Breaking Free Into Your Life

Prisons are on my mind these days, both the literal prisons where law enforcement confines people, and the metaphorical prisons which make us feel that we are trapped outside of the life we wish to live.

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(Photograph: Martin Argles for the Guardian)

A young member of my extended family is currently awaiting prison sentencing – he is possibly looking at 25 years to life. The truth is he was born in a sort of prison – a crack house, to be exact – and was not given the care, education or even basic nutrition to develop his mind in a way that would lead him anywhere but to a life of crime and incarceration. At this point, the best we can hope for him is a correctional facility that will at least provide safety, access to education and decent food. His story is a devastating one.

I, on the other hand, was born free. Sure, I have a few complaints about my childhood, but the reality is that I was given tools to develop my mind and create a life of my choosing. Did I always see it that way, though? Or did I allow myself to feel limited by prisons of my own making?

There were definitely periods of my life when I lived as if I was in a sort of prison. Like when I held onto the desk job way past it bringing me any fulfillment, or when I stayed in a romantic relationship that was harmful to my spirit.

What situations are currently confining your spirit? Can you break free of them?

How can you more fully live and appreciate the freedom that you have?

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Overall though, I think I used my freedom to create a meaningful life and positively impact some of the people around me.

I could have done better and the great news is that I can still do better!

After all, I am still mostly free – with a few exceptions, like the health issue that prevents me from air travel. But I’m mostly free and while it’s common for health issues to create some limitations as we age, it is even more common for debilitating mindsets to confine us throughout our lives.

What limiting mindset have you placed around your life?

Some common self-created prisons I see around me are: deep-seated beliefs that we lack the ability to accomplish what we hope, anxieties that paralyze and lead to inaction, and resentments that cloud our judgment and make us feel that change is not worth the effort.

The Washington Post recently published an article with fascinating interviews of people who were released from long prison sentences one year ago after being granted clemency by President Obama. I highly recommend reading the article, because it reveals an array of attitudes and approaches to new found freedom that can get you thinking about your own life, your own freedom and how you do or don’t appreciate it.

Go ahead, click on the article!

For example, one of the interviewees, Alex William Jackson, who was sentenced in 1999, said:

“It’s natural to be angry. But when I went to prison and had time to sit down and really reflect and internalize the principles of religion, it had a transforming effect on my life. I didn’t take lightly the blessing and gift that the president gave me in commuting my sentence. I came home and I was immediately able to do the things I envisioned doing when I was incarcerated — being there for my mother, being able to establish myself in the community.”

So the question is: What blessings are YOU taking lightly?  What are you envisioning for the next stage of your life?

Another interviewee, Norman Brown, sentenced in 1993, said:

“In April, I was able to go to the arboretum. It was magnificent. We went to the cherry blossoms…When I was incarcerated I would see movies and read different books, and I would say, I want to try that. Walking on the beach, the walking through the parks. The eating out around a pond…Being right up on a flower and smelling it and breaking it off and maybe giving it to your woman. These things, when I get a chance to do them, I’m going to do them.”

How are you making the most of the freedoms you have been granted in life?

I am so fortunate, because I am not writing this from a jail cell or hospital bed, and my health is pretty good right now. Today I am going to use this freedom to swim, write this essay, help my daughter with something, and do some research for a project I’m working on.

You’re free!

What are you doing with this freedom you have right now?

Day of the Dead For Superstars

(The art and function of public mourning)

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Something that my mom and I have in common is a fondness for cemeteries. We love to walk around those somber parks with their intriguing sculptures that peek from behind flowers and trees. We can practically hear the whispered stories as we walk among the etched tombstones.

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Some people think our graveyard affinity is odd, but I think it’s strange not to appreciate the beauty of art and nature joined together in an expression of grief, love and longing.

It is not just a visual beauty, but an energetic one as well. Whether the people within a particular cemetery are family or strangers to us – there is an aura of universal love that can be felt wherever souls gather together to mourn. I know because I feel it in cemeteries. It opens my heart in a way that allows me to easily enter into the flow of love that exists all around us.

(Where have you felt most connected to other souls? What opportunities do you take to experience that feeling?)

I am thinking about this now because I live about 25 minutes away from Prince’s Paisley Park. Yesterday, I joined the throngs of people who are congregating outdoors and creating an art installation that expresses their sadness, nostalgia and love of music.

The fence outside Paisley Park has been transformed into a massive menagerie of drawings, dream catchers, jewelry, balloons, carvings, flowers, candles, photos and guitars.

It is community art that exists only to express love and appreciation. It is beautiful.

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I had to see it up close to appreciate its beauty, to notice details like the personal notes peeking from behind interesting objects. I had to experience the somber, respectful and loving tone of the people creating this spontaneous masterpiece.

Gathering in communities to create a temporary work of art while mourning the dead is a universal tradition with ancient roots. My mom’s grandparents came to the U.S. from Poland, where elaborate Day of the Dead events are celebrated in cemeteries. This tradition is thought to stem from pre-Christian Slavic customs. Most countries around the world have eerily similar rituals of gathering together outdoors with flowers, candles and other beautiful objects to honor the dead.

all-saints-day-polandKrakow, Poland (©iStockphoto.com/badahos)

Outside Paisley Park, the gathered community was racially diverse and many of the people were from my generation. It was clear that back in the day, in our separate communities, we came of age to the same music, danced to the same songs, sang the same lyrics. Now here we were thirty years later, gathering to pay our respects to the soul who created our shared experience. We were connecting to each other.

If I lived more than half an hour away, I never would have come.

But it so happened that Prince lived and died very close to my home and I found myself participating in a public ritual that has roots as deep as the most ancient family tree. I had the opportunity to absorb the visual and energetic beauty of a community of strangers creating art together while listening to the whispers of a departed soul. It was a special Day of the Dead that connected me to my generation and to all the people who came before and afterwards.

It was similar to my cemetery experiences except I was sharing my feelings with a community and the art was being created there in the moment.

Living a Spirit Full life involves taking opportunities to feel connected to others, to our roots, to creation and to the Mystery surrounding us. It means stepping outside of our routines and to-do lists and making the time to honor the universality of our feelings and our experiences. For me this weekend, it was the art, music, nostalgia and tears of Paisley Park. For you, it will be something completely different.

The important thing is that when you have an opportunity to tap into the love, longing and hope of your fellow humans – you take it!

Our ancestors – and Prince – would want us to.

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My Status Update Sucks, But I’m Still Okay

I generally like to be in step with the rhythm of the seasons, but right now Spring is yelling at me to “Get up! Get out! Bloom already!” and I want to tell it to go to hell. While nature buzzes with the excitement of tree buds and hopping bunnies, inside my head winter dreariness is still going strong.

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There is no way around it. A family situation is filling my days with unpleasant tasks, pressing deadlines and big decisions that have no pleasant outcome. It’s a difficult time and frankly I am okay with settling into that difficulty and letting Spring pass me by this year.

And don’t feel sorry for me. Don’t. Because you know what? It’s okay to have periods of sadness.

It really is okay, even though the photographic evidence on social media shows your friends experiencing only joy, joy, joy. It really is okay, even though pop gurus tell us happiness is only ten simple steps away.

The truth is that we all have seasons when sadness is the most appropriate emotion that we can feel. Well meaning friends and our own inner critic may pressure us to try and snap out of it, but that only creates an anxiety that tires us even more. Feeling bad about feeling bad is self defeating.

On the other hand, sinking into full-blown depression is not the answer either and some of us (ahem) are more biologically prone to that than others. So here is what I do in seasons of sadness:

1) I let myself feel sad.

2) I try to stay in tune with my gut (intuition.) That means keeping a handle on what feels right and what feels off. For example, “It will be a real effort to go out to dinner with a friend tonight but it feels like that will help me get out of my head.” Or “I should really tackle another item on the to-do list but it feels like I need to rest my mind for awhile and watch a movie.”

The key to #2 is finding the balance between what you “should” do and what feels right for your mind/body/spirit. You’ll know you found it when you are doing a mixture of both.

3) I hold onto my thread. (Of course, first you need to find what your thread is.) A thread is those practices, images and beliefs that connect you to your essential self.

My thread is stepping out onto my driveway every night and looking up at the trees before going to bed. It is the mental image I visit throughout the day that I am part of a chain of spirits and ancestors long gone and future generations to come. It is the belief that love and acceptance of myself and others is the purpose of life.

You find your thread by focusing on what you know for certain to be true. The practices, images and articulated beliefs you then come up with will take you back to that truth whenever you are in danger of becoming lost. Everybody’s thread looks different. It is what we can hold onto that will keep us from falling down the rabbit hole of despair.

So Spring is arriving with its fresh smells and vibrant colors and my friends are posting fabulous vacation pics. Meanwhile, I’m stuck inside at meetings with treatment staff and endless to-do lists. And I’m sad about it. That’s okay.

We all have seasons of difficulty, but life goes on and we can find peace again. I have a strong sense of my intuition and I have my thread. I am okay. You are too, even if you are sad.

Doing Good Last Year and Beyond

Did I do enough good in 2015? There’s plenty more I could have done – I never did get around to fostering shelter dogs like I planned, for example. But did I do as much as I could manage – mentally, emotionally, creatively, spiritually?

Sometimes I think of myself as fragile: burdened with traumas recent and far past that can flare up and make ordinary tasks seem Sisyphean. Each of us is fragile and strong in our own unique way, I know that. I look back on some of the things I endured, in 2015 alone, and know that I got through it with as much grace as I could muster, and sometimes that was barely any at all. There’s a lot of messiness in leaving your heart open to a family member whose mind and emotions are in dire need of healing, and yet my heart is still open to them, even if slightly little less than before. That is something good I contributed to 2015.

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But that wasn’t all. I followed the thread that the world dangled before me, for reasons I still can’t fully know. I followed that thread to University, studying theology and strengthening my connection to the spiritual realm. This year, I took classes studying Jung and his profound Red Book, the art of rituals and Mary Magdalene. I wrote papers on those topics that I hope to send off to a wider audience in 2016 (another 2015 thing I didn’t do as planned.) I also worked with people seeking spiritual direction and facilitated workshops sharing what I learned about “following the thread” that might be useful to others. Doing this work, I am privileged to witness the unique blend of fragile and strong within each soul.

Finally, I made a new friend in 2015. Someone whose journeys both internal and across the globe are opening me to new ideas for living in 2016. She has taught centering meditation for decades, and I can certainly use more centering. Knowing her has been a gift.

Will I meet other new friends in 2016? Will I continue to learn, write and teach? Will I still have love and grace to give? The outlook is good for all these things, and so I’m going to turn the page on the calendar with anticipation, gratitude and humility.

Happy New Year, Everyone!

Birthday Reflection

It’s my birthday tomorrow, and if you know me you know that means it’s time for lots of reflection and brainstorming! Here’s an exercise you might find interesting:

FIRST, think of your life story in terms of significant chapters – however that makes sense for you.

For me, I have:   1) Childhood    2) High School & College. Then I moved around the country and each place gets its own chapter    3) Bloomington    4) Chicago        5) Seattle   then   6) MSU Grad School    7) Lagoon    8) Adoption    9) SKU Grad School.

(Or your chapters could include places you worked, for example.)

NEXT, for each chapter ask yourself:

a) Who (or what) were my main influences during this time?

b) What significant challenge did I overcome?

c) What is the main thing I learned? (about myself or life in general)

THEN, notice if there are any overall themes to your story.

FINALLY, think about what you want your next chapter to look like.

What do you want to do/see/be?

Who or what are you going to surround yourself with that will influence or affect you?

And most importantly, what, if anything, seems to be blocking your way and what are you going to do about it?

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Exercises like this can bring clarity and a fresh perspective to your decision-making or whatever’s been on your mind lately. And, if you’re like me, you’ll have fun doing it.

What do you think?

(BTW, that’s my old buddy Murray in the backseat!)

Check Out This Book: Body of Work

Have you ever thought about the many different roles you have played in your life, the projects you have worked on, the things you have created, the impact that you have had on others in a variety of contexts?

Thinking of everything that you do in the world as your “body of work” is a great way to not only assess your gifts, define your purpose and plan your next steps – but it is the most relevant way to position yourself in the work world in this age of self employment.

Body of Work: Finding the Thread That Ties Your Story Together is a useful book that I use in my workshops and highly recommend to everyone – especially those who are in a time of transition.

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Telling Your Story To a Spiritual Director

Telling your story matters.

YOUR story.

The ups and downs and moments that are significant to YOU. Like the times you felt a stirring in your heart and you aren’t sure why or if it even matters. You want to tell your story without being judged or given advice or diagnosed.

You just want to tell your story and see what unfolds: the memories, themes, strengths…

Who knows what gifts from your own life are awaiting your renewed attention, your discovery? 

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You want to see what unfolds from your story because you are a Seeker: someone who seeks meaning in why you are here, what you have been through and whatever you decide to do next. Going through the motions of life just doesn’t cut it for you. You want to really LIVE.

Spiritual Direction is an ancient practice of deep listening to another person’s sacred story.

I have a Spiritual Director and she asks about my life in a way that opens my heart to the meaning that is all around me. She does not direct me, she is simply present with me in a way that leaves me feeling a little more certain of who I am and what I want to do next.

I am being trained in Spiritual Direction through St. Catherine University. It’s an intense process that involves taking fascinating graduate level classes such as the Art of Discernment and Holistic Spirituality, going on silent retreats, studying the texts of both ancient and modern day mystics, and providing 100 hours of Spiritual Direction under supervision. The supervision process trains us to attend to our own issues and ego as they arise so that it truly is the sacred soul of our client that leads the way of our sessions.

If you are interested in arranging a (free) introductory Spiritual Direction session with me, please send an email to Carolyn@SpiritFullDirection.com

To find a different Spiritual Director, or learn more about more about the process, visit the website of Spiritual Directors International.

Connecting Our Kids To the Wonders Of the World

The world is much bigger than it seems on the internet. My first real glimpse into the vastness of place and possibility happened when I was small and trapped in the front seat of a pickup truck with my Mom, Dad and two German Shorthair dogs as we drove from Chicago to Florida.

I remember listlessly leaning my face against the window glass, staring at mile after mile of telephone wires strung across field after field. Boredom surpassed all known limits before exploding into a loop of sing songy nonsense rhymes and visions of an imagined life lived differently than anything I knew.

Then we were at the ocean and I was running right into the sensory tsunami of salty waves, fishy smells, and hissing white foam. My spirit burst with the contrasts of life, the vastness of the physical world and all that I might someday do and see.

Not long after I became a parent, I drove my newly adopted daughter from our Minneapolis home to my cousin’s house in Madison, Wisconsin. Twenty minutes into our trip, she saw the “Welcome To Wisconsin” sign and exclaimed “We’re here!”

“Yes, we’re in Wisconsin, but we have another 3 1/2 hours to Sheryl’s house,” I said cheerily.

“But you said she lived in Wisconsin and now we’re in Wisconsin.”

“We are now on the edge of Wisconsin. Wisconsin is a big place. Sheryl lives in the middle of it.”

Blank stare, then “But you said we were going to Wisconsin.”

I put in our audio book and half listened while I thought about how to teach my daughter about our world.

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From the beginning of our relationship, I established a rhythm of pointing out something cool every time we went outside. “Hear that? It’s a cardinal?” “Look at how pink the sky is!” “The snow is so pretty on the tree branches!”

After many weeks of this repetition, she began to look up from the fog of her grief and trauma and notice cool things on her own to point out to me. “That’s a turkey!”

(Now it is nine years later, and just last week she dragged me out in my pajamas to look at the full moon. I could not have been more proud.)

Our first Christmas together, I gave her a talking globe. She is proud of her memorization skills, and loved beating me in games of naming the countries and capitals. “Look how teeny Wisconsin is to the rest of the world!”

We began to take longer road trips together – with (almost) no screens and audio books that we heard together. So far, we have driven cross-country four times. K has taken a boat to see whales and pods of dolphins leaping around her. We have laughed outside in a sudden downpour near Niagara Falls, been lost in the north woods of U.P. Michigan and bored senseless on the highways of Indiana.

I think boredom is important. It gives us a glimpse into infinity, it makes us wonder, it helps us experience the size of our world and it creates a contrast with simple pleasures that we might otherwise not see.

When my daughter was little, there were many tear-filled nights when she could not sleep. Here is a bedtime story I told to soothe her:

“I remember the first time I went to the ocean–I was about seven or eight, I think. I stood in the water and looked out to where the sky touches the sea and I felt very, very small. Very small, but in a good way. Small in the sense that this big, beautiful world is so huge, that I will never run out of new things to see, new places to go, new adventures to have. I felt small and young with a whole big world and a whole lifetime ahead of me and knew then that the ocean would always be my favorite place to be.

And now I look out into the endless sea, and think about all of the whales and dolphins and multicolored fish and who knows what else that fills the oceans and how most of these creatures will never even be seen by human eyes. They exist because a Creator chose to fill the oceans with beautiful living things. And the whole world is filled with beautiful creatures, and trees, and flowers and people, too. We could never run out of places to explore, sights to discover or wonderful new people to meet. There is so much good in this world.”

Helping K fall asleep with a smile on her face felt better than running into the ocean that first time.

(Before you think “What a great mom!” read this disclaimer.)

Image courtesy of http://www.h3dwallpapers.com/world-in-hands-5758/

Connecting Our Kids To What Matters, Part One

This post is a disclaimer for some posts that are to follow. Coming soon, I am going to write about my parenting successes. I am going to write about how when I was a 37-year old single woman and an (almost) 8-year old little girl moved into my house – I decided what kind of parent I wanted to be. I will describe how:

I focused my parenting on connecting my new daughter to her spirit, to a faith in realities that we cannot see, to the big, beautiful world around her and to all the amazing people in it.

These upcoming posts will focus on what worked for me, but first I want to say that I did plenty of crappy things too. When I suggest ideas for other parents to connect their children to what really matters in life – I write not as a pollyanna, but as someone who gets crabby, is sometimes selfish and sometimes disengaged.

My biggest character weakness is probably my lack of patience. It’s the quality that most often causes me to act like a jerk. I sometimes lose patience when I am driving. I suck at small talk because I don’t like empty chatter. Also, I would be a terrible preschool teacher. While being a parent has made me more patient, sometimes I yell at my daughter. Sometimes, I act irrationally towards her because my patience has stretched past the breaking point.

That is the reality. After my daughter moved in with me, there was plenty of chaos in our house. Very quickly, I had to stop and take stock of my intentions with my child. I had to get clear on what was most important to me as a parent and focus my energy in that direction.

I decided that, for me, being a good parent means two things:  #1 Giving my child the tools she needs to create a meaningful life  #2 Building her up more than tearing her down.

What are your most important parenting intentions?

In upcoming posts, I’m going to describe how I focused my parenting on those two intentions, and I want readers to know that I did it despite serious weaknesses. Having clear intentions guided my decision-making and boosted my confidence as a mother. I hope that if I share my experiences here it will help other parents.

#1 Tools She Needs To Create a Meaningful Life

I believe that a meaningful life means being connected. Connected to our inner selves, connected to others and connected to something bigger than us.

My daughter is now 16. Everywhere I look, I see teenagers who are lost. Dis-connected. Self-destructive. Did you see this article in the Huffington Post: The Real Cause of Addiction ? Basically, the latest research shows that drugs become most addictive to humans (and rats) who are lonely or cut off in some way from the world around them.

I have suggestions about how to lessen the likelihood of our kids becoming lost. There were specific things I did to increase my daughter’s sense of connectedness. But before I write about it, I want to be clear that it did not come easily to me. I am not a sunshine and roses, super evolved, peace and love, Earth Mama type. Sometimes, I am an impatient jerk.

I’m also someone who cares deeply about purpose and spirit and meaning.

That is why soon after I became a parent, I decided what my most valued parenting intentions were and I focused my actions on living them. I have a knack for that – seeing through the bullshit distractions to what really matters.

In future posts, I want to describe how I did it.

#2 Building Her Up More Than Tearing Her Down

This intention was WAY harder than I expected it to be. Especially since I spent the bulk of my career facilitating positive self-esteem programs for girls. Yeah, with your own kid it is way harder. So much of parenting is correcting and that can VERY easily lead to tearing down.

I had to learn how to be honest with myself about my weaknesses and not let them thwart my intentions. In other words, sometimes I act like a jerk to my child, but then I apologize, I forgive myself and I move on. I hope this teaches her how to accept her own weaknesses.

In future posts, I will write about how I moved out of the muck of shame and guilt, and how important that was to building up my daughter and becoming a better parent.

So, there you have it. Sometimes I am a jerk. But I still have something to share with you about being a focused, Spirit Full parent.

What are your most important parenting intentions? I’d love to hear!

Doing What Matters Every Day

Damn, can the days whiz by quickly as bad habits turn into a whole lifestyle, a whole life.

Plans we put out of our minds for just a minute while we run to the grocery store become dreams we haven’t seriously considered in years. We get so lost in our thoughts and worries, our chores and obligations, that we lose sight of who we really want to be.

I could come up with 50 goals I’d like to accomplish in my lifetime, but on New Year’s Day 2010, I focused on the priorities I wanted to have no matter how crazy or chaotic my days were. I came up with three actions I wanted to do every day and I used a day-book to record my progress.

Connect

The first goal was a no-brainer. How many nights did I tuck my then 11-year-old daughter into bed thinking, “I wish I would have done something fun with K today” or “Did I really have to yell at her for that?” What if I had to take note of my daily connection with my daughter and report on it? I know I am an adequate parent, and that obsessing over my mothering flaws tends to make things worse, but what if I had a small but meaningful objective that I had to meet every day – cranky days and crazy, busy days included? Goal Number One: Lovingly & Meaningfully Connect with K Every Day.

Create

The second goal focused on the dreams that had been collecting dust for the past few years. You see, in 2006 I adopted a 7-year-old girl. It was a tough few years – lots of trauma and grief to work through and daily – sometimes hourly – rages. Prior to the adoption, I was a writer and performer in my spare time from work. Now there was no spare time and for the first time in my life I had no creative outlet. I stopped writing, attending performances, reading anything creatively inspiring, or watching any films that were not rated G. Goal Number Two: Do Something Creatively Inspiring Every Day.

Move

The third goal addressed middle-age frumpiness. I gained over 40 pounds after I became a mother. Stress was taking its toll on my body and I found myself having to upgrade my clothing size every year. I knew that in order to be achievable, my health goal had to be small and gentle. Goal Number Three: Move my body in some way every day.

So how did it go?

Pretty great! (For about 3 years, anyway, until tragedy shifted our household into panic mode for a long while. I’ll tell you about that in a future post.)  

My first achievement was being mindful of these three areas. I started each week by writing:

Connect ________   Create________   Move________

onto each day of a day planner. Then every night, I would write a few words on each line. For example:

Connect – Played Frisbee

Create – Wrote blog post

Move – Frisbee!

Or:

Connect – Nice talk in bed

Create – Journaled

Move – Walked dog

It was VERY satisfying to complete each line, and once the day planner was ingrained as a habit it influenced my daily choices.

K: Want to play Just Dance on the Wii with me?

My first thought, “Not really!” My second thought, “Connect and Move. Okay.”

When I had a bad day, I drew a frowny face next to the goal I missed. When I had a string of frowny faces, I took action. In fact, our now family famous cross-country road trips were inspired by an abundance of frowns in the Connect category.

Great things happened in the years I kept those day planners. My relationship with my daughter blossomed. I started a blog which quickly got thousands of hits and led to writing many essays and being published in an online journal. I lost about 20 pounds.

Focusing my life on what truly mattered to me also deepened my spiritual life in ways that I will describe in future posts.

What’s most important to you? Are these crucial values influencing your daily choices?