Sunday, January 28, 2018

Not Our Usual Post!

Hello dear readers. Toni here.

Well, Mara wrote a wonderful piece for all of you today and then I came along to read it over in the "draft" window of our blog and managed to delete the whole thing. We don't have a back-up (that won't happen again) and there isn't time for Mara to rewrite it, partly because she and Brad and Malia are hosting some of his family for the weekend.

I felt terrible about what I did, but Mara kept telling me it was no big deal, and I've take her kind words to heart. So instead of our regular post, I'm going to describe three of the 220 pieces I've written for Psychology Today over the past seven years. Each of these is special to me. You can read them by clicking on the titles.

The first piece, "My Other Mother: Being Raised by 'The Maid'" tells the story of Iola who lived with my family while I was growing up. It's one of my favorite pieces, partly because of how much love I feel for Iola and also because it could be a little short story. Yes, it tells a story...a story of love, heartbreak, and forgiveness. 

The second piece is called "Four Qualities of Mind that Alleviate Suffering." It's one of the first pieces I wrote for Psychology Today back in 2011 and has turned out to be very popular, with over 230,000 page views. It's special to me for two reasons. First, it features my friend and mentor, Sylvia Boorstein (and even has a picture of her in it!). Second, the qualities of mind it discusses are the heart of my own spiritual practice: kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity. The more I cultivate these qualities of mind, the more peace and joy I feel in my life. It's a challenge at times, but it's my personal path in life. Not surprisingly, these four show up in all my books and I'm expanding on them in the new edition of my first book, How to Be Sick, which will be released this Fall.

Lastly, because it's movie award season, I'm including a piece from two years ago called "Oscar Winners about the Physically and Mentally Disabled." This piece contains short commentaries from me on 12 terrific movies that realistically depict people with disabilities. I grew up in Los Angeles and have always loved the movies. My family was best friends with another family whose husband was the attorney for many famous movie stars of the day, including Burt Lancaster, Yul Brynner, and Gregory Peck. As a result, I was sometimes allowed on sets during filming. I've been enchanted by movies ever since. I hope you've seen some those that are in my piece.


Stay tuned for Mara's return next week!

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Sometimes Doing Nothing is the Best Thing to Do

Mara here:

I woke up with all kinds of ambitious plans this morning. I was going to wash the dog, clean out my closet, and maybe do some photography marketing. I had many ideas of how to get a lot of things checked off my "To Do" list today.

I'm stuck in the house because we are having a repairman come and, of course, that means they've given me a four hour window for when they will possibly show up. So I'm home...waiting.

But, again, it seemed like a good opportunity to do some things I've been putting off.

But I don't want to.

Things have been hectic since the holidays. My daughter was out of school and then got sick, and my husband was home, so there was no routine. In addition, we've had people visiting; it's just felt chaotic for a long time.

But today, it's quiet. Brad is at work, Malia is at school, and I'm home. Alone. And I'm loving it.

And since I can't leave the house, I didn't commit to doing anything, including errands.

But my inner voice is telling me I should be doing things. It's telling me that my dad is about to visit so I need to get bedding washed and I should be cleaning the floors and I should be cleaning out the garage and everything could use dusting.

But I really don't want to.

And you know what? I'm not going to.

A decade ago it wouldn't have even been a question to me. I would have already checked a dozen things off my list, and it's only 10:00 a.m. But I'm older now, and somehow I've figured out that I don't have to create panic where none exists.

I can just sit here. I can just read a book. I can stare out the window if I want to.

If my dad shows up and the house is a little dirtier than I want it to be, everything will be ok. If the garage doesn't get cleaned out for another few months, everything will be ok. If the baskets of towels don't get folded until tomorrow, everything will be ok.

I have the luxury, for today, to not do anything. And so I'm going to take advantage of it. And I'm not going to worry about not doing things.

It feels amazing to realize that it's all okay. It feels like progress in the ongoing struggle I have with myself to make everything perfect.

There are plenty of days when there are things that really do need to get done. And, of course, when that's the case, I make sure things get taken care of.

But for today, I'm not going to worry about getting things done. If I decide to wash the dog, I'll wash the dog. But I won't tell myself I have to wash the dog. See the difference?

There have been so many times in my life when I haven't allowed myself the freedom to simply not do things, so it's a huge victory that I can now recognize that I do have options. It makes life feel less heavy.

And when I give myself the freedom to take a day to relax and clear my mind, then the next day, when things do have to be done, I feel less stressed. I feel less resentful. I am able to take care of what needs to be done with a little less anxiety 

When I say I'm doing nothing, it never means I actually do nothing. But it means if I want to sit and watch cat videos for a while, I will. Or I can browse through for books. Or I'll do something random, like knit for a while. In other words, I do things that don't need to be done. I do things simply because I enjoy doing them. There's no goal to the activity. 

The nothingness means, for me, that it's not something I am telling myself must be done. It's not on a list. It's not something I'm doing for anyone else but for me—because I want to.

Here are some questions I asked my mom about "doing nothing."

Was there ever a time when you felt the way I did when I was younger—that you constantly had to be doing productive things?

Absolutely. There was a time when I was driven to always be doing something productive. Getting chronically ill took care of that! In that sense, I guess it's been a blessing. Being forced to curtail my activities so severely, I learned the joy of doing nothing. You mentioned in an earlier piece that I'm working on a second edition of my first book, How to Be Sick. Well, your subject is timely because I added a new practice that I call "Doing Nothing." I'm so glad you've discovered the value of this, Mara.

Do you ever give yourself "Do Nothing" days?

I don't give myself "Do Nothing" days but, as I write about in this practice I mentioned, I do try to remember to stop once or twice a day and take 5-10 minutes to do nothing. It's restful and refreshing. And, when I do this, I also notice places in my body where my muscles have tensed up but I hadn't been aware of it, so I consciously relax that area. (For example, when I'm "doing nothing," I often notice that my shoulders are hunched up toward my neck and I realize that that's why I'm feeling stiff and in pain in that area; when I relax the muscles, my shoulders sometimes fall a good 2-3 inches and I can feel the pain and tension leaving that area.). "Doing nothing" seems to naturally allow me to check in with my body and relax it.

Another thing I like to do is what I call "Not Thinking." Here's a piece I wrote about this for Psychology Today: "Give Your Mind a Rest: Practice Not-Thinking." I hope everyone will try it!

What do you like to do when you have a day where you really don't have anything on your "To Do" list that must be done?

I can't remember a day when I've had absolutely nothing on my "To Do" list but, like you, sometimes I ignore that list except for something that is related to health or safety.

I do have days though with hardly anything I have to do and, when I that happens, I like to listen to audiobooks, crochet, embroider, and, if the weather is nice, sit out in back and throw the ball for my dog. I hope I have a few days like that coming up soon!


So what about you? Can you allow yourself to do nothing? And if you can do nothing? What's your favorite nothing thing to do?

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