Where have I been?

Palette Knives

I don’t paint dreams or nightmares, I paint my own reality.” Frida Kahlo

Autumn is happening in Detroit. I sit with my cup of green tea looking out the window at a maple with bright golden leaves in my neighbors yard. I had to pull out an extra quilt last night even with the furnace on. The smell of oil paint fills the air as I have four small paintings drying next to me. So hard to believe that almost a year has passed since I sat down to compose a blog post. There were many mornings after writing in my journal that I thought about sharing what was happening, how I was navigating what has turned out to be a year of tremendous change, how my view of the world has shifted. How I am finally learning what deep self-care and respect looks and feels like. What it means to live commitment to myself. But then I felt uneasy, not ready. Scared I was going to lose this new found space, peace and quiet in my life.

About two years ago I was challenged by my therapist to take the summer off from everything but my day job. That summer turned into years in which I got still and quiet for the first time in a very long time (maybe ever?). I had no idea how much doing, pursuing and pleasing was actually keeping me from acknowledging what was important and really who I was. How much it was draining me and keeping me from taking care of myself. And now, I can’t go back to my old ways.

I only have so much time and bandwidth so I had to make some really hard choices. One was to put teaching my writing workshops and developing more offerings on the back burner for now. I had to choose me and my health right now. The fact that I am middle age has everything to do with this choice. I need to take exquisite care of my mind, body and spirit to shepherd myself through peri-menopause. This means less doing, more rest, more moderation. Ignoring my body and its needs are no longer an option as it was when I was in my 20s and 30s.

This choice means that I need to honor my spiritual and emotional needs as well and that means painting and visual arts. I have put this part of me on the back burner for too long. I told myself after my son graduated high school I would refocus my budding art career. But then our world was turned upside down when his father died. Instead of returning to my art career I started blogging and teaching. I honestly I started blogging and teaching telling myself it was for me but really it kept me from feeling because I kept plowing ahead doing stuff I loved but also using it to avoid feeling the great amount of grief loss and pain from so much of my past.  

I was coping. I was doing what I knew how to do. Stay perpetually busy, in motion so that I don’t feel. Even my meditation time felt rushed. It was a box to check and not so much as space to allow curiosity and exploration of the present moment. It was to get it done so I could move on. It was not until I stopped all of my projects and teaching that I realized how much I needed to rest, how much I needed the self-care of nothing. Still take care of my responsibilities but not add to them.

Which gets me to crux of the matter. I didn’t need to put myself in continuous service to everyone outside myself. I was brought up as an extension of my mother. My whole reason for being was to take care of her. As a child, my needs didn’t exist or matter. It was her and only her. I learned early that in order to survive and get any type of love I had to be of service. Then I left home at 17, got married and had a baby. My whole life has been about the care of others. For many years, even my self-care was about others needs. I took care of myself so I could be there for others.

Never have I had the courage to prioritize my needs. To make myself feel good, whole and loved. Yet here at midlife, I need to give myself this gift. I need to be in service of my care, my needs. Not so I can refuel for others but because I need all of my efforts to get myself through peri-menopause. It takes great physical, mental, and spiritual effort and reserves to transition. It is a great uproar and disruption.

In practical terms that means putting aside teaching writing workshops for now. I need my creative energy for me. It means finally pursuing my fine art career that I started so many years ago but put on hold. Not more putting it off until one day. Painting and drawing seems so selfish like I am the only one who benefits. Especially when I am still learning. The hours in the studio replenish me in way I didn’t know I needed.

So where have I been? I been releasing what seems hardwired habits of doing, pursuing and pleasing for the first time. Or what seems like the first time, I like to think there was a time when I was young when I was not doing, pursuing and pleasing. A time when I was simply able to enjoy laying on the damp grass on a hot summer day when the cicadas buzzed and there nothing to do but stare up at the clouds drifting by.

I honestly can’t remember when I had that much freedom from responsibility. Now as I approach 50 years old, I am doing what I can to cultivate this kind of space in my life. Moments where I can sit and watch the golden leaves fall to the ground. Moments where I feel free from responsibility.

How to Embrace Idleness

 

Kira Elliott Embrace Idle

“Idleness for me is not a giving up on life but a spirited grabbing hold of it.”
Tom Hodgkinson

Learning how to embrace idleness is hard. It is Saturday morning. Arctic air has settled in Detroit and it is snapping cracking cold outside. If I look closely I see the tiniest of snowflakes flying around out the window. I have been up for two hours getting lost on the internet in my usual places: Facebook, email, The New York Times, NPR. However, I feel a bit frantic, no dispersed and unfocused. My mind is jumping all over the place unsure of direction, demanding I get something done. My breath is shallow and my shoulders are clenched up to my ears. Inside of me a fight is brewing between get something done and relax, enjoy life. The get something done feels known and urgent. It is hard, grey and steel, an old crumbling sidewalk littered with trash and dried gum. The relax, enjoy life feels peaceful, languid, like a foreign land that is beautiful and lush, plumb green leaves on trees filled with colorful song birds.

I find myself in this situation often as I am learning how to let go of doing and busy as a measure of my worth.

I feel the creative impulse yet I am fearful of creating hard goals because I don’t want to live my life as I have on the dirty sidewalks of busy and striving. My therapist suggested I write a list of possible creative projects and see what floats up and resonates the most, no matter what plans to feelings of get things done are stomping around my belly kicking up anxiety.  

This morning I am not sure what resonates. Do I write a blog post or write newsletter? Do I use a prompt and do a timed writing? Do I finish revisions on a small flash piece to submit some place? Do I paint? Do I draw? Do I finish preparing new panels (boring but makes me feel productive)? How about read one of the hundreds (I am not kidding) of books I have stacked around me? Do I take a photo? How about go on a photo walk? Redo a page on my website? How about meditate? Do some yoga or qigong? Try out a new recipe?

I feel so overwhelmed by all of my choices. So I freeze and instead of picking something that feeds my need for creative expression, I default to easy— I scroll and click, getting lost down rabbit holes online of new photographers, essays and blog posts by my favorite authors, classes I can take, real estate listings in New York City (we have no intentions moving), or how to add new code to my website.

I am being idle and this might be the whole point.

The reality is I don’t have to do a damn thing. It is a quiet Saturday morning. Riggins, my black cat, is sitting next to me, so close her fluffy black tail is swishing across the back of my hand as I type. An empty cup of coffee and a large mug of hot peppermint tea sit on the desk in front of me. The scent of sandalwood surrounds me from the lit candle I bought at a little boutique over the holidays. My little corner of the world is cozy and warm. This is good. This is what I dreamed of for so many years when frantic activity filled every inch of my life because stopping caused so much anxiety I thought I was going to explode.  

On the desk right under the monitor sits a white 3×5 index card with the permission of how to embrace idleness, how to let go of my inner struggle. Written in my messy handwriting is a reminder I wrote to myself many months ago:

Remember Life is not a relay race. There is no time table. There is no right order of events. There is no deadline. I am not late. Life is enough. I am enough.

I breathe, take a sip of my tea. My shoulders drop, my belly releases. This is enough. Being idle is enough.

P.S. You might also like Depression Sucks, Play is a Foreign Land, and Making Sleep a Priority.

I invite you to sign up for my mailing list to get monthly Open Hearted letters (plus many extras like secret videos!) + access to my Open Hearted Writing mini ecourse. Sign up HERE!

How to Make the New Year Easy

Kira Elliott New Year Easy

“Your life is not a problem to be solved but a gift to be opened.” Wayne Muller

I am sitting at my desk, my legs folded up under me wondering, how to make the New Year easy. On my desk sits a cup filled with hot black french roast coffee, a pink pen, a spiral bound notebook I write my morning pages in, an assortment of candles in various jars and tins of which a cream-colored sandalwood candle is lit, the flame flickers when the furnace kicks on and gently blows warm air in my little study. Riggins my older black cat is perched behind me on top of my old ratty office chair, the one that is literally falling apart but I keep because it has a tall wide back that the cats like to sit on while I write.  

All of this feels easy.

I sit and watch the sky unfold a tender pink that pushes away the dark slate blue of night. I hear a few birds begin to chirp at the bird feeder. Later when the sun warms the frozen ground finches, chickadees and cardinals will dance and sing around the feeder pecking and filling up on millet and sunflower seeds. The cats will sit at the window and watch, their tails flicking back and forth as they watch the birds for hours. This routine will unfold like most days. It is predictable like my habit of thinking my worth comes from what I accomplish or in how much I strive and do—keeping myself in an endless loop of busyness.

I sit and note that this morning is like any other Sunday morning only today is January 1st. A day of new beginnings. I feel a twinge, a need to make this morning wise, purposeful, with deep meaning. A need that is sitting on my shoulders, a heavy weight on my already sore muscles. My shoulders, a place where I carry so many of my unspoken expectations to be perfect, to do more, to prove I am enough.

However, this habitual need is becoming unfamiliar. This need to prove, do and achieve is not easy.

After a year of committing myself to less doing, less striving—letting go of the notion I need to make myself better, I able to feel the weight of the unspoken expectations sitting on my shoulders to make the new year special. This is progress. A year ago I couldn’t feel the tightness in my belly that said to make this ordinary Sunday morning exceptional because it was New Year’s Day.

This year I am able to feel the weight and tightness. I am able to witness it with compassion and be still. I don’t have to react. I know this is a habit. I know the impulse to set goals, start a diet, get productive, start a 100 day project, do anything that I think is going to make me better is only but an illusion, a drug, a false promise.

The new year is dangerous territory for someone who is recovering from chronic busyness. Everywhere I look is the seductive call to start again, plan my year, become a new me, a me I always wanted—become good enough finally. So much of the rhetoric that swirls around the New Year is my drug of choice. Set goals, plan, do better, all of it calls out to my inner sense of lack, it tells me I can be good enough if only I do everything right and perfect. Set the right goals, have the right metrics, be the most productive. On and on the list goes offering false promise.

What I have learned this past year is that all of this striving and doing is me trying to feel good enough and it is not easy. Yet the very things I think are going to help me feel good enough are what keep me feeling not good enough. The goals, the planning, the striving, it all continues to tell me I am not good enough.

It takes great effort and fortitude to not react to the marketing pressures to be a new you in the New Year. To not respond to the “act now because a New Year only comes once a year so order now” pressure.

All of which is rubbish. There is a way to make this easy.

Someone posted on social media the other day “None of this New Year New You malarky. Last year I was fabulous and this year I will be too.” This says it all. I am fine—no I am fabulous.

I ended 2016 hiking out in woods, having a homemade dinner with my honey and reading a book in bed. I rang in the new year sleeping, resting my body so I could wake and feel good to start 2017. This was all easy.

So how to make the New Year easy?

No new goals, no new beginnings, no proving, striving or planning. I am enough and each day is enough. I will wake, drink hot coffee, watch the cats watch the birds, write if I feel like it, mediate, move my body. I will be gentle. I will be kind. I will smile. All of this is easy.

P.S. You might also like Dreams of Good Enough, A Quiet Revolution, Real Self-Care is not an Anthropology Ad 

I invite you to sign up for my mailing list to get monthly Open Hearted letters (plus many extras like secret videos!) + access to my Open Hearted Writing mini ecourse. Sign up HERE!  

 

Sleep is Magical- Mindful Practices to Help You Sleep

Kira Elliott Sleep is Magical

“Peace is within oneself to be found in the same place as agitation and suffering. It is not found in a forest or on a hilltop, nor is it given by a teacher. Where you experience suffering, you can also find freedom from suffering. Trying to run away from suffering is actually to run toward it.” Ajahn Chah

Sleep is Magical

It is dark. I wake and awareness trickles into the warm spaces in my mind. The white noise machine on the cluttered bedside table hums. I feel the warm weight of the cat sleeping on my right foot. Sleep is a magical thing and I want more of it. Yet the core of my body is heating up like the flare of hot blue heat when a bunsen burner is first fired up. A single click and we have a roaring sharp tipped blue flame. I roll over and disturb the cat, who settles back leaning on my ankles. A prick of familiar panic forms in my belly as I lay there hoping to fall back to sleep. Hoping my mind will not turn on like my body has and  the heat from the blue flame at my core will not disturbed my mind so I can fall back asleep and dream of things that don’t make sense but then do while they are happening in my sleep.

Yet, I begin to feel it, the tightening. My thoughts are winding tighter and tighter. Looping around and around each other like a thin copper wire coiling around a small lead tube, small constricting no room to breath. So much swirls around my mind in the middle night keeping me awake. President-elect Donald Trump and what will happen, fears for my son, things I forgot to do at work, ideas for writing, thoughts of getting older, worry about the approaching winter, even parking and rush hour traffic. Everything I have no control over or can’t do anything about at 2 am. So how do I find peace from the looping intrusive thoughts that keep my mind and body awake in the middle of the night?

Many experts speak of the basics of good sleep hygiene such as keep regular bedtimes, don’t drink caffeine after 3 pm, keep a cool, dark room used only for sleep. But what if I already do all of those and I still wake up? These experts also say let things go, let thoughts go or don’t fight them.  Yet how? What do you literally do to let things go so you can sleep in the middle of the night?


After years of struggle here is how I find more magical sleep.

  1. Limit Media Input- I soak up media deep into my bones and psyche. Not only do I think about it, I feel it too. I remember during the Kosovo war in the late 90s listening to a news report on NPR and crying hard for all those suffering. It hurt so much and yet there I was thousands of miles away on a freeway in Detroit. I thought I was being too sensitive. I know accept that is just the way I am, so I have to be super careful about what and how much input I take in. Too much news or really anything and it invades my mind to replay in the middle of the night. Limiting my media includes, news (radio, tv and written), social media, movies and tv shows. I must be careful.
  2. Journal Daily- Sitting at my writing desk pen in hand with my first cup of coffee of the day helps to clear the clutter in my brain. I have crates full of journals (over 25 years worth of daily words) and let me tell you for the most part they are boring. I ramble, search and allow myself to let loose on the page. I release the worry and anxiety that accumulates inside. It is a safe space to be 100% me. If I don’t journal regularly all that stuff stays in my mind and starts to invade my dreams. I get cranky and short fused. My brain does not turn off. Repetitive thoughts loop around and around, usually at 2 am.
  3. Meditate Daily- Like writing in my journal sitting on my black mediation cushion while my honey sleeps and the cats play with each other out in the living room while I follow my breath is magic for quieting my mind and sleep. It calms the mind and trains it for space and stillness, it gets me into my body. If I don’t sit and meditate for three days, I notice a marked difference in my moods and reactivity. I will be up at 2 am if I don’t take the half hour to follow my breath and note when I am thinking or I have a pain in my right knee.
  4. Move My Body- I need to get those feel good chemicals flowing through my body. I need to get outside and breathe the fresh air, no matter the season. I need to release the anxiety by getting into my body through movement. Again, if I go too long without movement I notice I am stuck in a loop of anxious repetitive thoughts in the middle of the night.
  5. Honor Segmented Sleep- What is segmented sleep? It when you naturally sleep in two distinct chunks of time and are awake in the middle of the night. So you have first sleep, wake sleep and second sleep. Before the advent of artificial light from the lightbulb, our ancestors slept this way. Now whether I truly experience segmented sleep, I don’t know. I do wake most nights between 2 am and 3 am. Some nights I am able to fall back to sleep with ease, others not so much. Since learning about segmented sleep I no longer fight being awake in the middle of the night. I honor my wake sleep time to develop more mindfulness in my body and mind. If my mind is out of control and my belly is clenched tight with anxiety, I practice self-compassion by treating myself as I would a fussy colicky baby in the middle of the night. I treat myself with gentle kindness by not yelling at myself for being awake, which only creates more tension in my body. I lay in the darkness, go back to my breath and focus on how the softness of the bed is cradling me, how warm and cozy the quilts are, how soft the pillow is under my head. I practice progressive body relaxation. I use my wake sleep time to deepen my mindfulness practice. Since I have started doing this I have notice how much deeper my mindfulness is during the day. How much more I notice the movement of my thoughts. It is interesting how a shift in how I utilize that time in the middle of the night can have such a huge impact on my life. I am calmer and feel more rested. I think I am nicer too.

So none of these approaches are a quick easy fix. They all take time and dedication but I can tell you for me it worth it. Sleep is magical. It is a balm for my soul when I get enough. Plus every single one of these practices provides me with other benefits aside from a better night sleep. They enhance the quality of my life. I might even say they make my life possible. They allow me to function, be kind and present, not just in the middle of the night, but throughout the day too.

May you honor your needs and find rest and deep magical sleep.

I invite you to sign up for my mailing list to get monthly Open Hearted letters (plus many extras like secret videos!) + access to my Open Hearted Writing mini ecourse. Sign up HERE!  

A Quiet Revolution

Kira Elliott Quiet Revolution

“Just because we are working hard does not mean we are making anything happen.” Wayne Muller

It is cold. Cold enough to turn the furnace on. The leaves on the maple in the backyard are turning yellow. My neighbors maple is blazing red. The oak and walnut trees have shown their brilliance and released their little yellow leafs to the wet pavement. I am wrapped in my thick fleece bathrobe with a black knitted cap pulled down over my ears. I sit in my little writing studio watching the sky unfold from the east. Golden light gently moves across the treetops and frost covered roofs.

A part of me is startled by this inevitable transition. I am not ready. Where did the long summer days go. Days when I could linger, not rush. Days that seemed endless, despite the nights that always came. Days I could ride my bike through the woods and down by the river after work and stay there until the moon rose. Days I could immerse myself in nature, the ultimate healing balm for my soul.

This has been a good summer. A calm summer. Peaceful and centering. This has been the kind of summer I dreamed of when my son was young. When I was unrelenting in my unconscious quest to prove my worth by the measure of my outer accomplishments. When I blindly flung myself forward to stay ahead of my fear of not being good enough. When the pace of getting it all done was soul crushing.

I remember that time as rushing, running, constant motion, even when I slept it seemed I was in motion. I would wake at 4 am to diligently write my morning pages, my only moment of reflection and stillness. I wrote of my longing for space and time to be still. To not be responsible, to not have appointments or a schedule I was chained to. To say a firm no and then go lay on the couch to read a good novel or simply stare out the window and watch clouds drift by. I dreamed of going for a bike ride or a hike to smell the damp earth and hear the woods whisper to me. I dreamed of breaking my leg, getting sick, something to give me a break. I didn’t know I could simply make the choice to stop, let go and be still.

I longed for less back then and had no idea that less would mean so much letting go. So much confronting my internal feelings of worth and the accompanying anxiety. I now know that I ran, rushed, and stayed in near constant motion in an attempt to stay ahead of looming anxiety that dwelled in my belly. I also know now that the running, the rushing and constant motion was feeding that anxiety in my belly. I was feeding the monster I was running away from. I was keeping myself in a constant loop in which I felt powerless to stop.

A revolution has been happening in my life over the last 6 months. As I wrote a few months ago, I was challenged by my therapist to take the summer off from everything but my day job (still have bills to pay). No projects, no teaching, no side hustle. Just me waking up and asking myself, “What does my heart need in this moment?”

When I think of revolutions I think of violent, loud chaotic scenes filled with bloody carnage—change that is messy. However, my revolution is quiet. It is what I dreamed about when I woke in the early morning hours and stole moments away from the rushing, running and doing that kept me at a distance from my heart. In the darkness at my kitchen table I sat and dreamed of a time when I could simply follow my delight, be still and watch the vibrancy of summer green transition to the brilliant gold of fall.

When confronted with the desire or request to do more my revolution is asking myself these simple questions from the book A Life of Being, Having, and Doing Enough by Wayne Muller (which I highly recommend), “Am I truly able to say I really love this? Or is it more honest to say that I can handle this?” These simple questions always point to what is important, what my heart needs for nourishment.

As the cold sets in and the days wane I am not willing to give up this new space in my life. I think I am going to stay the course for now and continue my quiet revolution.