Love In-Between

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Sometimes it feels like we jump from one special occasion to another, as if crossing a creek, hopping from stone to stone.  Halloween, for example, will be the next stone for our family this year.  My 11 year old started counting down to Halloween when she began planning her unicorn costume sometime in June.  Next, it’ll be my birthday, then Thanksgiving, other daughter’s birthday, and then, Christmas.  You get my point.

We mark life with major events, like weddings, births, graduations, job promotions, relocations, and deaths. I do think it’s important to acknowledge these with revelry, gifts, showing up to celebrate, and for the last, appreciation, love, and support.  What about all the other time, though?  The waters of life that flow briskly by as we plan for the next stone, awaiting the next big happening?

This, I would argue, is where, when we take the time to notice and savor, we find so much love.  Not the big, romantic, write-home-about-it kind of love, but the love that sustains us and makes us content with our lives.  It’s in the flow that we discover moments that fill us and carry us forward with no fanfare, but often, a quiet and profound appreciation.

I’m talking about waking up to the aroma of fresh-brewed coffee made just the way I like it, because Rad knows, and he’s also put my favorite travel mug and coconut milk out next to the french press.  It’s the sound of my dog’s claws moving along the hardwood floor at a frantic pace, excitedly anticipating our morning drive to drop off kid 3 at school.  It’s the cool fall breeze kissing my skin as I walk outside.  And the Snapchat from kid 1 living across the country, assuring me that 1) he’s alive; and that 2) he remembers his mom; and 3) he’s smiling, so things hopefully are going well today.  It’s the excited tone in kid 2’s text sharing that her english teacher is delighted with her writing ability.

It’s the click-click-clicking game the squirrels play to torment my frantic dog, eager to climb the Oak to reach them.  And the hug from an old friend as we run into each other while grocery shopping.  A passage in a book that brings tears to my eyes because it’s so true and so real and so magic.  My weekly hula class where I have learned to bravely chant, learning and holding close so much I somehow missed earlier about the culture in which I was raised.  Cutting into an avocado and finding it just the right ripeness, yielding just enough to my touch.  Causing happy surprise by helping a stranger on the street. Or sharing a compliment, guerilla style.

There is so, so much love in the water between the stones.  Allow yourself to slow down and immerse yourself in it.  Let it bathe you in gratitude and joy, and wash away all that other noise that depletes you.  There is, after, all, so much love in-between.6tdqIcWtRiO3mia0ehedTQ

A Personal Reflection of Charles Bukowski’s Poem, Bluebird

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My dad. I’m fairly certain he had a bluebird in his heart, so deep down not many knew of its existence.  He passed away 5 years ago, alone, in the bedroom he rented from a minister who ran a “sober” house.  A house in which 4 men, all strangers, each inhabited a bedroom and shared the common spaces.  Like college roommates without any connection to each other whatsoever.  And minimal conversation.

Of course, when I called my sister to join me in saying goodbye to his body, stiffened in an upright, seated position, we noted that his blaring tv was set to a sports channel, and we wondered what he had been watching for his last moments.  He hated sports.  We sent him off, packaged in an awkwardly shaped body bag to the the local medical school, and emptied his room.  There was a backpack tucked deep in his closet, filled with emptied Jim Beam bottles.  He had a couple drawers of clothes, and a laptop.  And, propped on his dresser, a framed photo of us taken during our childhood.

Our mother was forbidden from visiting.  She was, as he claimed all too often, “an asshole.”  Theirs was not a civil divorce.  His girlfriend of 15 years had evicted him a month before he died.  He clung to his cell phone, undoubtedly hoping for her call during his last day.  She never phoned.  I could only imagine the drama they had shared.  God knows, we witnessed 20 years of it in our own house.  The angry silences, the excuses after his late nights, half-concealed bruises on my mother, the slurred rants, plates smashed against walls, the tears.

Clumsily moving aside these images, I choose to focus on others.  The drives to school, windows rolled up, cracked open just a touch, so that the cigarette smoke could meander up and out, but only after leaving us with its stench.  We carried the lunches he prepared for us . . . the mini pizzas accented with added mozzarella and slices of lunch meat.  We didn’t have the heart or courage to tell him that by noon, the cheese and meat would have congealed into a cold mass.

He would sing sometimes, eyes closed, head tilted upward, smiling and feeling every word of Bridge over Troubled Water.  When we scattered his ashes in the ocean, my sister and I anchored our canoe, shared stories, and sang his favorite Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel songs.  We knew song was how he allowed his bluebird to appear.

I wondered how long in the past it was that others could see that bluebird as well.  So many secrets that, like the bluebird, peered out every once in a while.  Secrets that forced my dad to guard that bluebird fiercely from a childhood spent moving from family to family after some hushed abuse, mysterious not-to-be-shared time as a sharpshooter in Vietnam-era Southeast Asia, countless fights, a lackluster attempt at self-employment, and failed relationships.

Somehow, I have a confident knowing that today, my dad’s bluebird is perched next to him, both of them singing wholeheartedly and with so much feeling.

What I Learned from my Breasts

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I am one of many health coach drop-outs.  I haven’t had a client in years.  I was tired of people looking me up and down, puzzled, when learning that I guided others in living a healthy lifestyle.  I felt like I had FRAUD written all over my inflamed, heavier-than-ever body. Marketing myself was out of the question.

In 2011, after birthing 3 babies and breastfeeding each for at least 2 years, I decided to revitalize my tired, hollowed-out breasts.  I had provided for my kids, and why wouldn’t I boost myself to look and feel better if that was an option?!  I had quite a few friends who had decided to go for breast augmentation with great results.  Why not?

I researched.  The downside of breast augmentation that I found in my search seemed pretty avoidable with a competent surgeon.  According to the FDA, risks include capsular contraction, implant rupture, wrinkling or unevenness in the breast tissue, pain, and infection. The incidence of suicide is also higher in women with breast implants.  I was honestly pretty happy with my body and who I was regardless, so I figured suicide wasn’t something I would have to worry about.  Also, my surgeon reassured me that the new silicone implants were even safer than saline, and look, you can cut them in half and they won’t ooze or fall apart!  Totally safe.  Let me just tell you – those risks didn’t even scratch the surface of the dangers lurking.

My whole experience with the augmentation surgery is enough to save for another blog post, but when it was over and my bandages were removed, I was floored.  I was looking for a little lift, a little volume, and to fill a full B cup, or a small C cup, but what I got was an E cup.  I was cartoonish relative to where I started.  Holy crap.  I’m not sure what my surgeon was hearing during what I thought was our uncomplicated conversation, but apparently, he considered himself the more knowledgable artist and me, the medium, and I now know he leans toward the pornish.

I hoped that with time, I’d get used to these heavy silicone balls I now sported on my chest.  It seemed like finding clothes that fit this crazy new shape would be my biggest challenge.  What I didn’t count on was my healthy body gradually breaking down in so many ways. For someone who had never had anything more serious than a bout of mono in 6th grade and some allergies, I embarked on a rocky road of ever-increasing illnesses. It started with a bit of weight gain around my waist during the first year – a place that had never been a problem area for me, even after pregnancies.  I was, after all, 46, so maybe I had to change up my diet and workouts.

I cleansed, I continued to exercise consistently, I cut out dairy, grains, sugar, soy, corn, and upped my leafy greens and veggies only to continue packing on the pounds.  A lot of them.  Like 50 over 5 years.  I saw doctors.  They concluded that this was the natural progression of aging. (“You’re approaching 50.”)  Over time, I became increasingly exhausted.  I could not get through a day without dropping off to sleep in the afternoon, but sleeping well at night became a rarity.  I was frickin exhausted.

My joints ached constantly.  My ankles were chronically swollen like pillows.  I now had a verifiable spare tire around my waist.  People started to ask me suspiciously if I was still dancing and working out.  I was.  My eyes were dry enough to kick out my contact lenses after an hour or so.  And, my brain was a mess.  I couldn’t remember words, names of places, what I was doing from one minute to the next.  I began to feel numbness and tingling in my limbs on a regular basis.  When I saw a naturopath, she looked at my labs and diagnosed severe adrenal fatigue, hormonal imbalance, anemia, high cholesterol, Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis and an imbalance of healthy and ugly microorganisms in my gut.  I had appendicitis and developed an umbilical hernia. (When I asked whether my implants might be the culprit, she dismissed the notion – it was probably the fact that I was stressed out with 3 kids).  People stopped recognizing me and I didn’t fit any of my clothes.  This was decidedly not simply about being near 50.  And no wonder suicide rates increase with implants.

And, yes, I was a health coach.  A depressed, fat, unhealthy, fally-aparty health coach.  But, you know what?  Having the knowledge I did, which only highlighted to me that there was SO MUCH I had yet to learn, opened the doors to my healing journey.  I looked for answers outside of mainstream medicine.  I had acupuncture, trained in yoga and Ayurveda, studied herbal medicine, had regular bodywork, and switched naturopaths so that I felt heard and respected.  Most importantly, I started listening carefully to my body. Depressingly, nothing seemed to improve.

One evening, as I was getting dressed to go out with friends, I searched for clothes that didn’t look like sausage casing on my body and broke down in frustrated, humiliated tears for the thousandth time.  I prayed out loud for answers.  Really.  What the hell was happening?  Why weren’t any of my efforts helping me heal?  I pulled myself together, put on some stretchy clothes, and went out.  During dinner, my friend mentioned that another mom in town, who coincidentally had implants as well, had just been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis.  At that instant, I had total clarity.  My implants.  Everything shifted after I had that surgery, and the momentum of decline was only increasing.  They had to go.  My friend looked doubtful at my revelation, but I knew.

I went home and did a new search for side effects of silicone implants.  It was mind-blowing!  I found THOUSANDS of women who suffered from similar symptoms as I had, if not worse.  There are women who have had to stop working because they no longer have the strength and stamina to show up and last through a day on the job, and many who depend on help from others just to get dressed and function on a day-to-day basis.  I found a published autopsy of a woman who had lived with implants for many years.  Her post-mortem labs showed silicone by-products present in tissues throughout her body.  I even learned that breast implants are associated with a cancer called Anaplastic Large Cell Lymphoma.  Yikes.

Rheumatologist Arthur Brawer, who has studied silicone toxicity extensively, believes that once in the body, implants are bombarded by bacteria and white blood cells that  break the silicone down into compounds that adversely affect normal bodily processes. These chemicals bleed through the implants’ casing, and infiltrate the body, disrupting normal functioning in numerous ways, and resulting in an exhaustive list of symptoms, many of which I experienced.  Despite years of scientific research examining silicone toxicity, particularly in women with breast implants, doctors disagree about the validity of breast implant illness.  It’s not difficult to find a counter-chorus of medical professionals essentially calling these women hysterical, or victims of a psychosomatic disorder.  There is, after all, money to be made with implants.  How did I possibly miss this 5 years earlier?  Could I had seen some of this and figured these women were a little off, misinformed, or too blamey?  God, I hope not.

Fast-forward a year and I had my implants removed by a different surgeon who validated my experience and skillfully removed the implants and their surrounding scar capsules.  They were perfectly intact.  I woke up from surgery, and instantly, despite the narcotics running through my post-anesthesia body, could think clearly.  It was as if a heavy veil had been lifted from my cognition.  My joints already felt looser and more comfortable.

It’s been almost 2 years since my surgery now, and I am feeling more like myself every day.  The journey to wellness is a gradual and slower-than-I’d-prefer process, but I am a much more vibrant person these days.  I’m still working on shedding the extra layers from my body, and it’s happening in spurts.  I’ve learned that I’m healing myself from the inside-out, system by system.  I don’t have to fall asleep every afternoon, and actually sleep through the night.  I wake up with great energy, put my contact lenses in without difficulty, experience no more tingly limbs, and my labs are gradually going back to normal.  No more Hashimoto’s, very mild adrenal fatigue, and my strong body feels like it’s returning to me. I have an incredibly talented and caring team of healers who support, listen, and teach me.  I have learned to act as one of my own healers as well.  After all, no one else understands my body better. I am appreciative of my body’s intelligence, fortitude, and I know to listen closely to its messages with compassion.  The education I’ve gained through this experience has been invaluable.  And, I feel hopeful for the first time in years.

I think back to the time that, in the thick of my illness, heartbroken by my mysterious decline, my Ayurvedic practitioner friend advised me that I would learn from my journey and become a more effective and empathetic healer.  I believe that she was right.

Healthy Habit: Spit it out!

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“Cervical cancer. You’ll need chemotherapy and radiation.”

This was the way my dear friend was told she was sick.  No emotion at all in the delivery, flung from across the room.  Like a clean, crisp swipe of a sword through the wisp of hope reaching for a false alarm.

“Do you have any questions?”  So many.  But even I, sitting as support, and rarely at a loss for words, had a difficult time imagining which to ask first.  So, we said no.  And the doctor left the room.  So much for my role.

I was dumbfounded.  How could an oncologist share that diagnosis in such a cold way? I imagined him breaking the worst news to people day after day, and I wondered how he dealt with such a difficult task. Maybe he had to numb himself just to cope. Regardless of his reasons, I wanted him to acknowledge my friend’s feelings, to sit next to her while he shared the news, and exhibit some sense of empathy.

Instead, it felt like there was no room or time for emotion. There were labs to be drawn, paperwork to sign.  My friend never shed a tear until she was alone at home. What happens to our bodies when we don’t feel safe expressing emotions? I know from personal experience that what goes on in the privacy of our minds directly influences the way our bodies function.

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During my pregnancy with my second child, I had silently stressed about my very sensitive boy having some sort of toddler breakdown when a newborn stole the show. I did realize that first kids survive the arrival of a sibling all the time, so I chalked it up to pregnancy hormone-induced anxiety and kept my craziness to myself.

Once I went into labor, my body decided not to cooperate. Despite laboring actively for more time than it would have taken me to walk a marathon, really slowly, I was stuck. Not even halfway there. As the hospital staff readied an operating room for my cesarian section, my brilliant doula quietly asked me if there wasn’t anything I was worried about. That I should verbalize any concern I might have.  I let the cat out of the bag and told her I worried that my son might never forgive me for producing a sibling.

Well, guess what?  Instantaneously, I became violently ill; one of the delightful signs that birth is imminent.  Well, imminent, as in after an hour of pushing.  My doctor was floored.  Note to self: do NOT stuff feelings.  Ever.

So what does that mean for my friend, for health care professionals that deal with sad situations every day, for worried parents or children, or anyone who happens to feel feelings? According to social psychologist James W. Pennebaker, talking or writing about problems or worries helps improve health. In his book, “Opening Up,” Pennebaker reveals that individuals who experience the death of a loved one frequently develop health problems the year following the death if they choose not to talk about it.  Those who are able to express their emotions end up developing significantly fewer health problems during that time period than their silent counterparts.

Actually talking about how we feel also helps us process and resolve fears.  One UCLA study took a group of spider-phobes and exposed each to a spider. Out of four groups, only the one in which subjects expressed their feelings about the spider (“I’m terrified!”) were able to move closer to it at the end of the experiment. Even using language to disempower the spider (“that spider can’t hurt me”) had no effect on the subjects’ fear.

So? Feelings should be aired out. Talk about them. Maybe not with the  person standing next to you in line at the post office; choose someone you can trust, and who won’t judge, correct or fix you.  It doesn’t mean the situation that created those feelings will be resolved, of course, but it may prevent any further harm that harbored fear, sadness, or worry can cause.

Depressed girl gets counseling and comfort from a caring therapist.

If you’re not one to talk about your personal business, or your trusted, non-judgmental ear is unavailable at that moment, write about it instead.  You don’t need to show anyone else your writing, so if you’re not into sharing, this is the method for you. Take the time to put pen to paper when you are going through a tough time.  Write about the incident that upset you, or whatever you may be feeling, and don’t hold back.  Let those ugly, crazy, perhaps embarrassing, emotions spill out on paper, and if you want, destroy your writing when you finish.

It is so easy to shelve our feelings as we move through our days. For many, keeping busy creates a safe distance from those feelings, but the price of avoidance may be high.  For your own wellbeing, steel yourself and address even the hardest emotions at some point.  Sit with them, feel them, and express.  Moving them along and bringing light to them will make you happier and healthier.

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What if I have to eat lunch alone?

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Day two.  The calm, quiet of a mostly empty (my teen son won’t get out of bed for a while still) house soothes my tired mama soul.  Two kids back, one to go. The week leading up to the new school year worked me over a bit.  I’m restoring energy to prepare for the next first day.

Why is it that no one tells you that once you’re a parent, your children’s anxieties flutter even more frantically in your own gut, even as you comfort and feign confidence that all will be well? What if I can’t make any friends?  What if I’m not smart enough for third grade math?  Will my teacher be nice?  What if I’m the slowest running the mile in my P.E. class?  What should I do if my old friends no longer speak to me?  What if I say something stupid in class?  And for the grand finale of worries from out of the blue, Mom, what if you die before I learn how to drive?

It will all work out.  You will have friends.  You might be the slowest, but that would be okay.  You jam on the guitar. Remember?  If your old friends vanish, new ones will fill their places.  You are strong, and always becoming stronger.  You are smart.  You are beautiful, inside and out.  You will succeed. You are loved and supported.  I will eat my greens and exercise regularly.  And, I will drive carefully.

We shape teen brows.  We buy fun shoes.  We draw, we walk and talk, and we make up outrageous responses to hypothetical jerky remarks and questions. We cry. We sing silly songs, and blurt out private part names while in the car. Hilarity ensues. We hope and we worry.  We talk about practicing yoga together and meditating.

And I haven’t even started with my rising high school junior, switching schools for the first time since kindergarten.

How I wish I could install like software the wisdom I have gathered after surviving the downfall of friendships, falling down a flight of stairs as the cool kids sat on the sides laughing, the heartbreaks, being shoved into the lily pond, the mistakes.  It all passes.  It hurts for a bit, and fades away, leaving us more resilient, better able to discern who and what to make important in our lives.  To focus on each beautiful moment and let the ugly ones teach us and then, wash away.

We parents must be warriors of love.  Ready to face the ugliest, scariest, saddest scenes, and administer warm, soft, gushy love that will fill in the cracks left by worry, fear, and hurt.  We must remember to refill our own supply by loving ourselves just as ferociously.  Making space for quiet connection, dancing away the anxieties, running off the frustration, walking in nature, and dosing ourselves with whatever it is that provides the most joy.

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Perhaps, watching us plug into our own ever-flowing source of wellness will inspire our littles to do the same.  Eating lunch alone is actually not so bad.

Peace, please. Surviving summer.

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I am a big fan of summer. More time just hanging out and connecting with my kids, instead of herding them to school on time, policing homework, being a safe place to unload stress. Summer is a different, happier kind of busy. Until it’s not.

It’s not all laughter and sunshine. (I’d say rainbows, but rain is scarce here in California right now). All this togetherness also means more negotiation, mediation, coordinating, and, wow, driving. Okay, a lot of driving. Oh, and getting my work done in the process.

I find my valuable quiet time slipping away some days. Which leads to me feeling a bit less patient, less kind, and less present. (Telemarketers and “me first!” drivers, beware). It’s not how I want to spend this time, really.

So, back to my rising earlier than the others. Back to my quiet solo yoga, or listening to mellow music, or just writing while the sun rises. Back to noticing the sound of birds. I’m counting on peace to help me back.

Back to Life after 5 Days of Extreme Self-Care

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I recently took unprecedented action in my life.  It was the opposite of being on one of those reality TV survival shows.  I removed myself, for the first time in the 15 years since becoming a mom, from taking care of anyone but myself.  For 5 days.  Okay, that was kind of a lie.  Honestly, I was cared for.  Well, I still had to brush my teeth and shower.  Does that count?  It ROCKED.  The icing on the cake?  I engaged in this being-cared-for practice in the mountains of Umbria, Italy.

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This was my work.

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I was more relaxed than I’ve been in I-don’t-know-how-long. Ever, perhaps. Seventeen other women and I were sequestered away, freed up to meditate, express, dance, cry, hug, reflect and connect.  We showed up three times a day to savor delicious, fresh food lovingly prepared by a chef as we talked, laughed, and soaked in the views of lavender, rosemary, cyprus tress, surrounding mountains and abandoned, far-off castles. We walked and ate wild blackberries.  We made fresh pasta.  We tasted wines. We even had a day of shopping.  Oh, and we had massages.

Everything was planned and provided.  Really, I’m not sure a girl can be in a more nurturing environment than the one in which our lucky group of women was immersed for almost a week.  Heaven.  Our two lovely leaders, Christine Arylo and Kristine Carlson, teamed up their very different styles to help us identify and surrender those things that deplete us, and to receive more of what buoys us.  They helped foster a safe sisterhood that made us feel supported and connected.  I left that retreat full of energy, love, and optimism.

So, here I am, in the process of re-entry.  My precious family, who cheered and showered me with affection when I walked in the front door after returning, is back to a bit of bickering about chores and critiquing my choice of family meals.  Four days after returning from Italy, I got back on a plane with my 13 year old daughter and her two friends to see One Direction in concert at the Rose Bowl.  It was so fun to watch the girls bursting with joy and melting over these coiffed boys, but really, trust me when I say I probably paid sufficient penance for my time savoring quiet and relaxation. I’m not a great crowd person.  I may have even dropped a few quiet f-bombs in the middle of the pushing and shoving of that teenage estrogen-fueled frenzy.

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Do you feel the contrast in energy from the above pictures?

What’s a girl to do?  I don’t want my spirit to start rolling up into a cocoon amid the rush to get to appointments on time, less than cheery news stories, and the treadmill of busy to-dos of everyday life.  I want to live open and joyfully, despite and, perhaps, especially with the darkness that lurks in our world.

So here’s what I’m thinking might work for me.  As a regular practice, I’ve decided to:

1.  Make space.  Space in time and in environment.  I bought a sparkly watch while in Italy to remind myself that I am allowed to set aside time for ME.  In my life, this looks like waking up before the rest of my household.  It means taking time each afternoon before school’s out to break out my yoga props and drop into a restorative pose.  20 minutes should do just fine.

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It also means to keep the clutter to a minimum.  I don’t know about you, but nothing sucks the happy out of me quicker than a pile of stuff on my desk.  That nagging reminder that I have bills to pay, papers to file, invitations to answer is not ringing with joy.  I aim to clear out for a few minutes each day and make space to live presently without the burden of have-tos.

Another way I make space is to sit in my backyard and commune with our big old oak tree.  Its strength, stability, beauty, and patience soothes my soul in a way that’s hard for me to explain.  If I lived next to a creek, I know the sound of water would do the same for me.  Nature, nature, nature.  Always there to remind us that life goes on, even when an unanswered jury summons remains on the kitchen counter.  Life is bigger than our everyday tasks.  Finding a bench, a walking path, a flowering plant in our surroundings where we can go for just a few minutes each day can provide a gateway into our bliss.

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2.  Connect.  Yes, it would be nice to have our closest, most unconditional-love-filled people available to us at any moment.  Having these people on speed-dial is a great idea, but the reality is that connection can and should happen on so many different levels all the time.  It makes my day to hit the grocery store check-out line and know the name (and kids’ names) of the person helping me.  I love running to the dry cleaner and talking about family, life, and whatever comes to mind.  This week, my acupuncturist/therapist/friend and I laughed so hard during my session that his colleague had to shush us.  This is the stuff that lifts me.   Connection provides such healing energy, even though it’s rarely about baring your soul in a protected space, holding hands, and hugging.  Although, don’t get me wrong, I do love those sacred moments, too.  Especially the hugging.

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My guaranteed sources of unconditional love.

3.  Breathe.  (Does this fall into the space category?)  I always come back to this tool, but it always works.  Pause, breathe, and feel tension melt away.  Slow it down regularly.  It’s hard to feel inspired and joyful when you’re gunning it to your next appointment, fists clenched around the steering wheel.  Slow down and breathe.  Chances are you’ll get where you need to go just as quickly, and you’ll bring way better energy with you when you get there.  Which then helps you to connect.  And, it’s a lot easier to notice beauty in life when you slow down and breathe.  It’s there, at the ready to soothe your soul and dose you with joy.

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So, here’s to occasional get-aways that remind us how peaceful life can be.  And, here’s to creating some of that slowed-down, nurturing feeling in the every day.  Cin cin!