the world over. The illusion that we have control in this life has been de-masked. We never did have control, folks, but now we can’t even pretend. So we control what we can: we buy all the Purel on the shelves and we read the news ad nauseum and we perseverate over what to do. But we have no more control over this after all that than we did before. Really. We can prepare, but we also need to make room to sit with this uncertainty and acknowledge it. And, then, deal with the cards we have been dealt. This is how I plan to do that:

  1. Seriously, wash your hands and wash them well (how to video here);
  2. Don’t freak out – it doesn’t move the needle one bit to do so. Take a deep breath, or, better, a couple (try 5 deep breaths every hour). Sit with the discomfort. This is a great time to get really good at accepting that we can’t hide or fix or control everything (or, really, anything). Sometimes the best thing to do is to acknowledge that and sit with it. Meditation is a good way to do that. But so is taking a deep breath and recognizing anxiety for what it is and not letting it drive.
  3. Limit yourself to checking social media and the news only once or twice a day; trust me, if something really important happens in the interim, you will get the deluge of texts and phone calls or see the helicopters overhead that will clue you in that something happened. Otherwise, it’s just an anxiety mob feeding on itself.
  4. This virus is clearly an equal opportunity event – anyone is as likely to get it as anyone else. Don’t be a racist or an asshole or a racist asshole and make negative assumptions about people. This is good advice in general. But, in particular, Chinese food, Corona beer, Chinese people, and immigrants of any stripe have nothing to do with whether or not you are going to get sick. So chill and show some humanity and compassion.
  5. Speaking of racism, take a minute to consider how devastating this virus could be – WILL BE – in places without strong medical facilities and protocols.
  6. Speaking of racism two – there is a massive locust swarm happening across parts of Asia and Africa right now. Thousands (possibly millions) of people WILL die from starvation as a result of this, and ever more will emigrate toward Europe in an attempt to save themselves. Have you read anything at all about it? Because a ton of human beings are dying already and it ain’t from the coronavirus.  Locust Swarms Put Millions at Risk Across Asia and Africa; Hundreds of Billions of Locusts Swarm Across East Africa
  7. There are great lessons we can learn from this – for starters, we are all living creatures, human beings of all colors and types, and we are all a little anxious and concerned about ourselves and our loved ones. Compassion, kindness, and caring for and about something bigger than ourselves are values we should espouse ALL THE TIME, not just in times of crisis; but now is a great time to up the ante.
  8. Words matter and so does your mindset. For example, use the word distancing instead of isolating; I kept saying I was isolated and it made me want to buy a puppy; distancing is less weighty.
  9. All of us are in this together, and many are uncomfortable about the situation. Hold that worry, concern, fear, sadness in the light and honor it.
  10. Maybe try just half a cupcake instead of eating the whole thing when you feel the need for comfort. I’m not going to tell you that I ain’t been panic eating. Sugar is still bad for you, but I am not going to judge.
  11. Consider the greater impacts of your actions – this is a good idea in general, but specifically now. It’s not all about you, nor should it be.
  12. For now. For now is a great phrase. Because difficult things are easier to bear when there is a perceived finiteness to them. For now gives the sense that things are temporary. And, it’s true, we will learn more about COVID-19 and eventually this crisis will be in the past. We need to take it seriously NOW, for now, and we need to show compassion and urgency to get there without too many lost lives along the way.
  13. If you or your kid is sick, own it. Don’t pretend that Motrin or Tylenol masking the symptoms is a reasonable choice for carrying on with your day. Sending sick kids to school or going to work sick isn’t a good idea under normal circumstances. It is a very bad idea right now. I get that work beckons, but, damn, that’s just wrong on so many levels.
  14. Don’t buy a puppy or any other living creature on a whim. Also good advice beyond a pandemic.
  15. Seriously, wash your hands.

Check out my Resources page for more information.

Drink Coffee
This has literally nothing to do with anything but it makes me smile

 

 

 

 

 

On politics and integrity

Recently I have been working on my what and why, goals for myself personally and professionally. Essentially, a mission statement for life. It’s all part of my effort to live with more intention and to be more deliberate and thoughtful in how I spend my time (and how I design this blog – stay tuned!). The opposite is being caught up in the flood of my to-do list and swept along with no destination in mind. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good windy path – one of my favorite quotes is “all who wander are not lost” – but I have a tendency to get battered about by other people’s needs and wants and forego my own as a result. So it is good practice for me to very thoughtfully consider who I am, what I am about, and prioritize. My WHY.

My friend, Nicole, has been coaching me through this soul-searching deep dive. She told me that I needed to take a stance. And that really struck me. I tend to be a conflict-averse people-pleaser, one of those jacks-of-all-trades-master-of-none adapting like a chameleon to better blend and not cause ripples. Not exactly taking a stance.

Take a stand

So what does this have to do with politics? No, this is not my big moment where I reveal all and take a stance on politics. Nope. Still not there. In fact, being conflict-averse, why would I want to even bring that subject up? It’s one that I typically avoid because the whole arena makes my skin crawl. But, here’s what’s become inescapable – we have lost our collective minds and moral compasses. The word integrity comes to my mind often. It’s a wonderful word, with a lot of umfph in a small package. Just four syllables but it packs a punch. Honesty; undivided; the state if being unified; moral uprightness; lack of corruption. WOW! It’s like it was designed as the antidote for our current age of whatever-in-hell-is-going-on.

Needless to say, I see a dearth of examples of it on the major national political stage. Does anyone remember what integrity means, let alone let themselves be guided by it? Is integrity in politics an oxymoron? Is that not only what it is, but what we should expect? I know it’s what we have come to expect, but should it be?

Here’s what I’ve learned this week and how it applies to politics: You can’t have a clear why statement if you don’t take a stance. So, come on presidential candidates ALL – take a stance, give your policy position (your very own WHAT AND WHY), and stop the on-stage spectacle and histrionics primarily focused like schoolyard bullies on cutting down others. If you can’t shine on your own, maybe you need to do some polishing. You won’t go wrong if you live, govern, work, and love with integrity. Let’s put the super back in super Tuesday, folks.

in·teg·ri·ty

[inˈteɡrədē]

NOUN

  1. the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles; moral uprightness.

“he is known to be a man of integrity”

synonyms:

honesty · uprightness · probity · rectitude · honor · honorableness ·

[more]

  1. the state of being whole and undivided.

“upholding territorial integrity and national sovereignty”

synonyms:

unity · unification · wholeness · coherence · cohesion · undividedness ·

[more]

  • the condition of being unified, unimpaired, or sound in construction.

“the structural integrity of the novel”

synonyms:

soundness · robustness · strength · sturdiness · solidity ·

[more]

  • internal consistency or lack of corruption in electronic data.

“integrity checking”

Best Strawberry Smoothie Recipe Ever

21 meals a week. I underestimated that part of motherhood. I am hardly a cook so maybe it should have registered that meal creation could be an issue. But I figured I had survived on whatever it is I used to eat, so I guess I thought they would, too. Many days, though, I find myself STILL in a state of shock about how they can eat so dang much so darn often.

And the complaining! OMG. I can barely make it through the 21 required meals, let alone produce alternatives.

BUT, sometimes you hit a homerun. There is that one diamond-in-the-rough moment when the food/meal/whatever-consumable-item-you-make actually goes over without complaint.

I have had that moment. It’s a rare glimmer of hope in a sea of despair and hopeless meals. The smoothie recipe to follow is a go-to favorite in my house and because it gives me such ridiculously-outsized-for-what-it-is joy every time I make it, I have decided it should no longer be my special secret! Moms everywhere looking for a healthy slam-dunk for their kids – this may be your salvation. It’s healthy AND it tastes good – for REAL. Feel free to share and help spread the joy, one less stressful meal at a time!

Plus, if you know me at all, recipe creation is so far outside of my area of expertise that this could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, folks! So give it a whirl:

1 bag frozen strawberries

1 ripe banana (if it’s frozen, you need a better blender than mine 🙂 but it will work)

1/2 cup plain yogurt

1 cup coconut water (for extra sweetness/flavor try pineapple coconut water)

1/2 ripe avocado (makes it creamy and you can’t taste it, I swear)

1-2 teaspoons almond butter (you can leave this out if you have allergies, this is an intentional add-in for us since we passed our almond allergy challenge!)

Blend it all together and, voila! A calcium and protein-packed marvel for even the pickiest kid. Enjoy!

Motherhood Cartoon

 

 

 

 

Guiding the Way to a Sweet Family Life

This a guest post from Best for the Moment‘s blog writer Amy Jackson. She cheers on working moms in any way she can. Check her out on her blog!

This specific piece profiles a working mom, Nicole Seawell, from the post-baby struggle to find career and family balance (can anyone relate to that?) to what she is up to today as a mom and life coach (plus so much more!). Nicole was my roommate when we met in Guatemala just a year and a half ago. With some people, friendship is magical, instantaneous, and forever. Nicole is one of those people for me. Click here to get to know her current life work with Sailor’s Sweet Life and read on for her story:

Nicole Seawell was a high-achieving attorney when her first baby plotted his own course by arriving three weeks early. Now with three teenage boys, she’s learned how to navigate the unique personalities within her family, channel her peak productivity, and ultimately guide others to do the same.

“My professional life kind of went topsy turvy,” she says about her jolting start to motherhood. “I didn’t value the supporting role enough. Once I did, I realized I’m actually excellent at supporting others to get done what they want to, and that has taken me from a good attorney to a great one.”

Nicole found her sweet spot when she “worked one leg in the business world and one leg in the legal world,” because she liked the fast pace of business.

“Where I found my special power was being able to be in both worlds,” she says.

“I was born under a productive star,” says Nicole, adding that she’s been told by Tibetan monks and Guatemalan ancient women that “I have a way of tuning into my ancestors’ wisdom and youth energy.”

“I’m able to see the path forward in any situation.”

Today, that means weaving together her work as an attorney with her husband’s law firm and her coaching business, Sailor’s Sweet Life, which is named after her golden retriever.

“I can’t have a more supportive partner in my legal work than the father of my children and my co-creator in life,” she says.

The ability to tap into prime opportunities for creativity and productivity has also helped Nicole’s coaching clients. In fact, she’s learned it’s not about dramatic, sweeping changes.

“Really what they’re looking for is helpful tweaks,” she says. “Inherently they are them, and they want to stay that way, but they want to be a more productive, more enjoyable version of themselves.”

Nicole and Family

It Takes a Village

At the root of Nicole’s mission to help families maximize joy and decrease stress are tools like Enneagram to learn about the unique personalities that can form our families and support systems.

“Ninety percent of the time you have good intention by people,” she says. Instead, “it’s miscommunication; people speak to one another like they’re speaking to themselves” that causes tension and stress within a family.

“There’s no better way than honoring each other by speaking to that person or acting with that person the way they want to be treated,” she says.

For Nicole, learning about her sons’ different personality types has been a game-changer.

She recalls feeling frustrated, thinking at the time, “I don’t understand, I’m doing the same thing” as a parent, until she realized, “they’re three different people.”

“It was like a light shone upon our family and so much stress disappeared,” she says.

As a fellow fast-talker, I found my conversation with Nicole energizing. But with her boys she’s learned to change her cadence and count in her head to give her son 20 seconds to respond.

“So much with teenagers is letting them talk when they want to,” she says.

Even so, Nicole believes that every stage of parenting comes with its own challenges. She believes the “enjoy every minute, it goes so fast” reminder commonly dished out to parents of young children is “cruel advice.”

“It is magical, but it’s absolutely exhausting,” she recalls.

And if you don’t love every stage of parenting, Nicole doesn’t believe that mom guilt is necessary either.

“Spare yourself all of that and be your own champion by arming yourself with tools that help you get through it,” she says.

“Along that whole spectrum, if you know you and if you’re doing this with someone else and you know them, this can be so much more of an enjoyable journey.”

As an achiever married to a perfectionist, Nicole and her husband took the time to learn about each other’s personalities and communication styles.

“We conscientiously–when they were real little–figured out how we work well together and how to honor that,” she says. “I can see when I trigger him and he can see when he triggers me, and then as your kids grow you can pull them into the fold.”

She also believes this insight can be applied to other caregivers and extended members of the family.

“Our mentors, our people who teach us, are all over the place in our lives, so being open to that is really important,” she says.

How this Mompreneur Makes it Work

Self-care as a goal can feel intimidating until you know yourself and “what feeds your soul,” says Nicole.

“I love being in nature and that’s one of my coaching principles to reset the heart and reset the mind, but also to open us up to creativity,” she says.

Nicole takes a “brisk walk” early each morning and in the evening with Sailor, no matter what the weather brings in her home of Colorado.

“Unbelievable solutions come and brainstorming that you didn’t think was possible,” she says about recommending afternoon walks to her clients.

She incorporates the “science of timing” in her practice and to plan out her day, based on the book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel H. Pink.

“On the whole, the way that the world operates and the way that the majority of humans do is that you have an uptick of analytical activities first thing in the day,” she describes.

“There’s a slump that we all kind of recognize around lunchtime.”

According to statistics, more mistakes are made in mid-day surgery, and “judges are more cantankerous, less likely to be compassionate in the afternoon,” says Nicole.

“Afternoon is good for creative, restorative activity, quiet work, collaborative work,” she says.

As a parent who experiences the daily “witching hour” with my boys, I wasn’t surprised to learn that around 4:00 or 5:00 p.m., we all get an energy uptick.

Fortunately for Nicole, she has plenty of it to go around, which she channels into “nourishing” her teenagers after school and at dinner time.

While the path through each stage of motherhood looks a little different, Nicole believes that there’s wisdom to be gained along the journey.

“This is an amazing set of skills and experiences that you’re having,” she says about parenting young children.

“It won’t be forever but put that framing on the whole ride–that you’re an amazing supporter–and you’ll have so many wonderful opportunities.”

Always Seek the Sweet

Welcome 2020! A new year. A fresh start. And such visual symmetry. Sublime.

I loved this year’s holiday season because the timing worked perfectly for the ultimate in relaxation. People reading this outside of the United States may not understand this (and, fair enough, because it is sort of insane), but it’s rare here to get more than one week off. And, oh my goodness, what a heavenly gift it is! It took me that whole first week just to settle down, relax a little, and stop habitually mentally scanning for what to do next. I had more rest in the last week and a half than I have probably had in one time period for over a decade and, lo and behold, I actually have some perspective as a result. Well-rested is a phenomenal vantage point from which to intend to do amazing, brilliant, challenging things!

Traditionally this is the time of year where many set goals, resolutions, intentions – whatever you want to call them – to make the positive life changes that they have been feeling are needed. Despite my innate aversion to joining the herd in general and particularly with regards to new year’s resolutions, I feel so ready to take on what lies ahead and am zooming into this new year with passion and drive, optimism and a less waffley inner compass. I am committed to living more boldly, to taking a stand (even if it’s just in my small way), to sticking to a low-bad diet and to saying no to negativity (Wall Street Journal, December 27, 2019: For the New Year Say No to Negativity). I am also (mostly) avoiding refined sugars (at least for the month of January). Sweetness can be found everywhere in life and I am determined to pursue it in every direction except the bakery!

All this energy and enthusiasm is AWESOME. Until February (or mid-January?), when the year ahead is looking awfully long and old habits so comfortable and familiar. Did you know that it takes at least two months to develop a new habit, according to a 2009 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology? We are all human. Eventually, the excitement will wear off and no amount of stored up sleep or goodwill will be able to fuel us adequately through whatever life has in store. We get tired. We get complacent. And we start to slip, even with the best of intentions. Personally, I suffer from “What’s the point?”-ism, which is akin to hopelessness. Does anything little old me ever does really matter?

Here is an example: I used to wash and re-use my plastic sandwich bags. Some nice person even gave me a dry rack like the one pictured below for a wedding present. It was just what I wanted!Dry rack for plastic bags

But I gave up on washing out, drying and re-using my plastic bags because at some point I looked around and saw people throwing away all manner of things, idling big old gas-guzzling vehicles without a thought, not to mention the absurd destruction and desolation of war. My plastic bags seemed quite small and inconsequential. My idealism felt quaint and silly. Hopelessness set in and infected me with what’s-the-point thinking. So I gave up. For a little while it felt so indulgent to pretend I didn’t care. How liberating to just mindlessly throw stuff away!

It didn’t last long, though. You see, when I am not suffering from what’s-the-point-ism, I approach life with unfettered openness, curiosity and hopefulness. Eventually, I swing back to thinking that I may be just one little person, but at least I can say I tried. I stood by my values and set my intention to do right and I tried. No one else is washing their plastic bags? Well, fine. To be fair, it’s time-consuming and takes up a lot of counterspace as well. I think I’d rather just not use plastic bags. Plastic isn’t any good for us anyway.

The wall of apathy constructed by what’s-the-point thinking extends well beyond plastic sandwich bags. I have talked myself out of a whole bunch of good work using the rationale that there are so many big problems in the world, what could I possibly change? I am but a drop in an ocean (of floating plastic detritus, to keep with the plastic analogy). When you look at the news every day, why the heck wouldn’t you feel hopeless and inconsequential? It turns out, according to research highlighted by the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), that our brains are hard-wired with a negativity bias. There is “a universal tendency for bad events and emotions to affect us more strongly than positive ones.”

However, the negativity and hopelessness that pervades our thinking is often a false construct. Studies have shown that “we focus so much on bad news that we don’t realize how much better life is becoming for people around the world…just about every measure of human welfare is improving except one: hope. The better life gets, the gloomier our worldview. In international surveys, its the rich who sound the most pessimistic – and the worst informed.” (WSJ)

We all slip, in big ways and in small. Should being infected with hopelessness make us quit on our intentions entirely? Or be cause for shame or remorse? Or, worse, for not trying in the first place? No way! You fall down, you pick yourself up. Re-commit to what matters to you and try again. Remember that because of how our brains are wired it takes four good things to overcome one bad thing. Surely the most important stuff in life is learned through failing, learning from that experience, and then trying again.

Jane Goodall quote

There is nothing enlightened about negative thinking. Hopelessness is not a good or helpful place to be. Helping just one other person (animal, place) makes a huge difference – for that one person (animal, or place) anyway. We can’t lose hope and close ourselves off in the face of the enormity of the world’s problems. Every little bit matters. We each as individuals matter. “We do good things not because we can save the world all alone. We do good things because it is right, and because we can.” (Bear Grylls)

Be the ray of hope for just one person today and notice what a difference it makes – for them and for you! Cherish and encourage creativity. Read a great book. Be bold and courageous. Surprise yourself. Be curious and be kind. These are some of the essential wonders of life, of being human. THIS is the sweet in life, no sugar added.

#lowbaddietsaregoodforyou

 

Coming into the Light – 10 Life Lessons from a Year of Writing and Living Courageously

A year ago, a friend asked me to create a blog about our trip to Guatemala. I had never set up my own website before or blogged (gosh, I still detest how that word sounds) or publicly written much at all to that point. But she knew that I liked to write, having watched me carry my journal everywhere back in our days together in Madagascar in the 1990s and then again as we traveled around Guatemala. I assumed I could figure it out, and it seemed like a good challenge.

What I discovered is that there is more formatting and behind-the-scenes work needed to get a website set up than I expected. It’s more time-consuming than it is difficult, and I spent ages just trying to think of a website address. I eventually settled on “Put Your Own Oxygen Mask on First” thanks to a sticky note that sits on my desk as a reminder to myself. At a certain point, I just needed to get writing. So I plugged it in, and after confirming that no one had claimed it yet, I went with it. I know it’s probably too long, but it was time to unstick myself from the nitty-gritty details and get down to writing. As time passes, I adjust and tweak the site’s format and layout. As with so much in life, greater clarity comes with time. You can perfect – or improve it – later. The most important part is to just get started.

First draft yoda

And start I did. I published my first post on November 15, 2018. Looking back at the past year, I am astonished for many reasons, but especially with how this writing endeavor has blossomed and grown. In the past year I wrote 50 blog posts. FIFTY. That’s a lot of 5am wake up calls. The lesson here is that writing is most effectively accomplished with focused, uninterrupted time, and for many writers that’s early in the morning. The other lesson is that I can pretty much turn any pursuit, even if it starts as a passion project, into work. The good news is that I noticed it happening and backed off a bit. That’s the gift of being in your 40’s – perspective and life experience!

Throughout this year I have had days – okay, weeks – where I have become discouraged and self-conscious. My strong and judgmental inner-voice has ruled my thoughts saying, “Who really wants to read this stuff?” and “Isn’t this a little self-indulgent?” I hear a Sarah Palin-esque derogatory and snarkily delivered, “How’s that hopey changey stuff working out?” in my mind and wonder, “What’s the point? Does all this – any of this – really matter?” I am but a drop in an ocean of snark and negativity, and does anyone really care about what I have to say anyway?

Anais Nin quote

But I carried on, because I like writing and how it helps me sort through my thoughts and experiences. About halfway through the year I began to pitch essay ideas to journals and newspapers, partially out of curiosity and partially, to be honest, to see if the pros though my writing was any good. And I was delighted that a couple pieces were chosen to be published! My essay The View from a Chicken Bus, about an indigenous girl’s journey to school in Guatemala, was published by Sky Island Journal in their Issue 9 in June. It has since been nominated for Sundress Publications’ “Best of the Net” and the Pushcart Prize. My essay on being a sandwich generationer and a child of Alzheimer’s was published by the Washington Post in August and then picked up by the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun, and eventually by Maria Shriver who published it in her Sunday Paper on November 3, 2019.

What a thrill and unexpected gift it has been to watch my words travel around the world! Talk about validation! The feedback I have received from readers has been astonishing, compelling, heartening, and uplifting. I am amazed that my words can bring others to tears, or lift their spirits, or provide a new perspective to set the tone for their day or week. Other caregivers who have walked the long, lonely, difficult road of caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s reached out to me from all over the country to express their sorrow at my loss, but also to share with me their journeys and their pain.

The fact that my experience resonated with so many other people, that my words touched people’s hearts and inspired them to open up to me, highlights how important connection is, how critical it is to break down the feelings of loneliness and isolation – be it from our circumstances or our modern culture – that can overwhelm us. A friend shared, as she observed my writing journey: “I had never really considered how sharing an experience, beyond an in-the-moment conversation perhaps, could help others.” But it does. I think, in some way, I have always felt that innately, but evidence is mounting about how much it matters (and is missing). According to the results of a recent scientific analysis, loneliness is becoming a worldwide epidemic, and not just for caregivers. Fostering connection with other people, providing a means to have hope, it turns out, are critical remedies to a burgeoning public health issue.

Hope is what drives all of us forward. When all else is lost, what propels us forward besides our hope and our connection to other humans and those we love? So, then, why not be guided by hope? Why not seek connection with others (and, when I say connection, I mean authentic, genuine connection, not Instagram likes or FB “friends”). The alternative is so bleak. Everyone struggles. Everyone seeks a purpose and for their lives to have meaning. Having hope is not an absence of difficulty, or an avoidance of reality. It’s the light at the end of a tunnel of darkness; it’s the anchor that keeps you moored in stormy seas; it’s an intangible but absolutely critical feeling that is sometimes found in the unlikeliest of circumstances and where you least expect it. It matters immensely. This coming year I will redouble my efforts to share stories that give hope, especially where and when we least expect it.

Walt Disney storyteller quote

This year has been an exercise in writing, personal growth, and reflection. There is plenty of room to continue to grow in all of those areas. As author Rob Buyea has said, “The largest room in the world is room for improvement.” Isn’t that the truth? I will forever battle the internal judgement that says that no one wants to hear what I have to say, or that I have to prove myself, or that I am only as good as my last published article. I continue to find room to breathe into the self-doubt, to practice empathy and self-compassion. I live and write with integrity and intention. Or I try to. And I am blessed by this purpose-filled life that has grown out of the sometimes tumultuous and quagmired quest for who I wanted to be when I grow up. As I look back, here are the lessons I have learned through this year of writing (plus a couple of years of living):

  1. Don’t let the details be your undoing; as with writing, the first draft usually stinks but it has to be written to get to the next draft; so it is with life – get started and keep going;
  2. My biggest critic is myself – and I suspect I am not alone in that (why else would the imposter syndrome be a thing?). Check the narrative. The feelings are real, but is the story they are telling you true? Monkey mind is how Buddhists describe it. I guess I’ve always been a storyteller of sorts ;-).
  3. Be open to new perspectives about who you are and what you can do. As I began to think of myself as a “writer,” it opened my eyes to new opportunities and to connecting with people in a new way. I have made new friends this year that I would never have known or had occasion to overlap with a year ago;
  4. Curious gets you a lot further than furious when it comes to connecting with and understanding other people;
  5. If you’re at all like me, learn to check yourself when what started as a fun pursuit becomes a deadline-driven project; remind yourself who is in charge – or should be – you or your to-do list?;
  6. Being vulnerable is uncomfortable; it is also real, human, and relatable;
  7. Conformity is boring. Be uniquely you. Always;
  8. Sharing our stories is how we relate to and connect with one another;
  9. Storytelling is an art, and it’s an important part of helping humans understand their purpose and their past;
  10. Thank you for reading!
  11. BONUS – I like lists (and post-it notes).

First draft Anne Lamott

“My deepest fear is not that I am inadequate. My deepest fear is that I am powerful beyond measure.

It is my light, not my darkness, that most frightens me.

I ask myself, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who am I not to be?

I am a child of God.

My playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so other people won’t feel insecure around me.

I am born to manifest God’s glory within me. It’s not just in some of us: it’s in everyone. And, as I let my own light shine, I unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As I am liberated from my own fear my presence automatically liberates other.”

-Marianne Williamson

 

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