Kindness

Two days ago, we observed World Kindness Day. Here are a few thoughts about Kindness and how it can profoundly impact our lives. Especially now.

World Kindness Day was introduced in 1998 by a coalition of non-profit organizations and is celebrated internationally on November 13th. Its objective is to highlight good deeds in the community, focusing on the positive power of Kindness. Kindness is a fundamental aspect of the human condition. It bridges all divides–– race, religion, politics, gender and zip codes. Kindness is contagious; even the smallest acts can ripple and create a far-reaching wave of change. 

Kindness does not come naturally to everyone and some of us need an occasional reminder. This must be why Ellen Degeneres always ends her show with the mantra: “be kind to each other.” Once we are kind to each other, as Ellen urges, we realize how simple it is. Without going very far out of our way, we can do something nice for someone else and have a huge impact on another’s life…. sometimes without even realizing it. And, that act of kindness benefits both the recipient and the giver. 

THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS A SMALL ACT OF KINDNESS. EVERY ACT CREATES A RIPPLE WITH NO LOGICAL END.”

––Adam Scott

Many people go about their day with a smile plastered on their face, while underneath that seemingly happy exterior, they may actually be hurting, grieving, anxious or depressed. The smallest act of kindness from a stranger can change the entire trajectory of that person’s day or even life. But most of us are too caught up in our own daily grind to consider how a random stranger is feeling.

I suggest practicing Kindness and making it a habit. Being kind is actually quite easy and, once we do it regularly, it becomes our natural way of being. Then, those we have been kind to are likely to “pay it forward” and, little by little, Kindness will becomes the rule rather than the exception.

According to WMBGKind, a kindness initiative in Williamsburg, VA, there are five key components of kindness:

1. No act is too small— Whether it is holding a door for someone, smiling as you pass someone on the street or just being polite, acts of kindness come in all sizes.

2. There is no price on kindness— Kindness doesn’t have to cost money. Writing a note of encouragement or taking time to listen to someone can go such a long way. 

3. Kindness is inclusive—Kindness transcends demographics, race, religion and socioeconomic status. It is always an equal opportunity gift.

4. Kindness makes us better, together— Being kind to others creates a stronger sense of community, changing the way we see ourselves, our neighbors, and helps focus us more on our similarities than our differences.  

5. Kindness literally changes people— Giving makes us more empathetic and generous in our assumptions about others, thus enabling us to become more selfless and humble.

Yesterday, I comforted a tearful little girl who had fallen off her scooter. My golden retriever, Casper– who happens to be a pet therapy dog– and I approached the girl and asked if she wanted to pet Casper. Casper sat calmly while the girl stroked his fur… she hesitatingly smiled a little, then broke out into a full grin as she exclaimed: “he’s so soft and cuddly!” This small kindness undoubtedly made this young stranger’s day better and it also filled me with joy. I felt grateful that I was able to help someone else. (Casper was pretty happy too.) This is the power of kindness. I’ll close with one of my favorite quotes:

“DO THINGS FOR PEOPLE NOT BECAUSE OF WHO THEY ARE OR WHAT THEY DO IN RETURN, BUT BECAUSE OF WHO YOU ARE.”

––Harold Kushner, Rabbi & Author
Neighborhood sign with a universal message

Morning People

We have all heard the adage: “the early bird catches the worm.” I am not particularly interested in catching worms, but I am–and always have been– a morning person. Even as a teen and college student, when I stayed out until the wee hours, I still never recall sleeping in. Neither my husband nor my children are morning people. I think they are annoyed by my early morning perkiness as they drag themselves out of bed, bleary-eyed and exhausted.

My alarm clock each morning is our beloved golden retriever, Casper, who is most definitely a morning being. Every day at 5:45 am, I hear faint whining and, with one eye open, I pat the mattress, inviting Casper to join us. He happily jumps up on the bed, then snuggles in next to me to doze. This usually buys me an extra half hour, but I never descend fully back into sleep.

By 6:15 am, Casper and I are ready to rise. I wash up, brush my teeth, throw on a pair of sweats and we head downstairs. I let Casper outside and he runs crazy, high-energy loops around the backyard. I turn on the Keurig. While Casper eats his breakfast, I drink my coffee. That first sip of java, sweetened with almond milk creamer, is my single favorite moment of the day.  I savor it.

As the caffeine courses through my veins, I feel a “jolt” and immediately feel ready to attack the day with enthusiasm. Friends and family members who are not morning people will never understand the immense and complete pleasure I feel in this moment…

It is quiet and peaceful at this hour. The world is undisturbed. Despite all the events that happened yesterday, no matter how dismal life seemed, today the slate is wiped clean and we have a chance to begin anew. In my meditation class last week, we discussed the phenomenon of looking at the world through a “beginner’s mindset.” This means approaching life without expectations or judgment, but rather with openness, wonder and possibility. In the early morning hours, before the world comes to life, I believe that anything can happen today. Every moment represents a new beginning.

I am energized, both physically and mentally, in the morning. I try to exercise early in the day, while the adrenaline is flowing. Morning is my best time to think and to write. It is usually at this hour when I enter that exhilarating creative “zone,” where I happily discover that my musings write themselves: words effortlessly flow out of my brain and onto the page.

The only downside to being a morning person is that by 9 pm, I am struggling to keep my eyes open. As I doze through whatever program we are watching, my husband, ever the night owl, is wide awake and reading, usually until after midnight. This works for him because he won’t be up at 5:45 am with the dog.

In fact, by the time my husband awakes, I feel incredibly accomplished. I have fed and walked Casper, meditated, caught up on emails and social media, done a load of laundry, taken a 3-1/2 mile run, made a grocery list, watched the news, talked to a close friend (who is also a morning person) and written this blog post. I could probably use a midday nap at this point, but sadly, I am incapable of napping, unless traveling in a car or airplane. Nonetheless, I relish being a morning person and would not have it any other way.

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It is 10 am. What have you done so far today?

Lake Life

My husband and I are lake people. Our spirits are most alive here; our souls are at peace. We are relaxed, yet invigorated. This quintessential balance allows us to be our best selves.

migissunsetPerhaps this lakeside love affair began in our youth, as we both attended sleepaway camp in beautiful, idyllic lake settings. We now own a camp on a quiet lake in Massachusetts. We have spent the past 25+ years vacationing in the lakes region of Maine. This summer we have rented a house on Moose Pond in Bridgton, Maine, which feels like the perfect pandemic antidote.

As we near the end of our lakeside sojourn, I have been contemplating what, specifically, about the lake I find so appealing. As I write these musings from our screened-in porch, I soak in panoramic views of the lake, still covered in early morning fog. By 7:30 am, the fog will lift and the far shoreline, capped by Pleasant Mountain, will be visible.

 

I take it all in. The tall pines surrounding our property, blanketing pathways with their soft needles. The lake is a flat sheet of glass– ideal water ski conditions. The hammock rests invitingly under a nearby shady tree. I listen to the sounds of morning: the birds softly chirping, gentle waves lapping the shore and the whir of an occasional motor boat. My husband is out on an early fishing excursion and the rest of the household is sleeping. The world is still. I am breathing in solitude, serenity and peace. The lake provides a natural meditation.

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The lake is like glass in the early morning…

I enjoy quiet time reading in my dockside chair and lazily watching the boats pass by. As the day wears on, I will partake in the plentiful activities at our doorstep: canoeing, kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, water skiing, swimming, cruising in the pontoon. It is a full, active day on the lake. I am energized.

The water is crystal clear, cool and refreshing. You can see straight through to the bottom of the lake where soft sand, smooth rocks and moss hug the floor. A swim in this fresh water invigorates– cleansing body, mind and soul.

As pristine as the lake is in early morning, it is even more majestic at night. In the evening, the rippling waves shimmer in the moonlight as loons cry out from across the water. We toast marshmallows in the campfire, tell stories, sing songs. It is magical. I cling to the joyful spirit and blissful calm that this setting instills in me. I am exactly where I need to be.

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Moose Pond at sunset (unfiltered)

I close my eyes and deeply inhale the familiar and comforting pine scent. I feel the caress of a gentle breeze off the water as my soul stirs with profound gratitude. Welcome to the lake life.

Of note… the photo depicted on The Nest Re-Imagined cover page was taken on Sebago Lake in South Casco, Maine, about ten years ago, at sunset.

 

 

 

 

A Tale of Two Quarantines: Extrovert vs. Introvert

I have learned a lot about myself during the Covid-19 pandemic and the pause it has engendered. In particular, I have been surprised to discover my introverted side. And I like her very much!

Those who met me during college or in my twenties probably considered me to be a “bubbly extrovert.” I was always in the center of the action, planning and organizing activities for my friends and family, attending large parties and reveling in it all. I loved being surrounded by people. While I had my own apartment, I hosted regular dinner parties and traveled with friends every weekend so I never had to be alone.

As I got older, I began to appreciate solitude. Little by little, appreciation grew into longing. Today, I literally crave time for myself. Being alone no longer makes me feel lonely. On the contrary, it allows me to recalibrate and recharge. This realization led me to wonder:

“Have I become an Introvert in middle age?”

I decided to dive deeper. I began with Susan Cain’s bestselling book (and TED Talk,) Quiet, in which the author dispels the misperceptions of Introverts in what she calls “a world that can’t stop talking.” She agrees with Swiss Psychologist, Carl Jung, that Introverts and Extroverts are not defined by being shy or being a leader (Introverts and Extroverts may or may not be either.) Instead, the differences lie in what someone finds stimulating as opposed to exhausting.

“Extroverts direct their energy outward– towards other people– and gain energy from such encounters, while Introverts focus their energy inwards, towards more solitary, thoughtful activities.”–– Carl Jung

Since social interactions energize extroverts, being alone deflates them. Introverts are the opposite. Small talk and cocktail parties leave them drained. Time alone, or with a few people they know well, recharges their batteries. They enjoy thinking, reading, tinkering or discussing a topic in depth. Many introverts are mistakenly labeled shy or anti-social. As Susan Cain contends, “introverts are not antisocial– just differently social,” generally preferring to spend time with a few close friends as opposed to extroverts, who prefer larger, more animated gatherings.

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Covid-19’s stay-at-home mandates have magnified the differences between Introverts and Extroverts, torturing Extroverts who need constant social connection, while providing welcome relief from social obligations for Introverts. In quarantine, Introverts are less likely than Extroverts to feel deflated, isolated or bored and more likely to feel energized, perhaps welcoming the lack of distractions to delve deeply.

Extroverts have embraced digital social interactions such as Zoom happy hours and online workout classes. But in between these virtual interactions, they feel frustrated and depressed and wonder when all of this will be over. Introverts, however, are reveling in this new normal. According to Lisa Kaenzig, the extroverted Dean of William Smith College who has studied introverted learners for years:

“The world has generally been a place where Extroverts are rewarded and Introverts are passed over. But the quarantines have changed those assumptions. While everyone is anxious and worried about the virus, the actual demands of staying home and limiting social interactions has felt like a boon to many Introverts. With everything that makes the world harder for them as Introverts, the world is better for them right now. They are adapting much more quickly.”

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In our “Quaranteam” of two parents and two adult children, we have one off-the-charts Extrovert, two Ambiverts (those who have characteristics of both Introverts and Extroverts) and one Introvert. In pre-quarantine life, my daughter, the extreme Extrovert, was the social director of her friend group and constantly engaged with others. She has taken working from home in stride, but is utterly disappointed that her “calendar has literally been wiped clean for the next six months.” No concerts or music festivals, no weekend travel, no bachelorette parties or weddings. Some days she feels angry and frustrated; other days, she’s downright stir-crazy. Although her downtime is filled with Zoom game nights, virtual workouts with friends and late-night DJ parties, she still has “cabin fever.” Like most Extroverts, my daughter gathers her energy from others. The only “others” around her these days are her mom, dad and brother… and the dog. (She did start an Instagram account for the dog.) It is a tough time for Extroverts.

For my introverted son, it is a different story. A sports announcer whose work is temporarily on hiatus, he has proactively taken on several new projects; he is networking virtually with other broadcasters and industry leaders, and he is mentoring other young broadcasters. With no in-person gatherings and few social pressures, he is free to focus on his passions. He is busy, engaged and content.

My husband is an extroverted Ambivert. He enjoys a balance of socializing and quiet time to pursue hobbies, read or watch TV.  He does not always need people around him to be happy. In quarantine, hubby has adjusted to a regular daytime work schedule, yet he also needs frequent Zoom-time with friends and family to stay connected.

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As a more introverted Ambivert, I have found a nice equilibrium during quarantine. The extroverted side of me needs a pace and routine to my days with some social connection. My introverted side needs peace and solitude to help me remain grounded and healthy. Early morning dog walks, meditations, long runs, reading and writing fill me with joy and purpose each day, while replenishing my energy. Despite all the challenges around us, I am centered and happy– and hopeful that I can maintain this balance in the world beyond quarantine.

Approximately one-third to one-half of people are Introverts. This means that most Extroverts have an introverted partner, family member or close friend. If you believe that “opposites attract,” then Introverts and Extroverts can complement each other and have a strong friendship or love relationship, provided both parties make a conscious effort to appreciate what makes the other tick. Being in quarantine together has accentuated this dynamic, giving these divergent personality types the opportunity to better understand and respect each other’s unique preferences and needs.

What will our post-quarantine world will look like? I know my extroverted daughter cannot wait to find out. She already has one foot out the door, with plans to visit a friend’s beach house as soon as the restrictions are lifted. My son and I, the more risk-averse introverts, are content and not rushing off anywhere. And, in this uncertain future, if we have more people working from home, if Zoom meetings and virtual social activities become standard fare, while large, in-person gatherings dissipate, introverts may find themselves in a whole new comfort zone.

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The New Normal– A Dog’s Life

Something is going on in my house. I can feel it in my bones.

Usually, I’m just hanging out with mom during the day while Dad is at the office. Mom and I take walks and play in the backyard– I love to fetch balls and hunt for chipmunks. Sometimes, I get to play with my canine friends like Gypsy, Skye and Farley. While Mom works at the kitchen table, I nap on the window seat. I keep one eye open in case some of my friends wander by. A few times a month, Mom and I go on pet therapy visits to hospitals, schools and day care facilities. Seeing all those special people and helping them to feel better is the best part of my week! Overall, my life has been pretty good…

But lately, everything seems different. I’m not sure what’s happening.

Dad is now working at home so he’s in the house all day. Dad mostly stays upstairs in his office but in the late afternoon he takes me out for an adventure. We go to our nearby lake and Dad roller blades while I run next to him on my leash. What fun!fullsizeoutput_5b22

My sister is now back in the house and she has taken over mom’s office at the kitchen table. My sister wears headphones and talks to her computer a lot. But while she’s not working, she gives me lots of love and attention. My sister calls me “Smushie” and is constantly taking photos of me, which I don’t mind too much. (Mom laughs and says I’m going to be on Instagram again, which I guess is a good thing– but I’m not sure…) My sister also likes going outside when she needs a break from work, and then I get an extra walk!

My brother, who lives far away, also came home to stay with us. I’ve really missed him– he hasn’t been here in a long time. My brother loves petting me and burrowing his head in my fur… sometimes he lays down on my dog bed and snuggles with me. I am so happy when my brother throws me the ball and the two of us get a little wild.

IMG_0954Meanwhile, there is a lot of activity in our playroom. A few nights ago, my sister led an exercise class– she was shouting instructions to people on her computer screen. Mom and Dad were doing the exercises too. I was hoping to take my post-dinner nap, but there was too much commotion for me to sleep. So, I decided to join the class, but the only move I could do was the “downward dog.” Whew– what a workout! Not sure I can keep up this pace…

Another new thing is happening. Instead of a few canine friends passing our house each day, now there are dozens of families with dogs parading by all day long. I wait and watch at my window seat, trying so hard to contain myself… but I cannot stop barking because the dogs are everywhere and I think it is one big doggie play group! My family is not amused at my constant barking.

I’ve also noticed that Mom is wearing funny blue gloves and she keeps wiping down countertops, doorknobs, faucets and the refrigerator door with a towel. What’s with all the cleaning? And, someone in my family is always at the sink washing their hands. They must be very dirty from playing outside with me all the time… fullsizeoutput_5aae

I overheard my mom and dad talking about the “Coronavirus.” They don’t seem to like it very much. Still, I love having my entire family around me. I get petted and snuggled all day and night, and I get to play outside and take lots of walks. I really do miss my pet therapy visits, but Mom says we can’t do our visits for a while until the Coronavirus threat is over. I feel badly because I know all my friends are probably disappointed that I’m not with them, and I miss bringing joy to their lives. At least I am trying to be a wonderful pet therapy dog to my family. I think I am doing a good job of comforting them and helping them to relax and breathe. fullsizeoutput_5a36

I’m not sure what this Corona thing is. I just know that I’m getting more attention, more snuggles, and that everyone I love is by my side 24-7… I am exhausted from all the walks, hikes and backyard frolics, but I am not complaining. I know I am one lucky boy.

Love, Casper

Minimalism

A few years ago, I wrote a blog post entitled Less is More, about how saying less and doing less for our children resulted in their stepping up, doing more and taking charge of their lives. Now, I have a variant  on this theme to share. By having less, I am feeling more. This broad concept of simplifying and reducing consumption in order to focus on more important undertakings is referred to as Minimalism.

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As empty nesters, my husband and I are contemplating our next chapter. We are preparing to sell our house and, in so doing, we are paring down our possessions. We have discovered that, with less stuff around us, we feel lighter and freer.

Over the past few months, we have been de-cluttering room by room. We have gone through hundreds of items– framed photos, photo albums, books, artifacts and knick-knacks amassed over 27 years of marriage. Some were collected from favorite trips. Others were gifts that we appreciated but had no use for and so were stored in what we dubbed our “tag sale room.”  (Whether or not we will actually hold a tag sale remains to be seen.) We recently picked through this room, filling plastic bins with school projects, award certificates, sports trophies and various other childhood keepsakes.

This is all very bittersweet, as every memento or photo triggers a wonderful memory. Our children were so sweet, so cute and so innocent… family vacations spent frolicking on the beach, Sunday AYSO soccer games with my husband coaching, camp visiting days, birthday parties… simple, everyday happenings we enjoyed as parents. But getting rid of the trophies and autographed camp pillows won’t obscure those memories. And the pleasure we derive from having a neat, clean and de-cluttered home far outweighs any pangs of guilt we might feel for discarding childhood mementos or storing photos in a box. With fewer possessions in our house, we can fully embrace what we do have and appreciate what is most meaningful.

This philosophy is espoused by authors, bloggers and documentary filmmakers known as The Minimalists who believe in letting go of sentimental items. They tell us that “we are not our stuff– we are more than our possessions. Our memories are within us, not within our things. Holding onto stuff imprisons us, while letting go is freeing. You can take pictures of items you want to remember. Old photographs can be scanned. An item that is sentimental for us can be useful for someone else.”

fullsizeoutput_5984The benefits of Minimalism are well documented by psychology and social work professionals. Our mental state is influenced by our environment, so a cluttered home or office can result in a cluttered mind. Simplifying and minimizing our living space may help us experience greater clarity and tranquility. According to Tamara Levitt, Content Director at the meditation app, Calm:

 

 

“Minimalism suggests that most of us spend too much time and energy focused on material things, which distracts us from the relationships and und undertakings that really matter. This lifestyle philosophy invites us to re-assess our values and ask ourselves what will actually bring a lasting sense of well-being. The idea isn’t to get rid of all our personal belongings or to cease consuming altogether, but Minimalism poses we clear out the excess clutter and unnecessary consumption so we can focus on the things in our life that are truly important…”

Friends who have recently moved have shared their joy of purging. Initially, it is difficult to part with prized possessions, but then we start to realize that it’s just stuff. It is not important. When we clean out our closet, parting with clothes we no longer wear; when we clear out furniture that no longer suits our needs and donate it to others who can use it; when we pare down our possessions to the few things that are truly meaningful– we can really feel the authenticity of our lives. When all the extraneous material possessions are stripped away, what remains is the real stuff– family, friends and our health. It is then that we realize how much we really do have.

As my favorite musicians, the Zac Brown Band, sing in their crowd-rousing song, Homegrown:

“It’s the weight that you carry from the things you think you want–I’ve got everything I need and nothing that I don’t.”

101 Days of Mindful Meditation

A few months ago, I was standing in a supermarket checkout line. The cashier in our lane was moving at a glacial pace. She meticulously scanned each item, while chatting incessantly with customers and co-workers. The customer she was ringing up had dozens of items. This was going to take a while. I could feel my stress and frustration escalating.

Meanwhile, I noticed that the person just ahead of me had a mere two items. I leaned in and said: “Looks like we chose the wrong cashier. You should go to the express lane– it will be much faster.” The woman smiled at me and replied: “that’s all right. I meditated this morning, so I’m good. Normally a situation like this would totally annoy me, but not any longer. Now I am calm and relaxed– plus, I get to talk to a nice person like you.”

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Wait, what? Was this person for real? She was perfectly content to stand in line an extra 15 minutes when she didn’t have to? And she attributed her Zen-like aura to having meditated earlier that day? I was intrigued.

I had heard a lot about meditation over the years and had even tried it a few times. I once attended a meditation class, had bought several meditation CDs (back when we had CDs!), and had also downloaded popular apps like Headspace and Calm. But when I closed my eyes and tried to focus on deep breathing, it just didn’t work for me. My mind kept wandering and I began to stress that I couldn’t master a simple exercise like meditation. After I few attempts, I rationalized not doing it anymore because I didn’t have time to meditate. That’s right– I couldn’t find 10 minutes a day for myself.

Back to that day at the supermarket. After seeing the benefits of meditation first-hand, I resolved to try again. The next morning, I opened up the Calm app (which had lay dormant for close to a year) on my phone. I was immediately greeted with the soothing, peaceful sounds of falling rain. I opened a chapter called Daily Calm and listened.

To be honest, I did not have a huge epiphany on that first day. Throughout the guided meditation, I found my mind wandering, as I thought about all the important tasks I needed to complete that day, emails I needed to send, people I needed to reach. I did manage a few moments in which I was able to focus solely on breathing and being present. But it was difficult. And uncomfortable. Yet, I was determined to keep going.

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About a week into this “experiment,” something shifted. I woke up and discovered I was actually looking forward to my morning meditation. But first I had to walk the dog. During the entire the dog walk, I couldn’t wait to get home and start meditating. This excitement was new– and welcome. Since then, I have practiced mindful meditation for 101 days straight. Most days, I meditate for just 10-15 minutes early in the morning. During that time, I am “all in,” focused on deep breathing, clearing my mind and being here. It is a liberating and exhilarating experience. This is now part of my daily routine and I cannot live without it.

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My adult children are tired of hearing about my meditation practice and how it has changed my life. They, like so many others who have not experienced mindfulness, think I am involved in some weird, spiritual, crunchy granola waste of time. I promise you, it is not that. This is something very real and meaningful that is making a profound difference to me.

Mindfulness is defined as “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations without judgment.”  Mindfulness, which includes the practice of meditation, forces you to slow down and pay attention to the here and now, which is challenging in today’s frenetic world.

We refer to meditation as a “practice” because, like most things in life, the more you do it, the more adept you become. And, it can take some time to feel comfortable. As adults, there are so many things we have literally been ‘practicing’ for years– whether it be our careers, sports and hobbies, or even relationships. Yet despite all the years of practice, we still have not fully mastered these things. I love that my meditation practice is a continual work-in-progress. Each day I meditate I learn a little more.

In just over three months, I have noticed subtle changes in the way I view the world and in how I react to situations. I am definitely calmer and more patient, and I tend not to stress as much over the little things that typically set me off.

“We have little power to choose what happens, but we have complete power over how we respond.”–– Arianna Huffington

My daily guided meditations force me to listen carefully to the inspirational messages imparted within, covering a gamut of topics including: confidence, understanding, obstacles, perfectionism, FOMO, everyday judgments, relationships, nesting, cravings, dreaming and more. They help me to reflect on important aspects of my life in new and different ways. 

There is definitive medical research showing a positive correlation between meditation and brain function. MRI scans show that after an eight-week course of mindfulness practice, the brain’s ‘fight or flight’ center, the amygdala, shrinks. This primal region of the brain, associated with fear and emotion, is involved in the initiation of the body’s response to stress. As the amygdala shrinks, the pre-frontal cortex – associated with higher order brain functions such as awareness, concentration and decision-making – thickens. The ‘functional connectivity’ between these regions – i.e. how often they are activated together – also changes. The connection between the amygdala and the rest of the brain weakens, while the connections between areas associated with attention and concentration strengthen. According to a study at the University of Pittsburgh, the scale of these changes correlates positively to hours of meditation practice.

Research has also shown that mindfulness helps reduce anxiety and depression. Mindfulness teaches us to respond to stress with awareness of what is happening in the present moment, rather than to simply act instinctively, without understanding the emotions or motives that may be driving a decision.

It is comforting to know that my meditation practice is helping to improve my brain function and to reduce stress and anxiety. But even more importantly, I love the way it has shifted my view of daily life… I am now living more in the present, learning to be more flexible, letting go of perfectionism and relinquishing control over things I know I cannot control. Mindfulness makes me feel more like my true self… and I like that real self a lot more. I am less judgmental, less angry and more tolerant these days.

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The other necessary aspect of meditation is that it is an act of self-preservation. As we age, it becomes more and more important to take care of ourselves, both physically and mentally. I try to work out daily but if I miss a day, I become grumpy and irritable– just ask my husband! Now I find that missing a morning meditation has the same result– I just don’t feel quite right. For example, if I am traveling early, and cannot meditate, I force myself to do a bedtime meditation, just to help re-align my psyche. (And, what could be bad about Matthew McConaughey reading me a sleep story?)

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As adults, it is challenging and sometimes onerous to learn new skills and even more difficult to master these skills. At first, a mindfulness practice may feel strange and uncomfortable. You may get frustrated or impatient, as I did. But stick with it anyway… it definitely gets better. For me, meditation has already proven to be well worth the investment of time and effort. I feel more open to whatever life throws my way.

While I would love the opportunity to reconnect with the stranger from the supermarket and thank her for changing my life, since that is an unlikely option, the best I can do is pay it forward to others. I have many friends and family whom I know would benefit immensely from meditation, so I am sharing this gift with all of you. However, like me, each of you will experience your own personal mindfulness journey and determine how meditation may fit into your life.

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Everyday Gratitude

With the hustle and bustle of modern-day life, it is easy to lose sight of how fortunate we are. We have so much to be grateful for. Most people are grateful when good things happen to them: they get a promotion, a new job, a home, a new car, a raise or a nice gift. But this is actually backward. The first step to achieving true happiness is to be grateful for the many things we already have– that is, adopting an attitude of gratitude. This means making it a habit to express thankfulness and appreciation in all parts of our lives, on a regular basis.

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Thanksgiving is a day that causes us to hit the pause button and bring all that gratitude to the forefront. But why focus on gratitude only on Thanksgiving?

According to Tamara Levitt, Head of Content at the meditation app, Calm, “gratitude is not always easy to access on a daily basis because our minds have a natural negativity bias.” Once we are aware of this, we can develop our ‘gratitude muscle’ and train it to notice the positive.

“Gratitude, like faith, is a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it grows, and the more power you have to use it on your behalf. If you do not practice gratefulness, its benefaction will go unnoticed, and your capacity to draw on its gifts will be diminished. To be grateful is to find blessings in everything.”— Alan Cohen

Levitt suggests we start with what is working in our lives, like, for example, our health. Even if we are sick or injured, we can still be grateful for the body parts that are working and for all the things we are still able to do… We can be grateful for our senses– our eyesight, hearing, touch– which allow us to connect with and enjoy the world around us… We can be grateful for family and friends, the people who brighten our existence, support us, and enrich our lives with laughter and love… We can be grateful for a warm home, delicious food on the table and creature comforts… And we can be grateful for our job or career, our passions, our talents, our creativity– all that brings meaning and purpose to our lives.

 

Gratitude can be found anywhere and everywhere, if we look for it. We can even find gratitude in the pain and loss we experience, in the challenges and obstacles we face. We can choose to view these struggles as gifts that broaden our experience, that teach us invaluable lessons, that open the door to new possibilities and that deepen our resilience, compassion and wisdom. It is not easy, but we can find gratitude for everything, large or small, in our lives. And this gratitude is readily available– not just on Thanksgiving Day, but every day.

The snow falling outside that is causing dangerous roads and activities to be cancelled is, simultaneously, creating a beautiful, peaceful, winter wonderland outside my home. Today, I choose to be grateful for the snow.

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Pet Therapy

When I mention that I am a pet therapist, people imagine cats and dogs reclined on my couch while I listen to their problems. While that sounds like an appealing way to spend my days, I am actually referring to a different type of pet therapy.

My golden retriever, Casper, and I are a certified pet therapy team. We were licensed by the Alliance of Therapy Dogs after completing a six-week training program, followed by several supervised hands-on visits. As a dog team, we visit nursing homes, special needs programs, veteran’s organizations, college campuses, hospitals, schools and libraries. Our mission is to share Casper’s unconditional love with those in need, thereby brightening their lives.fullsizeoutput_4711

Clinical studies have proven that animals help people heal. Therapy dogs provide comfort to those who are ill, anxious and disabled. Simply petting, touching or talking to animals can improve physical health and emotional well-being. Interacting with a friendly pet can help reduce blood pressure and improve overall cardiovascular health. It can also accelerate the release of endorphins which produces a calming effect and literally soothes the brain, resulting in an increased ability to learn and interact with others.

Pet therapy can also help children with learning difficulties. For such children, it can be extremely stressful to try to read, write or participate in an intellectual activity that does not come naturally. Often a child who is unsure of him/herself will relax and read to a dog, who is non-judgmental. This enables the child to gain the necessary self-confidence to keep practicing their reading. Our handlers act as the catalyst between the dog and child.

Likewise, therapy dogs can help children and adults with special needs to engage in social interactions. Casper & I regularly visit a daycare facility for adults with intellectual, developmental and physical disabilities. The facility offers programs to help patients live fuller lives with “opportunities for learning, working and loving,” with pet therapy being one of the patients’ favorite activities. Each time we visit, I am awed by Casper’s impact on the patients. Just minutes after petting or snuggling Casper, fearful and confused faces light up with smiles and peaceful serenity. At one point during last week’s visit, two patients grinned broadly as they sandwiched Casper, simultaneously kissing his head and rubbing his chest.

Another important benefit of pet therapy involves stress relief. Each semester, we visit college campuses during exam weeks for “de-stress days.” Students stop by in between studying and exams to pet and snuggle the dogs, which helps students relax and recharge their batteries. Despite the rigors of exam week, many look forward to their campus de-stress days all year long! We run similar programs for employees in corporate offices.

 

In preparation for a pet therapy visit, I tie a special Red Cross bandana around Casper’s neck and pack his bag with treats and water. Casper instinctively knows that when he’s wearing his red bandana it is ‘time to go to work.’ And he is always up for the task! Being a good pet therapy team requires that I remain calm and focused (as Casper takes his cue from my demeanor,) so we can save our energy and empathy for those we are serving. The work is physically and emotionally challenging– and sometimes exhausting (see post-therapy nap photo below)– yet equally rewarding and fulfilling.

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Post-therapy nap time

 

It is empowering to know that Casper and I can positively impact the human spirit. And, it is especially poignant that Casper– a rescue dog who came to us off the streets of Istanbul, Turkey and who, himself, was given a new lease on life– is now ‘paying it forward’ and helping others to live a fuller, happier life. 

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Road Trip– Part Deux

Just in time for Mother’s Day, I was given the best gift any mom could hope for– quality time with her children. So, when I was presented with the opportunity to take a long road trip with my young adult son, I jumped at the chance. (Note: The last time I wrote about a long road trip was four years ago, when my daughter and I drove 15 hours from New York to Nashville.)

Not the most glamorous of travel routes, to be certain, this latest road trip would take us from Mooresville, North Carolina to Armonk, New York, span approximately 663 miles and pass through seven states.

Fortunately, my son inherited his dad’s packing skills (earning him the nickname “Packman Jr,”) and had expertly filled every crevice of our Honda CRV with clothing, bedding, work files, printers and assorted household items he had amassed during a year in the Tar Heel state.

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Packman Jr. expertly filled the car

Our 6:30 a.m. departure was typical “action” time for me, but not so much for my son. As could be anticipated, the trip began with some disagreement over music selection. Much to my surprise– and delight– we settled upon Tom Petty and actually listened to most of the Full Moon Fever album before my son fell asleep.

Stop #1 was about three hours into the drive at a Dunkin’ Donuts in Roanoke, Virginia. Coffee recharge for mom, accompanied by some surprisingly delicious egg white & turkey sausage breakfast sandwiches on multigrain flatbread. Unfortunately, the meals would go downhill from there.

The other big excitement in Roanoke, VA was son instructing mom in how to operate Cruise Control.  It now seems unfathomable that I’ve been driving for over four decades and had never before used this amazing car feature. After a brief tutorial, I was ready to roll and discovered cruise control to be a game-changer for a long drive on the open road!

After breakfast, my son went back to sleep. As the miles rolled on, I glanced over to find him curled up, fully enveloped in a “pillow fort” with his baseball cap pulled halfway down over his head. I felt a pang of  nostalgia, recalling the days when my sweet, innocent, little boy regularly conked out in cars, at dinners out, at the beach, or anytime and anywhere he felt tired. Just then, Crosby Still Nash & Young’s Teach Your Children came on the radio, and I smiled at the irony of the perfect song playing at this moment. How had this small boy suddenly become a full-grown adult man? Where had the years gone? fullsizeoutput_4b36

 

Stop #2 was for a gas fill-up and an eagerly-anticipated lunch at Chick-Fil-A in Winchester, Virginia. I had fond memories of eating at this establishment about 10 years prior during our daughter’s soccer tournament in Virginia Beach. What I neglected to factor in was that, during my prior visit to Chick-Fil-A, I was still eating fried foods and gluten. Nowadays, both mom and son are very healthy eaters, so instead of ordering the restaurant’s famed chicken nuggets & waffle fries, we opted instead for market salads, which basically consisted of wilted greens covered with ice cold chicken strips and a few overripe berries. A huge disappointment, to be sure. Fortunately, we had a large bag of Terra chips to supplement the meal.

At this point, my son (whom I thankfully discovered is an excellent driver!) took over the wheel and I settled into the cozy pillow fort to relax. I was torn between wanting to maximize our mother-son bonding time with needing to catch up on my sleep. I opted for a brief nap. We then talked, listened to music and rode in peaceful silence. I realized that the best part about traveling with my son across all these miles was just being  in the moment, feeling his comforting presence beside me.

I knew it would be a long while before we would have another opportunity to spend 12 straight hours together, so I wanted to relish this time. We continued through the remainder of Virginia, then West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, making a final pit stop in the town of Hamburg. Then it was on to conquer New Jersey and New York.

We entered the last leg of our road trip. Despite being tired and sweaty, with aching backs and legs, I wasn’t quite ready to get out of the car, knowing that our ride together would soon be coming to a close. If life is about the journey– and not the destination– then I would have to say that we successfully mastered this chapter…. although I think both mother and son were happy to arrive at home in time for dinner– and the NBA playoff games!

fullsizeoutput_4b33Our road trip in a nutshell:

1 mom, 1 son, 1 jam-packed Honda CRV, 663 miles, 1-1/2 tanks of gas, 2 coffees for mom, 1 tasty meal & 1 crappy meal, good tunes, cruise control, 7 states, 12 hours travel time in car together… priceless.

A Happy Mother’s Day, indeed.