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30-Day Journaling Challenge

Starting April 1, I’m running a 30-day journaling challenge that I’m calling The Resilience Journals. I am doing this because I am used to being in isolation. I had to separate myself after major surgery, and after chemo and radiation

What sustained me then and now is keeping a journal. Any act of creativity works, but journaling is simple, and doesn’t require a lot of space or time.

Journaling untangles my knots. It wakes me up to beauty. 

I don’t know how it works; it just does. 

I know a lot of you journal already. Some of you began your first journal in my English class when you were sixteen. I say we rediscover the practice. I want to invite you ALL to join me for the month of April. 

Let’s do something creative together, while apart.

It’s an antidote to fear. And a ladder to clarity. 

Turns out that this idea of a 30-day journal challenge is not mine alone. In a case of simultaneous discovery, one of my heroes (and a cancer survivor), Suleika Jaoud is also doing a 30-day journaling challenge. The reason I’m so late to launch this idea is that when I found out that she was doing it, I hesitated. I let my idea wilt. But today I realized that the brave over perfect move is to keep going. I can build a mini revolution WITH her by doing a challenge with you. It will be one steeped in creativity, and in resilience and resistance journaling!

Here’s how it works: 1-11 minutes of free-writing each morning. No rules. It starts today.

I’ll give you 7 prompts each week by email. Here’s the link to sign up to receive for FREE daily journal prompts!

I’ll also be posting prompts each day on Instagram (@susierinehart) and Facebook (Susie Rinehart Home of the Brave)

You do not need to share what you write. But send me pictures of your journal or anything you feel ready to share. I would also love it if you passed the idea forward and invited others to join. They’ll need to sign up for my newsletter at www.susierinehart.com to receive the prompts, or they can follow me on instagram (@susierinehart) or on Facebook: Susie Rinehart, Home of the Brave.

In creative solidarity, let’s write!

Love,

Susie

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Here’s the link to sign up to receive for FREE daily journal prompts!

When Will This Pandemic End? A Cancer Survivor’s Tips on Facing the Unknown

WHEN WILL THIS END? This is the question everyone is asking in light of the new CDC guidelines on the coronavirus pandemic lasting at least eight weeks. 

“Remember a flattened curve is longer. So the longer this takes, oddly, is a sign of success,” writes Juliette Kayyem, Harvard professor of international security, safety and resiliency.

We have to imagine that this is going to take a long, long time. 

The sooner we can accept our reality as the new normal rather than try to get back to the way things were, the more likely we are to thrive. 

“When you are in the life raft, it doesn’t help to wonder when you’re going to get back on the ship,” says my husband Kurt. “What helps is to look around the raft, see what you have, and get to work paddling.” (He adds: “You don’t want to be the one not paddling. You want to say to the people who are pointing out the sharks in the water, “I know there are sharks. Nevertheless, we must keep paddling.”)

To put it another way, if we focus on our new reality and take stock of what we have instead of what we don’t, we adapt quicker, and thrive faster, too.

As a cancer survivor, I have had to learn how to adjust to a new reality the hard way. When I was diagnosed in 2016 with a rare, skull-base tumor, my world came to a grinding halt. I had to quit my job, stop competing in ultramarathons, talk to my children about terminal illness, and cancel all plans for the future.

At first, we talked about “beating” this aggressive cancer. I would need skull surgery and a neck fusion, plus chemotherapy and radiation. Kurt and I wanted to fight it until it was behind us. The goal was to overcome this major obstacle and get back to our normal lives again.

The goal was motivating at first, but not for long. Soon it was frustrating. Every day that I wasn’t at work because I had to do treatments was a setback. Every morning that I wasn’t out training for a race felt like I was falling behind. The problem was my focus was on the past. 

What cancer survivors know is that you can’t ever go back to the way things were before. The key to happiness in a new reality is to look forward, not back. 

So we shifted our objective to face forward. The new goal was to accept my diagnosis and create an even better life than before. It didn’t do me any good to wonder when I would return to my life as a competitive ultrarunner, for example.

What felt good was stepping out of the victim chair and onto the creator stage. What helped was to ask, What can I make in this new universe? How can I help others? 

I created tools and habits that make it easier for me to focus on my new reality instead of dwelling on the loss of my old reality. You can read about 5 of my favorite tools for facing the unknown here.

I’ve even changed how I wake up. In the past I used to mentally run through my “to-do” list. Now I run through my “grateful-for” list while still in bed. Sometimes I can only think of one thing. Next I ask, What good can I do today? I think of one small gesture like checking in on a neighbor after breakfast. Before getting out of bed, I give my husband a kiss. 

I’m learning how to make home in my new life. I can count on two hands what I cannot do, or I can write ten pages of what I still can do. I choose to focus on what I can do. I do my 11-minute Face Fear First meditation, then I move into action mode. Or as my husband Kurt says, “I get to work paddling.” 

In this new life, I am not the person I used to be. I am much happier. This is not what I expected when the doctors gave me that scary diagnosis. A big part of the joy I feel comes from accepting my current situation and focusing on the new reality. 

I hear stories every day of how people around the world are doing this. Friends are gathering online for Tea Time or Happy Hour. Companies are shifting how they show up for their customers. Others are making Art and music. The Berkeley Music Circus is inviting us to step outside our door Wednesdays at noon to collectively sing and play any old instrument. 

It is possible to pivot and find peace during this pandemic. If I wake up afraid in the middle of the night, I use my SAFE tool, and go back to sleep. The world needs us to be fierce enough to see challenges as opportunities and to choose joy over fear.

Maybe the question to help us through the coronavirus pandemic isn’t “When will this end, so I can get back to real life? But “We don’t know when this will end, so how can I make a real life in this?”

Love,

Susie

***

photo credit: W+K Portland

 

5 Tools to Find Peace in a Pandemic

Where is there room for brave over perfect and joy over fear in a pandemic? 

To get through this, we need to get serious about two things: containing the disease and containing our fear about the disease. 

If we can learn to be more comfortable in the unknown and master the skill of managing our fears and our expectations, we can make decisions easier, pivot faster, and feel calmer.

Happiness “doesn’t depend on how things are going,” says neuroscientist Robb Rutledge of University College London. “It depends on whether things are going better or worse than you had expected they would.” (source: The Atlantic, 2014.)

I thought I’d share 5 of the tools that have been working for me to continually recover from fear and find peace in uncertainty, in case they are helpful to you, too. There are so many more tools I use, but I chose these because they seem particularly relevant to the pandemic and its impact on us and our kids. 

The only authority I have that these practices work is my experience. Right now that includes being immunosuppressed during a pandemic, living away from my family, having a rare form of cancer in my spine, undergoing chemotherapy, receiving radiation treatments, and not knowing if they are working until inflammation subsides and they scan me in…July.

I’ve been forced to get smarter about how I cope with rapidly changing, frightening times. I want to share with you what I’ve learned, so you don’t have to go through the above to learn these tools on your own. The brave over perfect, joy over fear revolution is about eliminating unnecessary suffering caused by our thoughts. It is also about helping us and our children get beyond disappointment and into creative, problem-solving mode quickly. 

  1. Face Fear on your schedule, not his. I wake up 11 minutes early to make time to face Fear. If I don’t, Fear wins all day. When it wakes me at night, I use my SAFE tool. But by rolling up my sleeves and staring Fear down first thing in the morning, I create space for other feelings, like gratitude and joy. Here’s what to do. Purposefully bring up scary thoughts. Then notice the physical sensations that those thoughts make you feel with the same amount of attention you would use if you had to describe them in detail to a doctor. For ex) Ask yourself: Where do I feel in my body, not my head, the thought that someone I love might get sick? What is the sensation’s texture, shape, weight, and intensity? Try not to push Fear away or replace the thought. Keep going. Where else do I feel it? What name might I give these sensations? Then shift gently to: What is one thing I could do today to lessen that fear? Next, with each breath, imagine exhaling light and space into each place of tension.  By using higher-level brain activities (focused attention and visualization), we take energy away from the fear center of the brain. What usually happens next is surprising. I don’t get stuck with the thought for long. My mind shifts on its own to things like, “I wonder what to eat for breakfast.” And the rest of the day, when I get triggered by something terrifying I just heard on the news, I remember to drop right into my body instead of staying in my head and manage the feeling from a place of calm attentiveness.
  2. Learn (and teach your kids) to Manage Expectations.This is from the amazing Julia Juster, who was trained in Success Counseling. When vacations are cancelled, big sports events erased, and almost everything kids look forward to (except maybe closing school) is now off the table for a disease that they haven’t even seen yet, it is hard to pivot. Our expectations often block our ability to get present and creative with what we CAN do now. Use these three simple questions to process the disappointment. Saying the answers out loud helps get to problem-solving quicker. Writing them down is even more effective. Ask yourself or your child, 1. What did you want to happen or expect to happen? 2. What happened instead? 3. How does that make you feel? (get granular: what is under the anger? Sadness, frustration, helplessness, confusion? 4.Then, move into problem-solving mode. For ex) Now that you can’t graduate on your college campus with all your classmates, what can you do to stay connected to them? How could you celebrate and honor this big moment differently, when you are all in different places? We get good at processing loss and pivoting if we first acknowledge our feelings, then train ourselves to be creators of our future instead of its victims.
  3. Find anchors to ground yourself and others. If your child or loved ones are feeling anxious, teach them the SAFE tool and the stress breath. Listen compassionately to their fears about the pandemic without trying to fix anything. Only after you’ve done that, give them this article (or tell them the main points) on 10 Reasons Why You Ought Not to Panic. My friend sent it to me and I was grateful for the fact-based way it gave me anchors to ground myself. Keep your eye out for things that ground you and then use them.
  4. Tame your tigers. Make two columns on paper. On the left side write one of your recurrent fears or “tigers”. Fill the left column first. Then, on the right side, write down at least one thing within your control that you could do to lessen that fear and tame that tiger. For ex) Left side: Fear of flying home on Friday in case I get sick from someone on the plane. Right side: Ask my doctor for a mask and gloves. Ask the airline if the plane isn’t full if I could sit alone due to a medical condition.
  5. Pay attention to signs of spring. Get outside more. Keep track of signs of spring on a list on the fridge or somewhere where everyone can contribute. Walk near water if you can, or up a mountain. Notice how much longer it is staying light. Hug a tree. (I am obsessed with trees and decided I’d try identifying the trees in the Boston Common. I cut twigs (almost got arrested) and keyed them out. Now the trees are budding and blooming and I can see if I was right! So fun. And then I discovered that the trees 100 feet away in the Public Garden are all labeled. I didn’t need to do all that work. Ha!) Spring happens fast: listen to how many new birds are singing now. Watch the people salsa dancing on the pier. Or eating their lunch outside. Notice that change is constant. And it can be beautiful.

These tools help me to remember that I am not in control. Then I focus on the one thing I can have some control over: how I choose to respond to disappointment and uncertainty.

I choose to respond by being brave enough to continually return to the present moment where I am safe, where I am resilient, where I trust I’ll make good decisions by collecting smart people all around me. And I know you will too.

Love,

Susie

***

An Ode to Girlfriends

An ode to girlfriends after a weekend with these beauties. I met Natasha as a toddler, then in 1983, we both met Teza, Alli, and Jill (not pictured) in middle school. We were twelve-year-old girls who didn’t yet know the words, “You can’t do that.” We have been there for each other ever since, making sure we never believe those words.

We were there when braces came off, when hearts were broken, when friends died, when others moved away. We were there, on the end of the phone line, to get the call that said, “I’m pregnant” and the call that said, “I lost the baby.” Now we are there for the ones that say “I’m scared!” and the ones that say, “I did it!” 

We’ll call to talk about raising children. We wonder if our kids will grow to be kind, to know their worth, to fight for truth and love over all else. We brainstorm ways to manage screens and anxiety. We used to cry about how tough it was to never have alone time, to always be needed by little hands. Now we sigh that we’re no longer needed. We call for advice on how to grow our universe beyond our children and how to leap confidently into the next stage of life. The answer seems to be more girlfriends! Connect deeply right where we live. Having great girlfriends means that we never face a challenge alone.

We celebrate each other’s birthdays and accomplishments with wine, sometimes tequila. And we always make space for delicious food and adventure. Natasha, Teza, Alli, Jill, and I live in five different places, two different countries, and yet we rally for one another, take three flights just to be there in hard times and in good. 

Our adventures together include nature and wildness. For years, as teenagers, when life felt too hemmed in, too sharp, too busy, we strapped a canoe to the top of the car and went calmly wild into the woods and waters. Over the years, we’ve gone kite-flying in Guatemala, sea-kayaking in Mexico, and surfing in the rain in British Columbia. During this recent reunion, we drove through winter weather to the ocean to watch the tides ebb and flow. Then we went on a midnight, ninja-like expedition to find firewood. Each time we set out into the unknown, Natasha drives, I navigate, Teza produces the adventure, and Alli is our safety and wellbeing advisor.

This weekend, during my treatments for a rare form of cancer, this group of warrior women came to cook for me, rub my feet, and say, “You’re stronger than you know.” With them at my side, I feel it. I always have. 

My girlfriends are my secret superpower, my very own justice league. The way I overcome is because we overcome together. 

***

SAFE: A Tool to Beat Fear and Get Back to Sleep

A few nights ago, I woke up at 3 a.m., convinced that the sciatic pain in my left leg meant I wouldn’t be able to walk the next day. It was not a real threat. But I couldn’t get back to sleep.

Why not get up and test my hypothesis? Well, it was freezing outside of my covers. And what if I tested it and found out I was right? That would be terrible. MUCH better to stay here, lose sleep, and spin in fear.

Wait! I have tools to deal with fear. I’ve been developing and improving them ever since my diagnosis in 2016. I gave one tool the acronym SAFE so I could remember it even when I’m half asleep. 

I want to share this tool SAFE with you in case you might be a wee bit afraid these days about your health or the safety of the planet or the safety of democracy or all three (like me).

This tool is different than other relaxation or distraction methods. It actually gets me beyond my fear by going through it. 

Our culture teaches us to avoid discomfort or distract ourselves from sadness, pain, and fear. But what if those aren’t “bad” feelings? What if we need them to connect to one another? What if understanding our own sorrow is a way to empathize with others and act with compassion? 

What if we walked toward fear with gentle skill, instead of pushing it away?

We cannot control pain and what happens to us. But we can control our suffering by using SAFE as a tool so that we can calmly go back to sleep and wake up with more energy to tackle our challenges. 

It begins with understanding the difference between pain and suffering. 

Pain is caused by circumstance. It’s the broken bone, broken home, or the broken heart. It’s the climate crisis or the political divisiveness. It’s an angry sciatic nerve. It’s also the human experience of feeling sick or lonely.

Suffering is caused by our fear-filled thoughts. It’s what we pile on top of pain with our stories about the end of the world, the end of life, or our unworthiness. It’s the voice of Fear that says, “This is bad. This will get worse. I am not doing enough to make it better. I am not enough.”

When we believe that our scared thoughts are real, we can get caught in fight, flight, or freeze mode. The danger response comes from the Amygdala, the oldest part of our brain. It cannot tell the difference between a perceived threat and a real one. It sounds the alarm anyway. And the thought that set off the alarm in the first place doesn’t respond to us wishing it away or shouting at it to leave. 

What helps is to name the voice of fear. I simply call my doomsday voice, “Fear” with a capital F. I picture her as a fancy woman in stiletto heels. She carries a red pen to cross out everything I write. Lately, I call the voice “Bo” as in “Bo-ring” because fear is universal. It is the most unoriginal thing about me. 

By naming our fear, we separate it from ourselves. “Got it, Bo. You think I won’t be able to walk tomorrow.” This simple step activates the more highly-evolved parts of our brain and we can shift into a calmer, more effective state of being.

What I’ve learned through my diagnosis and from listening to your stories of pain and resilience, is that we are not fragile. We can handle far more than we think. 

What makes us suffer is the thought that we are not safe. 

How can we let go of that thought? 

We don’t. We remember SAFE, and we practice the tool until the thought dissipates. It’s as if Fear gives up and lets go of us

There are four simple steps to this process I call SAFE. The first time, it takes 5-10 minutes. With practice, it takes less than 1 minute. The wisdom in SAFE comes from Kristen Neff’s work on Self-Compassion, Byron Katie’s “The Work”, the latest brain research, and one of the oldest Tibetan prayers. I am grateful for their guidance.

SAFE is:

Stop: Pause. Notice that you are suffering. And notice that right now, you are safe. Take a deep breath, hold it, count down from 5-4-3-2-1 then release it. Do this as many times as you need. Call your fear by name. Be gentle. Say, “Bo, I am safe. This sounds like fear, not truth.”

Ask: Question the thought. Challenge it. Is it really true? Is it guaranteed that I won’t walk tomorrow? Is it possible that I’m inflating this? What would a wise, rational friend say right now? Can I listen to that voice instead of Fear’s voice? Notice that the goal here is to engage with Fear by asking questions and coming up with alternative thoughts instead of just believing the one you’re stuck on.

Feel: Drop into your body and wiggle your toes. Find a part of your body that feels calm. Thank it. Then find another one. Thank it. Gratitude is a balm that soothes an overactive Amygdala. If your body is still in panic mode, go back to S for Stop and breathe. During the “Feel” step, the important thing is to drop out of your head and to focus on your body and the other 98% of you that is functioning beautifully and wants to sleep right now.

Empathize: Imagine someone you care about being awake at this hour, worried about leg pain, or ruining an important assignment, or their own lovability and worthiness. How would you treat them? Would you yell at them to get over it? Try treating yourself as gently as you would treat a person you care deeply about who is suffering. Then repeat this Tibetan Loving Kindness prayer for you and for as many others as you can imagine. Say: “May you be well. May you be happy. May you be at peace. May you be free from suffering.”

When you wake up, write down the scary thought or send it in a text to a friend. Something about writing it down loosens its grip on you even more. You’re not as likely to carry it around with you all day. I have a lot more to say about how writing can ease suffering. If you’re interested, let me know, and I’ll tell you more.

Look. There are plenty of reasons to feel scared right now. But the world doesn’t need us to spin in our thoughts and suffer. The world needs us to sleep and find some ease so we can tap into our powerful self and face challenges from that place. We are so much stronger than we know. 

Love,

Susie

P.S.) I am walking just fine. The sciatic nerve pain is even improving thanks to another mind-body tool I discovered. I’ll tell you more about it soon.

Photo credit: Piqsels/Storrelse

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Mini Retreat Highlights!

Here’s to the 10 brilliant, brave women who came to reset and refresh in my home this January. We found calm in the midst of chaos, uncovered what we desire, learned to say No, and wrote a letter to Fear so it can’t derail our clear vision in 2020.

My chair broke as I was explaining how to let go of things we cannot control!  #braveoverperfect

If you want to write your own letter to Fear, here’s one way to begin: Dear Fear, Thank you for trying to keep me safe. But in 2020, here is what I need to say to you…

When you’re done, put one line from that letter on a sticky note and keep it where you can see it.

Talk kindly back to Fear as often as possible and you will break through any obstacle in 2020!

Love, Susie

Let ‘Em Burn!

Have you ever noticed that we get to the end of a year and immediately race ahead to the next year, making goals and adding things to our plate? Our culture is hooked on New Year’s resolutions and improving ourselves. So we have to help each other Pause. Reflect. and Celebrate. Let’s focus on Look how far we’ve come, rather than Look how much we haven’t gotten done!  Remember: we can’t keep adding goals without letting go of things that aren’t working for us, first. 

That’s why we’ve started a new tradition among our family and friends. It’s called, Let ‘Em Burn.

On New Year’s Eve, we each write down three specific habits of mind that we want to leave behind us. Things like the fear that I’m not doing enough, the fear that everyone is getting ahead and I’m way behind, and the fear that it’s too late to change directions now. The kids write things like the fear that I’m too awkward, the fear that I don’t know what I want to do when I grow up, and the fear that Mom will make me read these out loud. (I don’t.) Then we burn the paper. The kids get their pyro fix and I get in a lot of trouble with the fire department. 

We do this because we place so many limitations on ourselves. And in my personal experience, we are capable of far more than we think. The other side of fear is freedom and joy.

The thing is, we can’t just burn fears and make them go away. What we can do when we burn them is loosen their grip on us. This works because of these three steps: 

1) Identify and name them all as “Fear” or “Chucky” or any name that works for you. It’s amazing how writing down what Fear actually says is all it takes to realize that it’s not true or even based on fact. We can then choose to listen and believe those words, or not.  

2) Talk back to Fear. Thank it for trying to protect us. It doesn’t work to yell at Fear to Go Away!  Try using a reassuring tone with genuine gratitude; it works to calm Fear down. The voice stops being so loud and frightening. It never goes away, but it’s not so bad.

3) Move forward anyway. There’s no such thing as being completely ready. Feel the Fear then choose to be brave and take one tiny step forward. Then another. Then another. We can cover a lot of treacherous ground that way. And we are better for it. Or at least a lot more interesting. 

So. Pause. Reflect. Celebrate. Then strike a match and Let “Em Burn!

There is strength in talking back to Fear. 

There is power in letting go.

And there is joy in choosing to be brave over perfect. 

Happy 2020 brave ones!

Love,

Susie

***

I’m baaack coaching and speaking again! I’d love to help you thrive and burn off the limitations holding you back in life. I’ve also crafted a 45-min keynote on how people and organizations can thrive in turbulent times. Do you know an organization or conference that needs this message? Get in touch with me.

She might be the most powerful woman in the world

Our daughter Hazel is 14 today. It is also Día de Guadalupe. I am republishing this blog about Guadalupe, and the strength of women around the world in her honor!

Hazel’s birthday falls on the same day Mexicans celebrate the Virgin Mary, whom they lovingly call La Virgen de Guadalupe. It’s an important day in Mexico; Pilgrimages, parades, and dazzling fireworks are common and abundant. Hazel has adopted it as her own holiday. Every year, we join the large, hispanic congregation in the Catholic church to dance and sing at sunrise to celebrate this powerful woman.

I wake Hazel up at four thirty. She crawls out of bed and puts on her jacket and snow boots. We walk hand in hand, in the middle of the street, through the darkness, to the church a few blocks away. When she was younger, I wrapped her in a sleeping bag and carried her. One year, I pulled her in a sled through the heavy snow.

The legend goes that Guadalupe appeared to Juan Diego in rural Mexico in 1531, at sunrise. When the bishop didn’t believe the story that this powerful woman would appear to a poor native, Diego unfolded his cloak. Rose petals scattered on the floor, revealing a clear image of la Virgen, a young woman in a mantle made of stars, surrounded by light. Ever since then, Mexicans trust that they are under the Virgin Mary’s special protection.

Hazel and I walk in silence, watching the snow sparkle under the streetlights. Everything else is dark. I lead the way past the middle school and to the top of the hill. Then as soon as we crest the hill, we hear the drumbeat, a steady boom boom boom cutting through the icy darkness. Hazel takes the lead and runs toward the dancers and music.
At the church, it feels like Hazel and I have gone through the back of a wardrobe and into a different world; one full of bright colors, lights, and the music of drums and accordions. Parking attendants do their best to find places for the steady river of Chevy pick-up trucks. Grown men parade in through the doors and kneel to pray, wearing white jackets with sequined images of Guadalupe on the back. As soon as we sit down, children and teenagers in beaded costumes dance down the center aisle, shaking the leg rattles attached to their ankles. Hazel and I try to count the number of people awake before dawn, filling the church. Five hundred people? Four hundred, at least.

Long ago, when I am pregnant with Hazel, I go into a used furniture store looking for a bed and come home with a painting. It is a very large portrait of Guadalupe wearing a blue cape covered in stars and surrounded by golden light. I buy it. I don’t know why. I am drawn to her calm beauty and the fact that she is a young woman.

At home, I hang the painting over the hallway in our apartment. As I do laundry or try to reason with Cole, our toddler, I talk to Guadalupe, “Can you give me a hand through bedtime? Or I may start drinking heavily and that would be bad for the baby.” At the time, Kurt is living two hours away, on a job that involves tracking wildlife, while I am the assistant director at a residential school in Vermont. I am alone at home, responsible for our two year old boy and the twelve teenage boys who live directly above me, in one of the five dormitories on campus.

As my due date comes and goes without any sign of having this baby, I talk to Guadalupe nightly. It is as if she is on the other end of a phone line. I beg, “What is the baby waiting for? Can you make her come out, NOW?” When a week goes by and still no sign of labor, I say, “I’m scared. What if this baby isn’t healthy? I don’t know if I can handle that.” She just listens quietly. In my world of toddlers and teenagers, it feels good to talk to an adult, even if she is a painting. At a time when I am feeling alone and unsure, Guadalupe’s mature, female energy is welcome. To me, she represents deep love and faith in the unknown.

My water breaks during a dorm meeting. I stand up to say goodnight to the boys and water pours out of me onto the floor. The boys panic. Teenage boys panicking doesn’t look like much. There is a rare moment of silence, then everyone runs away. One boy, Jake, is sweet enough to walk me down the stairs to my apartment. But he keeps muttering, “I don’t know how to deliver a baby. I don’t know how to deliver a baby.” I call Kurt. He drives two hours home through a snowstorm and we make it to the hospital just in time.
Hazel is born early in the morning on December twelfth. She comes out screaming. Minutes after she is born, I discover that it is Guadalupe Day. I watch the sunrise pink through the window and sing to this tiny baby to soothe her. I picture the rays of light reaching out from Guadalupe and surrounding Hazel with protection.

Then my dear friend Teza calls from Collingwood, Ontario. We were pregnant at the same time, but my due date was two weeks before today and hers was a week after.
Teza says, “It’s a girl!”
“I know!” I say back, confused, thinking that she is calling to congratulate me.
But she is announcing the birth of her own daughter. What are the odds of best friends having their daughters on the same day, and not just any day, but the one devoted to Guadalupe?

I want to know more about the Virgin Mary, so I read up on her while I nurse. It surprises me to learn that Muslim men and women are as devoted to her as Catholics. She is the only woman mentioned by name in the Koran. In fact, her name appears more in the Koran than in the New Testament. It’s not unusual to see young Muslim women in hijab visiting the Virgin Mary at Christian shrines, for example. Muslim and Christian, men and women alike, speak of the Virgin’s resilience and her example of love. Hazel, and Teza’s daughter, Rozlyn, are in good hands. The Virgin Mary might be the most powerful woman in the world, a true force for unity and peace.

When I received the tumor diagnosis, I prayed awkwardly to Guadalupe for help. But this is not the story of how I prayed to Guadalupe before labor, and again before my surgeries and promised that I would go to church every week if I came out alive. No, this is the story of how I am living each day as though I may die tomorrow and therefore I am no longer afraid to say I believe in Guadalupe. Before, when I talked to the painting, I was too chicken to tell anyone that I prayed to Guadalupe. I assumed my friends would smile politely, but never speak to me again.

I am not afraid anymore. Why hide it? What I’ve learned throughout these challenging months is that it is silly to hold back love. I still don’t know where I belong spiritually; I have shopped for the right church/temple/sangha/mosque for years. But I do know that I can easily, without effort or artifice, kneel before the divine presence of the Virgin Mary. She is a woman who stands for love. She is for all people, no matter their background or religion. Her compassionate gaze doesn’t suggest that one way is the only way, but instead finds room for all of our beautiful brokenness.

This morning, Hazel and I stay in the church to watch the dancing, and the offering of candlelight and flowers. We also stay for the singing. We watch the mothers next to us bring their bundles of roses to the front. They lay them at the statue of Guadalupe’s feet and show their babies the candlelight. They return to the pew. We stand together, women and girls. One woman gives me a big smile because now even I am singing! Hazel laughs, but I keep singing. It feels easier, lighter than before. I let go of fear, and make room for joy.

Love,

Susie

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I’m baaack coaching and speaking again! I’d love to help you thrive and let go of the fear standing in your way of being powerful. I’ve also crafted a 45-min keynote on how people and organizations can let go of perfectionism and thrive in turbulent times. Do you know an organization or conference that needs this message? Get in touch with me.

How Do You Stand Back Up When You’re Down?

This week we received the heartbreaking news that our son’s best friend, Joaquin, a 16-year-old boy, is not cured of cancer. It has come back. It’s been less than a year since he finished treatments. 

The ground fell away.

Rage stirred inside me. I was angry that this disease isn’t gone from his young body. Had he not endured enough? I was also angry that the disease isn’t gone from my body. This recurrence brought up feelings about my own diagnosis and recurrence. I felt dropped into a hole. 

Mostly, I was feeling this boy’s pain of having to stand back up and face the steep climb of treatment and its exhausting, vomit-filled isolation. Once you’ve done it, you never want to do it again. 

There’s a smaller, but similar feeling, in ultramarathons.

In ultra running, the races are designed to test your mental strength as much as your physical endurance. It’s not uncommon to run up a 12,000 foot mountain pass, crest the summit, run down the other side, then you have to turn around and run back up the mountain. 

The moment when you understand that you must run back up the mountain is soul crushing. You are no longer innocent. You remember the lung-bruising climb and you just don’t want to do it again. You will do anything to avoid going back up that mountain. It’s not unusual that many drop out of the race at this point. 

One time, while racing in an ultramarathon, I insisted on lying down on a bed of rocks instead of climbing back up the mountain. I convinced myself it was a great place to spend the night. But it was only eleven o’clock in the morning. 

Just as I was about to curl up with the rocks on the wet ground, two race volunteers dressed as sunflowers jumped out from behind a tree. They handed me a chocolate chip cookie and a sports drink. They sang to me. I don’t remember what they were singing, but their songs and snacks got me to my feet. When I stood up, they cheered for me like I was a champion, not just someone who had avoided self-induced hypothermia. I walked up the trail. Gradually the walk turned into a run.

There were switchbacks that made the ascent a whole lot easier than I remembered. I finished the race. I might still be back there on that bed of rocks if it hadn’t been for those race volunteers, people who believed in me. Their kindness and cookies helped me to put one foot in front of the other. 

The feeling reminds me of something a former student at the Mountain School, Abby, wrote to me after my diagnosis.

“I have taken up Olympic weightlifting. There’s a point when you’re at the bottom of a lift, when the weight seems heaviest. It’s called “the hole.” When you’re in the hole, it seems impossible to stand up. My thought when I am in the hole is, “If I can stand up, I will be stronger for it.

To stand up out of the hole, it takes faith that you are capable of far more than you think. But at first you need others to do the work of believing in you. It takes friends.

Here’s to friends who show up with cookies and kindness, and other friends who bring soup and bread, spinach and eggs. Friends who send letters and warm shawls. Friends who show up with empty hands, best for hugging. Friends who offer a shoulder to lean on or even a baseball bat and a trash can to beat up. 

When I ask Joaquin and his family, How do you want to live now? They say something like,

We defend happiness. We race go-karts and play in the snow. We go out to dinner with loved ones. We fill each moment with fun, love, and light.

This is how they stand back up. I know of no better way to live.

You can’t do it alone. But you’ve got to stand back up. You will be stronger for it.  

Love,

Susie

image credit: Eirik Refsdal, Flickr

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I’m baaack coaching and speaking again! I’d love to help you thrive and stand back up after setbacks in your life. I’ve also crafted a 45-min keynote on how people and organizations can thrive in turbulent times. Do you know an organization or conference that needs this message? Get in touch with me.

    

The Beauty of Sometimes

Have you ever thought about the beauty of the word sometimes

Sometimes is a great word. It’s so much more honest than always or never

I know this because black-or-white thinking is one of my not-so-super superpowers. “So & So is an asshole.” “I’m a total success.” “I’m a complete failure.”

It seems like extreme thinking is a teenager’s superpower too. Just last night, I overheard the following examples from our teenagers at home, “I totally failed that test.” “I’m always awkward around other people.” “I never know what to say.” “I’m an idiot.”

It made me wonder, Is our tendency to exaggerate making us feel sad and stuck? If we were more honest with our words, could we be happier?  

In Lori Gottlieb’s book, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, there is a single paragraph about the word sometimes that I’ve been savoring like the last ripe berries of the season. 

Gottlieb writes, “[The word] sometimes evens us out, keeps us in the middle rather than dangling on one end of the spectrum or the other, hanging on for dear life…It helps us escape the tyranny of black-or-white thinking.”

Our brains are wired to remember the negatives more aggressively than the positives. We may feel like we are always blowing it, but the truth is we are crushing it more often than we think. So now I’m teaching the teens in our home to try it (complete with eye rolls).

“I’m awkward, sometimes.” 

“I don’t know what to say, sometimes.”

“I act like an idiot, sometimes.

I’ve been practicing as well. It works like an alarm to wake me up from catastrophic thinking. 

“I succeed sometimes.”

“I fail sometimes.”

“So & so is an asshole, sometimes.”

The little word “sometimes” that I may have judged before to be too average and dull now keeps me from falling off the cliff of extremes. There’s relief knowing it’s not always or never

It’s a simple way to build compassion in the world for ourselves and for others. “Sometimes” is also a tool to stop beating ourselves up so we can show up real. Because we want to show up whole and human, always.

Love,

Susie

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I’m baaack coaching and speaking again! I’d love to help you thrive amidst all the unexpected changes in your life. I’ve also crafted a 45-min keynote on how people and organizations can thrive in turbulent times. Do you know an organization or conference that needs this message? Get in touch with me.