Learning to be Gentle.

Do you notice your thoughts while you’re dropping something? A physical object, I mean – a plate of food, a wine glass, a crooked stack of books. There’s a moment when I think I can still recover. I don’t have to drop this.

Often, a louder, uglier thought follows right behind: you deserve to lose what you’re holding.

A few months ago, I watched my freshly prepared dinner, filled with healthy vegetables I spent time chopping and cleaning, splash across the kitchen counter, down the cabinets, and onto the floor, delighting my dog and sending me digging through the freezer for a burrito.

Fitting, I thought. Can’t even take care of myself. Wasted all that time and food – why do I even try?

Each time this happened, it was a small but real opportunity to demonstrate what I thought of myself. What bubbled up was cruelty, when I needed compassion.

My mom came for a visit earlier this month, and we had a lovely time together. We took three loads of old clothes and shoes and dishes to the Goodwill – things that no longer resonated with who I am becoming. We found a set of beautiful, delicate dishes at Williams-Sonoma, eggshell white with a sculpted wave pattern around the edge, and back at my house, we scraped the stickers off each dish, dreaming of dinner party décor.

Each time I rinse one of these new plates, I hear that familiar voice say I’ll probably end up dropping it, but now, a warmer, louder voice speaks second. I love these dishes, and I deserve to feel worthy of them. And though they are precious to me, they are simply ceramic molded into a pretty shape. If I do drop one, it will be an accident, not because I have decided to shame myself with the shards.

I wish I could get rid of all my self-doubt and perfectionism alongside my scuffed-up shoes, but for now I will rest easy in the knowledge that I am learning to love myself. I am learning to be gentle. And my heart, it turns out, is much less brittle than I feared.



Small Victories.

Recently, I read Anne Lamott’s book Small Victories. I’ve loved her books since reading Bird by Bird in college. Bird by Bird gave me the first, tiniest breath of hope that I could allow myself to enjoy writing despite debilitating perfectionist tendencies.

In the book, she talks about “shitty first drafts” and how you have to allow yourself to write a first draft so bad you’re afraid you’ll die in the night and someone will discover it. She describes her own neurotic process and how she learned to give herself permission to begin. For someone who believed my first draft should be my final draft, reading her words was the first crack in my wounded worldview – it allowed the first beams of light to filter in.

I have had to learn this lesson many times since, which is a painful irony for someone who tries to be perfect at beating perfectionism. Each time I learn, I think, “I’ve got it, now. I’ll never make a mistake again.” Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on your perspective, that’s not how it works: there are always more mistakes and more lessons.

Small Victories arrived on my book pile just when I needed it. I stopped by the library without a plan, and I walked where I felt led. I turned a corner, looked down, and there was a cheery blue cover, printed with a name that, to me, symbolizes hope and humor.

This little collection of essays was filled with stories of this vibrant and talented woman slipping into fear and doubt and blame, only to be redeemed by grace. She dips into fearful, wounded ways of thinking, but she always finds her way back to love and connection. And not by following a booming voice from the heavens, but by noticing small moments of kindness, resilience, or beauty.

It’s hard for me to rest in a sense of faith – moments of joy often trigger fear. I’m learning to breathe through this, but it’s a struggle. I’m learning that’s ok, too.


I Am Here.

My friend Kirsten took me to my first yoga class, a by-donation community class in Manhattan. I’d never done yoga and am not particularly flexible, so it took some convincing. “Yoga is magic,” she said, as though she were in on a secret.

We joined a crowd of others with mats slung confidently over their shoulders as we walked into the building and up a flight of stairs to the studio. The teacher kept calling out for us to scoot our mats closer to make more room, until we were an inch apart from each neighbor. “Anything cheap in New York,” I muttered to myself, trying to preserve my personal space.

I followed along with the poses; I wasn’t great, but I wasn’t terrible, and it was interesting. “Now we’ll continue our flow into Half-Pigeon Pose,” the teacher said. We gently dropped down onto our mats, keeping one leg out straight behind us and tucking the other underneath ourselves. She told us to gently fold forward towards the mat. There was a sharp, almost unbearable pain in my hip. My instinct was to run – to sit up straight and get out of this crazy position. Instead, I remembered Kirsten’s words: sometimes your body gets scared, so it hurts, but it’s just muscles – you’re ok.

I’m not harming myself, I thought. It’s just something new. I’ll be ok. I took a deep breath and relaxed into the pain, and whatever had clenched inside my hip, sharp and white-hot, released. Without warning, I let out a sob, raw and instinctual.

As we gathered our mats and shoes, my friend repeated her mantra: yoga is magic.

Since that day, she’s been proven right many times. I spend a lot of time in my thoughts, and yoga helps me drop into my body. It reminds me of the shape of my heart.

Last week I attended a restorative yoga class with another friend, who is also a believer in magic. It had been a long day, filled with bright spots and disappointments (like most days), and on the drive to class I prayed that we would each get what we needed out of class.

This class was all about support: we were physically supported by bolsters and blocks, and we were guided to imagine all the ways we’re supported in life. I had thought of my family and friends, my house, and my sweet dog, and my gratitude was marbled with fear. What if I lose them?

During the next pose, the teacher had us lay on the mat, one leg twisted over our bodies, shoulders flat to the floor. “Imagine the right side of your body expanding like a balloon,” she told us. With each breath in, there’s a light that glows brighter, and it dims just a bit when you exhale. Repeat ‘I am,’ which is complete, or find a third word that feels right to you. I am strong. I am loving.”

I imagined my ribs opening like gills, translucent and glowing, exposed and vulnerable. The light expanded from within me out into the room, and I found my own mantra: I Am Here.

My mantra was born of a gentle realization: no amount of protecting myself can save me from loss and pain. If I’m already living this life, I may as well really be, really here. So as tears fell, creating cool, damp patches in my hair, my heart called out to the universe: I AM HERE.


Turning Towards the Light.

Gratitude doesn’t always come easy for me. I appreciate things: the kindness of friends, help from my family. But pausing to feel grateful, deep in my bones, that is trickier.

Some of my anxiety has chosen to nest in gratitude’s rightful home in my heart. I resist feeling happy because I’m afraid of being stuck where I am. Somehow, I came to believe that misery is my only motivator towards growth. When I think of the people who are precious to me, a dark and clutching voice whispers: “Don’t get too comfortable, honey – I can take it all away whenever I choose.”

At times, this has felt insurmountable to me: how can I allow myself to truly feel joy and humbling gratitude when, at any time, the universe could choose to mock my naïveté?

I am seeking to change my experience of all this – my experience of God. I recently participated in a community where love was the driving force. It didn’t matter where we had come from or what we struggled with, we were all greeted with the same love, acceptance, and support. To me, this feels closer to the truth.

This morning, I prayed to be brave enough to trust that there are lessons in joy as well as in struggle. To trust that I will be supported through the hard times, so that I can live boldly, with a life shaped by love and gratitude for what I have in this moment without worrying about the moments to come.

With this shift in perspective, I felt the tears come. Owning this home has been a humbling experience, but it gave me the opportunity to learn to receive. Yes, it was difficult to look around me and realize I could not handle everything alone, but that only loomed so large for me because I felt ashamed about the brown grass in my front yard and what it said about my value.

When I first bought my house, I prayed that it would be a haven for me and anyone else who needed it; I prayed it would foster connection. I had spent so much time focused on my disappointment about my inability to water the grass that I wasn’t able to see a bigger truth: this house has been exactly what I requested. It has shown me that I have family and friends who will help me tear down some questionable fake brick or plant daffodil bulbs and butterfly bushes. It provided a home base for friends moving to Colorado. It has been witness to brave, honest, vulnerable conversations that were the start of incredible changes in me.

When I realized, a few months into home ownership, that I was too afraid to sleep here alone, my dog Bella came into my life. It is expensive and a decent amount of work to care for her, but she supports me. She gets me outside walking every day. She has inspired countless moments of laughter and silliness. She gave me the ability to stay in my home. When I desperately needed help, she appeared.

I am learning that life isn’t as linear and organized as I thought. Maybe you don’t wander through a barren desert until you reach the promised land. Perhaps love and abundance can grow alongside pain and loneliness, and I can choose which ones to water. I suspect I will have to learn this lesson a few times, and I am practicing being gentle with myself about this. For now, I am truly grateful for this insight, born of a desire to turn my face towards the light.

I am grateful for the light.


Trust the Process.

Last month, I had a special experience. I haven’t shared it here yet because it feels both precious and fragile. I feel a bit like how I imagine a new mother would feel. I want to tell everyone about this amazing thing that happened, and I also want to keep it nestled safely close to me until I’m sure it’s real. I’m so proud of these changes in me, the idea of offering them to someone else to hold, even for a moment, seems frightening. What if I share my newborn joy and hope, only to have it misunderstood or rejected?

Then I gently remind myself that it is real, and real doesn’t mean perfect – in fact, it’s raw and shining, unfinished and yet completely whole. I am starting to know the truth of me, and that is all I have to worry about.

So, in the spirit of real, here goes.

In early December, I traveled to Cumberland Furnace, Tennessee for a workshop at Onsite. I attended the Living Centered program, a week-long experiential therapy retreat. My step-dad, a psychologist, has been going to Onsite for years, and each time I sank into another round of depression, he would share stories of his experience and suggest I might look into it.

These moments of depression began in elementary school. Going to church, school, and even birthday parties awakened my anxiety, which I couldn’t name as such, and I didn’t understand why these things seemed difficult for me and easy for most others. I was smart, and my family and teachers expected things from me, so I buckled down and did what needed to be done.

I figured that I needed to push through and get over it – get over myself. As years passed, I did big things in spite of my fear; I worked to make my outer self a more genuine reflection of my true personality. I taught myself that others had just somehow gotten hold of the playbook, and I would be fine once I learned the game. Once I learned the rules, then I could really start living.

The harder I worked at trying to crack this nonexistent code, the more I began to see everything around me as a reaction to me. Social interactions or dating relationships gone awry, or a toxic work environment – everything negative in my life must have happened because I couldn’t play life perfectly. Even with friends I loved, who really knew me, I nearly always panicked over a misstep. I became exhausted; at times I grew resentful or felt like a failure; I lost sight of my own value.

Was I broken? Was I weak? How could I have so much potential but still feel a lap behind?

Though I had grown braver and more determined, my two-headed dragon of anxiety and perfectionism continued to pace at the mouth of his cave, standing between me and the treasure that lay out of reach behind him.

When my step-dad first told me about Onsite, it felt foreign – something I didn’t need, or maybe deserve. During the darkest times, it felt like a life preserver just out of reach. Finally, this past year, I got my head above water long enough to realize I wasn’t earning any prizes for struggling. I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew there was a place to go to learn, and there were people there who might be able to help me get off the bench and really start to play.

I arrived in Nashville and boarded the shuttle bus with a few other folks, and we rode into the country, tense and silent. I sent a final few text messages to friends and family, and then we arrived. They gave us a tour and pointed out our cabins, where I stopped before dinner. One roommate was already there, and her warm, genuine welcome calmed my growing nerves.

After an awkward first dinner with 40 other participants, we handed in our phones for the week, renouncing contact with the outside world to begin our journeys into those caves guarded by our dragons.

The details of what happened that week I leave in Cumberland Furnace, but what I found there changed me. I learned what it feels like to be real – to set aside the funny faces and self-deprecation and smart comments and say only, and simply, what needs to be said. I was humbled by the kindness, love, and grace that was given so freely to me. I was amazed to realize I could give all that in return, and not by achieving the right to this exchange, but by trusting that the core of me is enough.

I learned that the core of me is not comprised of my particular struggles. Those struggles are real, and I have work to do, but I am not doomed. For the first time, I began to understand myself – a deeper wisdom than the track that used to play on loop in my mind. That understanding led to compassion, which led to hope. Not a frenzied grasp at change, but real, sweet hope.

I received the gift of understanding that I am a good and worthy soul, and I can take responsibility for my life without sinking under the weight of everyone else’s. I enjoyed my first glimpse at escaping the strangle-hold of perfectionism, and how good it feels to give myself permission to do things clumsily.

The final evening of our program ended with a dance party – a room full of people living out our joy to the tune of the Black Eyed Peas. On the shuttle back to the airport, we laughed at how different this ride was at the end of our week together. One man and I realized we had sat by each other on the shuttle in. We had started this process as frightened strangers, and in just a few days, we shared conversations about God and love and the nature of humanity. We had held each other’s hearts gently and with gratitude. We had become friends.

Each day that passes, Onsite feels farther away, but it continues to show up in my life. Sometimes I feel an actual shiver of gratitude that I got to have this experience, I get to be a part of this community. Sometimes I feel so settled in this new understanding that I almost can’t remember how I felt before. Sometimes the old stuff pops back up, but then I gently remind myself: real doesn’t mean perfect. In fact, I’m raw and shining, unfinished and yet completely whole.


It’s a new dawn; it’s a new day.

Grief and Gratitude.

If I said that I lost my dad sixteen years ago today, it might conjure an image of him wandering around a bookstore, hidden in the history section. Or, perhaps, in the Brown County art gallery he loved so much. He used to take an excruciatingly long amount of time staring at each oil portrait and landscape, so it would have been easy to lose track of him in our quest to find the fudge shop.

If his spirit has any agency over its free time, he’s probably there now poring over a Marie Goth, and I hope she’s standing alongside him answering questions about her technique. But on this day in 2001, we knew exactly where he was. It was the rest of us who felt lost.


My cousins had lost their mom to cancer three years earlier – this was to be our family’s tragedy. To the extent that any grief can be, it sounded a warning as it approached: a macabre whistle trumpeting the train’s approach. When our grandpa died 20 months later (cancer for him as well), it was a dark display of cosmic timing. Another Christmas arrived, yet again with a smaller and more subdued group soldiering on in silence as Midwesterners do.

And then came our November, swift and silent. He left to pick up my brother from tennis, and in less than the length of a highway on-ramp, he had died.

It felt unearned and almost shameful, that grief. I was almost surprised to see my cousins and uncle at the funeral, as if they might be angry that we had taken their mantle of grief. The whole thing felt gaudy and loud and attention-seeking, and while I had spent hours practicing an Oscars acceptance speech in the bathroom mirror, I wanted no part of this sudden infamy.

I wanted my normal life, which now felt like a party that had ended suddenly while I was in the ladies’ room. I had turned away for a moment, only to return to soured punch and deflated balloons in an empty room that would never feel full again.

I tried very hard to push through, thinking I would find familiar normalcy on the far side of a year. I bore down, desperately holding onto my last finger’s grip on a cheerful explanation of how it had been hard, but I was fine. Surely this experience had deepened my faith or made me a stronger person. It had to have, because what if it hadn’t? What if it had just been a horrible thing that had knocked the legs out from under our little family, filling me with a desperate fear, sadness, and unease that I didn’t know how to sit with, which made people uncomfortable when they felt it leaking out of me?

Of course, I had to let myself fall apart and then slowly walk alongside my mom and brother in creating a new collection of traditions and ways of moving through the world, which I haven’t always done with willingness or grace. From a distance of almost half my life, it feels more like a bad dream – the kind that leave you uncertain of what’s real during your waking moments – than a fresh and urgent grief.

It feels a bit strange to live through this day and its bitter memories while also being grateful for the new family we’ve found as a result of this loss. Today, I’ll resist the urge to share tidy life lessons and morals of our story and simply say that I loved my dad and love him still. I will try to be forgiving and kind to myself for stumbling through sadness and proud of us for always moving, always trying.

I am grateful to have a loving family, and I’m lucky to be where I am: still moving, still trying.


Dirty Thirty(-three)

Today is my birthday, a day that we imbue with more power than it has perhaps earned. It’s just another day, but it also provides an opportunity to reflect on progress, shed bad habits, or be grateful to have seen another one.

This birthday, I got to FaceTime with my mom while opening a present she sent to me. My siblings and step-dad sent sweet cards and messages. I got to talk with my grandmother – a woman who just celebrated her own 94th birthday a few days ago. Church bells sounded faintly in the distance as I stepped outside for lunch, and I knew my angel relatives were with me.

The last year, like every other year, has had its share of deep sadness and thrilling hope; remembering forgotten passions and discovering new desires. Instead of going out this evening, I knew I wanted an night of solo reflection. I went to a nearby yoga studio (a place I’d never been) for a Yoga Nidra session (a practice I’d never tried). There were only two of us students in the room. The ceiling was decorated with strings of flags, and plants stretched themselves towards the sun from their windowsill perch. A deep purple geode claimed a corner, and intricate statues of goddesses seemed to bless us where we sat.

Once we were each laying comfortably on our mat, tucked under a blanket and a lavender-scented eye pillow, the teacher helped us settle into our bodies and relax. She asked us to focus on the center of our chests and greet our heart like an old friend.

“Ask your heart what it needs,” she told us. This “waiting to hear your inner voice” concept usually scares me. I hear about people following their intuition or meditating and praying to receive an answer, and it makes my palms sweaty. I’m afraid that if I stop and listen, I’ll only hear silence.

But tonight, I asked my heart what it needed from me. The first couple of answers clearly came from my A-student brain, which wanted to make sure there was a voice to fill the silence, but the words didn’t feel right. I let them drift away and kept listening. After a few minutes, I heard a voice that sounded like me, just a little calmer and wiser.

“Trust,” the voice said. “I need your trust.”

By the end of the guided meditation, my body was merely a focal point of warm, vibrating energy. I felt peaceful and grateful and out of my head, which is rare. We woke up slowly and sat up gently, blinking as we looked at each other – the only three people in the building.

I’m not sure what blessings and challenges the year ahead will hold, but I will try to remember my intention from class: I invite trust. I trust my heart to be strong enough and to speak to me with honesty and clarity. I trust myself to learn to listen.