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3 Lessons Learned: Finding Peace in the Midst of Tragedy

It's been a very depressing couple of months. The Aurora movie theater shooting, Hurricane Sandy's devastation, the Oregon mall shooting and, just last Friday morning, the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, which left 20 first graders and six women dead.

I really don't know what to say. I'm struggling between the forces of depression and heartache and somehow trying to salvage the joy of the holidays. 

It hasn't been easy and there have been a lot of tears this weekend. Grieving, I go right to mental pictures of my own two children as first graders - so full of joy and innocence. I tiptoe up to the brink of putting myself in their parents' shoes. It's a place I cannot fully go - the mere thought searing me with a fear too gruesome to face.

All I can do is rely on the lessons I've learned from my own personal losses: 

Honor Your Grief: Grief must have its way. I visualize it flowing through me, its current moving with an awesome power I cannot control. I am not powerless, however, because simply letting it pass allows me to withstand and survive it. I know this because I've done it before, just as I know I will have to withstand it again.  

Pace Yourself: Don't get stuck wallowing in other people's grief. I can't sustain the trauma of 24/7 news coverage. I cannot listen to countless interviews and minutia details and endless suffering. I do not need the media to push every emotional button I have to know I am hurting. We are emotional, empathetic beings, but constant rubbing raw does not bring healing.

Find the Helpers: When I look back on 9/11, I remember the enormity of the loss and the enormity of the humanity that rose up against it. So many people responded to help and work around the clock to do whatever they could. My tears of grief often mixed with tears of gratitude for their service.

Since Friday, this wonderful piece of advice from Mr. Rogers has been circulating the internet: 

"When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping." To this day, especially in times of "disaster," I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.

The helpers let us see that there is still much good in the world. They give us hope and comfort and help us regain our sense of security. And, when we follow their lead and become helpers ourselves, we take back some sense of control.

I find the helper in me by donating to Hurricane Sandy relief and praying for the victims, family, friends and first responders in Newtown. More suggestions for helping the Newtown victims can be found here.  

Happy New Year and I wish you peace of heart, comfort and joy this holiday season. I doubt I'll be writing a blog post next week, and maybe not the week after. I think I need some time to pull inward, spend time with my family and let the grief flow through me when the current gets strong

Survival > Existence,

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Are You Spending Too Much Time with Technology?

I have to start out by saying that I love technology. I'm old enough to remember the huge black and white televisions and rotary telephones of my youth. Today's gadgets - smart phones, tablets, MP3 players, computers and flat screen televisions - are more useful, productive and a lot more fun.

They are also a lot more addictive. Recently a yoga teacher shot a dirty look at a student who couldn't stop checking her email in the middle of class. The kicker to the story is that the student complained to her employer (Facebook) and the teacher was fired for being too strict. Really? So, not only is the student so addicted to her phone that she can't enjoy an hour of uninterrupted yoga time, but her addiction is accepted and actually encouraged. 

I get the addiction. I succumb to it myself, because it's human. That's why we have to learn to use the technology mindfully and not buy into the social construct that it's okay to be mindless, rude and disconnected from the real world as long as you use the excuse that you're busy.

I take a "Stress Management Yoga" class twice a week and it's lovely. The teacher begins class by turning off the big overhead lights. With only the light of her small lamp at the front of the room, I immediately go into a relaxed state. 

One day, a young woman came into the class. I doubt she was over the age of 21. She laid out her mat close to mine, piling all of her stuff - shoes, water bottle, cell phone - next to her mat. As soon as class started, so did the texting. Do you know what the glare of a cell phone's light looks like in a dark room? It's a beacon of light that bores a hole into your head.

I didn't want to complain, because I was trying to stay relaxed and blissfully unaware of outside annoyances, but I was losing the fight. I cheered when the teacher finally came over to her and told her, "We don't do that in here."  She put the phone down, but a few minutes later picked it up and checked it again. I don't know what she was checking, but I doubt it was of national importance. She left when class was over and I've never seen her again. 

Which reminds me of an ancient memory, long before cell phones even existed. When I was a brand new lawyer, I worked for a small firm with two associates. I was one and the other associate was a young woman who was a chain smoker. In fact, I remember she had a habit of lighting up her next cigarette before she actually finished the one in her hand. I honestly don't know how she got anything else done.

One day, we had to go to the law library to do research. Panic ensued when she realized smoking wasn't allowed in the library. She finally accepted the fact that there was no choice, took a deep breath, rushed into the library, worked in a panic for a few minutes until she couldn't stand it anymore, and rushed back out for a smoke. And she did this all day long. 

Watching her struggle with her addiction was illuminating. I realized how free I was to come and go as I pleased, while she ran back and forth as if the library was toxic and she could only breathe in its air a few minutes at a time. She obviously loved her cigarettes, just as we love our technology, but that love came at a price.

The next time I know I spending too much time checking my phone or surfing the web, I'm going to remember my long ago colleague. I don't want to ever be so addicted to anything that I literally can't breathe if I can't have it (other than oxygen, of course.) If I've learned anything from cancer, I've learned to be more aware and appreciative of all aspects of my life. It's impossible to be mindfully connected to your life, friends, family and bodily needs if your connection to technology supersedes anything else. 

Do you find yourself mindlessly addicted to technology sometimes? What do you do to try to break out of addictive technology usage?

Survival > Existence,

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The Importance of Prioritizing Your Mental Health

Mental Health Blog Party BadgeWhen cancer hits, our mental health is not the first thing we think about. Instead, we focus on our body and the decisions, treatments and healing necessary to move it through the ordeal. Only later, when the smoke clears, does our mental health move to the forefront.

For the first six and a half months of my cancer ordeal, the time from my mammogram to mastectomy, the only attention my mental health got was access to a guided imagery CD. After my surgery, the calvary rode in in the form of oncology therapists. We met once a week for a year and it was exhausting, grueling and often deeply upsetting, but I kept going back.

What did I learn? I learned the value of showing up and "doing the work." I learned to talk, cry, rant, question, consider, listen and cry some more. I learned to value my mental health and not be ashamed to ask for help dealing with depression, anger and stress

I also came to see the brave survivor in me - the woman who has faced many of life's losses and upheavals - only one of which is cancer. I learned to cherish that survivor and celebrate her accomplishments. I learned to love her spirit. I learned, as Marie Ennis O'Connor writes in her recent blog post, to come out from behind "The Mask."

From that foundation - for which I will be forever grateful to my therapists - I've gone on to work toward creating an inspired survivorship. I've found that the mind/body/spirit balance turns up the volume on life. That's why I envision WhereWeGoNow expanding beyond cancer survivorship and providing an inspirational community to survivors of all traumas. What we all have in common is that we are all survivors of something.  

Healing our mental health is every bit as important as healing physically. If cancer has taught me anything, it's taught me the value of prioritizing our mental health to create an inspired survivorship. 


Casual Friday - Are Things Falling Apart or Falling Into Place?

On Monday, I shared this from Created Equal on my Facebook page, WhereWeGoNow as Cancer Survivors. It seems to have hit a nerve because it got a lot of likes, shares and comments. One comment, however, truly surprised me.

After a long day at school and track practice, my son returned home on Monday evening. He's a 15-year-old boy, so making conversation isn't his strong suit. Out of the blue, he told me he liked this post (of course, he didn't "like" it on Facebook, that wouldn't have been cool, my being his mother.)

It struck me that I've experienced this phenomenon countless times in my 53 years. What I didn't expect to learn was that it resonated for a 15-year-old boy. 

The bottom line is that we all have times when things seem to be falling apart. Maybe it's because we have so many expectations that this happens as much as it does. The truth is that we don't know how things are supposed to go. So sit back, believe and hold on and maybe you will see things actually fall into place after all.

Does this resonate for you? Tell me about it.

Meditation Monday - My Number One Tip for Solving Problems

People who work crossword puzzles know that if they stop making progress, they should put the puzzle down for a while. Marilyn vos Savant

Recently, I was working on an accounting problem and came to a dead end. I was frustrated that, try as hard as I might, I couldn't find a solution. Finally, dejected by my failure, I gave up and walked away.

The next day, I returned to my work and the answer to the problem was looking me right in the face. I was stunned. What had seemed like a complex, unwieldy problem the day before, was actually very simple and easily solved. Where had the answer been hiding the day before and why hadn't I seen it?

To solve problems, we have to be engaged and focused. We have to be present. But mindfulness is not the same as concentration. As Albert Einstein said, "No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it."

We're only human and finding a higher level of consciousness isn't always doable, especially when we are overtired and stressed. I can't tell you how many times I've butted up against a brick wall of my own making - I just couldn't think anymore but kept trying because I thought I had to keep at it to solve the problem. In truth, it is always smarter to walk away, even for a few minutes, to give our brains the time and space to work through our problems. 

The next time you're grappling with a problem, personal or otherwise, ask yourself whether you're actually working it too hard. Take a moment to step back - do some meditation, grab a glass of water or make some tea, take a shower, or go for a walk. By walking away from the problem, you're actually giving your brain the time and space it needs to sift through possible solutions.

We've all been taught the value of "working the problem," but it's important to realize that our brains are capable of working at a much deeper level than mere thought. So, next time you are stressed out and completely unable to force a solution to a problem, remember the words of Charles Schultz, "No problem is so formidable that you can't walk away from it."

Is something bothering you? Put it down, give it a break, walk away and forget about it - for now. Trust your higher consciousness to keep working on a solution. You might be surprised, like I was, at how simple a complex problem can become when our brains have the time and space to be mindful. Has this ever happened to you? Let me know.

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Casual Friday - Best Christmas Movies Collection

This holiday season is extra special to me. For the past three years, the holidays have had to fight for my attention. In 2008, I was struggling through the diagnostic phase of my cancer. In 2009, I was reeling and healing from a 16 month cancer journey. In 2010, I was doing better, but my house was ripped apart from a kitchen renovation. This year, I just want to focus on enjoying the holidays.

One of the best ways to bring back the wonder of the holidays is to turn to old traditions. Comforting and familiar, traditions help us find our bearings. One of my favorites was started by my husband and I over 20 years ago. Back then, videos were the new fun technology and we enjoyed watching movies at home. We started a best Christmas movies collection. Our collection has evolved over the years, most significantly by sharing our love for holiday movies with our children. 

My best Christmas movie collection not only celebrates the holidays, it also brings me to a magical place. While you're watching a funny movie or movie from your youth, you forget about the rest of the world's troubles (and your own) and find a little pocket of peace. Take a look at my list (Amazon associates links) and enjoy.  What movies do you love and how do they factor into your holiday traditions?


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Casual (Black) Friday - Two More Tips to Help You Enjoy This Holiday Season

Once again, we come to the Holiday Season, a deeply religious time that each of us observes, in his own way, by going to the mall of his choice. Dave Barry

What would happen if the elves went on strike and Santa had to shop at the mall to fill his sleigh? Do you think he would get a bit stressed out enduring the hustle, bustle and bone-crunching competition of Black Friday shopping? Do you think he'd be his usually jolly self if he didn't have the help of the elves to get it all done? 

Seeing the panic in Santa's eyes reminded me of two more tips I want to share to help you enjoy this holiday season: 

1.  Ask for help: When our children were young, we started collecting holiday village pieces. Our collection grew over the years to the point that we need an area of about four feet by eight feet to display it. It's a huge job lugging the 20 or so boxes down from the attic, unpacking all the pieces and putting the village together. It used to take me an entire day to get it done while the kids were at school and my husband was at work.

One year, I just didn't have the energy to do it. Eventually someone noticed it wasn't getting done and panic ensued. My response: "If you want the village up, then you have to help." They did and we've enjoyed doing it together every year since. Besides creating a treasured family tradition, I learned a valuable lesson: I had to stop taking on all the responsibility and others were happy to pitch in if I let them. 

2.  Prioritize enjoyment: I like to bake holiday cookies. It takes time, creates mess and makes you tired, but it's fun. Cleaning the entire house also takes time, creates mess and makes you tired, but it's not fun. That's the difference. There are some "jobs" we like and others we don't. Make sure to prioritize the jobs you like. That's what brings enjoyment into the season.

In the past, I often felt like the holiday season handed me yet another part-time job, with deadlines. This year, I really want to focus on enjoying myself and sharing the spirit of the holidays with my family. Do you have more tips for me on how to better relax and enjoy this holiday season? 

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Meditation Monday - 5 Tips to Reduce Holiday Stress

The holidays are about to begin, which makes me think about one of my favorite holiday movies for kids. In Sesame Street's Elmo Saves Christmas (Amazon affiliates link) Elmo helps Santa get unstuck from the chimney and is granted three wishes. Santa obviously isn't thrilled when Elmo wishes every day is Christmas. To show Elmo what life would be like if everyone had to celebrate Christmas every day, Santa takes him on a journey 193 days into the future.  

Of course, the message of the movie is how the joy of the holiday is lost when "celebrating" becomes a daily burden. I know a lot about holiday stress, and it didn't take me 193 days to feel its burden.

After we moved into our house and had children, I learned first-hand why Santa wasn't happy about every day being Christmas. I planned big family holiday celebrations, with extensive menus and did 99% of the shopping, preparation, and cooking myself. Before family came, the house had to be perfectly cleaned and decorated, also by me. On top of all the food preparation, I shopped for and wrapped all the presents. I saw myself as a mini-Martha Stewart and was just as driven with perfection. It was exhausting.

As the years went on, I came to enjoy my Martha Stewart role less and less. And then, three years ago, I got cancer. The first holiday season, I was distracted by tests and difficult questions, and the next year, I was healing from two surgeries. Last year, I was finished with treatment, but spent what little energy I had left on a huge kitchen renovation which was completed just days before Christmas.

This year, I finally feel ready to stick a toe back into holiday celebrating. I'm going to take it slow, however, and be very conscious of not slipping back into old ways. To keep holiday stress at bay, I'm going to remember the following five tips:

1. Have realistic expectations: My Martha Stewart holiday plans were wildly unrealistic. As a new parent, hosting new grandparents, I felt an overwhelming responsibility to create Norman Rockwell holidays for my family. Since we don't live in oil paintings, this was never going to actually happen. I've learned that the best way to control stress is to control expectations. If each day has a realistic to-do list, there will be success at the end of the day, rather than failure.

2. Slow down: I love watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade every year, but I always hear a starter pistol go off in my head as soon as I see Santa's sleigh. It's the official beginning of the race to Christmas Day and the pressure is immediately on. It doesn't have to be this way. If you're feeling stressed, close your eyes and watch your breath. When multi-tasking gets out of hand, stop and refocus on mindfulness. For me, I am going to stop and remember what the last three years were like, and I'm going to be grateful for where I am now and how far I have come.

3. Enjoy some me time: Don't become so involved with holiday preparations that you forget to take care of yourself. Falling into bed exhausted each night is not rest. Rejuvenate by reading a book, enjoying a cup of tea, getting a spa treatment or simply watching a funny television show in the middle of the day. Running yourself ragged completely diminishes the joy of the holidays and turns celebration into hard labor.

4. Make time for spiritual connection:  For the past several years, we travel to my husband's church in Brooklyn during Christmas season. We don't attend mass, but prefer to be there when the church is mostly empty and peaceful and quiet. I've had some amazing moments of silent reflection in that church and it has come to be one of my most treasured Christmas traditions. 

5. Have fun: Isn't family fun and togetherness what the holidays are all about? Have a family pajama night in front of the fireplace. Focus on fun and relaxation, rather than on creating the perfect table or moment, and you will see your holiday stress melt away.

With Thanksgiving just three days away, it's time to take a moment to decide how we want our holidays to go. Let's make a pact to really enjoy this holiday season by slowing down, focusing on fun and scheduling some me time. If you have other suggestions to reduce holiday stress, please take a moment to let me know what they are.  

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Take the Day Off: You're in Dire Need of Time to Stop and Smell the Flowers

I’ve been pretty busy lately.  It’s quite an undertaking birthing an online community – I had no idea what I was in for.  Plus, I have two children, a husband, Emmi Interiors’ clients, a house, etc., etc., to manage as well.  I’ve been working seven days a week, all day long, for too many weeks now.   So, yesterday, at the insistence of my husband, I took the day off.  I guess it was the crying that inspired him, but he let me know in no uncertain terms that I was running myself into the ground and needed to stop.

If passing out at 11:30 p.m. isn’t rest, what is?  I decided to start with breakfast, which I ate while listening to music and doing Sudoku.  Obviously, I was out of “take time to smell the flowers” practice, because I was still multitasking.  Later I meditated, or tried to, while unnerving thoughts about what I should have been doing kept going through my mind.  I compromised by puttering around, doing small inane tasks that satisfied my need to do something, but took no real energy.  By the time I got to yoga, I did better with focusing on the moment. 

Finally, I was able to curl up on my bed and watch television.  Maybe it was my love of Kyra Sedgwick and “The Closer” that calmed me, but it was very relaxing nonetheless.  Whenever I thought about work, I reminded myself that work was for tomorrow.  I remembered that during my treatment days I needed to do the same thing – stop myself from continuously focusing on cancer.  I would really be with my children, watch something that made me laugh, be with friends – anything for a few seconds of relief from cancer.  We cannot sustain work or worry 24/7.  We need to find ways to rest, recharge and rebuild.  We all have different ways of attaining rest; let me know what works for you.  I’m sure I would learn a lot.