Expressive Writing

Fill the paper with the breathings of your heart.” – William Wordsworth

My 6-year-old daughter, Miss O, brought home her journal from first grade because she’d filled the composition notebook. The teacher gives them a topic and they write a little bit every day.  Miss O sat me down to show me how in the beginning of the school year she wrote a couple of words and doodled. By her entries in March, she was writing a couple of paragraphs. She was incredibly proud of her work.

It reminded me of a recent reference I heard to the work of James Pennebaker, a professor of psychology (and formerly the chair of the department) at the University of Texas, Austin. In the late 90’s, he wrote a paper summarizing the findings of studies he’d done that showed that people who practiced expressive writing, writing about thoughts and feelings, tended to have positive health outcomes (less visits to the campus health center or evidenced by blood pressure and heart rate).

In a summary paper published in 2017, Dr. Pennebaker theorizes that expressive writing helps because keeping things secret causes stress. I’d say that many of us creative non-fiction bloggers, know the benefits of expressive writing anecdotally – in the community that we create and the support we get from others. Sharing our thoughts and feelings, even though unnecessary to reap the health benefits according to Dr. Pennebaker, makes them feel more normal.

It feels to me like words give our thoughts and feelings definite shape. It morphs them into things that can be actionable. There is a magic that comes from owning our stories.

This brings to mind the post I wrote about humorist Kevin Kling whose therapist was helping him through a bout of PTSD stemming from a motorcycle accident in which he lost his arm. He was angry and unable to sleep until his therapist had him tell his story about that day as if the accident didn’t happen and he reached his destination unharmed. It worked like a charm and Kevin’s takeaway was, “we need to rewrite our story sometimes just so we can get some sleep.”

Flipping through Miss O’s journal, I find this entry that I share with her permission:

“Wen I grow up I want to be caring. Because caring is nise [nice] and I’m areredey [already] nise. Caring is what you shod be!”

Miss O’s 1st Grade Journal

Secrets

Put your ear down close to your soul and listen hard.” – Anne Sexton

This week when we are returning from holiday breaks always reminds me of one of the wackiest stories from when I was in business with two partners and we had almost 20 employees. On the Monday after New Years Day in 2008, I was in the office when the office manager came in to say that we hadn’t heard from our program manager, JE, since the Christmas party two weeks prior.

JE didn’t work for me but in a small company, I certainly knew him. I liked him too. He was smart, quiet and diligent about getting his work done. He’d left Microsoft six months before to come work for us and except for one scheduled break in late October, he’d always shown up. It wasn’t unusual for our folks to work from home, especially over the holidays but not answering emails and phone calls was definitely odd.

Since my two business partners to whom JE did report were in Mexico on a hang gliding trip, I jumped in to help. Thinking that maybe we could find his girlfriend’s name and call her to check in, I googled his name. The top result was a memo from the United Stated Department of Justice dated in October of the previous year (the same days of his scheduled absence) that read something like this:

“<JE’s full name>, 27, of <city>, WA was sentenced to six month in prison for his role as the leader of a software pirating group. He will be reporting to <low security prison> on January 1, 2008.”

Well, that explained why we couldn’t get ahold of him! When we finally talked with his girlfriend, she said that JE would be disappointed to know we’d found out because he didn’t want to let us down.

Of course, had he quit before he went to prison, we would have never looked for him!! Granted he had bigger things to worry about in the 8 weeks between sentencing and reporting to the facility but as a logical young man, it seemed obvious that if you don’t want people to look for you, you need to break up with them first.

I think of this often when someone is carrying a secret. It is an immense burden that sometimes precludes thinking and acting rationally. And often the secret itself prevents the carrier from finding the tools to heal – because developing any depth is dangerous, lest it unearth the core of what they are carrying. The secret has a life of its own that requires it to stay buried and drains a lot of energy to support itself.

At the time of my life when this happened, I had a secret too. I was unhappy in my marriage and way of life and I was diligently trying to keep that a secret, mostly from myself. I drank too much wine and then smoked cigarettes when I drank as a way to numb myself from feeling what was really going on.

Thinking back now, I realize that I was forcing myself daily to keep walking down a path that didn’t feel right. I was in a relationship that wasn’t supportive of me, I was in a business partnership with a charismatic that was making me crazy and I had developed no spiritual depth with which I could heal these wounds. All these secrets were a prison in their own way.

As it turned out, I kept my misery under wraps for another year after JE went to prison. Then the charismatic business partner told me of my husband’s infidelities and it all blew apart – the business and my marriage. Finally, no one had any secrets left and I could begin to heal. With nothing left buried, it was finally safe to develop some spiritual depth that carried me out of my prison. I can only hope that JE was able to heal once his secret was out as well.

(featured image from Pexels)

Growing and Blooming

What we love, others will love and we will show them how.” – Wordsworth

When I was 22-years-old and moving into my first post-college rental, my dad helped me find some used furniture. Some people he knew where moving into a retirement community so we looked at the items they were getting rid of and bought a kitchen table, two chairs and a Christmas cactus. I donated the table and chairs when I bought my first house a few years later but the Christmas cactus has been with me now for 30 years.

It was my first proof that I could keep something other than myself alive. Now I look at that cactus and see it as a reminder of my most important lessons.

It blooms beautifully once a year and then sheds all those flowers as it prepares for its next feat. It’s best to shed the past so you can work towards the next thing.

The cactus does not appear to be doing anything for 50 weeks but then bursts with color for 2 weeks. Most of our work happens on the inside.

Every now and then it’s drooped in the soil it is in and needs to be repotted as its roots grow deeper. We need some new perspective/work/material from time to time in order to stay vivid.

Sometimes it blooms closer to Thanksgiving rather than Christmas. As you get older, you learn to care less about expectations and more about flourishing in the way that works for you.

The growth on the side nearest the light blooms first but eventually, the darker side blooms too. If you water all of yourself, both your bright side and the shadow side will bear fruit.

 Although it’s a cactus, it has no prickly parts. It’s possible to live a long and beautiful life without thorns to protect you.

This weekend I came across my son picking up the dropped flowers with some tweezers and putting them on the stand. It made me think of my most important work. Trying to create a calm, loving space in which others treat things with kindness.

The Conditions for Change

A careful inventory of all your past experiences may disclose the startling fact that everything has happened for the best.” – unknown

I heard a story about a woman complaining about her ex-husband. When they were married he drank heavily but once divorced, he stopped drinking, remarried and turned his life around. His ex-wife said, “Why couldn’t he quit when he was married to ME?” and the punch line of the story was “People change, but not when and how we want them to.”

When I was married, I refused to have children. I had an instinct based on raising a dog with my now ex-husband. It was difficult enough that I didn’t want to extend that experience to kids. My husband would ask and I would say, “I don’t want to have kids.” But in my head, I knew the whole sentence was “I don’t want to have kids with you.”

My ex was not a bad guy. But he had a difficult childhood where he was both beaten and neglected. Before we were together, he’d raised a puppy with a previous partner. He told me he’d hit it with a newspaper if it peed on the floor. Only by experience did he find out that made the dog afraid of him and he stopped hitting it. To his credit, he then learned so that when we got a puppy together, he didn’t hit it.

But every step of the way was my husband having to learn a lesson directly before it sank in. He wouldn’t take my suggestion for how something needed to be done, he couldn’t trust an experts work for what might be best, he had to do the cause and effect himself. I didn’t want to raise kids with someone who had to experiment with them to find out what did, or more painfully, didn’t work.

I imagine that it’s pretty obvious now that I’ve had two kids on my own, that the whole sentence was “I don’t want to have kids with you.” But fortunately I’ve never had to say that sentence directly to him. We are on fine terms with each other but he’s moved away and gotten remarried to someone who has grown children so we rarely interact.

More than that, I am grateful for that divorce because it turned me to meditation, strengthened my faith and set me on the path that I’m on. The bigger issues of my marriage such as his infidelities and the things we valued created a relationship that was not meant to survive. But it still gives me rich ground to learn from.

People change, but not when and how we want them to. I think of that now that my life is so different than when I was married. We can’t control how others change but as I watch my children change every day, I see that we can control the conditions that help change to happen. Curiosity, openness and support work like the seed, soil and sunshine with which people grow.

I see as I create the conditions for my kids to change, I also create the curiosity, openness and support for myself to change. As I grow, I realize that even I don’t know when and how I’ll change but in these rich conditions, I trust it’ll be towards something good.

Crevasse Climbing

Be a fountain, not a drain.” – Rex Hurdler

My day job is to help corporate clients collaborate – create structure for creating and finding documents, workflows to smooth out processes, write some white papers. It isn’t the type of work that is typically full of emergencies. But recently I’ve had a couple of situations that were the corporate equivalent of people running around with their hair on fire.

The client has a possible security breach – AHHH. Someone deleted the collab site that everyone was saving their files to – AHHH!

These situations have reminded me how hard it is to stay centered while everyone around is in a panic. Trying instead to be open and even while listening and contributing to the solution is a difficult practice.

On one of my first mountaineering expeditions, the guides were teaching crevasse rescue techniques. When someone on your rope team falls in and the first thing you do is self-arrest. And then once you are stable and have assessed the situation, you can set up a pulley system to pull them out. You just make it worse if you fall or jump into the crevasse yourself. You have to pull from the top instead of push from below.

So I’m envisioning the meditation equivalent of staying out of the crevasses. Dropping on my belly, digging into the snow with the tip of my ice-axe and the crampon on my toes to self-arrest instead of jumping in to the panic.

What I’ve learned is that there is real wisdom in slowing down when life starts swirling around. It is too easy to create secondary problems when blundering around in reaction.

The last person on a rope team is called the anchor. They earn that title when they can stay grounded while everyone else is sliding towards the abyss.

The Tool Kit

Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.” – Charles R. Swindoll

The other day I was making a cup of green tea and the pod got stuck in the machine. Immediately my brain assessed that I had something shaped like a cylinder trying to come out of a space shaped like a cone.

It started me thinking about metaphorical toolkits and how we go to them. It seems, at least in my family, that when faced with a problem or a project, we each have a sweet spot tool that lines up with our vocation or avocation.

And for me, an engineer, my tendency to face anything is problem-solving.

My mom, who by education and mindset is a great linguist, edits her way out of problems.

My dad was a Presbyterian pastor. And his primary tool for everything good and bad was to find a scriptural reference.

For the litigator in my family, history has shown her go-to is taking legal action.

My brother, an entrepreneur, always looks to innovate himself out of a tight spot.

My sister-in-law, who has many talents and careers, organizes when pressed.

Have you heard the joke about the person holding a hammer? When you are holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

But as I watch my young kids who have not yet trained to be anything, I see their instinct is to hug, cry, sing or dance when faced with anything big.

After I solved my problem and was sipping my tea, I wondered if all of us who have “become something” are missing a key first step in the process – to allow our bodies to feel it all the way through. To take in a moment of pause to acknowledge where we are and use it to breathe underneath our programming. At the very least, we might at least acknowledge that there we are predisposed to handle things in just one way of many, and then tackle it wisely from there.

(photo from Pexels)

Stories Again

The best and most beautiful things cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt by the heart.” – Helen Keller

My 6-year-old daughter declared the other day that she had it all planned out. She was going to go back to being a baby. That way she could be carried everywhere, be picked up every time she cried and wear diapers so she never had to use the bathroom.

I started gently exploring this idea. I asked “So you are going to give up reading?” Her answer “No way!” And then I asked if she was going to sleep in a crib again so that she wouldn’t be able to get out and come sleep in my bed whenever she pleased. Again – “NO!!”

We’ve had extensive conversations about the fact that when she was 2-years-old like her brother is now, I only had one kid so she got carried everywhere and my attention was only on her. Not only did she get everything that her little brother is getting now, she got it in an even more focused fashion.

That logic does nothing to stop the feeling of jealousy over the easy life she perceives her brother has. Fortunately, they adore each other so she doesn’t begrudge him much. But she sure wishes she had more and it does not work to rationalize it away.

So on a whim I switched to telling her stories about when she was 2. Like the time we went to the Fall Pumpkin Festival and I was trying to carry her and a big pumpkin and then the pumpkin stem broke off. Or the time we went to Canada and how it seemed like the whole trip she was either on her uncle’s shoulders or being swung by her arms between 2 adults.

The stories work. They calm the sense that her little brother is loved more in a way that logic doesn’t. It’s like fighting fire with fire. They engage her heart and are proof that she is someone and has always been someone worth telling stories about.

It makes me think about the last time I heard someone tell a story about me. It was about the time I invited a family that I didn’t know to stay with me when my son was two-months old. The mom was a friend of a friend and she had come to town to help her college aged daughter after she had gotten hit by a car while jogging. The mom, her daughter, her son and the daughter’s boyfriend ended up staying with us for almost 2 months and we had a great time. The story I heard about me was, “Who invites strangers to live with them when they have a newborn?”

Hearing it makes me feel brave, strong, and open. Maybe a little crazy but in a good way. The stories people tell about us – they convey much more than just the adjectives. And of course, there are the stories we tell ourselves like I wrote in one of my favorite posts The Most Influential Person in the Room.

The power of stories keeps showing itself to me. In our spiritual traditions, in our self management, in our relationships, it seems we have the opportunity to reach down deep, touch our core and lift each other up at such a deep level with this one tool. So I’m practicing responding with prose instead of facts. Sometimes it feels like a lot of work. But hey, it’s better than changing the diapers for two kids if she goes back to being a baby!

Effective Redirection

It never hurts to see the good in someone. They often act better because of it.” – Nelson Mandela

The other day I quietly came into my still dark room and to put my toothbrush away before waking my daughter for school. She had migrated into my bed in the middle of the night as she often does so I brushed my teeth in a different bathroom so as not to wake her prematurely.

After setting my toothbrush down, I went to kiss her on the cheek. As soon as I did, she barked out “You are ignoring me and you’re late!” And I was taken aback that the quiet had turned to this and started to retort, “Now wait a minute, you are in my room and I’m just trying to get to my bathroom…”

It made me think of a dog-training article I read the other day. One of the tips was that when telling a dog not to do something, it’s too vague for the dog because in essence we are saying “don’t chew my shoe” but then then dog has to both process that and also think of what it should be doing. The article, and I can’t think of where I read it or why I read since I don’t presently have a dog, suggested instead to tell the dog what to do. That in essence solves both problems – getting the dog to stop chewing the shoe and redirecting it to a new behavior – in one command.

This seems to be the work of relationships as well. I don’t think it’s just me that often responds that I don’t like what someone has said or done without ever saying what I’d prefer to happen. In fact, I often just hope the other person can intuit that! Because thinking and naming what I want comes from a different place than a retort, an intentional place that takes some work to access. It’s a subtle shift from defense to bridge-making.

When my sister-in-law nannied for me she was great at saying to my kids, “A better way to say that is…” and it worked great at helping them know how to express their feelings but in a way that is more likely to be heard. My sister-in-law both was telling my kids what not to do and redirecting the behavior but in one efficient suggestion.

My 6-year-old daughter is so verbally adept so it’s really easy to forget that communication is still incredibly new to her. It may not be obvious how to express irritation and ask for what she needs. And more than that, it requires her to practice accessing her intentional space as well.

Even though I’m an old dog (or middle-aged one), I’m trainable too. So I stopped my retort and started again. “Hey darling girl, a better way to say it might be, ‘Morning, Mom. I’m frustrated you are taking so long because I’m dying to have your attention.’ ”

(photo by Pexels)

The Most Influential Person in the Room

You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.” – Mark Twain

When we drive to school, my son often says “go this way” as I back out and points to the direction opposite the way we need to go. The other day we had a couple of extra minutes so I humored him and went the way he wanted down our block – then I turned, turned and turned and we were back on our way. That little change to give him some control made him so much happier.

This little exercise reminded me of all the choices we make and as we do, how they help us narrate our own story. I also brought to mind the quote from humorist Kevin Kling “we need to rewrite our story sometimes just so we can get some sleep” that I talked about in the post I wrote for Aspiring Blog about the power of telling our own stories. I’m reblogging it here because I think there is so much goodness in remembering the power of our own stories:

I was listening to an On Being podcast where Krista Tippett was interviewing American humorist and storyteller Kevin Kling. He was born with a disabled arm and then in mid-life was in a motorcycle accident that paralyzed his other arm.

He was talking about the PTSD that came with his accident. With it came anger and inability to sleep and when it resurfaced with a vengeance years after the accident he was talking to his therapist about it.

She said that he needed to retell the story with a different ending – tell the story as if he didn’t hit the car and he reached his destination. He did that and it worked! He was able to sleep again. His takeaway was: “We need to rewrite our story sometimes just so we can get some sleep.”

That line caught me by the throat and hasn’t let go. Because it means that our bodies believe our own storytelling. It means that while I think a storyteller is someone like Kevin Kling, it is actually my own storytelling that matters most.

It means that the most influential person in my life isn’t my boss, my loved ones, a beloved actor or author, or even Oprah Winfrey – it’s me.

So I’ve pondered the stories I tell myself. The two most cataclysmic things that have happened in the past ten years of my life are when someone told me of the infidelities of my husband I’d been married to for eight years and the marriage fell apart.

Then once I was divorced, I choose to have kids on my own as a single parent. Someone said to me when my firstborn was about 6 months old, “I wish that he [my ex-husband] hadn’t wasted so much of your time.” And I replied something like, “It’s okay, that marriage and its downfall got me to meditation and where I needed to be.”

I rewrote the story of heartbreak and loss as the impetus to put me on my current path with these two beautiful children I love dearly. I believe that the Divine has used all of the past to get me where I needed to be which I genuinely believe to be true. But it is also a story that helps me be very happy where I am instead of mourning what I’ve lost.

In talking about the story he’s rewritten so that he can sleep, Kevin Kling said that of course he wakes up every morning and has to contend with the fact that his arms don’t work as a result of the fact that the accident did really happen.

Stories can’t change the circumstances of our lives, but they do change how we relate to those circumstances. Knowing this I’m carefully checking my current inventory of stories to make sure I’m telling myself the right ones!