As my daughter closes in on adolescence, it is becoming more challenging to connect with her at a deeper level. She is like a tightly shut oyster shell, fiercely hiding her pearl. When we sit down at the dinner table each night, I ask her two questions: “What was the best part of your day?” and “What was the hardest?” When she was younger, this used to set the scene for a fruitful conversation, but it has been less successful as of late. I am getting briefer and briefer answers. The same reaction occurs when she speaks with a family member on the phone or she is confronted by an adult in most situations: wide-eyed silence.
I am noticing that rare moments of deep connection and vulnerability surface these days in a somewhat haphazard manner. The key is for me to be open and ready for them when they do. I have to remain quiet and still, like a bird watcher in the brush straining for a glimpse of a rare species, so as not to scare her away. They sometimes appear when I drive my child to dance class on a dark and rainy evening, accompanied by the rhythmic swipe of the windshield wipers. They show up as we walk to the corner to meet her friends for school on a crisp morning, or while I rub her back with lavender oil as she struggles to find sleep at night. It is in these mundane moments of daily intimacy that the words come pouring out. I am often surprised at the breadth and richness of her internal emotional world. All of these conflicted feeling trapped inside: bursting at the seams.
As always on this parenting journey, I am learning from the unique experience that presents itself in this moment. I am humbled at how little I know and how much there is to learn. I am realizing that what my daughter needs most from me right now is not to be pursued. She requires patience, spaciousness and an open heart. My primary role is to provide her with a consistent safe haven, a home where she can return to at any point, and rest her weary head. This can be challenging, as my natural instinct is to actively seek out connection, and assurance that everything is ok. I have to work on self-soothing that insecure part of my own internal being. And otherwise, show up, be consistent, and trust that my daughter will come to me when she is ready. I will be here and waiting.
Eighteen years ago today, I walked down the aisle on the arm of my father, bright eyed, hopeful and deeply in love. I made a vow, in front of my friends, family and community to love and honour my partner until death do us part. I meant it. Every word.
All these years later, I sit here on my back deck, on a beautiful sunny August evening, not so different to my wedding day, and I reflect upon where life has taken me. It is four years since the end of my relationship. I am a single, independent parent, trying to figure out how to date online in a time of pandemic. My ex is remarried and expecting a baby with his new wife any day now. Everything has changed.
If you had sat me down at age twenty-seven, as a young bride, and told me where I would be today, at age forty-four, I would not have believed you. Even if I had believed you, I would have crumpled with despair and worry about what lay ahead of me.
I imagine what I would have told my younger self, if I had had the opportunity. Here are a few thoughts that came to me:
Symbiosis: A relationship is not about caretaking or merging with your loved one, at the expense of yourself. It is a sacred coming together of two whole individual human beings who choose to orbit one another with symbiotic love and respect. Cherish and protect what makes you unique. Cultivate and share your most authentic self. This is true love.
It takes two: You cannot make a relationship work on your own. No matter how hard you try, you cannot row a boat with one oar. Once the other person has given up, there is nothing more you can do. True loneliness is living with disconnection. Put your life vest on and jump.
Integrity: You are so much more resilient than you think. When faced with the unthinkable, ask yourself: “Even in the midst of this chaos, who do I want to be?” Then simply focus on doing the next right thing. Take one baby step forward, then another, and another. Breathe deeply. Keep on moving and stay rooted in your own integrity.
Curiosity: Although you do not know what lies ahead, it is not all scary and frightening. It is just unknown. Be curious and open. Ask for help when you need it. Trust in the love of your community. Most importantly, remember that everything you need comes from deep within yourself. Love. Acceptance. Joy. It is all there. You just need to believe it and stay connected to your inner knowing.
Most of all, I would tell myself, “I love you and everything is going to be ok.” Or as John Lennon famously said: “Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.” Although my marriage did not turn out as I imagined, every experience along the way brought me to where I am today. Painful as much of it was, I would not change any of it. There is no looking back: only baby steps forward. I am excited to see what my future holds.
“The opposite of belonging is fitting in. Belonging is belonging to yourself first. Speaking your truth. Telling you story. And never betraying yourself for other people. True belonging does not require you change who you are. It requires you to be who you are.” ~ Brené Brown
A few months ago, I wrote about how, after being in a relationship for over twenty years, I have started to explore dating again. I am investigating the unfamiliar territory of the online dating space: something that did not even exist when I was last single. There are so many of different web sites, it can be overwhelming and difficult to know where to start or what to do.
It is a loud and busy environment. It is also not set up for deep and meaningful encounters. Swipe left if you “like” someone and right if you do not. Capture yourself in a short and pithy bio, with posed photographs on the beach or hiking in the mountains. Be cute and alluring and most importantly…vanilla. In other words, reflect back to the other person what they want to see, not who you truly are.
One of the more challenging aspects of this experience so far is learning how to hold onto myself and my own unique sense of individuality in such a public forum. To be vulnerable. To truthfully state my interests and hobbies, even though they may be judged as quirky. To openly share my values and stand behind them, even if this results in alienating prospective partners.
It may sound strange that being open and honest is a challenge for me; but I spent a large part of my adolescence and young adulthood in hiding. I perfected the model of survival through adaptation. I was a master of reading the preferences of my peer group and then camouflaging myself to my environment. Being publicly exposed and potentially judged awakens my natural tendency to conceal who I really am. It brings our the primal desire to fit in and to be accepted: even at the sacrifice of my most authentic self.
The good thing is, this time around, I am able to spot the pattern and lean into the discomfort rather than lose connection to my true self. For me, it is less important to find a partner than to honour the person that I have become. In my heart, I know that the right person will show up at the right time. It may be that I encounter him online or through my social circles. It does not really matter. What remains key is that I allow myself to be vulnerable and truly seen throughout. The gifts that live on the other side of fear are far more valuable than gold, as vulnerably is the birthplace of love, belonging and joy.
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Lately, I have been taking notice of a habit. As I walk down the street, I tend to look down at the sidewalk, rather than up at the world around me. I focus my gaze five to ten feet ahead, as I move towards my destination. My comfort zone is to keep my eyes lowered and my focus inward.
I recently decided to test out a small experiment. Rather than looking down, I have been intentionally looking up at every person that passes me. If it feels safe, I offer them a smile. This pushes the limits of my comfort, as it brings me into direct contact with strangers.
The vast majority of people do not meet my gaze. Some people look down or straight ahead into the distance. Some are busy talking with their friends. Others are intently focused on their cell phones.
Once and a while, however, I am successful. There is a simple but powerful moment of connection. Our eyes meet and I silently think to myself: “I see you. I acknowledge you. I honour you.” It often results in their face lighting up as we pass one another.
Although it is easy to dismiss the importance of small acts of kindness, you never know their true impact. That moment could offer a glimmer of hope to someone experiencing a difficult day, reminding them that they are not alone. It may inspire them to pass kindness onto the next person they encounter: generating a ripple effect of love. Whatever its impact, I am enjoying the practice of bringing myself into the moment, and taking the opportunity to connect with others along the way.
When I was little, I was taught that love is defined through sacrifice and service. You give everything to others and meet their needs first. You agree to any request that is made of you (unless it is unsafe or dangerous). You do not put yourself first, as tending to your own needs is inherently selfish.
As I lived the first part of my life following these rules, I gave without limits. I said yes when I meant no. I tried to be the “perfect” friend, daughter, wife and colleague by being accommodating, generous and helpful. I gave and I gave and I gave; and it led me to a place of resentment, exhaustion and burn-out. I was an empty shell and I had nothing left.
Over the last few years, I have been exploring the importance of establishing healthy boundaries. A boundary is most simply defined as what is ok and what is not ok for me. It is about understanding where I end and you begin. It is not about building walls or creating separation from other people; it is simply about establishing and maintaining respect.
As Dr. Brené Brown discovered through her decades of research, people with the strongest boundaries are the most compassionate: as true generosity cannot exist without them. When they say yes, it is a true yes. When they say no, it is a true no. In considering a request, Brené asks herself: “What boundaries need to be in place for me to stay in my integrity and make the most generous assumptions about you?”Empathy is not feeling for somebody it is feeling with them. Empathy offered, along with boundaries, is infinite and sustaining. If you have done your work, and set clear boundaries, you can tread water forever.
Not sure if you have weak boundaries? Here are a few of the tell-tale signs: sharing too much too soon; feeling responsible for other peoples happiness; possessing an inability to say no for fear of rejection and abandonment; having a weak sense of identity; basing how you feel about yourself on how others treat you; feeling disempowered and allowing others to make decisions for you. This can lead to feeling of total powerless and a victim mentality. A red flag for crossing your boundary is using the word “should”. For example, “I should let my sister borrow my car, as my dad expects me to.”
There are two kinds of boundaries:
Physical: Protecting your body and your sense of personal space.
Emotional: Protecting your self-esteem and your ability to separate your feelings from another person’s feelings. An emotional boundary allows you to be impacted by other peoples thoughts, feelings, actions, while still maintaining your own unique beliefs, behaviours and sense of responsibility.
The process of learning to set a boundary is iterative. You do not master it in one day. It takes time, patience and practice. It also requires a lot of courage. It is scary to say no. In our society, we are encouraged to worry about what other people think of us and we generally want everyone to like us. This mind set, however, comes with a hefty price.
To set a boundary, state it clearly, calmly and with with as few words as possible. Do not justify your response or apologize. You do not need to convince anyone of anything. It is important to remember that you are not responsible for how the other person reacts to you setting a boundary. Acknowledge their feelings but do not take them on. Brené Brown suggests choosing a mantra. She personally uses: “Choose discomfort over resentment.” A mantra reminds you that you are making a choice that is critical for you well-being – even if it it not easy.
As I practice setting boundaries more and more in my own life, I am getting clearer on what I can give, while still remaining in my integrity. This feels really good. Learning to set boundaries is truly an act of love: both for myself and others. It is not easy work but it is important. I am committed to practicing this new skill set so I can continue to give with my whole heart for many years to come.
I really enjoy Liz Gilbert’s work. She is a prolific novelist. Her books, Big Magicand The Signature of All Things are two of my favourites; and she is best known for her mammoth best seller, Eat, Pray, Love. Liz is also very active on social media and I like to follow her on Facebook and Instagram. She posts thoughtful, inspiring and deeply personal content. She is the living definition of Bréne Brown’s concept of daring greatly, inspired by Theodore Roosevelt’s Man in the Arena quote. Standing in the arena of life: she presents herself with honesty, openness and vulnerability.
A few years ago, Liz posted about her journey to recover from a knee injury (click link below to read the full post). In it, she shares how her pain started around the time of her divorce. It was relentless, real and debilitating. After seeking every medical option, one day Liz finally just asks her knee what it needs from her:
I literally spoke to it. I got very quiet, and very sleepy, and I said, “Tell me what you need from me, dear knee. I’m listening. I’ll do whatever you say. Surgery? A replacement? More gentle care? More acupuncture? A change of diet? Reiki? Just give me the word.”
Then I got very quiet, and my knee told me what it wanted. I heard the answer in the depths of my mind, as clear as day. It said, “GO FASTER.”
Go faster, said my knee. Go running. Go climbing. Go dancing. Use me. Jump up and down on me. I am a KNEE. There is absolutely nothing wrong with me. I am wondrously designed, said my knee. I am not a weak point, but a strong one. I am part of your body, and I want to be used. I am not a symbol of your divorce. I am not a sign of aging. I am not a problem. Don’t baby me. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life being treated like a Victorian invalid lady who has to take to her bed because of her fainting spells. I am not weak. Stop this. Please, please, please — said my “bad” knee to me — please stop using me as an expression of your weakness, fear, and emotional fragility. Please talk to your therapist about whatever troubles are ongoing in your mind, but don’t blame for everything. Please just trust me. Please just use me as I was designed. Use me as a freaking KNEE.
This post has stayed with me over the years. I find it fascinating how the body often manifests mental pain through physical expression, such as a knee; and how the body will heal itself completely, if it is given a chance.
For many years, I have experienced my own digestion and low energy issues, with a slow and sluggish system. This resulted in my carrying around extra weight and living with a feeling of general exhaustion, which I have spoken to in previous posts.
A year and a half ago, I went to see a naturopath to try to find some answers. I tried the traditional medical route, with no luck, so it seemed like a reasonable next step. After a thorough analysis of my history, he asked me to consider trying an anti-inflammatory diet.
Many major diseases that plague us today — including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, depression, and Alzheimer’s — have been linked to chronic inflammation. One of the most powerful tools to combat inflammation comes not from the pharmacy, but from the grocery store.
He asked me to cut out caffeine, sugar, grains and dairy; and although it seemed extreme, I decided to give it a go. I was at the end of my rope and ready to try anything. This left me with planning my meals around:
non-starchy vegetables, such as broccoli and dark leafy greens
high-fiber foods, including beans and lentils
some whole grains, such as quinoa (a seed)
protein-rich foods, including lean meats, fish, soy, legumes, and nuts
fish with a high omega-3 fatty acid content, such as salmon, sardines, and herring
foods that contain antioxidants, such as berries
sweet potatoes, which have a lower GI than regular potatoes
water, especially as a substitute for sweetened drinks
unsweetened herbal teas
After following this regime for the last year and a half, I have lost over thirty pounds and my energy levels are significantly better. I am not always perfect at following it but I am pretty consistent (85-90%). In addition to changing what I eat, I have a consistent exercise routine that includes regular yoga, meditation, walking and boot-camp classes. All of this has contributed to an immensely improved sense of well-being.
Aside from the physical transformation, I have learned to listen to my body. I realize now that it was previously communicating with me; but I was unable to hear it. The weight and sluggish system were crying: “Hey! Something is not right. Please help me. Something needs to change.” As I was feeling sad, stuck and trying to hide from the world after my divorce, it was telling me: “I need nourishment. Move, laugh and love more. Allow yourself to be seen.”
As many western women, I have struggled with food and body image issues for most of my life. For me, it started when I was twelve years old and beginning puberty; my changing shape was petrifying and I felt very out of control. Food became synonymous with comfort and it acted as an emotional band-aid. I became disconnected from my body and it was an enemy.
This slowly began to change for me when I became a mother. I was amazed at how my body intuitively knew how to knit together a little human being: from a few cells to a fully formed baby. It led me patiently through each an every step, from birthing her to nursing her: even creating milk perfectly formulated for my daughter’s needs in our climate. It was absolutely miraculous and I was humbled by the experience.
Learning how to be thoughtful and loving with my body is still new territory. I now try to approach each day and choice by asking myself: “Will this feed disease or fuel health?” Rather than treating my body as a separate entity, I bring it in close, act as a friend, and make choices that will build strength and enhance wellness.
I am motivated by a few things that I know to be true. I want to age well and to feel strong when I wake up each morning. I want to feel comfortable and connected to my core self: to be a good mother and role model for my daughter. I want to love myself so I can love others. These are important factors for negotiating a new relationship with my body going forward: one that is built on respect, love, connection and trust. It is a day by day practice but I am committed to the process and the journey ahead.
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The World Needs More Love Letters is a not-for-profit organization that uses the power of social media to write and mail letters to strangers all over the world. They let anyone nominate someone in need of a love letter bundle. In a world fueled by technology and isolation, this is a beautiful and meaningful exercise in human love and connection. I am going to go out and buy some lovely stationary today.