Sunday, January 14, 2018

Is Rain a Treat or an Annoyance for You?

Mara here:

It's been raining for a couple of days and, in Southern California, rain is always welcomed.

Don't get me wrong, it's problematic in many ways. People in Los Angeles do not know how to drive in the rain. The roads get dangerously slick from built up oil, yet people refuse to slow down to accommodate the slippery roads.

There also seems to be no functioning water drainage in most of the city, so after about a minute of rain all the intersections are flooded in at least a foot of water.

But we need the rain. And after the awful fires we recently had, we desperately needed the rain to clear away the residual ash that covered everything. (Unfortunately, it's also led to deadly mudslides in some of the fire zones.)

That said, the fact is: rain makes me happy. I love rain. I love cloudy weather. I love the mysterious dark tinge to the skies. I love the smell of the moist air. I love the feel of raindrops. I love way the filtered light changes the colors of the trees and the flowers. I love the cool temperature.

Yes, I love rainy weather.

But some people hate it. Some people want only sunshine. Some people love to feel the heat. For some people, cloudy skies make them depressed, or rain means that they won't be able to do whatever outside activity they had planned.

I suppose because I've lived in California most of my life, I have the luxury to love the rain. We don't get it that often, so it's not something that regularly disrupts our lives.

And for the that same reason, rain has always been a special treat to me. I'm sure if I lived in an area where it rained a lot I wouldn't find it as charming. I will admit that trying to load a cart full of groceries into my car in the rain is not a treat. And having to bring the garbage cans up from the curb in the rain is not a treat. And getting mail and packages that are soggy and sometimes damaged is not a treat.

But, for me, jogging in the rain is a treat. And being curled up in bed, listening to the sounds of the raindrops tapping against the window is a treat. And seeing flowers covered in raindrops is a treat. And being able to throw on a fluffy sweater and pull on my rain boots is a treat.

For me, the rain is soothing; it's calming. In fact, even though I know the science of weather and why it rains, I can't help but feel that water (or snow for the few times I've experienced it) falling from the sky is a miracle.

Again, before you roll your eyes at me because I sound ridiculous, remember it only rains a couple of times a year where I live. Mostly we're plagued with drought. And, although the sunny skies of Southern California are beautiful and make things easy, it does start to feel monotonous after a while. All the days feel the same.

But rain feels so different. And because it's something different for our area, it always reminds me that life isn't the same for very long. And it's not predictable. And even when the rain is inconvenient, it's a reminder that I don't control the world around me. So I try to sit back and enjoy it.

And when I'm particularly lucky and have nothing imperative planned on a day that it's raining, the rain gives me an excuse to treat myself to a couple of hours curled up in a comforter to watch a movie, cozy in bed. In those moments, I appreciate the warmth and protection of my house. I open the blinds so I can see the rain as it hits the magnolia tree outside my window. The cats often keep me company, fascinated by the drops of water as they trickle down the window.

Toni here:

Once again, my answer to the question posed in the title of this piece has been affected by being chronically ill and mostly housebound for over 16 years. Before that, rain was a necessary annoyance to me. Now I love it. My days are so much the same that rain is a special treat—just like it is for Mara—even though we get more rain in northern California than she does in southern California.

If I'm not too sick on a rainy day, I'll even bundle up and take an umbrella into the backyard, sit in a chair and throw the ball for my dog (using one of those Chuck-Its). I never would have done that when I was healthy! But now, I love the sound of the rain on the umbrella and, like Mara, I love the smell of the moist air, and the dark sky and the way the rain changes the colors of the trees in my yard. It may sound silly, but sitting out in back in the rain is like going to a movie for me!

So what about you? Do you love the rain like Mara and I do? Or do you prefer the sun?

Picture of Mara trying to jog across a rain flooded intersection near her house.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

When Old Things Become New Again

Mara here:

It's 2018. Honestly, it still feels like 2017. I'm not sure when the transition happens, but at some point I settle into the idea of it being a new year. I'm not there yet.

During the holidays, everyone in my immediate family had some time off. My daughter had three weeks off school, and my husband, who works for Sony Pictures Entertainment, had the week off between Christmas and New Year's.

Holiday breaks are always a weird combination of chaos and quiet. Schedules and routines get disrupted and there's the hustle and bustle of family visits and holiday obligations. But there's also time for people to do things they don't have time to do when there's work and school.

For my husband, his normal "extra time" activity is reading. But he's also rediscovered video games. We've had various game systems over the years, but they generally sat unused. More recently, he's been playing again with more regularity. I think he's enjoying the total distraction that the games provide.

Over the break from school, my daughter rediscovered Harry Potter. She read all the books when she was in elementary school, but was never a huge fan of the series. This past week, HBO showed a back-to-back marathon of all the movies, and she spent the day in bed watching them and is now re-reading the books. It's been a nice way for her relax and recover from her very stressful academic schedule. And it's fun to see her appreciate the creativity of the Harry Potter world and the relationships in the stories in a new way now that she's older.

For me, I've gone back to ballet class. Returning to dance after several years of not taking any classes—not even exercise classes—has been physically and mentally challenging.

For most of my life, I've taken dance classes regularly. At times, I danced for up to eight hours a day. From the time Malia was two up until the time she was twelve, I took ballet 4-5 times a week, and even popped into a jazz class or a hip hop class for fun. And when I didn't dance as much, I'd stayed active at a gym or by jogging outside. 

But then, as happens with life, everything got very busy.

My daughter's travel schedule associated with her acting made any kind of regular exercise routine difficult. And for me, routine is important. I need routines for exercise and also just for getting through my daily life. I need the familiarity of knowing what to expect. So the years of traveling with schedules that were very unpredictable shredded my nerves. 

When her acting commitments no longer required traveling, mentally I struggled to regain a sense routine for myself. I had gained a lot of weight and just couldn't push myself to start moving again. I was mentally and physically stagnant. Finally, about a year ago, I started jogging again. I was determined at least to build up some stamina and be a little more active.

I was also regularly teaching ballet, even though I wasn't doing much dancing myself. I'd give short demonstrations or illustrate marking exercises, which sort of felt like dancing, but wasn't really. But that time in the dance room, watching the students and making corrections, kept me connected to dance just enough for me to not feel as if I was completely missing out.

But about six months ago, I stopped teaching. After a couple months of not being connected to dance at all, I realized how much I missed it. I missed the feel of the dance room. I missed the music. I missed the dancing.

So I thought about going back to class.

Then I dismissed that thought.

But the thought would keep popping back into my head. I would try to push it away, but I couldn't get rid of it.

So finally, about a month ago, I worked up the courage to go to a ballet class. I'm in my 40s now, and returning to a dance class after almost three years of not taking any classes turned out to be an interesting experience!

For starters, I'm taking the class in Los Angeles at one of the "hippest" dance studios in the city. What this means is that I am in class with a lot of young, hip, kids. Honestly, they look like babies with really long legs.

You might wonder why it would be hard to take a ballet class since it hadn't been that long since I'd been teaching it regularly. The thing is, teaching a dance class is very different from taking one. You can teach a dance class without moving much. I generally demonstrate more than a lot of teachers, but it's still not anything like taking a 90 minutes class full out. That's why you always see the stereotypical "old crone" ballet teacher, walking around hitting kids with their canes.

Teaching dance is about being able to communicate corrections. It's about being able to see movement and explain to dancers how to create it. Teachers who can also demonstrate what they're talking about are great. But it's not necessary. There are lots of teachers, like me, who because of age and injury, find it hard to dance.

And the age thing is no joke. Let's just say my body is not the same body it was 15 years ago—which was the last time I returned to dancing after an extended break.

This time, returning to dance, I'm realizing that I don't think I will ever get back to the same level of skill I think of myself as having. I used to always think, "I'll get back into shape," meaning back to the shape I was previously. 

I have no such expectation now.

Various injuries have permanently limited some of my range of motion. And mentally, I'm just not as ambitious as I used to be. Being one of the best in the room used to be very important to me. Now, I just enjoy the experience of the class. I love dancing and I enjoy working on the things I know I need to work on.

But I know I'll never be the same bouncy 20 year old I once was.

I'm sure I could work hard for multiple hours a day for weeks and months and years and get myself back into very good shape. But it would be very good shape for a 40+ year old who doesn't have ambition anymore to be a dancer for anyone but herself.

And there's no reason for me to do that to myself. I'm not planning on dancing professionally again. I don't have anything to prove to anyone.

So I'm rediscovering ballet class. In many ways I'm trying to approach it as if I'm starting new. Because the reasons I'm dancing and the enjoyment I get from taking class are all new.

It's a nice way to start a new year. It's been a nice reminder that pleasures don't always come from "new" things. It's good to remember that there are many different ways we can interpret our experiences.

Here are some questions I asked my mom about rediscovering old pleasures.

I'm sure you've had a lot of experience rediscovering how to enjoy things now that your life is more limited by illness. Can you provide some examples of how you were able to experience things in a new way?

Sometimes circumstances force us to take up activities that we put aside years ago. For me, those circumstances have been becoming mostly housebound by chronic illness. It led me to take up several activities I'd engaged in years ago when I was home, raising you and your brother—before I went to law school and then became a teacher and spent most of my days outside the house.

For example, I rediscovered crochet and also embroidery. And I have, as you mentioned, experienced them in a new way and that's made them fresh for me. For example, instead of following instructions, I've taken to working "freeform" as it's called. I'll post a picture at the end of the blog of one of my freeform embroideries. It's been a great creative outlet for me!

Do you have advice for people who are interested in renewing their enjoyment in activities they've lost pleasure in?

Yes, I'd advise doing what I've done—try doing the activity in a new way. It's not hard to find new ways to do things because there's an incredible amount of information on the internet. I've learned so much just by watching YouTube videos on embroidery, fabric art, and freeform crochet. I don't copy what I find but other people's work and instructions become the inspiration for trying something in a new way.

An undersea scene by Toni

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Goodbye 2017, Hello 2018

Mara here:

Well, it's that time of the year again. It's hard to believe that this blog has existed for over a year, but here we still are! Thanks to all the readers who have come along on this journey with us over this past year.

A quick housekeeping note: starting in 2018, we are only going to be posting once a week. When we first started the blog, we wanted to make sure there was enough content for people to look back on. Now that it's been a year and we have well over 100 posts, we're going to scale back and only post once a week.

Another more fun announcement is that my mom has a new edition of her book, How to Be Sick, coming out in 2018. So we will have some fun posts about the updated and revised version of the original book that started this whole crazy adventure.

But back to the topic of the post: end of the year. Last year, we shared some light-hearted resolutions—resolutions that we didn't think we would stick to. (I actually stuck to a couple of mine. I only wear my fuzzy pants to jog in now!) 

This year, I thought it might be nice to reflect back on some of the things I'm grateful for from 2017.

For me, 2017 was a bit of a doozy. There were a lot of challenges. There were injuries, mental anxieties, car accidents, missed opportunities—lots of changes.

But there was also so much that I am grateful for.

There are the obvious things: losing weight, going on vacation, my daughter's excellent grades, etc. As always, I am grateful for my husband, Brad, without whom I would literally not be able to survive this crazy world. And I am so grateful for my daughter. She is the brightest of lights in my life.

And of course, I have to mention my parents who are the best. I don't know how else to describe them.

But really what sticks out to me this year is that I feel as if I'm finally coming to terms with accepting who I am. And I'm finally able to understand what's important to me—what makes me feel good.

Part of the challenge of 2017 for me was finally letting go of trying to control my life. That's not to say that I don't have influence over what happens. But I am slowly learning how to let go of trying to desperately force into actuality my pre-conceived notions of how I think my life "should be." 

Does that make sense?

I feel as if for much of my life, I had a mental picture of what a "good life" is, and then I set about to try to make that picture into a reality, but the discord between what I imagined and what was actually happening to me led to a lot of frustration, confusion, and sometimes pain.

But I think I'm finally learning how to truly see—to see with my heart and with my mind's eye. I'm finally understanding better what is real and how I can deal with reality, instead of blindly ignoring what's real and fighting for what turns out to be illusion.

It might all sound a bit fuzzy, but that's because it still is a bit fuzzy for me. I don't know how I feel about all the changes I'm experiencing. And I'm not sure what the end result will be, if there ever really is an "end."

But I feel as if I'm on the right path. I feel as if I'm experiencing more truth than I have before. I feel as if I'm open to more truth than I have been before. And because of that, I'm able to allow myself to feel happiness. I still feel sadness and anxiety. But for the first time in many years, I'm feeling happiness again. Not just feeling manic giddiness or excitement over a temporary success. But I'm feeling real happiness—a peaceful feeling of goodwill. And I'm feeling happiness not just for myself, but I'm feeling it for people around me as well.

And it feels a bit miraculous.

And, for that, I am truly grateful.

As I look toward 2018, I don't feel anticipation the same way I have in past years. I am trying not to have expectations. In 2018, I am going to try and have an open mind and heart. I will be open and grateful for the good that comes. And I will be open and accepting of the bad that comes.

And from the bottom of my heart, with as much grace and sincerity as I possess, I wish you all happiness in the coming year.


Toni here:

Wow. It's hard for me to write something after reading Mara's piece. It so honest and so full of hope. It filled my heart with joy to read. It's definitely a hard act to follow, so I thought what I'd do would be to look back at that post from a year ago and see what happened to those New Year's resolutions I made. There were three of them.

First, I actually had the guts to resolve that I'd stop complaining! I said it felt unpleasant and rarely got me what I wanted (both true). Well, guess what? I complained in 2017. If anyone reading this did not complain this year, you have my undying respect!

Second, I resolved to drink two quarts of water everyday, although I admitted that I make this resolution every year but don't keep it. Well, I didn't keep it this year either, but I did drink ONE quart of water every day. That was a definite improvement!

This, I resolved this: "I will go through each room in the house and give half its contents to Goodwill." To my utter surprise, I pretty much did this in 2017. Yay for me! Not everything went to Goodwill—books went to our local library and some things I gave away through a local "Buy and sell" Facebook group (I put a note up about a free convertible sofa and had over 100 people wanting it...there's a lot of need out there). 

I have to admit that one reason I kept this resolution is that my husband and I have to do some drastic downsizing because we're planning to move to a small apartment in the near future. That said, it was freeing to get rid of so many things, and I loved those moments when I'd be going through a drawer and suddenly I'd see a treasured photograph I gazed upon for years.

I haven't made any New Year's resolutions for 2018, but thought, for inspiration, I'd share a piece I wrote in 2011 when I first started writing for Psychology Today: "New Year's Resolutions the Buddha Might Have Made." I re-read it myself every year. 

Mara and I wish the happiest of New Years to you all!

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

What is the Most Unexpected Present You Ever Received?

Mara here:

We hope all our readers who celebrate Christmas had a wonderful day. My family had a great time, aside from the fact that we are all suffering from a bit of a cold. We spent the day eating lots of sugary and fatty food and blowing our noses.

But as I sat in our living room, watching my husband and daughter open presents, my mind drifted back over the years of gifts I've given and received. And there's one present I received for Christmas about twenty years ago that always sticks out in my memories. You might assume it's a fancy piece of jewelry or a pet, something that made a lasting impact on my life.

Um, no.

It was a Star Trek uniform.

Now, if you know anything about me, you know that I'm not a "Trekkie." I have enjoyed a Star Trek movie here and there, but I can't name all the characters, I don't know names of the different incarnations of the television series's.

Most importantly, if you know anything about me, you would know that even if I was a Trekkie and knew all the information there is to know about Star Trek, you would know I'd never do anything with a Star Trek uniform. I don't go to Comic Con or Trekkie Conventions. And even if I did go to those conventions, I would never dress up in a costume.

Now here's the thing. I wasn't mad about getting the uniform. I would never be mad about any present anyone gave me. In fact, I thought it was pretty funny when I opened the gift. The man who gave it to me was very sweet, but a little odd. He definitely lived his life to his own drumbeat. I don't want to embarrass anyone, so I'm not going to name names. For this article, I'll just call him "Friend." And I'm confident he doesn't read this blog or I would never repeat this story, because while he was an odd guy, he was very sweet. I would never want to hurt his feelings.

So Friend was looking on with great expectation as he handed me my present. I peeled off the wrapping paper as he watched intently. And when I got the item unwrapped and saw it was a Star Trek costume, I was so confused that it didn't even occur to me to hide the look of complete surprise and confusion that surely came across my face. It was one of those pure moments of total surprise.

I might have even started laughing.

But Friend was so sincere in his enjoyment of giving me the uniform. He very earnestly explained that he could tell last year when he had given Brad a Star Trek uniform that he saw the disappointment in my eyes, and knew that I had wished I had one too.

Yes, you heard that right. The previous Christmas he had given Brad a Star Trek uniform as well.

Brad's made a tiny bit more sense. I mean, don't get me wrong; it was completely random that he gave Brad a costume, but at least Brad was more of a Star Trek fan. But, like me, if you know Brad, he's really not a dress-up-for-the-premiere-of-a-Star-Trek-movie kind of guy.

But Friend definitely saw the world through different lenses, and he had interpreted my complete and giddy hysterics at watching Brad open his Star Trek uniform, as envy. I remember being unable to stop laughing.

Friend must have remembered it differently, and went out and found me a matching costume so I could share in the enjoyment of Star Trek uniform ownership.

Brad and I still laugh about this story. It was one of those moments where you simply could not have expected it, nor will it ever be repeated. And the thing is that the Star Trek uniforms were given with so much love that it was impossible to do anything but thank him and tell him how much we loved them.

Toni here:

This one's easy for me, Mara. I kept a diary for the first few months after you joined our family from Korea. I wrote it out in a cheap notebook almost every day. One Christmas, your dad had it made into a book—typed and with lots of photos of you and the whole family. He had three of them made—one for me, one for you, and one for your brother. It was the most unexpected present I've ever a mile. I treasure it to this day.

So what about you? Do you have memories of unexpected gifts you've received?

Sunday, December 24, 2017

All It Takes Is a Few Seconds of Bravery

Mara here:

I had to go to the dentist a couple of weeks ago. I hate the dentist. The dentist and I have a not so great history.

I have very weak teeth. I've been told that malnourishment when I was an infant in Korea is probably the reason my baby and adult teeth never formed correctly. My enamel is weak. I remember going to a check up at the dentist when I was a child and being told I had eight cavities. EIGHT.

My adult teeth have not been much better. It hasn't helped that after a childhood of many painful visits to the dentist, I have an extreme aversion to going to the dentist. I just don't do it unless I absolutely have to. I once went a decade without going. And then things went very badly for me.

One year, I had abscess in a tooth while I was on a train between New York City and Washington DC. A few years ago, the root of one of my teeth snapped in half and it needed to be pulled. Most of my teeth have fillings, and at least half of my molars have had root canals.

Last year, I actually had three teeth crumble, literally, out of my mouth. I was spitting out pieces of teeth that had broken. In my complete inability to deal with what was happening, I would simply put the pieces of tooth down around the house—on the mantle, on my desk, on my dresser. I found a piece a couple weeks ago tucked away in a box that I keep my daily medications in.

If this sounds bizarre, it's because it is.

All my life, I've had a recurring nightmare about teeth crumbling out of my mouth, and now it was literally happening. It felt surreal.

So last year, when I spit out a large piece of tooth, I knew I had to go to the dentist. But I really didn't want to. In fact, every cell in my body was screaming at me to simply just ignore it. There wasn't pain, but I had a large piece of a tooth in my palm that was supposed to be in my mouth. Even though there was surprisingly no pain from the broken tooth, I knew I needed to get my mouth looked at. But I was afraid. I was afraid to go to the dentist. 

My fear of having to go to the dentist was so overwhelming that I spent a couple of days pacing around the house wondering if I could simply just not go. 

After years of neglect, it's hard to go to a dentist and explain why a person, who looks at first glance like a relatively responsible well taken care of person, has teeth falling out of her mouth.

But I knew it had to be done. I could tell there were problems with multiple teeth. It had been three years since my last visit to the dentist and there had been follow-up work from that visit that I had simply, well, not followed-up on.

So I stared at the phone. I hate the phone. I hate the dentist. Nothing about the situation was good.

There's a movie I saw a few years ago called We Bought A Zoo. It's based on the book of the same name by Benjamin Mee about how he bought a zoo, while raising his two kids after the death of his wife. The story is cute and the movie is charming to watch. It stars Matt Damon and the little girl who plays his daughter is ridiculously cute. But what I remember most about the movie is something that the character Benjamin says to his teenage son. They're discussing life and love, and Benjamin is trying to encourage his son to be brave. He says, “You know, sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.”

And that idea, that sometimes to accomplish great things, we simply need a moment of insane courage, really stuck with me. Sometimes we have to do something quickly, ignoring any doubts, in the moment, to get the ball rolling.

And for me, last Fall, that moment was picking up the phone and making a call to the dentist.

It probably sounds silly to some people that calling the dentist would elicit such a reaction. But it does for me. So with my heart thumping and fears of pain and concern about the expense of the treatments flying through my head, I took a deep breath and called the dentist to make an appointment.

The whole phone call took a couple of minutes. And once it was done, it was done. There was no going back. And once I have the ball rolling, I'm fine with the process of going to the dentist and getting the work done.

All in all, in a month, I had seven appointments with my dentist, spent fours straight hours at the endodontist getting two root canals, and ended up with three crowns. I dutifully went in and endured hours and hours of discomfort. It cost us over $3000 out-of-pocket (our insurance covered an additional $3000).

But I survived.

So a couple of weeks ago when I got the reminder from the dentist that it was time to come in for a checkup, the memories of last Fall were fresh in my mind. I ignored the first email. I simply deleted it.

When the second reminder email came, I knew I needed to do the right thing and make an appointment. I could feel there was something wrong with one of my teeth, and I didn't want to wait until crumbled out of my mouth to do something about it.

After looking at the reminder email sit in my inbox for a few days, one morning I impulsively pushed aside my fears, grabbed my phone and made the call. It took less than a minute, just a handful of brave seconds. And it was done. 

There are so many things I can think of where it only takes those few seconds of bravery to make things happen. It can be right before telling someone you love them for the first time, or hitting send on an email about job. It can be that moment right before the nurse gives you a shot, or taking a deep breath before you step off the platform to bungee jump.

Big or little doesn't matter. It doesn't matter if other people wouldn't think it was brave. What matters is whether or not you make the decision to summon the strength inside yourself to do something that feels scary to you.

There really is something magical about realizing that if you can simply muster the courage to push yourself past a few seconds of fear, you can accomplish something that will be with you for your lifetime.


Here are two questions I asked my mom on this subject:

Is there a Buddhist approach to managing fear and encouraging bravery that might be helpful to people who feel as if they feel they're holding themselves back from accomplishing something they want?

I would say that Buddhist mindfulness and compassion practices help us manage fear and also encourage bravery. This is because a large part of being brave is taking action despite your fear. In my experience, you can't do that unless, first, you become aware that you're afraid (that's the mindfulness part) and then, second, refrain from turning away from that fear in aversion and, instead, open your heart to it and take care of it (that's the compassion part).

The expression "take care of it" comes from Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk and one of my earliest teachers. In one of his books, he writes about taking care of our fear. To me, this means recognizing that everyone experiences fear during their lives so it's nothing to be ashamed of or embarrassed by. Instead, be compassionate to yourself over how painful fear can be. That takes away it's tight grip on you. As long as it remains hidden (that is, we're not mindful that it's present) and as long as it remains ugly to you (that is, you hate it instead of taking care of it), you're caught in its web and can't take skillful action, by which I mean action that you really need to in order to take care of yourself or others.

What I'm suggesting isn't always easy to do, which is why I love that quotation from We Bought a Zoo—Benjamin saying that sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of bravery. I write a lot about taking baby steps—baby steps toward compassion, baby steps toward equanimity. Twenty seconds is a good baby step.

And if you can't pull it off, with understanding and kindness, tell yourself that it's a really hard situation for you and then resolve to give it a try in another 15 minutes...or another hour...whatever suits you at the time. I can see this with you staring at the phone, knowing that you need to call the dentist. I'm sure there were times when you walked away from that phone. All of us have done that I'll bet. When we do, we're much more likely to be able to try again soon if we don't get down on ourselves but compassionately tell ourselves, "It's hard. I'll try again later."

Is there moment in your life when you remember needing an extra boost of courage to accomplish something?

I needed that extra boost of courage almost every time I walked into a law school classroom to teach. I always felt a big weight on my shoulders. First, I thought that a lot of the students were smarter than I was and that was intimidating. Second, I felt that they were there—and had paid a lot of money—for me to teach and inspire them, and I took that responsibility seriously. If I was teaching a new subject, I always lacked confidence that I'd be good enough. I remember many a day standing at the door to the classroom truly afraid to open it.

Of course, I knew I'd have to open that door at some point and when I did, I wanted to walk into the classroom looking like I belonged there, not like a deer in the headlights. And so I'd give myself a little pep talk as I stood outside the door: "You prepared for hours. It's okay if you don't know everything. You know enough. Just be yourself and try to enjoy the experience." That was my twenty seconds of bravery. Then I'd open the door and walk on in. 


What about you? Can you think of something in your life that required a moment of extra bravery or courage to get through?

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Special Holiday Treats

Mara here:

I made peppermint bark this week.

My family loves peppermint bark and it's super easy to make. (Anything I make has to be super easy because I'm kind of terrible at cooking/baking.) All you have to do is melt chocolate (you can do two types of chocolate if you want to be fancy) in the microwave (the melting has to be done in 30 second increments so it doesn't burn), then adding some peppermint oil, then spread the chocolate on a baking sheet lined with foil, and then sprinkle crushed peppermints on top. Let the whole thing cool, and voila! You have a super tasty holiday treat. (BTW, it's easy and fun to make with kids!)

There's the added bonus at the end of getting to crumble the cooled finished product into bite size pieces. Its messy and strangely satisfying to break it up.

The peppermint bark is something I only make during the holidays, and because we only have it around for a week or two right before Christmas it feels super special.

It's funny that there are foods that we only make during the holidays. Because honestly, I could make peppermint bark any time of the year. But if I made it in March, I don't think people would be very excited by it. I'm sure my daughter would just be confused.

It's nice that there are some special treats that show up during the holidays to add to the festive feel. There are a few foods that we consider "holiday only" foods: the peppermint bark, marshmallow salad, and Pfeffernusse cookies from Trader Joes.

Our version of marshmallow salad is a strange mix of mini-marshmallows, plain yogurt, and fruit cocktail. It's a little bit like ambrosia, but it's lighter. You let the mix chill in the refrigerator, and the marshmallows dissolve into the yogurt at bit, so you get a sort of fluffy mush of sweet fruity goop. My daughter and I love it. A lot of people think it's gross. And if we ever have guests over for Thanksgiving or Christmas, they often sort of look askance at it.

But again, it's a unique thing we only make at Thanksgiving and Christmas. So it's something we really look forward to. It makes the holiday meals feel extra special.

And the Pfeffernusse mouth waters just thinking about them. They are a German spice cookie covered in crunchy powdered sugar shell. They show up in November and they disappear after New Years.

But it's always very exciting when I see them in stock.

And again, because they only come around once a year, they feel very special.


Toni here:

I'm not much of a baker so my favorite holiday foods over the years have come from other people. My mom used to make the best latkes for Hanukkah (potato pancakes made with grated potatoes, flour, and eggs). My mother-in-law used to make the best cookies and candies, which she always displayed on a beautiful silver stacked candy dish. I had to keep from myself from eating everything on the dish when we'd arrive! I can still taste her rum balls and her candied walnuts.

The best I've been able to muster has been a great-tasting pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving, a personal recipe I perfected over the years, including a buttery yet flaky crust. I learned to make pies when my husband was a graduate student and we lived in a tiny place in the countryside. Our cottage was at the edge of a huge apricot orchard. There were always lots of apricots left on the trees after the pickers had come through. We were welcome to them, so I made everything apricot: apricot jam, apricot butter, and many many apricot pies.

P.S. I love Mara's marshmallow salad!

So what about you? Do you have any favorite foods that you only have during the holidays that make the season extra special?

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Would You Change the Past?

Mara here:

It's the end of the year and I'm feeling contemplative. I'm reflecting on the past year, which usually leads to thinking about the whole of my life, weighing the ups and the downs.

When I was younger, I would often re-imagine scenarios, creating more positive outcomes and thinking about how wonderful my life could have been. But as I get older and I am able to understand the interconnectedness of everything, I no longer wish I could change the past.

Trust me, this doesn't mean I'm happy about how everything turns out. I have many disappointments. I have many struggles with momentarily wishing things had had a different outcome. But overall, when I look at my life, I'm happy with how things are.

I recently read Stephen King's book 11/22/63. It's about time travel. It ponders the question of whether or not changing the past is a good thing or not. In the book, it specifically focuses on the assassination of President Kennedy. If you could stop President Kennedy from dying in 1963, would you?

On the face of it, it seems obvious to want to change things that were bad or are painful to remember. Wouldn't you want to stop the untimely death of a friend or loved one if you could? Wouldn't you avoid World War II if you could do something to stop it?

For most of us, our instinct would be to step in and try to fix things that are remembered as "bad."

But we can't really know what the ripple effect of changing one thing in the past would be. Chaos Theory and the Butterfly Effect both discuss how everything that happens is dependent on everything else. The classic metaphor is how a butterfly flapping its wings on one side of the would can cause a hurricane on the other side of the world—cause and effect. If you kill the butterfly, what events are you subsequently changing? If the hurricane doesn't happen, you might keep your house from flooding, but then maybe a tree that would have been uprooted in the wind of the storm instead falls on someone's car causing deaths?

It's kind of mind boggling to fall into the wormhole of what-ifs.

My first introduction to the idea of the Butterfly Effect was actually the movie Back to the Future. In the movie, the character Marty, played by Michael J. Fox, goes back in time and does the younger incarnation of his father a favor. That favor changes the course of his parents' lives to the point where they don't ever get married, which means he isn't born—in the future. He starts to disappear. To nine-year-old me, the concept of causing damage to your future self, from the past, was disturbing. And it turned me off to the idea of time travel.

I didn't want to mess around with time.

And I still feel that way. I have the luxury to feel that way. I've had a pretty nice life. And when I look at the people in my life, including my parents who adopted me, I can't imagine doing anything that would land me in different circumstances.

Did I get abandoned by my birth family when I was two? Yes. Did I get to go to Yale? No. Did I book the role in Rent on Broadway after making it to the fourth callback? No. Did that feel crushing at the time? Yes.

But would I go back and change the outcome? I wouldn't. Because if I hadn't been abandoned, I wouldn't have been adopted. If I had attended Yale, I would never have met my husband Brad, who I met at UC Davis. If I had booked Rent, would we have ended up with our amazing daughter? Probably not. I'm not saying we wouldn't have had kids, but it likely wouldn't have been, Malia.

Timing matters. Do I know things would be worse if they were different? No. Can I imagine a world without my family as it is now? No.

There are a few things that I know, for a fact, have completely altered the course of my life: my adoption, meeting my husband, and the birth of our daughter. And I can't imagine anything that would be worth risking those things.

By the way, I enjoyed 11/22/63. If you enjoy Stephen King books, you might want to check it out. It's definitely food for thought.

Here are some questions I asked my mom about this.

I think that not having a wish to change the past, has freed me from living a life feeling regretful. Do you have regrets?

Mara, I do what you do. Every time I feel regretful about something in the past, I think about the wonderful things that came about because of that very thing I'm regretting, whether it's not going to an ivy league college, or whether it's the most painful regret I still feel in my life: the death of my sweet father when I was ten. When that regret arises, I let myself feel sad but then I reflect on how, had he lived, my family would have had the money to send me to that ivy league school and I'd have never met your Dad.

And yet, I can still cry over losing my Dad. I cried last week on December 7th, the anniversary of his death. I still wish he hadn't died so young...and when I was so young. At the same time, I wouldn't have wanted my life to take any different path than it has because then I wouldn't have met your Dad...and wouldn't have adopted you. 

I reconcile these seemingly contradictory feelings with a wonderful line from Walt Whitman: "Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contract myself. I am large; I contain multitudes."

Are there Buddhist teachings that can help with feelings of regret?

There are. One that comes to mind is the Buddha's teachings in the first noble truth about the realities of the human condition—how all of us are going to face unwanted losses in life, whether it's not getting a job we want or whether it's the most devastating loss—that of someone we love dearly. When we're able to accept that not having things go as we wanted and that losses are a natural part of the life cycle and that we don't control when losses will happen, we can begin to make peace with the past. Then we can turn our attention to the our life right now...rather than living in regret about the past.

I'm sure you remember Martha Dickman who was a music teacher in Davis when you were young. I'm working on a second edition of How to Be Sick and I'm including a quotation from her that was in her obituary when she died about two years ago: "The past is history. The future is a mystery. The present is a gift." Nice words to live by I thought, and that's why I added them to the book.

So what about you? Would you go back and change the past if you could? Are there events in your life that you can think of that felt bad at the time they happened, but that with reflection turned out to be positive?