I haven’t blogged since before Christmas, and the irony is not lost on me that it’s because I’ve been terribly out of balance. Fried.

The cornerstones of balance for me are rest, healthy tasty food, exercise, being outside, time in silence, family/friends, and creative self-expression. Since I started a new job, and have been dealing with the stress that seems to inevitably come with change, even positive change, I’ve neglected every one of those things. Over the years, and with some helpful coaching, I’ve become much better at putting my own needs first, and considering others’ requests respectfully, but secondarily. Living with a chronic digestive condition and a chronic pain disorder have taught me that I need to do this if I’m to have the energy to address others’ requests at all. But I’ve also realized that I’m a bit of an adrenaline addict. One of the things I enjoy about working in an I.T. organization is the opportunity to work with smart, curious, interesting people, solving interesting problems. I get all fired-up about solving something difficult, or getting something finished, and will stick with it like a dog with a bone, until I’m exhausted.

After a few sixty-plus hour weeks and too-late nights, the inevitable happened – I crashed on Friday last week & spent most of the weekend recovering. By Tuesday the digestive condition made itself strenuously known and for 2 days I’ve been unable to eat even broth without pain. I should know better. I do know better. So why don’t I do better?

I know I’m not alone in this, in putting myself last because other things seem more important in the moment, or because we think that if we don’t do it, whatever “it” is, it won’t get done (which is often true). For me, in that moment of pressing obligation, or compelling knotty problem, or request, whether actual or even implied, from someone I don’t want to disappoint, the long-range commitment I made to myself work out, mediate, be outside or write seems less important. I tell myself that skipping it “just this once” isn’t so bad and I’ll “make it up later, when I have more time”. Even though it’s not “just this once”. Even though “more time” is a myth. Even though the consequences are and will be a bitch and I know it. This is not awareness. This is not mindfulness.

I wish I could say confidently that I’ll never again get out of balance, burn myself out, and then have to work my way back to health, but I’m not there yet. I’ve been doing more yoga, which is making me more mindful of my body and hopefully able to respect it more in future compelling moments; to make the connection that a workout or meditation session skipped is the start of the slippery slope. To honour my health even, and perhaps especially, when the “approval-whore” in me raises her head and I’m afraid to disappoint someone. Careers these days are marathons, not sprints, and if we’re going to survive the distance, we have to take care of and protect our energy. Yet even as I write that and know it’s truth, I know the next time I have to make the choice between the compelling and the long-term, I’m going to find it difficult. Progress, not perfection – that’s the goal.

So, in light of that, here are a couple of resources that I’ve found particularly helpful, when I’m fried and need to recover:

1.Tired of Being Tired by Jesse Lynn Hanley & Nancy Deville. This is my burnout recovery bible. It’s wise and immediately helpfully and covers all facets of recovery from food to exercise to mental attitude. I always go back to it.

2. “Spent” by Frank Lipman, M.D. (I think the recent reprint of this book has been renamed “Revive”). Another good recovery program – the restorative yoga poses are excellent, especially the Shoulder Release. There are some good recipes for smoothies and healthy lunches and dinners as well.

3. Slim Calm Sexy Yogaby Tara Stiles. I know the title sounds a bit sketchy, but this book is filled with doable 15-minute yoga routines designed to address a variety of goals from losing weight and getting fit to digestive issues, anxiety, insomnia and lots in between – they really work.

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Word for the Holiday Season

Since I chose my word for 2011, “bigger”, I’ve been thinking about the idea of choosing a word as a focus on a smaller scale, such as for a day, or even for a particular event. For the holiday season, I’d like my word to be “savour”.

Too often we get mired in “the stuff we have to do” to get ready for the holidays. The to-do list seems endless. It’s easy to feel rushed, stressed, and resentful of the lack of personal time. Well I’ve come to realize that this is a choice. I can choose chaos or I can choose peace. Choosing peace means paring down to the essentials. The essentials are what’s truly meaningful, and this will vary with every person. What’s meaningful to me is savouring the simpler pleasures of the season. Shortbread – my mother’s recipe. Classic Christmas songs (think “The Christmas Song”, not “The Christmas Shoes”). Shopping for a few – not a ton – of well-chosen presents for each person on my list. Christmas dinner of roast goose, roast potatoes (made with goose fat, of course!), fruit stuffing, red cabbage and Christmas pudding with custard, with my husband. A big, boisterous German Christmas Eve celebration with my husband’s wonderful family. Time to catch up and laugh with my sister and my niece and nephew at my sister’s beautiful Quebec house in the woods. Conversations, games, dinners, and movies with our friends. Sitting on the couch with a blanket, a good book, a treat, and a cup of tea.

What didn’t make the cut? Pretty much everything else. Shopping in crowded stores. Overspending. Working overtime. Meeting everyone else’s demands and expectations while sacrificing my own serenity. Cooking to impress others rather than make them feel welcome and cared for. Rushing of any description.

It’s all over so quickly. Yet these are the times that make memories. These are the times children will tell their children about in years to come. We can rush through them, trying to get from here to there, to “get it all done” and cross everything off our ever expanding to-do list, to please everyone but ourselves. Or we can simplify. Pare back to what’s essential. Choose a word to symbolize our seasonal focus. Stop, take a breath, take a look around and above all else, say “thank you”.

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Reverb10: Lesson Learned

Prompt: Lesson learned. What was the best thing you learned about yourself this past year? And how will you apply that lesson going forward?

I learned that I am resilient. I always knew I was strong – I couldn’t have survived some of the acutely difficult experiences of my life without being so – but it was only this year that I truly realized I could emerge from adversity better than before.

I read a book this year (Martha Beck’s “Steering By Starlight”) which said that walking through the Ring of Fire (adversity) vaporizes every dysfunctional concept, limiting belief and ego defense that has been holding you back. It forces you to let go of every concept around “how things should be”. You examine all facets of your life and in many cases rebuild from scratch. This of course assumes that you let go and surrender to the pain, rather than clinging to a reality that has outlived its form.

This has certainly been true for me. I chose to dive into the Ring, because I knew that the only way out was through. It was time to turn away from distractions and face the monster in the closet; only to learn that this monster, just like a childhood one, was made of my own fears and limiting beliefs. Through this I found a strength and a sense of hope and purpose and forward momentum that I don’t think I ever would have otherwise.

Surrender has never come easily to me. I’ve always been prone to attachment, particularly to people and to “how things should go”. This has been the case for as long as I can remember.

I first learned about the concept of “Attachment” when I started studying Buddhism. Contrary to what many think, in Buddhism attachment doesn’t mean love or affection or connection; it means craving. In its strongest form, it’s addiction. Holding on to things and people so tightly, trying to control the ineffable, leads to tremendous anxiety and fear. It is impossible to keep a clear mind when you’re in its grip. For years I was attachment’s poster-girl, all the while living under a nice, fluffy blanket of denial about it, as most attached people do. Buddhists call this “delusion”, which along with “attachment” and “aversion”, make up The Three Poisons – the major hindrances to happiness and freedom from suffering. Small wonder then that the lessons sent my way over the years have all been designed to teach me that I must learn to let go.

This year I finally got it through my thick head. I learned that I can let go of people, of things, of my self-concept, of “how my life is” and “how things should be”, and emerge paradoxically less afraid of losing it all. Oh I’m by no means perfect at it. The desire to control is something I deal with every day, and I’ll probably always have an addictive personality to some degree. But thanks to my awareness and newfound resilience, I know that it’s not beyond my ability to cope; I can learn from my tendencies and continue to move forward.

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Reverb10: 5 Minutes

Prompt: 5 minutes. Imagine you will completely lose your memory of 2010 in five minutes. Set an alarm for five minutes and capture the things you most want to remember about 2010.

Of all the Reverb10 exercises so far, I highly recommend this one. Follow the instructions and set a timer – that enforced mini-deadline makes a difference.

I found the moments that most stood out this year were small, simple ones; most often connected to the people I care about. It became more of a gratitude list than a memory list, and I was happy to notice that the things I that came up are right in line with my top priorities, my right life.

  • My husband and the deepening love we share. How much we learned about ourselves and each other this year.
  • The kindness, company, laughter, and solace of my friends and family.
  • The Florida trip we took with my sister and brother-in-law. Being able to talk and laugh and cook with them every day.
  • My cats Furgus and Rohan.
  • Spending a long weekend in a beautiful Niagara-on-the-Lake house with my sister and some good friends.
  • Spending a stay-cation at home this summer. Enjoying it more than I ever thought I would.
  • Feeling blissfully connected with nature while hiking in the Huron Conservation Area.
  • Visiting the Huron Conservation area at night to see Uranus (tee hee).
  • Playing Beatles Rock Band with my family at Christmas…every day. Singing out loud without being afraid my voice is bad.
  • Eating summer tomatoes, plums, peaches.
  • Eating pomegranates and clementines in the winter.
  • Cuddling up with my sweetie, eating pizza, and watching TV on Friday nights.
  • Learning so much about myself and how to better live my life by working with Coach Lee.
  • Attracting peace, for quite possibly the first time in my life.
  • Feeling gratitude for the people in my life, from my husband and friends to family and co-workers. They shine light into my life.
  • Enjoying great, sometimes life-changing conversations with them.
  • My sweetie bringing me a bouquet of flowers for no particular occasion, just to express appreciation.
  • Sitting outside on my front steps with a tea, watching the full moon and seeing how it changes through the seasons.

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Reverb 10: 11 Things

Prompt: 11 Things. What are 11 things your life doesn’t need in 2011? How will you go about eliminating them? How will getting rid of these 11 things change your life?

  1. Fear
  2. Sloth
  3. Inaction
  4. Anxiety/worry
  5. Mess/clutter
  6. Not being true to myself
  7. Putting off things I want to do, making excuses for not doing them
  8. Not making time for friends
  9. Playing too small
  10. Not speaking my mind or saying what’s in my heart
  11. Self-doubt

How will I be getting rid of these things? First, being aware of them, because you can’t change what you don’t notice, and  second by taking inspired action in each area, perhaps focusing on one area a month.

I intend to reduce the clutter in 2011, to live with fewer things. As I wrote previously, my word for the year is bigger, so I’ll also try to speak my mind more, to stop playing small, and to start doing the things I’ve talked for years about doing but haven’t started (coaching more, travelling more, cycling and walking more).

I don’t know how dramatically these will change my life – I’m not really looking to change my life anyway. I think of it more as moving more in the direction of my right life, which is a lifelong process.

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Reverb10: Action/Appreciate

Prompt: Action. When it comes to aspirations, it’s not about ideas. It’s about making ideas happen. What’s your next step?

This is a difficult prompt, because I’m trying to decide what I want to pursue in the new year, what I want to make my life about for that time. So my next step is to get still and quiet enough to see what comes up, to see what intuitive prompts appear.

I will remember that I don’t need to know every step in the path in order to take action; just the next one. Usually quieting my mind, through meditation, yoga, or a walk outside in nature lets me drop the puzzling and analysis long enough to hear a deeper message.

Prompt: Appreciate. What’s the one thing you have come to appreciate most in the past year? How do you express gratitude for it?

More than anything the past year, I appreciated the people in my life, particularly my husband. I realized how lucky I am to be married to a person who I can laugh with, cry with, learn with, and who I want to eat jello on the porch with when we’re old.

This year crystallized how important my relationships are to me, and what they add to my life. In addition to my husband, I am blessed to have a wise, intelligent, funny, kind, wonderful sister who was my rock this year. I would truly do anything for her. I am also blessed to have a smart, compassionate, no-nonsense, fun to be with best friend who I wish lived right across the street, as she did when we were kids, rather than 5 hours away. We don’t get to see each other often, but when we do, she shines light into my life.

I’m fortunate to work daily with people I truly like as well as respect. For me, the people are more important to the enjoyment of my job than the job itself, and I’m lucky enough to have people around me that make me think, make me laugh, and inspire me to be better.

While I always felt appreciative of the important relationships in my life, I’ve not always been good at expressing it. This year, as I was taking stock of what to keep and what to discard in my life, as part of the Big Reckoning, I realized that I need to do a better job of making sure that the people I care about know how much I value them. I realize still have lots work to do in this area – I hope to continue to get better at it in 2011.

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Crazy-busy with the Holidays? Here’s Dinner

For those days where you’re busy wrapping, baking, or whatever, here’s a tasty, healthy dinner that you can have on the table just about quicker than the time it takes to order and wait for a pizza.

I found it in an old cookbook of my mother’s, and have updated it to make it healthier by using whole wheat pasta, low or no salt tomato sauce, a little bit of high-flavour cheese, and ground turkey. I used dried herbs here because I don’t always have fresh in the house this time of year, but fresh basil, oregano, thyme, or a combination would all work.

1 lb ground turkey
1.5 cups cooked whole wheat macaroni or small shells (start with about 3/4 cup dry)
2 cups frozen California Mix or Italian Mix vegetables
1 can (15 oz) low salt or no salt tomato sauce (I use Hunts No Salt)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp dried basil
1/2 tsp hot pepper flakes (or to taste)
Salt & pepper
1/4 cup grated Grana Padano or Parmesan cheese

Heat oven to 400 degrees.

Cook macaroni in boiling water for 8-10 minutes.

While macaroni is cooking, cook turkey in non-stick skillet over medium heat 8-10 minutes until no longer pink. Add garlic, oregano, basil, and hot pepper flakes. Saute until garlic is fragrant but not brown.

Spoon turkey into ungreased 2-quart casserole. Stir in vegetables, macaroni, tomato sauce, and salt and pepper to taste. Cover and bake for about 30 minutes until vegetables are tender. Stir. Sprinkle with cheese.

Serves 4.

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Reverb10: Make

December 6 – Make. What was the last thing you made? What materials did you use? Is there something you want to make, but you need to clear some time for it? (Author: Gretchen Rubin)

The last thing I made was a turkey casserole, which we had for tonight’s dinner. Sautéed ground turkey, a mix of carrots, broccoli and cauliflower, gemelli pasta and marinara sauce, topped with Parmesan and baked. Simple and delicious, especially on a snowy night. Most of the things I make tend to be food-related. I would love to be crafty, like the other women in my family, but that gene seems to have skipped my generation. So I create in the kitchen.

What I’d like to make is Madeleines, the small French shell-shaped sponge cakes that are a cross between a cookie and a cake,  and were made famous by Marcel Proust in his novel In Search of Lost Time. I’ve never made them before, but I love to eat them. Last spring I discovered what I know will be a delicious recipe for a chocolate variety (I can just about taste them whenever I read the recipe), and I after searching for the shell-shaped tin in a small size, I picked one up this summer at Williams & Sonoma. I also have the chocolate in the pantry. But I’ve yet to make Madeleines. They’re somewhat time-consuming and fiddly, and I haven’t yet cleared the space to do it.

Truth is, sometimes – okay, often – I shy away from making difficult things, whether they are recipes, household projects, or crafts. If something looks complex or fiddly, I tend to pass it by, even if the final product is something I would like. I’m a pretty accomplished cook, yet I still avoid certain recipes I think of as complex: pie crust, bread dough, most cakes. I do this in other areas of my life too – simplifying to the point where I wind up eliminating the sense of accomplishment from mastering a difficult task. Not that simplifying is bad – in most cases it’s a time and sanity saver. Sometimes though it’s worth remembering what Einstein said: “Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler”.

Time to find time to make Madeleines.

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Reverb10: Wonder

December 4 – Wonder. How did you cultivate a sense of wonder in your life this year? (Author: Jeffrey Davis)

By paying attention. We don’t find wonder in ordinary life unless we look for it. So much in my life changed this year, and because I have been grateful for how it has unfolded, I’ve found wonder wrapped up tightly with gratitude. Moments worthy of wonder are everywhere when we open our eyes.

The other day I came home to find a red fox in our backyard. In the middle of a suburban neighbourhood. About the size of a small border collie, with bright russet fur, a great fluffy swath of a tail, and sharply pointed ears. It stood there a couple of minutes, sniffing the air and looking at me looking at it, then loped off into the neighbour’s yard. For those few minutes I was frozen in wonder.

I’ve found wonder hiking by myself in the woods from spring to fall, most often surrounded only by birds, rustling leaves, chipmunks and squirrels. One afternoon this summer, when I stopped to drink some water, a small garter snake darted across my hiking boot. I like snakes – I’m fascinated by them the way we often are by things that seem so alien to us – but at that moment, I screamed like a little girl in both surprise and wonder.

I continue to find wonder when I look over at my husband and feel so thankful that we’re still here, together, in our little house, with our 2 cats and our still-not-quite-right decorating style and our “ordinary life” that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

December 5 – Let Go. What (or whom) did you let go of this year? Why? (Author: Alice Bradley)

I let go of my conception of myself as needy and dependent. I let go of thinking of my partner as practically perfect and me as perpetually broken. I realized that we’re both broken in our own way, and maybe we can help each other become strong in those broken places.

I let go of a”patch of weeds” in my life that didn’t serve me, that drained my energy and integrity and dragged me down. The sense of lightness, of rightness around this was hugely freeing.

I let go of ballroom dancing, my passionate hobby for the past 16 years, because I was diagnosed with a chronic pain disorder which turned out to be  made worse by dancing. I expected this to be painful, but in fact it wasn’t as much as I thought. I think I was ready to move on, and had been for a while; the pain disorder was a wake-up call to that realization. Our interests can change over time, and the wise response is not to hold on to things that no longer serve us. I had a wonderful dance partner for the last 8 years, someone who brought joy and wisdom to my life. I will be forever grateful to him for that.

I let go of the illusion that if I could just control everything around me, I would be “safe”. I learned to, as my yoga teacher says, open to the flow of grace, to do my best and then take my hand off the wheel, trusting that things will unfold as they should. Along with this, I let go of trying to control the people around me, particularly those closest to me. I stopped crafting my words to control people’s reactions, and started being less “nice” and more honest. These things were and are difficult – I work on them daily – but they have had the most profound results in my life.

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Reverb10: Writing

December 2 – Writing. What do you do each day that doesn’t contribute to your writing — and can you eliminate it? (Author: Leo Babauta)

I probably do a variety of things that don’t contribute to my writing, but I think they’re all symptoms of two main problems.

First, I wait for “inspiration”. I wait for “the great idea” that will blossom into a post of sheer literary gold (or at least something that’s readable). And because it so rarely arrives when I’m waiting for it, I go for long stretches thinking about writing but not actually writing anything.

I need to remember that inspiration arrives when I start writing first. First the effort, then the inspiration. It’s only after I start a piece of writing that I get that sense of the words flowing through me and on to the page, rather than being squeezed painfully out of my constipated brain.

Second, I’m highly self-critical. I edit the hell out of something, then I edit some more. In trying to make it just that little bit “better”, I can strip the life and authenticity right out of it. A wise friend of mine often says “just hit the button, don’t edit!”, but I find this excruciatingly difficult (okay, impossible). I’ll probably edit the hell out of this post.

I need to remember that not every post is going to be gold. I hope some will be. Most will probably be average. And some will likely be crap. This is okay. I need to remind myself that I’m not writing to become a great writer (good bloody thing, you’re saying), or to make you like me; I’m writing to express myself creatively because I’ll go mad if I don’t.

Can I eliminate them? Probably not, because I’ve been this way for all of my life, but I think I can minimize them this year. This challenge is one way to work on the first because it “forces” me (admittedly with a velvet rope) to sit and write every day. It also helps with the second because if I get into editing paralysis on every one of these posts, my life and career will fall apart while I sit in my little office torturing myself to find just the right synonym for “biscuit”.

I’ll try to remember that “real” is far more important than and quite incompatible with “perfect”.

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