Dear Mary, You're doing it wrong. Sincerely, Life

Photo by Jonathan Gibson   

Photo by Jonathan Gibson

 

It's already the middle of December folks. A couple weeks out from tallying up the highs and lows of 2016 and getting ready to resolve to be a whole, better, new, and improved version of you (who you didn’t quite get around to this past year).


Before you do that, hold up a sec.

Don't reach for the vino and remote, and start thinking about the craptastic year you had or any number of coulda, woulda, shoulda moments you missed out on (and before you head over to Facebook to tell every body about said craptastic year), I am here, as your Humble Ambassador from the Other Side, to tell you: Cut that  s#@t out.

It’s pointless. And it’s how I got into the deep, dark, self-delusional, self-hating hole I lived in in 2015—where I was living for the two years prior to that. Yep, in October 2015, that hole had gotten so big, so dark, I contemplated jumping inside it and never coming back out. Yes, me, mother of two, loving wife, proud, outspoken supporter of mental health awareness, couldn’t tie my own sneakers without bursting into tears. I lay awake at night questioning my worth, my humanity. I had lost all hope, actually. the apt turn is: I was drowning. I felt useless. I felt depleted. I felt broken.

I was deeply, deeply unhappy.

But, I am a wife. I am a mom. I had to keep going. I had work to do. I had breakfast to make. I had musicals to attend. I had homework to check. A house to clean. You get the drift. I was physically spent too. The long hours at work, the stress—needless, ridiculous amounts of stress—weighed on my body. I could barely move. I was in pain. I was stiff. My eyes puffed out. My hair fell out. I had pneumonia—for three months.

The Day Everything Changed

One morning, I woke up and I believe it was Grace, God, source Energy, (whatever you want to call it) poked me and said, “Seriously, kid. You’re doing it wrong. There is a better way. Trust me. Life was not meant to be this hard. I gave you a gift, and you're crapping all over it.”

So in 2016, I decided to Choose the Good. Slow down. Breathe. Say no more to drama (my own mostly) and spend less time on people and projects that didn’t care about me as much I cared about them. I told myself I was going to tell the truth. I was going to tell others exactly what I wanted, what I needed, and what I was expecting. I decided to take 100 percent responsibility for my own happiness, health, and well-being. I was going to stop working when I was tired. I was going to go to bed when I was tired. I was going to get up when I was rested. I was going to read the books I love. I was going to turn off the television. I was going to get out and walk, do yoga, and meditate every day. (In fact every day, I wrote the same 3 non-negotiables down on my daily to-do list: 1. Meditate/Pray. 2. Yoga/Walk. 3. Read/Write.)  I replaced my usual long list of to-dos and places to go and things to achieve with these “good” things that fill me up as a person. (Your list of daily non-negotiables might be something completely different.) You know what your non-negotiables are when you realize that if don’t do those things, you feel pretty lousy.

How’d I fit all this in?

I prioritized.

Sleep meant more to me than Big Bang Theory reruns at 11 p.m. I went to bed shortly after the kids did and I got up at 4 a.m. instead. I prayed and mediated and did yoga before the sun came up. I took a walk—twenty minutes—after each meal (that’s 60 minutes of cardio without even thinking about it or changing for the gym). I read every morning and night. (Well, writing is what I do for a living, but still I scheduled an hour of “writing just for me” into my day as well.) By the time April came around, I was losing weight without adhering to a diet. The pain was gone in my body, and my tolerance for other people’s negativity seemed to be improving. In a word, I was feeling pretty chill.

I started to be more intentional.

Meditation made me more present. I couldn’t be overwhelmed with anxiety about the future, because, duh, I was present in the moment. I couldn’t feel angry or hurt about the past, because I was present in the moment. I had a bit more bounce in me too. Things started to just roll off me. When people screamed at me (and they did--at work and  home) I could sit calmly and repeat silently to myself: "This is not about me. They have deep work to do. This too shall pass." And as I chilled out so did my kids. (The old adage, “If Mama ain’t happy, nobody is” is true.) My anxiety, stress, hostility, hopelessness, and desperation had started to show up in my kids. But, funny thing, without changing a thing in them or even focusing on their behavior, they started to laugh more, relax more, sleep better, and feel better in general. 

I sought help from professionals.

By June, I discovered hypnotherapy—(If you live in Cincinnati, I highly recommend Nicole Jeffries. Her methods transformed my life.) For the first time in years, I wasn’t haunted by past experiences. I was more alive and awake in my daily activities. I felt healthier than I had ever been too. By focusing on breathing, staying present, and shifting to a positive, life-affirming mindset, I woke up each day feeling lighter and lighter, happier, and happier. After six treatments, I felt more rested and energetic than I had ever been in my entire adult life. I also cured my night terrors and insomnia.

I got in touch with my body and its needs.

Hypnotherapy led me to yin yoga—a deeply relaxing yoga, which led me to talking to a friend about yoga and hypnotherapy, and she recommended an Ayurvedic healer. I started eating only organic, non-processed foods, and read books on the ancient practice of self-care, self-love, and restful, and intentional living. I now follow this ayurvedic health routine.  Thanks to my cousin's wife, Kelly Marfiak, I also discovered and now use essential oils in my diet, on my skin, and to purify my home. I’ve never been healthier in my life. 

I shifted my focus and changed my mindset.

After I left that stressful job, I focused instead on working on projects that I truly wanted to take on and with whom I wanted to work with, when I could. Not going to lie: it was a financial hardship, and there were times I had to dig deep to remain calm and positive (and put way more than I wanted to on credit cards).  But in the end I decided that there were a lot of things I could happily go without, good credit being one of them, in exchange for my sanity and my life. And instead of focusing on lack, I decided to reaffirm a deeply held belief that everything is working for my highest good. And if I stay honest, true, hardworking, and follow my passion goodness and prosperity will prevail. It always has in the past. Though it was one of the “poorest” financial years of my adult life (and I am well aware that is a relative term, I am by no means "poor"--I know that, because I was once a welfare recipient), it was the "richest" year in every way that counted. I started to “live” again.

I practiced my passion a little bit every day and sought ways to incorporate my passion into ways to earn a living.

I wrote two books, and I am working on a third and I did it just a little bit every day. I didn’t overdo it. I didn’t complain at all about all the work I had to do, oddly, I just did it. And it all got done. One or two concentrated hours at a time. I took odd jobs and freelance projects to keep our family afloat. And in the meantime I kept my eye out for meaningful work that I could be passionate about.

I read empowering and life-sustaining books.

Invigorated with more energy than I have ever had, I read every night and every morning, and by year’s end, without even noticing it, I had read more than a hundred and fifty books. One of them happened to be War and Peace. (I dreaded reading that book, but with the encouragement of a friend, I joined a book club and was able to tackle it. It turned out to be the best book I’ve read in my entire life, mainly because of who I read it with. The new book club I joined at my favorite library, The Mercantile, became a life-sustaining force in my life. And it also reaffirmed my faith in humanity, in the arts, in the beauty of people coming together to marvel at great works.)

I sought other creative outlets to feed my soul.

When I wasn’t reading, practicing yoga, or walking, I took pictures of beautiful things that I saw all around me. I ended up liking it so much, I started taking pictures of friends and families when I could, and eventually I enrolled in a professional photography class.

One passion led to another, and before I knew it I discovered that I loved to refinish furniture. Who knew! It started with my kitchen table and it progressed from them there.  

I connected with friends.

Whenever I could I scheduled a quick cup of coffee with a friend, I did so. I learned so much about my friends over an hour of coffee talk that I couldn't possibly know while I was running around trying to lose weight and accomplish nine-million things in a day. Before I always thought I needed to book an expensive lunch or a night out on the town with friends--and then never actually did it. But turns out, a cup of coffee or a walk through the park for an hour is all you need.

I did a whole lot of nothing with my kids.

I  snuggled a lot with my kids this year. Like a serious amount. (There is a divot that wasn’t there last year on my couch.) We did less, but had more time to just be.

I stopped using up my time on pointless complaining.

It’s funny, I always had the same 24 hours in a day that I had before, but I never used them so wisely, so intently, so happily, and joyfully as I did in 2016. I think part of the reason is, I stopped. I stopped engaging in complaints about my life, about my self-created dramas, about any number of things people complain about. 

I was kinder, gentler, and more loving--with myself--and in the meantime, I found my bliss.

The second I stopped ripping myself apart for mistakes, for being too fat, too old, too broke, too weird, too different from others, I stopped being hard on others too. I realized everybody is dealing with the same struggles in life, and all are doing the best they can with what they have. And as the Dalai Lama has pointed out, all of us are united by these two things: We all want happiness and to avoid suffering. Yep. Everyone is in this together and we're all just trying to figure it out. Our methods are different, but in the end we all want the same thing. Only it can be lonely, and it can be difficult in the process. And honestly, we make it harder than it needs to be.

Finding Your Bliss in 2017

So if you’re interested, I’d like to share some unsolicited advice/tips to make 2017 a bit less lonely,  a bit less difficult, a bit more manageable and quite possibly the happiest, most joyful one yet:

1.     Don’t resolve to do anything. Instead pick a mantra that will guide your decisions through the year. Eventually it will all add up. “Choose the good” was our family mantra last year. The year before it was “Experience over things.” We haven’t had our family meeting yet this year to discuss what next year's will be, but we will pick something new to focus on. (Some suggestions: “Be present.” “Seek calm.” “Love more.” “Spread kindness.” "Find your joy.")

2.     Don’t make work/making money/making more money a priority. You work to live. Not the other way around. If your job sucks, I mean, monumentally, excruciatingly sucks, and you don’t have the means to quit, find something good about it. And focus on that aspect, and only that aspect. It could be a nice person you look forward to talking to, or a client that inspires you, or a task that makes the time go by fast. Then when you leave each day make sure you do at least one thing for yourself, one wonderfully indulgent, soul-filling thing for yourself. No one is judging you. And don’t judge others if they’re doing it. (Remember: we’re all in this together.) And in the meantime, keep your eyes open for a more meaningful job.

3.     Adopt a cat, a pet….Maybe two. We took in our second cat this summer. It’s amazing what a pet can do for your sanity, happiness, and mental health.

4.     Stop watching so much television. Give yourself an hour a day to watch. That’s it. Boom, I just gave you your existence back. You’re welcome.

5.     Stop engaging with people who pull you down, put you down, don’t get you or you just don’t feel like you can be your most authentic self with, or who chronically complain and dump their toxic energy on you. It’s exhausting. Seriously. Move on. They won’t miss you. They'll find someone else to dump on. (I just gave back another 10 hours of your life this week, enjoy that deep tissue massage you now have time for. However, if these energy vampires happen to be toddlers, well, give it a few years....they'll grow out of it. I promise.)

6.     Stop beating yourself up. Don’t say things (even jokingly) like “I’m so fat.”  Your thoughts become reality.  Now if you feel sick, have no energy, and you know for a fact that bottle of blue cheese dressing you bought yesterday is half-empty and you’re the only one living in the house, then yeah, maybe it’s time you start thinking about making some healthy choices. And that’s it. Just start with healthy, good choices. One day at a time. And don’t beat yourself up, if say, you walk by Holtman’s Donuts on a Sunday after yoga, and buy a vanilla sprinkle donuts, enjoy it. Just don’t eat the entire dozen by yourself in your minivan in the alley behind the store. (Again...we’re not judging, people.)

7.     Start being nice. First to yourself and then to everyone you meet. What goes around, comes around. If you say mean or passive aggressive things to people, don’t go crying your eyes out or complaining about them, when they finally decide enough is enough and check out of the relationship or tell you, "Nope, that passive aggressive and shaming behavior is not going to work on me." If you are constantly have shouting matches with someone or if you are constantly making demands trying to control how another person should think or act, maybe, just sayin’, you might want to back the truck up. Maybe you could, uh, chill out. Remember, we all want to be happy, loved, and avoid suffering. And it takes two to tango. If you don’t want to have bad feelings about people, stopping having bad thoughts about them. And if someone is so egregious, negative, and hateful, then my friends, sometimes the nicest and most loving thing to do is to establish a nice boundary and then pray for that person in the privacy of your own home. Good fences, make good neighbors. (And remember: What other people think of you, is none of your business. Don't act or live your life worried about what others are saying or doing behind your back. They won't live with the consequences of your choices. You and only you will. Do you want a life of joy and simplicity? Or do you want to be miserable trying to appease others?) 

8.     Partake in ridiculous amounts of fun and nonsense that have absolutely no point. Dance while you’re making dinner. Eat breakfast any time of day. Cereal for everyone! Yeah! Read books the reviewers hated, but you know you’ll enjoy. Go crazy and say yes to something you never thought you would or could do. (Hence, my taking on the rapids in West Virginia with my friends from TEDxCincinnati.)

9.     Make a commitment this year to slow down, do more of what you love and less of what you hate. Smile more. Complain less. Laugh as much as you can. Get involved in things you care about, love, and make you feel more alive. Reach out to friends who need you. Be as nice to yourself as you are to others.

10.  Read books that empower and inspire you, and that make you more compassionate, loving, and open to the human experience. (A list of my favorite books that did just this is to the right.)

11.  Decide right now, that nothing is more important in life than living it fully and completely. Every day is not guaranteed. Show up for people, even the one's who try your patience. Love with abandon. Say what needs to be said while you can. And remember we’re all in this together. Look out for each other. As Ram Dass so aptly put it, “We’re all just walking each other home.”

12.  Be grateful. Instead of making a long list of things you want to do in 2017, make a long list of all the things you did this past year. You’d be amazed. Congratulate yourself, then Treat YO self. Think of all the people you got to talk to, got to love, and who loved you. Think of all the heartbreaks, too. Thank God for them, because they are often our best teachers. Thank God for your body, extra pounds and all. Thank God for new friends. For old friends. For family. When I look back at 2016, all I see is “good.” And I am so glad I chose it. Because, so much of what we see, is, in the end, a choice. So choose wisely. Thank you, most of all, for joining me on this journey. It’s been amazing.

Here’s to you! Here's to joy! Here's to love!

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and have a wonderful, joy-filled, and love-filled 2017.

Mary

 

 

 

 

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Books that will help bring your joy back:

Grateful people are joyful people. A grateful world is a happy world.
If you’re serious about changing your life, you’ll find a way. If you’re not, you’ll find an excuse.
It takes courage...to endure the sharp pains of self discovery rather than choose to take the dull pain of unconsciousness that would last the rest of our lives.
Miracles occur naturally as expressions of love.
Travel light, live light, spread the light, be the light.
A good life is not a place at which you arrive, it is a lens through which you see and create your world.
The biggest waste of time is to do well something that we need not do at all.
The starting point of all achievement is DESIRE. Keep this constantly in mind.
Our job in this life is not to shape ourselves into some ideal we imagine we ought to be, but to find out who we already are and become it.
I realized that when you force things — a career, a relationship — life will be forceful back. If you want your life to be easy, you need to practice easy.
Screenshot 2016-12-11 16.42.34.png
One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach—waiting for a gift from the sea.

Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh

Look closely at the present you’re constructing, it should look like the future you’re dreaming. 
We become what we think about.
The Ayurvedic route to great health involves two simple steps:
1. Doing less;
2. Being more.
When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.
— Jalaluddin Rumi

Fill 'er Up: How Choosing the Good Leaves No Space for the Bad

Invest Your Love.JPG
Where you invest your love, you invest your life.
— Mumford and Sons

 

We are getting near the half-way point of year. I know that's a hard pill to swallow. It's going to be June soon. Wasn't it just Christmas? How in the world is it possible that my kids only have 15 days of school left before summer break? If you're like me, this time of year usually incapacitates me. (I may or may not have tried to start my car with a remote control during one of these weeks). There are endless field trips, permission slips to sign, classes and camps to sign up for, tests to take, year end projects to finish, not to mention recitals, performances, award banquets to attend, and work schedules to juggle.

But, not this year.

This year is different. Everything is different. And I have to say it's because of one simple mantra that I've been repeating over and over all year long: Fill up on the good, Mary.

Back in January, my family chose "Choose the Good" as our family mission statement for 2016. We agreed we would all try to make good choices. OK, I realize that's a little vague. So we did qualify what "good" meant. If ever there was a decision to be made, we vowed, we would stop, think, breathe, and choose the best option. (And by best option, we mean the healthiest option.) We are trying to choose the options that would most likely give us joy, peace, happiness, health, and fulfill our daily lives. Reading books, spending time together, forgiving each other, hiking, walking, eating good foods, and trying our best to improve ourselves and our world--all constitute the "good." If we are hurting someone, ourselves included, it's not a good choice. Pretty simple.

What I discovered in the past six months is something extraordinary: By "filling up on the good" it became nearly impossible to choose the bad. Miraculous things happen when you "choose the good"--there's literally no room for bad.

I started waking early to read, as I used to do for years. Turns out when you start your day filled with the things you love, value, and prioritize, there is no chance they'll get lost in the daily shuffle. By 6:30 a.m., I've read a classic and a contemporary piece, written a bit, caught up with friends on social media, meditated, and stretched. Filled up with amazing and inspiring literature, I have no desire to turn on crap-news television, or even listen to mind-numbing talk radio. Filled up with delicious hand-pressed coffee and whole fruit, I don't crave sugary sweets, junk food, or a Starbucks hit. Filled up with kindness and positive affirmations from posting inspiring quotes on social media, I don't have space for negativity, toxicity, or even complacency. I feel ready to take on the day. No space for whining, complaining, or feeling down.

I'm positively charged; I'm full.

During the day, I've been filling up on amazing books, the occasional phone call/FaceTime sessions with long-distance friends, coffee and lunches with nearby friends, long walks, book signings, delicious, whole and clean meals, movies, game nights with my kids, and lots and lots of rest and naps on Saturdays and Sundays. It's amazing when you fill up on the good--rest, kindness, and freedom to enjoy the things you truly love and value--how much more grounded, centered, calm, and fulfilled you will feel. I am not running around like a crazy person, trying to cram in activities, projects, and whatever else that used to suck up my time.

I'm being intentional; I'm full.

By filling up on whole and real food (as little processed stuff as possible), I don't crave a glass of wine at the end of a long day of work. I don't crave a giant bag of nacho chips and faux cheese after a full day of denying myself "real food," because I am "trying to lose weight." Instead, I make sure to be full. I've been choosing to nutritious foods that sate me. And I've lost weight. LOST IT, PEOPLE!  If there is a delicious piece of cake offered, I eat it. If there is a steak on my plate, I eat it. If there is a beautiful, artisanal sandwich created for me, I eat it. I enjoy it. Then I stop when I am full of all that is good.

I'm satisfied; I'm full.

I fill my head throughout the day with beautiful art, lovely verse, and great music. I don't have time to surf the web, to mindlessly flip through catalogs, watch meaningless, time-sucking reality television. And I don't want to.

I'm inspired; I'm full.

I go to bed when I am tired. I don't force myself up with endless cups of coffee "to get one more thing done." I turn off my phone at 9. I sit and talk to my husband and fill my heart up with good things--humor, insights, and shared thoughts. I go to bed tired and ready to rest. I fill up on sleep--good solid, dream-filled sleep. So in the morning, I don't need to fill my body up with bad stuff--like Coke or sugar or any other of the toxic stuff we put in our bodies to "wake them up."

I'm rested; I'm full.

I have been filling up on writing too. I am doing it every day, all day in fact, while my kids are at school. By filling my day up with what I love to do, everything else--stress, anxiety, and feelings of worthlessness and ineptitude--have ceased. It's easy to feel like crap when you're pulled in ninety different directions, answering emails, attending meetings, getting only a quarter way through a project before being pulled to another. It's impossible to feel full, if one never feels like they're "finished." Each day, I have a little goal for writing. I achieve that goal, and I am full.

I'm accomplished; I'm full.

By filling my day up with things I love to do, and designing every aspect of my day, with intention and purpose, aimed solely at "choosing the good"--I have reclaimed and restored my life.

Is there anxiety? Is there worry? Is there fear? Yes. Every parent worries about their kids. Every human worries about making ends meet and providing for oneself and one's family, but there is less space in my brain for all that now. I can't worry about money, the future, and things I can't control, because I don't have the time. I've filled my days to the brim, and it's made all the difference.

You can be full too!

It's amazing how tiny choices can add up to such huge life-changing movements. If you're interested in doing it as well, I'd say start small. Try these 3 steps:

1) Start from a place of abundance, not deprivation.  Instead of saying, "no more x, y, z" (Coke, candy, wine, sugar, etc.), ask yourself instead: "What do I love?" Answer that question and then fill yourself up with it, and see where it gets you. Listen to your body and watch the time. If you are doing something and an hour goes by and it felt like a minute,  guess what? You love it. You've reached a state of flow. So go with it. Keep filling yourself up with that.

2) Make a list of all that you do in a day. If there isn't one thing on your list that you love to do then you have some rearranging to do. When I first made my list, I was astonished how little I slept, how little I read, how little I wrote, how much television I watched, how much time I spent driving and working, and how burnt out and stressed out I was. Awareness is half the battle, friends.

3) Read. Read. Read. Carve out 20 minutes to start. I set a timer for me and my son, just before my husband comes home from work. We sit quietly and read together for 20 minutes. I've read nearly 30 books this year so far by reading in 20 minute chunks here and there throughout the day. It's amazing how quickly it can add up. If you want to kick start your "good life" today, then I suggest reading these books:

Design the Life You Love: A Step-by-Step Guide to Building a Meaningful Future by Ayse Birsel (Don't know what you love? Don't know where to begin? Birsel's book will lead the way. One of my favorites so far this year.)

Better than Before: What I Learned about Making and Breaking Habits--To Sleep More, Quit Sugar, Procrastinate Less, and Generally Build a Happier Life by Gretchen Rubin (Can't say enough about this gem of a book. Rubin will help you figure out the best way to structure your day to rid yourself of unhealthy habits and replace them with positive, life-fulfilling ones. I can honestly say, her book changed my life. Go read it, now.)

Day Designer: The Strategic Planner & Daily Agenda for Living a Well-Designed Life by Whitney English (Stop making long lists and losing them. With this carefully designed planner, you can carefully plan out chunks of your day, so that you actually schedule the things that bring you the most happiness and fulfillment.)

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield (Already bristling a little? Feeling a little resistant? Think I've got it made? More time than you? More money and resources? I assure you. Nope. I've got the same 24. I've got bills. I've got kids. I've got responsibilities. This book is a swift kick in the ass for every whiner out there who says:I don't have the time. I don't have the money. I don't have a good family. I don't have a husband. I don't have a wife. I don't. I can't. I won't. Pressfield's got no time for that b.s. He's used those excuses himself. If you're serious about changing your life, and serious about living your life with purpose and dignity, get his book and read it ASAP. You won't regret it.)

Now go fill 'er up!

 

 

 

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