A Year of Challenge

Back in January, I wrote about the 52-week gratitude challenge my mom, sister and I had embarked on three months earlier. Last week, we arrived at our final topic: Lessons Learned/Did this challenge change you? Though we should’ve finished back in October, we had to hit pause on a few occasions, namely:

  • My sister’s hospitalization, cancer diagnosis, and beginning of treatment (March-April)
  • Dad’s sudden death (September)
  • My sister’s stem cell transplant and recovery process (October-November)

Quite a year. I think there might’ve been a plague, as well. And a bunch of other gruesome shit.

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As it turns out, choosing that particular challenge was eerily timely. Given all the trauma and tragedy of the past year, it was a true blessing to have a designated time each week to focus exclusively on gratitude.

Here are the final emails we sent each other:

My Response:

To be perfectly honest, when I look at this week’s subject, part of me is like: Barf! Screw you, Gratitude Challenge, my lesson learned is that everything sucks! 

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👿

Ahem.

Okay, so really what I learned over the course of this challenge is that it is always an option to be grateful, rather than focusing on struggles and suffering. Concentrating on points of gratitude is best for my mental health, physical health, and general state of well being.  

The past year has certainly provided its share of challenges, and having this weekly exercise has provided a consistent reminder to shine the light on gratitude. Choosing to prioritize gratitude is the wisest choice. It feels better and is more beneficial, so why not do it?

I am grateful to both of you for hanging on over the last year+ to complete the challenge. It hurts my heart to think back on the breaks we’ve had to take over the past year, but I am grateful we’ve come through it together, and I am grateful for the honor of having you both in my life.

Love, Kelly

Mom’s Reply:

So beautifully stated, Kel…. particularly the disclaimer at the beginning!  

😄

But I think that that is what we’ve all learned in a nutshell: Even though everything sucks, there’s always something to be grateful for, and looking for those things helps to keep us calm(er), happier and sane. It’s quite remarkable that we chose to do a gratitude challenge during what turned out to be the worst year of our lives; and it certainly turned out to be a timely and beneficial choice.

Katy’s little sign in her kitchen says it so well: “Every day is not good, but there’s something good in every day.”  Another expression I love is: “Keep your head where your feet are”. Focus on where  you are, not where you’ve been or where you might go. My tendency has always been to spend a lot of time ruminating ….regretting things that did or didn’t happen in the past; worrying about things that may or may not happen in the future. But this challenge has helped me to stay focused on today and what is good about today. And there’s always so much to be grateful for.

I’m grateful for having made this journey with you, and for all I learned about you. Something I didn’t learn because I already knew: There’s nothing in this world I’m more grateful for than both of you.

Love,
Mom

My Sister’s Conclusion:

I’ve taken so long to respond because I don’t really have much to add to all the beautiful things you both wrote! 

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It really has helped me get through this godforsaken year having these weekly emails to look forward to and to keep my focus on what is good and positive in our worlds. I learned that gratitude really is a mindset that can be cultivated.

I’m grateful to the children’s book club meeting I went to where I learned about this challenge, and I’m grateful that you both were willing to take on the challenge with me!

I’m grateful that we didn’t let misfortune and long breaks derail us and that we persevered together.

Now, what’s next?

Love you both so much!

💕

And…scene. Challenge completed. As my sister said, it’s time to pick the next one. I’ve done a little online digging and haven’t been inspired thus far, having found mostly kill-joy self-improvement projects focused on crap like budgeting strategies and home organization. Snore. I did see one about sending a personal piece of mail each week and may try that. I mean, who doesn’t love getting mail?

I know we’re all anxiously awaiting the end of 2020 while faced with the reality that nothing will be different as of 1/1/2021. That being said, I encourage everyone to try the gratitude challenge. I truly believe it saved Mom, my sister and me over the past year. Despite everything that happened, we were still inspired to send each other Bitmojis like this:

And who knows, maybe when you reach the final topic 52 weeks from now, life will be a little more normal. Maybe we’ll even get to see the bottom half of people’s faces again! Can you imagine?

Dare to Be Grateful

My mom, sister, and I are in the midst of a 52-week gratitude challenge. Each week, we’re assigned an area of focus and send responses to each other via email. The 52 topics are:

We’re now 11 weeks in and all agree that this exercise is offering a much needed boost to our wellbeing. For me, the best part is the requirement that we focus 100% on gratitude. As I consider my weekly responses, I have to halt the impulse to add disclaimers or counter-arguments, and each time I shed the negativity to shine a light solely on the positive, it’s like I’ve applied a magical, healing elixir to my beleaguered mind.

So far, my favorite week has been #8 – Express gratitude to 3 people. It provided an excellent reminder of something I’ve learned before (that people love it when they’re told, in a candid and genuine manner, how much we appreciate them) but have never managed to bring into regular practice. Unfortunately, I think this is true for most of us. Expressing gratitude to the folks in our lives, while important and uplifting, is rarely done.

Several years ago, I listened to a colleague as he spoke at length about how much he loved and valued the mother of his four children. When he finished, I asked if he’d ever shared that feedback with her, and he shook his head, admitting, “We mostly just argue about the kids.” I suggested that, the next time they were alone, he tell her what he’d told me. “It’s nice to hear how much you admire her,” I said, “but I’m not the one who needs to hear it.” He agreed and said he’d talk to her. I hope he did.

Although it can feel a bit awkward to express gratitude in person, it really doesn’t matter how it’s done. I sent my week 8 accolades via text and email, and not one recipient complained. Instead, I was told I’d brought tears to their eyes, made their day, and reminded them to take the time to appreciate their loved ones. In short, expressing gratitude is a win-win. Since good feelings get passed along just like bad ones do, sharing positivity provides a chance to shift the scales, creating ripple effects of joy rather than misery.

As individuals, we have very little control in this world, but we can choose how we think, react, and communicate. My goals for 2020 are to focus on the positive, immerse my thoughts in thankfulness, and get more comfortable with letting people know how much they mean to me.

Wishing you all a happy (and grateful) New Year.

The Water that Surrounds

This is my mom:

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She turns 70 today. This picture was taken back in the ’70s, and while many beautiful images have been captured of her over the years, this is one of my favorites, because it perfectly encapsulates her gentle, loving spirit. (Plus, she’s holding a kitten AND a puppy, so the cuteness level is unreal.)

As I’ve grown older, I’ve heard my peers speak with exasperation about how much they now look and sound like their mothers. But for me, those are my best moments. When I speak and hear my mother’s words, I know I’m on the right track. When I choose to face adversity with a calm, quiet dignity, I am channeling my mom. When I am at my most patient, thoughtful, and gracious, I look in the mirror and see her reflected.

DSC_0101Mom’s lesson on how to pose for pictures

If someone is woven into the very fabric of your being, how do you describe what she means to you? It’s like asking a fish to describe the water that surrounds it. My mom is in my voice, gestures, and actions. She’s there when I kick off my shoes the moment I enter the house, not due to a “no shoes in the house” rule, but to a general “no shoes in life” rule. She’s there whenever I catch myself standing in tree pose – her natural stance most of the time. She’s there when I make a little quip or silly face that causes kids to burst out laughing. She’s there when I’m able to soothe an anxious animal. She’s there when I send someone a cute card or little note just to lift their spirits.

(I’ve gotten dozens of these kinds of cards ⬆️ over the years, out of the blue. A sticky note with her signature smiley face is taped to my keyboard right now. By the time my wrist has rubbed the image away, I’m sure she’ll have sent another.)

But Mom isn’t only an incredibly creative and thoughtful card-sender and gift-giver (e.g., for our tiny beach wedding, she gave my husband and me flip-flops that left “Just Married” prints in the sand, and for my birthday this year, which is on 8/8, she sent an Anna’s 88 butterfly, which has 88 patterns on its wings). On a grander scale, she does an amazing job of accepting her kids and grandkids as we are, without guilt or pressure. She embraces our dreams, friends, interests, and choices without judgment. And the attachments that bloom from that kind of love are fierce and immeasurable.

20171124_150854This is what “I love my Grammy” looks like.

Mom’s role modeling is powerful, but delivered with a subtlety that makes her influence almost undetectable. I experienced this in the Grand Canyon, as we trekked up a steep trail to see Anasazi granaries on a brutally hot day. About halfway up, Mom sat on a rock and said, “I can’t do it.” I started to think, This doesn’t make sense; Mom would not say that, but my thoughts were cut short as she finished her sentence: “…without a break.” It occurred to me then that I couldn’t remember Mom ever specifically telling me never to give up, but her actions throughout my life had clearly sent that message. (Also, she made it to the top.)

Beyond all of that, my mom is hilarious. I once emailed her a close-up photo I’d taken of a caterpillar eating a leaf and mentioned that right after I’d snapped it, a gust of wind had whipped the leaf away. When I posted the picture online, she commented: “I just keep thinking of the puzzled look on the caterpillar’s little fuzzy face when the leaf blew away.” Years later, a friend posted a photo of me on a hike, and I had this weird, angry look on my face. I commented: “Kelly glares at nature.” Mom replied, “And nature cowers!”

Currently, my parents are in Tanzania, celebrating their anniversary and Mom’s birthday with elephants, wildebeest, baboons, and zebras. Whenever they go on a trip, Mom sends her poor daughters horrible documents detailing what we’re supposed to do if they…ahem…”don’t come back.” We respond with the level of maturity one would expect from two women in their 40s: “I CAN’T SEE THIS MESSAGE LA LA LA LA LA LA LA I CAN’T HEAR YOU!!!” The last time we replied to one of her “death emails” in this manner, Mom wrote back: “Ah, we’re in good hands!”

But the truth is I can’t think about a world that doesn’t include my parents. Such a thing would be, as the Sicilian oft repeated in The Princess Bride, inconceivable.

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So the plan for now is to remain like this:

🙈 🙉 🙊

…and to treasure every moment, honor every milestone, and save every smiley face.

Happy birthday, Mom. You are so loved.

Dad Talks

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My parents celebrate their 50th anniversary today. When they got married in the summer of ’68, Dad was 25, and Mom was 3 days shy of her 20th birthday, which means this year brings other milestones as well: Dad’s 75th and Mom’s 70th. To honor their awesomeness, I’m going to write something about each of them. Dad was born first, so he gets Post of Honor #1.

Because I’ve been in the counseling field for almost 20 years, I tend to avoid things like talk radio, podcasts, and Ted Talks. The last thing I want to do outside of work is spend more time listening to people talking. But Dad’s talks are different. Like precious gems, they are both rare and valuable. The ones that stick out most in my memory are those that came during times of transition, usually right before a big move.

Dad Talk #1: On the night before I headed to college, Dad told me we needed to talk. He took me aside and said this: “At the place you’re going, there will be a lot of kids who are smarter than you and a lot who have more money than you. And I don’t want you to forget who you are.” His warning stuck with me, and each time my identity got derailed throughout the college years, his words helped me find the way back to myself.

Dad Talk #2: Six years later, when I made the decision to move from the East Coast to California, Dad sat me down for another talk. “All right, there’s something important I need you to know,” he began. Tears sprang to my eyes as I prepared for a heart-wrenching farewell speech, but what came next was this: “If you’re attacked by a mountain lion, you need to fight. You can’t play dead. It’s the same with black bears. Playing dead only works with grizzlies. Black bears and mountain lions will kill you, so you’ve got to fight.” I said, “Okay, Dad,” but what I thought was, If it comes down to hand-to-paw combat between me and a mountain lion, I will not win. I will be cat food. He did get a little more emotional after that. Once I’d agreed to fight off mountain lion attacks, he added, “I hope you don’t like it out there. But I know you’re going to love it.”

Dad Talk #3: Fast-forward fourteen years. When Dad caught wind of the fact that I was planning to move from Oregon to San Diego, I received a voicemail: “It’s your father. Call me.” Since his usual message was: “Kelly, call your mother,” I figured it was serious and called back right away. “Your sister tells me you’re thinking of moving back to California,” he said. Before I had a chance to respond, he continued, “Your nephew is moving to North Carolina, and he’ll need his aunt and uncle. It’s time for you to move back east. Your mother misses you.” The way I figure, if someone I love and respect gives me one stern directive every couple decades or so, I should probably follow it, so my husband and I packed up and moved across the country. That was five years ago. Now we have two little nephews, and it’s awesome to be a part of their lives.

Of course, Dad has taught me way more than what I gleaned from those three talks. He taught me to fish, shoot, play sports, face fears, be true to my word, appreciate the outdoors, keep an open mind, hold myself to a high standard, treat people with respect, and be an honest and genuine friend. He also taught me that vanity is stupid, which is an invaluable lesson. He once dreamt that he had a bald spot on the back of his head. Upon waking, he decided it was true, then retained the belief for an indeterminate period of time (weeks? months?) until he happened to mention his bald spot to Mom, who informed him that it didn’t exist. I just love the fact that he never checked.

DSC_0021.jpgSpeaking of hair, that hairy beast is ’90s me, fishing off the seawall with Dad

Many years ago, back in my mountain-lion-battling California days, I gave a training to a group of child advocates. At the end of the session, one of the trainees stayed behind to ask me some follow-up questions. He let me know he was a single dad raising two teenagers, and we chatted for a while about kids, families, and child rearing practices. Before he left, he asked if I was raised by both of my parents, and I told him I was. “Were you close to your dad?” he asked. I said I was and still am. “It shows,” he said with a smile. That was one of the best compliments I’ve ever received.

Love you, Dad. Happy anniversary. ❤️

Snapshots

I’ve been avoiding this blog, because my last post was about Libby, and she passed away a few days after I wrote it. Many times over the past several weeks, I’ve thought, I should write someth… as I’ve clicked over to this page, then glimpsed the last post and clicked away immediately. Guess it’s safe to say the grieving process is far from over.

In the interim period, I worked on a project that involved reviewing thousands of photographs from the past 40 years. What I felt during this experience was the profound power of nostalgia. As I looked through all the old photos, even the ones that featured loved ones who have passed on, my thoughts and emotions were filtered through an obvious, rosy lens. Thinking back on my years in Key West, I thought, The days smelled of frangipani, the nights of jasmine, the temperature never dropped below 65 degrees, and mangoes were free. (Our next door neighbor had a mango tree, but he was allergic, so we got to have them all.) And photos of a decade in California brought forth the memories: Lovely, sunny Santa Cruz. No humidity or mosquitos, inexpensive wine and incredible produce, summit views of the Pacific, and sandy feet every day.

Of course, there were hardships in Key West and California, but I don’t think of them when I look at old snapshots. Nostalgia smooths the hard edges of the past, leaving only wistful gratitude.

Dogs2.JPGCuddle pile with young, healthy pups ~ those were the days

My new goal is to bring nostalgia into the present. Why should the past get all the good feelings? It’s over, it’s not coming back, and I need those good feelings now.

So here’s my plan: the next time I look in the mirror, I’ll pretend it’s fifteen years from now, and I’m looking back at myself in the summer of 2018. Through the lens of nostalgia, I doubt I’ll think, That was the summer I got swarmed by yellow jackets and robbed at a music festival, we buried Libby, and my lifelong poison ivy immunity mysteriously disappeared. Far more likely, I’ll happily recall: Oh, summer in Asheville. Long, lazy days touring serene mountain lakes on a paddleboard. Fireflies and honeysuckle. Our garden teemed with tomatoes, figs, and greens, and mimosa trees in full bloom lined the streets.

And if that plan doesn’t work – if the reflection only reveals tear-stained cheeks and poison ivy scars – I’ll look at this photo and remember the first time Libby tried on her new raincoat.

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Then, awash in nostalgia’s warm glow, I’ll look back in the mirror and try again.

Three Good Things

As part of my nephew’s bedtime routine, his parents guide him through a ritual called Three Good Things. After teeth are brushed, pajamas are donned, and stories are read, they each describe three good things that happened that day. Because my nephew is 4, his contribution usually sounds like: “Um…I played. I made a Lego helicopter, and…I don’t know.” But it doesn’t matter. It’s the thought that counts, and what he is learning (despite himself) is to set aside a little time each day to focus on gratitude.

Right now, I need that kind of focus. Since the fanfare of Aret’s release has died down, I’ve reverted back to what I call my “new-normal” life. In my old-normal life, I had one steady, predictable, full-time job to keep track of; these days, I’m pulled in a variety of disparate directions, which can leave me distracted, breathless, and panicky. To drag myself out of that weirdness and into the light, I believe it’s time to fold a gratitude ritual into the new-normal. So here are my Three Good Things for today:

Good thing #1 ~ A bear crashed the Aret release party

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Some fabulous friends threw me a party on Aret’s pre-release day, and about an hour into it, their dog started losing his shit. We followed the direction of his frenzied stare and crazed barking and saw this ginormous black bear tucked into the foliage just off the deck where the partygoers were gathered. I think he was waiting for an invite.

I’d never heard of a bear crashing a party before. Even though it happened a month ago, it’s still one of today’s three good things, because I don’t think I’ll ever stop laughing about it.

Good thing #2 ~ I have a fierce new body part

20160811_1424261Meet Sabrina

Not only is my new wolf really beautiful, but now that she’s fully healed, I can go swimming again. Ahhh. [Note to future self: don’t get tatted in the summer. A ban on swimming in August in the South? Pleh. Terrible planning.]

But I digress – I love my wolf, even though she kept me out of the water for 2 weeks. All is forgiven, Sabrina. I can’t stay mad at you.

Good thing #3 ~ I’m healthy enough to do the things that bring me joy

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I recently filled out an extensive health-related survey, and I’d never even heard of half the diagnoses mentioned in the questions, even though those very ailments severely compromise some people’s lives. I may complain about pinched nerves and insomnia, but in general I’m healthy as hell, and good health is nothing to sneeze at (so to speak).

Okay, that’s three, but here’s a bonus, because really, there’s so damn much to be grateful for…

Bonus good thing ~ Dogs

DSC_0007Yup. Dogs. They are the best.

And now, just like that, I feel better. Hooray for the regular, intentional giving of thanks – the perfect addition to my new-normal. ❤