Staying Sane for the Holidays

Driving to work this morning, I tuned into one of my favorite Sirius XM radio stations only to discover that it was now only playing “holiday music.” Already??? Yes, it’s that time of year again—the modern miracle known as The Holidays, when into the dark little months of November and December, we squeeze Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, New Years Eve, and a myriad of other celebrations, from ancient Solstice rituals to the more contemporary rites of school plays, office parties, and community gatherings. Throw in a generous dose of unrealistic expectations, dysfunctional family feasts complete with political disagreements, airplane flights and long drives, darker days, colder weather, budget-busting shopping, excess eating and drinking, and no wonder that along with “joy to the world” comes seasonal stress for most, and for some, real depression and loneliness.

But I have not given up on the holidays! As long as I commit to staying healthy and sane throughout the season, this time of year still feels magical to me. Over the next couple of weeks I’ll share some ways to focus on the magic and reduce the madness. Of course, another option is just to ignore the holidays completely (good luck with that!) or to knock yourself out trying to live up to all of your expectations (good luck with that too.) Instead, this week, as Thanksgiving looms, here’s a practice to try out right now:

Put down what you’re holding (in your hand or your head)—your work, your to-do lists, your third cup of coffee, your date book, the phone call you should be making—and sit quietly for just 60 seconds. Put your hand on your chest and pat your heart gently. Then take a deep breath into that spot, and flood yourself with warm feelings of kindness toward yourself. Exhale with an audible sigh. Ahhhh. Breathe in and out, focusing on self-acceptance and self-forgiveness. We’re so hard on ourselves, and this time of year that hardness can really take a toll. So, keep your hand on your heart and with each inhalation and exhalation, let your shoulders drop and your jaw relax and that warm feeling of kindness-to-self flood your body. If you only have time to do that, it’s enough. Or, take a few more minutes and add this: Inhale self-kindness, and as you exhale, extend that kindness to others—the people you love, those with whom you disagree, and finally our whole amazing, confounding, hurting, evolving world. (If you’re at work, don’t worry what your colleagues might think—this time of year everyone would love to sigh deeply.)

You can do this practice when you wake up, when things feel stressful, when you go to bed…and during Thanksgiving itself—even if you have to lock yourself in the bathroom for a few minutes.


When Fear of Public Speaking Shows Up: "You need to love them..."

I was on vacation this past week with several families who have traveled together for years. One of my friends’ sons (who I’ve known since he was a little boy) is now in a job that requires him to speak in public. He asked me if I liked public speaking. I told him that after all this time it still didn’t come naturally to me, but I had learned to deal with my nervousness and fear so much so that, yes, I did like it. He wanted to know if there was a moment when it started to turn around for me, if there was some trick I could share with him. So I showed him this bit of writing from a chapter in my book, Marrow: 

WHEN I FIRST BEGAN speaking and teaching I was so nervous before each event I could barely think straight. I was in that jittery state of mind one evening, sitting backstage at a conference where I was to give a talk. A well-known psychiatrist was sitting with me; he was slated to present after I spoke.
“Are you OK?” he asked me.
“No,” I said. “I’m terribly nervous.” 
“Oh, I used to be nervous before I spoke. But now I’m not.” 
“How did that happen?” I asked. “And how can it happen to me? And soon?”
“Well,” the man said, “a couple of years ago, I was sitting backstage, just like you, marinating in my own sweat, and there was a priest or a monk there—a little old guy in a brown robe. He must have noticed how panicky I was. He came over to me and said something I never forgot. It changed everything for me. You wanna hear it?” 
I nodded. 
“This is what he said: ‘They don’t need you to perform for them so they know how good you are. They need you to love them so they know how good they are.’ You want me to write that down?”
I said yes, and I still have that piece of paper. I keep it in my purse and I come across it at the oddest times. Maybe I’ll be fishing around for my phone, or looking for a pen at work, and I’ll find the scrap of paper and read it. And once again, it will encourage me to connect with my deepest motivation no matter what I am doing. “They don’t need you to perform for them so they know how good you are. They need you to love them so they know how good they are.”

I Release My Hold on All of it

A reader of one of my books wrote me a thank-you email and quoted from her favorite chapter where I describe what prayer means to me:
“Whatever is happening, whatever is changing, whatever is going or not going according to my plans—I release my hold on all of it. I leave behind who I think I am, who I want to be, what I want the world to be. I come home to the great peace of the present moment.” That’s what I wrote several years ago in Broken Open. I re-read the quote today, sitting at my desk, checking my email, typing with one hand because this afternoon, while holding the phone under one ear on a work call, and chopping vegetables for lunch at the same time, I sliced a piece of my thumb off. I am in a particularly busy time right now with work, family, travel, not to mention the general stress in the country. Not a good time to have the use of only one hand. But a good time to be reminded that fighting against what has already happened will only make things worse. And so I breathed in the words, felt my shoulders drop from around my ears, and I came home once again to the great peace of the present moment.

When I write deeply held truths, I am not the one writing—it’s the universal wisdom gracing me with temporary clarity. I turn the grace into words, but that doesn’t mean I live the truth of those words on a daily basis. The greatest compliments I ever get are that my books remind people of what they already know. How wonderful, on this particular day, a reader reminded me of what I already know, of what you already know: “Whatever is happening, whatever is changing, whatever is going or not going according to my plans—I release my hold on all of it. I leave behind who I think I am, who I want to be, what I want the world to be. I come home to the great peace of the present moment.”

Getting to the Marrow of Who We Are

My younger sister Maggie was a renaissance woman—a no-nonsense nurse practitioner in a rural Vermont community, an accomplished artist, a mother and farmer and beekeeper and maple syrup producer. And she also was my stem-cell double, something we discovered when her lymphoma roared back into her blood after a long remission and she needed a bone marrow transplant in order to live. 

We were thrilled and also dumbstruck when it turned out that among the siblings, I was the one whose cell tissue perfectly matched Maggie’s. There are four of us in my family—all girls, each with a role given during childhood. I was the one with her head in the clouds. Maggie was assigned to the ground. She was the dependable, practical girl and I was the cosmic explorer. “Earth to Liz,” was a common refrain. As we grew, we changed. But the brand stayed put. It didn’t seem to matter that I had cofounded one the nation’s most respected adult education centers, or that I’d published several books, or raised three sons—my sisters always seemed surprised that I had acquired basic skills to navigate human existence. Family roles are hard to shake. 

Before having my bone marrow harvested and transplanted into Maggie’s bloodstream, I read up on what Maggie would face after transplant. The gravest dangers were of cell rejection and attack—Maggie’s body might reject my cells, and my cells might attack Maggie. Both reactions could kill her. Rejection and attack: those words had a familiar ring to them. Although we had always loved each other with that fierce sibling kind of devotion, we also had gone through periods of rejection and attack. Close in age, yet far apart in temperament and beliefs and career and lifestyle choices, I wondered if perhaps Maggie and I needed to do something prior to the transplant to teach our cells how to get along once my stem cells took over producing all the blood in Maggie’s body. 

So I suggested that we do a “soul marrow transplant” along with the bone marrow transplant—that we revisit our childhood and follow the threads of rejection and attack throughout our years of sisterhood. That, in the presence of a therapist, we dig into the marrow of our relationship; that we offer each other honesty and explanation and forgiveness; that we uncover an unconditional kind of love that would penetrate deep into our cells and give the transplant its best chance of working. I fully expected Maggie to reject or attack that idea, since she had a skeptical, bemused attitude about anything that smacked of therapy or spirituality. 

But Maggie loved the idea of a soul marrow transplant, especially when I likened the soul to the sap in the center of a maple tree. Maggie was a connoisseur of maple syrup. She revered everything about it—the syrup itself, the process of making it, and the maple tree in all seasons. In summer as the tree spread its green canopy over the yard, in the fall when the leaves turned to fire, in the winter when the dark, twisted limbs scratched against the grey sky, and in the spring when the sap ran beneath the rugged bark. And in the center of the tree’s solid trunk, the sweet liquid—the sap that when boiled down becomes maple syrup. 

And so two years ago my sister and I visited a therapist and tapped the veins of truth within us. We got down to the marrow—past the old hurts, and childhood myths and roles, and the scars left by rejections and attacks. We used the heat of that session to turn the whole story of our sisterhood into something pure, something sweet. And by the time I had my marrow harvested, and then when it was transplanted into my sister’s body, there was nothing left between us but love.

My sister lived for a year after the transplant. She said it was the best year of her life. The act of digging deep to heal our relationship gave Maggie a newfound courage to live from her most unapologetically authentic self. It confirmed for me something I had always suspected: The best way to live is to get down to the marrow of who we are, to refine it in the heat of daily life, and to turn it into a gift for others. I think we can do that even when we’re scared or sick. Even when we are dying. You don’t have to wait for a life-and-death situation to offer your marrow to another person. We can all do it, and we can do it now. There’s a chance that by cleaning up your story with one person the healing will ripple out and make a difference in a world hungry for acceptance, understanding, and love.

The Joy of Being Unprepared

I have never been very good at being unprepared. I am an over-preparer, which has its upside, especially at work. And it also has a downside: it can get in the way of spontaneity. But, whatever, it's gotten me this far and I have other nagging personality traits more worth working on! I did have a wildly unexpected and unprepared-for experience recently. And it DID bring me joy. My book, Marrow, was nominated months ago for a coveted book award--the Books for A Better Life Award. This annual award recognizes authors and publishers of self-improvement books. The concept was born 21 years ago with the intention of giving credit to the group of authors whose work impacts millions of readers around the world. For someone writing in the "self-improvement" genre, this award is important, because for some reason, most literary critics, awards, reviewers, etc. turn their noses up at self-help, or spirituality, or healing, or even psychology titles. Which is a shame because a) many of these books are beautifully written and well-crafted, and b) many are best-sellers that are deeply appreciated by their readers and deserve to be considered part of the literary world. So I applaud the founders of this award and also of the sponsoring organization, the National MS Society. At the award ceremony in NYC, I never for a moment thought my book would win. I was up against two of my favorite memoirs of 2016--When Breath Becomes Air and Love Warrior. Since I never entertained that my book would be selected, I didn't prepare an acceptance speech. When my name was called, I stumbled to the stage and started to speak about the book and to thank folks, especially my sister Maggie, and then I choked up, and so I quickly ended the speech and headed off the stage. It was a quick little mess of a speech, but it did the trick, and I loved the unpreparedness, the gut emotions, the joy! I think I will try this more often...being unprepared, and leaving room for spontaneous joy.

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