Tuesday, May 26, 2015

A Long Goodbye: Mom's Legacy

My mom passed away this week after a 9 year battle with cancer. I'm feeling grateful for having her as my mom all these years, for the kind of mother, grandmother and person she was. I also feel profoundly grateful for the hospice staff who helped us and the unsung hero, my dad, who was her caregiver and made it possible for her to stay at home as she wished.

Over the past 9 years, I've had lunch and some kind of outing with mom pretty much every Friday. We didn't let cancer get in our way much. We went out for lunch and an adventure, even if we needed to pack a walker or a wheelchair. We talked about so many things: her growing up years in Kansas on a wheat farm in the Great Depression with her 7 brothers and sisters, losing her dad when she was still young, about her life as a wife, a mother, and especially her constant joy with being a grandmother to my daughters.

Since I have known for years that her cancer was a terminal type of blood tumor cancer, I've had a great deal of time to reflect on all the wonderful life lessons she taught me. Here are some of the best lessons she taught me with her life:

1. Invest in people. If you invest in children, maybe you can be close to them all your life as they grow up. When I called many of mom's friends this week, I was moved by how close so many different people felt to her.

2. Being a grandparent is what you make it. Join their world, slow down and be hands-on. I will never forget finding mom and my girls deep into a pasta making adventure in her kitchen and letting each child shape, cook and eat their own creation.

3. Speak up. Don't go unexpressed. Mom was not afraid to tell you how she felt. She was open and direct.

4. Always have a trip planned or something to look forward to. She loved working in the travel industry for many years and loved helping people make wonderful plans and enjoy having a trip on the horizon. Even in her last few weeks she was excited about helping us make plans for an 80th birthday brunch she was looking forward to. In her heyday, mom and I took my girls traveling on girl's trips to New York City one year, and Washington, D.C. another. Mom and Dad traveled extensively together on co-adventures they loved.

5. Make life fun. Growing up, we had a smile drawer by the front door which was actually empty but you could use your imagination to grab one on your way in or out. We had a backwards party as kids where we ate dessert first and did everything backwards. Mom made international dinner nights when my sister and I were kids. She got us involved in making art projects like drawing and making marzipan.

6. Start with what you're going to wear. Anytime any family member had an important event upcoming- a graduation, dance, job interview, wedding or a big presentation, she would help by suggesting what would be good to wear or take you shopping to help you find the perfect thing.

7. Work hard and believe and you can make things happen. Mom loved a project and working towards a goal. She helped me set up my first office and get settled when we moved. She loved to have us help her rearrange the furniture as kids.

8. The importance of home. Mom made home a priority, and took delight in making it warm and inviting. She loved to entertain family and friends.

9. Stay positive and never surrender your hope. During her 9 years of battling terminal cancer, she focused on what she could still do. In the last few weeks, she joked about what would happen if she flunked hospice.

10. Make life a wonderful adventure. Mom was silly, fun and full of life. When my girls were little, she dressed up for Halloween to surprise them and served color-themed breakfasts on antique glass dishes, like a blue breakfast with blueberries or a red one with raspberries.

11. Keep learning and growing. Mom was interested in personal growth before it was even fashionable. She took classes and read extensively about relationships and spirituality. She and dad introduced me to the enneagram by taking some classes with them in Santa Monica many years ago. She loved to learn and understand herself, others and the world better. I'm sure she influenced my becoming a therapist.

My mom, Phyllis Nelson, leaves a legacy in many hearts. She was brave, kind, determined and creative. I will always remember mom with a strong, warm feeling in my heart, and I think lots of other people feel the same way.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Courage Wall Project: What Would You Write?

Leadership coach Nancy Belmont from Alexandria, Virginia unveiled something both powerful and inspiring this May in her hometown. It's a set of giant blackboards stretching eight feet tall and twenty feet wide along a wooden fence on a busy street. A bucket of chalk hangs on each side of the blackboard. The top of the chalkboard asks what people wish they had the courage to do and people filled it up with things they'd love to be brave enough to accomplish.

Within a few hours, the chalkboard was full. Belmont photographed the entries and created a Facebook page of what people wrote down. Then she added more chalkboards. Turns out, people in Alexandria and all over the world are resonating with this idea. Belmont says she was inspired by a TED talk to live big and a Before I Die Project in New Orleans a few years ago. Belmont had participated in a 360 leadership assessment with feedback from others as well as herself identifying that she needed to be more courageously authentic. This project was a huge fear, but now her greatest success.

Belmont says it's often the case that people come to the wall not sure of what they fear or will write down, but the exercise helps peel away the layers to let the fears emerge. The first fear she wrote down was "I wish I had the courage not to worry about money", which she found challenging as a small business owner. After the first week in June, Belmont's chalkboards will go down in Alexandria, but she hopes to take it on the road.

A few of the powerful things that participants have written down that they want to be courageous enough to manifest are...

  • Adopting a child
  • Not to be a bully
  • Run for office
  • Start a business
  • Ask for a second date
  • Stand up for myself
  • Be me
  • Say no
  • Change careers
  • Try out for the crew team
  • Go to a shelter
  • Bike a volcano
  • Travel to a foreign country
  • Tell my secrets
  • Be vulnerable
  • Risk looking foolish
  • be okay failing or being rejected
  • Move across the country
  • Ask the person I like out
  • Tell my partner what I really need

Belmont has received lots of positive feedback, that the exercise has moved many participants to take positive action towards the things they most wanted in life but were afraid to try for.

Everything in life that matters takes some risk. Fear isn't a bad thing, but we don't want to allow fear to run our lives and keep us from taking healthy risks and growing. I love Belmont's project because it reminds all of us of the power of setting our intentions. It also demonstrates the power of having a community that bears witness to our hopes, dreams and plans. Living big, with authenticity and courage is possible for each of us, and when we see others around us living this way, it can become contagious.

How could you live your life bigger, and get past a fear that is holding you back from living fully? When people are interviewed in their 70's and beyond, they often regret the risks not taken and the words that were not expressed. The courage wall project is a powerful exercise to reflect on by yourself, or discuss with your partner and children. We need more warriors for brave authenticity. You are the author of your own story. Pass it on!

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Finding the Right Therapist

I often get asked how to find a therapist and more importantly, one that is the right fit for you. It can be a challenging experience, especially if you are trying therapy for the first time. I found this great article by Gabrielle Moss from Bustle.com that breaks down finding a therapist step by step. It's a good resource and an entertaining read!
Continue Reading on Bustle.com

Monday, May 4, 2015

Invisible Girl (Book Review)

Mariel Hemingway grew up feeling invisible, and now she's written a book with Ben Greenman to share her story with teens called Invisible Girl, (Regan Arts, 2014). She was born in 1961, a few months after the death of her famous grand father, writer Ernest Hemingway. That's just the start of her complicated family.

In Hemingway's family, she grew up dealing with her parent's alcoholism, OCD, and depression. Her mother became frail with cancer and dependent on Mariel. Her parent's marriage was full of conflict. She has memories of hearing them argue and fight intensely. She'd wake up and clean up all the broken dishes after their late night drunken tussles. Mariel was the youngest of three daughters, and both older sisters had mental illness. (Later in life, older sister Margaux, an actress, also died by an intentional drug overdose, just one day before the anniversary of her grandfather's suicide.)

The book is written like a diary in the voice of young Mariel as she observes what is going on in her family, and attempts to make sense of it. She includes "things to think about" at the end of each section for teens who may be reading it. Growing up in the small town of Ketchum, Idaho, Mariel often found solace and comfort by going outside into nature. The book has suggestions for teens on how to cope in positive ways with family problems, including talking about your experiences with someone you trust.

All the concepts in the book are put into teen-friendly terms. It's a short read of just 176 pages, with sketches and self-care tip lists in each chapter.

When children grow up with alcoholic parents, they adapt in different ways. Mariel became the "parentified" child, often cleaning up after her parent's drinking bouts and caregiving for her ill mother. The concept of growing up feeling invisible is an apt one. It's tough to grow up in a home where your development is overshadowed by parent's problems like substance abuse, a high conflict relationship or mental illness. Young people can see themselves as supporting cast to the family drama.

Learning to tell your story and have it validated by someone you trust, and to learn to do self-care are steps to becoming visible. This is a simple little book about some important subjects that don't often get talked about with teens. Hemingway's tone is kind and caring, and she carries credibility for having lived through family issues and becoming a happy, well-balanced adult who still finds her comfort in nature.Young people can feel less alone if they know that others are dealing or have dealt with similar family issues. Hopefully, Hemingway's book can reach girls and help them process difficult family dynamics and begin to consider their own needs.