Cabin in the Woods

Sometimes what you need is to go to a cabin in the woods
To pack the car and drive far away from the big city lights
Arrive late at night, flashlight helping you to find our way through the forest, so bone tired that you fall into bed
But not before you see the thousands of stars in the black sky and feel the presence of what you have been thirsty for, for months, for years, for a lifetime
The presence you can only call God, because there are no words to describe
How you feel in nature.
You wake up to:
the air so fresh
sunlight flickering through the trees
wind whispering a timeless chant and leaves dancing along
birds chirping the melody
a symphony of music that is only heard when you can hear the silence too.
You are aware of your breath and the flow of spirit from within you.
You are aware of your heart, giving thanks for its beating, and this drum beat joins the symphony
Sometimes you need to go to a cabin in the woods

Cabininthewoods-photo

Water Lessons

“This is the first, the wildest and the wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness.” ~ Mary Oliver

I’ve always loved the water. My fondest childhood memories, from where I grew up in Orillia Ontario, are at the beach at Lake Couchiching, swimming, running across the sand, and building sand castles in the sun. I also have wonderful memories at my Grandparents beach, as they lived right on the water (the Ottawa River) in Deep River. The living room window had a beautiful view overlooking the water, and that view framed my visit, my sense of being surrounded by nature. My fondest childhood memories at my Grandparents was spending time out on their sailboat on the Ottawa River, feeling the waves rocking our boat and jumping off the end of the boat to swim.

The water has always been my happy place, my calm place, where the rhythm of the waves match my heartbeat and I know that, no matter what is going on in my life, all is well.

Years later, I am incredibly lucky to live with my family within walking distance to the beach and water (Lake Ontario) in Toronto. I am so grateful for this, and I try to get down there as much as I can. The water and beach has become my grounding place, and most recently, I have been thinking about the water as my teacher. Every time I go down to the water, even as I visit the exact same location, I see with new eyes, and I learn new lessons. For lack of a better word, spirit speaks to me down there, through the waves and the wind and the sun. I feel alive and connected to this spirit, the energy is palpable, both surrounding and within me.

I’ve been using my iPhone to take photos of the water and the beach. Photography has helped me to focus on the many perspectives and lessons of the water. When I look at the photos over time, it is incredible to me how nature dynamically shapes this place and space, on an hour by hour, minute by minute basis. Every moment is absolute. Every moment is changing.

I’d like to share some of my life lessons that I have learned from my water teacher:

• Nature is a constant dynamic interplay between the elements, and it is impossible to separate the parts from each other. There is a reciprocal relationship between the water, sky, air and land. None of these elements are continuously in charge of the others, but power is constantly shifting.
NatureasDynamic

• The wind’s power can be overwhelming, proclaiming her presence, howling in my ears, biting at my face, and waves crashing against the shoreline. She scolds me for not noticing her before. Be present, she hisses in my ear. I am powerful, I am here, and I will always be here.
WavesCrashing

• Sunlight is healing. Even when the air is so cold that my lungs are burning, the sun shines so brightly that I am blinded by its brilliance. I couldn’t even see in my camera when I took these photos, but I’m happy that they captured the sunlight dancing on the water and along the beach.
Sunlightishealing

• Color is infinite and constantly being created and recreated, under the spell of the sun. There are so many shades of blue.
ShadesofBlue

• The sky is often forgotten. In our busy lives, we forget to look up. The wide open sky, sometimes clear and sometimes filled with clouds, warms my heart and brings me peace.
Water-sky

My biggest lesson, once that I think about daily, is that life is constantly moving and changing. But if I can find my inner calm, then I can feel the stillness and peace that exists in the center of change. This stillness and peace is constant, always there and always will be there. I must always remember this.

Facing My Panic Monster

In support of National Mental Health Week, and being inspired by my friend Kama’s honest and beautifully written account of her experience with depression (http://www.mothering.com/articles/my-depression-the-part-below-the-waters-surface/), I have decided to share my personal experience with anxiety and panic. I am acutely aware that mental illness is incredibly stigmatized in our society. While so many of us (and maybe all of us, to some degree or another) struggle with our mental health, we don’t talk about it enough. We don’t share our personal experiences, but we keep silent. This stigma is real, and creates shame. Shame that something is wrong with us, that we aren’t good enough, that we aren’t successful. In my opinion, this societal stigma and resulting personal shame is truly what should be called an ‘illness’, and needs to change. Societal stigma is really what makes us ‘sicker’, what drives us to the edge or tragically, sometimes over the edge.

So, I’m taking a deep breath and sharing my story. Because I want to break this stigma. Because I want to help in any way I can, to make others feel less alone in their own struggles with mental health. Because I want the conversation to be opened and shame to be lifted.

My first panic attack felt like it came out of nowhere. It leapt up from behind me, and took everything away from me, within a span of 10 minutes. I had worked hard my whole life, chasing goal after goal, to get to this point in my life – a great job, a happy relationship, an awesome group of friends. This was 12 years ago (before kids), and people would describe me as ‘type A’. I was a high achiever, worked all the time, loved my job (so was happy to work all the time), and while admittedly ‘tightly wound’ and had trouble relaxing, I didn’t feel that I needed to relax when I had so many projects on the go and so much to accomplish. I was presenting at a conference, and really excited about my workshop and speaking to others about a new framework for working with volunteers from a community development perspective. I was showing up under personal stress, as my father had just had a major heart attack on an airplane and was in a hospital in Vancouver, far away from where I was in Kingston. I remember calling my father and speaking with him, worried about his life, from the conference hotel in Kingston. But I pushed my worry feelings for my father away (or deep down), so I could be on my ‘A game’ in presenting an amazing, inspiring session at the conference. I practiced my session, getting ready for my moment to inspire change.

The session began, and I started to speak. I had been waiting for this moment. But as I started to speak, I immediately like I was about to faint, that my knees were buckling out from under me. I felt sweat under my arms, like I was so unbelievably hot. And then the strangest and scariest part happened, where I felt like I left my body, like I was watching myself, a different self, facilitate this session. I was having a breakdown. I don’t how or why, but no one noticed and I actually got through the session (with pretty positive reviews). But I left the session feeling incredibly afraid about what happened, and utterly exhausted from keeping myself together. I went back to my room, closed the door, fell on my bed and sobbed.

This was the beginning of a private hell that I experienced for 2 years. The only person who knew what I was going through at the time was my amazing and supportive wife. I came back to my home and life, and I continued to have uncontrollable panic attacks. I was volunteering at the United Way, and I went to a session where we had to go around and introduce ourselves, and I had the same sensation, of pure physical terror when it was my turn to speak. My job was doing a lot of public speaking, and I was miserable every day, anticipating when this would happen next. It happened when I drove my car, and my greatest fear was that I would faint behind the wheel, and kill myself and others. I couldn’t predict when I would have these feelings, this physically terror that would leap up and grab me. It continued to show up out of nowhere, choking me with its power. And the fear of when this might happen next was constantly on my mind, weighing me down. The fear of the panic attack became larger and more powerful than the panic attack itself, to the point where I couldn’t differentiate between my panic reacting to the fear or to a certain situation. It felt like a miserable, never-ending vicious cycle. The fear spiraled into shame, and I was convinced that I was ‘going crazy’.

As the Type-A personality that I am, I decided to attack this problem like any other problem that I have faced in my life. I was determined that there was a solution, and that I was going to find the solution. I read every book and article possible about anxiety, and I recognized that what I was experiencing was called a ‘Panic Disorder’, different from generalized anxiety. I created my own version of CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), determined that this would not ruin my life. I drove back and forth across the Gardiner, with the windows open so I could breathe, to prove to myself that I wouldn’t faint and that I could drive. I continued to put myself in stressful situations so I had to face my monster, again and again. I learned how to do a body scan meditation and I practiced breathing every evening.

But truthfully, none of these strategies really worked. I was angry with my condition, and I wanted it gone. I was working incredibly hard to get rid of it, to fix myself so I could move forward. I split myself into two – the part of me from before my panic attacks that I approved of, and then this newer part of me that felt uncomfortable, uncontrollable and scary, and I wanted gone. After much internal fight and pain, I decided that I needed professional help. I was at a loss in terms of helping myself. I found myself a wonderful therapist, where the first 6 months was spent with me just crying in her chair. I was holding so much shame. And then we started to talk, and over time, she helped me to accept myself and my panic. Through acceptance, she taught me to face my fear. Most importantly, she taught me to be gentle with myself, with all parts of myself. The irony of it is was that my panic attacks only started to subside when I truly accepted this part of me, without judgement and without shame.

My story doesn’t wrap up like a present with a nicely tied bow. Mental health is a continuum, and we all have good days and bad days, good moments and bad moments. We live in a highly stressful society, with not enough time for self-care and not enough focus put on our personal or communal mental/emotional health. I continue to struggle with anxiety and I have had panic attacks from time to time. However, they are less intense than before, and I am better at taking care of myself during those moments. I have learned how to check in with myself on how I am doing, on a daily, or sometimes hourly basis. I have found self-care strategies that work best for me – my top strategy being to run to the beach as fast as I can, so my adrenalin is physically released, and the waves of the water can remind me to breathe. Most importantly, I remind myself to let go of judgement and shame, be kind and gentle, and love all facets of myself unconditionally, including my panic.

Connecting Across Difference – My Answer to the Question: ‘What Do We Do Now?’

We’re coming up to 2 weeks since the American Presidential Election, when Donald Trump was elected on Nov 8th 2016. I, like so many others, are still walking around in shock, disbelief and in a state of sadness. My sadness comes from the realization that there are so many people out there who are racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, and quite frankly, mean. For me, the election of Donald Trump has taught me a difficult lesson: that I live in a lefty bubble, I have lived in this bubble for pretty much my whole life, and that bubble has now burst.

And at the 2 week mark, my question is: what do I do now? I have seriously contemplated hiding under a rock (with my guitar of course), and pretending this world out there doesn’t exist. But that doesn’t seem sustainable or hopeful. I think we are all asking this question: what do we do now? For those of us who have been committed to social justice work for many years, this political reality can feel so discouraging and exhausting. We thought we had made progress but it feels like we have taken a giant step backwards. So utterly discouraging.

In the midst of this despair, reading Facebook articles and disturbing acts of racism that are becoming normalized, I have been kept afloat by an article that has given me inspiration during these dark times. The article ‘The White Flight of Derek Black’, by the Washington Post (which I read just before Nov 8th) is such a powerful story of the power of connection and dialogue to create positive change in our society. The full article is here. Briefly, Derek Black was born into a family of prominent white supremacists and was completely indoctrinated into this ideology of white nationalism. He went to New College of Florida, a liberal arts college, and students found out that he was a racist. While most of the lefty students ostracized Derek Black, a Jewish student by the name of Matthew Stephenson, decided to invite Derek Black to his weekly Shabbat suppers. This was after knowing that Derek Black had written extremely anti-semetic statements on his Stormfront website, such as ‘Jews worm their way into power. They must go.’ and ‘Jews are NOT white.’ To make a long story short (and I highly encourage you to read the full article – it is an amazing story!), Derek Black becomes part of Matthew Stephenson’s Shabbat community, and they build a relationship that is strong enough to start to honestly dialogue about his viewpoints. Derek begins to question his views, and in the end, he publicly denounces the white nationalist movement.

The article is very focused on the story of Derek Black, which is a fascinating story. But I have been thinking a lot about Matthew Stephenson, who is only featured briefly in the story. In my opinion, Matthew Stephenson is an unsung hero, and I am inspired by his bravery, to consciously invite someone who is publicly anti-Semitic to his Shabbat supper table. He extends a hand and expresses love, to someone who hates him (or fears him). And that connection changed the trajectory of Derek Black’s life in such a profound (and positive) way.

I wonder what gave Matthew Stephenson the bravery to make this critical choice, to invite Derek Black to his supper table. Could I make that choice, to invite someone who hated me (or feared me) to break bread together? How many times have I done this – consciously reached out to connect with someone who doesn’t share my lefty politics, my anti-oppressive practice, my enthusiasm for social justice? I sheepishly have to say, never. I do the opposite – become defensive and angry, turn away, create a barrier, and encircle myself with ‘my people’, those who share my views. But what could life look like, if I was open to real, difficult dialogue?

Maybe change can happen for the good, through connecting across difference and engaging in honest and authentic dialogue. By that, I don’t mean fights on Facebook, but I mean breaking bread with people who are different from us, in their viewpoints and policy perspectives. By authentic dialogue, I mean staying in the conversation even when it gets tough and feels painful, listening with an openness that allows space for silence instead of constant rebuttal. Dialogue instead of debate.

I think there are so many valid responses to the messed up society we are living in right now, and I don’t want this post to invalidate anyone else’s response. We have a right to our anger, and there is a lot to be angry about right now. But for me, in terms of where I’m at, I am putting my ‘eggs into the basket’ of connection and dialogue, where I believe there is potential for fundamental, radical change. If Derek Black could change his perspective and denounce white supremacy because of Shabbat suppers, then I believe there is hope for widespread change.

P.S: I need to do a shoutout to the amazing Colour Code Podcast about race in Canada, by Denise Balkisoon and Hannah Sung. It is through listening to this podcast that I was introduced to the Derek Black article, and I am thankful for this! If you haven’t listened to Colour Code yet, it is amazing, and so important that we openly talk about these issues.

 

Summer in a Bottle

If I could bottle summer up
The sun’s rays warming my face
The glistening water sparkling in the sun
My body floating effortlessly, weightless
Peace, pure peace in this moment
If I could bottle this up
Kids splashing and laughing
Running in and out with juicy peaches and dripping bathing suits
Not a care in the world
I would
I would open the bottle in November
To get through the cold dark nights of winter
To remind myself that seasons change and the cold won’t last forever
I would open the bottle in December
When my muscles are tight from wearing heavy coats and shivering as I run to get inside
When my skin cracks and bleeds from the cold
I would keep the bottle open in January, February and March
Waiting for the ground to thaw, keeping my eye out for the budding of flowers, the birds singing, the first signs of life again
Waiting for the summer sun to come again

I Am Back…

I haven’t written a blog post since November 30, 2015. I have thought about writing many many times in the past 8 months, and I have missed writing. I kept saying to myself, week after week, that this will be the week that I will write. But it wasn’t happening. I think I felt overwhelmed with my new job (which is amazing, I love, but the first year in a new job is always a steep learning curve!), and I just didn’t have any mental space left for writing.

But I am back. And I am committed to writing, because it is so important to my life practice. Blog writing, where the slate is wide and open, allows me opportunity to self-reflect on life moments. Life moves so quickly, often flashing by with the daily juggling of responsibilities where one can feel constantly racing to catch up. The life moments are small and can pass by so quickly, that it feels so critical to take pause and notice. When I’m committed to writing, I move slower, I mentally capture these moments like my mind is a camera. As Jon Kabat-Zinn asks in Wherever You Go, There You Are: “Can we be in touch with our own life unfolding? Can we rise to the occasion of our own humanity?” (p. 133).

Blog writing challenges me to think differently and make connections between ideas, pushing me to create new ideas or reframe old ideas from my own unique perspective. There is so much content out in ‘the cloud’, and I am constantly reading articles that interest me. A friend recently named me an ‘article hoarder’, after I showed them my extensive system of using apps (Flipboard, Pocket etc) to save articles that resonate with me. It is easy to feel insecure amidst all of this content – ‘maybe I have nothing original to say’ when there is so much being said already. But this little voice gets drowned out by my excitement for the conversation that is happening all the time on the internet, where voices are free to speak and dialogue, disrupting the boundaries that we have created in ‘the real world’ based on discipline, pedigree, age, language/culture, nationality. My unique voice is a drop in the internet ocean, connecting with all the other drops that make up the ocean.

And so I will return to writing. I will make writing a practice in my life, and I will carve out time for it. I hope you enjoy reading, and participate in the conversation when you feel moved to.

Parenting Without Punishment

Its been about 6 months that I have now consistently, consciously been parenting without punishment. And along with no punishment, no rewards either. This decision was after great struggle over the past 7 years in my relationship with my 9-year old son (yes, struggle began at the early age of 2), who is so amazing and also the most stubborn person I have ever known. I am very familiar with motivational research that shows that the ‘carrot and stick’ approach (punishment and/or rewards) is not effective in motivation, and actually, can cause the opposite effect of de-motivating people. This research is most prevalent in HR research around motivating/demotivating employees, and the research findings have been popularized by one of my favourite writers (and TED Talk speakers) Daniel Pink in his amazing and inspiring book Drive.

While many of us, myself included, know this research well, we don’t seem to apply these same principles in our parenting. And in the moment, when I am reactive and angry, it can be so easy to pull out a punishment. But, and this is the kicker, IT DOES NOT WORK. My son’s behaviour does not change because he is afraid of punishment or doesn’t want a consequence. His behaviour is in reaction to something much bigger going on in his life.

Why, even when I know this, do the punishments so easily escape my mouth? Because frankly, I have power over my 9-year old son. And I have been thinking about my power, and the (unconscious) abuse of this power in my day-to-day reactions. I came across this powerful online article by Teresa Graham Brett about ‘Adultism’ that shook me to my core – vhttp://www.kindredmedia.org/2011/11/adultism-the-hidden-toxin-poisoning-our-relationships-with-children/. I teach the Power Flower and the ‘isms’ to College Students, and I am comfortable identifying and speaking about racism, homophobia, sexism etc. But this article made me confront my own oppressive use of power in parenting: “…if we are using our power over the children in our lives, we are perpetuating injustice and oppression. We are setting children up to accept a world that is based on the more powerful controlling the less powerful.”

All of this collided with my reading the amazing book ‘Honey I Wrecked the Kids: When Yelling, Screaming, Threats, Bribes, Time-Outs, Sticker Charts and Removing Privileges All Don’t Work’ by Alyson Schafer. This book was critical in providing concrete tools on what parenting can look like, when I am parenting without punishment. Along with the arguments above for this strategy, Schafer writes from an Adler psychology perspective, which is that children misbehave because they are experiencing a negative feeling and are communicating this. It is our job to understand what they are trying to tell us through their misbehavior, and to help them to find another way to feel positive and re-engaged in their life. Instead of getting angry with the misbehavior, Schafer encourages parents to ‘get curious’, to play the detective in understanding what is happening in our childs life.

In her book, Schafer points out that we often say disrespectful things to our children on a daily basis, not even thinking about it. Statements like: “Why don’t you act your age” or “How old are you anyways?”. Statements that serve to knock kids down a notch or too. When I really reflected on this, I realized that I was doing this, often without even thinking about it. And I wanted it to stop.

Without a doubt, parenting without punishment has been a game-changer for me, my family and my relationship with my son. It has been incredibly challenging for me to check myself, bite my tongue and not react with anger, threats or consequences. I have tried to respond with love and patience, every time. I am trying to treat my children with the respect that they deserve, every single day. And it has been eye-opening for me to notice how, even when I am so committed to parenting consciously without punishment, it can be so difficult. Especially when I am tired, or trying to get the kids out the door so we don’t miss the school bus, or when I’m trying to multi-task.

However, it has been so worth it. I saw the results right away, within 48 hours. Our family has become calmer, my son is happier and we have found a sense of peace.  When my son does something wrong, I try to find out whats going on. But I also try to honour my feelings too, which sometimes means I need to take some space. I try to name my feelings, so that my children see that modeling. I say clearly, not angrily (but sometimes sadly): “I am feeling upset by what has happened. I need some space.” For the time ever, my son, who is so stubborn and could never before admit that he was wrong, has started apologizing on his own, when he knows that he has made a mistake. This was shocking when it first happened. I had never received an unsolicited apology from him before.

And we talk a lot about what is going on. My experience resonates with Schafers argument, that there is always an underlying reason behind the misbehavior. I play detective, and sometimes its challenging because he won’t just tell me what is going on. That would be too easy. But I often find out, even if it’s the last conversation before sleep, when he is most comfortable and ready to share. His reason behind the misbehavior usually has nothing to do with me, and is often a feeling of sadness and fear of not belonging with his peers at school. Usually there is some small but critical event in his day that has made him feel insecure about his significance and self-worth in his world. And when I find this out, it is my job to simply hug him, tell him that he is so very loved and that I believe in him. And especially after those most difficult days, I like to share my favourite quote with him: ‘tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it’ (Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables).