15 February, 2011

Grace Letters

Years ago I was given a gift by my late sister-in-law, Grace. That gift, over time, has evolved into a ritual much like a grain of sand creates a pearl. Because it's bittersweet, this gift. Just like the grain of sand in the oyster, it causes friction and discomfort before the beauty emerges.

Grace was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer when she was 39. She fought valiantly with great courage and, well, grace. She was a woman capable of great love and had an unwavering faith. It was this winning combination (along with an incredible family and a stubborn northern Maine constitution) that enabled her to long-surpass her 18 month prognosis, living a full five years beyond what was expected.

In the last days of her life, I wrote Grace a letter offering to help record her thoughts and lessons on life, love and loss for her children to read some day. At the time, they were ages 9 and 12, and I imagined she was full of information, advice and instructions for them knowing they would be growing up without her in their life everyday.

She accepted my invitation and I remember how honored I felt by the intimacy of that moment. We began each session with Grace selecting a topic from a "menu" of questions that covered topics like faith, community service, marriage, love, sex, education, parenting and beyond. She would talk and I would write. When she'd had enough, I'd go home and transcribe it, print it, put on a clipboard with a red pen and drop it off at the hospital for her to edit. And edit she would! I'd make the changes and show her again. Then we'd capture some more. And so we proceeded until we had pages and pages of her thoughts written down in her own "voice."

Grace died the following week. As the family grieved and clung together over the next few months, I watched how those "Grace Letters" comforted first her husband, and then her children. Their dad would read excerpts to them periodically as a way of gently touching the tenderness of what they were feeling and offering some solace and connection to their mom at a time when they needed her most.

The experience of helping Grace to write those letters was the gift of a lifetime. It's also a gift that keeps giving.

Every year, as I take myself away for my birthday retreat to reflect, I have a ritual of writing each of my boys a Grace Letter before I return home. In it, I thank them for the privilege of mothering them, and I recount some of the lessons they've taught me. I also share a bit of my own perspective on life as it relates to where they are developmentally or what I'm witnessing in each of them. Most recently, I've taken to writing these letters in a special book, so that they're all in one location rather than floating about the house. It's a gift, that book - to me and to my family. I don't wait to read the letters to them either (it's not my style, to wait.) Having done this ritual now for four years, they have come to expect their letters and are excited to hear what's in them each year.

When I sat with Grace nearly four years ago, I watched as she fretted about what to include - it all felt so important, and time was limited. I can still hear her saying, "where do I begin?" I learned from Grace that we are all in the process of dying, she just knew her death was coming sooner than later. She left me with a deep appreciation of "beginning now" - writing the story as it unfolds. Loving the story as it unfolds, with all its twists and turns and uncertainty.

I received many, many gifts from Grace, but I'll always be thankful for the one that helped me to see life for what it is - a gift to be opened each day. My Grace Letters are the red bow that ties together a whole year of my days.

Thank you, Grace.

08 February, 2011

Creating Stuck

Have you ever had one of those days - or weeks or months - where you have a pile of work to do and yet you just stare off into space, stall and allow yourself to be distracted? Yeah, me too. More often than I care to admit, actually.

My friend calls it "chasing after shiny pennies". A colleague used to call it "alphabetizing her rolodex" (yes, I'm that old). I prefer to call it purgatory. As a working mom running my own business, I need to be uber efficient. Caffeine is my friend and I admit I love that feeling of crossing things off my list (yes, I have been known to write down things I've already done so I can get "credit" for doing it...there, I said it)

There are plenty of references to this chronic affliction. It's most commonly referred to as "wasting time" (what does that mean exactly?) Abby Seixas wrote about "The disease-of-a-thousand-things-to-do" and how it results in us chasing our tails. Carl Honore claims it is a logical consequence of the addiction to the "cult of speed" that has run rampant in our society. My sister, who teaches yoga to children, calls it "the monkey mind." My clients - busy, fast-moving, women - visit this place of being stuck so frequently, I jokingly tried to make it a cooler place to by, saying "stuck is the new black."

You know the place, right? That sensation of spinning your wheels and not being productive? Having nothing to show for your time? In a society that values doing, measuring, and moving, it's only natural that we want to avoid this place. Wasting time=bad. I used to buy into this, but not anymore.

Last fall I saw an intuitive that totally reframed this notion of "wasting time" for me. She said, "Oh, you create 'stuck' for yourself as a way of slowing yourself down." I create stuck? She went onto tell me "I do stuck really well", meaning when I get stuck, I respond quickly by dropping down into it. I simply surrender. So this place - this purgatory - is apparently by design. My design. It's not some fatal character flaw as I had long-since suspected. This was good news. In a bizarre twist, I began to actually take pride in my proficiency at "creating stuck", rather than feeling shame and beating myself up when I had trouble focusing.

When I thought about it, it made perfect sense to me. I move fast through life - one person referred to me once as a comet. But what do we know about comets? They burn out. As I tracked back my thoughts leading up to this "stuck" place, I noticed I pattern. Right before that moment of disengagement, I was lamenting how tired I was, how much I needed a break, how I couldn't keep going at this pace. So my body, mind and spirit, in all its wisdom, responded to my request and created some "stuck" for me.

Sometimes I would get sick. Sometimes we would have a snow day and I would have to cancel all my plans to stay at home with my kids. Those are the obvious ones and I tend recognize those easily enough.I gave myself permission because they were "good excuses." But it's the subtle ones that were tricky to sniff out. The times there was no apparent reason I wasn't able to focus. I would try and muscle through those places, cracking the whip and berating my inability to produce one measly thing of worth. It used to turn into this long and drawn out day-long battle, complete with sweat and often, tears.

Now my sniffer is more attuned to those subtle hints that I am in a stuck place. I recognize them easier and have come to expect them. I actually - and this is the cool part - have come to value them. Rather than kicking and dragging my feet, I treat that "stuckness" as a menu item I have specifically ordered with my needs in mind. And I eat it up. Every crumb. Because it nourishes me at the times I need it most.

Could this be a massive justification for procrastination and sloth-like behavior? Sure. But I think we both know it's not. Try stuck on for size and see if it fits. They say it's the new black.