Category Archives: advice

True, Necessary, Kind, and the Internet

I had most of this post on my desktop for a couple of weeks. I guess I couldn’t decide whether it was necessary.

I sometimes lament that an outsider to our family—or a child in our family—would surmise that the character traits we value most are being smart and being funny. You know, as opposed to being nice, helpful, considerate, generous—all the qualities you’d want smart, funny people to have down solid, lest they become unbearable know-it-all jackasses.

Smart, funny people need to know when to can it, to leave the one-liner that is freakin’ brilliant unsaid, to let a meaningless—if glaring‐error go uncorrected.

In our house one way we sum this up is the phrase “True, necessary, kind.” This phrase has been credited to Socrates, though I am most familiar with it from Buddhist readings. Discerning “right speech,” in the Buddhist sense, requires asking three questions about the things you say: “Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?”

When my very smart near-teenager makes a joke that might be funny among friends, but is hurtful to a little sister, possibly none of these criteria are met. When she corrects that little sister, likely in a condescending way, she knows that just being right is not enough to make her words OK. “Hey,” I can ask her, “was that true, necessary, and kind?” She’ll know exactly what I mean.

So much activity online violates this precept, or at least stretches the definition of all three words. Was it necessary for me to post a photo of a Captain Crunch box on my Facebook wall today? Is linking to a blog post that expresses an idea you agree with, albeit with harsh words for people who don’t agree, kind? At what point does the online persona we each have cross the line from “selective sharing” to simply self-aggrandizing or otherwise misleading?

As both the holidays and the election season start gearing up, I’m questioning whether the various types of online media many of us engage with—Facebook, Google+, blogs, e-mail lists— are supporting “right speech” or making us as tone deaf as too-smart-for-their-own-good adolescents.

I can’t tell yet. Sure, Facebook is a time-waster, but it’s also become an important medium of connection between friends and family who wouldn’t be sharing the basic stuff of life otherwise. Isn’t that necessary? And kind? Isn’t networking necessary? Aren’t blogs a way that some people get to share what’s true?

The conventional wisdom of social media is that frequent posts that keep you in the eye of your readers are necessary—but necessary for what?

This December I’m aiming for a few more Silent Nights. Most things worth saying will keep.


How do you love yourself?

Last night I was feeling kind of insecure about mistakes I’d made earlier in the day, about times when I was not my best. My mind went to the old familiar place of shame and fear that I am not good enough. Then I went to the next habitual place of “what can I do to be better?”

I think I set a lot of challenges for myself, like Nanowrimo, or this month’s, “exercise everyday for 60 min”, for not totally healthy reasons. I think I am often trying to better myself as opposed to loving myself. And maybe, probably, those two things don’t have to be opposed. But for me, loving myself hardly ever enters into my mind, or my life. I am not sure I even know how to love who I am, without the constant striving. I have a really hard time forgiving myself for not being better.

But that is not how I treat people that I love. I love my husband, my daughter, my friends, for every little part of them. They don’t have to be perfect, or better than they are. I love the whole package.

So, how do I turn even a fraction of that love towards myself? Last night, in my quasi-dream state I thought I might make it into a challenge (of course I did), something like “Try loving myself for 30 days.” Heh.

I am really not sure how to do that. I have some vague ideas about being attentive to what I am feeling when I am eating, drinking, walking, reading, etc, to see if I like how I am feeling, as well as notice my self-talk and try to develop a more loving “inner voice.”

I don’t know. I feel like I have come a long way in the last few years. Therapy and avoiding situations that reenforced a negative self-concept have really really helped. But there are so many layers to this onion. I need to keep working at it.

So, how do you love yourself? Do you have any insight? Practical, spiritual, psychological? Cause I would like to feel better about not being better.

[cross posted from my blog]

Monday Muppet Hack — Gonzo Love

I have multiple posts in the pipeline, but also deadlines, deadlines, deadlines. Nothing is getting finished that isn’t followed up by a paycheck. (Well, except beers. There were a lot of beer bottles on the kitchen counter Sunday night. So far no one is paying me to drink beer.)

But this is good stuff, from the people at Wired, who are always full of good stuff:

Take on a new challenge and the excitement of tackling it will rub off on your relationship. “That exhilarating feeling may come from another source, but it’s still associated with your partner,” says Aron, who theorizes this happens because of brain chemistry. “When people fall in love, they get activation in the dopamine system,” he says. Novel or exciting pursuits also stimulate the brain to pump out more dopamine. Aron theorizes that even playing videogames together may draw a couple closer.

I love this advice, which I think is good advice for falling in love with your partner again as well as falling in love with your work or your life. As a workaholic I too easily fall into ruts, but I also love novelty and miss it greatly. I am the person who will order the pasta with peaches and salami, or the cardamom and black pepper ice cream (admit it, that sounds delicious). I love cover songs with weirdly inappropriate singers and shoes and purses that don’t match anything.

The other thing that makes this advice awesome is that it is offered alongside a picture of Gonzo and one of his chickens rockclimbing. I am not sure what species Gonzo is so we’re going to assume that when he’s rekindling the excitement in his avian relationship it is fully and consensually reciprocated. (Who am I to judge, apparently I love everything that isn’t supposed to go together.)

The whole article is Muppetized advice: If you don’t feel like rekindling your relationship, Hippie Janice is a cautionary example for tips on untangling your earbuds, and Sam the Eagle demonstrates eating spaghetti.

And if you don’t like Muppets, well, the grumpy old guys are there complaining too.

Thanks to the revived Camp Creek Blog (a homeschooling blog) for pointing this out.

“You Need More Art in Your Life”

I had a lovely moment of serendipity today. I don’t believe that “the universe provides” for those who ask — unless the universe seriously hates the Congo and has a mad crush on upper-middle-class Unitarians — but I do believe that having ears that hear and eyes that see happens more often when you know what you’re looking for.

Last night I had dinner with my husband while my girls were out trick-or-treating with other friends, and I took advantage of the time between my girl-tini and the arrival of the sushi platter to talk to him about the stuff I thought I might figure out by writing (sporadically) on this blog. In short: how did I wake up this side of 40 somewhere I didn’t plan to be, and how do I get somewhere else, somewhere I like a little better?

I don’t believe in trying to reclaim your younger self, but as I said to him over little scallop purses, there was a time when I paid more attention to making things and making them well, and learning things, and mastering them. When it didn’t seem the point of the day was to get to the end of it as quickly as possible, ideally — oh, the high standards! — with enough energy left to watch a sitcom before going to bed.

“You need more art in your life,” he said: art as in making, art as in beauty, art as in creating something for the sake of creation.

Today while I was cleaning up in the basement, I found stacks of old notebooks, mostly containing useless notes about ancient freelance projects. But in one of them I happened to find this. It’s so old I can almost share it without being too embarrassed, like a poem by a relative rather than something of my own. It’s a poem I wrote, no revisions, for no reason, 10+ years ago. It’s not great, but that’s the thing: I made it to make it. And it’s about doing things just to do them.


These days
I sweep my floor like
my daughter does . . .
Not yet two, she gently
strokes the hardwood with a hairbrush
or maybe a comb.

Her purpose is not to whisk away
the dirt, the crumbs, the onion skins,
but to care for the floor,
like you might pet a cat,
like I might stroke her brown hair
while she sleeps,
imparting a tender blessing.

I can’t go back to being the person who wrote that poem: the person who was waking up from a terrible depression, or the person who was, consequently, falling in love with being a mom and discovering an earthy, messy joy in a way of life that had seemed, only a few years before, a lame consolation prize in the race to the top. I can’t be her anymore than I can be a teenager again, but I can remember some things that she knew.

Finding that poem reminded me that I know how to have art in my life. Everybody does; we’re born that way. Why I stopped, I don’t know. Stuff gets away from you. But starting again doesn’t have to be a big deal. I’d like to start playing Chopin again, or publish a book of essays, or audition for a play, but I can also just pick up a pen and a notebook, or a broom.

After dinner last night we went to pick up one of our girls, drank some wine with friends, and then drove home singing Elvis songs. The day had been insanely long, and almost 4 hours of it had been spent driving in construction and traffic. My most creative act of the day was making green cupcake frosting, most of which ended up in the trash anyway. I stretched out on the sofa to watch 30 Rock but I couldn’t get to the end; my eyes kept closing and then the storyline kept changing in nonsensical ways until my husband woke me up and told me to go to bed. It was a fine day, but no art. Not even a wakeful sitcom viewing.

There’s been precious little art in this day too, but I still have about 4 hours to go. What will it be: the salad? a little piano practice? another poem for the archives?

And you: do you have enough art in your life?

Mind Hack Monday – She Shells

No matter how introverted I say I am I still need to connect with people. But that connection hasn’t always been easy for me to make. And, recently, I have been wondering why it is so hard.

Not that I don’t have friends. I have actually been blessed with many wonderful close friends. They are truly amazing, so I guess I must be doing something right. But, well, I just moved to a new city and now I am faced with the prospect of having to build a social life from scratch.

Moving can be exciting. You get a fresh start, on everything, even who you are, or, at least, how you present yourself to others. This time, I told myself, I am going to be more outgoing. I’ll try to talk to people I wouldn’t normally talk to. I’ll have more confidence, be less guarded, and be a better listener.  You know, “be myself” but better. 😛

Contemplating my struggle with friendships and relationships makes me think of my daughter, whose friendship mojo is strong. In the six weeks since we have moved here she has made several really good friends, had 3 sleepovers, and almost daily invitations for playdates/hang outs. Her social calender is so full it needs 13 months.

Not that I want that. I couldn’t handle that. But I would like to make at least a few meaningful connections. And it would be nice if it didn’t seem so hard.

I recognize that a big part of my problem is my impatience. I haven’t yet figured out how to enjoy the slow and somewhat obscure process of vetting, I mean, making friends.  In the past I relied on intuitive (snap) judgements regarding compatibility. But, the new me, in my new city of Brotherly Love, is trying out new things and new people. I am meditating on remaining open, and curious. And that helps, a little bit. But sometimes it doesn’t.

Of course, sometimes I have to think “Maybe it is just me.” Maybe everyone else I know easily makes full and satisfying friendships. Maybe they often get that experience of being “known” and accepted. Maybe once an outsider, always an outsider. (and maybe feeling negative about the process isn’t really helping:P)

I don’t know. I really don’t. All I can do is just keep showing up and putting myself out there. Or maybe I should give up looking for a specific outcome but somehow not give up on the process. But, I should probably not crawl back into my shell. Unless maybe it is my shell that somehow, paradoxically draws other interesting shell dwellers to it.

Mind Hack Monday (on Tuesday)—What’s a Mind Hack?

Many years ago I worked as a copyeditor for a psychology journal, an enterprise that was fascinating and tedious in direct proportion to the number of tables in each article.

I was struck by an article about cortisol levels in people who had undergone various kinds of severe stress or trauma. The people in the study had permanently elevated cortisol levels; whatever stressor had lead to the release of the cortisol hormone had occurred so much or so severely that it effectively stuck the body in the on position. In plainer English, the adrenaline rush of the fight-or-flight response we all have when faced by a crisis had become permanent condition for these people.

This article depressed me profoundly, because not only did I see myself in those people, but I saw the possibility that I would Never Feel Better. My Stress Hormone Release Valve (note: not scientific terminology) had broken and would now stay broken, maybe forever.

Not too long after that I took up the practice of meditation. Honestly, I was kind of desperate to feel better: anti-depressants weren’t common then, and talk therapy—the kind where you review all your grievances against your parents and the bullies in school and whoever else might have wronged you—had gotten stale and repetitive for me. (Nothing against therapy; I’ve had great therapists since then.) I would have tried anything, and while I was trying the stress-relieving qualities of a loaf of banana chocolate-chip bread at the bakery I saw a sign for a meditation class.

Truly it changed and saved my life, and now we are learning why. Scientists have begun studying the effects of meditation on Tibetan lamas and casual practitioners, and they are finding that meditation can change the way the brain works—including long-term cortisol levels!—for the better. We’re also learning that brains are more plastic than we think and that cognitive decline can be slowed or possibly (in some cases) even reversed.

Some people call this “Mind Hacking,” a term that reflects a kind of cheeky optimism about the possibility of reprogramming our thinking—and maybe even the physical processes underneath it—by hacking into our brains like a programmer rewriting less-than-functional software.

Meditation is one example of a powerful mind hack, but I like to think of a mind hack as anything that reframes my thinking in a way that breaks some previously written loop and starts me in a new direction. A great metaphor, analogy, or question can be a deceptively effective mind hack. Sometimes it’s just the right advice, permission, or idea at the right time.

I think all three of us are fans of a good mind hack, and between us we should have at least one to share each Monday, like AM’s post this Monday about letting go of “the idea that They need you and that the world won’t be right” if you take time off from your responsibilities and schedules.

So true, which is why I am writing this piece about mind hacks on Tuesday, when I wanted to have it done on Monday. 😉

Play along with us and share any good mind hacks you know, too. We’d love to feature your idea, book suggestion, inspirational quotation, or any other trick to keep our minds agile, positive, and healthy.

Mind Hacks Monday–I Can Handle It

A Facebook friend was seeking some advice from her friends in the computer for handling a five-year-old’s mixed emotions about starting Kindergarten.

Do you downplay fears and talk up the fun? Acknowledge the sadness at leaving a familiar preschool? On that first day, do you stay for just one more minute, or do you exit quickly without looking back at the forlorn, tear-streaked face of your abandoned baby?

As I move through the second decade of parenting, I’ve taken the philosophy that what I do isn’t all that important. It’s what the kids do. So my advice was to help the child feel competent to handle whatever unpredictable feelings come up: feel sad? feel scared? feel lonely? That’s OK, you can handle it.

Introducing yourself to new kids making you feel shy? That’s OK, you can handle feeling shy. Getting frustrated when your handwriting doesn’t look like that strip pasted on your desk? That’s OK, you can handle feeling frustrated.

This was of thinking was a revelation to me when I first discovered it. Somehow I grew up believing that bad feelings—mine or anyone else’s—were to be avoided at all costs, and were a sure sign that something was wrong, dreadfully wrong. Meditation helped me to learn that feelings were just feelings, not events or situations that require action, and practice taught me that I could sit through feelings that seemed unbearable and still be there the next day.

Then I had a choice: I could choose to try control my feelings, maybe by shutting down and withdrawing, or by going seriously Type A and controlling every aspect of my environment. Or I could simply remind myself that having a feeling, no matter how bad, is not going to kill me, and no feeling, no matter how intense, lasts forever.

In the book Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, author Susan Jeffers says that “I Can’t Handle It” is the belief at the base of all fears. To fear rejection is to believe that you can’t handle rejection. To fear loss is to believe that you can’t handle being sad or disappointed.

As a freelancer, I’ve recently ended a contract that has provided almost half our household income for several years. Talk about feeling the fear . . . But I’m lucky to have experience—and I don’t just mean experience as a writer or editor. I have experience having less money, so I know I can handle that. I have experience being turned down for work, so I know I can handle that. I hate feeling uncertain about the future, but that’s nothing new either. Uncertainty—I can handle it.

And yet the great thing about “I can handle it” is that it neutralizes so much of what makes uncertainty unpleasant. There’s no controlling outcomes: maybe my parents will react badly to that decision, maybe that investment is going to tank, maybe my child is going to hate school. But can I handle it? That’s entirely up to me.

There is an obvious risk with “I can handle it” as well. “Handling it” doesn’t mean lying there and taking it, or going it alone. Too many people I know act as though asking for help or even venting a little bit about their concerns proves that they couldn’t handle it. “Sorry for whining,” they say. “That’s OK, I’ll do it myself,” they say. “That’s just the way it is,” they say.

Just like self-acceptance doesn’t have to mean giving up on yourself, “I can handle it” doesn’t mean “I am the world’s doormat.” “I can handle feeling bad” doesn’t imply “and therefore I will not investigate how I could lessen the frequency, duration, or intensity of my bad feelings.”

It’s deceptively simple: “I can handle it” merely frees you from the urgency of feelings—yours or someone else’s—so you can focus on what is really happening and what you can really do about it instead.

Can You Accept That?

Knowing what really constitutes “self-love” has always puzzled me, so I am liking these recent questions from AM. I really like the metta meditation, but I am not always sure, in practice, how unconditional love will look.

To look good in my wedding dress years ago, like many brides-to-be, I decided to needed to lose weight. I was attending Weight Watchers meetings, and we were talking about self-love. I said that I needed to accept myself as I was, and decide that I am OK now, regardless of whether I lose any more weight or not.

It was a good realization, and as it happened accepting myself as I was then did make it easier to lose weight. I probably lost another 20 pounds before the wedding, and the WW leader was very complimentary about my success. She also said, “Aw, remember back when you said that you would have to accept yourself as you are? And now look at you! You didn’t have to accept that.”

I felt sad for her, thinking as she did that a less than perfect body was not acceptable. Yet I could also see what acceptance meant to her: giving up on yourself, not really loving yourself enough to treat yourself well and give yourself the best. It is such a hard balance to strike, between loving yourself as you are now and dealing honestly with things that you could stand to improve. It’s hard to tell the difference, sometimes, between giving yourself a break and giving in to things you know are not good for you.

Soon after that, I wore my beautiful wedding dress, moved away, and continued attending Weight Watchers meetings and losing weight. As a thought exercise, the WW leader encouraged our group to close our eyes and imagine how life would be different after we lost the weight we wanted to lose.

At this point I had lost a substantial amount of weight, at least 40 pounds. I looked a lot different than when I had started, had great clothes, a cute new husband and new apartment. Still, as I closed my eyes I nearly started to cry. I realized: the magical life that I thought would materialize after I lost weight was no closer than it was 40 pounds ago. I had not suddenly become more confident, famous, witty, or wise. I did not love myself any more as a thinner person. Inside I was still perpetually dissatisfied not just with how I looked, but who I was.

Once again, I had to recognize that if I wanted to love myself, I had to start with where I was at that moment, and not wait for myself to get a little thinner—or to get a cuter apartment, or to have a few more publications, or to organize my photos, or whatever was holding me back.

Pretty soon I’ll be celebrating the 16th anniversary of wearing that wedding dress, and I know from experience that self-love, accepting yourself where you are, starts over all the time. It’s not a one-shot deal. Not only do you have to deal with doubts that creep in when you aren’t looking, but you also wake up sometimes to find that “where you are” is somewhere you didn’t plan to be.

You’re asking all over again: Is this place OK, and if it isn’t, am I still OK? Getting back to a “yes I am” after that takes some effort. The metta practice can be wonderful for that. It can also help you sort out the difference between the place you don’t want to be—not taking care of yourself, in a bad relationship, in a rut—from who you are.

I also love AM’s questions. I don’t judge my friends’ bodies. I don’t even think about their careers. I don’t judge their parenting or their houses. As a highly critical person, I’m well aware that my friends are imperfect, but that doesn’t make me love them any less, and when I think of it that way it seems like a possible step to extend that to myself.

I love me, I love me not

So, there is more that I want to say about Unconditional Love, not that I am an expert, far from it.

First of all, I am not even sure what it means to love unconditionally. How does it work, in a practical sense? What does a relationship of unconditional love look like? Is unconditional love detached? Dispassionate? Would you ever want to love your spouse or lover “unconditionally”? Should you give unconditional love to your abuser?

I don’t know if I will ever find satisfactory answers to those questions. I just keep living and trying to love people the best I can. Sometimes I do a pretty poor job, especially when it comes to loving myself unconditionally. It is a good trick to try to imagine that you are your own good friend. How would you treat yourself? How would you talk to yourself? How would you change the way you support and care for yourself? Could you possibly smile with happiness at seeing your good friend when you see your own reflection in the mirror?

Sometimes I wonder if anyone is able to love themselves so unconditionally. Then I wonder if maybe lots of people do and it is just me that doesn’t get it. Maybe the phrase Unconditional Love is too lofty. Maybe I could start to do it, with baby steps, if I just said I am loving myself where I am at.

Mind Hacking Monday – Loving Others Where They Are At

Some people call it unconditional love, others describe it as loving people where they are at. It seems hard, almost impossible, but once you commit to doing it your relationship becomes much easier.

When you require other people to change into someone that would make the same decisions and choices that you would make, or at least ones that you would understand, you are often going to find yourself in conflicts.

Misunderstandings are inevitable. We have not yet invented a translator that allows us to speak with perfect understanding to one another. We can’t really say we understand the needs, fears, and desires that motivate our own behaviors, much less those of others. The beautiful reality is that humans are complex creatures. But unconditional love is simple.

Unconditional love is wanting others to be happy. Even if you don’t understand them. Even if you disagree with them. Even if you dislike them. And, most importantly, even if they dislike you.

One way to start practicing unconditional love is by doing a daily Metta Meditation. You can find various versions online by searching “Metta Meditation.” One example is “May I live in safety. May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I live with ease.”

You always start by focusing your love towards yourself, chanting this three times. Then say the Metta three times focusing on someone you love. Then for someone you are neutral towards. Fourth, towards someone you have difficultly with, or someone hostile towards you. Fifth, wish for happiness, health, ease, and safety for the entire world. Lastly, come back to yourself and chant three more times.

Sometimes the hardest one can be feeling loving-kindess towards a person that is hostile towards you. But it can also feel the best, especially when your heart releases the resentment and pain you have been holding onto.

There is much more to the Metta Meditation than I am relating here. And there is much more I would like to say about unconditional love. But doing the Metta Meditation is an easy way to start practicing loving-kindness every day. I think, over time, you start to see the wisdom in loving humanity because they are complex rather than in spite of it.

Links – The Practice of Metta Meditation