A Slow Burn … and … The 2016 Christmas Chronicles!

It was such a slow burn.  It was so slow that it was almost imperceptible for years.  At times, I could vaguely feel the heat and on occasions I certainly sensed some scorching … but generally, I didn’t take much notice. I simply fanned all the flickers firmly out of my awareness.

It was an implicit and somewhat insidious pattern of behavior that developed so early on in my life.  My gaze was focused outward … my attention turned towards others. I was perpetually hurrying and scurrying to warm others … to make sure they were happy … endlessly endeavoring to earn their love and affection.  And I unwittingly thought that my efforts were keeping me warm too.  And, I guess they did … to some small degree … but those flames were also singeing the edges of my soul. Parts of me were slowly burning out.

strong-but-exhaussted

As a child growing up in a pretty dysfunctional home, I had erroneously assumed that if I could ensure that others were warm, cozy and happy (only ALL of  them) … they in return, would keep me warm and cozy too.  It didn’t always turn out that way. In fact, for the most part, for the better part of my recollection …  very few folks have actually noticed if/when I was left shivering. Not that anyone knew how I really felt. I always put a smile on my face regardless of how I was feeling. It might have been wiser to simply ask for help … but then again … the ‘strong’ ones don’t tend to admit when they we are cold.  No, we’re “fine”.  Arghhhhh.

Source unknown

As I discussed in another blog, part of the problem was A Tragic Misunderstanding on my part, but it’s always harder to see the picture clearly when you are inside the frame … even if you are a master’s level counsellor. Gah!! After decades of discounting, deferring and/or dismissing my own needs, I got to the point where I could no longer ignore the unfavorable build up of cold ash that was slowly stifling my spirit and snuffing out the bright light of my internal flame.  I was doggone depleted. And my usual efforts to toss another log at my internal flame flicker were simply not enough to re-ignite it anymore. I realized I wasn’t going to be able to warm anyone unless I took time to rekindle the embers of my inner spark.

Yes … as some wise soul pointed out … ‘you can burn yourself up trying to give light to others.’ And so … I decided I needed to take a break from my usual way of showing up in the world … both professionally (as a counsellor and life coach) and personally (as a wife, mother, daughter-in-law, friend etc).  I needed to take some time away from tending to others (in general), and instead, focus upon finding more ways to warm my own charred spirit. I decided to call it my ‘sabbatical’ … because a sabbatical is when you take time away from your usual responsibilities in order to focus upon something else or learn something new.  I spoke about it more specifically in another blog entitled  The Gift of Personal Renewal.  Yes. I seriously needed to unlearn my default pattern of putting myself last.

In my profession, we are schooled about the increased probability of “burnout”, “compassion fatigue” and/or “vicarious trauma”  As a result, I have always protected myself from these potential perils by ensuring I get enough sleep, eating nutritiously (well — mostly!),  exercising my body (walking, yoga) and other forms of ‘self care’ (massage and reflexology and solitude) …  but it had gotten to the point where the drains on me personally from 2015 through 2016 were reducing the benefits of these professional safeguards.  Ultimately, they were no longer adequate nor sufficient to nourish my soul.

So, for my sabbatical, I opted to amp up my own self-care considerably. And, in an effort to optimize my efforts towards personal renewal, I also decided to opt-out of doing things that had  typically become my responsibility.  That included Christmas! Yes. I decided to surrender the extra responsibilities, obligations, expectations and work load that had become an inherent part of the Season for me. If I am going to be totally transparent, I recognized that over the past 20 years Christmas had been losing its luster for me. I was feeling increasingly burdened by the duties I put upon myself to deliver a delightful Christmas experience for my family. And, even more than that … I was seriously wondering what it be like to have Christmas magically unfold before you.  Yes … I was aching to have someone else doing all the fussing and bothering in order to make it merry and bright for me.

I explained myself and asked my husband to take a turn and do what I do every year. It felt like a bold move … but I reckoned that it wasn’t entirely unreasonable for him to shoulder the responsibilities … for just this one time … out of our 40 Christmas celebrations together.  And, if the whole truth be known … part of me needed the break, but another part of me wanted him to get a serious sense of how much time and energy it takes to make it all jolly every year. In fact, I laughed out loud when I read the following on Pintrest because it pretty accurately described my hubby’s level of involvement as, year after year, Christmas magically (i.e. easily and effortlessly) rolled out before him.

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After my mom and dad split up when I was twelve, my mom did the very best she could on our welfare budget … but I always dreamed of enjoying those Hallmark holiday celebrations that I was convinced all the two parent kids were having.  And so, year after year, I have been wholeheartedly invested in creating the kind of Christmas for my family that I had always most wanted myself. Yes, I was determined to make my dreams for the ideal Christmas come true for them … year after year after year. 

And so, over the years, I had developed numerous heart-warming traditions for our little family. I joyfully adorned every corner of the house and decorated the tree with unparalleled zeal and stuffed all the stockings for our daughters (and eventually their partners) … each with their own special color/pattern of Christmas wrap. I carefully selected and wrapped gifts for each of the teachers with oodles of ribbons and bright, beautiful bows. I took the lead role in organizing our effort to anonymously deliver gifts to the doorstep of someone we chose for the 12 Days of Christmas. I also mailed out five or six dozen handwritten and personalized Christmas cards on our family’s behalf. I spent hours dipping hand-made chocolates (both dark and milk) in a variety of flavored fondant (peppermint, almond, coffee, maple walnut, rum & butter, peanut butter, etc) along with Olympian cremes (rolled in toasted coconut or chopped nuts) as well as  soft, chewy caramels and licorice toffee individually wrapped in red or green foil too. I boxed them and wrapped up the lids in festively colored paper and completed the presentation with a legend identifying all the flavors. And they were deelicious!!  I artistically iced, at minimum, 12 dozen homemade Gingerbread cookies (in various Christmas cutouts) for sharing in our annual cookie exchange. And, every year, I made a double batch of the shortbread recipe that became our family favorite (from the cookie exchange!).  I often bottled up home-made Baileys and, for many years, I created huge shortbread wreaths to give out as tokens of my appreciation to honor my friends.  Sheesh … I even have an old pic of those yummy gems!

shortbread-wreath

It was also very important to me to spearhead my daughter’s understanding of the true Christmas spirit as one focused upon ‘giving’ rather than just ‘receiving.’ To that end, I helped and encouraged them to fill ‘Shoe Boxes’ for the less fortunate.  And, in an effort to pay it forward from my own childhood memories, I always faithfully donated to ‘Toys for Tots.’ I always tried to get things done early in the season (October  or November) because I had to commute 80 kilometers/50 miles (often on crappy winter roads) to the nearest city.  And … I had figure out how to surreptitiously purchase all the gifts with my three little gals in tow (childcare was not an option). Somehow I pulled the wool over their eyes so the ‘believers’ didn’t catch on … year after year after year.

I also remember navigating the shopping mall chaos and standing as patiently as possible so our sweet little girls could leave their requests with Santa.  I will never forget the year that my two daughters both changed their minds (at the last minute!) about what they wanted for Christmas!!  It was during the Care Bear craze of the early 1980s and perhaps all the advertising had finally gotten to them. No one was more surprised than me when they unexpectedly asked Santa for Care Bears. What??  Unfortunately, by that point in the season, there was not a Care Bear to be found in any store anywhere on this planet!  So what was a doting momma to do??  I ended up purchasing an official Care Bear pattern and spent hours sewing up two facsimile bears … a ‘Cheer’ Bear for Tiana and a ‘Tenderheart’ Bear for Sherisse. I hoped they would look authentic and real enough to pass their inspection.

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Yep.  I clearly nailed it. The sheer delight on Tiana’s face tickled my heart clear down to my toes. We still have both those blessed bears in our grandchildren’s toy box. The years have not been kind to them … but for the very best of reasons.  I don’t think they get much, if any, attention anymore. I’m guessing our grandchildren think they are downright ugly … but …  I just can’t bring myself to get rid of them! And, although they were just homemade imitations of the store-bought Care Bears … there is no doubt that those ‘replicas’ certainly became real in my daughter’s hearts.  As Margery Williams stated in The Velveteen Rabbit:

[Real is something] you become. It takes a long time … Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off and your eyes don’t see as well and you get loose in the joints and very shabby.  But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly except to people who don’t understand.”

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Oh my … the sweet riches of making Christmas’s past as merry as possible cannot be denied. I mailed off special care packages (dutifully heeding the Canada Post deadlines for delivery) filled with small tokens of love for my father and step-mother … usually a banana loaf or some homemade cranberry fudge … some hand-crafted ornaments … and maybe some pics of our growing girls to add to their grandparent’s ‘Brag Book’ (we had no internet/social media connections back then).  I made the annual wife-saver (eventually two of them – one savory and one sweet) preceded by warm gooey cinnamon buns (fresh out of the oven) on Christmas morning. I have typically hosted Christmas Day at our house for the last quarter century … ever since my Aunt Mil passed away … and so I’ve roasted the bird and/or the ham with all of the fixings.

We always spent Christmas Eve with my in-laws because it was my mother-in-law’s birthday. I leaned in to help as much as I could on Christmas Eve too because my mom-in-law was disabled and the bulk of the work fell upon her only daughter.  And, of course, the annual Christmas tasks were not complete until the turkey carcass was simmering in the crock pot and the homemade TV dinners were assembled into pie shells with all the leftovers (the brilliant idea of my sweet sister-in-law!). And then … I typically led the charge in cleaning it up … always grateful for whatever support was offered.  As I itemize all the ‘work’ I’ve invested in the Christmas preparation and execution, I have to concede that it has not been without a strong element of martyrdom sneaking in over the last two decades. And so, when I saw the following sign on a Facebook page of a young millennial, I could clearly relate … and … realized that it wasn’t just me that often felt this way.

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Little by little, over the decades, I have stopped doing most of it. We’ve grown in numbers and it’s just so much harder to ensure everyone is warm and happy. I have continued to fill all the stockings and decorate the house, make the meals and be attentive for when I needed to put out trays of appetizers.  These days, my husband roasts a Prime Rib in the smoker and my grown daughters contribute to the meal preparations and my sons-in-law help with the clean up and my oldest grand-daughter helps me prepare the ooey-gooey cinnamon buns.  And so, of late, my biggest concern has been that I’m typically bouncing up and down during the Christmas morning gift opening (to tend to things that needed doing) that I feel like I miss out on witnessing the joy as my family unwraps the gifts I have invested my heart into getting for them.

So, in 2016, I was eagerly anticipating simply sitting back and let it all unfold effortlessly in front of me.  There was a part of me that delighted in the thought that because Christmas was ‘on him’ this year, my hubby would have the opportunity to invest countless hours and oodles of energy into making it a Hallmark kind of Christmas for me.  I suspected that I would deeply savor the experience.  Yes.  I had a lot of hopes riding on switching things up. Ha. Ha. I can hear you all wisely wincing at the ‘set up’ I created for both him and me.

That said, I do hold some very special memories of Christmas past where I was on the receiving end of the fussing and bothering. One of my all time favorite memories was during the era that we were hand-making our gifts for each other (to resist the commercialization of the Season).  Anyway, I was reduced to tears the year that our daughter Sherisse handcrafted stockings for her dad and I!!  And then … she and her sisters filled them with gifts for us … so we could join them in our annual stocking opening!  It still remains one of the kindest and most meaningful gestures I can remember.  We continue to use those stockings and my heart secretly smiles with warmest recollection of their thoughtfulness every time I see them.

Another one of my other most favorite Christmas memories of the Season being made merry and bright for me is when my husband loaded up our little girls and drove 20 miles to pick out a fresh, live tree that easily reached our 10 FOOT ceilings.  It most majestically replaced the scrawny little five foot fake one we had been using!  Honestly, I remember it being the most extraordinary tree I had ever seen!!  The scent of spruce filled our home!!  I even had to make a whole schwack of red and white bows out of some ribbon I happened to have on hand because I simply didn’t have enough ornaments for a tree of such magnitude!  It was beyond my wildest dreams!

best-christmas-tree-ever-1988

And well … I dug up an old photo so I could show you.  All I can say is that the picture does not even remotely do any kind of justice to just how much that tree warmed my heart and nourished my spirit!!! I get toasty all over again just thinking about it. ❤

At any rate, it was quite interesting to turn the baton entirely over to my husband and wait for him to commence the merry making. Staying out of it and keeping my mouth shut was more challenging than I expected. He picked out the tree on the first weekend in December (as per our usual) and got it standing up in the house on the 6th.  It smelled quite beautiful.  I was heading out of town on the 8th and 9th … and … I fantasized that I would return home to a brightly lit and beautifully decorated tree. But …  no such luck.

I could have decorated it myself, but remember … I was on sabbatical.  And … I knew that if I did that I would have really resented my husband (for my martyring actions) because we had agreed it was his turn to make it merry around here.  So, as excruciating as it was to let it stand there dark and naked for over another week, I forced myself to dwell in the discomfort until he decided to do it.  And, I noticed … he chose not set himself on fire in order to meet our long-standing traditions and/or my expectations around timelines.  It was finally decorated 10 days before Christmas. christmas-tree-2016

He got it done while I was enjoying some sabbatical self-care  … I was getting a pedicure.  He really did a beautiful job of decorating it. And … he commented on how many marvelous memories came back to him as he dressed the tree with all the ornaments we have received from our girls and/or picked up over the years along on our travels.  Our tree really did look quite lovely!  It does not escape me though, as I write this, that the tree that most warmed my heart (with all the red and white handmade bows) was not anywhere near as ‘pretty’ as this one.  I guess it’s really true what they say … looks aren’t everything.

Our tree is in the living room, but we gather in our family room (near the fireplace) to open gifts on Christmas morning.  As you can see from the pics below, my idea of “decking the halls” is a little different than my husband’s.  I have to concede that his lack of interest in decorating the family room irked me a bit.  I really missed the lights … BUT … it was really interesting for me to observe, once again, that because he was very busy at work, he was not inclined to set himself on fire tending to things that I have always thought were essential.  In fact, for the first time in over 20 years, he also opted NOT to put up outdoor lights on the front of the house.  He did get some up in the backyard, though, and they looked gorgeous twinkling in the moonlight.

decorating

Once again … keeping my mouth shut and letting him do Christmas his way was much harder than I expected. Yes, with boxes of decorations left undisturbed in the basement, our tree was the SOLO sign of the Season in our house until December 21st … when the decorations unexpectedly doubled!!  We received a gorgeous glitter dusted poinsettia in a beautifully spirited ‘pay it forward’ exchange that one of our next-door neighbors inspired in our cul-de-sac.  Thank you for that Mandy!

poinsettia

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While I could have tendered this task over to my hubby, I jumped at the opportunity to savor the Christmas spirit tucked into that neighborly invitation myself.  I got directly into the car and headed downtown to pick up a little something to take over to the neighbor to our ‘right’.  Honestly, it felt so good to be doing something Christmassy.  And, as luck would have it, while I was at it, I ended up tripling the decorations in our home (and fueling my Christmas spirit!) by purchasing a Christmas wall hanging (that was 50% off!!).  The message completely captured my heart!  Fa la la la la … la la la la.

wall-hanging

Yes. It was becoming clearer and clearer to me that many of the joys I usually experienced during the Season were clearly tucked into the spaces between the holiday tasks and toilings!  And, I must share that watching my husband delegate the holiday tasks to others was also very eye opening for me!  He had no problem enlisting my three grown daughters to help with his stocking shopping. I actually felt a bit guilty because I certainly didn’t mean for their workload to go up because I had surrendered mine.  They reassured me, however, that they had quite enjoyed helping him out.

I did, however, secretly worry that their compassionate efforts to help their dad were somehow going to sabotage his appreciation for how much time and effort I actually invested in the annual merry making. I didn’t want them to make it too easy for him! I also suspected that daddy’s little girls might rescue the old boy with the cooking and kitchen duties too!  But, as it turned out … my three sons-in-law stepped right up to the plate and helped out immensely with ALL the cooking and cleaning.  I played games while they slaved away.

I had to silence the critic in my head that niggled at me relentlessly … suggesting I should get up and help. I reminded myself that I was supposed to be on sabbatical. And so, I tried to keep my thoughts and opinions to myself throughout the whole season. I did, however, pick up the donation for Toys for Tots. I didn’t want to risk it falling off my husband’s radar. I also printed out the sticky cinnamon bun recipe as well as the wife-saver recipe for him. As it turned out, though, he opted to make a full breakfast of bacon, sausage, scrambled eggs and pancakes instead.  It was absolutely scrumptious, and although it meant much more work and clean up on Christmas day, the boys did it the way they preferred.  And, guess what?  I just sat back and thoroughly enjoyed all their fussing and bothering and kept my mouth shut about how much quicker the clean up would have been with just one pan each from the wife-savers!

I couldn’t keep my mouth shut, at one point however.  I felt obliged to remind my husband that he also needed to purchase gifts for our eight grandchildren.  I’m not sure why that task caught him by surprise, but it did. Ultimately, he met up with a couple of his daughters  and they helped him choose some gifts that were really big hits with the grandkids!

Yes, he was doing Christmas his way.  Perhaps my biggest surprise was when he told me he was going to pick up some gift certificates for our son-in-law’s stockings for fancy hot shaves from Tommy Gunns.  He added, quite nonchalantly, that while he was at it, he might indulge himself in a hot shave himself.

Whattt???  The voice in my head balked loudly!How on earth was he ever going to appreciate how much effort goes into making it merry and bright if he was going to find ways to enjoy and nourish himself while he was at it??”

Yes. I know. It does not escape me just how ridiculous that sounds as I say it out loud. Bah. Humbug. I wasn’t sure whether to be cranky … or … to simply recognize that I was being seriously schooled in how I could very well have been seizing more peace and joy for myself all of these years!  Here I had been hoping he would get a deeper sense of how much elbow grease it takes to put smiles in the hearts of others … and instead … I was learning, over and over, that you are not required to set yourself on fire to warm others.  Gahhh.

All in all, though, I think he did gain a better idea of how challenging it could be … in the long run. There was a bit of a snafu with his efforts to stuff the stockings.  Because it had been so frigidly cold here, I had packed up a big bag with all my winter weather wear to keep in the car while traveling.  I’ll spare you all the details, but I discovered that my toque and mitts had been earmarked as stocking stuffers!  It was so darn tempting to not alert him of this error … to simply let the chips fall … and let my daughter find some of her mother’s old winter wear gifted to her in her stocking.  But I couldn’t keep my mouth shut on this one. I felt compelled to save him. Nonetheless, it’s a faux pas that will go down in history!

And … when it finally occurred to my hubby that maybe he should be stripping the beds and laundering the linens for our extra 13 overnight guests, it only took him a few seconds to reckon that the sheets couldn’t be that dirty since the last time our family stayed over.  Once again, I observed how he was not catching himself on fire to keep others warm. And, you know what?  Everyone slept fine … in those sheets that had not been freshly washed and dried and tucked with crisp hospital corners around the mattresses.

And so … I started to question myself: “Maybe … just maybe … I never needed to do all the fussing and bothering that I believed was such an essential part of Christmas??  Was it possible that I had been burning myself up unnecessarily?

And, in all honesty, I also have to concede that my lack of involvement was just not as nourishing as I thought it would be.  It is simply not my nature to watch from the sidelines.  And … I also recognized, just as the plaque I bought suggested, that much of the Christmas spirit is tucked into the moments between completing all the tasks.  I did offer to help my husband wrap everything … 64 gifts in all … 54 stuffers (9 for each daughter/son-in-law), 8 gifts for the grand-kids and one gift exchange item for each of us. It would have been torture to watch him fumbling with the gift wrap by himself with his fat sausage fingers.  It ended up being quite enjoyable … we cranked up the Christmas tunes and sipped on a nice Cabernet-Sauvignon while we cut and taped and chatted about Christmas’s past.

And then, a day or two later, I literally jumped at the invitation to travel into the city and help my busy daughters wrap their children’s stocking gifts.  I also toted them all home so our grandkids wouldn’t catch sight of any of them in transit to our house. It’s getting harder and harder to uphold the spirit secret of ‘Santa’ as they grow older.  In fact, my bright little 5 year old granddaughter reluctantly but earnestly admitted to her mother “I don’t trust you fully” as she skeptically questioned the whole notion of Santa. It was just no longer adding up for her.  It was an interesting year for my eldest grandson too. Even though, at eleven, he had already given up ‘believing’ … he became suspicious this year when he and sisters each received an iPad equivalent from ‘Santa’.  He reckoned that Santa might indeed have to exist after all.  As he shared with his mom, “I know you and Dad would NEVER get these for us!” Ha ha.

And so, in 2016, a believer becomes a doubter  … and … a doubter flirts with becoming a believer.  Yep.  These are all the priceless moments that catch your heart and make your spirits soar!  And … during my sabbatical, all of my perspectives were being challenged too. It was becoming so clear that the joys that are tucked ‘in-between’ all the toiling and tasking are part of what makes it all merry and bright. And I was learning that it was possible to do so … without catching yourself on fire.

I learned so very, very much during my sabbatical! “In the final analysis” (as I fondly recall my father often saying) … I learned that I was absolutely right: If I didn’t  fuss and bother to do it all, it wouldn’t get done ……… at least not the way I thought it should.  Truth. But … I also learned that perhaps it wasn’t all necessary in the first place.

Yes.  “In the grand scheme of things” (another dad~ism) …  I came to recognize that the multiple and myriad ways I had martyred myself over the years … with the intention of making it merry for others … was pretty much misguided and somewhat unnecessary.  Who knew you could have a completely marvelous time unwrapping gifts in an entirely undecorated room?  Ha Ha. And, although no one baked the annual shortbread cookies … we ended up enjoying all kinds of baking that had been gifted to my eldest daughter. She brought them home for us to share. And, it turned out that my youngest daughter ended up making the ‘Melt-In-Your-Mouth Eggnog’ cookies I had tasted at our staff Christmas luncheon.  These cookies might even de-throne the traditional shortbread as the best cookies for Christmas consumption.  Deeelicious!!!.

Recipe Source: Pintrest … slightly adapted from allrecipes.com and inspired by Parent Pretty

And, what became most evident to me during my sabbatical was that the things that make the season truly merry and bright showed up … our children and their children. Yep. Everything that was essential and important was present.  And, no one had to set themselves on fire to feel the warmth and peace of the holiday.   Oh … and by the way … the clean up is a snap when you most of your decorations are still in the boxes downstairs.

And so, another year has passed by so quickly … and … I am happily back in the ‘make it merry’ saddle again for Christmas 2017.  And, I am realizing that I need to put up lights in the family room because I LIKE LIGHTS.  Not because of some notion that they will brighten Christmas for my family.  I am recognizing that I need to do the things that nourish the spirit of the Season for me … and … drop all the rest.  And … I am, once again, thoroughly enjoying the ambiance created by the lights in the family room this year.

Yes.  My ‘sabbatical’ taught me a whole lot and was deeply transformational for me in terms of the way I am approaching Christmas this year.  I had hoped some of the lessons learned during my sabbatical would be for my husband … and … I think there were some of those too.  But, I see that the greatest ‘ahas’ were for me.  And,  for the first time in many, many years … the preparations don’t feel like a weighty, daunting task. I am greeting them with renewed enthusiasm and zeal.  I am realizing that there is absolutely nothing that MUST be done in any particular way.  And most importantly … I really like the way it feels to fully embrace the notion that I am not required to set fire to myself to have a very delightful Christmas.

And … I am reminded, as 2018 waits eagerly around the corner, that I can show up in a way that keeps me from shivering.  I can ask for help … I can let some things go … I can give myself and my own needs some priority. And not just at Christmas … but the whole year through.

May all our hearts be warmed during the 2017 merry making  – without any singeing of our souls  …  ❤ Karen ❤

 

 

 

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The Gift of Personal Renewal …

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I knew it was time.  I love, love, love my work, but could feel that my usual level of enthusiasm was waning in the mornings.  2016 was a particularly challenging year for me … both in terms of managing other people’s needs/crises/calls for care and also in some deeply personal ways that I may speak about in another blog … some other day.  All in all, by the beginning of September 2016, I was feeling hard pressed to do what I normally do with my usual sense of passion and pleasure.  I can generally force myself to push through feelings of fatigue in order to get things done … so that I can cross all the shoulds/musts/oughts off my ‘to-do’ list … but this malaise felt very different. I sensed with certainty that I could not keep soldiering on without generating some dire consequences. I had to concede that I was wilted and withered and pretty much depleted in terms of my own emotional reserves.

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As a counsellor, I am prone to invite folks to be more compassionate with themselves … to make more time for self-care … to be a little kinder to themselves and give their own needs highest priority for a change.  And so, as my enthusiasm increasingly waned, I knew it was imperative for me to attend my own lecture and amp up my ongoing efforts towards personal renewal. I knew that my clients would be short-changed if I did not pay special attention to the emptiness of my own bucket.  They deserve the best ‘me’ that I can offer them.  And, the very best me is one who is well rested and adequately nourished (emotionally, mentally, physically and spiritually) so that I can be fully present when I am seated before them. And so, I was inspired to take care of me so I could continue to take care of my clients.  It has always been especially important to me that “my being communicates the energy, enthusiasm, respect, love and joy” that my clients deserve “because it will give a hundred-fold power to every act and word” we exchange during their sessions with me.

Some wise soul once said that ‘we can only teach what we have to learn’ and I have to admit that I am far more comfortable giving to others than tending to myself.  In fact, although I am a bit embarrassed to own it publicly … I can very easily gravitate towards martyrdom. Yes. I can be an A+ martyr. But then, one chilly morning as I was driving to work, I heard that still small voice within me say “You need to take a sabbatical.”  

What??  My understanding of a sabbatical is that people take an extensive period of time away from their regular duties in order to study and/or learn something new.  It initially sounded like utter nonsense to me … but by the time I pulled into the parking lot at my office, it had occurred to me that perhaps I needed time away from the ‘giving’ that is my usual way of showing up in the world (both personally and professionally) and, instead, carve out some space to nourish my own soul through ‘receiving.’ Maybe my sabbatical would be about learning to focus a little less on others and listen more compassionately to the whispers of my own soul.  With that insight, I could feel the faintest but most unequivocal squeal of delight escape from somewhere deep in my heart … and … I noticed the corners of my lips involuntarily turned upward.

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So, I walked into my office, switched on my computer and immediately booked my ‘sabbatical.’ I knew I had better act immediately upon my intuitive wisdom … before my head talked martyr me right out of it. Slow but sure, I rescheduled all my commitments for the entire month of December 2016 … except for a mammogram.  I had already rescheduled three times … and … I reckoned that was a form of self-care that I should not delay once again. And when my mother-in-law passed, I stepped up and offered my assistance with a full and open heart … but other than those times, my preference was to start each day without an agenda.  Even before my sabbatical officially commenced, I consciously committed to ‘doing’ less for others and simply ‘being’ more present, aware and attentive to my own needs, wants and desires. I suspected it would be a bit of a challenge to sit in the discomfort these changes would generate and reckoned I needed as much practice as I could get.

One of my first steps leading up to my ‘self-care’ sabbatical emerged when I got brave enough to publicly share a blog I wrote exploring my life long pattern of suffering in silence.  I gave myself permission to speak up on my own behalf about how I had been neglecting my own inner pain. It was deeply cathartic to give myself voice, but at the same time, I felt so incredibly exposed that I experienced quite the vulnerability hangover after I published it.  I had been quite courageous in calling a spade a spade and I expected some people might judge me harshly.  Perhaps some did … but much to my surprise,  I ended up feeling so profoundly touched and generously supported in the ways people kindly and compassionately reached out to me (both privately and publicly).  Yes, sharing my truth so transparently had led to some very meaningful connections.

And speaking of connections, somewhere around the same time, I listened to Glennon Doyle Melton’s “Love Warrior” on Audible. This extra-ordinary memoir fortified my intention to drop the “representative” (the person I feel safe sending out in the world to appropriately ‘represent’ me – the one who typically silences me) and step into more truth-telling, transparency and authenticity (honoring the scared, and vulnerable soul hidden behind the representative).  The book has since been chosen for Oprah’s Book Club … and … as people resonated with the juicy joys of this conversation I received inquiries/suggestions from many hoping I would offer a book study.  I didn’t have it in me at that time to run a group, but I didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity to keep this type of discussion alive in my world.  So, I gifted myself with a chance to meet very informally with just a select few strangers who had specifically reached out to me when I posted my blog.  I didn’t really know them, but I sensed that they might be ‘my people‘  and wanted to get to know them better.  It has been entirely refreshing … and … very nourishing for my spirit!  It’s funny how you can feel so at home with people you don’t even know. I thank myself for being bold enough to ask them to come over and chat a couple of times as I was gearing up for my sabbatical.

Given that my sabbatical officially commenced in December, my husband agreed to shoulder all the responsibilities of Christmas for the first time in our 40 years together.  I can’t even explain how much it delighted me to think that someone else was going to fuss and bother in order to make the season merry and bright for me. And, in the spirit of truth-telling, I have to acknowledge that it didn’t really turn out the way I had imagined … but … it was a very rich experience in countless other ways that I never expected.  I share more about the joys, challenges and learning that came with surrendering this responsibility in another blog entitled “A Slow Burn and the 2016 Christmas Chronicles”.

In order to best honor my self-care intentions during my sabbatical, I resisted any and all urges to attend to any and all things that could be handled by others.  I attended a couple of meetings at work, but only because I really wanted to connect with my colleagues.  They are amazing souls and being with them nourishes me.  I especially enjoyed sipping my coffee in the dark, quiet of the early mornings … savoring the solitude and stillness. It’s always been my favorite part of the day. I also started a 40 day practice inspired by the teaching of A Course in Miracles and compiled into a book called May Cause Miracles: A 40 Day Guidebook of Subtle Shifts for Radical Change and Unlimited Happiness.

One if the assignments is to schedule specific mantras called “miracle moments’ into your smart phone that will regularly alert and remind you to shift away from our habitually negative mindsets (judging, worrying, fearing) into a more love-based perspective (compassion, generosity of spirit, acceptance). More often than not, we cause ourselves unnecessary suffering because we spend so much energy judging things that have already happened … things that we have no power to change.  The ‘miracle’ lies in learning how to be more accepting of the flow of the Universe … even if/when we don’t agree with what is happening. This is not a passive stance … but rather, a significant shift in how we choose to respond to the situations, events, circumstances and people occurring in our lives.

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Yes,  we always have the power to choose how we are going to respond.  Like … for instance, with my mammogram.  It was scheduled for December 9th in Calgary (3 hours from here).  In order to turn that undesirable  experience into something more fitting of my intentions for personal renewal, my bestie agreed to accompany me. We had planned to give each other the gift of time for our birthdays (and maybe a hike in the mountains in June or July) but life had gotten too busy for us to actually do it.  So, we opted to leave for the big city a day early and spend three days and two nights away where we could celebrate our birthdays and generously feed our hearts, minds and bodies! And that we did!!

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A nice little selfie … taken in the lobby of our hotel!

There were so many marvelous moments:

  • If you ever have a chance to go to the Stillwater Spa in Calgary Alberta Canada … DO IT!  I received an absolutely phenomenal 90 minute relaxation massage.  The facility is spectacularly nurturing and calming … and … my insurance covered the entire cost!!  And, while en route to Calgary, we discovered the Trip Advisor‘s #1 rated  Vietnamese Restaurant in Okotoks, Alberta.  It’s called Pho Hoai !  If you ever get there … be sure to have the Chicken Sate!!  It’s not on the menu but they kindly made it for me anyway! Deeelish!!
  • And, one evening, after taste-testing the reduced price ‘happy hour house wine’ at supper … we opted not to settle.  We realized that we tend to ‘make due’ more often than not. We treated ourselves to something that delighted our palates instead.  It cost more, but we determined that we were worthy of the extra investment. It was a simple but meaningful opportunity to be more kind and loving to ourselves.  And, as we savored our sips, we high-fived each other for indulging our own preferences in that moment.
  • And … because we always love to take long walks/hikes together, we capitalized upon something called the ‘Plus 15′ connecting all the buildings in the downtown core of Calgary, Alberta.  We would normally have walked outdoors, but the temperatures (with the wind chill) were dreadfully cold.  The Plus 15 or +15 Skyway  network in  Calgary, Alberta, Canada is reported to be the world’s most extensive pedestrian skywalk system … with a total length of 18 kilometers (11 miles) and 62 bridges. The system is apparently so named because the skywalks are approximately 15 feet (4.5 meters) above street level.  We put a lot of miles on during those few days!!

  • On our last day in the city, we wandered into the fragrance department in Holt Renfrew.  I had never before experienced the kind of ‘high-end’ energy we experienced as when Viktor offered to assist me in finding a new fragrance to replace my old favorite (it’s not available anymore!).  We came home with a bag full of samples and gifts that he kindly packaged up for us! And, guess what?  We were very good receivers. 🙂
  • Oh my … and we howled with laughter every time we heard the ‘miracle moment’ reminder that we had cheekily recorded onto my smart phone.  Imagine the looks on all our faces as the sales clerks and fellow shoppers heard (on each and every hour): “We are playful, spontaneous bad asses out on the town.”  And, if you knew how far removed those adjectives are from our conscientious, responsible, reliable, well-behaved, social worker personas, you’d have a deeper sense of the hilarity of it all.
  • And, at the suggestion of a very sweet soul and colleague, we finished off the weekend by each having a Tarot Card reading by ‘Carl’ at The Divine Mine This new-age store front offers a plethora of divinely inspired services.  I’d never had my cards read before and am happy to report that it was a very rich experience. It was also very affirming. It was uncanny how accurately the reading reflected things that were going on in my life.  I look forward to taking another road trip with my three daughters and re-experiencing the mystery and magic of it again with them!

During my sabbatical, I also had the opportunity to catch some morning television .  Ever watched The Marilyn Denis Show?  It’s a Canadian talk show and it’s entirely entertaining! I thoroughly enjoyed the various segments on home decor/design, fashion musts/mistakes/makeovers, food, drink and fun and frolic!! I really think I would like to be Marilyn’s friend.  I mean it.

And speaking of friends … I knew it would be nourishing for my soul to book some time together with two of my favorite friends.  Our opportunities to connect have diminished over the years, but on this day, we sipped some Malbec, chuckled, snacked on some nice appys, chuckled, and then had a tasty supper together and chuckled some more. We might have shared a tear or two as well. Yes. We shared some smiles, opened our hearts and even posed for a few selfies!!  I so deeply appreciate these glowing souls.  If you would like,to get to know them better, you can read more about them in a blog I wrote a few years back which pays tribute to them.

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Deb, Robin and Karen … and … Karen, Robin and Deb

Speaking of refreshing … despite the sub-arctic  temps, my bestie and I bundled up and hit the walking trail several times over the course of my sabbatical.  On one particularly frigid -25 degree Celsius day, we even made some snow angels in the undisturbed blanket of fresh fallen snow.  When was the last time you made snow angels?  As I reflect upon the moment, it strikes me that this experience makes a great metaphor for humanity:

Beneath all the layers we hide behind to protect ourselves … we are just angels in the making … aren’t we?

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I also used my sabbatical to tap into my creative spirit and created some fabulous photo collage blankets for my daughters.  There was a Cyber Monday sale (heard about it on one of those daytime talk shows!) that got me inspired to do this!! What fun it was to lose myself into the years and years of pictures of my eight cherished grandchildren. Deep, deep, deep delight. I was going to give them to my girls for Mother’s Day but they are made of Sherpa Polar Fleece … a little to heavy for May … even in Alberta.  I stuffed them into their Christmas stockings instead.💚

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Neil and Jack

Olivia, Luka and Lyla

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Hailey, Trad and Talaya

And since my mother-in-law just passed away in October, it was to be our first Christmas without her … and … her birthday was Christmas eve.  Her absence would be deeply felt because my daughters were so very close to her.  And so … in order to honor her importance in their lives, I created a heart-shaped picture ornament of her for each of them … so she might adorn their Christmas trees forevermore.

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Nell Lanser … December 24, 1928 – October 9, 2016.

I also decided to gift myself with a picture ornament of her.  And … in the spirit of honoring my own losses, I created one of my mom and my dad (who have long since passed as well). They remain forever in our hearts  and it sparked so much gratitude in my spirit to see each of them lovingly gracing our tree in the antique looking gold paper and pearl beaded picture holders.  I look forward to seeing them again next year … and … all the years after that.

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Muriel Pauline Star Johnson (Edlund) … April 13, 1925 – December 25-27, 1989                        William Norman Bland Johnson … December 7, 1928 – July 12, 2009

I also enjoyed a juicy and emotionally nourishing FOUR HOUR long distance telephone conversation with my grade school friend Sari.  We’ve been friends for over 50 years but we don’t get to connect very often because we live hundreds of miles apart so it’s not uncommon for us to have lengthy chats, but I think this set the record for a phone call. It takes a special relationship to survive thrive despite the lack of attention ours gets. I’ve also written about what makes Sari so endearing and special to me.  

I rarely go to the theater anymore, but while I was on sabbatical, my hubby and I went to a matinée of Collateral Beauty. I highly recommend you see it.  We sat in a unique place near the front where we could rest our feet on the railing behind the seating area for the disabled.  We finished off the gargantuan popcorn (mostly)with gusto and without apology … even before the show began.  The story line was so compelling … and honestly … so very consistent with where I have been residing in my own emotional self-development.  I shall carry its meaningful message with me as I move through the minutes, days, weeks and years that are yet to come.  In fact, some of the ‘collateral beauty’ I noticed in making the blankets and creating the Christmas ornaments was all the memories that were stirred as I turned the pages on ALL our photo albums.  As reflected in the photos, there has been such extraordinary beauty tucked into my life. Really. Even in the hard times. And, I remain grateful. And, I am inspired to keep shifting into the next best expression of who I can be in the world.

Yes.  Enough martyrdom.  More joy.

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I spent the last two days of my sabbatical in my pajamas.  Never got out of them once.  It was such a comfy, cozy and caring way to conclude my time tending to me …and … to reflect upon the whole process. And, as I made my way back to work I was sensitive to all the . invitations to resume all my ‘regular’ responsibilities I found myself wondering what parts of my ‘sabbatical’ journey I could ensure I took that I could take with me. I must concede that I really enjoyed the slower and less scheduled pace.  I was really antsy at first, but I got to a place where I could feel a softness in my spirit that disappears when I’m running myself ragged with the shoulds, coulds and oughts. I learned that some of the balls I’ve been juggling can fall.  And, I might not need to pick them up again. I’ve learned to hold some stronger boundaries.  I really enjoyed sensing the smile sparked in my own soul by answering its call more frequently.  I really need more time for me in my agenda. I really need to treat myself with more love and kindness and compassion.  I’ve learned that not only my clients deserve the best me I can be … but … so do I.

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What if …?  What if I ensured that the loving and caring and nurturing I gave to others was not at expense to myself (as it does for most martyrs) but rather, was offered from the overflow? What if I made filling my own heart a priority … so full that it might overflow onto every other soul along my path.  What if I shared myself more transparently so others were aware of what I am going through?  What if I gave myself more space in my conversations?  What if I dared to ask for what I needed more often?  What if I quit soldiering on when I am tired? What if …?

Perhaps the most important thing I have taken away from this experience is this: I don’t really want the energetic resonance I enjoyed in my sabbatical to end.  And, maybe it doesn’t have to end.  Maybe there are ways I can continue to savor this vibrational frequency for always!

And before you know it … and before I have even published this blog … we are nearly all the way through 2017!  I am happy to report that I have been more conscious of the way I fill my day-timer though.  I wanted this to be the year where my own personal renewal was not reduced to a yearly event penciled in as a ‘sabbatical’ … but rather … become a daily, weekly and monthly investment in nurturing my own tender, precious spirit. It didn’t always turn out that way.  We experienced 3 deaths in our family over a period of 10 month … so … there were times when self-care took the back burner again.  But … I have learned that our investment in our personal renewal is an essential gift we must give to ourselves.

And, I must perpetually endeavor to remember that “This must not be a footnote, but the main body of my life and my work”  …  Karen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Suffering in Silence …

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We can never really know when those moments of ‘awakening’ will happen.  When all of a sudden something comes into full view that was prickly and palpable but just a bit too blurry, obscured and covert to detect really clearly.   One of the most poignant ‘ahas’ that I’ve had in a long time popped up very unexpectedly (nearly two years ago) after I received a distressed call that my mother-in-law had been rushed to the hospital … again.  My very beloved in-laws (Oma, now 87 and Opa, now 91) had been enduring storm after storm of medical crises (for several years in a row) …  with countless trips to the ER … numerous hospital stays … and many lengthy and lonely convalescences. We had been desperately craving some calm … not just for them but also for us.

But on that particular day, with no sunny skies in sight, I dropped whatever I was doing and made another 45 minute commute into the ER because no one should be alone in a storm. My heart sank as I saw Oma stretched out on the gurney and the man who had been her husband for over six decades was pacing and perturbed and clearly paled by his powerless to protect her.  The energy in the room told me this foreboding squall was not going to blow over quickly.

Yes, it was dire. And Oma was done. She was begging us to let her go this time… to find a way to end her suffering.  She was pleading with me … with us … in barely discernible whispers to“please” make it stop.  It had been too long.  She’d spent too many fractured years bravely overcoming one hurdle only to find herself promptly propped up against another one.  It was clear that she was not one bit interested in soldiering on through the pain of helplessness and subsequent hopelessness that she had so long been feeling.  She wanted it to be over.

I had seen her flirting with defeat before … but never like this. For many years prior to my arrival in the Lanser family some 40 years ago, Oma had already been an “invalid” (her term, not mine) … she could not brush her own hair or cut her own meat or wipe her own bottom.  And aside from lamenting that “It’s always something”… she really didn’t much complain. We knew she had her bad days, but I was invariably inspired by her attitude and the good-natured grace from which she courageously coped with her discouraging decline and undeniable debilitation.  And, I bore witness to the depth of her determination as she willed herself to persevere and to endure the surgeries and the long and tedious recoveries and the endless hours in physiotherapy in hopes that she could optimize her mobility and/or, at the very least, retain what little autonomy she still had left.  She laboured so hard physically and I intuitively knew she had to work just as hard psychologically to ensure those gloomy daily battles didn’t take her down emotionally.

But in the ER on that particular day … it was clearly all too much.   She wanted it to stop and begged us to spare her of more misery. When Opa’s eyes met mine, I could see him uncomfortably scouring his soul … how he could ever even consider letting her go? My heart ached deeply for both of them.

When the physician finally arrived into assess her condition … Oma compliantly shifted into ‘good’ patient mode and tried with muffled effort to answer the doctor’s questions. I had to help translate because she has a strong Dutch accent and was slipping in and out of English.  At one point, she offered a half-hearted smile in response to the something soothing that the doctor said and eventually she mustered enough strength to defeatedly but clearly declare, “I don’t want to be here.” The doctor was kind and caring and thought Oma meant she didn’t want to be ‘here’ in the hospital … not realizing she actually meant not ‘here’ in her life.  When the doctor compassionately responded that she’d try to get her “out of here” as soon as possible, the floodgates opened. She didn’t want to go home, she wanted to go HOME. Her suffering cascaded down her cheeks in torrents of anguish.  And although it was absolutely agonizing to see her in such a state of despair, I was not prepared for happened next.  As soon as the doctor had left, Opa leaned in toward Oma and told her with a very stern and almost scolding tone: “You had a smile for the doctor. You can have one for us.”

I was stunned.  Whatttt? I could not even fathom what I was hearing.  It took me a minute to recover and recognize that this was Opa’s own angst and terror talking. He was entirely overwhelmed himself and couldn’t bear to witness the weight of her woundedness.  He needed a reprieve … even if it was at her expense.  And so he took it the only way he knew how … he ordered it.

And with his words … I watched her eyes become vacant and a solemn stare washed over her face. She then closed her eyes while she obediently retrieved any and all expression of her agony and she buried it somewhere deep inside her.  She lost her tears and became stoic, stalwart and completely silent.  I stood there, dumbfounded by the depths of sheer despair I could hear screaming out despite her sobered silence.  And I sensed from her rapid response to his request that this was not the first time she had been required to put her pain away … to keep it out of sight.

And I understood, in that very telling exchange, that part of her survival story was to repress whatever she sensed was not welcome to express.  Oma had learned to silence her suffering in order to spare others. There was a time to stop feeling sad and find a smile instead. AND, in the transparency of that blatant shushing of my ‘invalid’ mother-in-law … her pain was  rendered absolutely ‘in-valid’.

I instantly felt appalled and ashamed that for all these years I, too, had unwittingly perpetuated this discounting of her despair by applauding her admirable attitude.  I had misinterpreted her smiles as strength. I saw them as an absence of suffering … rather than a stoic and stalwart silencing of it.  It sickened me to the core of my being.

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Though not a word was spoken … the dissonance was deafening.  It was all too obvious to me now. What we were seeing on her outsides was not necessarily what she was feeling on her insides. This reckoning stirred up something deep in my soul that resonated with the pain of betraying one’s inner truth. How had I been so obtuse?  How could I not see in her what was all too familiar to me?  How had I missed this for so long??  I, too, had learned long, long ago how to muzzle my misery and quietly repress any wounding, pain or hurt that I was experiencing. Phewwwww.

In one sense I knew that I had been doing it, but like the twist of a kaleidoscope … I was seeing the same pieces of my life through different eyes.  A new picture was emerging that left me squirming uncomfortably. Seeing a ‘silencing’ so blatantly imposed upon someone else brought forth a recognition that I had been covertly but completely complicit in a lifetime of dismissing my own heartache … silencing my own pain … and pretending everything was ‘fine’ when it wasn’t. And, sadly, I had become really good at it.

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Source Unknown

And once you ‘see’ something, you can’t not see it anymore! Like rocks in a landslide colliding within my consciousness, I was instantaneously bombarded with memories of moments where, time and time again, I had forced myself for various reasons to also suffer in silence. I was so grievously saddened as I started sifting through all the evidence my heart had been holding. It became all to apparent that, over the years, I had morphed into a most magnificent martyr.

I could see as a child, how I deliberately silenced my pain in order to spare myself the shame … my alcoholic father, my mother’s multiple medical issues and diagnosis of manic-depression (Bipolar) … her subsequent addiction/abuse of prescription drugs … her stays in the psyche ward … their divorce … my time in foster care … the neglect and lack of nurture … the feelings of abandonment … the deep desire to ‘fit in’ to something you could be proud of … the longing to feel appreciated and approved of and maybe even respected.  And so … as a child, I opted to put a smile on my face and pretend everything was fine.  I have spoken to this more fully in a previous blog.  My pain was fully and completely silenced … even from myself … for many, many years until it was innocently and unexpectedly awakened in a mother’s group I was attending after we had children. You can read more about that here.

And so … about motherhood. For me, it was another long season of  harsh and heartless silencing.  I learned that what I really wanted to acknowledge was not culturally appropriate. New mothers are not supposed to discuss how horribly hard it can be to give your life over to a child.  Apparently, it was the best time of my life and it was going to go by so quickly that I should longingly adore it all completely. Every. Single. Moment.  I feel compelled in this moment to reassure all of you that I truly feel blessed to have been a mother. I absolutely do. From my humble perspective, motherhood is not a binary experience … it’s not good or bad … it’s not an either/or, but rather … it is an integrated both/and.   From where I am looking, it’s the ultimate in both agony and ecstasy.  I deeply cherish my opportunity to be a mother and the years did indeed fly by … but some of those days were the longest and most demanding in my whole life.

You see, I have been married for 39 years to an old fashioned, traditional, hard-working male … and from the generation from which he was looking,  parenting was “women’s work.”  I had no mom, mom-in-law or sisters to lean on, so I was in the trenches alone. There was no real interest in sharing the load because, at the time, I don’t think he actually believed it was a load or even work for that matter.  He erroneously assumed that because I ‘got’ to stay home, he was the only one working. He realizes now that he was the only one being paid for his work, but back then my efforts to explain my discontent were often met with quizzical looks and/or discomfort and/or frustration and/or a deaf ear.  And from what I could tell, other women seemed to be content with this binary set up. So, I learned to silence my grrrrrrrrrr.  Aside from one other friend and confidant, I had no where safe to put that conversation, so I buried my pain and put a smile on my face.  I acted like nothing was wrong, pretended that it was all perfect and soldiered on.  And, I hid it all so masterfully, that no one else was the wiser about how deeply fractured I felt or how deeply alone and unsupported I really felt in the parenting arena.

And it made matters worse that we had moved to my husband’s home town  … a very small, rural town so he could go back to farming.   I had reasoned with myself that I could be a wife and mother anywhere. I clearly had no effing clue just how arduous that would actually end up being.  But I couldn’t let myself complain … because I had willingly agreed to go and didn’t want him to feel guilty.  No one had told me, though, that the good and kind people who live in a small town already have their circles of belonging.  They don’t need to make friends with the new girl. They are more likely to gossip about her long blonde hair and her jewelry and her eye-liner than invite her for coffee.

I could not have been prepared for how my cosmopolitan roots were going to generate so much ostracism. Unfortunately, I’ve got oodles of examples to draw from … but the worst of it was probably when my mom died at Christmas in 1989 (almost a decade after we moved to that little town). I had deliberately silenced my grief in my home because I didn’t want to worry my daughters by crying in front of them. So, I took my pain for some long walks around town thinking I could hide the torrents of my tears behind my sunglasses.  I learned later that I had been nicknamed “crystal ass” … and then … my daughter came home one day and said her friend’s mom had declared I was a “slut.” Oooouch.

Apparently they determined I was “pedaling my ass around town.”  It was agonizing to be so misunderstood. I got self-righteous and brave one day and tried to address it with one of them.  Let’s just say it didn’t go well.  I suspected I was just making it worse so I downplayed how deeply isolating and hurtful my experience had been. I pretended everything was fine … even though I ached to put a huge sign up on the post office bulletin board … calling them out name by name by name … and … telling them all to shove their mean-spirited judgments right up their own miserable asses.  But …  I didn’t.

It became clear that taking a sanctimonious shot at any of them would not have served the greatest good in the situation. And so I hid all my pain again.  I was am a master at it.  I have been practicing my hiding since I was a wee child. I wonder, though, how often I looked like Oma did when I, too, lost my tears, retrieved all expressions of my pain, buried them deep down inside and pasted a strong and convincing smile on my face instead.  I’d gotten so damn good at repressing my hurt by then that I am sure people believed my sunny disposition was an honest reflection of my idyllic life.  Eventually, I did make some very good friends … and for them I am eternally grateful, but I’m guessing very few, if any of them, had any real clue about the deep ache in my heart.

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And I do look happy. Even to this day, I think most people believe my life is filled with clear blue skies, bright sunshine and lots of lollipops. I’m guessing that is so because it is really quite rare for people to sincerely inquire “How are you doing?” In their defense though, why would they ask … I always look like I AM just fine. And so, for the most part, people tend to connect with me when they need to lean in … when they need support.  And, I am so deeply honored to be invited into people’s hearts (both personally and professionally) and trusted with the most fragile parts of their souls.  It is both my most passionate pursuit in life and my most nourishing purpose. So, please, please, please don’t get me wrong here … I treasure the opportunity to be of service but I’d also like to feel people’s efforts to connect with me are sparked by their affection and interest in me, not just their need of me.

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And, I’d be remiss without sharing that I’ve also felt the need to stifle all the embarrassment I feel for being such a ‘fun sucker.’ It’s always been a challenge for me to simply ‘let loose’ with my husband and our girls and my grandchildren. As I shared in a prior post:

The shame and neglect of my early years has shaped my overly ‘anxious mind’ and unfortunately, it takes a whole schwack of energy to manage the various worries, uncertainties, reservations , doubts, qualms and fears that persistently and unpredictably pop into my awareness.  When uttered in the past, my husband would shake his head in stunned disbelief as my neurotic ramblings effectively sucked any potential for joy out of the moment.  Pretty soon, I just quit sharing them out loud …

The anxious mind is so bewildering for people to comprehend.  It’s not rational at all.  Not even to me. So how could it make any logical sense to others?  How I wish I could just “relax and have fun” within the cacophony of noise and chaos and dangers that my highly sensitive spirit and highly-kindled brain is on high alert for when the house is filled with of all of us. It sounds so reasonable … and yet … is always a struggle for me. So I do my best to manage my jacked-up amygdala and try not to suck all the fun out of the space when the alarm bells are going off unnecessarily in my head.

I know I have chosen to silence myself on many occasions because I truly am a “Highly Sensitive Person” I am acutely aware of the energy in a room.  I can sense when people are hurting and then I worry that maybe I have done something to upset them.  Gah.  It’s tough, because I do not wish to harm anyone with my words, thought or deeds. If it would seem that my perspective would be uncomfortable or unwelcome in a situation, I have often muzzled myself. While I will introduce ‘hard conversations’ in the counselling room or the coaching domain, I refrain from doing so in my personal world without an invitation.  And it would be completely outside my character to publicly unleash any un-tempered anger … even when doing so would protect me from victimization. I can think of at least three times that has happened in my professional career. Arghhhhh.

It does not escape me that there comes a time when protecting others becomes injurious to oneself. And yet, I am forever checking whether the things I am about to say  would improve on the silence.  Is what I need to say kind, true, necessary or helpful?  If not, I have voluntarily silenced myself on many occasions when I actually have had a whole lot I could say!!  And it can often be at great expense to myself that I will stifle a whole conversation because I just don’t want to hurt others. I’ve even considered deleting parts of this blog because I worry that I have cast some of my loved ones in a bad light. All the second guessing is brutal … and … prickly … and … sometimes excruciating.

And so …  in that split second … in that ER room with my precious in-laws … I had some clear insight into the unhealthy nature of the patterns that have been chronically, quietly and subconsciously running my life.  The truth is that I have resisted giving myself permission to bleed in public … it’s seems way too risky. In fact, the more I am hurting, the quieter I will usually get.  It’s become a habit … not always adaptive.  I am far more willing  to discuss my pain once it’s been healed and the lesson from my wounding might be of service to another . Yes. I am more comfortable speaking from the scar.  It just feels so much safer … so much tidier.

However, I am sensing that I need to change this because it is not working all that well for me anymore.  I think a part of me has always known I need to change this, but I have effectively silenced that awareness too.  It seems so very scary to stand before someone … naked in your pain-filled truths … before there is enough scar tissue to protect you.  I’m not yet great with vulnerability.

But … I keep getting nudges from the Universe telling me I don’t have to keep suffering in silence.  Maybe I don’t have to keep doing the hard parts alone. Maybe I shouldn’t expect myself to weather the storms alone any more than I expect Oma should go through them alone. I certainly don’t expect my clients to do that. I don’t expect my friends or children to do that either. Maybe I need to start giving to myself what I most love to give to others … a soft, compassionate and safe place to bleed … a tender touch on an open wound … a safe place to heal the pain. I hope I can be brave enough to keep doing this because I still have some things to say … some things that still have tears attached to them. Yes. There is more to work through.

And so, if you are still here reading … after I have taken up so much of your time with this very long 3550+ word oration  … thank you for staying with me … thank you for not ducking out because I have been so incredibly long winded … thank you for holding a safe space for me,  Karen

P.S. My mother-in-law survived that storm on that particular day … and since then … has gone on to endure many more.  Sadly, she and Opa are struggling once again.  We are hoping they will soon find themselves enjoying fairer weather.  Cross your fingers for them okay?

P.P.S. Oma did not survive that last storm. She left this physical plane on October 9, 2016. We honor her strength and cherish memories of our times together.

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I Put Up a Wall …

two people

Source Unknown

I put up a wall to keep you out … because I am wounded and fragile and afraid you will hurt me.

You see my wall and feel rejected.

You perceive my wall as a judgment or criticism of you.

The space between us becomes large and ominous … and … keeps us from truly seeing each other.

It keeps us from truly loving each other and meeting each others needs … which we could do and would do … if we weren’t looking at exactly the same thing and seeing something totally different.

If only we could see through the wall.

If only we could feel each others vulnerability.

But we don’t.

And so we both suffer … needlessly.

Source Unknown

There are times when we need to wall up,  but … not all the time, Karen

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Understanding the INFJ in your Life … yep, that would be me.

Understanding your INFJ

“The Care and Feeding of INFJs”  by Matt Knight

It happens a lot.  A whole lot. Actually, it’s been happening for all my life. I’m not exactly sure why OR how to manage it … but my experience is this: I am misunderstood.  Often. Too often.  And it is so damn frustrating.

And so … when I came upon this short little presentation (just click on the picture to view it) I decided it might be wise to share it publicly.  I am reassured and yet, somehow at the same time, deeply unsettled when people (who I DO know) don’t seem to get me and then someone named Matt Knight (who I DO NOT know) can describe me (for the most part) with such pin point accuracy. How is it that he can peg me so astutely … in the most significant ways?  Aren’t we, as human beings, supposed to be as unique as snowflakes?  How can he so casually and clearly names the parts of myself that are so often misunderstood?

While it is exceptionally tempting to discount the validity and reliability of popular personality ‘tests’,  I’ve taken the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator or some popular variant of it at least three times over the last 25 years and have gotten exactly the same results.  It’s certainly consistent …

So, on behalf of myself and any other INFJs whose family members/friends/colleagues may be struggling to understand us, I am sharing this Prezi (it’s a new fangled special kind of slide show) because this is a very accurate description of myself! 

While only three people in 100 will fall into the  category of INFJ, I actually know a very disproportionate number of INFJs!  Many are my colleagues and some are my friends and I welcome them with open arms as kindred spirits.  We get each other. I guess we tend to be drawn to the same circles … and … this presentation demonstates why so many of us become counsellors/therapists.

Even if you are not in relationship with an INFJ, maybe this entertaining little slideshow will inspire you take the MBTI test yourself or some popular variant of it (these are free of charge and/or maybe easier to navigate) and see if it resonates as accurately for you as it did for me. I’d love to hear about your experience!

Either way, I take this opportunity to welcome you to my inner world … Karen  🙂

 

 

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[Guest Post]:The Sensitive People In The World

I’ve personally spent much of my life ashamed of my sensitivity. I’ve spent countless days, months and year trying NOT to be sensitive. My sensitivity has often felt like a fatal flaw in my character.  I think I have finally come to accept/embrace both the gifts and challenges of being a sensitive soul.

This beautiful reflection resonated so deeply for me … I just had to share it … in case you too are a sensitive soul … or … in case you are living with one or in love with one!

With deepest gratitude to Shannon L. Alder for composing this and with heartfelt appreciation to Positive Outlooks Blog for sharing this.

And … with warm hugs to all of you from sensitive me, Karen

Positive Outlooks

Sensitive people are the most genuine and honest people you will ever meet. There is nothing they won’t tell you about themselves if they trust your kindness. However, the moment you betray them, reject them or devalue them, they will end the friendship. They live with guilt and constant pain over unresolved situations and misunderstandings. They are tortured souls that are not able to live with hatred or being hated. This type of person needs the most love anyone can give them because their soul has been constantly bruised by others. However, despite the tragedy of what they have to go through in life, they remain the most compassionate people worth knowing and the ones that often become activists for the broken-hearted, forgotten and the misunderstood. They are angels with broken wings that only fly when loved. — Shannon L. Alder

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Facing our Dragons …

Dear Steph and Bryan

I recently attended a wedding.  It touched me in a very meaningful way.  It was the kind of wedding that penetrates your soul because the energy of love was palpable and pervasive throughout the entire event.  I popped the bride and groom a little note to share my reflections about it. I received permission from them to publicly share my meanderings with you here.  Aside from a taking a few editorial liberties to ensure their anonymity and to polish things up a bit for publication, here is what I shared:

Dear Bride and Groom,

We enjoyed your wedding so much! Right from the ceremony itself … to the East Coast influence of fun and frolic on the dance floor … to the delightful taste sensations … to the warm and vulnerable speeches that touched and tickled my heart in so many ways.  I scribbled something in the guestbook in the small margin of space at the bottom of the page that I selected … something about hoping that the love and light and laughter you enjoyed on your wedding day would multiply over the years to come. I didn’t have space to say what I wanted to say. I’m not sure why I didn’t turn the page … maybe it was the late hour, or maybe the Malbec. It really doesn’t matter but …

I woke up in the early morning hours after your wedding (I think it was still in the sixes) and my hubby was still asleep. I made my way quietly to the desk and with the little lamp lighting up the darkness I picked up the complimentary pen and note pad provided by the Wingate by Wyndham Hotel and while I was waiting for the one cup coffee maker to drip me a little disposable cup of decaf coffee, I jotted down what I wish I had said in your book.

Here is what I penned on those three double-sided sheets of that little wee pad …

“It was so refreshing to marinate in the pure love expressed throughout your wedding day. The words in the ceremony were so moving and brought tears to my eyes … and I noticed that the groom never took his eyes off his gorgeous bride. I said to my friend seated beside me, who was equally touched, “That boy is in love!

I repeated it again to my husband … who knowingly nodded (with a tear leaking out of his eye too) because we both know all too well what that actually means. At the risk of projecting our experience onto you … may I share what was going through our minds at that moment.

It means that the groom is completely vulnerable. It means that he is ‘all in’. It means that the bride must be very cautious lest she unwittingly injure his fragile and unprotected heart. It means that he has never been more likely to get wounded in his whole life.

Paradoxically, it means that he could say or do things that are seemingly inconsiderate or thoughtless (to her) but perceived as ‘completely insignificant’ to him (knowing how much he adores his bride). These things, however, might spark some anxiety, frustration or pain in the heart of the bride because, unfortunately, she is not looking at the situation through his eyes.

Of course, he’ll have a hard time understanding her sensitivity because all he can see and feel is how much he cherishes her and, therefore, her fears may seem unfounded to him. As such, her concerns may fall on deaf ears at times. So, if I had a suggestion it would be this:

If the bride is hurting, please be willing to look for what she is seeing on her side of the coin. Even though you are seeing ‘tails’ (the maple leafs on your side of that shiny penny), she may be seeing ‘heads’ as she stares straight into the face of the stately Queen and the date stamp on the other side of that exact same coin. It’s so important to remember that the same coin (or event, situation, circumstance) looks different to everyone depending upon their perspective.

Couples have been defending what they see on their side of the coin for hundreds of years … strongly defending the accuracy of their viewpoint … arguing mercilessly with each other hoping to somehow prove how right they are and how wrong their partner is … all the while forgetting about the fragile and vulnerable hearts that are getting trampled in their self-righteous exchange.

From where I am looking, it’s far better to see if you can identify with what part of their perspective might be even a wee bit true. We must remember to be gentle with such valuable but vulnerable hearts especially when we are wounded. It’s tricky, though, because when we are most wounded … we APPEAR angry rather than hurt. It’s very tricky to remember that.

And, of course, if the bride is anything like me … that timid, scared little girl (who needed her mom to follow the bus to school) stills lives within the heart of that strong, independent and competent bride. She’s just harder to identify now … because this woman is clearly so bright and beautiful and smart and strong. She’s managing her anxious mind much better than when she was little … but … she has just vowed to let the groom into her heart space. Oh my, she is now wide open to wounding. The groom must not let her capable, competent demeanor fool him in those delicate moments. She needs to know she can lean in on the groom and he will be there … really be there … not just with one eye on her and the other eye still on the hockey game.

She is going to need her groom to help her quiet the anxious thoughts that might sometimes blindside her at the worst possible moment. She doesn’t need him to fix it … no … she’ll figure it out. She just needs somewhere safe to put her tears. She needs to know she can trust him to honor her most tender scaredy-cat moments of insecurity. She needs to know that he will not dismiss how big her emotions feel to her in that moment. Yes, she’ll work through it herself … of course she will … but when you love someone, you don’t want to leave them alone to fight their dragons … however real or imagined.

In almost 38 years of marriage and 10 years of counselling/coaching people, I have learned that it serves us best when we unite in love and face our dragons together … in solidarity … because we all have them. Even the best of us have insecurities and fears and wounds and scars from our prior lived experience. We need to be able to count on our partner to have our backs when the world seems too fierce and formidable to handle on our own.

That said, I am not sure if any of this will make sense to you … until it does. In the meantime, I am wishing you both an incredibly beautiful journey … one in which your hearts remain safe enough to stay as open and vulnerable as they were on your wedding day!

I can still feel the love that was in that room.

What an amazing young man!

What an extraordinary young woman!

And … as two remarkable families unite, the joys are simply multiplied …

Yes. This is what I wanted to write in your guest book.

With deepest respect,
Karen

A Tragic Misunderstanding …

With acknowledgement to the Internal Acceptance Movement [I.A.M.]

My ‘effing’ story got me again.  It’s so frustrating because as a counsellor/therapist and life coach I have been impeccably trained to help people bust through the nasty stories that are lurking insidiously in the shadows of their minds.  In fact, I’m actually really good at it.  I’m usually pretty good at managing my own unfavorable narratives too, but …

Every once in a blue moon the most painful ‘shadow belief’ that tagged along from my childhood literally blindsides me.  It reeks sheer havoc with my soul and then leaves me shattered, shaken and grievously grappling for solace.  And I get so frustrated, because although I KNOW that my story isn’t true … when it takes hold … it FEELS so true. And, my logical mind can’t seem to talk my emotional heart out of it’s desperate despair.

My “I don’t matter” story is strong and powerful and perilously persistent.  It emerged in my childhood … an erroneous interpretation of a wee little girl just trying to make sense of the neglect she experienced in a dysfunctional home ravaged by addictions and mental health issues. She couldn’t see, at the time, that her parents were caught up in the wounds of their own painful dramas.  So instead, she attributed their lack of attention to her needs as a reflection of  her own insignificance.  A tragic misunderstanding.  A terribly tragic misunderstanding.

Through the exceptional body of work inspired by the late Debbie Ford, I’ve been effectively ‘rewiring’ the neuro-template that was firmly etched into my psyche by that erroneous interpretation.  Thankfully, it doesn’t take me down all that often anymore, but … if/when it gets away on me, that negative cognition has the capacity to so steal so much joy from my heart … and … it can convincingly morph itself into any number of painful correlates:

“Nobody REALLY cares about me.”

“My needs are meaningless to others.”

“I’m completely expendable.”

“I’m absolutely inconsequential”

“I’m only appreciated for what I can give to/do for others.”

Blah … Blah … Blah … Blah … Blah. 

Recently, while marinating in the vulnerability of that unfavorable quagmire, I found myself beseeching  a miracle.  I was pleading for a merciful release from the wretched pain of that effing story. And … low and behold … I came upon Daniell Koepke.  Her words landed gently like a warm and loving salve on the jagged and raw edges of my tattered and torn heart.  Who was this person who knew exactly what I needed to be reminded of in the agonizing ache of those moments??

I felt compelled to look her up.  It turns out she has inspired the Internal Acceptance Movement.  She has written some inspiring reflections!  She was my angel in that moment offering a meaningful measure of pure grace and the miracle I was looking for … the ability to shift my perceptions from an energy of fear to a spirit of love and acceptance. So I’d like to say “Thank you Daniell.”  Your thoughtful perspective answered my call.

And … I am sharing this with all of you publicly because I want to pay forward the blessings in her wise words – just in case, you too, find yourself consumed by a painful belief you’ve lugged along from your past … and … just in case, you too, are in need of a wee miracle.  If so, you might let some of her words wash warmly over your soul  when you are in need of some help busting out of your own sad story …

With deepest respect for our collective wounding, Karen

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I Never Talked About It …

I never talked about it.  I tucked it all away, deep down inside where no one could see it. Not even me.

No, I never talked about it until one day when I was attending a young mother’s group.  I was about 30 years old … with three darling daughters.  The guest presenter was speaking about the challenges of parenting and invited us to recall the warm and wonderful times in our childhood when we felt safe and protected and happy and coddled.  Huh?  The naive assumption that we all came from that enviable place surprised me.  I could not resonate with where she was trying to take us … at all. I looked around the room. People were smiling … nodding.  Some were tearing up in fond recollection. I went numb for a moment.

And then it hit me … and … I swallowed hard to hide the tears that nearly escaped … right there …  in front of all those lovely young mothers caught up in that heavenly melancholic moment. My story was not their story.  I felt like I just didn’t fit in.  I remember thinking, “I don’t belong here.” 

I went home and cried. A hard cry.  And … the lid came off.  It all came pouring out of me … in streams that chafed my cheeks and welted up the tender corners of my eyes.  And then I got mad … MAD.  How dare this gracious ‘presenter’ with the Hallmark childhood so cavalierly ignite the pain I had tucked away so effectively for so long! How dare she obliviously obliterate my strong, capable, logical, ‘I can handle anything’ persona.  I felt fragmented and fragile and I couldn’t seem to collect myself with any degree of predictability.  I simply could not get the lid back on it.  And I tried … believe me I tried.

I’m not sure when I conceded … when I decided that it was time to tell my story rather than continue hiding it and hiding from it.  Somehow, between the sadness that surprised me and the struggle to ignore it,  I realized that I would need to ‘feel it’ in order to ‘heal it’.  And THAT was certainly not a straight path. Nor easy.  I was flooded with painful memories and I didn’t have a  clue where to put them or how to carry them out there in the real world. 

I started talking about it.  I guess I shared too much … too often …  because then someone said, “Is that is all she ever talks about?”  Perhaps that was true.  Maybe the pendulum had swung the other direction … when the lid blew off the mess was hard to contain.  What I heard her saying was:  “No one really wants to hear about it”.  Ouch.

And I almost silenced myself again.  Out of shame.  Far be it for me to take up space where my story was not wanted.  I had no idea where it belonged …where I belonged.  Fortunately for me, I found a place to put it. I found a place where my story was honored.  And I felt heard.  And I found some beautiful gifts that had been tucked into my story.  And it felt good.  And I learned that these things need to be spoken of … because  all wounds need a compassionate witness if we are to finally make peace with them.

Ultimately, I found a safe place to lean in and embrace my own story.  It scares me to think of where I would be had I not discovered the divine body of work founded by Debbie Ford.  I got some good counseling too.  Yes. I did.  And … it transformed my life.  So much so that I found my calling.  I trained with Debbie Ford herself and also went back to school and earned my MSW.  Now, I get to coach and/or counsel those who need a safe and compassionate place to own their stories and help them learn to thrive despite the pains of their past.

 I could never have anticipated the miracle and magic of owning my story. I still talk about it  … sometimes.  And other times I blog about it.  Mostly, though, I share it when I think it will be meaningful to others. I am learning that there are times when my prior lived experience really resonates with the people I am working with and fosters their own capacity to heal.  And, in the communion of our stories, we are liberated. And we are understood. And we find a place where we belong.

And yes, there are still those times when I sense that my story is not welcome … places where it is not a good fit.  But that doesn’t mean my story doesn’t matter.  It does.  And so does yours.  I hope that you, too, will be brave enough to find a safe and compassionate place to share it!  It matters … and  you never know … you might just find some magic and/or a miracle or two wrapped into it.

Daring Greatly,  Karen

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