F I N D I N G Y O U R N O R T H S T A R is just as much about losing it. and the path you must follow to reclaim it, where with every step - an intake of breath and its release - you will find that you are moving... moving the shadows to clear the pathways, your rhythm and your focus, to push away distractions and to make way for clarity and light to fill spaces long lost and forgotten and desperate for air... [read more...]Read More
Neat and tidy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
This thought has been orbiting around my brain for a while now…for years. Ever since a dear friend laughed at me for ironing dish towels, my husband’s boxers, and just about anything with a wrinkle in it, I’ve been thinking about the wrinkles. Life’s wrinkles.
Can I live with them or not? The short answer is: yes, yes, I can.Read More
I’ve been lying about my age for a long time now. When I was living in New York City and working in the fashion industry I added five years to my thirty so that the men I worked with might take me more seriously. As if. I was more than a little naive but that was twenty years ago and I don’t have to lie any more. At last, I am finally fifty.
I’m still not sure why there is so much fuss and fear attached to turning fifty. I accept that we’re closer to the end of our lives and maybe we’re just inching towards our last “fu**able day,” something Amy Schumer learns a bit about from Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tina Fey and Patricia Arquette but why focus on that when there's plenty more life to live?
Granted, their's is a Hollywood picnic and a scripted send off for Julia’s vagin. The video does as much to perpetuate the fear of fifty as it does to dispel it. Hitting it head on and blasting it out of the park, these women are anything but “un-f**kable.” Sure, they won’t be playing the lead role of the young starlets but I don’t think they really expect to…I mean, seriously what fifty year old in her right mind would have an expectation to be the 20-something hottie? These ladies are all but dried up and could do anything they want - direct, produce, write, do nothing at all, date the pool boy - and more to the point, what fifty year old wants to be the “mutton dressed up as lamb”? Ugh, just think of all that stupid work and the energy involved making yourself look younger and denying yourself the truth, the beautiful truth that you have lived, and loved, and longed for fifty years on this planet?
Being fifty offers up a chance to just get over it [if you haven't already done so]…to ditch all those hang ups and negative judgments about yourself and others and to realize that being perfect is just not good enough. There’s plenty of books and songs about this very subject and ditching perfect is about as liberating as it gets – witness Dreyfus chug that pint of melted ice cream. Chug! Chug! Chug! We don’t have to take the chugging literally but we can certainly lighten up a bit and let go of the pressure always to be perfect, and just settle into …being ourselves, beautifully broken and perfectly cracked.
Being Fifty doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to feel good about yourself. It shouldn't involve putting your wrinkles and stretch marks and aching bones under the microscope. In fact, it’s just the opposite. It’s a turning point, a chance to turn yourself inside out and bring all that good stuff from deep down inside and put it out there…and put it to good use. Who cares if people don't like what they see? It has less to do with what other people think and everything to do with what you want to show to the world after fifty years living and breathing and being human.
Never has this been made clearer to me than on my fiftieth birthday when I received a few very special gifts, each one of them meaningful and profound…and each one offering me a glimpse at how I look at myself and how others I love perceive me.
The first gift came from my brother - a lithograph by Lillian Westcott Hale. She was one of America’s most successful impressionist painters. Born in 1881 in Hartford Connecticut, she studied under American impressionist painters Edmund Tarbell, William Merritt Chase and Philip Leslie Hale, whom she later married. The poignancy of receiving this gift one morning in a garden filled with dappled sunlight did not escape me. There I was standing at The Bee & Thistle Inn - neighbor to The Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Connecticut and not far from Westcott-Hale’s birthplace - holding the yet unwrapped present and crying as my brother pulled away and headed south.
When I later unwrapped the present, I gasped at the gentle sketch, a tender depiction of a woman in front of a window, safe inside her home yet exposed to the outside world. There is a stillness to the image, a quiet balance that draws us in, begging the question who is she? William McGregor Paxton, an American painter and instructor who embraced the Boston School paradigm and was co-founder of The Guild of Boston Artists, said that Lilian Wescott Hale drew with butterfly's wings. And he’s right...
The woman’s dress is layered, but not heavy. She shares the space before an unadorned window with only a swan planter and a barely discernible orchid: the swan - forever a symbol of awakening the power of self, balance, grace, and inner beauty. The orchid - a powerful symbol of love, beauty and strength. Her hand hesitates, caught in a moment, whether to reach out or hold back and there she is, suspended in that natural light born of butterfly wings. There are no curtains or furnishings or broad strokes to distract from this quiet space that is all her own. She is exposed but contained, vulnerable but strong.
My brother knows me well. Very well.
That in itself makes this gift remarkable and special but uncanny, too, for Westcott Hale’s work is hanging in The Griswold Museum right next door to the inn where I now work and where I first held this image and accepted its beautiful message.
The second gift, another treasure, arrived from a new friend, Vicky Cooley - someone who, unlike my brother, has not known me all my life, some one whose magic mingles with mine in friendship and trust and wonder of this world. Vicky and I work together and despite our age difference, we seem to be asking the same questions about ourselves and the world around us.
Her hand-painted card with Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese carefully hand-scripted inside will be framed and forever treasured. The image she chose to paint was a simple water color of a paddle boarder, her broad hips and strong legs heading out and away. There is a balance and stillness to the image which so closely aligns with Westcott Hale’s image…a woman alone with her thoughts, balancing, in the moment. My new friend is perceptive.
....Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting - over and over announcing your place in the family of things.
- Mary Oliver, Wild Geese
The third gift came from my son and my heart sings with his observations. My son knows me like no one else on this planet.
Fifty Things About Mummy is comprised of lists he wrote and typed and pasted to a board that he framed with driftwood we collected on Pleasant Bay beaches; nuts and bolts and metal bits from his father’s work shop and from my father’s too; seashells and mermaid purses; and words, fabulous words he chose to describe me: Loving, Caring, Best Cook, Adventurous, Funny, Good Worker, Doesn’t Know Fractions, Good Photographer, Likes Talking, Best Bed Maker, Likes Meditation, Gets Cold, Sleeps A Lot, Creative, Smart, Dresses Nicely, Doesn’t Like Surprises, Good at Lacrosse, Takes me Everywhere, Good Swimmer, LOVES reading, excellent writer, Good Driver, Best Clothes Washer, Worst GPS user, likes sunbathing, eats healthy, not over-protective, does things thoroughly, good tick spotter, doesn’t shoot guns or bows, knows when Dad’s not dressed well, thinks I’m a dare devil, likes things to smell nice, has a good sense of style, loves most animals especially Labradors, BEST back rubber, likes kimchi, good walker, buys cool sneakers for me, good runner, knows French, enjoys paddle boarding, likes to order and arrange things, not always patient, has a good nickname [C-A], Loves her Audi, likes good music, is 50 years YOUNG.
And there you have it…these are the fifty things about me that break my heart open with joy and knowing that finally at fifty, I can just be me …and what’s so scary about that?
Sometimes, you just have be brave enough to love all that’s scary and beautiful about you. Go on, Good Girl, love every precious moment and every year of you!!!
It’s an early morning here in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts and after an unusually long winter, we’re finally emerging, shedding layers, de-frosting our minds and bodies and staying in sync with the bulbs that are, at long last, pushing up all around us. It just feels right that the long-absent sun and its warmth should be lifting up over the hills as I am typing a story about Dawn Lane, as though it’s the name of a street heading somewhere bright, shiny and warm. I smile and think to myself: true to her name, Dawn Lane knows how to bring people to a bright place.
Dawn Lane is a choreographer and the Program & Artistic Director for Community Access to the Arts [CATA]. Based in Great Barrington, MA, CATA nurtures and celebrates the creativity of people with disabilities through shared experiences in the visual and performing arts. For nearly twenty years, Dawn has worked for CATA, within which she founded a mixed ability dance company, aptly named The Moving Company.
Over the years, Dawn has received numerous honors for her abilities as a distinguished dance educator and is one of three nationally chosen dance educators to teach Jacob's Pillow Curriculum in Motion™. With support from the Jacob's Pillow Dance Award Initiative, she was recently awarded a Creative Development Residency at The Pillow where she will rehearse and create ALL RISE: Court Dance. Her new work will be produced by CATA and will premiere this fall. A segment of it, Red Tape, will be performed at CATA’s annual gala and performances on May 16th and 17th at the Tina Packer Playhouse at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, MA.
It’s no wonder Dawn has received so many awards. As a teacher, she draws out what is most beautiful and pure in the artists with whom she works. As a choreographer, she astutely joins dancers with their audience. This past winter I had the pleasure of watching Dawn at work on Red Tape. A work-in-progress, its significance and meaning gradually took shape as each week’s rehearsal revealed a new layer to the dance. Red Tape is perfectly timed to emerge on stage after months of winter rehearsals, poised and ready to flourish in spring light.
Red Tape will be performed by a mixed company comprised of artists with and without disabilities. Dawn is working with dancers who possess a wide range of ability. Each dancer comes with her own specific way of moving, learning, and expressing herself. Addressing the different levels of ability requires some essential ‘tools,’ the first of which entails a deep respect for artistry and with that, expectations, too.
“Across all the genres in which we work, CATA Faculty Artists set a high bar for our artists with disabilities. The expectation to perform well and to do our best serves us all. There is something very motivating about reaching just a little bit higher in whatever we do” says Margaret Keller, CATA’s Executive Director.
In order to achieve lasting outcomes, CATA Faculty Artists employ humor, compassion, mutual respect and discipline throughout their teaching. This approach is at work each week as Dawn adds layers and cues to the dance, all the while guiding the artists through actual red tape – Walking. Tape. Walking + Tape… Walking + Tape + “under”…Walking + Tape + “under” + “over”…Walking + Tape + “under” + “over” + “Initials.” It’s a friendly, easy-going process but everyone is focused and working hard. There’s no slacking, no chatting, just friendly banter that keeps everyone on their toes…and moving.
Red Tape begins with dancers crossing the studio, as though pedestrians crossing the street, trying to get from one place to another…just a typical day. The next layer adds the simple, but profound element of tape – brightly colored, blinding tape that runs across the dance floor making the crossings more crowded and difficult. As the next layer is added, the bright threads intersect and form “blocks” in the road. Dawn’s instructions “back away if you can’t get through. Find a new route. Over. Under. Ask for help from others…” guide the dancers as they adjust and modify their movement, always attentive to her cues.
Throughout a seemingly tangled web of passers-by, helpers and obstacles, each dancer stops to perform her initials – a set of separate movements for each of the three letters of her name – as if to say, “I am” … “I am ready, willing and capable of moving through the challenges in my day - on my own and with the help of others.” When the dance closes, the connection has been made and I am humbled: I know each dancer’s name.
This is the beauty of Dawn’s teaching. In five minutes of dance she illustrates the power of individual ability as well as the power of community support and connection. Each component is essential to nourishing and nurturing artistic ability. I leave the studio thinking about these women and what their days might be like. How many life frustrations do they face alone? How many do they work through with the support of family, friends and teachers?
No matter the number of obstacles, the dance reminds me of their strength, ingenuity, resilience and tremendous ability to improvise and move through life’s tangles and knots. It is easy to renew my profound gratitude for CATA and its commitment to helping those with disabilities, filling their days with Possibility and guiding them away from Isolation.
CATA and its faculty, coupled with a loving and supportive community, pave the way for Possibility to thrive in the lives of those living with disabilities. It strikes me that the threads that join the many helpful parts of a community could just as easily replace the bright and tangled red tape on stage. Instead of being seen as obstacles they could illustrate the equally profound message that “I alone become myself. I cannot become myself alone.”
We are all here on earth to help one another. No one should be left out. It is with this spirit that CATA programming is carried out in healthcare, therapeutic, eldercare, educational, community, and cultural settings; serves over 600 individuals with developmental, physical, emotional, and mental disabilities; partners with 38 different human service and educational organizations, as well as individuals living at home; and leads 1000 arts workshops each year across Berkshire County providing a wide array of genres – painting, sculpture, dance, theatre, improv, drumming, singing, juggling, yoga, and creative writing.
CATA creates safe places for artists who, together with their mentors and peers, fill those spaces with creative accomplishments that are fueled on trust, compassion, and comradery. In the end, these programs do more than encourage growth and well-being. They break down the walls of Isolation and shatter any lack of awareness. Performing in public gives CATA artists a chance to dispel misconceptions about their lack of ability and to ease any discomfort that might occur when encountering those who are physically and mentally challenged.
On stage, these brave artists are inviting the public in: “Know Me.” “I am.” As they initiate a dialogue and build awareness of our collective ability to engage in this moving dialogue, it is not, as some cynics argue, “Objectifying Disability.” It is a moment when CATA artists are ready, willing, and able to show us the tremendous Possibility that exists in their lives and within their spirit.
On their own and as part of a supportive community, CATA artists thrive through their engagement with the Arts as part of a community that cares for and encourages them. Mark and Lee Ann Pettus are parents to Alex, their 22 year old son with Down syndrome whose needs growing up were fully embraced by the Dalton school system. Mark lights up when talking about his son and comments that Alex was rarely in isolation. He has always loved drumming, karaoke and dancing, and participates in Dawn’s Friday class. All of these activities bring out new sides of Alex and his joy invites people in. It’s wonderfully contagious and Mark adds, “The Performing Arts open people up… and they just…flourish.”
When an artist flourishes, it’s a beautiful, authentic moment. When their joy spreads and touches us, it brings light into dark places and softens sharp edges. This always happens at the CATA annual performances. When the artists perform, we do not see their disability. We are too caught up in Possibility and the wonder of a gift borne of boundless generosity, a gift that reminds us that we are all joined by brightly colored threads and that no one is ever alone when Possibility leads the way.
Community Access to the Arts 2015 Gala & Performance will take place on Saturday, May 16th with a matinee performance on Sunday, May 17th. Follow this link for more information about CATA’s annual gala and performances of READY WILLING & ABLE. Or phone CATA directly: (413) 528-5485. To learn more about Dawn Lane, please visit her site Dawn-Lane.com.
My ten year old son has been asking for a mask made by Huck DelSignore for a long time now. Like most kids, he has a great imagination. Unlike many grown-ups who have altogether lost or tend not to use them, kids use their imaginations to problem solve, to cope and to dream. Their imaginations are still very much attached, useful appendages to their psyche, not unlike a compass guiding an inner voice. It makes me wonder why as adults we ever lose touch with it.
Huck DelSignore is one grown up who could enlighten me on this subject as she is still very much in-touch with her imagination, a perfect example of how our imaginations and inner voices need not be restricted to childhood alone. It’s hard not to love her creations for all their weird and beautiful ways. It’s no wonder my son is drawn to their playful, beguiling forms.
Huck has a gift for creating ethereal, other-worldly creatures that, on the surface, are big-eyed and magically anthropomorphic but beyond the googly eyes and beneath rainbows of fur and crocheted fluff is the stuff of magical dæmons, replete with the surprising and most welcomed ability to conjure dormant imagery from the recesses of our minds. My mind always finds its way to His Dark Materials, the unforgettable fantasy trilogy by Philip Pullman.
In her Airstream studio in Housatonic, MA, Huck and I shared a cup of tea and talked about her childhood. Huck has always been an adventurer, probably a result of Nurture as much as Nature. Crohn’s Disease interrupted her teenage years and made staying in school and going to college impossible. Undeterred by the restraints of a conventional education and numerous operations to her intestines, Huck made a path of her own, ironically, by following her gut.
Huck is now a mother of three girls, and one more, a little boy, is on the way. Over the years following her high school surgeries, she has learned to manage her Crohn's Disease and balance it alongside Pregnancy and Motherhood. Healing for Huck required a lot of physical and emotional growth.
Post-surgery stretches extended beyond her body, past the tense scars - the emotional kinds, too. In time, she learned much more about self-care. She learned to mimic the diet of early eaters, because her digestive abilities were like a baby's; to eat the right things for her, like winter squash, rice, chicken, apple sauce and yogurt; to eat frequently; to listen to the early signs of discomfort as signals to detour around flare-ups; and to employ deep relaxation techniques instead of responding in fear that she was going to become terribly sick again and that nobody would be able to help her until it was full-blown.
Another key element to Huck’s healing is that she discovered something new, something that would keep her away from the gastroenterologist for years: Medicinal Marijuana. For Huck, it has been a profoundly effective choice in her journey to wellness and a method she readily prefers over “truly fu*#~d up pharmaceuticals”.
Huck's path to wellness began along her youthful journey across America. Hitch-hiking from one Alternative scene to the next, Huck was living in the moment, observing and learning all the way. Just one look at her worn and frayed travel journals and it’s enough to know that her imagination and inner voice were thriving right alongside her, neither buried nor covered up with “should do’s” and convention.
Huck did not fall upon the linear line that money and a certain set of social expectations often pave. She didn’t drink from the cup of Mainstream America and she never once sipped the proverbial corporate Kool-Aid, and for that, she remains authentic. It’s as though her imagination was never severed or, at the very least, was permitted room to roam and grow. There was never a chance that it might be lobbed off in the name of Corporate Productivity and Profit.
For Huck, there was no corporate challenge to her inner dæmon. She never expected herself to conform and therefore remained a free spirit. It comes as no surprise then that she is able to create magnificent ‘appendages’ for others. In so doing, she inadvertently manages to help them discover long lost dæmons buried deep inside. But being a "therapist" isn't at all why Huck crochets. Some sort of catharsis just happens naturally when people come in contact with her art and it isn't at all contrived. Now, that’s Interactive Art.
“As an artist, one of the most gratifying experiences is witnessing how people bring my artwork to life. People are eager to let their wild sides shine.”
When a Brooklyn photographer visited her studio with a few collaborators, they were overcome by her masks and propelled toward a moment of pure release, freedom, and let their imaginations run wild, beautiful and untethered, like the vines and overgrowth that filled the ruin where they played.
As one of Huck’s masks joins to a psyche, it liberates it from a world of “should do’s” and other conventions that keep us striving to be in the same box with others where we can feel “safe.” It’s nothing new, but the truth about human nature is that while we may crave “the box” that is Conformity and feeling a part of the mainstream, we are never truly safe, nor satisfied in any one box.
Masks perform many roles and allow us to transition in and out of those “life boxes,” moments of time populated by different people, different roles, different expectations and different outcomes. Masks can hold us back just as easily as they propel us forward. They enable us to express ourselves just as much as they help others open up to us. We all wear masks every day of our lives, but not the kind Huck makes...
Huck’s masks are deliberately playful, temporary expressions. They are the anti-thesis of the myriad invisible masks we wear throughout a life time - the ones we put on [and keep on] for our parents, for our teachers, for our siblings, friends, bosses and colleagues, lovers and spouses. Our invisible masks are at once both simple and complex, outward-inward methods of behavior, people-pleasing or displeasing measures that don't always reveal Authenticity. Huck’s masks reveal who we are when captured in a fleeting, spirited, pure moment, something that is as natural as child’s play but is not so fluid and natural for adults, whose years of wearing countless invisible masks has worn down the playful strokes turning them to self-conscious smudges.
Masks aren't at all bad. They serve a purpose. Stemming from insecurity just as much as good manners, masks inform us and protect us, from ourselves and from others. “Don’t say that in front of him,” “you better not act like that when she is around,” “Go easy on him…” or conversely, when the mask comes off “enough already, say what you want you to say,” “this is who I am. Like me or don’t like me”... and so on. Why as grownups are we surprised then when conflict erupts or does not erupt when we expect it to as we reveal ourselves?
If you put the wrong mask on one day, take it off, or don’t bother to wear one at all…who cares? During the course of a life time we all outgrow our masks as we discover that they no longer work and serve no purpose. While this process is as truthful, honest and liberating as it gets, ridding ourselves of masks, like shedding skin, is often uncomfortable, itchy and painful as both an ending and a beginning take shape.
Dropping one mask for another is at the very least, a truth-revealing pursuit, where, at long last, we un-do some patterns we've built up that no longer serve a Good purpose. In shedding unwanted layers and unraveling outdated patterns of behavior, we shift our brains, our perspectives and our hearts... and while we’re at it, we are gifted more room to breathe, and what could be healthier and more joyful than having more room to breathe and to breathe deeply?
As we trade Convention for Liberation, we get closer to a deeper understanding of ourselves so that when we do find ourselves in that proverbial box, stuck and unable to breathe – [and we will find ourselves there, because we are human] – we are capable of extracting ourselves. Struggling to breathe, want of fresh air, high anxiety are all part of being “boxed in” and they are present in our lives for any number of reasons…because we are not truly being ourselves; or we are not yet aware of our true selves; or we are not being seen as we truly are.
Ohlala, it’s all so beautifully Existential…but ohlala’s aside, if we don’t allow others to see our true selves, and allow others to look at us for who we are - beautifully broken and perfectly cracked - then it follows that we are not being truthful with ourselves…and sometimes that gets pretty twisted and boring…a clear signal that it’s time for change...and a new mask, the kind Huck makes.
We are all blissfully unaware of some of the masks we wear yet painfully aware of others. How many masks do you wear? For whom do you wear them, and why? Next time you come in contact with someone, anyone, anywhere – at home, at work, in a grocery store, hiking in a forest, making love, or just passing on the street – play this game and ask yourself: “Am I wearing a mask right now?” Have some fun answering these questions and then call Huck and have a new mask made, one that’s all your own. You might just love the outward expression of your inner dæmon and the freedom it brings. Sometimes, you just have to lose yourself to be yourself. Go on, Good Girl, Be You!
Huck’s masks have been featured in British Vogue and can be found at Mass MOCA. To learn more about Huck visit her website Huck and Stuff.
The thought of a 5:30am workout doesn’t make everyone jump for joy, but really, it should. Deep within us all is a call to wake with the sun and go to sleep with it, too, but that primal rhythm has been buried under layers of modern patterns and choices that rob us of our “get up and go, go, go!”
After a month of sub-zero, pre-dawn, sixty minute cardio-excursions with Tricia McCormack, I’m thinking that her TK-Fit program is THE BEST wake-up call I've had in a long, long time. Whatever we might think about layering up like the Michelin Man and starting our cars in negative degrees below zero before the sun has even winked at us, there is something beautifully counter-intuitive about a pre-dawn workout.
It’s difficult to lift ourselves out of bed when it’s dark and cold and the dream-world is warm, but Tricia has shown me that there’s something truly uplifting when our hearts are revving up at the same time the sun rises. On these mornings, waking up is less a part of an Alarm clock and more a part of an Align clock, as our bodies wake with the sun and our hearts pound to the rhythm of “I am sooo ready to be part of this day.”
What a great feeling! and Tricia has everything to do with it. She is an amazing teacher, capable of conjuring the very best from us as we shift from REM’s to BPM’s, but there’s more to it. TK-Fit isn’t just about getting up and out the door for a workout. It isn’t “all about you.” Of course, it's about you, but it’s also about being part of a supportive, healthy community. The sessions pair you up so that for every class you take, you are almost always working alongside someone new, learning her name and cheering her on as she pushes through another cycle. Each new pairing brings about a subtle shift as it slips into our focus, turning our thoughts towards another, and shifting our mindset from “I am here, working out for me” to “We are here working out together.” It builds an awareness beyond our own bodies that complements our growing self-awareness. I'm convinced that this is the glue, the 'essence,' that keeps Tricia's classes pre-dawn and strong.
Tricia is nothing short of a masterful teacher in her ability to capture this ethos and incorporate it into every 60-minute, super-sweaty, cardio-boosting session she teaches. It’s no surprise then to learn that she comes from a family of teachers; was awarded the Coach’s Award for her spirit in high school; and has years of experience in human resources as a motivational trainer for Monster.com.
Tricia’s classes are attended mostly by women, of all ages and abilities, who are motivated to improve their core strength as well as their ability to look after themselves and others. Many of her students have been part of TK-Fit for over 6 years. While they've been getting great results and enjoying the training, Tricia is always shifting things up to make it more healthful and rewarding. Boredom never enters the equation.
Each year Tricia introduces new programs to complement her TK-Fit classes and to create a broader awareness of good health. Just take a look at the TK-Fit Facebook page and you will see a smiling face for every dreaded burpee. The setting in the photos always changes from studio, to mountain, to snow covered hills, to the school playgrounds and our village sidewalks as Tricia incorporates playful ways to make workouts both challenging and fun. It's a totally creative way to approach burning workouts, not unlike the way a teacher might approach a grueling lesson and dwindling attention spans. An hour with Tricia passes quickly, but the feel-good-buzz of fulfillment carries on through the day, and isn't that what every great teacher wishes to achieve?
For the first time last year Tricia was a sponsor for the local Steel Rail Half Marathon and helped her students train for it. It was a great way to put their TK-Fit training to work and for all of them to be part of a larger community of like-minded people interested in health and wellness. It was mind-blowing and heart-warming for so many runners to discover that they possessed the otherwise unknown strength to accomplish their goals. They did all the work, and Tricia showed them how.
Before this last year ended, Tricia created a Holiday Challenge for her TK-Fitters. The program required accountability as participants reported their progress. It did not require a sledge hammer to maintain. The focus of the challenge was to encourage an awareness of daily choices – both good and bad – and to monitor them with a point system, adding points for good choices, and taking away points for those not-so good holiday choices. A daily food and exercise journal tracked sleep, water intake, healthy food and exercise. It was an effective way to build awareness and prevent a total “Health Deficit” by the time a new year arrived…
…and when 2015 arrived, Tricia and her TK-Fitters were more than ready to start the year with a healthy bang that combined Nutrition and Fitness. Teaming up with The Ultra Wellness Center, Tricia joined her students on a 10 day detox as outlined by Dr. Mark Hyman in The Blood Sugar Solution: 10 Day Detox Diet. Wow. Tricia really knows how to pull a team together and she sure knows a win:win when she sees one! But wait. It doesn't end there...Tricia is also a professional photographer and arranged a photo shoot to go along with the TK Fit 2015 new year detox. While she provided the Ultra Wellness Center with images to promote their upcoming nutrition lectures, a fabulous team of TK-Fitters acted as the models while receiving a thorough debriefing from the [incredibly] knowledgeable folks at The Ultra Wellness Center. Kinda' makes you wish you had done that detox with those fabulous TK-Fitters, doesn't it?
I mean, seriously, how lucky are we? Dr. Hyman’s Ultra Wellness Center is located right here in Lenox and it’s one of the many things that makes “us locals” grateful to live in a community that is thriving with health experts who share their knowledge, enhance our understanding of healthy choices and instill a greater awareness of health and wellness throughout our community. We're just oozing Wellness up here in the Berkshires!
Living in New England, we’re all very aware of how the seasons change around here: it’s not fall without a rake. It’s not winter without a snow shovel. It’s not spring without mud, lots of mud, and it’s not summer without Tanglewood and it sure wouldn't be winter or summer without TK-Fit Boot Camp! Tricia has created a motivating 6-week program to get fit OUTSIDE!!! This year, will mark the 9th outdoor training program that she offers twice a year. Pictured here, Tricia's ready for work, winter; and Tricia's ready for work, summer...
Anyone can experience the great outdoors every Sunday with Tricia as she gets your heart pumping. Each week features a different activity on two levels - advanced and beginner/intermediate – for snow-shoeing, sledding, lumber-jacking, spring training, and scavenger hunting. At the end of the program, everyone comes together to run a 5K-TK-Finale. Success is a big part of the celebration: just look at the expressions of confidence, pride, accomplishment, and joy in these photos. For more details on Winter Boot Camp, click here, and Go on, Good Girl, get your Lumberjack on!
Tricia’s classes are always packed and that’s because her training programs are diverse, challenging, effective and fun. She wouldn't have so many students returning year after year if it wasn't fun, but it’s about more than just having fun. Tricia wants to help people feel better. She wants to show them healthy ways to enjoy their journey to strength and wellness.
Just like a partner in one of her classes cheering you on, Tricia makes sure to get to know you and “your story.” She sticks with you on your journey and makes sure to celebrate the TK-Fit Rock Stars, those TK-Fitters who push themselves far beyond their comfort zone and well into the TK-Fit zone, a place where fun and fitness and friendship thrive alongside good health. Tricia goes the extra mile and shares the Rock Star stories on her website. Check them out! These TK-Fit Rock Stars are all beautiful women who have worked through challenges and are generous enough to share their stories so that others might find inspiration on their own journey to wellness. Like her TK-Fit Rock Stars, Tricia is an inspiration to many. Who cares if she makes our muscles ache for days!? Tricia is a Rock Star, and a mighty, mighty Good Girl, fer sure.
I am grateful for people like Tricia McCormack who shake me right out of my comfort zone and bring me to a place that is fun and fulfilling and totally rocking with good health! Thank you, Tricia McCormack.
Sometimes, you just gotta' stir it up to make things settle down. Go on, Good Girl, Rise with the sun and stir it up!
Tricia has been applying her love of fitness and moving and motivating clients to feel their best for over 11 years. She is a certified personal trainer & fitness instructor who teaches in Lenox, Massachusetts and regularly participates as a guest teacher at conferences throughout New England and the US. To learn more about Tricia and her classes please visit TK-Fit.com.
There are many hard-working parents, families, professionals and caregivers attending to an ever-increasing number of children with Autism. Autism is not just ‘someone else’s problem’. As numbers grow it is relevant to us all. At some point, Autism will touch your family and your community. It’s important to identify and share new ways to approach Autism as parents, caregivers and communities. We can all benefit from learning how to look at the condition from different angles in order to find answers as well as to find Hope.
At first, it’s difficult to imagine Hope when the numbers and associated costs of Autism are growing while care and treatment increasingly overwhelms parents, families and state systems. Some argue that it is not yet clear if the increase in cases is down to actual numbers of children with Autism or the methods in which children are diagnosed and accounted for. Either way, let’s not split hairs: the numbers are rising.
Autism in the U.S. has more than doubled from 1:150 in 2000 to 1:68 in 2010. According to 2010 data, Autism is about 5 times more prevalent among boys [1:42] than among girls [1:189].
For parents of children with Autism, there’s no Hope in hearing box-standard messages that “your child will never learn to speak,” “your child will never be potty-trained,” “your child will never be able to look at you and say I love you” yet they are dispensed de facto, like bullets.
If you are a parent who has been told that your autistic child will “never, never, never,” take heart. It is possible to shift the dialogue from "never, never" to Possibility. Parents need not be defeated before they even begin to Hope for a better life for their autistic child. It’s OK to Hope. It leads to Change.
Possibility thrives in Change. As humans, we are all capable of awakening dormant muscles in our brains, firing them up and enabling us to look at Life’s challenges with new eyes in order to find new approaches to road blocks and problems. Changing assumptions - our own and others - is the first step, a turning point where we change course and allow ourselves to say “this is possible,” “this can be done,” “there is Hope here.”
No matter what the challenge is, new measures need new tools. Trained guides can show us where to find those tools and how to use them to replace negative voices with the voice of Possibility, the voice that’s pounding away on our heartstrings with an upbeat refrain …“your child is unique and wonderful,” “your child is capable of so much more than never being anything,” “you are a beautiful parent,” and “this is not your fault, it is your journey.” It is possible for parents of an autistic child to learn how to unravel the web that has wrapped itself around their child, like a cocoon keeping them padded and safe but preventing them from learning what’s really beyond the layers of fuzz.
Tammy and Chris Merenda became foster parents to Ja’Quan, a severely autistic six year old in 2011. Prior to that, Ja’Quan had been moved from foster home to foster home, close to thirty times, before he came to live with them. Starting out as foster parents Tammy and Chris quickly learned that they had no authority to be “hands on” parents within the parameters of the state system. As foster parents, Tammy and Chris were not permitted to home-school Ja’Quan; they could change his diet at home but it would not be supported at school where "treats" are given as rewards as part of an ABA approach; and they could not take him off of medication which left him in a perpetual fog. The one thing they could do was adopt Ja’Quan and so began their dialogue of Possibility.
Tammy and Chris were not encouraged to adopt. Apart from two supportive social workers, they were dissuaded and instructed never to expect anything from their foster child, and never to hope for a transformation. “Never” went against everything they believed was possible for this special child. After an arduous legal process that lasted for over a year, Ja’Quan was officially adopted in 2012. Tammy and Chris were no longer ‘just a couple.’ Together with Ja’Quan they had become The Merenda Family.
This was not a snap decision for Tammy and Chris. They did not go skipping naively into adoption. In making up their minds to adopt an autistic seven year old, Tammy and Chris confirmed that they wanted the same things in life. They have a shared focus in their unwavering commitment and love for Ja’Quan and with that comes a deeper meaning to their lives.
People define ‘Meaning’ differently. What is meaningful to one person is not always apparent to another. Because of this, the Merenda’s decision to adopt Ja’Quan was not universally supported, more out of concern than out of criticism. Adopting a severely autistic child is nothing short of life-changing. Friends and family worried that Tammy and Chris were taking on too much and throwing away their future on a “hopeless cause.” Even the state system had Ja’Quan programmed for a life of little progress moving from one home to another before permanent institutionalization.
For Tammy and Chris, Ja’Quan is anything but a hopeless cause. He is their sun, their moon and their North Star, a special soul who has brought a sense of purpose to their lives. Neither feels that they are losing out in any way. Their relationship with Ja’Quan nourishes them as a couple and as individuals. It’s not a sacrifice. It’s a choice, and one that brings many blessings.
Without their shared focus, they would never have witnessed Ja'Quan's remarkable growth. Tammy and Chris approach each day by first identifying goals for Ja’Quan and the most suitable approaches to support them. They break each day into shifts and take turns to balance the load. They work closely with volunteers to give Ja’Quan the help he needs as well as the support they need as parents. Together with their volunteers, they are all on Team Ja’Quan.
Every day with Ja’Quan is physically, mentally and emotionally filled so every moment matters. Working with Ja'Quan is not a sprint. It is a long-distance endurance run. As a team, they know how to pace things and map out the most effective route toward Ja’Quan’s progress. Tammy and Chris would be the first to tell you that while there are many good days, there are some difficult days, too. Trained teachers from Autism Treatment Center of America, home of the Son-Rise program in Sheffield, Massachusetts, help them work through the tough spots.
The Son-Rise Program is an alternative autism treatment based upon the idea that the children show us the way in, and then we show them the way out. This means that, rather than trying to force our children to conform to a world that they don't yet understand, we join them in their world first.
According to the Journal of Communications Disorders The Son-Rise program has demonstrated measurable improvement in three key areas: 1] Social/communication skills; 2] Interactive attention span and frequency of interactions; and 3] Spontaneous social communicative interaction. The study was only 5 days long. Imagine the findings if a longer term study could be conducted!?
Following the Son-Rise program at home has been a steady process for the Merendas. One step at a time, Ja’Quan has made remarkable progress. He now speaks 2-3 word sentences but is capable of 6 word sentences, too. On Thanksgiving Day he said: "Be right back. Go cook bacon." If you hold up an object or show him a picture, he will tell you what it is. His high intensity moments [kicking, hitting, punching, biting, head-butting] have decreased and tantrums no longer last 3-4 hours but 5-20 minutes instead. He is potty trained and most beautiful of all, he says ‘That's my Mommy’.
While the Son-Rise program has provided necessary advice and training, Tammy and Chris needed to do more than just follow a program. They needed to change the way they structured their lives. They knew that in order to get to know their adopted son, they would first need to un-do all the patterns familiar to him and from there they could all start with a clean slate. How can you really get to know a person if he is drugged, eating poorly and restrained as part of a ‘normal’ day at school? You can’t. As soon as Ja’Quan was adopted he was taken out of the system to be home-schooled using the methods and techniques developed at The Autism Treatment Center of America.
This pivotal first step was the kick-start to a very positive domino effect. The Merendas were now on a road marked with many green lights. Sure, there would be pot holes, red lights and stop signs, but their focus was always on getting to the next green light. With Ja’Quan at home, Tammy and Chris could introduce a new diet, a new daily rhythm, and a new curriculum that would:
- Work with doctors to wean Ja’Quan off of drugs that “doped” him and impaired his ability to learn and connect with the world around him.
- Work with nutritionists to provide a healthy and consistent house-hold diet free of Gluten, Sugar, Dairy, and processed food and one that is rich in organic, fresh, whole foods.
- Teach without the use of physical restraint as practiced within “the system” during moments of “Intense Energy” [biting, hair pulling, hitting].
- Maintain an environment that would not over-stimulate the parts of Ja’Quan’s brains that are already developed [i.e., no t.v. or technology].
- Develop spoken language skills without using technology or sign language believing that Technology puts up a wall that hinders social development while sign language is not necessary when there is nothing wrong with vocal cords.
Ja’Quan’s playroom, aka Focus Room, is a square, colorless room with one window and a padded floor. One wall is a white board for drawing while the opposite wall is a mirror/observation window. There is also a side mirror on one wall which is an effective tool for building eye contact. Toys are not strewn all over the place. They are neatly shelved above to encourage Ja’Quan to look up and request them by name. There are no bright colors. There are no loud sounds, yet this is a fun place where Ja'Quan is encouraged to use his imagination, something Tammy and Chris saw very little of when he first arrived.
He no longer lines up toys side by side, or stacks them, or color codes them. Now he flies his favorite characters around on dragons with playful, gleeful words bouncing along with them 'jump!' 'run faster!' 'dive!" "cannon ball!' 'tuck and roll!' or is that 'rock and roll'? an expression that would come as no surprise given that Tammy and Chris are both musicians who met on Arlo Guthrie's Alice's Restaurant Tour [Chris was back up drummer and Tammy was "the merchandise girl".]
This is a joyful place where Ja’Quan’s voice practices new words and strings them together with the threads of his imagination. It is a place where his laughter is as prevalent as the tiny miracles that happen there each day.
Ja’Quan arrived with a vocabulary of 30 words, most of them learned from being plunked in front of a t.v. for many years and many hours. It is true - T.V. has a “calming” effect on children with Autism as it distracts them from “intense energy” episodes, but it also over-stimulates that part of their brain which is already highly active, leaving the other part in a perpetually weakened state. Tammy and Chris and their team of volunteers focus on developing that weaker side.
When it comes to deciphering Ja’Quan’s sounds, Tammy describes herself as a “happy detective,” a term used at The Autism Treatment Center of America. Tammy knows that “All these sounds mean something. They are words waiting for form” and she’s right: Ja’Quan’s vocabulary has jumped far into the hundreds and Tammy can no longer count his remarkable progress. Their first break-through happened when Tammy recognized Ja'Quan’s “pee-mee mar sets” as “pygmy marmosets” something he picked up from watching "Go Diego, Go!" Nickelodeon's cartoon adventures of an 8 year old Latino animal rescuer. As it happens and quite by accident, Tammy had just picked up those words on a recent trip to Peru. Ding!Ding! Green Light. Door Open. Advance to Go. Enjoy this Happy Moment!
Diego became part of the Merenda family. He aided their growing daily dialogue and was instrumental in connecting with Ja’Quan. Ja’Quan no longer watched t.v. but he could “interact” with his cartoon friend. Diego was not a barrier. He was a bridge.
Manifestations of the playful Latino character were readily accessible to Ja’Quan throughout his new home. As a bridge, Diego made it possible for Tammy and Chris to get messages through to their son. With Diego at the helm, potty-training took on new dimensions as an all-out family effort where every turd was cause for celebration. Within a dialogue of Possibility the first “mission impossible” had been tackled. Ja’Quan was no longer painting walls with his poop. He was doing things the right way, just the way Diego would.
Learning how to find “green lights” and build “bridges” is at the heart of the Son-Rise program which regularly counsels Tammy and Chris on their approach to their son’s Autism. It teaches parents how to structure and build a daily curriculum and how to identify the right goals to work towards. The program shows parents how to pay attention to the clues and cues their child sends out. Parents discover the ways an autistic child offers up “invitations” through eye contact [green lights] to join in and cross over [bridges] into their world.
The joining happens during the stim [repetitive behavior: spinning plates, flapping hands, tapping] when the child makes eye contact and is ‘ready to receive'. This is a 'green light' for a parent who is 'ready to follow’ and step over a threshold into their child’s world. When they are there together in that “other” world, they are totally present and completely joining in the act of just “being” together.
“Joining in” with an autistic child is a constructive process for the Merendas that has given them the building blocks they need to make a stronger bond with Ja'Quan. Rather than reinforcing “bad habits” as many critics claim, the act of crossing bridges and joining in is an act of Love and Trust that leads a family to the next green light.
Every time a child invites a parent in and every time a parent joins in, they are constructing more and more bridges and strengthening bonds as they go. Trust, Commitment and Understanding grow as parents join in with their child with increased frequency and ease.
The process is not imaginary. It is not temporary. It is real. Emotional bonds become stronger as the number of bridges begin to add up. Eventually the bridges join to make a solid road, a road paved with Possibility and heading in both directions...and this road is dotted with green lights and always pointed towards Remarkable Progress leaving the "never, nevers" well and truly behind.
To learn more about Ja'Quan Merenda, please visit his website, Help Us Help Jaquan. If you have a genuine desire to impact the life of a child and are interested in volunteering, please visit Ja'Quan's site for a listing of volunteer and paid positions. If you wish to give a holiday gift that truly makes a difference to a kid's life, please check out the list of playroom toys listed on the site.
September is a month of new starts. After a total summer reboot, I was re-energized and focused. I could not wait to get in to New York City for a series of private sessions with celebrity fitness instructor Kristin McGee. Some might ask why the heck would I need to go all the way to NYC for a work out when I have amazing yoga and Pilates coaches right here in Western Massachusetts? Why bother with the 3 hour journey to Grand Central Station when I live only 5 minutes away from Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox?
The simple answer is that I wanted to learn how savvy New Yorkers define a work:life balance as part of a healthy urban lifestyle. What better way to sate my curiosity than to team up with Kristin McGee? Kristin has lived in New York City for over twenty years since first arriving to study acting at Tisch School of The Arts. Her dream of becoming an actress morphed when her love of yoga revealed an opportunity to move from teaching yoga at Crunch Gym to teaching it as MTV’s Bendi Girl in 2002. She has since produced over 100 videos, acted as yoga consultant for The Nanny Diaries, and appeared on 30 Rock as Floyd’s fiancé, Kaitlin, who as a ‘yogaerobics’ instructor and ab model, is remembered for saying “I don’t have a lot of girlfriends because, you know – my body.” Amusingly, Kristin’s abs were featured in every one of Kaitlin’s costume changes so Kristin needed abs of steel and a sense of humor for the role.
Like many New Yorkers, Kristin knows her stuff. Manhattan is a land full of top-notch professionals, spread out over a grid of gutsy leadership, trendsetting, risk-taking and accomplishment. It’s not known as a place for ‘softies’ but make no mistake, Gotham has a soft side.
The New York City I revisited after actively avoiding it for nearly twenty years was a kinder, gentler Gotham than I ever knew when I lived and breathed it in my early thirties. Was this rekindled flame and regained fondness for The Big Apple down to the change in me, the change in the city, or being around Kristin every Thursday and Friday in September? The answer is: all of the above.
I met up with Kristin for a private Pilates session each Thursday in September. We spent time together afterward and would then meet up again the next day for her 10am yoga class at Equinox Gym [67th and Columbus]. I confess, I was anticipating a group yoga class modeled after a subway ride, something that when perfectly timed provided a quick entry, a bit of elbow room, as few stops as possible, and a well-positioned exit. It wasn’t like that at all. Each group session was an absolute pleasure. There was a quiet, friendly calm before class. Ladies chatted and stretched and put their phones away. Despite a full class room there was no jostling for space. There was room to breathe. There were no ‘loud New Yorkers,’ just one huge mea culpa on my part. I had got it all wrong and quickly ditched any remaining pre-judgments at the sound of our first shared om.
Kristin is an amazing teacher. It’s no wonder she has A-List clients like Steve Martin, Tina Fey and LeAnn Rimes but even great teachers need to learn from their students. I watched one morning as a student approached Kristin and together they walked outside the studio to talk. Minutes later, Kristin started the class on time and with a song. We joined her in something that felt and sounded so good, and beautiful, and filled with light. Kristin moved around the room adjusting us as needed, letting us know she was aware of each and every one of us.
After class, Kristin explained to me while in line at the Equinox salad bar that some of the students were disappointed that she was doing the class and not spotting them enough, adding “…and they’re right. I haven’t been doing my own practice in my own time. I’ve been combining it with my teaching to save time, and that’s not the way to do it. What a great wake up call.”
Now, this was a beautiful New York moment for me to witness. One person respectfully expressing her needs, another honoring those needs, no crazy body language or raised voices, and both of them pointed towards the same outcome. Kristin was grateful for the feedback and graciously admitted “I respect the students in my class. In the end, they are the ones who teach me.” This is the power of yoga. It teaches us to inhale-and-receive and then exhale-to-release so that we can let go of what holds us back and embrace the gifts that propel us forward, closer to what really matters.
Kristin leads a busy life, but I never once heard her say “I’m so busy.” She's been very busy indeed providing healthy tips and poses as a contributing fitness editor at Health magazine and as a regular contributor to Huffington Post, Mind Body Green, Bliss, and YouBeauty. She recently travelled to Berlin, with her “baby on board” to make her latest video for an international market.
Get out of town! Kristin travels frequently and so does her 15 month-old son, Timothy, who goes on every business trip with her. Kristin’s get-up-and-go attitude towards motherhood is admirable. Motherhood hasn’t slowed her down, but it has made her re-evaluate the way she spends her time. She WANTS to be with her son and she builds her private sessions and classes around his schedule. Travelling with her baby is just part of her job and she makes it all work by keeping her focus on what matters most. When she and I were on the subway heading to a mother and baby casting, Timothy was hungry and without a second thought or a big fuss she nursed him on the C line and quietly got the job done. It just goes to show you that Kristin’s not just ‘bendi’ on the yoga mat; she’s ‘bendi’ in life, too.
Whether Kristin travels to her home town of Pocatello, Idaho or to Los Angeles or to Europe she always incorporates some healthy habits: She walks as much as she can. She tries a local activity for a new way to exercise and she doesn’t eat every meal out. Instead, Kristin brings in healthy, organic food from a local farmers’ market or a health food shop.
Are yoga instructors even permitted to freak out or have meltdowns? What does Kristin do when travelling, teaching, writing, producing videos, being a mother, a wife, and a friend start to add up? She stops. She focuses. She catches her breath, centers herself, and then continues on. She might also call her mom and dad in Idaho. Staying connected with her parents and hearing their voices always helps to remove her from the proverbial hamster wheel.
Keeping calm and being able to steer clear of Meltdown Mode is a positive by-product of daily choices that are guided by Kristin’s yoga practice, which incidentally does not begin and end on the mat. Her practice remains a natural, continuous flow of checks and balances…invisible, unbreakable, ‘bendi’ threads woven throughout her daily life. For Kristin and countless others, this is the most profound gift of one’s own yoga practice, the ability to focus on what really matters by getting rid of what doesn’t matter.
Life will always be unwieldy at times no matter who you are or how much yoga you do. The regular practice of Yoga reduces stress build-up and can help to prevent meltdowns and system overloads. In this video Kristin shows us three stress-busting poses she uses to bring her back to center.
Kristin’s message as a teacher is less about getting “a perfect body.” It’s more about gaining inner strength, balance, flexibility and the ability to be present wherever you are, whatever you are doing. For as strong and impressively ‘bendi’ as she is, I suspect it is Kristin’s positive outlook that keeps her closest to center. If you ask about her childhood, her face lights up as she talks about her family, growing up in Idaho and their family troupe, K.C. and The Sunshine Kids. Her memories of singing and dancing with them are as joyful and uplifting to her as they are grounding. The foundation her family provided early in life is easily mirrored by the yoga she discovered later in life as a young adult far away from home and family. Young students arriving in New York City can seek out many things for comfort. Kristin chose Yoga to be her guide and it has never left her side.
When I finished up my last session with Kristin, I wished I didn’t live so far away. I wanted to take her class every week. As I walked away from class, away from the west side, through Central Park and down to Grand Central Station, I was in a gloriously good mood and for the first time in my life, New York was all warm and fuzzy. I left town with a greater sense of how Yoga has the ability to gently wrap us up in its teachings much the same way a loving parent might guide a child to all that it might love - inside and out - and that the journey there is all very wonderful, and wonderfully ‘bendi’.
‘Bendi’ has new meaning for me now. It’s not just an MTV neologism and it’s not about whether or not we can transform ourselves to look like a New York pretzel. Being 'bendi" is about staying focused on what really matters. As human beings, we are all ‘bendi’ and ever capable of becoming even more ‘bendi’ if we strive to go with the flow on the mat and off. Yoga teaches us the ways to become more ‘bendi’ in our bodies, in our hearts and in our minds. The 'bendier' we are, the more we breathe and the better we breathe, the more room we have to navigate whatever Life throws our way.
My time with Kristin showed me that where you live does not define who you are. A work:life balance whether it’s in the city or in the country boils down to the choices we make to keep ourselves focused on what matters most. The more ‘bendi’ we are, the more manageable, meaningful and joyfully balanced life can be.
As I left Grand Central Station and pointed west towards home, the giant billboard that greeted me along the tracks spelled GRATITUDE in huge letters and I smiled to myself and said, “Yes, that’s exactly what this is.” Thank you, BendiGirl. Namaste.
Something extraordinary happened this summer. I have been slow to find words to describe the sequence of events that taught me that the things we fear most in life have the power to bring us great joy and peace. What if the scariest thing in your life – the thing you feared most – turned out to be the most peaceful, beautiful thing you never imagined possible?
Never would I have imagined that my dog’s passing could deliver such peace and gratitude. Don’t get me wrong… I miss my beloved Congo every day. I cry on walks without her. I go to bed saying her name, and I dream of hugging her in my sleep where I experience the very real delight of having her in my arms again. How could I not? We had nearly fourteen wonderfully bonded years together, always side by side.
Congo had been sick for a long time. It was painful to watch her slow deterioration, but she held on, and on. We never thought she would make it past the winter. It was a brutal winter with one storm after another. I remember waking before dawn one morning to shovel a path through two feet of snow in negative 10˚F so that I could carry her out to pee before she had an accident and carry her back in before she froze.
As the sun came up and cast shadows over the stillness, the purity and the white, I remember looking out at the silence and soaking it all up…the paths I had cut…my breath playing on the air…bare trees in half shadow and light. I remember saying to myself: this is EXACTLY where I want to be. There is NOTHING I would rather be doing.
Congo held on through the spring and into the summer. I began to panic -seriously panic - when I realized that our summer holiday was booked and I would not be present for my dog’s passing. For more than thirteen years I had been living and breathing with her. Not being there for her last breath was an incredibly painful pill to swallow. This was not the way it was supposed to end. This was not “The Plan” I had in mind and yet, and yet…there is never a plan.
Congo spent the summer as she always did - with my brother John and his partner, JP, at their home in Virginia, a place she knew well and loved, having spent six summers there with her two sons, Trouble and Noir. Her final weeks were spent taking part in happy, relaxed moments together with all "her boys" and adoring friends. I am deeply moved by John and JP’s deep commitment and love for her, and for me. They lovingly picked up where I left off and helped us through this difficult time. I have written about it in a separate blog post [here].
Man’s love for his dog is boundless. It is as complex as it is pure and simple. For me and Congo, and for countless others, there is always a bit of magic wrapped up in it, too.
Shortly after my husband and I married, we sold our townhouse in London. Together with Congo, we moved to our home in the South of France, for the proverbial year [or two] in Provence. It wasn’t long before Congo and I both fell pregnant. Unbeknownst to either my dog or me [or my husband], our village of Cotignac has a reputation for making ladies – and Queens - fall pregnant, and this is where the “magic” comes in to play, as ancient village lore threaded its way through our lives.
The story of Notre Dame de Grace in Cotignac began in 1519 on August 10th and 11th when the Virgin Mary appeared to Jean de La Baume and asked him to build a chapel there. Et voila! The townspeople agreed and the chapel was built. Over a century later, on October 27, 1637 the good Brother Fiacre had a revelation that The Queen, Anne d’Autriche, wife of Louis XIII, needed to make three novenas to the Virgin in order for a son to be delivered to them – the first of those three was sent up to our village’s Notre-Dame de Graces en Provence. The queen then prayed with Brother Fiacre from November 8th until December 5th. Exactly nine months later, Louis XIV was born on September 5, 1638 and Notre-Dame de Graces en Provence is now, and not surprisingly, a noted pilgrimage.
Key dates from the story of our village chapel overlap with my own and Congo’s. I find myself compelled by the coinciding dates and how they provide some “glue” to the age-old mystery of Love and Loss. There is comfort to be found in context and connection, especially when confronted with loss.
It is possible [but not proven] that Congo fell pregnant on October 27th, 2002 - 365 years after Brother Fiacre's revelation and 66 days before she gave birth to nine puppies on January 3, 2003.
Congo had been deteriorating for over a year yet she held on through a crushing winter and spring in Massachusetts and eventually died in the state of Virginia [!] on August 11th, 484 years to the day the Virgin first appeared in Cotignac and as it happens, the same week that our baby daughter died there eleven years earlier, on August 15th – the day of the Virgin’s Assumption in to Heaven.
August is definitely my month for angels in France. Our home there is a quiet place of peace and reflection for me. As much as I resisted leaving my dog in her final days, it seems oddly fitting that I was in France when I received the news of Congo’s passing under the bright light of a super moon.
I wrote to my friends back home in America letting them know that Congo had left us on a moonbeam. The following day my son and I rode our bikes up to the chapel of Notre Dame to light candles in remembrance and gratitude for the sweet life she shared with us. When we sat down and looked up at the painting of the Virgin lit by votive candles below, I gasped…there was the Virgin floating on a moon beam. This made me happy, deeply so, as though it confirmed all my thoughts of my dog going to heaven on a moonbeam.
We continued to sit there in the silence staring up at the painting and feeling the peace in the chapel. Moments later, I asked my son if he saw what I saw in the shadows of the painting, just above the left tip of the moonbeam. I admit it’s a little like “fifty shades of black” and maybe it’s just the way the shadows fall when viewed from the left pew…but there in the black background that surrounds the Madonna, peeks the little face of a black dog on the tip of the moonbeam. We both saw it and returned a week later to see if it was still there. It is.
Coincidence, synchronicity, chance or imagination – people label things differently. For me, I am not looking for a label, especially when one is not needed. The stars were aligned and the dates fell as they did and we saw what we saw in that peaceful chapel. No matter what it’s called – scientific or spiritual - I took huge comfort in knowing that my beloved dog and all the good in her was mysteriously aligned with an ancient story belonging to our village’s Virgin; and of all places to die, she ended her days in the state of Virginia. It made losing her and letting her go, somehow easier, softer, and I worried less. It allowed me to think less about Loss and more about Love.
Her death didn't have to be an ending. As I carry this love, I am grateful for the lingering sense that Congo has continued on, moving toward something new, something ‘higher,’ just there at the tip of a moonbeam. In the end, what I feared most did not break me. It re-shaped my ability to accept Loss and not fear and resent it. As I hold on to the many happy years Congo and I shared, always side by side, I am filled with Gratitude and Love and I know that this is a very, very precious gift indeed.
Here we are in the land of buttery croissants, tantalizing Rosé, excruciatingly gorgeous cheeses and yet we are detoxing. Ohlala. What the heck are we thinking?! Our friends give us crooked looks. They have 'non' respect for this sort of behavior and don’t hide their dismay: You are too American. Relax, be happy. What’s a little sugar?You are on holiday, yes?
I completely agree. They are right to question this odd behavior, for there is nothing better than to arrive at Nice airport, take deep breaths of the dry coastal air - an aromatic mix of thyme, rosemary, dried earth, sea and cypress – and count the minutes speeding down the Autoroute only slowing for speed cameras until you can at last press a chilled Rosé to your lips.
From the moment you touch down and say “Merci. Bonne journée” to the friendly immigration officer and then stuff your American passport away, every one of your senses is firing away, urging you to Relax. Enjoy life. Be in Rome when in Rome… or Provence. Fear not, my friends. Those lovely French sirens are not being completely ignored. They are just being held at bay, albeit for a ridiculous ten day sugar detox in the South of France. I’ve done stupid things in my life and this might be one of them, but hear me out: there are some very good reasons for it.
First off, if we were staying for a two week holiday, there would be NO detox. We would dive into life over here and enjoy all that is on offer and relax with impunity. We would deal with the consequences upon returning to the states and figure out some kind of detox after the fact ...but we are not here for 14 days. We are here for 60, so taking it easy for the first ten days is a healthy way to allow a digestive system to adjust gradually to the travel, time change and dietary wonders. Talk about Slow Travel…this is definitely a surreal stop on The Slow Road.
Despite all those concerned looks we’re getting from friends, it’s not all bad. It’s not like we are detoxing on multiple levels. We’re just knocking out the sugar for ten days. Besides, it is far easier to detox away from home once you've broken your routine. My husband Tony and I quit smoking together twelve years ago. We went to Parrot Cay for two weeks and slept it out of our systems for the first three days and then spent the next eleven days replacing old habits with new. Tony opted for the impressive afternoon tea cakes while I opted for Pilates, yoga, and Reiki treatments. He's been enjoying tea cakes ever since and now he’s ready to jump off that proverbial cliff of a sugar cube and put an end to sweet urges.
This is my husband’s first sugar detox and I am really happy he is doing it - that’s why I am doing it with him. Granted, I have an unfair advantage. I did my sugar detox once, and have since maintained a low glycemic diet so this is easy for me. I [truly] enjoy a routine sugar purge, but it’s tough going for him. He loves his morning toast with butter and marmalade or honey. His day peaks with tea and tea cakes in the afternoon. He prefers his wine over tequila and can’t imagine a French meal that isn't capped with something deliriously egg-y, creamy and sweet.
To be fair to him, that’s why we are only focusing on sugar. To go the full nine yards for a total detox would be impractical, stupid … imagine no dairy, no wine and no caffeine in France…now that would be insane. Baguettes might not be sticking out of our market bag but we are still enjoying our grand crèmes [café au laits]; wrapping our gloriously stinky cheese in roti ham; and devouring piles of market fresh vegetables each day.
While I am not drinking alcohol, Tony has put aside the Pastisse on ice, chilled Rosé, and le petite pression [tiny beer]. Instead, he is discovering the no-sugar freshness of chilled tequila with lemon and fizzy water as an apéro. After a session with his head stuck inside the engine of our ancient Renault [aka “Jolly” because she is not so Jolie] he admits the disarmingly simple Mexican tincture is “rah-ther refreshing.”
Apart from giving our systems a gentle introduction to all things new and French, there is also a subliminal bonus to this bizarre sugar detox in France. For all of us who travel, we know that from the moment the wheels hit the road, the boat sets sail, and the plane takes off, we leave “our world” behind. We move towards a realm that is beyond our every day and it is here where we can relax, let go, and “cleanse” ourselves of the weight of our every day. We replace it with things that are lighter, brighter, uplifting. In doing so we recharge, reboot and revitalize and let go of the debris that weights us down. That, my friends, is exactly what we intend to do this summer, but it goes even deeper for us.
For every year that we have lived in the states we have spent as many away from our home in France. It is a place that is dear to us yet we tend to its taxes, its bills and its maintenance from thousands of miles away. The 300 year old stone farm house waits, silent and boarded up until our return. In turn, our year is marked by the time in between our two worlds. When we do return, we get straight to work. We haven’t stopped since we arrived.
As much as we are outwardly busy with projects, we are just as busy inwardly as we reconnect with a place that holds many memories and much meaning for us. For years, we have watched the sun cast shadows over its fields from morning until evening and apart from the mistral that currently assaults us, it is always peaceful and still. Soon the sound of the mighty winds will be replaced by the songs of cigales and while the wind continues to whip up and the shudders bang shut, we keep busy "putting things right". As each day edges us closer to full-on vacation mode, we let go of our day-to-day life in America. The physical detox is joined by a spiritual detox as we process the past year and shift our focus to the silent, pensive parts of our hearts and minds.
As odd as this may seem, our home is also in need of a metaphorical detox. Pipes are calcified from lack of use; my claw-footed iron bath groans as we turn her on for the first deep salt and lavender bath of the season; and the dishwasher and washing machine ache as they are called to duty. It will take a while for our house, as well as our own systems to unclog and reawaken after a year’s pile up.
Beneath all our chores, there is a metaphysical give and take between us and our home. It feels good to be back in our home attending to all her needs, breathing life back in and allowing air into all the dark corners that have been left untouched, not unlike the way a detox clears away our dark patches. We are swept up within her walls and over her fields where the rhythm of a home has no alarms to wake us and timing has nothing at all to do with hands on the clock. Unwind indeed. It is a peaceful place, a perfect sanctuary for proper rest and a healthy detox to clear away the cobwebs, literally and metaphorically.
If home is indeed where the heart is, then on some magical level, this home needed our heart beats for it to come alive and for a pulse to run through it. For that alone, I can’t think of a better place to undergo a detox than in France while reconnecting with our home, whose pipes are as rusty as our own. Maybe, just maybe this detox in France is not such a crazy idea after all?
Writing did not come naturally to me. It took years and loads of practice before I was any good at it. I lacked a key ingredient - the confidence to express myself, to let my words go and allow them to find their own way. Ironically, I would never be writing for myself were it not for some things I learned from work, not from school or my personal life. For the purposes of this blog hop, I’d like to share a few lessons I learned from some very clever bosses on a corporate playing field where writing is anything but personal.
I first started writing straight out of college at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston where among other things I compiled the quarterly newsletter. I was technically skilled at formulaic writing but had ZERO knowledge of composing “a bigger picture.” In fact, it was the first time I had ever heard the expression as it was regularly summoned by the incoming media-savvy museum director, Anne Hawley. While she was all about “The Big Picture,” my editors were the incredibly brainy curators who taught me the micro. This was the first glimmer showing me that Writing is as much about the macro as it is about the micro.
All writers know that you can’t write unless you know what you are writing about. I learned this for myself when my career shifted from museum work to corporate public relations at Giorgio Armani in Boston. It was here I learned that in order to write well, you can’t sit around and expect words to come. You’ve got to get up and get out there to find them.
I was expected to work five days at PR and an additional sixth day – every Saturday - on the selling floor assisting the sales staff. I resented the six day work week. It was agonizing. As a young twenty-something I was unable to grasp the importance of being in-sync with my colleagues and in touch with the business I was writing about and promoting. It took some time and significant growing pains for me to realize that my boss, Donna Montgomery, was doing me a huge favor, showing me that I was part of a bigger picture, that it was not about me. It was time to ditch my twenty-something ego and learn my place and my role in the business of public relations. THE BEST writing practice, whether PR or private, is to get out of the office and get in touch with the story and all its parts… the client, the product, and the trends. No PR Princess in an Ivory Tower will ever be good at writing unless she keeps up and gets out of her own way.
When I moved from Boston to work for Giorgio Armani in L.A., I did a proverbial “Linda Blair,” turned my head around in a complete circle, and threw up everything. Blaaaaghghgh. Once again, I ditched the ego and learned how to do things in a new way, a West Coast way. That was daunting, but I confess, it was thrilling. My boss in LA, Wanda McDaniel, was a gifted writer, but she was a brilliant strategist, too. She made certain that every word she chose supported the message she needed to convey. Every time I sat on the other side of her desk and scribbled down her messages to Mr. Armani, A-List celebs, and Hollywood’s Power Elite, I was learning the true meaning of crafting a message.
Sadly, Grief was my next boss-Teacher. After my daughter died, I stopped writing. My light had gone out. I could not articulate my struggle. For years, I had no voice and I mourned for its return so that I could express both the agony and the beauty I held inside. I eventually found "safety" in writing when I went back to work but beneath it all, I knew that if I truly wanted to write in order to express myself, I would need to jump beyond the corporate to the personal. To do this, I not only had to regain my confidence but I had to find it in the first place. It was a slow process but my voice did eventually return to me, and it was different. I was different, both had been forever changed in an instant and over the years. I like this voice better. It’s not always so frightened to say something wrong.
What am I working on/writing?
The process of writing every day is not at all new to me. I’ve been non-stop-writing for the past thirty years. What IS new to me is the JOY of writing for myself. I am working on keeping that joy flame going for as long as possible. Writing Good Girl Go stories offers me a chance to do just that.
2) How does my work/writing differ from others of its genre?
What strikes me is that my subject matter is very similar to so many others. I guess I am not so very unique after all, but that doesn’t bother me one bit. I love that so many people out there are interested in health and wellness and are trying to improve lives, their own and others. I love that we are not trying to be perfect, that we are accepting of our flaws and searching for and finding ways to nourish our mind, body and spirit. We can all learn from one another and partake in a movement that can better ourselves and indeed, our world.
3) Why do I write what I do?
After banging out press releases, business proposals, fundraising pitches, press strategies, brochures, advertising jingles, anything in the name of corporate communications, I no longer wanted to spend my time writing about things that were not meaningful to me. I now write about things that have inspired me to grow in ways I might not have otherwise. It took a long time for me to gain the courage to open up and write in this way. Another part of me wanted to write about the experience of losing my first child at birth but I did not want to focus on the sadness and trauma of it all. I wanted to focus on the other side of it, the part that is the Deep Peace and Fulfillment that eventually comes from Grief, the part that makes us Grateful to be alive and appreciative of what we do have in our lives and not hooked on what we have lost. At some point, we all get knocked for six. I like to write about what happens after we work through it. It makes being human, wonderful after all.
4) How does my writing process work?
I write all the time, but mostly in my head when I am dog walking, driving, preparing a meal. Only when I am ready to write do I sit down and type. Then it’s just flow and edits, flow and edits. Time flies for me when I write. It’s pure joy as I pull thoughts and words together. The act of writing brings me to where I really want to be, a place where I am connected to my thoughts inwardly while expressing them outwardly. I am grateful to be here, finally, after all these years.
Participating in this blog hop has opened up a new dialogue for me and brought to my attention many fine and intelligent women who are sharing their words, their wisdom, and their humor. I am grateful to Laurie Luh at Mimosa Lotus for bringing me into the loop and am thrilled to introduce two very inspirational fellow blog hoppers - Katherine Miller of Kosmic-Kitchen and Keryn Means of Walking On Travels . Like Laurie, they also know some inspiring ways to make your life awesome and healthy...
The glorious season of fresh farm food hit the ground running in early May and I was excited to help my friend’s mother, Adrienne Metcalf, at Peace Haven Farm in Becket, MA. I couldn't wait to get ‘up there’ and away from it all for three days. I arrived and spilled out of my car and into Mother Nature’s lap.
Adrienne and I had never met before and as she came over to greet me, I anxiously explained, ”I…I had to bring my dog…she’s…she’s not doing too well…” In an instant, I was in floods of tears. Over the past months, I have been watching my much beloved dog journey between Last Rights and miraculous bounce backs. At the same time, I am witnessing my mother recede into the mist of Alzheimer’s. Both form a complex, painful juxtaposition.
It’s no wonder then that when I set eyes on Adrienne, I saw the physical embodiment of Mother Earth – tall, statuesque, sagacious and kind - and who better to cry to than a goddess?
Adrienne expertly settled my nerves. She, too, had been through this before with her dogs and for precisely the same reason I was crying in her garden would no longer be falling in love with a dog. Tears over, we both agreed that there’s nothing better to mend a broken heart than gardening and with that, we set to work.
Consistently warm weather had finally arrived. We opened up the greenhouse slats, raised the plastic side walls and switched out the winter hose for the summer one. All the while, Adrienne walked and talked me through the farm, explaining the tasks for the day. She is an excellent teacher. For every action there is a reaction and there is no better place to see this at work than in her garden.
Adrienne is a proficient autodidact who devoured Eliot Coleman’s teachings and applied them throughout the farm. She and I are both humbled and awed by Coleman but for slightly different reasons. As a self-sustaining organic farmer, Adrienne has learned valuable methods from him. As for me, I did not learn about Coleman until I was an adult, a by-product of generations that had overlooked Eliot and had cast him as a hippy demon and denounced his prescient vision and practices as those of a renegade “Pinko.” I am sad for the time lost, that we are only just waking up as a nation to his profound contribution.
Our big project over the course of three days would be a slight departure from the teachings of Eliot Coleman as we prepared Hugel beds. Pronounced “HOO-gul,” Hugelkultur is a permaculture practice that uses woody debris including branches, twigs, and hard wood logs as a resource, rather than burning them or removing them. When you see the beds for the first time, they resemble ancient burial mounds, complete with ‘sacrificial’ hard wood logs and slash in a ditch below that feed the plants above; act as sponges to conserve water; and make room for air as they decompose. As we weeded the beds, we replanted clover along the sides of the Hugel beds. Clover roots are topped with nodules of bacteria that work with nitrogen and hydrogen to form ammonia and nitrates. What is not used by the plant remains to enrich the soil.
We then carted aged horse manure and dumped it on to a Push-me-Pull-me. There was a whole lot of shaking going on as we ‘sifted shit,’ a metaphor that was not lost on me as I reflected on my own life and the shaking required to work through it to find what is most nourishing. Shit happens to all of us. What is surprising to me now at nearly 50 is the force at which the sadder memories – the shitty years - have resurfaced. Oddly enough, they've come at time when I've been feeling pretty darned good, having made tremendous progress working through challenging health issues. I had not invited those dark memories back into my life, yet there they were banging on the door to my psyche at a most inconvenient time, demanding to be heard. Had they not seen the GO AWAY mat on my doorstep, the one woven in threads of Denial and Hope?
Until recently I truly believed that I had processed "dark matters" years ago and that I had put them to rest. Newsflash: I had processed them as best I could years ago. As a teenager and young adult, my best coping skill was to accept what I cannot change and move on with my life. Simply put, I buried things and with that, the darkness covered the light, layer upon layer for many, many years.
Like plants in the garden, dormant emotions inevitably burst from deep within us all. It is at this point where I find myself a teenager again - frightened, overwhelmed and alone. The force of the flood of returning emotions has left me breathless for emotional resolution.
There is a reason I landed in Adrienne’s garden and unfolded with a broken heart the week before Mother’s Day. I needed some mother-love and the universe delivered. I love how that works. Ask and ye shall receive.
Adrienne has a special way about her. She is an old soul with a young heart, an adventurer, and one who has lived life fully. Adrienne is as grounded as she is part of the ethereal beauty that becomes her. She’s switched-on, plugged-in to the earth, and tuned-in to a higher being. If Compassion could be detected on a Geiger counter, then she’d be off the charts.
Adrienne inherited the property that has become Peace Haven Farm from her father Paul C. Metcalf, a “Yankee” writer who had very close ties to Black Mountain College near Ashville, North Carolina during the 1950's and 60's. The college emphasized that learning and living are intimately connected. Both faculty and students participated in work on the college farm, constructed buildings, did maintenance work, and served meals. All classes focused on fine arts, music and drama and were scheduled at night to allow time for work on the campus during the day.
With an early childhood in a setting like that, it doesn't surprise me that Adrienne is now farming and baking beautiful and healthy things and that the house she shares with her husband Josh is brightly painted on the inside and a modest brown on the outside. Like book ends to Adrienne's life, there are similarities between her father's choice of work and what Elliot Coleman was trying to accomplish through Homesteading in Maine.
Adrienne’s mother, a southern belle, and her father eventually settled in Becket, MA, not far from where Adrienne's father's great-grandfather, Herman Melville, called home - Arrowhead in Pittsfield. It was Adrienne’s grandmother who discovered the Billy Budd manuscript in a bread box in the attic. From there on, the self-deprecating family joke was always “you’re never fully appreciated until you’re dead”. Like books, gardens live on for future generations to discover and to steward.
I am not a gardener and what I am about to write probably comes across as old news to those readers who are gardeners … it quickly dawned on me that the garden is about the best place to think, and reflect upon life. There is a physical and metaphysical flow that gives purpose to the work as each labor emulsifies the proverbial darkness. As we tend the garden with our hands deep in rich soil, our pain, loss, and sorrow break down and allow for light to come in and fill the cracks, like water sinking through soil, harvesting Gratitude instead of Fear. I am reminded of the quote:
Help us to be ever faithful gardeners of the spirit, who know that without darkness nothing comes to birth, and without light nothing flowers. ~ May Sarton
There is an unspoken rhythm to the garden as words flow and spirits are fed by a conversation that transcends Time and our Life to-do’s. Adrienne and I wore no watches and as our days together ticked by, the “real-world” slipped away, leaving us closer to our senses and freeing us from the noise of every day. This is a sacred time with Nature, a time when real magic happens, a time when we are able to lose ourselves to the rhythm of planting, dropping a seed, visualizing its root - a shared meditation as the warmth and sunlight find their place in the earth, and in our hearts and in our minds.
We are all broken in parts and could choose to spend hours on a therapist’s sofa; or pop pills to make us happy; or bury things so deeply that we no longer care to feel. Or we could choose to do something very uncomfortable: confront our fears, dash them, and then let them go. It is one thing to allow our pain to break through, but it is quite another to recognize that as adults we are fortified with more tools in a tool box borne of life experiences. We can choose to look the dragon in the eye. We can find the courage to venture deep into the belly of the whale and in the end, the beast that is our own darkness can be felled, but not without a painful journey. It is not unlike the tremendous strength required for a bulb to push up from the darkness to reveal its tender bud.
Adrienne's outlook aligns personal spiritual growth with advancing global awareness and a shift that is bridging the individual with the global community. "In this world of deep polarities isn't that what we're all being asked to do - to take a second look, to make a better choice, to use all the false and bad starts, the pain and the mistakes as manure to grow a better garden? Yes, I'm onto the global social situation because what is the difference between the macro and our personal micro?"
I've added her words to my tool box and know that when unwanted feelings come rushing from out of the darkness and are banging at the door, I can take great comfort and look upon it as a second chance, a glorious opportunity to free myself from the past, and I can let go of the weight of its darkness. “Go on, open the door,” I say to myself as I invite Pain in and put the kettle on. “It’s time for a long overdue chat.”
As the first hummingbird flies inside the greenhouse at Peace Haven Farm and Adrienne cries “Joy!”, a new light enters after a long winter. I feel it tickle my dendrites, like roots to a plant and I know that I am in the right place, for the right reason and bang on time.
Sometimes you just have to invite the darkness in to let the light shine. Go, Good Girl Go!
Peace Haven Farm Stand is open year round – 509 Quarry Road Becket MA 01223. Call for shop hours or to sign up for their weekly emails:  623.5208
For more information on Elliot Coleman, I highly recommend reading This Life is in Your Hands written by his daughter, Melissa Coleman.
For more information on Hugelkultur here is a good link: http://allthingsplants.com/ideas/view/dave/41/Building-a-Hugelkultur-Raised-Bed/
For years, Dan Harris has delivered news stories as a respected ABC News anchor. Now, he’s delivering a new story – his own. Dan is a gifted story-teller. He’s in one of the toughest, ratings-driven professions on the planet where there is very little room for error and being “perfect” in the public eye goes with the territory. How ironic then that his first book, 10% Happier, exposes his imperfections. With humor and an authenticity that we don’t often see, he succeeds without preaching to teach us about Meditation. At the end of his story, the mother in me just wants to hug him and say “thank you. Thank you for being so brave and honest.”
If there’s one thing Good Girl GoGoGo likes to write about it's life-affirming stories about good people who work through difficulties and then have the strength to share their stories with others so that they, too, may heal. In a previous Good Girl story I wrote about the Hero's Journey, “I can’t help but be reminded that when we think of the archetype mythological hero and his journey, we intuit a man, his journey and his struggles, and his ability to impart wisdom to others upon his return home. The key to this myth is that throughout his travails the hero [actually] stops along the way to ask for directions from wise guides who make his journey more…meaningful. It is this ability – to ask for guidance as well as to share knowledge - that turns a mere mortal into a Hero because he is both able to listen and learn as well as to teach and help others.”
Dan would be THE LAST person to call himself a Hero, especially in light of the fact that he has reported from war zones in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq where people put their lives on the line every day. Dan is a different type of hero, a hero whose story reminds those of us who are suffering that we’re not in this alone and that there IS a healing path to wellness – you just have to be open to it and willing to practice, and then practice some more.
Dan Harris’ book 10% Happier came out in March 2014 and by April, it shot to #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. If you think the book’s success is the result of the massive ABC megaphone that helped to propel it, think again. Its success is down to something far less cynical: an overarching societal craving to slow down and get a better handle on things and to be more…human.
It takes a lot of courage for anyone to share their personal story, let alone someone in the public eye. Dan is pretty hard on himself, but with a self-deprecating sense of humor. In a manageable 237 pages he distills the concept of ‘monkey mind.’ Using accessible language and his personal journey as backdrop, he deciphers Meditation. Lucky for us, he demystifies the airy language, cuts through the cosmic goo and shows us how science supports the practice of mindfulness.
Dan’s story begins ten years ago with an on-air panic attack in front of 5.019 million viewers. What unfolds is a lively tale about a young man in a thrilling job and the consequences it has on his health. After covering the war in Afghanistan and visiting the Taliban home base in Kandahar Dan writes, “I was hooked.” Reporting from the war zone was “journalistic heroin.” His story continues with whizzing bullets overhead in Tora Bora where he was under additional pressure to prove that he was not too green to cover the war.
In talking with Dan, he was clear about his experience: “I liked what I was doing. It was thrilling.” At this point, his already addictive personality accelerated way beyond his mother’s chocolate cake and morphed into a more serious addiction to adrenaline. When he came back home, he says “life was flat and grey and that’s when I stupidly started to self-medicate on the weekends with cocaine” … and then came the on-air panic attack. Your heart breaks for him when you watch it, but don’t worry – he’s anything but pathetic, and definitely bounces back.
Dan knew he needed to change his habits. What he didn't know is that he had to change his way of thinking, too. His book catalogs his progress through years of discovery and challenge and one of his life’s many ironies: the profession that led to his adrenaline addiction ultimately led to his “salvation” as well.
Dan went from covering the war to covering religion in America, a different sort of war zone. It was another beautiful life irony for Dan: the assignment he was least interested in personally [Religion] brought him to his most profound personal discovery – Meditation. Like a reluctant rower on a river leading to Nowhere-other-than-Salvation, Dan met many pivotal characters along the way – Evangelical Pastor Ted Haggard; Self-help gurus, Joe Vitale, Eckhart Tolle and Deepak Chopra; oh, yes, and Paris Hilton – some of whom are encapsulated here in The 6 Strangest Things Self-Help Gurus Have Told Me.
He also interviewed His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, who admits "Enlightenment does not depend on rank. It depends on practice!" It's an endearing exchange where they easily talk about Enlightenment, Anger, Reality, Impermanence, Illusion...watch it!
Dan gradually grew into the assignment and accepted that “at a time when religion had become so venomously divisive, thoughtful reporting could be a way to take audiences into worlds they’d never otherwise enter, and in the process demystify, humanize and clarify.” Little did he know he was taking himself into a new world, edging closer and closer to Meditation.
Dan resisted meditation. Apart from his understandable aversion to pan flutes and hand symbols, he wanted science to prove its benefits. He also feared judgment from friends and colleagues. He writes “I would either clam up and get a sheepish look on my face, the way dogs in Manhattan do…or I would launch into an off-putting, overly emphatic lecture…” By the end of his story things change on this score. Not only is Dan more comfortable with it, his bosses and colleagues are too.
It’s clear from Dan’s story that he has a good boss in Ben Sherwood, the kind we all dream about [he has since been promoted to Head of ABC]. Ben, the antithesis of a detached overseer, encouraged Dan to “UP YOUR GAME,” and become a “LEADING MAN.” I asked Dan “what is it about Ben that made you trust him enough to come clean and talk about 'old stories of drug abuse'?” I learned from Dan’s reply that the trust was always there. There wasn't any big emotional build up to coming clean. I can’t help but feel happy for Dan when he describes his boss…
"Ben is an extraordinary guy. I’ve had a long relationship with him. He’s charismatic and really smart and attuned to detail. He just loves being involved."
Dan writes about “the warm glow” volunteers receive from their acts of kindness. With bosses like Ben Sherwood, I believe it’s possible for a corporation to grow a warm glow of its own by being “kinder.gentler” to its employees. ABC has most certainly been a leader on that score as it presents itself as a family, proudly and lovingly supporting one another through life’s journey. Dan Harris is not the only ABC family member to tell his story. Fellow ABC anchors Amy Robach, Elizabeth Vargas, Robin Roberts have opened up, too. They are all living, loving, breathing HUMAN beings with real stories to share, stories that can help others heal and live healthier, happier lives.
ABC’s on-air talent is taking huge personal leaps and successfully connecting with Modern-day America, the part of it that is wounded and desperately in need of a “release”. In a consumer driven society of hard-work and material gains, we all care about who and what touches us. It's good to know that when the news is delivered to us and touches our lives it's coming from someone who is human after all.
One of my friends, a New Yorker through-and-through, says “Dan’s one of the lucky ones. He was able to catch himself and allow himself to be human.” I’d say Dan’s doubly lucky he has the support of a good boss and fellow colleagues…triply so when you consider that Dan has great people in his life and his journey can be measured by the love and wisdom he received along the way from his doctor, his family and friends, and from his caring, intelligent wife, Bianca.
In this world of “perfection,” it’s refreshing and wonderfully real and daring for a news anchor, of all people, to share his story so that others might heal, too. For those cynics who call it a PR ploy on ABC’s part to use its on-air talent to boost ratings, I’d say they have it all wrong. ABC is definitely looking after its tribe. You can feel the love and it’s contagious. Who cares if the ABC megaphone was used to promote personal stories? They would be stupid not to use it. Look at all the ways it can help to heal millions who are wounded and have no idea where to turn to let the healing begin. If they keep it up, ABC could usher in an age where corporate America takes metta breaks instead of coffee runs... and the world would be better for it.
Throughout his book, Dan carries around a motto like a litmus test “the price of security is insecurity” believing that his security is measured by his vigilant self-criticism and worry. By the end of the book, he’s come a great distance, far enough to learn that there’s so much more to gain than to lose by being 10% Happier and 100% Human.
Who says the younger generation is clueless? Whether it’s Elvis, the Beatles, Woodstock, Hippies, Yuppies, Generations X and Y, “Millennials,” “Noughties” or Hipsters, the younger generation will always be the same…young.
I laughed when I wrote that because now that I am “old,” it’s a pretty neat thing to find inspiration from “kids.” I first met Caroline Wilkerson when her big sister, Lizzie, couldn't babysit. There’s one word for her: adorable. There’s nothing quite like a healthy, happy, positive and polite teenager, let alone two [three, counting Lizzie] because the same holds true for Caroline’s BFF and next-door-neighbor-for-life, Grace Ellrodt.
Knowing these two young women somehow calms just about every one of my anxieties about the future. When I am around them I quickly forget “the world is going to hell in a handbag.”
That got me thinking about the younger generation and the fresh perspective these young ‘whipper-snappers’ can provide. In their mind, life is complicated, but their response to it doesn’t have to be. There’s a lot of wisdom in that and it’s easy for grownups to lose sight of this, especially when pressures mount… and pressures always mount.
Whether a teenager or an adult, we all lose the plot at some point along the way. It happens earlier for some, later for others. It’s just part of being human. When we get sideswiped, blind-sided, knocked off track, we all need to be able to call upon simple practices and healthy patterns to bring us back to center.
Being around Caroline and Grace reminded me of this at a time in my life when I was losing my ability to navigate with ease. Life’s obstacles were mounting at an astonishing rate and I was struggling to keep pace, despite sticking to healthy patterns and truly enjoying the benefits they bring.
I confess, finding a refreshing new perspective on my life and its many hurling asteroids from two teens wasn’t exactly where I had expected to find a eureka moment, but I did.
Teens don't hold all the answers – no one does - but they do have a way of distilling things that is refreshingly honest and cuts to the chase.
We were all teens once and then we ... grew up. How do we get so bogged down as adults? I suspect an oversimplified answer to that is that as grownups we have more responsibilities and sometimes we end up dealing with too much all at once, never stopping to breathe, just breathlessly moving from one “thing” to the next.
The lives of teenagers are by no means less complicated than the lives of adults. They have plenty of curve balls thrown at them, too, and many of those curve balls are not the direct result of their own choices. Teens, however - unlike many adults who are strapped for time - apply themselves to after-school activities that they love and end up with sacred time in their day to respond to and absorb life events. While they are at it, they foster skills, build friendships and nurture personal growth. Teens really know how to focus on what keeps them happy – and that’s not a bad thing. We grownups could do with a bit more of that.
I learned from Caroline and Grace that this “space” in the day - a time to do what they love - is the secret to keeping these Good Girls balanced and focused on what is most important to them.
Healthy habits keep their spirits up and Caroline and Grace love running together because it allows them to talk and one thing’s for sure, no matter what age - girls love to talk! We love our girlfriends and what could be more fun than talking and training every day with your BFF?!
Doing what they love keeps their focus on healthy choices, not destructive ones. With all the scary information out there about teenage drinking and smoking, I asked if peer pressure to smoke or drink still exists. Both concur: “Oh, yeah it’s still out there, but students are more accepting of one another these days. You don’t have to be exactly like everyone else in order to fit in. We have a friend who loves singing, so she protects her voice and won’t smoke. She is respected for that. ”
Life is stressful for many teens and the stress can lead to all sorts of problems. I recalled the staggering number of bulimics from my high school days and asked the girls if their school provided support for eating disorders. Grace fielded this one with a mature and wise reply: "the dialogue on eating disorders should be better rounded. Instead of just using scare tactics about all the bad things that happen [teeth and hair falling out, skin turning yellow], we should be talking about why teens develop eating disorders so that we are aware of the warning signs and know that it’s ok to ask for help before it becomes a problem." Amen, Sister.
In a world of flawless selfies and airbrushed beauty, do the girls feel any pressure to wear makeup? Not really. It’s a choice. For Caroline, she wears makeup every day “like most teenage girls, but not on the weekend.” Grace does not wear any makeup but thinks it’s important to do what feels best for you. To balance the scales on the pros and cons of makeup, she thoughtfully pointed me towards an inspiring video which features a beautiful woman removing her makeup. To Grace, this woman is courageous and her experience clearly attests to the power and merits of makeup [watch it!].
Both Grace and Caroline recognize that beauty is strength, and man-oh-man, are they strong! They are currently training for two back-to-back half marathons – the Steel Rail Half Marathon along the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail on May 18th and the Memorial Day Half Marathon at Tanglewood, “the toughest marathon in the East,” on May 25th. Their training includes running 20 miles per week with one long 8-13 mile run; 40-50 miles biking per week; and cross-training at Lenox Fitness [Spinning with Sue Merritt on Monday and Wednesday; Metabolic Madness with Laura Collins Downing on Tuesday; and Spinning and Sculpting with Courtney on Saturday]. Sunday is a day of rest – just a hike to keep the muscles stretched and moving.
It’s no surprise the girls have gravitated to running shoes and Lycra blends. They’ve been “running” with their parents since they were wee little things being pushed around in strollers. Grace’s father, Gray, has run 52 marathons, 50 of them run by the age of 50. Her mother, Marianne, has run 20 marathons and loads of half marathons, too, and for four [jaw-dropping] years straight, she has run every.single.day. [For those of you reading this who do not live with New England weather that's a HUUUGE accomplishment ].
Caroline’s late father, Brock Wilkerson, was also a runner who completed 14 marathons in less than five years, three of which he ran with Stage 4 Lung Cancer. Brock was not a smoker.
Lung cancer remains the leading cause of all cancer deaths in the United States, with a significant number of lung cancer patients having never smoked.
In loving memory of Brock, his friends started the annual BrockTrot in 2005. The 5k and 10k race through Lenox, MA has a 1 mile kiddie course, too. For nine years, it’s been an event for the whole community to enjoy. Proceeds go to The Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s Lowe Center for Thoracic Oncology where research is being conducted on environmental and genetic factors that cause these cancers.
Together with her mother, Chris, and big sister, Lizzie, and best friend, Grace, Caroline has run every BrockTrot since she was 9. They first started running in the 1 mile kids’ race but it wasn’t long before they were running the 10k. It’s a fun day, though one marked with sadness as she remembers her father. When Caroline sees so many friends, and teenagers, and coaches from Lenox High School attending the event, running the race and volunteering - “it just makes me feel great!” She pauses then adds “it’s like they’re saying ‘we’re here. We’re always here for you’ and that’s a wonderful thing.” Beauty is strength, indeed.
Throughout all of our conversations, strong yet profoundly simple messages from the girls come through loud and clear. It doesn’t matter what age you are,
Just be yourself.
Do what you love.
Focus on the positive.
Love your family and friends.
Life is complicated, but the way we live it doesn’t have to be. Caroline and Grace reminded me that keeping life simple, focused, and fun helps to keep things all bright and shiny and running on track.
They may be young, but they are not blindly optimistic. These two young ladies have depth and are grounded with a healthy intuition that is sure to keep them on track in life. They know that life is full of sudden twists and turns, but their positive outlook and their shared appreciation for this beautiful earth and our local community is more than a breath of fresh air. It’s hope for the future, theirs and ours. Sure smells like Teen Spirit will grow up to something Good. Go Good Girls, Go!
Most friendships start with a common interest or a shared passion, but my friendship with Laura Collins Downing started with Desperation: I needed to fit into a dress. I was barely eating yet getting larger and larger. I did not know what was happening to me, but I was NOT going to settle for “it’s an age thing”.
I know a million gorgeous, strong and radiant women in their 50’s. Just because a woman is close to 50 doesn't mean she is doomed to a life of misery and Mom Jeans. I only wanted to lose weight, but instead I found in Laura a biochemistry teacher, health coach, spiritual seeker, psychologist, motivational sports trainer, comedian and cheerleader all wrapped up in one. Lucky me, Laura Collins Downing really is all that, and more: she’s an awesome friend, too.
The second-to-youngest of nine children, Laura grew up in the Berkshires, moved away and then moved back in 2012. Her parents were also "born and bred" in the Berkshires. Her father, Bernard, was a veterinarian and, like Laura, was the eighth child of nine. Together, he and Laura's mom Ann [nee O'Connell] ran Collins Veterinary Hospital from their 36 acre family home in Lee, [which had been the summer home to Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands].
Laura's parents instilled in their children a sense of fun, hard work and meaning and their little army of nine knew how to roll up their sleeves and get to work. They all learned from an early age how to pitch in and put others - and animals - first. If you look at all of them today, you can see it still holds true, and that's possibly the greatest legacy any parents could hope to achieve.
Health and Fitness are a part of Laura's DNA as much as her Destiny. In 1980, she was the first-ever graduate from Lee High School to earn all twelve Varsity letters [in field hockey, basketball, softball]. She's been in the health and fitness industry for 28 years, and loves what she’s doing. There is a perfect give-and-take to her life that offers her a chance to learn from others as well as to teach and inspire others to adopt new ways to find health and wellness.
Seems there is always a line outside her door. Laura thrives in high gear so it's no wonder she bought a house right in the center of things, directly across from the Morris Elementary School. She doesn't even flinch over the morning school-run back ups blocking her drive and enjoys watching the summer Tanglewood traffic stream by. There is a reason so many of us find our way to Laura. As a health coach, fitness instructor, and owner of Ideal Protein Weight Loss Clinic in Lenox, MA, she’s very good at what she does.
She makes sense out of the madness of losing weight. I use ‘madness’ lightly, but think about it – helping people change what they do, what they eat, and how they look at themselves and their relationship with food is nothing short of performing a frontal lobotomy. Laura gives dietary ‘lobotomies’ AND makes it fun. Now, that’s a rare gift.
From the moment you walk into Laura's “office” - a large farmer’s table in her front room - you immediately inhale the spirit of “I can.”
On your first visit, Laura spends time going through the science of the Ideal Protein Plan and how it applies to you. You leave with a powerful image of the 3 energy tanks that fuel the human body – SUGAR, FAT, and PROTEIN. Our bodies burn sugar first. When there is no sugar left to burn, then we will burn fat because fat burns faster than protein. It’s important to keep your protein tank full so the body burns the fat off, not the muscle.
OK. Got it. Now, let’s rock ‘n roll!
1) Empty the sugar tank [and keep it empty]
2) Fill up the protein tank
3) Watch the fat tank empty. *
* To illustrate this, Laura has 5lb and 20lb ‘weights,’ disgusting chunks of blubber on the table for people to pinch and get an even better image of the fat they are shedding. She also has a more palatable 20lb bag of winter Ice Melter for you to lift. It’s an amazing, albeit awkward correlation.
It’s one thing to read up on different diets, but it’s another thing entirely to read up and then know exactly which diet is best for you. That's why I needed help and Laura was THE person to make sense of it and to help me turns things around. Turns out, I wasn't eating enough. My metabolism had shut done. Now here's the kicker: on the new diet I would be required to eat more than I ever had before. At the end of the eight weeks, I didn't just lose 20 pounds, I gained my life back, and I am never going to let it go. I LOVE MY LIFE!
“Gained my life back”? Through Laura’s help I was able to discover the single most important thing on my journey to wellness: sugar augments my pain. The correlation was so obvious yet profoundly difficult to reach. I would never have discovered it on my own. When my sugar tank emptied, my pain went away. It was a most welcomed signpost on my way-too-confusing journey to wellness, one that I had not expected to see. What a relief to know that the cause of my pain was not something "big" like my PTSD or Hypothyroidism. It's just SUGAR, and I can control how much of it I allow into my system.
Who knew a diet could be fun?! Laura’s optimism is ridiculously contagious. When you walk in the room, she lights up and blasts you with a glorious compliment. Immediately you feel good and relaxed about getting on the scale. She’s the same when teaching a fitness class. She calls attention to what is positive in everyone there. She will shout out your name and celebrate your strength, and because she celebrates you, it sends ripples out and everyone else in the class gives a subliminal, sweaty nod to you, too.
It's all about you. Remarkably outgoing and upbeat, Laura is surprisingly shy and has a superhuman ability to deflect attention away from her so that it shines back on to others. When you take one of her turbo-charged classes at Lenox Fitness you can’t miss her. Her bright neon sportswear and headbands are rallying calls to Boot Camp. The class is packed and everyone is psyched for the hour of hard-core training because they know they are going to get something out of it – STRENGTH.
From the moment Laura switches on her headset and starts the class, the focus is on YOU. While she moves around the class, she keeps you focused and "in your zone." While you're sweating to the JNL* [*Jennifer Nicole Lee] battle cries of ‘Strong is the New Skinny,’ and ‘Kiss my Abs,’ Laura bounces through exercises as though weightless and skipping down the lane with a balloon in her hand.
Laura cracks jokes and reassures the boys that if they are wobbly with their balance they might be getting their period and reminds the ladies to wear a wee-wee pad for the jumping jacks. It’s hilarious. It’s also amazing to watch her in action and think: “Wow she is a really good teacher. I am lucky I found her. ” You don’t ever once think “oh, she is so strong. I will never be fit like her.” Laura keeps your focus right where it should be: on you, beautiful you.
No Judgement. Laura is an effective motivator in and out of class. She encourages everyone to ditch the self-judgment. It gets in the way of everything. And she’s right. Everyone knows I've never been to the gym, and the only weights I lift are grocery bags. I prefer to be outdoors, but Laura inspired me to push myself beyond my comfort zone and try her JNL* Fusion class at Lenox Fitness.
JNL focuses on eight 3-minute “cycles” that are half cardio, half strength with one-minute breaks in between. Up until 3 weeks ago, I was too frightened to take an intense fitness class. Fearing my core was not strong enough, I avoided all things “muscle-y” thinking they might trigger my fibromyalgia or give me "Earl Campbell thighs," but years doing Pilates paid off. JNL Fusion did not leave me in pain for days. I was sore, but in a very good way.
Whether she’s teaching a class or weighing you, Laura always focuses on the positive. Through her constructive example, you learn to look at the process of losing weight less as a schedule to follow and more as a script to learn. Soon, looking after your health becomes more natural. You learn to love your body for what it is and forgive it for what it is not. You learn to stop and feed yourself throughout the day. You no longer blow through your body’s need to be nourished. You no longer skip meals and soon you choose to eat well. Nothing is more important than nourishing our bodies and minds. When we are strong and healthy, we live and love completely.
Life gets hectic and sometimes we forget to eat or we don’t eat the right things. We all need to learn how to stop and listen to our bodies and make the time to care for ourselves. I look back and wonder how I allowed myself to push to the side something so critical to life as eating the right things in the right way. Seriously, how does that happen? Like many, I was wrapped up in a rhythm of choices that breathlessly rushed me from one thing to the next, never nourishing only depleting.
Working through an effective diet plan with Laura reversed all that for me. The experience empowered me to change the rhythm of my life - to stop and eat, to slow down to make unhurried, healthy choices so that I could reclaim my health and my life - in that order. Once fueled with awareness [and Protein], I could take ownership of my bright and happy future.
We are all different, but when it comes to weight loss, “whatever works best for you” is the greatest common denominator. It doesn’t really matter what plan you choose to follow as long as the process improves your understanding and acceptance of what your body needs.
A diet is a course of action that teaches you healthy patterns of self-care as part of a no-longer-dysfunctional relationship with food. No wonder the French call it "le regime". For me, Laura Collins Downing coupled with The Ideal Protein Plan was exactly what I needed. When I started the diet, I was only thinking about a dress. I had no idea I would get a life, too.
I am forever grateful to my dear friend Laura Collins Downing whose humor, sound advice and knowledge brought me back to a place of happiness and strength and showed me that I really could have a life and live well without pain.
Sometimes you just have to slow down, to get a life. Go, Good Girl, Go!
This is Part 1 of a two-part story. Before I can write about my next inspiring Good Girl – fitness instructor and health coach, Laura Collins Downing - I first need to explain why it took years to find my way to her. I’ve written about my fibromyalgia in previous blog entries but I haven’t really explained what I needed to work through and how I worked through it. Eventually, after three years, the pain is under control but there was A LOT of trial and error before I learned what works best for me.
What is fibromyalgia? The definition below pretty much sums it up, though in my mind, it neglects to include the drama, misery, sorrow and despair that go hand in hand with fibromyalgia. Plus, it doesn't say anything about its relationship to chronic inflammation. Prolonged inflammation can lead to all sorts of health problems including cancer so it’s important to get things under control before they spin too far out of control.
Fibromyalgia: a common syndrome in which a person has long-term, body-wide pain and tenderness in the joints, muscles, tendons, and other soft tissues. Fibromyalgia has also been linked to fatigue, sleep problems, headaches, depression, and anxiety * [* add: “all at once”].
‘Tenderness’ – that’s putting it mildly. My pain was so debilitating I could not go a day without a nap. I would wake every morning with one thought and one thought only: when can I get back into bed? How sad is that not to want to embrace each and every day of your life? I could no longer enjoy life’s pleasures – something as straight forward as preparing a nice meal for my family was overwhelming. I could barely unload the dishwasher let alone stand at the chopping board or stove for very long. Reaching up or bending down in the kitchen was torture. In short, I was miserable. Pain prevented me from doing everything I loved to do. My only joy – and I clung to it like a piece of wood in the ocean – was walking my dogs.
The good news is that fibromyalgia doesn't have to be a crippling disease. In this brief video Dr. Jeffrey M. Thompson of Mayo Clinic explains how you can take charge and reduce your pain and live a happier, more fulfilling life. His advice is spot on:
1) Reduce Stress - relax, breath, meditate, have fun
2) Get enough sleep
3) Don’t drink - alcohol interrupts your sleep
4) Cut out caffeine and nicotine
5) Exercise - find the right routine for you
6) Pace yourself - “Don’t over-do. Don’t under-do”
7) Eat Healthy Foods
But that’s just a short list – it’s far more complicated. Everyone is different, so it’s important that you follow your gut to figure out what works best for you. Here are some tips of my own that might be useful to you:
Be patient with yourself. This is not a quick fix. Ask loved ones and colleagues to be patient with you, too. You are not making this up. Your pain is real and it will take time for your mind.body.spirit to heal. When the healing eventually hits, you will be happier than ever before [I promise].
Take on one challenge at a time. Work through one item on the above list before you move to the next. Surrender and Accept that these are challenges – they are not easy and they are not fun, but it will become more fun as each success makes you happier, more positive, stronger and more confident. Eventually, you will want "the total package" for yourself.
Read up and visualize what each action means to you. Prepare yourself with ways to change your behavior and always remember that change is good and will translate to less pain and a better life.
Don’t set yourself up for failure, disappointment and self-judgment. You already feel rotten enough, so make sure every challenge you choose to tackle is one that you are ready to embrace. That way, you are sure to succeed.
Be realistic. Changing your life is the hardest work you will ever do, but it is also the most rewarding. We are hard-wired to resist change so it really helps to have a meaningful mantra to call upon when the going gets tough.
Pain made me incredibly grumpy because, well, it hurt... but also because I could not enjoy anything in life. I could not join in bike rides with my son and husband; take fitness classes with my friends; prepare gorgeous meals; garden; host dinner parties; paint landscapes and absorb the beauty that is to be found in the normal, benign every day. Pain was cutting off all my life lines and this is the mantra I created for my journey to wellness, happiness, and love:
because I love, and love deeply,
I will love myself enough to change and to heal
so that I can love more completely.
With my mantra in hand, I attacked my condition from every angle – for a complete mind, body, spirit overhaul. Here’s a summary of the past 3+ years of my life, and how I approached each challenge on the Doctor's list. I took BABY STEPS and I did not - could not - rush through this...
Reduce Stress: relax, breath, meditate, have fun
When I first embarked on my journey to wellness, I could not meditate. Not knowing an OM from an onion, I chose the closest thing to navel gazing calm and stillness that I knew – reading. Instead of taking a nap, I would read. I was resting but I was not sleeping and I was not in bed but in our sunny living room. That was my first baby step. I was doing something that I love and it was relaxing and while I was at it, I was learning how to change my life around. Doesn't sound so bad, right?
It was during this phase that I devoured the profoundly inspiring Raising Lazarus, the Science of Healing the Soul by Blair Justice and J. Pitman McGehee. [I will definitely write about this book soon]. In short, the book uses Science and Spirituality to prove that we all have the power to rejig our brains. No pill popping required. Just dedication and focus.
Get enough sleep
Well, this one had my name all over it, so I made sure to do it well. I set up some “rules” to safeguard my sleep… I do not watch t.v. dramas ever – the commercials, noise, violence and freaky plastic surgery jobs on actors are all deeply unsettling and would leave me twitching the whole night through. I do enjoy BBC period dramas but even Downton Abbey got me all worked up and weepy and pining for England that I was pretty much limited to BBC World News. I've gobbled down every book in The Game of Thrones series and couldn't wait to watch it. No matter how much I love the books and adore Peter Dinklage, who I first saw on the Nikos Stage at Williamstown Theatre Festival, it was not the right choice for a good night’s sleep. I had to remain content with my own movie, the one I had made in my head as I read each book back-to-back.
Don’t drink: alcohol interrupts your sleep
OK, OK I confess this one was NOT at the top of my list. It was at the bottom, just above giving up caffeine. But here’s what I did to cut back on alcohol. I first lobbed off BEER as part of going Gluten Free. Oh, how I miss a proper pint and a packet of crisps, but I don’t miss the pain and cramping those wheat-y bubbles bring.
White wine, champagne and rose´ were already off the list as part of natural selection – after living in the south of France for years, too much of a good thing is…well, not a good thing.
That left me with red wine, but it had to be a New World vintage with an aroma I found to be less “mildew-y” than Old World and the sulfates somehow less sickening [please don’t ask me about the science behind that, but I will investigate it and write about it one day]. Red Wine eventually got the chop as part of total sugar detox and was later kept to a bare minimum as part of a low-glycemic diet. Wine leads to a sugar spike at some inconvenient point in the wee hours and disrupts sleep. Honestly, I would do anything for a good night’s sleep.
Now, it’s just down to sugar-free-gluten-free-carb-free QUALITY TEQUILLA - on the rocks, or sometimes with fresh squeezed lemon and club soda. If it's party-mode I need to bring my own to a party because it's not usually served.
One key lesson I needed to learn and incorporate into my life is that barring total abstinence, MODERATION is the key to alcohol consumption. I now drink 0-2 portions a week and it feels just right. If there is a special occasion or a super fun dinner party or a dance floor to trance on, then I allow myself a glorious release, but I follow every big night with a detox for at least a full 7 days afterward. It’s an equation that works for me now, but I am feeling so good that I am thinking about giving up alcohol for good. [post script: lesson learned since writing this. After de-toxing for one month at the start of the year, I continued to maintain a very low to zero alcohol intake for another two months so it was a VERY bad, and dangerous, idea when after three months detoxing I thought I could have a 'glorious release' big party night out. Guess what, my system can no longer tolerate what it used to. I know, big duhhh, but more on that in a future post that I will link here].
Cut out caffeine and nicotine
My husband and I quit smoking together, years ago, leaving the much dreaded caffeine detox last on my list. I have written about the misery of it in Good Girl GoGoGo Facebook posts and in my Daily Smalls section and in a blog post. It wasn’t easy, but I am very glad I did it. Eliminating caffeine leads to a good night’s rest, effective pain management over the long term, and a more balanced Acid:Alkaline ratio.
Exercise: find the right routine for you and don’t rush it
It’s really hard to exercise when it causes so much pain. For me, one work out could set me back for weeks. The posture of Grief had really taken its toll on me and I was not aligned and injured easily. It was critical that I start off ‘nice and easy.’ I had a wonderful and caring pilates teacher [Karen Lee] who brought my body back to life from the inside out. After two years on her machines and in her care for two private sessions every week, I finally had a core to engage and the confidence to move into more challenging work outs with Bridget Ford-Hughes. After three years, I did my first Boot Camp with Laura Collins Downing [my next story covers the joys of Boot Camp – yes, JOYS, something I never expected].
Pace Yourself: “Don’t over-do. Don’t under-do”
This is really important. Be kind to yourself. Keep striving and don’t give up, but don’t expect too much. I ran into trouble on my “good days” – there was no pain to stop me from doing anything and everything, so I tended to over-do it. I have since learned that “good days” are just that - “good days” and not “days to cram everything in.”
Eat Healthy Foods
This is more complicated than it appears and requires some dedication to figure out what dietary choices are right for you. For me, it first translated to Gluten Free but I soon discovered that so many Gluten Free products are loaded with Sugar so I knocked them out completely. My diet then morphed into a Complete Sugar Detox [no fruit, sugar, carbs, booze or lentils for 8 weeks. I will write about this in my next blog]. I now happily maintain a low-glycemic-low-carb-gluten-free diet, with only occasional fruit, grains, and lentils. Basically, I eat protein and greens – TONS of GREENS - but let me reassure you, I eat well, very well. Everything is delicious and I am never-ever hungry or craving.
Keep your eye on the prize! Life for me is so different now. I don’t feel as though I am missing out on one single thing and that’s because Pain is no longer cutting me off from living my life. All of these changes, difficult though they were to make, have made me happy again, and that’s a fact.
I hope this article helps you or someone you love confront and tackle the pain of fibromyalgia or other chronic pain condition. Perhaps it will inspire you to find ways to relieve your own pain or to help another who is in pain. Don't ever give up trying - it really is possible for Brightness and Gratitude to take Pain’s place.
Yesterday was Day 30. I did it. I cut caffeine out of my life for 30 days. Now that I am still living and breathing at Day 31 [imagine that!?], you might be wondering if I've had a cup of coffee yet...but before I answer that, I've got to get this off my chest - the thought of a 30 Day Caffeine Detox was once a complete nightmare for me, but now it's a dream come true...yes, folks, I did my Linda Blair and turned my head around.
Before my 30 day split with Java, I would awaken every night, same time, same breathless panicked state with ridiculous "omg. what the heck is going wrong now" thoughts in my head. I would meditate them away, put my legs up on the headboard and never-ever punch my pillow, but I got pretty fed up meditating with the monks with my legs in the air at 4am. Something had to change. There was no way I was going to pop pills for obvious reasons, but I won't side-track. I HAD to figure out another path to my zzzzz's ... taking out caffeine and adding breathing and meditation was the chosen course of action. And guess what, it worked. [duuhhh, but I am a bit slow to enlightenment]
Immediately - no joke - I slept through the night, from.day.one. So the answer to the question - have I had a cup of Joe on Day 31? No. I won't be going back to caffeine any time soon but I might just pop over to Dotties for an occasional decaf and I'll just have to figure out what to do in France when I get there.
But here's something that goes even deeper than Deep Sleep...a good night's rest is an effective aid in pain management. For those of you who suffer from the chronic pain of fibromyalgia like I do, Sleep - as in good, uninterrupted sleep - is a POWERFUL antidote to pain. It's free. It's painless and it has no negative side-effects, just positive results. So, what's not to love about getting a good night's sleep? I'll tell you what's not to love: the process of detoxing from caffeine. Like it or not, it is a necessary part of making your way to a peaceful night's rest. Ickbleck. Giving up caffeine was nothing short of dreadful, but the nice guy in the produce section at Guido's was spot on: after Day 21, life was remarkably brighter and so was I. At Day 31, things are totally rosy and I am no longer jones-ing for java. Spring awakening, or what?!
So folks, this is my recommendation - If you do not sleep well, then do your best to find a way to give yourself the gift of Sleep, Glorious Z's, DeepREMs, and Bliss in Your Dreams. With every good night's rest, you will wake with the peace of mind and gratitude it brings. For me, cutting out caffeine was painful, but the pleasure of sustained good sleep is beyond measure. Agony and Ecstasy, indeed.
Whole Grain Gluten Free Chunky Nut and Date Muffins
Whether you are buying or baking, finding a great tasting, low glycemic, longer-lasting Gluten Free muffin with tantalizing texture is a long process of trial and error. Top quality organic, whole grain, gluten free, wheat free ingredients are expensive so it's important the recipe works. Here's one of mine that I've tried and tested for you to spare you the trouble and the expense. This recipe offers up a fluffy but wonderfully textured, full-flavored muffin that can be served with any meal. It is delicious with butter, goat butter, or cheese and goes nicely with a salad or soup. This recipe is Gluten Free, Low Glycemic, and loaded with whole grains and sustaining nutrients.
1/8 cup Bob's Red Mill Organic Whole Grain Amaranth Flour * [If you don't like the 'earthy' flavor of Amaranth, substitute it out for one of the other grains or try coconut flour].
1/4 cup Bob's Red Mill Garbanzo Fava Bean Flour
1/4 cup Bob's Red Mill Organic Whole Grain Buckwheat
1/4 cup Bob's Red Mill Whole Ground Flaxseed Meal
1/2 cup Bob's Red Mill Whole Grain Brown Rice Flour
1/2 Cup Bob's Red Mill Oat Bran
1/2 tsp Xanthan Gum
1 tsp Baking Soda
1 tsp Salt
1/2 cup Organic Brown Rice Syrup
1/4 cup Organic Date Syrup
1/2 cup Coconut Oil [I use La Tourangelle, Virgin Unrefined ]
2 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 cup HOT water [not boiling, you might need a bit more to keep the batter loose, not sticky]
2 xtra large organic eggs, beaten first then added
1 cup Bob's Red Mill GF Old Fashioned Rolled Oats
1/2 cup Walnuts and Pecans loosely chopped [ feel free to add more if you like ]
1/2 cup Organic Deglet Dates, chopped
Preheat oven to 350. Grease muffin tins with coconut oil or butter or whatever you prefer.
In a medium bowl, measure and mix together all the dry ingredients. Note: This recipe can be made with or without salt.
In another medium bowl, mix all the wet ingredients. Then add dry ingredients to the wet - a bit at time, not all in one go, stirring in between.
Depending on consistency, add approximately 1 cup Rolled oats - you might need more, or less. Then add chopped nuts and chopped dates.
For small and medium size muffins cook for approx 12 minutes, check to make sure muffin is nicely brown on top
For larger muffins, cook for approx 15 minutes until muffin top is nicely brown.
Nut allergies: This recipe can be made without nuts, just substitute more chopped dates to batter.
To keep your Gluten Free muffins fresh, wrap each muffin individually in plastic wrap and keep in a container. If freezing, wrap muffins in aluminum foil and place in freezer bag. [I know, it's lots of wrapping but this Gluten Free Treat will stay moist and fluffy for longer].
It’s so easy to look at a beautiful young woman, particularly a fashion model in her twenties and think – “wow, she’s really got it all going on” -- but for former fashion model, Amy Huebner, her strength and beauty just weren't enough to make a beautiful woman a healthy one, too.
Like many women in their twenties, Amy’s diet was the “Protest-Poverty-and-Pasta Diet” prevalent among college students and young professionals, who in protest choose not to eat meat but out of poverty are not able to find affordable, healthy substitutes and end up boiling pasta or suffering innumerable blind dates…a girl’s gotta’ eat, right? Wrong. It’s no way to live... and for Amy it was a sure way to die.
Amy’s diet was alarmingly unbalanced that despite eating whatever she could afford, she was still malnourished and starving…but how did things go so wrong for her? And how did she make herself well again?
Answers to those questions paint a picture of how Amy was able to change her life around by learning how to make healthy choices and literally, saving her own life.
First, she needed to work through to the diagnosis that she was suffering from an extreme candida overgrowth, the result of a diet high in carbohydrates and sugars, birth control pills and stress, lots of stress. From there, Amy needed to learn effective self-care and how to rid her system of toxic candida while simultaneously nourishing her mind, body, and spirit. Hers is an inspiring story of strength and courage even in her weakest moments, a story that holds something for all of us, but particularly so for parents and their 20-something daughters.
What is candida? Candida is a naturally occurring fungus, yeast that lives in our mouth and intestines. When balanced, it aids in digestion and nutrient absorption but when overproduced, it breaks down the wall of the intestine and penetrates the bloodstream, releasing toxic byproducts and causing leaky gut.
The symptoms of candida overgrowth include skin and nail fungal infections; chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia; bloating, constipation, diarrhea; autoimmune diseases such as Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Ulcerative Colitis, Lupus, Psoriasis, Scleroderma, Multiple Sclerosis; difficulty concentrating, poor memory, lack of focus, ADD, ADHD and brain fog; irritability, mood swings, depression and anxiety; vaginal and urinary tract infections; severe seasonal allergies; and strong cravings for sugar and refined carbohydrates.
Conquering candida takes nothing less than Herculean effort and requires constant discipline sticking to a strict no-carbohydrate and no-sugar diet. Sugar is what feeds the yeast so it is critical to eliminate it and not to slip even while undergoing the dreadful die-off stage as the body detoxes from the endotoxins released from dying yeast.
As soon as she was diagnosed, Amy immediately jumped into the new diet but soon discovered that rushing it wasn't the best way to go about it. She suffered prolonged die-off for months but could have avoided it had she eased into her new yeast-busting diet. Otherwise, she worked closely with her doctor who recommended she cut out all carbs and sugars and begin taking an immune support supplement.
She then added anti-fungal supplements and foods. Amy’s deep commitment to her own healing required discipline and patience. There were no short-cuts or quick-fixes. It was nearly 2 years before she first began to feel well again and 7 years until she was "feeling pretty awesome." Her healing also had a price: ALL of her money went into buying the right food and supplements, but in Amy’s mind, the cost of regaining her health was priceless.
For those of us never destined to hit the runway or grace the pages of a magazine, it’s odd to think of a gorgeous fashion model not being anything but healthy. For Amy “taking a good hard look at herself” was her first step towards wellness. She knew that her time as a model and nanny in NYC – long days, low pay, high rent, late nights, poor diet – needed to end in order for a healthier chapter in her life to begin.
Amy needed to find a place of comfort and meaning and grounding. The next step on her path to wellness was a phone call to a former high school boyfriend, Dana who was a social worker and advocate for the homeless in Arizona. Before she knew it, she was on a plane to Phoenix and Dana was waiting there for her. They’ve been together ever since. Being in an affirming, loving relationship has been a key piece to Amy’s recovery but there is so much more to her story…
While Amy’s heart could find comfort with Dana, she still needed to regain her physical and emotional strength and to do that, she needed to go back to her roots…back to a healthy childhood; back to loving parents and family; and back to her hometown to reconnect with her former self - a strong young woman who was grounded and blessed with beauty, innate physical strength and grace.
It was only through Discipline [with a capital D] that Amy could reconnect with her former self. For Amy, Discipline is just a part of her DNA - she is naturally a hard worker and not afraid of pushing herself to excel.
As a child, she faithfully and joyfully practiced gymnastics every.single.day after school in her basement. As a teenager, she watched White Squall only once and knew - without doubt - that she needed to do a semester at sea. As a college student, she worked to help her parents pay for her education while cleverly enrolling part-time at NYU and Hunter College yet attending full-time continuously for 3 years [folks, that means no summer vacations]. It was a grueling work load but with the support and encouragement of her parents, Amy made it through and was not later burdened with crippling school loans. Smart girl, our Amy. Hard worker, too.
But that blessing – her discipline and ability to achieve – was also a curse. During her years biting The Big Apple, Amy had pushed herself too hard. It was time she learned something new…
Amy enrolled in The Institute for Integrative Nutrition, the world’s largest school of nutrition whose mission is to play a crucial role in improving health and happiness, and through that process, create a ripple effect that transforms the world. She was deeply inspired by the school’s founder, Josh Rosenthal [also a Berkshire native] who taught her that each and every one of us is a catalyst for change.
The course was the perfect complement to Amy’s journey to wellness. Having already changed her diet and her life, and attended to her spirit and heart, she had to nourish her mind, too.
The Institute for Integrative Nutrition was an eye-opener for Amy, who upon completing the course [and attending the historical last live session] knew that all she wanted to do in life was to take Josh Rosenthal’s advice and do her best to make the world a better place. Just like the time she watched White Squall and knew she needed a semester at sea, Amy knew exactly what she needed to do with her life... she needed to create something that was healthy and good and to build awareness about healthy choices while she was at it. Luckily for Amy, Dana wanted exactly the same thing, too.
This is another point in Amy’s life when being in a strong and loving relationship with Dana is so deeply intertwined with her own healing. Together in 2010, they created Shire City Herbal’s Fire Cider. It was a concoction that developed over many years beginning with a jar of honey, chopped onion and garlic soaking on Dana’s German grandmother’s window sill.
Fire Cider evolved over many years and pays homage to Dana’s German Uncle Otto, who took spoonfuls of freshly grated horseradish during allergy season while haying down on the horse farm. The recipe also tips its hat to a wise family doctor from Becket, MA, who suggested that Dana eat raw LOCAL honey mixed with apple cider to help with his allergies…forever adorable, Dana admits he’s a “more is more” kind a guy so he added some treats of his own and soon Grandma, Uncle Otto, the good family doctor and Dana’s life lessons were all mixed together in one bottle of pure and awesome good.
Nothing short of a Super Hero, Fire Cider is based on a traditional New England cure-all but it’s spiced up with all sorts of kick-ass healthy, organic ingredients – apple cider vinegar, [local] honey, oranges, lemons, onions, horseradish root, ginger root, habanero pepper, garlic, and turmeric. All things combine to bring about a synergistic blend of immune-boosting, health enhancing, pathogen-fighting roots and fruits…Super Hero indeed: Fire Cider powers are mighty.
What's so good about it? Fire Cider can act as a daily preventative to colds and flus or can be taken at the onset. It can be taken as an expectorant to break up congestion and to ward off respiratory ailments. It’s also a digestive aid for heartburn, gas and bloating as well as for sluggish digestion and candida overgrowth. Several of its ingredients support cardiovascular circulation, warm the body and have anti-inflammatory properties – I don’t go a day without it in winter as it helps to keep my fibromyalgia in check.
As with all good things, Fire Cider makes no promises that it is the cure-all to end all. It is merely a healthy choice to be used as part of a healthy diet. Go on, try a shot and feel the tingly goodness on your taste buds, in your salivary glands and right down your throat to your tummy where it really gets to work.
You are what you eat. Not what you wear. Amy is still a beautiful woman, but she is now a healthy one, too. She’s a practicing Health Coach and has her own blog - The Candida Diaries. Together with her husband and brother, she runs Shire City Herbals and makes a wholesome and organic product called Fire Cider. The company’s mission is to make a quality organic product for the good of all, and they are committed to the effort needed to educate and build awareness of healthy choices for healthier communities and for a healthier world.
Josh Rosenthal was right – the ripple effect can change the world – and I am grateful for people like Amy Huebner who seek out and listen to wise teachers and have the strength and courage to commit to the challenges of running a business that helps our Berkshire community and others like it become healthier and happier places for all. Ripple indeed.