One more night at my spot in the clouds. To read, to write. To wander, to breathe, to be. And maybe to cry a little too. Away from it all… Or maybe I’m in it all? Alone with my pup. Here with the pines. The flowers and the bees. The snow melt cascading behind. Mountains surrounding. What else more? More complicated, most likely. Save for the love of family and friends, My world needs little else.
A lot of my best day evers happen to be in the mountains, usually with Pacer and Sandi. (First picture, Sandi, Pacer, and I on Handies Peak during Pacer’s Big Day.)Sometimes it’s just spending quality time with family and friends. Both make my soul feel brighter and my heart want to explode.
Every time I say “Best Day Ever” now, I remember Amanda saying it, literally on her deathbed, when we had an indoors picnic with my little cousins. (Second picture.) On that day we all cried. But there was SO MUCH LOVE.
I’m still discovering the wisdom of her words in that moment. I think somewhere in there is taking for granted the little, amazing things life has to offer. And that most of us don’t (allow ourselves to) have nearly enough “Best Day Ever(s)”.
Sometimes it hurts so much I feel like I can’t breathe.
But often it’s a silent scream.
Did you know what you were leaving behind?
What was it like to say “goodbye”?
And now that you’re on that soul vacation
Have you found some peace and happiness?
Because I’m still looking for some consolation.
Do you miss us like we miss you?
And tell me Big Sis,
What was it like, so young,
To write like you’re running out of time?
What would you have done if you had more?
Are you proud of what I’m doing with mine?
And what were you feeling when you wrote that line
“Life is beautiful...Even when it’s not?”
I feel like I ought to know,
But I could never say what was going through your mind.
I just need one little sign.
Every once in a while, I feel a little lost,
Could use some (big) sisterly advice.
Even just a little would suffice.
Sometimes I think,
When you were planning out this life,
That you decided to put Sandi and I together,
Even if it meant you’d get a little less attention
(It can’t be easy being the big sister of twins),
So we’d still have each other,
When you left for the heavens.
Did Uncle Ronny and Aunt Barb greet you when you passed?
Our fur-sisters Sophie and Savanna too?
I know this pain is going to last.
I’m finding that’s okay.
Within the grief is joy,
Connecting me to you.
Your Little Ray Ray of Sunshine
P.S. While I may never have the literary skills you did, I hope you’re pleased that I got in the Train and Hamilton reference. 🙂
P.P.S. Can you just give me a hint on how we came up with the nickname “T”?
That is one good thing about this world… there are always sure to be more springs. -L.M. Montgomery
Let me start out by saying that changing, growing, and expanding is hard. Sometimes really hard. It can be painful. (The term “growing pains” is accurate beyond our school-aged growth spurts.) It’s certainly not always fun. But the journey is always worthwhile.
When a new client walks into my office at my private practice the first thing I always try to acknowledge is how brave they are. In a society that values independence and a bootstraps attitude, asking for help takes courage. Additionally, being willing to look at ourselves, our behaviors, and our wounds can be scary and a brave undertaking. It’s the most beautiful adventure that I have been honored enough to witness in other human beings.
The season of spring brings change and growth to the forefront, both in nature and inside of us, if we are willing to look.
The older I get, the more I feel the change of each season inside of me. I also recognize it regularly in my counseling practice. In summer, there’s an internal sensation of energetic being, exploration, and an allowing of the present self. Fall is often a time when we recognize a time of letting go as well as harvesting our resources as we prepare ourselves for an internal winter. During the winter months, we switch for a need to reflect, hibernate, and go deeper inside of ourselves. Winter, as dark and cold as it may be, is usually when I see deeper wounds start to heal. Then out of the darkness comes spring. A time for new life and new energy, but this path is rarely linear. There’s usually a movement and release, and then we hit a rock (or a snowstorm) and need to pause and reroute. This might happen a few times before the growth turns into a blossoming.
How do we work with the changes, growth spurts, and growing pains of spring?
We embrace it all. We tend to ourselves as we would tend to a garden. Knowing that growing isn’t easy, we weed out what no longer serves or nourishes us. We think of the things we need to support our upward rising. Is it more connection with friends, a dose of self-compassion, more time outside, or even more time inside? Acceptance of where we are at in the process is also key. Some people are more like Pasqueflowers that bloom in early spring. Others are like Colorado Columbines who need all spring to deepen their roots before they burst into the light of summer. We don’t judge the flowers for when they bloom, but love them whether we get to see their beauty in April or July. We must do the same for ourselves.
Spring Mental Health Practices
Yourself as Garden
Similar to the above process, imagine your internal journey as a garden. What are you growing? Does it need some more time safe from the elements in a greenhouse, or is it ready for exposure and testing outside? What are the potential blocks to growth? Is there anything that needs weeding out? What nutrients (positive care) do you need to support your growth?
If You Were a Tree (or Flower)
If you were a tree, what type of tree would you be. Why? What characteristics of the tree do you possess? What characteristics would you like to possess?
As the weather (slowly) starts to warm, you may be naturally finding yourself outside more, going for hikes, sipping your morning coffee on your deck, taking your dog for walks more often. Is there a way you could make these acts a little more meaningful? For example, is your morning coffee now a way to greet a new day? Your hike a time to connect with the earth? Or your dog walk a time to let go of the stressors of the day and find freedom in your movement? A little bit of intention can go a long way.
Vulnerable: capable of being physically or emotionally wounded. (Merriam-Webster)
Vulnerability: the quality or state of being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally. (Oxford Languages)
In personal reflection, I find the word “vulnerable” interesting from the emotional standpoint. It seems so layered by societal norms. When people, including myself, are told they are courageous for being vulnerable in sharing their human stories, it’s a cause for some reflection. For me, I’ve become so used to sharing the webs of myself it no longer feels vulnerable. If anything is universal, isn’t it pain? Well, pain and love.
It’s not that I don’t see reality, which includes the societal norm not to speak and share our truths and wounds, I’ve just done things my way for long enough that I’ve created my own ideal reality for myself.* I no longer follow directions I don’t like or believe in. I create. And I create from love.
*I do realize that as a heterosexual, white woman there is privilege included in those words. For many others, speaking their truth truly is a risk to their safety.
You see, when we allow ourselves to be free, we give others the opportunity to be free too.
(And maybe, I don’t feel the threat of being emotionally wounded as I’ve chosen to surround myself by others who desire to be free too.)
So dance, sing aloud in your car (even when the windows are down and you’re at a red light), be weird, wear bright colors or wear all black, be different. Be yourself. Speak your truth. Be free.
How wonderful the world would be if it were full of people who were free!
We all grieve, remember, celebrate–and communicate (with the Earth and deceased loved ones) in our own ways. All ways are beautiful.
My belief is that my older sister is all around me, so I prefer to leave offerings to the earth, where flowers can decompose and grow into something new. I chat with her on benches. Imagine her rolling her eyes at me as I once again suddenly stop in the middle of a trail run. shocked by beauty and loss. I sing to “Hey Soul Sister” and “Can’t Stop the Feeling” in the car.
Ceremonies and rituals can mark any event or transition in life.
We can let go by watching leaves and twigs float down rivers. Bury hurts, wounds, and love in the dirt. Remember by the light of a candle. Clear our spirit with incense. Rinse our regrets in raindrops. It doesn’t have to be elaborate unless you want it to be. Truly, the how is not as important as the intention that you hold.
Gratitude & Grey Skies: Developing a Gratitude Practice in Trying Times
In addition to being a mental health counselor, I’m also an online running coach and create customized training plans for individuals looking to discover their potential through running endeavors. In many ways, there’s a lot of similarity in both coaching and counseling jobs. In both, I am in a relationship with beautiful, imperfect humans who are engaging in soul-searching endeavors.
A few weeks ago, one of the athletes I coach, whom I would describe as an amazing and compassionate woman–she signed up for coaching to prepare for a 50 mile run to raise money for the families she works with in palliative care—wrote to me saying she was having trouble filling out the optional gratitude box we leave at the end of each training week.
My fellow coaches and I leave the gratitude box in our training plans because studies show that practicing gratitude can improve physical performance and psychological health. (I’ll touch on some of these in a bit.)
To paraphrase in my own words, my running client felt like she was bypassing the pain and grief of the families she works with if she just chose to focus on the good. I also got the sense that she was speaking to the pain and grief of life too.
First, how wonderful that she was open enough to share that with me! In our world, that type of vulnerability takes courage.
Second, I’d like to universalize her sentiment. I’m pretty sure we all have days like this, where we question gratitude because there is so much hurt in the world and inside of us. One painful truth of being human is that to be human is to know suffering. What I have found helpful for myself and others is to give ourselves some time to just be with the pain, maybe even for an allotted time, and then start to shift out of that space to a place of gratitude.
But first, let me clarify: Gratitude is not about ignoring the bad and not feeling pain. Finding gratitude and seeing the beauty does not mean overlooking the dark parts and the hardships of life. Truly, gratitude is about feeling it ALL. Gratitude is the acknowledgement of the “and” as well as the “grey”—we don’t have to choose one over the other. In this world, it all exists.
We also need to stop convoluting gratitude with guilt. “There are starving kids in Africa, so be grateful for the dinner you have.” (said by many well-meaning parents) Or “I live in a beautiful mountain town, so I shouldn’t feel anything but happy.” Ummm, no. You are human. But if you are well-off, maybe guilt could be replaced with a responsibility to help those less fortunate.
By choosing to focus on gratitude, we create an energy shift that allows us to become more expansive. It’s like the sky is cloudy and grey, but we choose to hold on to our own light. Asking for help is allowing another person to share some of their light until we can find our own again. For people who are especially empathic and attuned to suffering around them (as well as for anyone living in the Midwest), practicing gratitude can also be an essential survival skill.
Now that we have some understanding of what gratitude is (finding the beauty, love, and joy in all of life and all of its hardships) and what it is not (pretending the world is all puppies* and unicorns**), we can look at some of the research and create our own gratitude practices.
* Studies show that dogs and other pets can decrease feelings of loneliness and anxiety in addition to increase happiness.
**Sometimes I tell my empath clients that they are the unicorns in an emotionally stifled society. In addition to their sensitivity, perhaps gratitude is part of the magic they are able to create.
In one study by Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami, participants were divided into three groups, one group writing each week about things they were grateful for, the second writing about daily irritations and things that displeased them, and the third group was writing about events that had affected them. 10 weeks later, those who wrote about gratitude experienced more optimism and felt better about their lives.
With a quick Google search, one will encounter a myriad of articles and research studies that share the benefits of having a regular gratitude practice, which includes better mental health, improved sleep, and increased satisfaction in relationships. Neuroscience tells us that this is, at least in part, because of the increase of “happy hormones” (serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin) are released when we share our appreciations.
The other benefit to this free mood boost is that it doesn’t have to take much time either. Here are a few simple practices you might try:
Keep a gratitude journal: Everyday, write down at least 5 things you are grateful for. Try to make them unique to the day, and take a moment to emotionally connect to each thing you wrote down. I suggest doing this practice either first thing in the morning or each night before you go to bed.
Before a meal: Whether you share your home with your spouse and kids or your dog, take a minute before each meal to share what you are grateful for. This can be a combination of what each person (or animal- yes, I can read my dog’s mind) was grateful for during their day, or around each step that got your food to your plate.
Make it part of your workout: I first incorporated gratitude into my workout when I was volunteer coaching for Girls on the Run, a physical activity-based positive youth development for girls in 3rd-5th grade. As we ran laps, we focused on each letter of the word “gratitude” and thought of one thing we were grateful for. I’ve adapted this slightly on my own and will run/hike grateful-peats up and down Pole Hill every Thanksgiving. For example, if I’m on the letter “A”, I might think of how thankful I am for Australian Shepards and my time with my older sister Amanda (who is now passed—again, we’re not ignoring the hard stuff). On the way down when I’m on “T”, I’ll think of my twin sister, as well as all the trees saved by the firefighters. Sometimes it’s helpful to add in a bit of specificity to create a felt-sense thanks.
Write thank you letters (the old-fashioned way): With a pen and paper, write a thank you letter to someone you appreciate. I’ve done this with friends, coaches, teachers, and my parents. Undoubtedly, you’ll boost their happiness as well as yours.
Despite crossing the threshold into a new year, the frustration and tears of 2020 have not disappeared. For many, that journey has continued into 2021. While I can’t speak for everyone, I know that for me, allowing myself to feel all the pain and sadness of the previous year has allowed me to see even more beauty in the world. Everytime, I crest the hill on 36 heading west up to Estes Park and get my first view of the mountains, I think “I can’t believe how blessed I am to live here” and I am in awe of the awesomeness of Mother Nature. I am also equally touched by the 30 second conversation I have with the cashier at Waste Management, who offers me a kind word and an (eye) smile everytime I go to take in my trash. Who knew throwing out my garbage could be such a gratifying experience?