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Ann Patchett and Barbara KingsolverThis week was remarkable because I attended a book event with two of my all-time favorite authors—Ann Patchett and Barbara Kingsolver. The photo shows Ann on the left and Barbara on the right. We were celebrating the release of Ann’s new book Commonwealth—her first novel in over 5 years and absolutely worth the wait.

Fortunately my husband is as passionate about books as I am and after lugging dozens of boxes of books from one small apartment to another during our school years we both agreed that the first amendment we would make to our new house would be to build enormous bookcases to make a proper home for our beloved books.

Our carpenter refused to build them into the wall, claiming that too many of her creations had been destroyed after their owners—despite their best intentions—ended up moving away. Well, 18 years later we’re still in the same house with no plans to move. Happily, the bookshelves are also still there, and they continue to be my favorite spot in our house.

I can look at my favorite books on the shelves and be transported immediately to the time when I first read them. I can remember the experiences they left me with so clearly. And when I re-read them, I discover even more. Not just in the book: I commonly discover more in myself than was there before.

I’ve learned that there is never any trouble that an hour’s worth of reading can’t help. Each time your mind races or your emotions sink and you feel bad about yourself, try to do what I do: Slow down, breathe, and pick up a good book.

Before you continue reading, I’d like you to sit quietly for a few seconds. Take in a full breath, let it fill your lungs, and then release it slowly. Repeat this simple breathing exercise and include the words from my favorite meditation:

Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment,
I know this is a wonderful moment.~
Thich Nhat Hahn

I try to remember this little meditation practice when I feel challenged, tired and inadequate.

The 12th-century poet Rumi said each of us is trying to hide the same secret from each other. It isn’t anything malicious—we’re just hiding the mere fact of our flawed humanness. Rumi called it the “Open Secret.”

I know that I expend too much energy feeling less-than-adequate and I expend even more of it trying to remind myself that I am just fine exactly the way I am. For me—and probably for you, as well—a lot of my feelings of inadequacy stems from a sense that other folks have it more together than I do.

being mindfulBut I do it to myself, too: I recently shared with a friend the things I do that contribute to my feeling inadequate: I compare myself to others (and I always come up short), I struggle to celebrate others’ successes (they’ve got friends and family who will do that, right?), and I daydream about being “saved” (my forthcoming children’s book will be wildly successfully—with no marketing effort on my part, or I’ll receive a large inheritance from a long-lost relative—even though I have none, or I’ll win the Powerball – which I don’t play).

Yet I suspect that even the people who seem to be living out what I would call the “perfect” life probably have an Open Secret, too. And while the friend who let me catalogue my self-sabotage strategies didn’t say that she has the same weaknesses, she accepted them without judgment. And it felt good to share them.

But within a short time I found myself once more comparing myself to the more-together-than-thou in my life. And once more having trouble accepting my own foibles as right and necessary. Why is that?

This difficulty is especially mysterious to me because I’m not all that interested in sugar-sweet, sun-filled stories anyway.

In fact, all of my favorite stories are pretty bleak and don’t end particularly well. (I loved Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road.) And yet in every one of the stories I get the most out of, love for others—and true connection with them—bring meaning and solace. My favorite tales are about hope and hopelessness; home and exile; joy and sorrow.

Great writers are supremely gifted at creating characters who wrestle with great challenges and experience a more profound sense of meaning and joy because of them. If you are feeling alienated, or anxious, or full of grief—or if the despair of the world is weighing heavy on your heart—look no further than any number of classic stories to help you find light in the darkness.

Think of the Lord of the Rings. It’s the ultimate story of strangers creating community, sharing a difficult journey, helping each other to achieve success against all odds—and ultimately learning though adversity to savor the passing moments of their ordinary lives.

Getting to the space where you can do that, of course, may mean making peace with the darkness first. To do this, I take a page from another of my favorite novels: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. In this book the protagonist, faced with a rough patch in his life, is told by a wise man that he must “sit at the bottom of the well” for a while—he must face his difficulties and, for a while at least, not strive against them, but seek to understand the lessons they offer.

I have taken this so much to heart that most of my friends know that “sitting at the bottom of the well” is my way of saying that after a tough day, or week, or month I am going to my quiet place in order to discover what I am supposed to learn.

Here are the questions that usually present themselves to me: Is there someone I need to forgive? Is there something I would like to say that would improve upon the silence? Am I longing for more? What can I do in this moment – what one small thing – to show appreciation for my precious life?

And then, after taking some time to walk in the darkness, I take a deep breath and know that the darkness is also a part of the journey. I let it lead me back up to the light, where I always find my authenticity, power and joy.

birthday celebrationHave you ever heard the saying, “Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver and the other gold”? We used to sing it in rounds when I was a Girl Scout.

The photo to the right is me with dear friend of almost 20 years – taken at the special dinner she treated me to for my birthday last week.

Another friend of almost 40 years (a true BFF!) wrote me a card and mentioned how remarkable our friendship is for its ability to bring out the best in each other.

With all of my “gold” friends it seems that we have always been able to see each other’s truest, wisest selves. Yes, that kind of friendship is a gift indeed.

Of course, over the course of many years, even the deepest friendship is not immune to misunderstanding and hurt feelings. It’s in those times that we often need to dig deep and find forgiveness.

I think it is most challenging to do this when I feel hurt by someone’s behavior or when I am aware that I have hurt someone with my own. Keep reading for more about my process of finding and practicing unconditional forgiveness.

“My parents never supported or encouraged me.” “I’m ashamed when I yell at my kids.” “My partner doesn’t appreciate me.” “My boss makes too many impossible demands.”

Thoughts like these can enter our minds throughout the day and often cause stress, anger, fear, depression, and other painful emotions to brew inside us.

But we have a choice about what we do with those thoughts. We can repeat them ad infinitum and become supremely dissatisfied with our lives, or we can question them and choose new thoughts. That will allow us to feel better about ourselves—and then, in turn, allow us to think better of ourselves.

Choosing other thoughts that feel better often starts with forgiveness – of ourselves and others.

Oprah probably said it best when she said this about forgiveness: Forgiveness is giving up the hope that the past could have been any different.

Forgiveness is also:

  1. A process of intention. There is never an explicit timeline for healing. What is important is our intentional commitment to forgive or to seek forgiveness. It is a process that you will likely need to practice again and again.
  2. An opportunity to change. If a transgression has occurred it is a wonderful time for one person to apologize (without defensive excuses) with the expectation that the other person will listen and accept the apology, and that together they will find ways to make amends and move on. To forgive is to give oneself, and others, permission to change and go forward in the future.
  3. A wellness boost. People who forgive are happier and healthier than those who hold resentments. A study from Hope College in Michigan discovered that when people think about forgiving an offender it leads to improved functioning in their cardiovascular and nervous systems. So, when you forgive someone, instead of thinking that you are doing them a favor, remember that you are healing yourself.
  4. Unconditional friendship. Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun, talks about how the combination of honesty, clarity and kindness are the essence of forgiveness or unconditional friendship with ourselves and others.

friendshipNote, however, one thing that forgiveness is not. Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting. And, again, it is quite different from making amends (see above).

If you want more help with making amends I’ve mentioned before that Byron Katie’s “The Work” is a simple yet profound process of inquiry that teaches you to identify and question your stressful thoughts. It can be especially helpful when you want to forgive someone—or at least when you realize your resentment toward them is hurting you.

If the Work isn’t your thing, there are many other practices that are considered time-honored rituals for achieving forgiveness.

Here are a few:

1. Meditation/Reflection: This is a powerful tool in any healing process. You come to appreciate that you cannot change the past, but you can own the present moment. One of my favorite practices is the Loving Kindness Meditation. Begin by repeating the following phrase over and over.

May I be filled with loving kindness.
May I be well.
May I be peaceful and at ease.
May I be happy.

Direct it to yourself first and then extend it to your loved ones. Finally, when you are able, try to include the person with whom you are having the most difficulty.

2. Use a Mantra: Use a mantra either during medication or reflection or just at any time when you have a quiet moment. This exercise will help you change your thought patterns over time.  Good ones for forgiveness include “I release this,” (Or even more simply, “Release.”), “All is well,” And “This too will pass.”

3. Journaling: Recording your stressful thoughts in a journal is a valuable way of releasing them.

No matter which practice you choose, learning to practice forgiveness will bring you to a happy and peaceful life.

Ready to Reinvent Yourself?

October 4, 2016

Tomorrow is my birthday! I’ve already a jump on the celebration with the two sweet boys on the right. We went to our favorite restaurant and they kept me wonderfully entertained with “groaner” stories, jokes and riddles. Birthdays offer a wonderful opportunity to appreciate all of your awakenings and accomplishments from the previous year and

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How to “Accept” a Bad Situation

September 27, 2016

The photo to the right is Griffin with his coach after another great game last Saturday. I really appreciate Coach Chris because he manages to be unfailingly positive and supportive as he inspires his players to stretch and grow. This week I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to coach – and to

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How to Forgive

September 20, 2016

Last week Griffin had two days off for school to allow for Parent Teacher Conferences and we spent one of the days with one of his best friends by the river. It was a lovely celebration of great friendship and nature. If you’ve been following along for the last few months, you know that the

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how to stop putting yourself last on your list

September 13, 2016

The photo to the right is Griffin with his soccer team after their first game of the season. You can see from all the happy faces that they are off to a great start! This is Griffin’s fifth year playing soccer—the longest time he has ever devoted himself passionately to any activity—and he recently told

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How to let go of resentment after a betrayal

September 6, 2016

That’s a photo of me, Griffin and his best friend, Elijah, after a very satisfying and sweaty soccer session! Doug and I played soccer with them for over an hour - and then they continued to play long after we left. The play date lasted over 5 hours and Doug and I hardly saw them

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How to Let Go of Guilt

August 30, 2016

Last week Griffin started seventh grade! He keeps saying that each day gets better and better – don’t you just love that? One of the things I work with my clients on most intensely is getting them to look forward to their days with the same enthusiasm. Often, though, one of the things they have

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What to Do When Anything is Possible (and it always is!)

August 23, 2016

Doug took the photo of me running along the beach at dawn one morning last week when we were at Folly Beach, and it helps me remember the incredibly powerful feeling I always have as I run with the surf crashing beside me. Every morning Doug, Griffin, and I woke early so that we could

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How to Change Your Brain (for the better!) in One Easy Step

August 16, 2016

The picture to the right shows Griffin having fun with some of his buddies by the pool. The summer was mostly filled with low-key, happy moments like the one above, but I’m thrilled to share that we’re enjoying a highly anticipated vacation at the beach this week! Griffin will start 7th grade next week, and

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