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How a serial planner learned to live one day at a time

SelfJournalI was obsessed with planning. I sought out the best paper planners (the Self Journal is the best I’ve found so far) and supporting iPhone apps (I love Trello) to keep my life in forward motion. I became an expert at setting goals and achieving them or learning from the mistakes of not achieving them. And I prided myself on making weekend and vacation plans far in advance.

All that changed with my mom’s prognosis of terminal pancreatic cancer. I have had to do a 180-degree turn and learn how to live one day at a time. I have had to learn to follow her brave and noble example of how to live one day at a time. A terminal prognosis forces it for both the patient and the family members. We don’t have a choice. We come face to face with mortality and can no longer focus on the future, much less the past and regrets. We must live one day at a time or the sadness of what is happening and what we know is coming will overwhelm and debilitate us. We can become so consumed by what is coming and the little control we have over it that we miss out on the joys that today could bring.

Living one day at a time and viewing each day as a gift has been necessary to remain strong and calm. Don’t get me wrong: There are days when it’s just too much, and the anger and sadness take over. But I have learned over the last few months that waking up each day and worrying only about getting through that day – and absorbing the experiences fully – is healthier than trying to control a situation that will not be controlled. Taking each day as it comes has been such a reversal for me that I wanted to share what I’ve learned. If you are going through a difficult trial or just want to be more mindful throughout each day, maybe these suggestions can help.

  1. Do morning pages. I’ve been practicing this ritual for six years. Before I do anything else, I do morning pages to clear my mind of its clutter, fears, and worries. Writing in the early hours gives me a sense of gratitude, peace, direction, and perspective. I vent my anger at my mom’s cancer, reflect on what’s happening, recall events, and ask God for help. I sometimes just use the page as a sounding board for my sadness and lack of control. Getting everything on the page helps me face the day.
  2. Set only one goal for 13 weeks. This is a key principle of the Self Journal. Instead of having multiple goals that I’m juggling for an entire year (a year is a long time in my world right now), I have only one goal for a few weeks: find energy so that I am able to be fully present for my mom and family, rejoice in each day, and be better prepared to handle what is coming. The shorter time frame of 13 weeks is comforting. It helps me ignore the future by staying grounded in today. I’ve been focused on this goal for four weeks by exercising each day, sleeping more, and eating healthy foods. I keep track of how much I’m exercising and sleeping and what I’m eating, and it correlates directly to an improvement in my energy level, which in turn helps me be there for my mom and family. It also helps me look forward to the next day. Instead of dreading the three-mile walk with my dog or the fifteen laps in the pool, I look forward to the release of endorphins the activities provide, to the warm sun on my skin as I hit the pavement, to the cool water as I glide through each lap.
  3. Use pencil. After morning pages, I fill in my calendar for that day in pencil. I have made it a habit of leaving white space blocked on my calendar. Because my situation is so emotionally draining, I need time to decompress and recover after meetings and deep work in order to remain productive at work and deliver on all my promises there and at home. I move things around to accommodate my energy level and state of mind and take more frequent breaks than I used to. I have become much more flexible with my schedule and have also learned to say “no” to things that won’t work for me right now.
  4. Use one post-it note for the day’s to-do list. My tasks must fit on a post-it. This is important for three reasons. First, it helps me break down big challenges or problems into small steps that are achievable so I don’t become overwhelmed and paralyzed. Focusing on what I have to do today keeps me grounded in today, in a moment-to-moment mindset. I’m not worrying about resolving problems over an extended period of time. I’m only worried about what I must do today and I do those things one at a time. Second, it helps me prioritize so that I can immerse myself and achieve a state of flow on something important. This is the ultimate positive distraction from grief.Third, and most importantly, it ensures I fulfill my daily work obligations so that I can devote precious time to my mom and family.
  5. Let go of certain social media conversations and the news. Letting go of certain social media conversations and the negative news is a decision I finally had to make last week. From Trump to Orlando to gorillas and alligators to Brexit to Louisiana/Minnesota/Dallas, the negativity was chipping away at my energy, which I have been working hard to reclaim and build. But there are also so many uplifting conversations on social media. From the shared experiences of friends to the heartfelt wishes of commenters on a story about hospice in The New Yorker to the beautiful advice I received on the Self Journal Facebook group page about how to use the journal during this period, my online expressions of grief and troubles are an important part of the grieving and healing process. While Facebook status updates can’t do justice to what my family is going through, and a Tweet can’t summarize the sadness or fear, and an Instagram image can’t express the pain, I’ve learned it’s okay to turn away from the negative social media conversations and towards the positive, uplifting ones.

Embrace the gift of today. Journal. Look after your health. Treat yourself with compassion. Be honest about the goals and tasks you set. Step away from the negativity. And hug or call your family members.

You are not your job

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My mom calls her terminal pancreatic cancer her constant companion. It’s an acknowledgment that it’s a part of her identity now, and it got me thinking about her full identity, all the things that make her who she is. And I realized that “teacher,” her profession for forty years, hasn’t been a topic of conversation in a long time. My mom was told she had just a few months to live in February, and since then, she hasn’t talked about her work at all.

Whether we are alone lounging at home, or having meals with family, or attending Mass on Sunday together, she doesn’t talk about her past work life. Here we have a person who is facing the end of her life and who was a remarkable teacher. She taught first grade all the way up to college level over the course of a forty-year career and made a difference in so many lives. But as she looks back on her life, embraces the beauty of the present, and faces the inevitable, she doesn’t talk about the job she went to every day. I find it fascinating because she was very passionate about her career, loved her work, and was a master at it. She lived out her professional calling and left a lasting legacy through her work. It  has also jolted me given we live in a culture that places great emphasis on defining ourselves by our work.

As my mom faces the end of life, she is not defining herself or her self-worth through her work. She is defining herself and her life by her family, her values, and her experiences.

She talks about her childhood in Santa Fe, both the difficulties of being the oldest of three daughters to an incredible woman (my grandmother) who, for her safety and that of her children, had to separate from her husband – unheard of in those days in a Catholic community – and also the joys of living surrounded by her grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, and the beautiful scenery and seasons at 10,000 feet. She talks about experiences: taking trips to Spain, Italy, Portugal, New Mexico, California, New York, and Hawaii; attending symphonies; visiting museums. She talks about food: recipes she likes, the best meals she ever ate, the pleasure of eating whatever she wants now. She talks about books and poetry she has read in the past and books she’s reading now. She talks about philosophy, spirituality, classical music, the arts, politics, interior design, fashion, jewelry, and makeup. She talks about faith in eternal life and angels that protect us. She talks a lot about Game of Thrones! She is determined to make it through season 6!

Most importantly, she talks about people: us – her immediate family and grandchildren – her sisters, her friends – lifelong and new – and her hospice team. This is the only time she talks about her profession, in the context of the people, particularly the students she felt she impacted or who had an impact on her. She doesn’t talk about the day-to-day, or the accolades and promotions she received, or how underpaid she was, or how hard she worked, or cranky coworkers, or the pain of grading. She definitely doesn’t say she wishes she had worked more or harder.

Nearing the end of life, my mom knows that she was not her job. Her legacy lies in her 52-year marriage, her children, her grandchildren, the people she nurtured and touched and who nurtured and touched her, the values she stood for and instilled in others, and the experiences she cherishes and that serve as a beautiful reminder of a life well-lived. She is a whole person, not just a teacher.

This is such an important lesson and it is one that we KNOW. Yet it is one we forget every single day. We forget it every time we meet someone and the first thing we ask is “So, what do you do?” We forget it every time we lose sleep over petty work issues. We forget it every time we fail at work. We forget it every time we feel anxious about losing a job.

So, bookmark this post and refer to it when you’re feeling defined by your profession. You are not your job.

 

Ignoring the lizard brain

My beloved mother will die from pancreatic cancer. Her time in this life is being measured in months. I will write more about this in the future as I have so much to share about my mother’s journey towards the inevitable we all face. Her love, bravery, peace, and spiritual strength is quite an experience to behold, and I know that my character and my contributions – my legacy – will be different and better for witnessing it. I feel I have a deeper understanding of life and death, but I have been too paralyzed by grief to write about what I’ve learned or to even write about creativity, what this blog is supposed to be about. My father keeps urging me, “You must write about this.” I reply, “I will…”

Yesterday something happened that made me want to boot up the laptop, and decided I would write about my lizard brain again. It’s the amygdala, the oldest part of the brain, the part responsible for most irrational human behavior. I’ve written about it before and how we need to tame it if we are to move forward.

Last week, after months of research, planning and coordination with my neighbors, I led a long overdue home improvement project to replace a 23-year-old decaying fence with a new one. The investment on my end was substantial as only one neighbor out of four was able to contribute to the cost. One of the neighbors who did not contribute hasn’t thanked me for the effort or the financial contribution. Instead, I have received complaints about trivial matters related to the fence, in strangely worded emails that imply I’ve done something wrong and will be held responsible.

I have spent time responding to these minor complaints and gone above and beyond to resolve them with the fence company. This is good because being a good neighbor is important. I have spent time reading Robert Frost’s Mending Wall (the origin of the modern proverb “good fences make good neighbors”) and smiling at his irony and that of this situation. This has been good as I ended up reading quite a few of his poems one night.

I have also spent time alone and in the presence of family obsessing over my neighbor’s ingratitude and communication style, to the point of losing sleep over it. This has not been good. Last night, I finally realized this trivial matter has been consuming me and is such a waste of energy. I chastised myself, “I’ve got bigger issues and way more important things to spend my mind and heart on. Haven’t I grown spiritually and developed a deeper understanding of life to not allow myself to be consumed by absurdities? Why am I letting this get to me?”

Because of my lizard brain, that darn amygdala. The lizard brain sees silly neighbor drama and points and screams, “Squirrel!!” It sees a distraction from grief, frustration, helplessness, and anger, and it eagerly scurries towards trivialities that waste time and energy. But my heart – love – is stronger than that. It can quiet the lizard brain and even protect me from it so that I can set aside the small problems to focus on the bigger picture and what matters.

The rhythm(s) of Spanish life

The return of the school year has me thinking again about the beauty of routine. I recently wrote about routine here and here, and I can tell you that sticking to my routine and taming distractions is much easier when my daughter is in school. I love summer, but the steadiness and predictability of the school year is energizing, and I find I have greater creative momentum.

This got me thinking about Spain and how my beloved other country operates on a different clock from the rest of the world. Traditional eating, working, and sleeping schedules are very different from the US and the rest of Europe. Lunch (dinner), the largest and longest meal of the day, is at 2 PM; the workday ends around 8 PM; dinner (supper) is a small meal at 10 PM; prime time TV starts at 11 PM; and bedtime is around midnight or 1 AM. Many workers are moving to a 9-6 schedule on par with Europe, but the traditional Spanish schedule consisting of a small breakfast, the long lunch (dinner), frequent breaks with snacks, and a late quitting time is the norm.

Mercado de San Miguel

The siesta (naptime) is dying out quickly, and many Spaniards get offended if it’s brought up as it feels like a stereotype. Instead, that time is filled with extra work, a byproduct of tough economic times. This is creating a drawn-out day, and I’m not sure how people are functioning on so little sleep. I love getting my 7-8 hours each night, so I started thinking, “What would my routine be if I lived and worked in Spain on the traditional schedule?” 

But first some history.

In 1942 dictator Franco moved the clocks forward to align with Nazi Germany. Franco also ordered the state-run broadcasts to run during meal times, which, going by the sun, were now at 3 pm and 10 pm (an hour less in the Canary Islands). After Hitler was defeated, Portugal turned its clocks back, but Spain did not. It’s still light at 10 pm in the summer. As a child this would perplex me as I looked at the globe and maps (my grandmother adored geography, so I had plenty of resources at hand) and could see that Spain was further north than Texas. [On a side but fun note, all homes in Spain have blackout window shades – I mean, they really black out all light. As a child, I couldn’t figure out why we didn’t have these wonderful things in the States. It was yet another one of those Spain vs Texas mysteries I couldn’t figure out.]

Franco may have changed the clocks, but the rhythm of life predates that decision due to the agrarian society and the heat of mid-day in over two-thirds of the country. Workers would break during the hottest part of the day. My father also recalls that the work and school week was Monday-Saturday until the mid-1960’s – weekends as we know them didn’t exist in Spain until then, which is another reason why the Spanish tempo included frequent breaks and an afternoon nap each day.

While the prolonged day and frequent breaks create interruptions and are often cited as productivity busters and as the reason for Spain’s economic woes (an assessment that fails to take into account a myriad of other factors), they also foster close relationships and healthy eating habits. Families eat a relaxed, healthy lunch (dinner) together; friends and co-workers socialize during morning and afternoon coffee breaks; the workday is broken up into manageable chunks instead of one long marathon; and supper is light, producing measurable health benefits. The schedule also reduces isolation as it promotes living life in group settings.

I’ve only experienced this schedule as a child and while on vacation as an adult, and it was awesome. Who I am today – my love of long meals and the ensuing sobremesa (post-meal conversation), my need to socialize, and my respect for work without being driven by it – was heavily influenced by my experiences. Spain’s approach feels more civilized than the breakneck pace of the US: There’s no scurrying down the street while downing a Big Gulp. No hiding behind your laptop in isolation at Starbucks. No eating your sandwich alone at your desk.

Yet, as a working mother with a career and interests outside of my job, I don’t know how I would manage it all in Spain under the traditional schedule. And did I say I like sleeping 7-8 hours a night? In 2013, a parliamentary commission explored the possibility for the country to return to its proper time zone to bring the workday in line with the rest of Europe. But I think Spain is shifting and already employing a variety of schedules and less rigidly adhering to one way of scheduling the day. This is what makes the country so interesting and special: the Spanish will work, eat, and enjoy life no matter what time it is or where the sun is in the sky. I know I would figure out what would work for me and my family if I lived there.

I would love to hear opinions on this topic from all my cousins in Spain, from those of you who have visited or lived in Spain, and from those of you haven’t visited but have something to say about celebrating cultural differences versus aligning to what the rest of the world does.

 

The endless art of caregiving

At some point in every artist’s journey, art will imitate life.  I think that point may be approaching for me.  My mother has pancreatic cancer, the most lethal cancer there is. The struggle with the diagnosis in August – and the debilitating effects of the disease and its treatment on her and our family since – have kept me from my blog and my art. Painting and writing about the joys of creating art seemed selfish and out of place as I gave myself over to the selfless act of caregiving, alongside my sister, aunt, and father.


“It is one of the most beautiful compensations of life, that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself.” Ralph Waldo Emerson


Caregiving is endless. Those of you who have ever taken care of someone – particularly becoming like a parent to your parent – understand this statement. It is one of the most rewarding, tiresome, and fulfilling roles in the world, and it comes with many emotions: anger, guilt, joy, sadness, shock and awe that so many unanticipated things can happen on the turn of a dime – all sometimes in the same day. It has been a defining life moment for me, not only bringing me even closer to my mother and family, but also making me into a better person as I witness my mother face this dreaded disease with unmatched bravery and grace.

In “Confronting a disappointing piece” I described how I hit a creative and technical wall on a painting I had been working on for months. It was a painting of my mother at 30 years old, a scene in Sevilla just like this one of my father.  My goal was to complete a series of these paintings, based on five photographs. I finally did complete the painting, but it remained a disappointing piece that didn’t capture my mother’s essence at all. My mother hung it in her bedroom anyway, because that’s what moms do. While I don’t feel I can go back and redo or “fix” that painting, I do feel I must capture my mom now, fighting for her life. Painting her now could make this experience less scary and could help make sense out of the role reversal, the endless treatments and suffering, and her changed physique. My father, a poet, is writing poetry again, a testament to the healing power of art.

My art studio in my home has been converted into my parents’ bedroom, so I have set up a small space in my office to paint. I have six very large blank canvases that will continue to sit idle a little longer.  A small canvas (or maybe paper and charcoal?) is required for this next beautiful subject. In the meantime, dear readers, I would like to share a painting I completed and sold the very evening before my mother’s cancer was diagnosed. After struggling with its title for months, I have renamed it Endless. There are some interesting things going on in this piece – it has an almost foreboding quality to it.

Endless, Oil on Canvas 24″ x 16″

I hope you will share your thoughts or experiences about caregiving, the arts as a healing tool, or other creative techniques that help relieve the stress of endless caregiving.