Making Mental Space for the Important Stuff

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I had what felt like a mini revelation yesterday. Maybe it’s not that impressive, but here goes…

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After a few days of feeling disconnected and needlessly ruminating, I’d used defusion to flip my struggle switch back off so I could connect to the moment and let my thoughts come and go. Feeling super productive and mindfully present all day Thursday, I realized another benefit of being in the moment.  You can remember what you need to do so much easier!  I’d just gotten back from a lunchtime trip to Costco and I’d zipped through the store grabbing only the items on my list, without looking at it!  When I got to the checkout, I pulled out my list and reviewed it.  Everything was already in my cart.  It’s the little things, isn’t it?!

For the past several years, I haven’t trusted myself to remember much at all. Tasks I need to complete, items I need to purchase, etc., all end up going into my phone, computer, or a list on my desk to ensure it gets done.  I ask the ladies on my team at work to send me an email or IM me anything they’ve asked me to do when I’m away from my desk.  I think it started with pregnancy brain and then transformed into mommy brain, but whatever the reason, I try to get the items out of my head and into a system I will check later.  For work stuff, that’s still a good practice.

The types of things I find it so much easier to remember are… calling my sister to tell her that baby gifts are on the way, making a grooming appointment for Claira, having my A1C blood draw done before my next endocrinologist appointment, reminding Sienna to write a get well card for her friend who had her tonsils removed, texting a friend to see how their day is going. I’ll often think of things I want to do, but can’t do them that very moment.  These are the types of activities I used to write in my planner and enjoy crossing off later.

When I was living so much of life disconnected from the moment and focused on planning the next thing, I needed to write these things down or I’d forget about them. Now, I find that being present means that I’m mindful of the important people and priorities in my life, so I’m thinking of them naturally when I have the time and resources to attend to them.  Does that make sense?  Also, by having less “stuff” on my calendar and in my life to plan and organize, I have the time and space to give these important activities attention.

I remember when I first started down this transformation toward living more mindfully, I was afraid that I’d start dropping balls left and right. Wasn’t my planning and organizing responsible for keeping my world spinning??  Wouldn’t my house become a mess, my children become unruly (okay, more unruly!), my good eating and exercise habits unravel, my work productivity suffer greatly, if I stopped?  I quickly learned those fears were completely unfounded.

Instead, being in the moment means that I notice the things that need to get done when they can be done. Microwave dirty?  Clean it.  Dog looking shaggy? Make a grooming appointment.  Son’s toenails too long?  Cut them.  A friend or family member is on my mind? Call or reach out somehow. Sienna wants to play a game? Play with her.  Feeling distance from my husband? Hug him.

The important things will get done when we clear out the noise, activity, and distraction that demands our attention. I don’t need more planning and organizing to ensure I’m spending my time on what matters.  All I need is mindfulness and the mental space to see the needs and respond to them.

The Games We Play

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At bath time last night, Sienna asked me to play a game with her.  While her bathtub filled with water, she arranged a princess castle on one end of the bathtub and laid 5 small mermaid figures along the ledge of the tub.  After selecting her mermaid, she asked me to pick one.  Then, she explained the rules of a new game she and her friends made up at school called “Race to the End”:

“Okay, so you’ll ask me questions and if I get them right, then my mermaid moves closer to the  castle.  Then, I’ll ask you questions and your mermaid moves if you get them right. First one to the castle, wins.”

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“What kind of questions?” I asked.

“Like what’s my favorite things… animal, food, color.”

At first I told her that I had a huge advantage because, as her mother, I’ve known her all her life.  But, over a half an hour later, I’d learned a lot about my daughter.  I was able to ask things about where I grew up, when I was diagnosed with diabetes, and other fun facts.  Sienna had to stick with lots of “What’s my favorite…” type questions since I know all the facts about her.  I’ll just share some of the highlights from our inaugural game:

Early in the game she asked me, “What’s my favorite princess?”

“Ariel,” I answered, “That’s easy.”

“Nope. Snow White.”

“Since when?!” I retorted.

“She’s always been my favorite.” Sienna innocently replied.

I gave her a skeptical look and took my turn.

Later I asked, “What’s my favorite thing to do?”

Sienna’s response was, “I know, cuddling up on the couch watching a movie with your family with a fire in the fireplace and eating dinner.”

“Man, I was thinking of reading, but that’s true, I do love to do that,” I said.

“So, did I get that one?” Sienna asked, smiling sweetly.

“Okay, sure.”

Several more of these types of exchanges rounded out the game.  Sienna knows her mother well enough to know that a cute or clever response would win me over and I’d give her the “point” even if it wasn’t the answer I had in mind.  Then, she turned it around on me:

“Who’s my favorite friend?” she asked.

“Mia.”

“No, you.”

I smiled and said, “That’s so sweet, you little cheater.”

In the end, dozens of questions later, Sienna won.  I’m challenging her to a rematch.

I’m so grateful that, after writing about throwing out my planner and staying in the moment, I was mindful to say yes to Sienna’s request to play a game.  Spending this dedicated time with my daughter, learning about one another, was priceless.  When I think about the way Dennis and I hope to raise our kids, I always come back to wanting them to feel loved and like they belong, first and foremost, in our family.  Strengthening our bonds with them is simply the most precious and important use of our time.

So, if you’re looking for a game to play with your kids, give “Race to the End”.  Apparently, it can be played with any time of game pieces and end place.

But, the preferred venue is obviously the ledge of a bathtub.

Why I Threw My Planner Away Today

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Back in December, on one of Dennis and my many trips to Target, I picked up a 2016 planner.  I hesitated and debated this purchase.  Was I ready for a planner again? Would the presence of this simple item in my life trigger a relapse to my ultra-planning ways?  Could I be trusted with it?

I decided that I could.

“I’ve come so far,” I reasoned.  “I know that planning doesn’t mean that I ultimately control my life. Plus, I’m happier living in the moment.  I won’t return to living disconnected from my family and friends, living just to plan the next moment.”

Three weeks into January, I just threw that planner in the trash.  Turns out, I can’t be trusted with a physical paper planner.

Let me set the context a bit better…

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Back in college, I started keeping a planner.  I LOVED it.  The feeling of comfort, peace, and security that would accompany my planning sessions – entering dates and events, looking forward to upcoming activities, and generally organizing my time – was addicting.  If something didn’t feel good in the present, I could easily pull out my planner and think about future events, times, and places where I imagine I would be happy.  Also, the act of putting something in my planner and then fulfilling that task, activity, or commitment would bring me a sense of control.

Throughout my early 20s, I had Suzy’s Zoo planners.  I still have 3 of them stashed away for nostalgia.  They’re cute and they now provide a diary of sorts.  Moving to San Diego, dating Dennis, and planning our wedding are all documented in those annual planners.

Okay, so what’s the big deal about keeping a planner??

First of all, being organized and having a “plan” for the day is generally productive and good.  However, I have lots of other methods for keeping track of dates, events, and “to-dos”.  My work and life are well integrated, so I have everything on my Outlook calendar.  I keep a very detailed Task List in Outlook too.  Also, we have a family calendar on the side of the refrigerator for all the activities we need to track together.  Actually, when I got this planner and started adding events and activities, it felt incredibly redundant.  I already had many of the items on both my Outlook and home calendars.

Another thing is, my life is fairly disciplined and we have well established family routines.  I’m going to exercise most days of the week, cook healthy meals, keep my kids bathed, Sienna will do her homework, we’ll clean things that need it, etc.  I don’t need a planner to remind me to do these basics.

Okay, so the problem is: there’s a mindset that accompanies the keeping of a planner, for me.  My daily life begins to be too structured, too theoretical, too “in my head”.   Once I put something down in the planner, it takes on a sense of importance that is disproportionately high.  I begin to think of each day as a series of tasks to accomplish or items to cross off the list.  Then, when my husband or children don’t fall into line with my “plan” I feel frustrated, irritated, and life feels out of control.

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This weekend, a subtle feeling of anxiety lingered over me.  I felt irritated with things not going “to plan.”  I hated feeling disconnected from the present moment.  Through prayer and reflection, it occurred to me that the planner was part of the problem.  I missed the sense of unknowingness and wonder that goes with not knowing what the day ahead holds.  I have come to love spontaneity and letting my loved ones dictate what we do and enjoy the feelings that come from surprises and new experiences.

For example, with exercise, what is enjoyable, healthy, and balanced can become unenjoyable and imbalanced when I focus in a very specific plan.  In looking towards running a marathon, I started planning days to run, days to swim, days for strength training.  My runs were less fun and I trudged through the miles.  I was running to check something off my list, not because I felt inspired and excited to get out and move. I know I’m going to work out several times a week (and actually, the long run on Saturday mornings have become a cherished habit, so that’s probably around to stay).  But, overall, I’m happier when I let myself do what my mind and body feel like doing that day, rather than force myself to stick to a program.  Does that mean I may not meet my marathon goal?  Maybe.  But, I’m okay with that.  If I go out and enjoy running on a regular basis instead of diligently following a plan, I’ll be more likely to run 26.2 miles this summer.  For that matter, I’ll be more likely to stick with running long term, not just meet the marathon goal and hang up my running shoes.

I’m sure many (maybe most?) people can have a daily planner and not notice these ill effects.  But, I’m apparently not one of them.  Remember, I once drafted an “ideal day plan” document.  The logical extension of planning “a day” lead me to try to control my happiness by repeating that same day over and over again.  I now cringe at the thought.

When I decided that the planner needed to go, I felt relief… peace… freedom.

Love and Loss

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The end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016 seemed to share a melancholy theme… death.  Through the connective power of the internet and social media, I learned of the death of several wonderful people that had touched my life.  Parents of classmates, good friends of my parents, and, most devastating of all, an adorable 4 year old girl, who I never met but had followed her battle with leukemia from afar.  I’ve shed more tears over precious Kate Olivia than anyone else who has died.

Lindsey, Kate’s mom was pregnant with Kate when I learned of a fellow mother-to-be with diabetes who didn’t have access to a CGMS (continuous glucose monitoring system).  This relatively new technology is a huge help when working to maintain blood sugar levels that will keep your growing baby healthy.  I was fortunate to have two devices. One to spare!  Through the diabetes online community, Lindsey and I were connected.  It felt really good to put my discarded diabetes device to extremely good use when I shipped it out to Virginia. A few email exchanges and a connection on Facebook followed.

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Fast forward a couple years… I was so sad to learn that Lindsey’s little girl was battling leukemia at the age of 2.  I was awed and inspired by this strong little girl and amazingly devoted parents as Lindsey shared the ups and downs of Kate’s treatment.  In September they celebrated the end of treatment.  It was shocking when she relapsed so devastatingly quickly a few months later.

Reading Lindsey’s posts on Facebook in the days surrounding Kate’s death were heart wrenching.  She and her husband Mike were experiencing and describing every parents’ worst nightmare.  I don’t know how people live with that pain.  But, as I came to see the past several days, they carry on by honoring and cherishing their daughter.  I just made a donation to support the Rhoades family.  Their family, friends, and extended community have nearly raised $20,000 to help them through this difficult time.   If you’re so inclined, any donation is appreciated.

With thoughts of Kate and others who have recently passed away settled on my heart and mind, I just read the book Me Before You by Jojo Moyes.  It tells the love story between a quadriplegic man and his caregiver.  The story deals with death and it was incredibly moving. I balled my eyes out while finishing the book.  Sienna thought something was seriously wrong with her mom!  I tried to explain, in appropriate terms, what the story was about. She seemed confused by the idea that I’d voluntarily read something that made me so sad.

I’ll be 36 years old in less than two weeks and I still haven’t lost anyone close to me. The concept of death is still quite theoretical.  I can conceive of it, but I don’t know how it feels to actually lose someone close and dear to me.  When I think about losing a loved one, it’s too painful to bear for long.  So, I say a prayer that God will protect them, and move on.

I know this wonderful streak can’t last forever. I also know that there’s nothing I can do to prepare myself for the pain of losing someone I love.  It will happen one day.  People I love will die.  I will die. There’s really nothing that makes us more aware of our powerlessness and need for Christ than this realization.

So, what to do?

I’ve been holding my children extra tight the past couple weeks.  I’ve been sure to give my husband a kiss when he comes home and always before we fall asleep.  I’m mindful of spending my time connecting to my husband, kids, parents, family, friends, and the people I see everyday.  What’s truly going to matter when it’s all said and done?   Loving relationships, giving and sharing, helping and supporting, connecting and understanding.

We can’t know how much time we have or how much time is left with the people we love. But, we can spend the time we have purposefully – to love tenderly and connect deeply.

New Year Goals.

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I feel like I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s still true so I’ll say it again… I want to start blogging in a more free flowing, stream-of-consciousness kind of way. I’ve gone long stretches without writing anything here because life was so busy I didn’t have the bandwidth to think of a topic and write a well constructed post.  But, really, blogs started out as online diaries.  You don’t have to do a lot of prep work before writing in a diary or journal!

So, let’s talk about 2016. A New Year!  I didn’t make any formal new year’s resolutions.  But, I did walk my kids and my husband through a goal setting process on New Year’s Eve.  Wouldn’t it be a cool tradition to set goals, both individually and as a family, each New Year’s Eve?! I think so.

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The kids actually got really into it.  Well, Sienna did.  Teo spent much of the session crying because he couldn’t write his list as quickly as Sienna and I did.  But, in a way, he was working on his personal goal for 2016: “Learn letter sounds”.  Believe it or not, I helped him with that goal.  He needs to know his letter sounds when he starts Kindergarten this August.  Oh my goodness.

Our family goals include: 1. Learn Spanish, 2. Pay off Debt, 3. Play more “P.E.” Together (Sienna contributed this one, it means play more sports, hike, and run around outside), and 4. Try New Foods – especially Paleo. Sienna suggested the final goal too.  I was excited when she remembered the goal that evening and loved the Paleo corn dogs I made.  Yay!

My personal goal for 2016 is to run a marathon.

I’m halfway there. A couple days after Christmas I ran the Holiday Half Marathon, that started right near our house.  I’ve been training pretty consistently since late August, extended the length of my weekend long run until I ran 15 miles the week before Thanksgiving.  I was pretty excited about that new distance record for me!

However, I’ve been experiencing runner’s knee on and off. It flared up in December and I had a couple rough runs where I had to stop and walk back.  A week before the race I finally bought a band to wear around my leg (those ones that sit just under the knee cap to support it).  I did a couple moderate runs with the band and it seemed to help a bit.  I iced my knee, rested a bunch, and just prayed that it would hold up for the race.

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Thankfully, it did! I wore the band and my knee didn’t hurt for the 13.1 mile race!  I originally had a goal of finishing the race in less than 2 hours.  But, with my knee issue, I thought better to baby it at first and focus on a goal of just finishing the race.  As the miles ticked by and I could see that I was holding a decent pace, the 2 hour mark seemed reachable and I picked up the pace.  The other day I finally checked my “official” time (it was a few seconds faster than the time I tracked on my watch): 2:00.11.  Looks like I’ll need another half to achieve the sub- 2 hour goal!

The San Diego Rock N’ Roll Marathon is the first Sunday in June. When Dennis and I lived downtown, we’d get to see (and hear!) the race pass by our apartment each year. Rock bands play along the course to keep runners motivated.  For years I’ve considered training for this race.  So, hopefully 2016 will be the year!

I’ll be sure to blog about my training progress! Please share if you have any words of wisdom on training, marathons, or anything. 🙂

Reframing the Issue

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At the beginning of a new year, like many people, I’ve been reminiscing about the past and eagerly anticipating the future.

In 2013 I experienced my awakening. Realizing that controlling and hyper-planning in an attempt to stay “happy” had left me emotionally disconnected from my life and loved ones was a tremendous step.  Finding the amazing resources in The Happiness Trap allowed me to let go of those unhealthy coping strategies and embrace living in the moment.

For most of 2014, I practiced being present and mindfully embracing the moment.  At first, it felt unusual to be connected, but soon it came to be the new normal.  I’d sometimes go several days without experiencing that disconnected feeling of being “in my head.”

Early this year, I had a bout of anxiety brought on by insomnia.  It felt like I was back where I started from.  As I reread The Happiness Trap and practiced defusing my thoughts and feeling my emotions, it occurred to me that I still actively sought control, particularly when it came to sleep.  If I was sleeping well, I felt good.  But, after a long streak of falling asleep easily, I’d start to fear a night of poor sleep.  Then, inevitably, I’d have trouble sleeping.

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Through prayer, I came to realize that my deepest desire wasn’t to fall asleep easily every night (a ridiculous ideal anyway!) but to have a healthy attitude toward sleep.  I wanted to feel like a “normal” person when I didn’t have a good night sleep, rather than spinning into several days of anxiety.

One of the things that trigger my anxiety about sleep was the idea of camping, something that I wanted to start doing with my family.  I decided that I was going to face my fear head on.  We purchased a couple tents in the spring and had our first family campout in the backyard over Memorial Day weekend.  It did take me awhile to fall asleep that first night, but I expected it to, so it didn’t bother me much.  Three nights in the backyard and, overall, I slept reasonably well.  But, more importantly, I had fun and made memories with my husband and kids.  I didn’t let fear keep me from embracing life.

We had several more backyard camping weekends throughout the summer.  It was fun!  And this simple activity helped me to greatly overcome my fear of not falling immediately to sleep.

Okay, so all of that is my way of saying that this year I realized we often need to reexamine the way we frame an issue or problem.  When I feared having trouble falling asleep, my initial response was to control internal and external factors that would keep me from sleeping.  But, the real issue wasn’t sleep, it was the anxiety it triggered.  So, what if having trouble falling asleep for a night (or two) didn’t cause me anxiety?  When I reframed the issue, I realized that purposely choosing situations where I wouldn’t fall right to sleep, would give me a chance to face my fear and overcome it.

Forgive me the juvenile example, but we recently watched Frozen and I found myself relating to Elsa… again.  For most of the movie, she fears her ice powers and the results are disastrous. Whenever she experiences strong emotions, things around her freeze.  So, she (naturally?) attempts to stop feeling anything.  In this way, she tries to keep the people around her safe.  But as her fears grow, the storm around her grows and she doesn’t know how to stop it.  There’s a sweet scene where the grandfather troll (stay with me!) foreshadows the story’s conclusion when he tells Elsa’s sister Anna: “Only love can thaw a frozen heart.”  In the end, Elsa realizes that she can thaw the frozen disaster she’s created by feeling love and letting go of her fear.

Seeing this struggle, between control/fear and faith/love, played out in a children’s movie is oddly powerful to me.  Ultimately, God is love and, as my mom often reminds me, not the author of fear.  Throughout these years of growth, I keep coming back to surrendering my will to God’s.  When I try to be “in control” I eventually find myself strayed, not from God (he’s always there!), but from mindfulness of God’s will and gracious love.

As we start a new year, is there something in your life that could be reframed?  I have found this helpful when issues arise and the solution seems illusive.  Maybe I’m looking at it from the wrong angle?  Maybe I’m asking the wrong question…?