The Most Toxic Words In My World

I have needed a living room rug for 3-4 years and today I decided is the day to buy one. After a couple hours of online shopping I’m hit with a depressing downward spiral of negative self-talk that shocks and dismays me. The process brought to mind these thoughts.

Why Bother

Nothing Can Be Done About That

I Don’t Have the (fill in the blank)To Have That  (Money, time, talent, expertise, focus, will force, tools, etc.)

I grew up hearing that constant refrain. I have fought the defeatism of those remarks (either spoken out loud or in my head) my entire life. When I was a kid, my parent’s projects would derail before they even started due to arguments about how to do it or how to pay for it. Or projects would get started (i.e. demo completed), then go off plan. Arguing would ensue, followed by a hostile standoff, resulting in a project still incomplete years later.

A project to redo the bathroom floor (in the house I grew up in) was started when I was a teenager, and finally got completed when a contractor was hired to get my parent’s house ready to sell decades later. It was so dispiriting to see my parents live with that abandoned project all those years. I forget specifics, but the DIY flooring wasn’t installed properly, it curled up around the edges and didn’t stick, so a bath mat got thrown over the top of the unfinished floor. The wooden base molding that went around the floor was leaned up against the wall instead of getting nailed back in place. And there it stayed for 50 years. My parents had opportunities to complete this project, but got stuck and gave up. I find myself trapped in the same box sometimes. A box made of my own limited thinking, false perceptions, lack of imagination and negativity.

All I wanted to do today was buy a rug. Lots of people have rugs; it’s not complicated. So why did I fail, and why am I feeling so disappointed in myself? Sure, the negative childhood history lives in me, but who doesn’t have their childhood drama, and why am I letting it stop me?

I adore interior design shows. They are so inspirational – stories of reinvention and redemption – hideous rooms transformed. Anything is possible! But maybe I’ve watched too many, and suffer by comparison. “Compare and despair” thinking does me no good.

I try to remember… the makeovers you see online and on TV look fast and easy because they have expertise, confidence, and a “can do” temperament. * Professional designers are better at shopping online and imagining what will work than I am. My imagination fails me when I look at a photo of a little square box of carpet on the computer and try to visualize the rug on my floor with my furniture. Replicating a room from an online/magazine/catalog photo – buying exactly what I see – is the obvious way to get a rug, but I can’t bring myself to do that. I’m ridiculously committed to individuality.

Back to that “can do” attitude. I have found it challenging to unlearn the opposite. My question is, how do I reprogram my brain from “nothing can be done about that” and build the neural pathways that tell me “I can do this”?

Are we born either optimistic or self-doubting, and are we stuck that way for life? Was I born pessimistic and lacking confidence? How is my daughter the opposite? My daughter shines at interior design. As a kid, she rearranged and reinvented her bedroom on a regular basis. I’d be downstairs, hear a few thumps and bumps, go up to find all the furniture rearranged. She was tiny but mighty; I don’t know to this day how she did it. When she decided she’d outgrown a certain look, I’d go upstairs to find everything from her purge tossed outside her bedroom door. She was done with it and not looking back. I’d be the one to rescue a few sentimental items I couldn’t bear to part with from her childhood. Maybe she’ll thank me for those rescues someday, but I doubt it. She lives in the moment, in the now. I’m so impressed her creativity isn’t blocked by self-doubt and indecision. When she shops she knows exactly what she wants. I respect her confidence and decisiveness (in all areas of her life). Those are some of the many lessons she is here teaching me.

In my case, my self-doubting often turns into procrastination, which often leads to the toxic trifecta of discouragement, hopelessness and helplessness. In terms of reprogramming the brain, action rewires the neural pathways – I have to get off the fence and take action. Like the quote says:

“You can’t be that kid standing at the top of the waterslide, overthinking it. You have to go down the chute.” –Tina Fey

The worst use of creativity is thinking up excuses, imagining who is to blame, and imagining all the ways it can go wrong. ** Don’t become paranoid and overcautious in living life – it takes no more effort to imagine the best possible outcome than the worst.

The best use of creativity is imagining the possibilities, figuring out what I am capable of doing on my own, or imagining who I could ask (or hire) for help. It is great to collaborate. It is great to experiment – each choice creates a new possibility. Each small step gives new information to consider in the process. More than anything, I have to get out of my own (self-doubting) way and get into action.

Here is one thing I tell myself to shift my mindset. Replace “I can’t do it” with “I’m on a spiritual journey, and each step helps me learn and grow”. Choosing a new rug might seem irrelevant to the spiritual journey, but a spiritual lesson lives in the heart of every struggle.

Remember negativity bias. As humans we’re wired to respond more to negative experiences than positive ones; negative events impact our brain more. It is evolutionary to fear and reject the unknown. It takes conscious effort to surrender to the unknown, to lean into it. I’m scarred by the one project my parents struggled with, and don’t remember the many they successfully completed.

It is poison for me to look at a beautiful room and think, “I could never have that, so why bother”. It buries any possibility for joy under a load of depression, and brings forward shame around even wanting it or feeling deserving. No wonder I spiral downward when I have trouble choosing a rug. It is taking on energy from so much more.

What works to shift the negative thinking?

  1. Anchor happiness and overcome negativity bias– keep a little album of before and after pictures to remember successes. Looking around the house at past successful projects works too.
  2. Channel the energy of desire.Let the vision of what I want to create, pull me toward it. Focus entirely on what I DO want. I want a beautiful, uplifting, comfortable and cozy nest infused with creativity, color, individuality, spirit and warmth. All that, plus order and cleanliness. This clarity of intention helps me show up with the love, warmth, enthusiasm and commitment required to transform vision to reality.
  3. Keep showing up and moving forward.Trust something will develop once things are in action. I want a rug, but to break the negative thinking I freshen the room through rearranging art and furniture. Quit overthinking it and making it more complicated than it needs to be. Break it down to action I’m willing to take right now. Take a small step. Buy some fresh flowers or a plant to liven the space. It is not magic; if I want something I need to be willing to work for it. Not every choice has to be a huge leap. One small decision, followed by action, can get the upward spiral going.
  4. Choice. Change.That’s my mantra. I’m grateful when I recognize the old pattern. Awareness is crucial; it allows a different outcome. Awareness is followed by a conscious choice to do something different to shift the energy. This is another way of saying, quit doing what doesn’t work. Obvious to most people.
  5. Ask for help whenever possible.There is online help, professional help, family and friends. Barter if you don’t have the money. Seek and find the person in your world with the tools and skills to execute the project you are stuck on. Discard “go it alone” thinking. My aunt took this to an extreme level when she married a building contractor and persuaded him to rebuild her childhood home to overcome a lifetime of being told, “nothing can be done about that”. If you have the inclination, pray for insight, inspiration, and clarity.
  6. Set a deadline– I used to get more done in six days leading up to a get-together at my house than I would get done in six months without an event planned. Even if it was cleaning out the bedroom closet – which no one coming for dinner was going to see – I’d really get into action with having people over. Covid-19 has been awful, no events to create those deadlines. But I deserve for things to be comfortable and beautiful for me.
  7. Steal from other people.Instead of compare and despair, watch and learn. Everything is inspired by something, and it is OK to use someone else’s idea – they make videos and write articles to inspire with their ideas.
  8. Can I live with the worst outcome?Sometimes I play out the worst-case scenario to its conclusion – as in, what’s the worst that can happen if I rearrange the furniture and don’t like it – would putting it back be a tragic failure? What’s the worst that can happen if I paint it the wrong color – then I’m going to paint it again. A mistake can hurt, it can be tough to get through, but there’s not much that will actually kill us. If the rug turns out to be ugly, I can send it back. Chronic decision paralysis can be worse than any of the possible outcomes because fence-sitting stands in the way of living life.
  9. Love myself through all my missteps.Give myself credit for trying, and accept that all of life brings learning and evolution. Give myself permission to take a break from criticizing and judging myself. Forgive myself for the times I think and act just like mom did (yikes!), despite my best efforts to be the exact opposite. *** That’s more important to my evolution than any rug I will ever own.

“You have been criticizing yourself for years and it hasn’t worked. Try approving of yourself and see what happens.” –Louise Hay

As I write this conclusion a few days later, I still don’t have a new rug, but I’ve rearranged 3 rooms, cleaned and freshened things up, done a couple of simple DIY projects, and treated myself with compassion in the process. I allowed myself to feel bad about not having a rug, but only for a minute. When Covid lifts, I’ll be able to get out and about and shop the way I need to, in person, seeing the rug, touching and feeling it. Until then, in the spirit of living in a constant state of gratitude, I embrace the room I have and refuse to let destructive thinking get in the way of enjoying my home and my life.

“I do not really have ‘problems’; I only think I do by the way I interpret my circumstances. A ‘problem’ is an illusion. It is a limiting perception without gratitude.” –Dr. Darren R. Weissman, The Nature of Infinite Love & Gratitude

 

* On those shows, an hour of thrift store shopping, a couple hours at the big box, hardware and home-improvement store, and you have ingredients for an incredible room makeover. A day of painting and a couple hours of arranging and viola! You don’t see the days of planning, designing, and shopping leading up to the project. We rarely see the team of people hauling things in and out. Some programs show the crew, and it is helpful to know you don’t redo a room in 2 days without a team of people working like crazy, often long into the night. These are professional woodworkers, cleaners, organizers, designers, painters and color experts. Also, some of those shows are flat-out staged fiction – it didn’t happen anything like that.

** One exception, you can earn a great income if you have a gift for imagining all the ways things can go wrong – as an attorney, an IT systems tester, an architect, and various other careers. I made my tendency to foresee disasters around every corner work for me professionally. Relentless pessimism won’t make you popular in the workplace, but people will respect your ability to save everyone from embarrassing mistakes and catastrophic failures. Use what you’ve got; find the silver lining.

*** I’d like to note mom had many qualities that I greatly admired and am pleased to see in myself.

© Carol Merwin, All Rights Reserved

All images are property of the author and may not be reproduced without permission.

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Poetry Class

I am always yammering on about getting out of my comfort zone and going for a stretch.

For an introvert, during Covid restrictions, this means poetry.

Something I’ve never done and never thought I’d do. After registering for the class I asked myself repeatedly, “What was I thinking!”

It was surprisingly gratifying and illuminating. Words can lie, but it seems poetry cannot.

Here are my efforts:

Bantu (two line, call-and-response) poem. Can be written by two people, but in this poem I wrote both lines, inspired by a vase in my office.

Vase has a thin brittle edge with one small chip

Life is fragile and breaks without warning

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Ode (poem celebrating something you love).

Ode to Tula

Small enough to pick up and hold

Always gets up in my lap to talk to “grandpa”

Relentlessly begging for treats, behavior learned from going hungry

 

Agile

Back to treats, she knows the drawer they are in and she sits and patiently waits

Imploring with her big eyes and tiny whine

She has not found a way to open the drawer herself, but she would like to

 

Why make life easy,

When you can have something complicated,

With a troubled past you’ll never know or understand

And can only infer from her difficult and needy behavior

 

She makes me remember compassion

She makes me remember when you meet someone on the street you don’t know what they’ve been through, how they’ve struggled, their pain

 

So much love in her small body

So much warmth under a blanket having a nap together

So much gratitude for a warm home and a water dish and a predictable dinnertime

So well-behaved in the car because she used to live in one

 

Big ears give her a comical expression

Short reddish-tan fur warm and soft to the touch

Makes her the third red-head in the family

Tail that whaps back and forth with excitement

 

Reactive in ways I wish she wasn’t

Impossible to manage at times despite her small size

I can’t know the memory she is reacting to

 

She reminds me of me

She deserves love and tenderness and I give it

I’m glad I wanted her despite complications and complexity

I’m glad I rescued her

I’m glad she rescued me

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Free verse form (anything goes) on what is absent, missing, broken, used up, longed for.

Loss Of A Year

We won’t get the time back

To travel to Italy

Or celebrate Dad’s 91stbirthday, or Natalie’s graduation

 

We won’t get our innocence back

Our belief we want the same things,

Believe the same truth,

Share the same values

 

We won’t get back our ability to look away

In the face of inexplicable brutality

 

We won’t get back families that are broken by death

Deaths we didn’t see coming and never dreamed would number so many

 

What we have found is the joy of small things

The pleasure of tiny moments that make a year

 

Do we grieve and grieve and grieve

Or do we move forward from here

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Collaborative poem. These are verses I contributed to a collaborative poem Advice to Humankind. Everyone in the class contributed individual lines, based on our current day existence, and the contributions were assembled into one larger poem by the teacher. A unique experience. The whole was indeed more than the sum of its parts, but I’m sharing only my writing out of respect for the other contributors – they choose where and when to share their work.

If you find yourself vacillating between stress eating,

boredom eating,

(or drinking)

go outside more, and for longer.

Let the sun warm your face.

Sit or walk, see something green and growing,

alive.

Enjoy the outdoors, even the rain.

Or sit by a window if you can’t go out.

 

Recognize you won’t use all your extra time to clean the house

sort the drawers

learn new skills, or exercise in online classes.

You might fall short

on bettering yourself, with all the stress

and worry.

All poetry was written in the Portland Community College writing class Little Moments: Poetry of the Everyday taught by Angie Ebba, February 20, 2021.

 

© 2021 Carol Merwin, All Rights Reserved

All images are property of the author and may not be reproduced without permission.

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A Fresh Perspective

0-33Was sulking all day yesterday. We have hit the one-year mark on Covid. I miss potlucks. I miss restaurants. I miss vacations and travel. I miss my friends. I miss the freedom to run into the store on a whim to pick up some fresh flowers. I miss my daughter, who now lives in her own apartment so she doesn’t constantly put her parents at risk. Everything is so much more planful. I miss spontaneity. Leaving the house to run errands requires a risk vs. reward calculation. Hitting the milestone of 500,000 lost to Covid in the Unites States is gut-wrenching. Clearly many people have risks they cannot avoid (like working) and many are severely miscalculating. I’m exhausted from the constant calculation.

Also, I was cooped up during the snow and ice. My husband was outside chopping up downed tree branches and dragging them out of the street. He shoveled the sidewalk and walkways. But I foolishly stayed inside and missed the exercise and fresh (although freezing cold) air. Not a good decision for my mental health.

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At the end of my day of sulking I got a text from a friend that said:

My sister had her water pipes break, then a kitchen fire, then she fell on the ice getting the dogs in the car before fire truck arrived. Probably broken wrist but they have been too busy to go to ER.

Never have I gone from sulking to gratitude so quickly. We kept our power. We kept our water. We stayed comfortable and were even able to enjoy the beauty of the snow and ice. We all lived through it without hypothermia, broken bones, broken pipes, carbon monoxide poisoning, car accidents or the hardship of days and nights of  freezing temperatures without power.

I sent her a text back:

We are all fine here. I’m a little bored some days; plenty I could be doing but lack motivation. You have helped me remember there is the wrong kind of excitement, and now I remember to be grateful. Love and miss you.

John Lewis used to say, find “good trouble”.

“Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.” –John Lewis

There is good excitement (which I miss) and there is the not-good excitement from disasters and tragedies. There are worse things than boredom. Now that I think about it, I spent a decade in therapy learning how to give up constant drama, constant self-inflicted disaster, and be a bit boring. It is never too late in the day to look at things from a fresh, more grateful perspective.

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© 2021 Carol Merwin, All Rights Reserved

All images are property of the author and may not be reproduced without permission.

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The Lessons Our Children Teach Us

Before becoming a parent I imagined all the things I would teach my daughter.

After she arrived, it only took a minute to recognize she was teaching me. I created this memoir of the powerful spiritual lessons that came through her in her first couple of years.

Here is the text of the book we wrote together.

Natalie’s message to me:

I came to the world full of love.

I came to the world full of trust.

I came to the world full of joy.

I came to the world full of hope.

I came to the world full of wisdom.

I came to the world full of courage.

I came to the world filled with Spirit.

I came to the world as a tiny acorn, already possessing inside me everything I need to become the mighty oak.

I came to the world with everything I need.

I came to the world to teach you about love, trust, joy, hope, wisdom, courage, faith, and abundance.

My response to her message:

I came to the world to learn about love, trust, joy, hope, wisdom, courage, faith and abundance – through my love for you. I am grateful for every lesson. Now I know I have everything I need.

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Nothing has changed me more, or given me more powerful life lessons that the privilege of parenting. Being in the energy of such a sweet spirit healed a lifetime of pain and sorrow, and was worth everything I went through on the journey, many, many times over. I have continued to learn and grow; more lessons came through the years, and I have no doubt she still has more to teach me. My only parenting advice – quit trying to teach and take time to learn. Be open to the lessons. My biggest lesson by far? Gratitude.

© 2021 Carol Merwin, All Rights Reserved

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How To Give Your Child a Magical Childhood

When I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful
A miracle, oh it was beautiful, magical
And all the birds in the trees, well, they’d be singing so happily
Oh joyfully, playfully watching me…

Richard Davies, Roger Hodgson, Supertramp album, Breakfast in America

I put a lot of time and thought into this question as a parent – it helped that my daughter entered into the magical and mysterious with ease. Maybe all kids blur the boundary between fantasy and reality if their mind has time to wander and they enjoy the pure freedom to engage in uninterrupted play that is a huge factor in making childhood magical.

There is magic in dolls, puppets, wood, wool, silk, nature, forts, sticks, rocks, dress up clothes, spears, swords, crowns, capes, hats.

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Homemade anything is magical; knit animals, stuffed dolls and puppets, gnomes of course. Magical childhood requires plenty of gnome and fairy stories, and nature stories.IMG_1785

Not just nature in stories, also the real thing – dirt, trees, tall grasses, water in lakes, streams, rivers, oceans – but don’t leave your child unattended near water. Falling in is not so magical. But splashing in puddles or wading in shallow millponds is the stuff of a great childhood. As is running through sand or playing in snow and being outside in the rain. As a parent, fight the tendency to keep them clean and dry at all times. Mud is very magical, as is a random pile of rocks. Time sitting in a tree is time well spent.

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Make a corn bin. (It was a crazy idea that worked.) We started with a big yellow metal tub we put beer and ice in to keep it cold for the back-yard summer barbeque. Then take a trip to the feed store for a giant bag of feed corn, stop at the $1 store on the way home for treasures – maybe a 50 pack of plastic bugs or dinosaurs, packs of shells or colored rocks. Put the feed corn into the bin, mix in the treasures, then let the kids get in and play. Natalie loved that corn bin. Corn scattered out of the bin and it was hell on the vacuum. Not the easiest cleanup, but running her hands through the corn, or climbing in and jumping around, sometimes immersing her whole body (not her head) was an immensely sensory experience. Corn bin might have required fewer cleanups outside, but the birds and squirrels would eat the feed corn, chickens might even come over from the neighbor’s yard if they could get over the fence. That happened once and it was quite a kerfuffle with the dog, so I wouldn’t temp the chickens by setting the corn bin up outside.

Spend time with grandparents, aunties, uncles and cousins.  Holiday celebrations. Crafting parties. Berry picking and jam making. Celebrating birthdays.

You need a magical fairy garden. This was Natalie’s Christmas present one year and boy did she stay busy arranging and rearranging the little furniture and treasures and sparkly stuff. It was nothing more than a big indoor planter with some dirt and a few small plants. She got so excited, “Mommy, mommy, did you see the fairy?”. I might be a doubter, but there was no faking that look on her face and the excitement. I will admit that I wrote the notes from the fairies; they are too small to wield a writing implement. So that part I knew was make-believe, but it was very magical to her and we kept up quite a correspondence through the fairies and it provided a keen insight into her inner life.

In the summer, the fairy garden moved outside.IMG_0172 (1)

Handmade clothes add to the magic of childhood. The process of taking a piece of yarn or fabric, and transforming it into a garment has alchemy. Natalie especially loved thrifted cashmere sweaters that were deconstructed, then remade into a new sweater with a hood and front pocket.IM006334

I loved matching mother – daughter outfits, like the tomato hats made for us by a dear friend. We had a set of pumpkin hats for fall.TomatoTwins (2)

I made patterns, then sewed or knit pants, pajamas, skirts, ponchos, sweaters, hats, bandanas, sometimes matching doll clothes. My skills were rudimentary, but it showed her the possibility for transforming raw materials to something functional.

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Cooking has the same alchemy – watching the transformation of raw ingredients into batter, and then batter to baked goods. A friend of mine hosted a pre-Thanksgiving pie making party one year and all the kids went wild with rolling the dough, concocting the sticky pecan filling, then baking, and finally bringing the pie to share at the family meal. A magical party I won’t forget. I did not bake often, so anything home-baked signified a holiday or special day.IMG_5069.JPGIMG_5470.JPGIMG_4284.JPG

Shrinky Dinks are also magical for the same reason; the transformation during the baking process is exciting. Basically, anything that goes from big to small, or small to big is interesting.IMG_1380IMG_1386 (1)

Anything you can make out of a piece of raw wool – whether you can spin it into yarn and knit it or needle felt or wet felt it into small toys – is good stuff. Small children won’t enjoy the inevitable poke that happens with needle felting; they enjoy wet felting more. You don’t have to be particularly skilled; something a little vague leaves room for imagination in play. We made a set of checkers by rolling together a bunch of colored wool then putting it through the washer then cutting the resulting long felted roll into slices like you’d do making sushi or cinnamon buns. Two different rolls make the two colors of checkers. Then figure a way to make the checkerboard (woven paper strips, fabric, wood) or go to the thrift store to find one. Finding treasures in thrift stores has a bit of magic to it, but do keep shopping to a minimum. IMG_1449.JPGIM005416IM005678IMG_2021.JPG

Paint pottery. Build from wood. Pour concrete to make paving stones. Host a tie-dye party and enjoy watching the tie-dye patterns unfold.IMG_5465

Dye fabric in the back yard. As you watch the fabric take on its color imagine all the things you’ll make. Then put it to use – decorate the bedroom or make capes, forts, and swings. It is satisfying for kids to make something useful. Don’t make it over-complicated – we had successful dyeing parties with a left-over Easter egg dyeing kits.IM004255IM004350IMG_6449 (2)

Stories make childhood magical and not just from books, but stories you tell from your own memory or imagination. Go to musicals and concerts and puppet shows and dance performances; community theatre and local school productions are accessible. Kids like to watch older kids perform. Be a willing audience for plays, concerts and circus acts the kids dream up and perform for you.

A surprise outing to meet up with other moms and friends for a picnic is a magical day with lovely memories, unless one of the more fastidious kids gets too close and goes into the water (that’s a few inches deep) and there is a big fuss about it, or a bee gets into the car on the way home and there is hysteria. But generally, a trip to walk the paths, picnic, see animals, and explore parks or city gardens inspires the imagination.

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A live animal adds tremendous magic to childhood. Find pets to visit if you don’t have your  own.IMG_8734.JPG

I resisted the extra work and responsibility of a pet, but rescuing Dakota was the best parenting decision I made. The love and compassion that comes into your heart rescuing an animal is unmatched (our pup was abused by her prior owner and then dropped off at the animal shelter when she was no longer a cute little puppy). Dakota participated in dress-up, slept right in the middle of the kids during slumber parties, and rode along in the car pool to school. Honestly, she was more of a sibling than a pet.IMG_3924IMG_1665 (1)IMG_1700 (4)

Not every childhood can include live animals in the home, but a childhood that includes farm animals is beyond magical. Natalie saw a goat being born at GeerCrest Farm and nothing is better than the miracle of birth. Then she got to help name the baby goat because she’d been there to help deliver it. In the past, most kids were raised on farms and it was a lot of work, but when you live in the heart of a city, a farm is a whole different world, and it is fun. Gathering eggs, harvesting vegetables from the garden, mucking horse stalls, milking goats, feeding cows, gathering honey from the bee hives, picking apples, watching sheep in the fields and climbing bales of hay – this is the nirvana a city-kid finds on the farm. Read the book City Mouse Country Mouse.

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Our friends named their property Bigfoot Farm (based on a historical sighting of Bigfoot nearby) and even the name engaged the imagination. All the kids I took there loved it. What’s not to love – goats, dogs, chickens, cats, and for a while llamas, plus deer and wild turkeys wandering through, mourning doves during the day and the call of owls at night. IMG_2748 (1)IMG_8140

Teach them to identify Bigfoot, just in case.
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Bundle up and go beachcombing after a storm. Hunt for glass fishing floats and if you find one, think of the years it has spent traveling the ocean. IMG_3603IMG_3608

A trip to the aquarium to watch sharks and fish and anemones and otherworldly floating jellyfish is the entry to a unique realm of magic.IMG_3579 (1)

Speaking of another realm, what about the Magic Kingdom, otherwise known as Disneyland? I thought the experience would be more hassle than magical adventure, with all the waiting in lines and crowds and such, but in fact, we found magic going back into the park at night, seeing the lights, the carolers and parades. At the right age, it is an experience not to be missed. She was only at Disneyland once, and I regret not taking her there at different ages, each age being a unique experience.IMG_5389 (1)

Our little local amusement park was exhilarating, with roller coasters and rides. Not sure the element of magic was prevalent, but there was happiness and excitement, and cotton candy. Pure sugar spun onto a stick is a mystifying concoction. This experience is for older kids; it is overstimulating if they’re too young.IMG_0655

Let him or her wear any get-up, no matter how outlandish. It will hurt your eyes at times, but by starting early in allowing your child to be inner-directed rather than outer-directed, he or she will have a stronger sense of self and be less swayed by outside influences. Life is more fun that way.

Let them throw you a little sass and attitude once in a while without coming down with a sledgehammer. Not rudeness, not profanity, not hitting. But allow them to test you with a minor challenge without flipping out. They want boundaries, and also want to test the boundaries. Let them know you love them no matter what by allowing a little sauciness that is bold, feisty, self-confident and playful (even as it leans into impertinence).IM003842 (1)

Same with “misbehavior” that is merely curiosity and experimentation. I was being interviewed on the phone one day and the call went longer than intended. While I was distracted, Natalie found bronzing powder I had foolishly purchased, never worn, and stuck in the bathroom drawer. She applied that bronzer from head to toe and she was so proud of herself! It was such a mess and of course, the timing was terrible because we needed to get out the door to an appointment, but I respected her commitment to go all in on her experiment.

Create something festive for holidays. Decorate seasonally.IMG_1952IM004155

Kids love to make a candle-lit lantern and go on a nighttime walk. The mystery of being outside at night engages the senses in a new way. Do this in every season so they feel the crisp cold and crackle of leaves in fall, or the magic of lights and decorations for winter holidays. If there is going to be a comet overhead, a meteor shower, a lunar eclipse, or a rare snowfall that might be gone by next morning, get them out of bed and take them outside in their pajamas. A nighttime snowfall, when Christmas lights are lit on houses, under a full moon, is the magic trifecta.

Helping your child give a gift she has made with her own hands is magical for both the giver and the recipient.IM004697 (1)IM005244 (1)

Children enjoy a little verse, written especially for them, with details that let them know you see them. In a Waldorf classroom, every child has his or her own verse, written by the teacher. Even if your child isn’t in a Waldorf school, there are many Waldorf-inspired and Waldorf-influenced toys and books, also crafting ideas and suggestions on parenting. If you want magic for your kid, check it out.

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Back to the magic of childbirth. If you get the “Where do babies come from?” question, it is easy to go off track. So clarify if your child is asking about conception, pregnancy, or childbirth – these are related but different things that require different (hopefully age-appropriate) answers. The kids are going to compare answers, especially if younger siblings are arriving on a regular basis, and of course, if there are already older siblings who know a few more details. Their imaginations run wild comparing tales of the cabbage patch and the blessing of angels with special hugs mommies and daddies have, with some confused retelling of observations made from walking into parents’ bedrooms in the middle of the night (What the …!!!). Some parents want to keep the magic and mystery and some want to be more factual, so the kids will have a field day trying to piece together all the stories into a cohesive version that makes sense; their little brains work overtime. The myriad types of families: blended through divorce and remarriage, created through open/international/foster care adoptions, or headed by single parents and gay couples, also creates the possibility of confusion. It keeps the kids busy sorting it out; some mystery is good for the imagination.

In general, resist answering any big question with an overload of information that pulls them into complicated adult thinking. They are usually asking for reassurance and security, along with a one-sentence explanation. Some kids are happily oblivious and some are deeply rattled by news and politics – know your child’s personality and don’t overexpose. There are plenty of years of political and social justice fights ahead; in the young years help them see how to contribute through small, doable acts of love and compassion.

Art and craft supplies, of course. Any project that doesn’t quite work is an opportunity to improvise, adapt, and recover. Those are some good life skills. Honor their creations. We made magnetic frames so we could easily swap out art.IMG_8122 (1)

Music (age appropriate) – nothing magical about having your 6-year-old sing lyrics like:

‘Cause I may be bad but I’m perfectly good at it
Sex in the air, I don’t care, I love the smell of it
Sticks and stones may break my bones
But chains and whips excite me…–Rihanna, S&M

Or, God forbid, something worse. I speak from experience. Remember, they are parrots. It is best if they are the creator, not the consumer, of entertainment. In general, the fewer the screens and electronics, the greater the creativity. Songs with nonsensical words and rhymes are fun, such as Skidamarink. Kids love gibberish.

Skidamarink a dink, a dink
Skidamarink a do
I love you
Skidamarink a dink, a dink
Skidamarink a do
I love you

I love you in the morning and in the afternoon
I love you in the evening and underneath the moon
Oh

Skidamarink a dink, a dink
Skidamarink a do
I love you

Felix F. Feist (lyrics), Al Piantadosi (music)

Don’t overburden with possessions. When gifting occasions arise, make a little coupon book, each coupon for an activity they enjoy. If you gift physical items, embrace it if they play with the box rather than the gift. This just reinforces the idea that the more open-ended the toy (a doll, a truck, a set of blocks) the more creative play it will inspire.IM005085

Don’t overburden with scheduled activities. If your child has a longer day than you do – school, music lessons, homework, playgroups, story hour, sports practice, clubs and after-school classes – you’re taking away their magic and pulling them into adulthood too soon. Let them continue to climb tress. Keep empty space in their schedule.

Welcome their friends into your home. Treat their friends with the same courtesy and respect you’d offer your adult friends. Try your best not to embarrass them in a huge way in front of their friends, even though a minor embarrassment seems to be inevitable.

The embrace of love is magical. Any child will be happy to see your eyes light up when they walk into a room. That costs you nothing, yet is a monumental gift. A warm hug when you’ve been apart. Parents who love and respect and support each other, parents who inspire the best in each other, parents who get along and enjoy being together, parents who navigate life’s challenges as partners – giving them that is gold.

Your example is most important of all. Enjoying your life and your work brings magic and happiness to children. If you can find ways to happily clean house, do chores, and head off to work you love, they will have confidence that life is good. (Think Mary Poppins or 7 dwarfs whistle-while-you-work.) If you find a lot to love about life, the kids will too; if you find life magical, the kids will too.

All images are property of the author and may not be used without permission.

© 2021 Carol Merwin, All Rights Reserved

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Why Write?

What’s the point in rehashing the past, telling my stories once I’ve moved past them? Why am I bothering to reexamine painful periods in my life, what’s to be gained?

“Telling your story is a participatory act. It’s an act of courage. It means choosing to engage the conversation of your life with insight, perspective, and a little distance. Doing so will allow you to see the archetypes, patterns, and underlying human struggles for redemption.”–Albert Flynn DeSilver, Writing as a Path to Awakening

I want to regain my courage.

My past is filled with complexity, struggle, messy history, fucked-up thinking, and bad behavior.

I absolutely want redemption.

I grew up in lack – of love, attention, affection, money, security. Maybe everybody else had it just as bad as I did; maybe I didn’t have it all that bad. I’m not sure. There are huge gaps in my childhood and young adult memories and let’s face it – there is plenty of evidence that everyone’s childhood memories are suspect and unreliable. What I know for sure is that I struggled. I was a super-sensitive kid who felt things deeply. To avoid the pain of everyday life, I did my best to live in a fantasy world of books, and to float out of my body. (That was later diagnosed as Dissociative Disorder and explains my childhood amnesia – I simply was not present.)

My childhood nickname was Cinderella. I did everything in my power to earn positive attention, to feel worthy of love, to earn my right to a bit of joy. When I worked hard and achieved a modicum of success the reaction would be, “Who do you think you are?” and that put me right back in my place.

I spent my early adult years stumbling along, clawing my way out of holes I dug myself into and out of holes I got thrown into. I was on both the giving and receiving end of the appalling ways humans treat each other. I wanted to be happy – meaningful work, my right life partner, a family, a home, a sense of purpose. But my relationship skills were abysmal, I blamed everyone but myself for what went wrong, I felt victimized and bitter. I put out toxic energy under a veneer of being nice, friendly, accommodating. I took care of everyone else’s needs without a clue of how to take care of my own. I seemed OK on the surface, and simmered with co-dependent rage, resentment and (often misdirected) anger underneath. I felt life was a zero-sum game – if things went well in one area then something turned to shit in another area. Or else it was just a matter of time before the other shoe dropped and anything good I achieved got taken away. “Who do you think you are?

Jump ahead 30 years. I’m happy. I’ve found my life partner. We are raising a daughter and living in a home I love. By now I have 3 college degrees, have worked in a couple of meaningful careers, and my life with family and friends, along with volunteer work, give me a sense of purpose.

Yet as my life evolved and all my dreams came true, I became more and more cowardly. I constantly feared reverting back to my state of profound unhappiness. I didn’t want to rock the boat and get pitched out, go underwater, and be fighting for my life again. Everything revolved around playing it safe. My consciousness did not contain the concept that life can be good, and then things can change and get even better. The neural pathway for that idea did not exist. However, the neural pathway for “Who do you think you are?” was still very much alive.

I didn’t trust myself. I didn’t believe I had fundamentally changed. Despite the evidence I had learned the formula for manifesting one heart-felt dream and then the next, I doubted myself. So I tried to stop time. I felt perched on the head of a pin, afraid to take a step in any direction. But I found constantly playing small and playing safe wasn’t working. I’d gone from living an existence so miserable that I occasionally considered suicide (during the 30-year period I jumped over) to something just as scary. Turns out sitting in my comfort zone and not reaching for my next dream is a form of spiritual suicide.

There is transformative power in telling a story, precisely because it can feel so uncomfortable. When I lived on the edge of fear and darkness, my attitude of what do I have to lose gave me an edge of craziness that kept me feeling fully alive. My life was energized through recklessness and dangerous risk taking. Inside the safe and comfortable life I have now, I still want experiences that make me feel fully alive. I still want experiences that change who I am. Writing does that.

I want spiritual growth and evolution.

“That’s exactly what we soul writers seek: to connect with our innate wisdom, discern the truth behind our story, and move on. Move on from the place where we are to a new place where there is greater peace, greater love, greater possibility.”–Janet Conner, Writing Down Your Soul

My daughter came into my life when I was 44. She was not with me during the years of hardship, struggle, broken dreams, misery, heartbreaks and tough lessons. She has only known me as mature, loving, well functioning, happy, predictable and sane (I like thinking that; I could be wrong). So I decided to share my story, and in the process become more truthful and fearless as I allow her to peek behind the curtain and see the life I’ve lived. And in doing that, I hope to help her understand why I think, believe, and act the way I do. I hope to share something that will resonate if she goes through a dark night of the soul after I’m no longer here to help her navigate the darkness.

“Much of the beauty of light owes its existence to the dark. The most powerful moments of our lives happen when we string together the small flickers of light created by courage, compassion, and connection and see them shine in the darkness of our struggles.”–Brene Brown, Daring Greatly

 I want my daughter to know who I am. I want to tell a story that will reach out to her with love, encouragement and support during tough times.

Life has challenges. That is the human condition. At the same time, life is a precious gift, to be savored and enjoyed to the last moment. I live in a constant state of gratitude, and when my time here is up, I will cross over to the mystery of the other side on an energetic wave of love and gratitude the size of a tsunami. Why wouldn’t I share what I’ve learned? “Who do you think you are?” I think I’m someone with a story to tell.

“The impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”–Annie Dillard (quoted in Show Your Work by Austin Kleon)

“No one is as capable of gratitude as one who has emerged from the kingdom of night. We know that every moment is a moment of grace, every hour an offering; not to share them would mean to betray them.”–Elie Wiesel

 

© 2021 Carol Merwin

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The Trauma of Poverty

Here’s a thought to consider…

“I believe those who sink from prosperity to poverty probably come, in the process, to understand what the world is like.”– Lu Hsun, Chinese writer, 1881-1936

I didn’t sink from prosperity, but I did grow up middle-class and go downhill from there. And my experience of middle class life felt more like poverty than it needed to because my depression-era mother hoarded money. Rather than use and enjoy money, it stayed in the bank as a hedge against economic catastrophe.

I remember my years of being poor as a series of snapshots, each a moment, a flash of an image, with the flash leaving an afterglow of pain around the edges of my vision.

As a 17 year old I learned this fun fact: a loaf of day-old white bread, a small jar of peanut butter and a small jar of jam can make meals for a week. Popcorn (the old fashioned kind you pop yourself in a pan) or ramen noodles are a filling meal if you’re living well enough to have access to a kitchen. No kitchen = PB&J.

I remember the moment when the single pair of tennis shoes I owned were so worn the plastic at the back of the heel cracked, and rubbed a raw spot on my Achilles heel that bled as I walked. I remember the physical pain. I remember asking myself what I would do without in order to have enough money to buy new shoes. My careful budget of $20 per week covered food, non-food essentials, medical, dental, clothing, haircuts, travel, transportation, entertainment and leisure (as if there were any travel and leisure, a ridiculous notion). Put a Band-Aid on my heel and carry on.

I clearly remember a particularly startling moment from the poverty years. As I walked between Portland’s north park blocks and the PSU campus, a homeless man approached me and offered me a couple of his panhandled dollar bills with kind words to get myself something to eat. Did I look that thin and hungry? Back then, taking myself out for a special dinner was walking to the downtown McDonalds and getting a Filet-o-Fish and a hot fudge sundae, a meal that cost about $1 back then.

Those were the days when “downsizing” (a term that didn’t exist then) meant moving from a studio that had a Murphy bed, an orange synthetic shag rug, a popcorn-textured ceiling and an occasional dead rodent, to a “sleeper” room. If you ironed a shirt on that rug and got off the edge of the towel that was functioning as the ironing board, you’d have orange plastic melted to your garment forever. My sleeper had room to put a sleeping mat on the floor, a tiny closet to hang a few clothes, and a sink. There was no kitchen, and the bathroom that was down the hall didn’t have enough hot water or water pressure to shower properly. I missed cooking the aforementioned popcorn or ramen, but cutbacks had to be made to live within my means.

Living in a car wasn’t an option – I’d never had the privilege of owning a car.

As I fought to survive, I had insult added to injury when my boyfriend at the time had a birthday that granted him access to his trust fund and he immediately dumped me to go out with women who wore better clothes, had more stylish makeup and hair, drove nice cars, and were comfortable being wined and dined – felt it was their due, in fact. In other words, I was left for not being someone I never had the opportunity to be. We all want to be loved as we are, respected and valued in a relationship. It was a dagger to the heart to be thrown away. I was from Gresham Oregon; I didn’t even know what trust funds or debutantes were when I first met him. I didn’t care about any of that. His affluence was unknown to me when we first started dating; he was just another student in a sweater and blue jeans when we met. The details seeped out around the edges as we spent more time together. It was an unexpected twist in my story – the loss of the relationship and his love exposed me to another kind of poverty – poverty of the heart.

But in his defense, my constant state of fear and worry didn’t make me the fun companion he wanted. And he had no more idea of my circumstances than I had of his; I kept my situation absolutely private from him and everyone else. I was ruled by:

  • Pride – much too prideful to divulge my situation.
  • Shame – too embarrassed and secretive.
  • Constant dread and anxiety – not knowing how bad the future would get. The constant self-doubt. Would I get across the finish line with my degree and get a job before I ran out of money?
  • Family rules – it is vulgar and uncouth to speak openly of money.
  • Feminist ideals – I wanted the equality of paying my own way. I wanted to be judged on strength and intellect, not make-up, hair, and clothes.

And also in his defense, he was generous and thoughtful in many ways. He cooked me meals, and included me in his family’s home cooked dinners too; I was certainly more well fed that I would have been without him. But it was a strange disconnect, living in a state of constant financial hardship while dating someone who had never given a thought to financial insecurity even one day in his life.

The only help I ever asked for or received was school financial aid, which was a mix of loan, grant, and a work-study job. I never asked for food assistance, health care assistance, or any kind of benefits available to low income people. I didn’t want to think of myself in those terms. Ironically, fellow students who were rich kids received food stamps, and used the money to throw parties and eat steaks, without a twinge of shame. It stung my pride when my boyfriend referred to my student financial aid as welfare. There was a huge distinction in my mind between student aid and welfare, but clearly not in his.

As I was finally finishing college (by then I was 27, it took a decade of starting and stopping to work my way through school) there was the realization I had less than $200 left to live on and no income – no student financial aid, no work-study job, no $ to buy work clothes for interviewing, no job. This came after three tough years of living on the miserly $20 per week. I was exhausted from the work and the constant worry. Exhausted and panicked, not the ideal headspace for job hunting.

So what are the lasting ramifications to my psyche and my soul?

I am decades past poverty and the precipice of homelessness, but it still resonates inside me as fear and conservatism, and if I’m being honest, stinginess. Sometimes I feel survivor guilt. My poverty had a purpose (education) and was time-defined (graduation); it didn’t stretch out to the horizon as far as the eye can see. I wonder how much harsher it would have been without an end-point.

Like someone with an eating disorder, whose troubled relationship with food causes them to binge and purge, I would go on to have a troubled relationship with money even when I had a good income. After the years of austerity and discipline around spending, I’d occasionally binge spend my way into debt. Then I’d go back to depriving myself and saving every penny I could against the day it would all be taken away and I’d be living the trauma of poverty once again. My thinking was exactly like my mom’s, and probably several generations who experienced hardship before her. So I did without things I could easily afford. I used things past their expiration date, like I was forced to do with my tattered tennis shoes, even though it was no longer necessary. Someone with an eating disorder might eventually get healthy in her relationship with food, but it’s a journey. I might eventually get right in my relationship with money, but I’m still on the journey.

It all worked out for me. I did get a job. I eventually owned a car, and then a house. Many years later I bought a pickup truck with the intention of putting a camper on the back, telling myself it was a buffer against homelessness. Now when I drive down the street seeing tent after tent, broken down cars, pickups with campers, and dilapidated mobile homes I know in my heart that could have been me. Yet I rarely give money to panhandlers. I wish I’d be at least as generous as the homeless man that shared his two dollars with me all those years ago. But I’d need more one-dollar bills than a guy in a strip club if I wanted to give everyone a little something – there’s a hand out on every corner and in every entranceway.

I wonder if the person who won the billion-dollar lottery yesterday has a good relationship with money? I sure hope so. I’ve learned poverty of the mind can persist no matter how much money you have. Why did I buy a pickup truck to live in when I owned a house? Worthiness, ability to receive, responsible stewardship, ability to keep money in circulation rather than hoard – these issues carry on past obtaining wealth. Maintaining wealth has its own issues, as many past lottery winners can attest.

I wonder what will happen to the psyche of all the kids whose families have lost jobs and businesses in the current pandemic-caused recession. How will the trauma reverberate through their lives in years to come? Will it bring forward a more compassion society, or will there still be judgment and shaming of the poor?

If I could have known how well my story would progress, if I’d known I’d have more comfort and security than I ever imagined, then the journey might have been less traumatic. I didn’t have a crystal ball. Consequently there’s been a lot of PTSD, a lot of healing, and ongoing work to maintain a healthy relationship with money. The journey from poverty mentality to abundance mentality is the spiritual journey of a lifetime.

“No man is born into the world whose work is not born with him.”– James Russell Lowell

“Say yes to life, even though you know it will devour you. Because among the obstacles and, to be sure, the cruelties of life, are signs that we are on a primary spiritual adventure (even though it seems to be taking place in what we regard as an unmistakably physical world).”– Stephen Larsen

© Carol Merwin 2021

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Looking for Light in the Dark Days of Winter

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We’re well past the Solstice, yet still looking for the return of the Light. What dark days this winter has brought to American dreams and ideals. Across the arc of history, the change of seasons has come and gone through more savage times than these, and we have survived. So here is my evidence that the Light will come as surely as the seasons turn.

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In looking at what brings Light into my life I acknowledge my daughter – she is the brightest ray of sunshine and the heart of Love and Light.

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The inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris gives hope, and these words, spoken at the event, were inspiring.

“The new dawn blooms as we free it.

For there is always light,

if only we’re brave enough to see it.

If only we’re brave enough to be it.”   – Amanda Gorman, The Hill We Climb

Being a night owl rather than an early bird I am rarely up to see the dawn. But here is a December morning I was out and about for a stunning sunrise. Nature does not disappoint.

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The archetype of the Light Bearer is present right now.

“For over two thousand years, the archetype of the Light Bearer has been foremost in human spiritual life—certainly, at any rate, in our western world. The Greeks told the story of the mortal Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and brought it back to humankind. There was Christ, who brought Light into a dark world, and Moses, who brought the light of law. Buddha brought the hope of enlightenment. The light symbol is also present in the Prophet of Islam. Each can be seen as an embodiment of the Light Bearer archetype.” – Seena Frost

In researching the Light Bearer archetype, I was surprised to learn the name “Lucifer” is derived from the Latin “Lucem Ferre” meaning “Light Bearer.” Lucifer is embraced as a figure of knowledge and rebellion. He is also typically depicted as highly intelligent, and even the source of knowledge. In translation from Hebrew, Lucifer is translated as “the morning star,” or, as an adjective, “light-bringing.” (1) I wonder if that’s why the Netflix show Lucifer is popular (show’s main character is named Lucifer Morningstar). Are we all examining concepts of good and evil, heaven and hell, guilt, judgement, redemption, forgiveness and punishment? Many see this moment as a return to truth and knowledge, a moment of turning away from the darkness of fear, racism, oppression, divisiveness and falsehood. Do I dare to be optimistic?

This is a collage image of the Light Bearer archetype I made in 2017, in a process called SoulCollage ®.

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We are also seeing a lot of the Warrior archetype – love warrior, truth warrior, justice warrior, spiritual warrior – dedicated, courageous, fierce, self-sacrificing, loyal. He or she endures hardship for just causes, and fights to seek truth, right wrongs, and find equality. This quote has been with me for many years now.

            The Knighthood of Our Times

            “There is a knighthood of our time whose members do not ride 

            through the darkness of physical forests as of old,

            but through the forests of darkened minds;

            They are armed with a spiritual armor 

            and an inner sun makes them radiant;

            Out of them shines healing,

            healing that flows from the knowledge of mankind as a spiritual being;

            They must create inner order, inner justice, peace and conviction,

            in the darkness of our time.” – Karl König

Here is a SoulCollage ® image I created for the Warrior archetype.

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“The warrior archetype has been around for millennia, emerging and reemerging from one era to the next in human societies around the globe. Its pervasiveness is not accidental. It stems from an intuitive awareness that to live life as full human beings, we must learn the qualities of courage, honor, honesty, and dedication to peace.” –Jill Jepson, Writing as a Sacred Path

In Oregon, with its short days and long dark nights we are also literally looking for the light; getting outside to bask in whatever sunlight there is.

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Spiritual practice can call in the light. As noted in the Seena Frost quote above, Light is associated with spiritual masters and spiritual practice in belief systems across the planet. I love this interpretation of the Namaste greeting – the Light in me sees the Light in you.

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The turn of the seasons brings hope and renewal. Every glimpse of spring lifts the spirits. If buds and blooms emerge, then surely the sun shines. I walk around the neighborhood looking for little glimpses of the turn of the season from the dark of winter to the rebirth and renewal of spring.IMG_81710-30

Even in the darkest winter we can find sources of hope, inspiration, renewal, forward evolution, Love and Light. We need to bring our own light into the world to drive out darkness wherever we can. That might be a social justice protest, a donation to the food bank, or a lawn sign for Love over Hate. We each find the most impactful way to take our stand for Light in a way that suits our means and personality.

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There’s always music. These lyrics are on my playlist.

Little darling, it’s been a long cold lonely winter
Little darling, it feels like years since it’s been here

Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say
It’s all right

– George Harrison, from the 1969 Beatles album Abbey Road

I remind myself a dark day doesn’t mean the sun will never shine again. I do my best to remain hopeful and not squander my precious moments on darkness, to not drain my spirit and exhaust myself on anger and frustration. I’ve heard these last months referred to as “an era of exhausting outrage”. Yep.

“Sadness flies on the wings of the morning, and out of the heart of darkness comes the light.” – Jean Giraudoux

My work is to figure out how I am going to be the Light, or bring the Light.

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“It is during our darkest moments we must focus to see the light.”– Aristotle

And there it is… Some days a vague hazy glow obscured by clouds, but still present.

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“If clouds are blocking the sun, there will always be a silver lining that reminds me to keep on trying.”  – Matthew Quick, The Silver Linings Playbook

 

(1) https://bloguniversalfreemasonry.wordpress.com/2018/10/22/lucifer-devil-christ-or-something-else/

©  2021 Carol Merwin

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Mistakes Will Be Made

I am willing to make mistakes.

Life is a process of growth, which requires doing things you’ve never done before, things that push up against the boundaries of what you don’t know, which can lead to results that come to be labeled as “mistakes” but, in fact, are the exact lessons needed to grow and evolve. *

Take love relationships as an example. My parents didn’t give me a lot of clues as to what a loving partnership looks like. They were married, and got along in some ways, but were sadly mismatched in other ways. So I had no way to know that being in love didn’t involve sulking, shouting, swearing, slamming doors, hurling accusations, throwing down ultimatums, criticizing, insulting, stalking off in disgust, turning a cold shoulder, and other forms of what I now consider bad behavior. And by bad, I don’t mean something to feel shamed by; I mean something that is unproductive in creating and maintaining a loving and respectful partnership.

In finding my way in relationships I made dramatic missteps, and I did not like to take responsibility for them. I simply could not see my role in my own downfall.

I would like to say to those men in my past: I am deeply sorry for the times I lied, I controlled, I manipulated, I pleaded, I blamed, I used my sexuality, I was rage-filled, I was a coward, I was a doormat (ridiculously sweet and accommodating), I was mean, I didn’t communicate what I needed, I was stubborn, I was a chameleon and never showed the real me, I expected you to be a mind-reader, I had a distorted perspective, I was massively triggered by minor transgressions, and I made you feel crazy because my feelings and emotions were out of control. I recognize that the main thing I had going for me was a desperation to be loved that made me wildly passionate and committed in relationships. I offered loyalty whether it was deserved or not. I hope my devotion and commitment made up for some of my shortcomings. The movie title Truly, Madly, Deeply perfectly describes how I fell in love.

In my love life, I had no idea of how to exercise a selection process, or how to slow the pace of a relationship and get to know the man, or how to date a variety of men as a process for finding my best fit. My pattern over many years was to emerge from a period of profound loneliness, connect with a man based on intense chemistry, immediately fall deeply in love, then painfully lose that love and spiral into grief and hopelessness. My enormous shortcomings either attracted someone equally deficient in relationship skills, or drove away any man that understood what a healthy relationship looked like. Despite the gaping holes in my relationship skills, I always blamed the man for the ruinous outcome. My pattern led to a pretty rapid turnover. I needed the practice.

I would like to say to some (though certainly not all) of the men in my past, now I can recognize the quality of the love you offered. I could not see it at the time, and I had no capacity to receive it. It was my thing to push men away, and then cast myself in the role of victim because they left me. Those men must have been bewildered when I created drama to end the relationship and then blamed them. Over time I built up a wall of cynicism, bitterness and victimhood no one could break through. Looking back, I’m deeply saddened by what I threw away.

When we know better we do better – that’s a true statement (thank you Maya Angelou). Through all the relationships I did work hard and try my best. I look back in sorrow at that young woman. How ill equipped she was to hold up her end of a mature and well-functioning relationship.

I like to think of myself as a good person, but if I’m being honest, I’ve done bad things.

I don’t like to lay out my mistakes in explicit detail. I don’t have the strength of heart to own up to everything. Suffice it to say, don’t break up with men on their birthday, if you’re fighting and driving, don’t slam on the brakes in a random location and tell them to get out, don’t fall in love without knowing the first thing about who they are, don’t get involved with a married man even if he says it’s all over but the divorce paperwork, don’t act like it is OK if he shows up late 100 times, then end it on the 101st time without a word of explanation. Don’t expect him not be who he has explicitly told you he is. Don’t make changing him your project. If you move out while he is out of town, don’t leave a couple crappy pair of shoes you don’t want to bother packing up on the shoe rack in the entryway, because when he sees them he will think you are still there (I didn’t do this, a friend of mine did, I just helped with the move). Don’t think men are impervious to pain. They are not. They feel things deeply. Relationships are nuanced and multi-layered so don’t paint them as black-and-white. Don’t stand on your second floor deck and throw full cans of beer down onto his car as he is trying to drive away – there is no dignity in that (it wasn’t me that did that, but seeing it made me want to do it). Don’t pretend things are OK when they are not; that never works. Better to face things head on. Stand for your truth, but be honest in the kindest possible way; don’t hurt someone needlessly. Say the hard things face-to-face, not by leaving a nasty note on his windshield when you find his car parked at another woman’s house overnight. Don’t intentionally push his buttons just because you like to add anger and danger into the emotional blender along with love.

Now that I’ve been in a good relationship for 25 years people like to tell me I’m lucky. Which annoys me because maybe there was good fortune involved, but I think my luck relates to the fact that I dated for two and a half decades and ever so slowly learned what I needed to learn. I even had a practice marriage – tough, but necessary. Every relationship was an opportunity to learn what worked for me and what didn’t. I made every mistake there is to make, but I didn’t make the same mistake over and over, so I evolved. My advice is to accept that you’ll make the mistake you need to make to learn what you need to learn. I acknowledge this approach can lead to a painful journey, but we’re not meant to stand still in life.

In the end I had a list of 26 items that defined the man and the relationship I wanted, and ultimately the man I chose to partner with had 24 (he wasn’t a musician, and there is one other thing I can’t remember so it must not have been super important). That’s being willing to take a hard look at what needs to change in myself. That’s doing the work to make it happen. That’s learning the lessons. That’s learning to ask for help and listen to someone farther down the path than you are (I was in therapy for about a decade). That’s staying in the game and not giving up on the dream. If I hadn’t been willing to make mistakes, my dream of finding my right partner would never have come true. What’s the saying, fall down seven times, get up eight. Do that.

As a footnote, I took time from writing this to watch the inauguration of President Biden and Vice President Harris, and was deeply moved by a line in the poem recited by Amanda Gorman. It sums up for us collectively in this time what I held to individually on my personal journey all those years ago.

“…if nothing else, say this is true, that even as we grieved, we grew. That even as we hurt, we hoped.”

 

* In my journal I found this written with no attribution. I’m not sure if I read it, or heard it, or if it came from inside my head. Normally I note the source when I jot down an idea from someone else in my journal. So I’m not sure if this is a random thought of my own, or something someone shared. If anyone knows who said this (if someone other than me said it first), please let me know.

© Carol Merwin 2021

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Sorting Out Some Goals for 2021

What do I want in the New Year?

I’m a little late getting started. Here it is January 12th, 2021, a date when many people have already given up on their New Year’s resolutions, and I haven’t even articulated mine. January 19th is now called Quitter’s Day because most people have given up. 80% of people will have put resolutions aside by the second week of February (if you can believe what you read – I have no idea how they make that measurement).

If I’m being honest, I’ve been super distracted by political events unfolding and have not had the focus to look long-range into 2021. Still, it’s time to take a pause from news and consider what I want to create in my life this year.

In reflecting back on 2020, I made some headway. I did some things I set out to do. I fell short on some things. Given the year, I was physically and emotionally exhausted by October/November and was only going for the easy win, the low hanging fruit, by that point. Anything too lofty had definitely gone by the wayside. This is a fresh opportunity to kick off new goals and set my sights higher.

I’ve used a variety of approaches in setting out on a new year. I attempt to get past the usual, get to the heart of where I want to go in life. It is good to clarify whether I am I creating intentions, resolutions, goals, or aspirations. Tools I have used:

  • The Be-Do-Have inspiration board (3 columns: 1) what do I want to be, 2) what do I want to do, 3) what do I want to have).
  • Vision board based on the Feng Shui bagua map (9 boxes, 3 across and 3 down, each with a representation of what I want to create in that part of my life).
  • The mood board (gives more of an inspirational vibe of what I want life to feel like – without specifics). I create the picture of what I want and let the Universe take care of the how.
  • Treasure map – opposite of the mood board – goal is in the center, and the map illustrates steps I’ll take in the process.
  • Last year I didn’t create goals, I wrote myself a permission slip. I gave myself permission to do a lot of things I’ve never done – a totally different approach I found inspiring and freeing. (blog Archives, February 2020, Writing the Permission Slip)

I find something visual and creative more fun than making a list, but I’ve made plenty of lists of goals and month-by-month action plans in past years. I don’t consider the vision board merely “wishful thinking”. It’s a creative process that can bring forward ideas about things I don’t even consciously know I want. The creative process taps into the subconscious as I intuitively choose images and words; this helps my imagination create the vision.

This year I will use the vision as the jumping off point, and be more methodical and left-brain in laying out the steps. My process doesn’t have to be either “this or that”. It can be both “this and that”, incorporating both left and right brain elements. I want to give myself something to measure for success. I want to apply some left-brain thinking to determine how my strengths, talents, abilities and skills (to think, choose, imagine and create) will get me there. Mainly I’m going to look at putting structure, support, and teachers in place with broader, monthly goals. With those elements in place, the day-to-day will take care of itself without a bunch of checklists.

Some things I’m considering in my process:

  • There is no point to living a life I don’t enjoy. Am I going to find joy in the steps it takes to achieve the goal?
  • Is this goal going to add to my life or take away from it?
  • Is it coming from a healthy motivation?
  • If losing 10 pounds is the answer, what is the question? If the desire is health and fitness, make the goal health and fitness.
  • Is the result worth the lifestyle changes it will require?
  • Do I have the structure in my life to do it – time in my schedule, space, support, skills, information? Can I start today with what’s available?
  • Am I willing to keep going with consistent action, even on days when I’m not in the mood? Is there a “why” behind the goal that keeps me going even if motivation lags? And when is it OK to take a pause rather than force myself to keep going?
  • Am I willing to take vague wants and wishes and break them down to specific goals for which I create a week-by-week action plan?
  • What will a milestone look like? How am I going to measure success?
  • How do action goals (what do I want to do) interconnect with outcome goals (what do I want to be, what do I want to have)? Am I measuring steps or results?

This is not going to be the year to push, push, push – it is going to be another year to be kind and gentle and self-supporting rather than self-critical. Truly, I should tell myself this every year. I no longer want to ruin my health by pushing relentlessly to accomplish more and more. I want to acknowledge myself when I succeed, not punish failure. (Labeling success and failure is something I’ve analyzed quite a bit in the past so I won’t address it here.)

So, here are my 3 specific intentions. They feel very doable.

  1. Walk 3-7 days per week, and build up my strength and take occasional longer hikes.
  2. Write, and be visible with what I write, by sharing or posting 1 time per week.
  3. Finish 6 quilts or sewing projects that are currently incomplete.

This boils down to better fitness and health through exercise I enjoy. Plus developing creative pursuits, including stretching myself to complete projects and show my work.

Is my list of goals complete?

One way of answering that is to work backward, and ask:

  • What gives me a sense of accomplishment?
  • What gives me enjoyment?
  • What gives me a sense of gratitude?
  • What gives me a sense of fulfillment?
  • What gives my life balance?
  • What makes me like myself better?
  • What contributes to my peace of mind?
  • What strengthens my connection to family, friends, and community?
  • What helps me lay my head on my pillow at night and get a good night’s sleep?

Looking to the past in this way, reflecting on what helps me achieve these things, gives me direction for the future.

The question can contain the answer when I ask, “What am I doing (today, or this week/month/year)”:

  • To be of service to my community?
  • To challenge myself mentally or physically, emotionally or spiritually?
  • To plan responsibly for my future?
  • To demonstrate love for family and friends?
  • To pursue my passions and interests, and deepen my skills and abilities?
  • To love the space I live in?
  • To love the body I live in?
  • To feel energized and alive with the life I’m living?
  • To go for a stretch outside my comfort zone?

In looking at my goals, I see I’ve missed one that needs to be on the list. No doubt I left it off because it’s not something I enjoy doing – I just want the results. That is, complete my estate planning project and review financials with an advisor. This needs to be on the list for life balance/peace of mind/planning responsibly for my future/demonstrating love for my family. I know myself well enough to know I can’t spend every minute on fun adventures without a thought for the future; worry would constantly be running in the background.

And one more – be more generous to my friends and to organizations doing work I support. This one ticks multiple boxes too.

Five goals are plenty for someone as easily distracted as me. These aren’t super lofty change-the-world or reinvent-my-entire-life goals. Two quotes have given me perspective on constantly working on myself.

“The problem with self-improvement is knowing when to quit.”–David Lee Roth

“Now and then it’s good to pause in our pursuit of happiness and just be happy.”–Guillaume Apollinaire

My final 2021 list:

  1. Walk 3-7 days per week, and build up my strength and take occasional longer hikes.
  2. Write, and be visible with what I write, by sharing or posting 1 time per week.
  3. Finish 6 quilts or sewing projects. Do not start 6 new projects; finish 6 projects that are currently incomplete. It is OK to hire out parts I don’t enjoy or don’t have the tools for. Build new skills in this process. Finish one project every 2 months.
  4. Complete my estate planning project and review financials with an advisor.
  5. Be more generous with friends and organizations I support.

© 2021 Carol Merwin

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