Using my wisdom for a change.

I started to write about some of the following: unemployment, eating disorders, social status, raising a sensitive child as a sensitive adult, middle school-the weird, cool, nerdy, and lame, letting people down, and the writing life.
All of these things are important to me, but I couldn't hone in on any of them. Every word felt forced, as if I was writing for a cheesy parenting magazine in which I fake being the "expert."
The truth is I am not an expert in any of these things. I have a doctor in my home and Google at my fingertips and while that might seem like a boon to some, let me tell you I feel just as uncertain as the next person. But at 45, I have gained some wisdom and here is one truth I know:  transitions are hard. We happen to be going through several. I am getting used to be the main parent again. I am helping my daughter through some difficult times, I am prepping my son for the onslaught of middle school, and I am contemplating my own future and goals.
I was gifted with two younger women in my life who were listening to me weigh in about various ramifications to the decision I am facing. I talked through it and they nodded and finally one looked at the youngest of us and said, "See? This is what age does. It gives you perspective and you realize no decision is truly the end of the world. I am just now learning this."
I was struck by how someone has credited my age for something (in this youth-obsessed culture, age seems to be a major minus) and how I must have sounded more confident than I felt as I weighed out the pros and cons. Later in this same week, I was voicing another concern about this same opportunity and my companion at the time said, "Well, this won't be a problem for you because you have experience with life. You get it."
And I am really trying to own all of this because they are right.  At some point our experience equates to wisdom if we allow ourselves to see it and acknowledge it and claim it.
And so in a startling change of pace, I am not letting these transitions and choices beat me down. I am riding them. I am letting the river of chance and opportunity and change take me knowing that wherever it leads, I will be just fine. My record of landing on solid ground, so far, is pretty good.

I received some flowers yesterday for no reason from a friend I met on this blog. I was touched and humbled by this small act of kindness and when I look at these flowers I am thinking of the people in Fergusun. I am thinking of James Foley and his family and all journalists risking their lives to tell the truest stories they can. I am thinking of  every single victim of a senseless shooting. I am thinking of my little town struggling to find ways to make a dent in the mental health issues plaguing our young adults. I am thinking of so many parents who lose their children to suicide. And I am thinking of how the summer of 2014 became the summer of the ice bucket challenge for ALS. I am thinking of those who suffer from ALS, a debilitating and heartless disease that shows no mercy. I am hoping against hope that with every single bucket poured and every dollar raised, those afflicted and those who are caregivers can feel the love and compassion. It is truly amazing to watch the simple act of pouring water turn into a viral cause that has raised millions of dollars. It is a bouquet of humanity in a desert of so much sadness.

These flowers are speaking a certain truth to me. They say, "I care about you. Thank you for being you. I am here for you." The truth is not always so pleasant, however. When we tell the truth with our words and actions, people don't want to listen. The truth is that racism still exists. The truth is some people are heartless and cruel. The truth is that ALS is so ugly people don't want to hear about it. The truth is that some people will take their own lives and we we will never understand why.

What is also true is that some people send flowers for no reason. The truth is that one small act can create a chain of similar actions that brings national attention to something previously ignored. The truth is that when I speak the truth, some people may not want to hear it because it isn't convenient to them. The truth is that I, too, don't want always want to know the truth because it hurts.

So we take in what we can. We listen and digest and turn over and set aside and move forward or hide out and some of us act. We often feel our little acts mean nothing but then I think of the ice buckets!

And probably more than anything, that is what I do. I think. I think of a victim or a senseless act and in that moment, I want to believe I am somehow lifting up the suffering. I hold the name of a person or place in my head and heart for just a few seconds on a continuous cycle and I want to believe that these seconds add up to minutes and hours and days and months and since time is never-ending no one is ever truly forgotten.

Little actions like flowers and pouring ice water on your head or holding a thought may seem small in the context of our overwhelming problems. But small is good and we are good and we can do these little things and we need to keep doing them. Just keep doing them.

Hard Stuff

The small town that I live in has experienced it's share of youth suicides. In the last three years, 3 young men have taken their own lives for reasons we will never know. The recent death of Robin Williams has everyone talking about mental health and as horrible as it all is, talk is good, so very good, because it keeps us thinking and watching and listening and searching for better answers and more help.

I had a moment in Camp Empowerment last week when we were discussing how we make choices. One girls suggested that pro and con lists always work for her. I wondered out loud if the answer you wanted was ever different than the answer that can appear on the list. Another girl chimed in with this, "Well, I have wanted to kill myself, but I know that it isn't a good idea. People would miss me. It would be hard on them."

Right then I started to sweat because I am not a trained counselor or specialist in any such thing. I have never worked for a suicide hotline or have any claim to being expert in the field.

Yet I do know how it feels to be down. I know how it feels to be so far down that you can't really see up. I have lived with my depression like many live with it and that is really what you choose to choose to live with it.

And so that is what I said, "You know deep down ending things is not right so you make a choice to live through the hurt."

I used to spend a lot of time thinking there was something terribly wrong with me. Of course there was and yet I also spent time thinking I should be able to change it if I just did this and that and this other thing. So when I finally sought treatment after the birth of my son, a kind nurse gently saved me with these words, "It's not your fault, honey. It's chemistry."

I got some meds and I was able to pick my head up long enough to look around and examine more closely what I needed to do.

Medication is not magical. It does not solve everything for everyone. It does not cure that restless and sometimes hopeless and persistent feeling all of the time. What my medicine does for me is give me the ability to put forth the effort to do all of the other things I need to do to stay on top of or ahead of the cloud, the monster, the hole.  I need to walk and talk and write and connect and move and see a counselor and cry and write some more. Without medicine, not only do I not do these things, I don't know I need to do these things.

I have never contemplated suicide. My down is either a low grade solid gray or an amped-up and overwhelming red anger that makes no sense to me when I am well.

And that's the thing. When I am sick, I cannot imagine being well though I know enough to understand that I have been well and the sickness is not what I want to choose.

It takes constant vigilance, constant monitoring, constant attention.  Self-care is not a weekend at a spa. It is a daily walk, time to write, a deep breath in the middle of a tense conversation, an evening meditation, a visit or two or three to the doctor to manage medication, talking to therapists and friends, yoga or pilates, and books upon books upon books. It is a quiet room and the shades drawn and petting my cat and loving up my dog and more deep breathing and healthy food and reaching out to my husband and not comparing my journey to anyone else's. It is the work of my life and sometimes none of this works. And so what is left is to wait it out, let it do it's thing before that storm passes and I can see the clouds roll away and I can step out into the light again. That's what I do. I try to always step out into the light.

It will be controversial so say I get why people choose a different path. There are so many who are hurting more than I ever have and if that is true, then I get why they seek relief. Many will say it is selfish, but that is not true. It is, at their weakest moment, their only version of self- care they can think of. What I want to say is that you just alwaysalwaysalwaysalwaysalwaysalwaysalways have to go toward the light. It is there. It is waiting for you. It can be yours for a minute and then another and then another. Minutes stack up to hours and it is soon a day and then another and you get to live and work and fight for a better way.

But it is a fight and sometimes people lose. And so, all I want to do is help people with the fight. I want us all to be helpers, lovers, watchers, listeners, encouragers, hand-holders. Let's be fighters with big hearts and warm hands and tender gentle ears. We can all do that. I know we can.

Camp Empowerment: The end is really the beginning.

Thursday brought more reflection. I kept reminding them to add any practice or idea that seemed to fit into our "tool kits" for their future use. Claire Marie, the performance director for Seed Performance Art in Winona, spent the rest of the afternoon leading the girls through dialogue and giving them scripts to read that were based on empowering scenes. I took this time to leave because my poor daughter has been at camp with me in the wings. It hasn't been bad, but I really wanted to give her some time to be without me and so I did.

Erica and I left the last day as a sort of reflection and celebration of sticking with us and really trying. We had the chance to ask them what tools seem easily accessible to them and the laughing yoga, breathing, journaling, and movement came up. Three cheers for tools!

Finally, we presented them with gifts. I gave each of them a pen and a small notebook and a few of my favorite empowering quotes. Erica presented a hand-written note, a rock with their word on it (a word that reflects what they revealed to us about who they are at this time in their life), and a bead that represents the power of being female. Erica and I hugged each girl and had a private message for them. After every girl received her own round of applause, they immediately dug into their notes and quotations.

Erica and I collapsed and laughed and wished Annika were here and the girls simply enjoyed being in such a safe place.


Tools for Life and What Empowerment Really Means

On Friday evening after camp was finished, my daughter wanted to talk to me. She is struggling mightily with her own issues, and she felt overwhelmed. I let her talk though I have to confess, I was tapped from the week which is exactly what it means to be a parent. I knew I had to rise above the exhaustion and do this work. So she talked and I listened and after she was all finished, I only had this left to offer.

"You know, babe. You have all the tools. At some point you are going to have to make the decision to fight for it. Fight for what you know and believe to be true."

And there I was confronting every single minute I have ever had in my own dark place.

And to me, that is what empowerment is-- the choice to turn what you believe in your gut into active truth. Our struggles may vary wildly, but we all have choices. My baby has the tools and I do, too.

The real work, the dig-deep-and-get-messy-and-fight-for-it work, is using them.

Empowerment, Day 3: How are you FEELING?

We started the day with a hike. Empowered girls need to move! To get out! In this techno-crazy world it can be easy to forget that the best place to get away from it all isn't on a screen but on a path that leads you to...who knows where?  We didn't have an agenda for this hike. We just wanted to point out that hey! You can hike! It's another way to use your body. How does that make you feel?

Because today was all about how you feel. Pay attention. I asked the girls yesterday to pay attention to how they feel on their screens- after watching movies, tv, texting, surfing the web,whatever, how does that time spent make you feel? And then, can you contrast that to how doing other things that make you feel good? We all get the same hours in a day, and aside from school, we do get some choices about how we spend that time. Do you really work to chose things that make you feel good?

My reflection/journal time came after the hike- I wanted to let them think about those contrasts of movement outdoors with hours online. We segued into a discussion of how sometimes choices trip us up- we get indecisive because we aren't really listening to what feels good to us. So I asked them to think about that- where do they get tripped up? indecisive? why? and how might you find a better way to figuring out what feels best to you. And an excellent point was made in a small group. One young lady brought up making a pros and cons lists. She likes visually seeing the clear answer. The long pro side tells her--This is what I should do!


Can I just tell you now that I love a good but?

BUT.....sometimes it turns out the list says one thing but you FEEL a different way......dingdingding!

That is your intuition, your gut, your true feeling about what is true for you. And that, my dear ones, is that feeling that we always have if we can learn to listen for it.

Annika brought us a change of pace with movement. She taught us a bit of choreography and then asked us to do the same dance as different characters illustrating how effective body language is. We can simply change what we mean and who we are by how we carry ourselves.

This is essential to conveying what we really mean to say. Annika and Erica spent some quality time discussing how and why we say Yes and No in different situations. They role-played how we say Yes when we really mean No and when we say No when we mean Yes. Why do we do that? How we can actually start saying what we mean in a way that conveys that? We discussed body language and hurting other's feelings and honoring our own feelings.  How does it FEEL to say Yes and mean it? How does it feel to say No and mean it? This is big stuff. The situations girls find themselves in with a friend, a stranger, a potential partner, a boss, a teacher are endless. This particular exercise seemed awkward for girls and we know why-- we simply are not taught to mean what we say. We are taught to say what people want us to.

And that's the thing here in Camp Empower- we really are trying to get the girls to understand how everything- our words and our actions can line up if we let them, if we learn to listen to what we really believe.  As awkward as some of the role-playing and movement exercises might feel to the girls, getting this sort of practice helps us believe in the possibility of doing it in real life.

Can I take a moment to say that this is BIG stuff? The hours fly by and Erica, Annika, and I are sweating like mad with fear that we aren't paying enough attention to this or that, we haven't honored each of their concerns adequately, we haven't given them enough of this or that.

But what I believe is what we keep telling these girls. Knowledge is power and we as leaders are learning on our feet and we are doing it!

I am falling behind as the days slide past me and I try to wrap my brain around all this fantastic, important, heady, EMPOWERING stuff.

Believe me when I say we are learning just as much, if not more, as they are. It's circle- the teacher, the learner, the girl, the woman. Where one starts and the other begins is sometimes hard to pinpoint.

Stay tuned for more....

Empowerment, Day 2 (The heart)

Getting to the heart of things takes a bit of time. In writing we call this throat-clearing. You write and you write and then there at the bottom of page 22 or 104 or 250 is the point of all this jibberish. Our camp doesn't have the gift of endless days so we jumped in with both feet to what the point of why we even created this camp.

What this camp is about is building a toolkit for our girls that will enable them to face all that life has to throw their way. We all know there is so much we cannot control, but we, ourselves, have the power to shape how we respond to events and circumstances.

And so with that knowledge, each of us as leaders opened up our hearts and shared a bit of our stories. Annika, Erica, and myself are passionate about this tool kit because WE WISH WE WOULD HAVE HAD ONE OURSELVES when we were their age. Erica is presenting a wide variety of mindfullness techniques, Annika is teaching us about the power of our bodies and how they can be used to help us through difficult times, and I am guiding them in recording and reflecting on all of this in a journal they will take with them. I really feel like this journal is a gold mine. In it, we are recording all of the techniques we are learning to alleviate stress. These range from simple breathing to walking in nature to laughter yoga to power moves. Scattered throughout all of this is time to talk, laugh, and reflect, time to nourish your body, and time to get down and dirty honest with how life is for you. Of course, this is hard.  

I cannot overstate how BRAVE these young women are.

On Tuesday, each girl had an opportunity to "let go" of something that has been weighting them down. They wrote this thing on a note card anonymously and then the note cards were collected and read out loud. The girls were startlingly honest. A heartfelt discussion followed about how our differences still add up to a shared experience. Annika then led us in movements that further encouraged "letting go" and Erica helped the girls build a fire where we burned these worries, another way of letting go.

Funny and courageous and energetic and wildly different and yet linked through shared feelings...letting them discover this was a huge goal.Though so often it feels like it, we aren't alone in our uncertainties.

We end the day with art and freedom. Some girls cluster up, others retreat, and almost everyone takes to the art supplies to pretty up their journal. Erica got them started on a collage, which is to create a vision they have for themselves. At this point, we aren't pushing too hard because each girl has to determine what they need from this free time. It might be alone time, it might be time with a new or old friend, it might be getting into the art, or stretching your body. The goal here is to simply do what you need.

Finally, we circled up to debrief about the day and ask, "What did you learn today?"

The responses were as simple as "To breathe" to "I am not alone" to "I can learn to take care of myself."

Can I take a minute to ask for a virtual high five? Yes!

But there is more to do, more to learn, more to face.

Tucked into all of this, new body movements, stilling our crazy minds, and writing how uncertain we feel about who we are, there has been the best part, the real part...the truth telling.

Oh, brave and mighty girls. I love every single one of them.

Empowerment, Day 1

So I finally got to meet 24 fantastic and brave girls yesterday. Two wonderful instructors and myself gathered inside Holzinger Lodge in Winona to start investigating how we might navigate becoming the strong and powerful women we want to be. Many of them were there under duress. What self- respecting 13, 14, or 15 year old is going to willingly go talk about empowerment? The comments we received from parents and guardians went something like this:

"Good luck!" said with eyes toward heaven.

"She did NOT want to come."

"She can be evil. I wish you the best!"

"Don't believe a word she says."

If we could have measured insecurity by the mile, we could have taken a trip around the world. Twice.

Yet here is the thing. Some of the girls looked just fine. There were a few smiles, some willing participants, and surprised admissions of  "That was fun!"

I have read my own girl's journal. In fact she and I have a mother/daughter journal and what we exchange at times terrifies me. I simply cannot equate what I SEE and experience with her to the words on the page. So I kept thinking of this yesterday when I felt a few girls loosening up, when a tentative smile broke out into laughter. "Oh brave and tender heart. You are doing it despite your fears."

And to me, this is what the camp is all about. Embracing the fact that we are all so terrified on the inside no matter how we might appear on the outside. My girl can look as cool as a cucumber as she takes the stage to dance or act or sing or she can serenely hold her own little space next to a friend yet be quivering inside when it is her to turn to share her feelings.

I get a little frustrated when we use the term "at risk" to label kids. By right of being human, we are all AT RISK. No one escapes the fact that living is beautiful and difficult and the best we can do is help and hold each other as we navigate our individual rocky terrains. I get that many kids come from places that do not set them up for success, but none of this should minimize each individual's personal experience.

Even if the camp goes down in flames today (please, no!)  it will still be a gift to me and all those present. Showing up despite our fears made it so.