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Lifting Winter Spirits

I’ve struggled with varying degrees of winter blues since I was little. In elementary school, I remember feeling sad and crying in the winter for now reason, and after I moved out of my parents’ house to be a grown-up, winter meant crazy depression, anxiety, and emotional eating. Lots and lots of emotional eating.

I’ve learned that there’s a space in between completely dropping into that dark place and wasting my energy fighting through it. Winter is my time to slow way down and rearrange my priorities.

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Last winter I fought it and denied it. I also whined about it. The winter before that, I let it completely steamroll me. So far this year, I’ve settled into that in-between space pretty nicely and I’ve learned a few things that seem to be working well so far.

My new favorite winter survival tips, in no particular order:

  • Eat lots of colors and citrus fruits. Something about an orange or some spicy red onion in my salad really perks up my mood. Also, eating salad is good. I tend to crave heavy, carby, fatty foods that don’t make me feel good if I eat them too much, but eating wintery salads keeps me in touch with my body’s signals for hunger, fullness, and what I need to eat. Or get back in touch with those signals.
  • Happy music-keeps my energy and mood up. Christmas music is great, but I also have a happy playlist on my iPod that keeps me going. I also love calming, uplifting music like Krishna Das. It also gets me in the mood to do yoga, which is always a good thing. On the flip side, watch out for depressing music.  Sometimes we tend to “mood match” with music, but that doesn’t help a gloomy mood.
  • Keep busy, but relax too. I’ve noticed there are two sides to winter blues: gloomy moods and low energy. Staying busy helps the gloomy part, but getting enough rest is the best way to handle the fatigue. If I’m gloomy and tired, then a hot bath and early bedtime might be the best thing I can do. If I just need a mood boost but have a little steam left, I put on fun music and scrub the floor. Nothing gets me off the couch like Gangnam Style. That song is my secret happy mood weapon. Yes, it is on my happy playlist.
  •  I practice positive affirmations and gratitude every day, usually on my walk to work.
  •  Take vitamin D, drink my raw milk. Gotta get those nutrients.
  • Don’t guilt trip myself for not eating or exercising perfectly, or for being “lazy” (i.e. needing to rest).
  • Enjoy the contrast and perks of winter: Layering, hearty soups, herbal tea, cozy blankets and good books, hot baths,  snow days. I’ll miss them when it’s 95 degrees outside and all I can stand to eat is watermelon.
  •  Pamper myself by taking a hot bath as soon as I get home from work. That warms me up and calms me down, without fail. Until I get the gas bill.
  • Take a walk in the middle of the day when the sun is highest, if I can. If not, I don’t feel bad. Do what you can.

Thought this is the darkest time of the year, I’m happy to report that I’m actually doing ok. Sure, my energy is lagging and I have some gloomy days, but overall I’m enjoying myself. Above all, I found that the most important thing is to make peace with the fact that I’m not as productive this time of year. I don’t create as much, my homemaking duties tend to get neglected, but that’s ok.

It’s about enjoying life, not fighting.

 

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Trusting the Moments

A few weeks ago, I finished up an 8 week ballet course I took through the local college’s community education program. I’ve always wanted to dance and I hoped that this class could help me set some new groove in my brain and muscle memory that might help me to move in expressive ways. I had a great time, I learned some new things, and I loved closing my eyes at the barre and pretending I was a prima ballerina preparing for rehearsal, but I realized something startling: as much as I love watching dance, painting dancers, choreographing in my head, I didn’t love dance. At least not the nitty gritty details of it. It felt more like a workout class than a starting point for a new creative medium. Even more startling, I was ok with the fact that I wasn’t that into it. It wasn’t even because it was hard and I was giving up. I just realized that it wasn’t what I wanted. At least not right now.

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I have a habit of writing myself long to-do lists, making grand plans (because it’s good to dream big), and wanting to try and learn everything.  Lately, I limit my to-do list to just a few things and if I don’t get those done, it’s not a biggie. It’s ok that I don’t feel like taking voice lessons right now or brushing the dust off my piano books, or auditioning for theater. I’m only bringing a couple library books home at a time instead of a huge cloth grocery bag full of books on dozens of subjects.

Sometimes, especially this time of year, I might feel sad or anxious without knowing why. These feelings used to scare me because they felt out of my control. Each winter, I’d tense up and panic because I just knew I’d be doomed to months of sadness until spring when nature would allow me to be happy again. I do feel sad or unmotivated sometimes, especially in these dark evenings, but I know that mood will change and that I can actually do something about it. Keep busy. Just sit with it and appreciate it the contrast. Look at the gray, snowless landscape and appreciate its beauty the same way I appreciate spring flowers and bright summer days.  I can accept that energy and perky moods don’t come as easily at this time of year, but I can still be joyful and productive.

My diet isn’t perfect. My body isn’t perfect, or even at my perfect weight right now. That’s ok. My relationships aren’t perfect. My art and writing projects don’t always turn out perfect. I just keep working on them until I like them and that’s that.

This may sound like a lot of giving up, or narrowing my mind because I’m not interesting in everything in the world at the moment, but it’s actually freeing to not want or expect myself to do everything. I bring home less library books, but I read more. I make shorter to-do lists, but I get more done.  My life is less chaotic, overwhelming, and I have so much less guilt.

It’s not giving up, it’s making peace with what is and what I am right now. It’s trusting the cycles and seasons of my life and that if something is meant for me, there will be a time for it. There are no lost opportunities. It’s realizing priorities and what really matters. Living in the moment instead of only living for some ambiguous “when” in the future.  Most of all, it’s accepting that I have everything I need to be happy here and now, even if I don’t have money to travel the world right now or if I’m not taking music lessons and blogging every day and working full time and square foot gardening and sprouting grains in my kitchen and working out. Right now my priorities are paying the bills, taking care of myself, spending time with my husband and family, having fun with my art and writing, and taking things day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment.

Relearning Happiness

One of the things I’ve spent a lot of time pondering over the last few months is happiness, and how I acquired it and them seemed to lose it again. The summer of 2011 was one of the most joyful times of my life, and not because everything in my life was perfect or was working out the way I wanted it to. I’d learned how to be happy, and once that knowledge was securely in place, it was easy to maintain until some big changes knocked them loose again.

After that, I told myself I was happy. I’d learned how to be happy, hadn’t I? I only struggled with anxiety and gloominess again because it was winter, right? As soon as spring came, I’d feel that joy again. All I had to do was wait. It wasn’t my fault.

Spring came. Summer passed. I never really felt spring or summer though. I felt like it just got hot. That anxiety and gloomy mood stayed with me. As much as I lied to myself, I wasn’t happy. That joy from the previous summer didn’t return with the sun.

That’s part of the reason why I decided to put everything on hold for awhile so I could figure everything out.

After a particularly overwhelming week, I decided that I wouldn’t lie to myself anymore. I wasn’t happy, but I knew happiness was possible because I’d achieved it before. I knew it didn’t depend on what job I had, how much money we were making, or anything outside of myself because I’d been happy in far less “ideal” situations.

So how did I do it? I spend the day reading my journals from that time, rereading blog posts from the spring and summer of 2011, and reading the book that introduced me to the ideas that turned everything around. If I could learn happiness once, I could do it again.

I realized that I just had to relearn everything.

The ideas and practices that brought me happiness before, I’d taken them for granted. I thought I knew them all, so I stopped practicing what I knew. I just expected that mindset to maintain itself, and I unconsciously let it slip away.  I felt humbled, because I realized that no matter how much I think I know, I will always have to practice and relearn these things. Gratitude, positive thought patterns, trust, affirmations, love…those things are practices rather than a permanent mindset that never goes away once it’s in place.

So now I do the things I used to do. I write things I’m thankful for in my journal every single day. I use affirmations and mantras to maintain positive thought patterns. I make an effort to appreciate others. I make a conscious effort to trust that things will work themselves out instead of fear that they won’t. I feel like a beginner again, but I actually feel happy and peaceful now even though there’s a foot of snow on the ground and the sun goes down earlier every night. I have less energy for sure and I get a little gloomy in the evenings, but overall, I can honestly say that I’m happy right now.

If I’ve learned anything from this, it’s that happiness is both a choice and a practice, not a result of circumstances or luck. As humbling as that knowledge is, it’s comforting to know that I can always choose happiness.

I wish you all the joy and happiness you deserve. Have a wonderful Tuesday!

 

A Small Piece of Beauty

Beauty is something I think about it a lot, though not nearly as much as I used to, and not in the same way. As a child, preteen, and teenager, I saw beauty as power, currency, and acceptance. I had a hard time fitting in and I got teased a lot, but I noticed that the pretty girls didn’t get made fun of. Boys didn’t laugh at them or gross out when they found out those girls had crushes on them. Nobody called them names.

Summertime was my favorite time of year as long as I was in my own backyard or the canal behind my house, or maybe camping in the woods with my family. Those were my safe zones. I liked swimming, but the pool was a thing to endure. I had fun swimming and playing in the water, but I couldn’t help but notice the other girls with tans and bodies as tight as vacuum seal bags. I wanted their skinny legs and wardrobes so badly because I had hips and thighs in the fifth grade and couldn’t put an outfit together to save my life (still can’t). I’d go swimming with my cousins and wear shorts and a tee shirt over my swimming suit while they ran around in their tankinis and didn’t get sunburned. How come I didn’t turn out like them? Why wasn’t I a cute dancer with skinny legs that turn gold in the sun rather than my own brand of blistering pink?

I felt awkward and unattractive because I thought that’s how others saw me. That assumption stuck with me for a long time, even after I’d found my place in the high school drama club and made friends who loved me for who I was, and even in my freshman year of college when I’d somehow shrunk down to 135 pounds on my 5’8″ bod and had boys asking me out every week. I didn’t even feel beautiful when I started dating Sam and he told me I was beautiful. I hadn’t learned to love myself yet.

Last summer, Sam and I went to a local water park, and though I’d long since given up the shorts and tee shirts over my tankini, for the first time I didn’t feel one bit awkward or self-conscious. I was well above my body’s comfortable weight at the time and it was early June, so my toothpaste-white legs hadn’t seem much daylight yet, but I had my favorite coral toenail polish on and a turquoise tankini that looked a lot like the one my cousin once wore to the same water park almost a decade ago. I’d had a string of emotional breakthroughs that had lifted the depression I’d struggled with for years (and still do on occasion) and I’d reconnected with my creativity after a long dry spell. Though I’d been flailing around with intuitive eating for awhile, I’d finally learned to listen to my body and was starting to lose a little weight.

Because of these things, I had learned that I was beautiful even if I am shaped like a bowling pin and wear cargo shorts and tee shirts all the time. I finally knew who I was recognized my own type of beauty; that quirky, refuses-to-grow-up awkwardness and creativity that makes me who I am.

Oh, this is who I’m supposed to be. This is how life is supposed to be.

The temperature of the poolwater was absolutely perfect that evening, and I remember swimming underwater and coming up to the surface and noticing the gorgeous mountain by the waterpark. It was like seeing a mountain for the first time. I just treaded water for a few minutes and looked at the mountain and realized that the awkwardness and dull ache of not being good enough was completely gone. I felt so whole.

I was almost 23 years old and I finally realized that beauty wasn’t another planet. It wasn’t a party I’d never been invited to. It was just something I’d never recognized because I’d always expected it to be something else that I could feel by cracking the fashion code or whittling down my thighs. I never realized that it had nothing to do with rules or absolutes. I’d been free to feel it all along.

Everyone has a right to feel beautiful.

The Difference Between Goals and Purpose

Most of us are busy. “Busy” means different things to different people, but by this I mean that a lot of us are operating at full capacity most of the time.

Do you ever feel like you’re just spinning your wheels, or is your busyness moving you in a clear direction? Is that direction somewhere you want to go? Did you choose it? Do you know why you want to go there?

The other day, I noticed that I felt off. It wasn’t quite sadness, so I wrote in my journal to try and sort it out. I realized that I was feeling a bit lost and disoriented, and it was really uncomfortable.

How could I feel lost? I’m very ambitious, I have lots of goals mapped out, and I know the basic steps to accomplishing those goals. I sat with the feeling a little longer and realized something that I’ve never thought of before.

Goals are nothing without purpose. I have goals, but that’s not the same as having direction. Goals are what we want to accomplish, but purpose is why we want to accomplish it.

I believe we all have a purpose in this life, and that mine is to have joy and share it with others so that they might have joy too. That’s what I try to do with my art and writing. I’m not talking about the joy you feel when you watch a funny movie, but the joy you have to work for and that comes when you know yourself and learn hard lessons and develop a deeper understanding of your own purpose.

When we have purpose, we can align ourselves with that and work toward our goals much more efficiently and mindfully. When we forget our purpose, our actions feel empty.

Finding your purpose is a deep life question, but I’ve found that with some observation of your actions and desires, your talents and interests, it’s actually fairly simple. I’ll leave that question for you.

I’m curious. What are your goals? Are they part of a deeper purpose, or are you still figuring that one out?

What do you want to do today?

Sometimes when I feel like I’m moving too fast or running on autopilot, I like to stop and get back on track. One of my favorite ways to reawaken myself to my own life and purpose is to get out my journal and write about what I would do that day if I didn’t have to do anything. I might also write about my ideal day, or maybe just list 20 or so things that I love to do and remind myself to build my life around those.

A lot of people think they’d lay around and watch TV all day if they didn’t have to do anything, and that may be true, but everyone is passionate about something. People need to actually do things to be happy. If you don’t know what you like to do, you might want to start there.

My day usually involves reading, writing, making art, taking walks, and spending time with my husband. Pretty simple. Some days I feel like going on an adventure and some days I’d rather curl up with a blanket and a Tracy Chevalier novel. Still, playing this little game helps me reassess what I’m doing and whether it’s getting me where I need to go. We should enjoy our lives. It’s not all fun and games; we all have things that need to get done that we’d rather not do, but the bulk of our lives should be enjoyable.

Find out what you love most and build your life around that. Use your “ideal day” writing as a compass.

Today, if I didn’t have to go to work, I’d go for a walk, work on some new paintings, prepare two of my paintings for an upcoming juried show, read a little, write in my journal, and go for a walk in the evening. Maybe a picnic with my husband. That’s actually what I’m planning to do today, more or less, just with my regular workday in the middle.

What would you do today, or on your ideal day? What do you love to do more than anything?

What do you need to be happy?

Last year, I spent a lot of time reconnecting with my creativity and getting in touch with my values and desires. I often asked myself what my ideal life would look like, which was a valuable exercise for me at the time. It still is. Allowing ourselves to dream big is the first step to reaching our goals.

I’d write about this in my journal, and I’d allow myself to dream big, to break down walls in my mind and allow myself to see what I really wanted, what I needed to try to accomplish. I reached a place where those things didn’t feel so out of reach anymore. It did wonders for my confidence and really helped me to see myself as the creative being that I am.

I tried it again just now, just to reassess and see where I am.

What does my ideal life look like?

The answer surprised me. Instead of the grand career, the world travel, and the huge accomplishments, I thought hard and came up with a few key ingredients:

  • I want to spend a lot of time nurturing and expressing my creativity,
  • I want to connect with my family and friends. Not even a lot of friends, but a few good ones. I want to feel real connection with people.
  • I want to be healthy and feel good about myself. Neither one depends on the other, but they tend to come together.
  • I want to have adventures, whether they’re big ones like traveling abroad, or little ones like exploring a new hiking trail or trying a new vegetable this week.

The nice thing is that every single one of those is completely within my power, no matter what my circumstances.These things don’t depend on success or money, they don’t depend on approval or validation or permission from anyone else.

At first, this question helped me see the possibilities, now it helps me see my own power and the value of now. It helps me to see that I don’t need to put my happiness on hold for “when”.

What does your ideal life look like?

A Year of Gratitude

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On Saturday morning, I went for an extra long walk. I didn’t take my hat or scarf, though I should have. It was the kind of weather that fools you into thinking it’s warm even though it’s freezing. Sunshine does something for my soul, it stirs up some deep happiness that I forget sometimes when it’s been cloudy for awhile.

I veered off my normal route and walked down the hill a little further so I could get a better view of Utah Lake. It was so beautiful for some reason. I stopped and looked at it for a minute, and then a feeling of gratitude came over me as I thought about where I was a year ago and where I am now.

Last February, I would have never imagined that my life would be like it is now in such a short time. A year ago, I was depressed, sick, my stress and anxiety were through the roof, and overweight because my compulsive eating was out of control. I lived in a tiny studio above my uncle’s garage and worked as a nanny, and I had no idea what to do about my future. I had no social life. I was so creatively stuck that I started to believe that I wasn’t meant to be an artist and writer after all, that I had nothing to say. I felt stuck, and I was miserable.

Now, standing on that hill looking over the lake, I have a clear vision of my future and a path to get there, but I also have the faith to let things unfold as they must. I have a great job that’s actually related to my degree, my body is maintaining a happy weight and though I’m still tweaking my self-care, I’m much healthier. I have an apartment I love, and I’m making art and writing all the time.  I’m actually selling my work, and I have plans for growing my career from this little seed I’ve planted.

I’m so thankful for this past year and how incredibly far I’ve come. I’m so blessed. I’m amazed how I’ve been led to everything I need whether it’s tools, signs, opportunities, friends, or ideas. I’m grateful for my new outlook on the world, that I understand that struggles are important opportunities to learn, and therefore blessings. I could have never learned how to be truly happy without being truly miserable first. I couldn’t learn how to grow if I couldn’t experience being stuck. I couldn’t have acquired the new tools and knowledge I have without the situations that prompted me to seek them.

I hope that you all are well and that you’re experiencing some wonderful growth right now. Have a wonderful week. 🙂

Wise Words: Sing out Loud!

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Most mean lead lives of quiet desperation

and go to the grave with the song still in them.

-Henry David Thoreau

What’s in Your Toolbox?

 

We all get stressed out sometimes. We all get angry, tired, anxious, or plain burnt out. So what do we do when we get there? How do we take care of ourselves? How do we learn from these emotions?

If you can’t  think of the answers to these questions, don’t worry. It’s ok if you don’t know how to handle these emotions yet, because most people don’t. Most of us see these emotions as bad things that should always be avoided, and that something is wrong with us if we experience them. This isn’t always the case.

Uncomfortable emotions aren’t there to get us, they’re often our greatest teachers and road signs. If we’re stressed, anxious, or  depressed all the time, we know that something in our life or attitude needs to change. If we get angry, we might have stumbled over an emotional block that we get to work through and release so we can live better.

But how do we do this?

We use a toolbox. Everyone has one. This toolbox contains the tools we use to handle emotions.

Sometimes these toolboxes are well-stocked so that we can handle any job life throws at us. Some of our toolboxes are rather sparse. Others are full of hammers when what we really need are screwdrivers.

Let’s take a look at our toolboxes. What kind of tool could we find in there? Let’s take a look at my toolbox first. It may not look like your ideal toolbox, but it sure works for me:

  • Journaling
  • Yoga, walking and hiking outside
  • Uplifting reading like my religious texts, blogs, and books like Healing from the Heart by Dr. Judith Moore (this book was key in my recovery)
  • Talking to my husband, Mom, or friend.
  • Cleaning my apartment, artmaking, and cooking. Great activities for when my hands need something to do while I think.
  • iPod: good music, inspiring podcasts and my SoulArt courses.
For me, this is a well-stocked toolbox, and these things work  for a lot of people. This is what I do when I encounter difficult emotions that I need to work through, think about, talk about, or ride out.
My toolbox used to contain a lot of other things that didn’t get the job done, like eating to cope with anxiety. Actually, I think that was the only tool in there for awhile. Here are some other unhelpful tools we might use to distract, numb or release feelings:
  • Dangerous behaviors like using drugs, smoking, self-inflicted injury, having unprotected sex or drinking.
  • Zoning out in front of the TV or computer
  • Blowing up at someone to express anger
  • Shopping
  • Wearing ourselves out by overworking or overexercising
  • Bingeing or restricting food
  • Bottling up emotions until they make us sick.
If you constantly feel stressed, irritable, or worn out, you may want to examine your toolbox to make sure you have the right stuff. Otherwise, you’ll waste your time try to pull out nails with a wrench.
So what’s in your toolbox? Here are some ideas of tools you could use instead of the harmful ones listed above.
  • Supporting rituals like “you-time”
  • Supportive friends, family or a counselor you can talk to
  • Journaling and creative expression
  • Exercise
  • Service to others
  • Good books and other resources to help you work through emotions
  • Activities that help you unwind without tuning out. Yoga, reading, and that old self-care cliche, the hot bubble bath.
  • Anxiety-soothing activities that keep your hand or body busy while your mind is free to think like cleaning, knitting, wire-jewelry making, kneading bread dough, whatever.
What’s in your toolbox? Did I miss anything? Let me know!