Small Treasures

Overcome by the enormity of change that inevitably arrives with every end-of-year transition at school, I remember gazing at the naked mismatched desks, the barren coatroom, and the dozens of cardboard boxes stacked precariously and filled to the brim with classroom essentials awaiting their new destination, nostalgia tugging at my heartstrings.IMG_2828

As I waited for the entry bell to ring one final time, the early morning sunrays streamed through the exterior door’s small square window, illuminating once-white walls of the classroom, now scuffed and dented, proof that for a whole year this silent space had indeed held and nurtured a group of exuberant, jostling, and lively beings.

It had been unforgettable year. I had spent it teaching and learning from a diverse, challenging, wonderful group of Grade One children, connecting deeply with their families, and creating unbreakable bonds with the dynamic staff and administration of an inner-city school in Victoria.

It had also been an exciting and surreal time, for me, personally. That August, while vacationing in France, I received the surprise of a lifetime when my now-husband ushered me to the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, lowered himself onto one knee and proposed. The moment had been nothing short of cinematic. A small crowd cheered and applauded as I accepted his offer, we laughed, cried and embraced. Right then, as if on cue, the great tower had come to life, enveloping us in its dancing, sparkling light. A few months later, we purchased and moved into the home in which we are now raising our family.

We had spent the year carefully balancing the many aspects of our busy, young lives, palpable pre-wedding anticipation and excitement permeating everything.

In this brief moment of solitude, peace and gratitude stood beside me as I peered over the edge of transformation.

Suddenly, the bell rang. I could hear the unmistakable boisterous voices of my students rising to crescendo as they formed a line against the outside wall. Inhaling deeply, I carefully swung the door open and welcomed my eager students inside for their last day of school.

“Mme. Michael! Mme. Michael!”

Julia*, a normally-quiet, compassionate, and patient little girl, excitedly pushed her way through the crowd and bounded toward me with a toothy smile, thin blond pony-tail swaying. I noticed she was clasping a bulky shoebox adorned with stickers and decorated lovingly with paint.

The eldest of four children, Julia was classically responsible, earnest, and always heartbreakingly willing to help others. She was also chronically tardy for school and would often show up wearing the same clothing she had worn for several days in a row.

I recall one particular day after school her exhausted mother had lingered, a baby on her hip and a couple of mischievous toddlers keeping her running in frantic zigzags throughout our conversation. With tears welling in her eyes, she had confided that with a husband frequently deployed on important military missions, despite her best efforts, she found it hard to make it to school on time. The baby was up throughout the night, she struggled with her health, it was hard financially to get a meal on the table, and she often felt overwhelmed by loneliness. Although my 20-something-self wasn’t entirely sure how to help or even respond to this mother’s plea for support and kinship, I grew to understand how Julia seemed years beyond her six-year-old-self.

Ignoring the other children jockeying for their positions on the carpet, impatient to begin their last day, Julia thrust the decorated box into my surprised hands.

“This is for you, Mme. Michael!” she exclaimed with glittering anticipation.

Drawing the box toward me, I hinged it open.

Inside, arranged in a cushion of newsprint carefully folded into the base of the shoebox, were the following treasures, meticulously selected for me, undoubtedly from the shelves of her very own bedroom:

A factory painted bunny with a broken ear,

A bright pink, bouncy ball,

A handmade bracelet made of mismatched letter beads,

And a vending-machine ring

Julia stood before me beaming with pride and excitement.

This sweet little girl, who had nothing to give, had given me the most meaningful and beautiful gift I have ever received.

It took everything I had not to break down.

In that moment, I pulled her close to me, wrapping my arms around her tiny shoulders, tears brimming in my eyes.

Thanking her for thoughtful kindness, I collected myself and turned to the class, ready to start our last day together.

 

 

 

 

 

So, I Threw A Spatula…

Just last week, in a fit of quiet rage and a heightened sense of perceived injustice, I hurled a spatula across my kitchen.

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I cannot convey to you, by the way, how hard that sentence was to admit, write and publish.

Anger’s not cute

Anger is not cute. Rage…even less so. It’s not an emotion many people, women specifically, proudly tout. Lack of control, specifically expressions of anger, seems to run counter to the current culture of mindfulness and increased emotional intelligence.

I admit, I’m not proud of throwing that spatula in fury. However, I choose to share my embarrassing outburst on social media because despite being one of the least favourite emotions, anger is a human one. It’s part of the colourful rainbow of sentiments that contributes to the privilege of being human. No one is exempt or immune. Nor, should we strive to be.

Nevertheless, we rarely see examples of healthy, thriving women in their anger. Somehow, anger doesn’t fall into the parameters of what society believes a woman should exude.

As Soman Chainani, acclaimed author and filmmaker, asserts, “Social media has made it so that we are constantly judging ourselves and others. If we’re not careful, our social media feeds become a torture device, an assault of beauty and perfection designed to make you feel inadequate. It makes you intolerant of other people’s real imperfections, and it makes you start to despise the weight of real life, and invest in shallow, flimsy, two dimensional mirrors of it.”

Our growing understanding of emotional expression has somehow coincided with raised and often unrealistic expectations of how our emotions should manifest themselves, which can result in feelings of shame in moments we don’t present as calm, cool, and controlled. We can even tell ourselves the story that we’re somehow ‘defective.’

A bit of background…

I should mention, for the record, that I didn’t throw the spatula at anyone. I was standing alone in the kitchen, ruminating.

The rage had been fuelled by a recent article in Maclean’s magazine, titled I Regret Having Children. The article reported that an increased number of women across North America were expressing regret for having had children, a fact I vehemently DO NOT personally agree with.

Reading it made me angry for three reasons:

  1. Mental Load: Most mothers these days share a profound first-hand understanding of the day-to-day inner conflicts one experiences when trying to meet insatiable, constant, 24-hour needs of our little people, balance and manage a household, nurture a flourishing relationship, nail it in our ambitious careers, all the while attempting to maintain a stronghold on one’s own identity and wellness. Just look at popular posts like the recent work by cartoonist Emma, You Should Have Asked, which depicts the pressures of ‘mental load’ in a hilarious and all-too-familiar manner. It resonates. However, it doesn’t mean I REGRET the choice to have children. It breaks my heart that for a rising number of women, the only relief comes from wishing they never had children. I HATE that women feel like they need to choose some binary definition and experience of motherhood. And that a surprising number feel like they chose wrong.IMG_2650
  2. I felt set up: After finishing the article, I couldn’t help myself. I continued scrolling down to the comments section, anticipating the onslaught of inevitable traditionalist commentators. Sure enough, comments judging the “regretters” harshly, each one echoing the other, affirmed that our current cultural and family denigration is owed to women forgetting their place. Blaming and shaming women for being selfish in their pursuits. Declaring that they should only find fulfillment by filling their pre-determined roles. Where is the village? The lack of support, the sometimes-lonely nature of parenting, and the expectations of living up to some ideal make it difficult to be a mother. It’s unjust and unfair…and heartbreaking. The underlying cultural viewpoint that this is somehow a mother’s issue is infuriating. Really, this comes down to perpetuated societal injustices. This is everyone’s problem!
  3. A building sense of injustice: So, there I stood, staring at the piled-up dishes taunting me from the sink, the next day’s awaiting lunch Tupperware practically begging to be filled from the messy counter, and imagined the wet laundry impatiently admonishing me for my turtle’s pace…empathy, solidarity, heartbreak mounting. I just couldn’t help myself…

So, I threw the spatula…

We feel we should know better

As soon as it clattered against the squared edges of the basin, the heat of shame quickly replaced the rage. Shocked, I realized that in spite of regular journaling, meditation, gratitude practice, and exercise, I had experienced an uncontrolled, reactionary outburst.

At the time, I thought, I know better! What is wrong with me? What had made me react like that? More importantly, I wanted to know how could I stop it from happening again.

I believe some people turn to mindfulness as an inoculation against uncomfortable human emotions like grief, hopelessness, fear, anxiety, and anger. That somehow, there’s a perception that meditation is the answer to ridding us of these feelings.

Our current mindset seems to be that the more we know, the more we should be able to control ourselves. Ironically, I have heard friends mention that mindfulness just doesn’t “work” for them, dejected in their inability to get ahead of their unwanted emotions and the humiliating ways these feelings can sometimes express themselves. Or, some teachers impatiently lament that reflection and meditation in school doesn’t immediately cause tangible changes in behaviour. But, maybe, we’re all missing the point?

What is authentic mindfulness?

Here’s the thing, resisting negative emotions only exaggerates them. Genuine mindfulness comes from acceptance and deep observation. Observing all emotions, accepting their existence, and dropping the expectation that we should somehow be immune to negative feelings. Only through that acceptance, can we alter our, possibly inappropriate, reactions.

Simple concept, challenging to execute

As Shawn Achor, Harvard-trained happiness expert and author asserts, “common sense is not common action.” What he means is that even if we know what to do, actually doing it comes down to more than just our willpower or intellectual knowledge. That’s why experts in the field refer to mindfulness and meditation as a practice. Much like going to the gym, we can’t simply attend for a week and expect to reap it’s benefits for the rest of our lives. It’s an on-going labour of love. We win some, we lose some, and the overall trend keeps us headed in a positive, self-aware direction.

What happened on the brain-level?

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(Pic credit www.greenlightheidi.com)

In order to explain what happened, we need to talk about the two parts of our brain that duel for supremacy.

First, we have the emotional, limbic, reptilian part of the brain (amygdala). When we’re threatened, cortisol and adrenaline (neuro-chemicals) course through our veins throwing this ancient part of our brain into fight, flight or freeze. This reaction can prove tremendously helpful in protecting us from the perils of huge predators; however, it is not of particular use when employed in day-to-day stressors. Cortisol shuts down the body on a fundamental level and is only meant to be present in our bodies for short bursts. The problem is, every single time we get stressed, cortisol is released. The compounding effects of stress on the body has been linked to decreases in effectiveness of the immune system, cardio-vascular functioning, digestion, cellular growth, empathy, and increases in depression and anxiety. It’s toxic stuff!

The other part of the brain, the logical prefrontal cortex, is responsible for rational thinking. It takes into account a myriad of factors about a situation, risk-assessing as it goes along, before advising you on how to react.

It’s fair to say that after reading that article, my limbic brain hijacked my rational brain, and consequently, I jumped into fight mode.

And so, I propose, maybe it would be more useful to be calculating success in terms of our Recovery Time, as opposed to some unattainable obliteration of negative thoughts. Recovery time meaning, how quickly are we able to get to a place of authentic, self-forgiving, ego-free reflection after an emotional breakdown?  How long does it take for the rational brain to regain control?

What Now? How do we increase our recovery time after an emotional outburst, anyway?

The key is letting go of the ego-which says that if you’re not winning, you’re losing. Compromise and self-reflection are not the ego’s favourite thing to do. We have to have more patience of ourselves and others in the process, so we can move on and bounce forward. Mindfulness plays a big role in recovery time.

And, a little bit of reflection also goes a long way…

Five things you can do to increase your recovery time:

  1. Your story: Ask yourself, What story am I telling myself right now?
  2. Let it out: Find a way to express your voice through journaling or talking. Sometimes, those big feelings just need validation.
  3. List it up: Create a mental or written list of what’s inside your control and what’s outside of it.
  4. Small Steps: Create a small goal you know you can accomplish. Doing that has a way to building your confidence. The all or nothing mindset serves nothing. Small steps lead to big changes!
  5. Celebrate: Holding yourself to an unrealistic ideal, when it comes to any behavioural change is a recipe for disaster and failure. Celebrate small triumphs!

 

 

 

 

Jumping Out of Hot Tubs into Glittering Snowbanks: The 6 Steps Creating a Resolution that You’ll Actually Want to Keep

IMG_2092I am admittedly not a huge fan of the New Year’s resolution. For years, I’ve sworn off the whole practice. Why bother making an arbitrary goal dictated by some calendar date society deems to be important, leaving it in the hands of fate, knowing in your heart that failure and disappointment will naturally ensue? No, thanks. I’ll settle for the status quo, at least that way, I’ll know what to expect!

This past year, however, I’ve decided to revisit the whole idea. Perhaps, there is value in a yearly examination of one’s current state of affairs. Resolutions can serve as powerful, transformative intent statements that acknowledge something about the status quo that needs a rework and set a new course for the future.

Reflective practice can be a clarifying tool which allows us craft the lives we wish to be living, but intent alone is not enough to achieve success. We have to be willing to ask ourselves difficult questions, identify and challenge our limiting beliefs about what we can achieve, and commit ourselves to our mission, despite the inevitable adversity along the journey. We also have to be willing to digest and acknowledge our progress and successes in order for the process to feel authentic, positive, and worthwhile.

The following is a delineation of my end-of-year reflection process:

My hope, if you’re a skeptic like me, is that you might consider revisiting the exercise too, not for my benefit, but for yours…so that you might give yourself permission to explore your dreams and goals, knowing that you’re worthy of doing so.  

For this activity, I brought out my trusty journal, the same one that lives beside my bed at night, on the counter throughout the day, in my purse when I’m out-and-about…you get the idea (big-time nerd alert…I know). There’s something about the process of journaling that brings clarity and insight to situations, conflicts, or decisions that might otherwise seem so convoluted and complicated. And bonus- studies have shown that you are 42% more likely to achieve goals when you write them down. So, really, it’s a win-win!

1. Start by acknowledging your successes and triumphs

Instead of delving straight into the all-too-familiar, critical “what needs to change” mindset, focus on the positive progress you’ve made by asking:

What did I do/create/make happen/experience this year that I’m really proud of?

2. Set your intention

Ask yourself: What I really want is…?

This year, conscious of my tendency for certainty-seeking and perfectionism, I set the intention of actively inviting play into my life for 2018. I want to embrace spontaneity, uncertainty, and challenge myself to lean into that which is uncomfortable. Play, as Dr. Shimi Kang identifies in her TED talk, is the antidote to perfectionism. Sign me up!

3. Find your Why

Next, ask yourself: Why do I want this? How will this have impact?

I subscribe to the belief that we are all guided by 6 main emotional needs (certainty, variety, significance, belonging, progress, and contribution). I believe that our resolutions directly relate to those needs. When we become aware of our goals within the context of our emotional needs, the WHY becomes clearer. It’s easier to find motivation to stick to a goal when we understand how it’ll meet our emotional needs. Sometimes, by examining the underlying motivation, we might find ourselves re-evaluating the goal entirely in order to maintain our integrity.

For example, many people make the resolution to lose weight. Some do it so they can keep up with young children (belonging/love). Some do it so they can create a healthier life-style to lengthen their lives (certainty). Some do it so that they can fit into the media-driven model of what people should look like (significance or belonging). Some people do it because they want to challenge themselves (progress). When your why is strong, your dedication will become unshakeable.

4. Surviving the dip: Examine your limiting beliefs

In a world driven by instant gratification, we are attracted to the concept of the New Year’s Resolution, the magic-pill that promises lasting change with none of the challenge. However, casual goal-setting can’t work without the support of a compelling framework that holds us accountable, that pulls us through the inevitable dip. Seth Godin, acclaimed author and entrepreneur, asserts that this is the part where anything you’re working towards gets hard. It’s the point at which your subconscious finds every excuse to quit, give up, avoid the task, get “too busy”…make excuses.” It comes for everyone…no one is exempt from the pain of the dip. Willpower alone is not enough to affect positive change and get you through this period of self-doubt. When people rely on willpower, they often wind up in a battle of wills against themselves…and they lose, every time.

As speaker and author Mel Robbins says, “motivation is garbage.” Our propensity for hesitation works against our willpower. Hesitation protects us from perceived dangers, risks, and new experiences that push us beyond our comfortable habits. Often, there are subconscious inner conflicts at work, based on limiting beliefs about yourself or your identity that prevent you from achieving that which you want to do. Once you identify those forces or beliefs, then systematically challenge them, procrastination, avoidance, fear, and anxiety (all mechanisms designed to protect us from the pain of failure) can retreat, leaving you to your goal.

So, you have to see the dip coming, through the optimism of your goal-setting, and be prepared with one heck of a persuasive argument for when it knocks on your doorstep.

Ask yourself: What’s stopping me?

Make an exhaustive list of your favourite excuses, so you’ll see them coming a mile away.

Here are some of my favourite excuses (messy writing and all!) :

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5. Magic 20-No Matter What (NMW)

Now that you’ve got an comprehensive list of limiting (generally untrue) beliefs or excuses that your unconscious mind might employ to sabotage your efforts, make a counter-list of 20 ways you might be able to reach your goal NO MATTER WHAT! It’s crazy, but it works. Regardless of which external factors pop into your life, they won’t be able to jeopardize your goal because it means so much to you: your WHY is strong and so are your NMW reasons!

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6. Celebrate!

Go on and celebrate even the tiniest move in your desired direction.

Recently over the holidays, one of my best friends, my husband, and I were sitting in a hot tub overlooking the beautiful white carpet of freshly fallen, untouched snow, sparkling in the light of the full moon. During conversation, my friend mentioned repeatedly how fun it would be to jump into the snow and wished someone would just “do it!” A year ago, I would have vehemently resisted and avoided the adventure at all costs.

This time, something about it seemed intriguing…an opportunity for play! So, without allowing hesitation a chance to talk me out of it, I looked my friend dead in her eyes and challenged her: “If you’ll do it, I’ll do it!” And we did!

There we were, two thirty-something moms of little ones, throwing caution and reason to the wind like children would. We hopped out of the hot tub, giggling and squealing uncontrollably, ran through the snow in bare feet, rolled in the snow in wet bathing suits, sprinted and vaulted ourselves back into the respite of warm water, skin tingling, screaming…alive and, honestly, kind of proud. This was play at work. I could totally do this.

 

Happy New Year! Let me know how you approach you New Year!