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I have tears in my eyes this morning as my sophomore starts school online. When this great pause started out, I wrote about the ability we had to shift our focus to the things that matter most.  I talked about being in the car less, not being a slave to our overbooked schedules, and having the time to take walks and breath the fresh air.  Even with the stress of what we as a country were feeling economically, I felt like a pause was a good thing to protect people from the unknown of this virus and get the intangible benefits of a national slowdown to focus on our simple blessings.  In the beginning, we felt the bond of coming together for the greater good. Selfishly, I was even happy to have my college age kid back at home, I never thought I would have that time with her again and it turned out to be such a gift during these uncertain times.  She is one of the lucky ones who got to go back to her dorm room in Texas. Even with online classes and COVID tests that are part of the protocol for athletes, she is thriving as she learns to set her own schedule, manage her own day and her own health according to her priorities. She is learning every day about what is important, connecting with others, caring and doing life with people her own age.  My second born is not as lucky, he will start his freshman year of college taking online classes at home because Stanford has announced that they won’t be bringing students on to campus. I am crushed for him. He has been raised to believe that hard work pays off, has proven to himself that it is true, only to have everything he worked for from academics to athletics decimated over the last few months, and at this point, it is getting harder and harder to understand why.

As we sit here almost six months later from when COVID-19 became part of our national consciousness, we have gone from thinking we were all at high risk, to numbers from the CDC that show us the populations that actually are. School age children and college kids are not in these high risk populations. I’m glad I didn’t know back in March that kids wouldn’t be going back to school in August, it would have taken away the things I’ve learned about myself and what we as a society are made of.  Individually, people care, we want to help one another, protect the vulnerable, and be part of a solution. But there is so much confusion, why can we sit two feet away from each other outside a restaurant on the sidewalk, but not set up outdoor classrooms? Why are we forcing kids to be on screens all day when we  have spent massive amounts of energy over our years as parents of young ones to keep them off their screens? There must be something better we can come up with than this. There are so many of us that are not at significant risk, not scared because we don’t belong to a vulnerable population, who have caring hearts, and are looking for leadership that can show us how be part of a real solution, one that can bring necessities to people who choose to stay inside and away from the rest of the world because their risk factors for contracting COVID are greater than our own, but also allows for real connection in the less vulnerable populations and for those of us that are able to work, use our purpose for good, and keep the economy going.  There are real impacts to families beyond the risk of this virus that are chipping away at our foundational needs - the ability to provide for our families, use our purpose for the betterment of others and ourselves, and feel empowered by our own strength instead of shut down by collective fear.

The current climate is changing the mental landscape of young brains.  Kids are scared and disconnected because they have been confined and unable to read faces for the last six months.  Older kids are learning unhealthy coping mechanisms that can turn into addictions as they weather the disappointment of not being able to go off to college, connect with their friends, and be inspired by amazing teachers in the classroom.  Every fall we send kids off to college with far greater risk factors in play than what they face with COVID such as alcohol and drug abuse, eating disorders, mental health struggles as they learn to navigate the pressures of the world on their own, and even suicide risk are issues that we have come to accept as part of the path to independence. Young adults don’t have the perspective of the long life that we as adults have developed with our life experience.  Their experience in life up to today is all they know, and we can’t let the balance of their days be lived in this fear based zone we have inhabited since March. As parents, from the moment we have our children, we grapple with the knowledge that we cannot protect them from every danger in life.  And if we try, we make ourselves crazy and reduce the resilience that is theirs to gain by taking chances and doing hard things. Life isn’t a protected zone, there are risks associated with living that cannot be avoided,  but today I wonder if we are adding to them by instilling more fear than strength in the name of protection. 

From preschool to college students, our kids relationship with connection, other people, fear, anxiety, and depression has changed.  The power of great teaching has been diminished by the distance of cyberspace. My youngest is a kinesthetic learner, he learns best while his body is in motion, he uses whole-body movement to process new and difficult information.  Regular school was a challenge before, but behind the screen it’s even more difficult. 

If we had the ingenuity to weather the storm of full quarantine and create a system that delivered basic needs to all of us, we have the ability to come up with a solution that puts our students back in school and supports the at risk population simultaneously.  There are so many of us that are not at high risk, who have caring hearts and capable minds, that would sacrifice in real ways to bring necessities to people who choose to stay inside due to their risk factors, and also create safer systems for kids to connect in person and thrive instead of merely survive. What can we do for them, and for us, to be a real part of the solution?  These populations are our future, their mental health matters to the strength of our collective society. We can do better and I hope we figure out what that looks like soon.  The beauty of life happens when we learn to master the simple in the midst of the complex.  We must find our way back to connection, love, strength, and resilience, over fear, it’s what the human spirit was wired for.  

“She’s sensitive.” These words couldn’t be more true  about me. As a child, teenager, athlete, mom, friend, and partner, my sensitivity to the world presented its challenges before I found the true benefits of what being a sensitive soul is all about.  There is a term floating around out there, if you are on the road of seeking deep self awareness, you may have heard of and even be a “highly sensitive person”, otherwise known as HSP.  There are so many quizzes out there to discover if you are one but if my words resonate with you, then chances are you don’t need a quiz.  The question is have you trained yourself to  see sensitivity as a source of strength, even resilience, or has it been something that you have learned is a weakness that has to be overcome. For a long time, I thought it was the latter, that my sensitivity was something that set me up to be hurt by the world, so I’d better tread lightly in order not to feel the pain that seemed to be prickling at my skin at almost every moment.  

As HSP’s, we have nervous systems that sense the world in a very intense way. We are constantly processing information that other people don’t have to filter as they go about their day.  This can be a huge blessing if we can figure out healthy ways to process this wealth of information that we are constantly taking in, but it takes effort.  Which leads me to some reasons HSP’s are tougher than I grew up thinking.  

1. We build our strength by finding healthy outlets to process what we feel every day. 

As we walk through our days, we are going to feel…a lot.  I have had people in my life that I can literally feel the pain emanating from them. You can read it in their body language, their tone of voice, and in just the first few words that come out of their mouths.  There is a lot of pain in this world, and as HSP’s that are drawn to listen, our nervous systems can quickly be overwhelmed by all of this stimulation. The shortcut to dealing with the emotions that rise up in us is to numb, to try and dull the pain immediately instead of process it.  Numbing can turn into addictions - food, sex, alcohol, drugs, gambling, shopping - anything that releases the short term feel good neurochemicals that calm our heightened nerves - but these things can quickly derail our path and keep us from our highest calling.  If we want to pursue deep health and come closer to discovering our true self, we find the skills that teach us to process instead of numbing, and through that attract genuine ways to help ourselves and others. These healthy coping skills are always related to finding our mind/body connection, learning to integrate our physiology and our psychology, our heart and our mind. Breath work, a mindfulness practice, learning how the art of slowing down is actually sometimes how we get ahead, there are ways to integrate our sensitivity into our lives for maximum good. Through this experience we know and understand ourselves better, and self awareness is the key to the most fulfilling life here on this earth. 

2. Sensitivity disarms even the toughest exteriors…even if it’s just for a minute.

For the souls who walk around finding it hard to trust in other people and the good that is abundant in the world, often HSP’s are the only ones who can pull that perspective out of them.  I have always believed that human beings are innately good, even if some of the choices we make are bad. Our sustained life path comes down to how we handle and either make the most of the good choices, or learn and recover from the bad ones, that makes the road ahead bumpy or smooth. HSP’s are blessed to have the moments of disarming connections with even the most guarded among us and help them feel safe in the world. These moments are priceless because they allow us to get a glimpse at the depth of human potential that is always there and get to be the reason that someone else believes in it, even if it’s just a fleeting moment. 

3. Sensitivity is drawn to the beauty in the mundane.

As HSP’s we are lucky because it doesn’t take grand gestures for us to see the beauty in life.  In my life, I have experienced the heights of travel, luxury, and material comfort, and understand that if we don’t have the ability to find joy in the simple, costless (and priceless) beauty in this world, we can never connect it to the fancier side of life that our country as a whole seems to be seeking at the highest costs. But as HSP’s, we are able to find beauty in abundance in life’s simplest moments.  It’s ok to be moved to tears by music, a sunset, or a baby chasing a ball across the beach. I don’t begrudge anyone the heights of luxury but as HSP’s we have the ability to be moved by the notes of the piano whether they are played on a 40 year old untuned upright in the corner of a simple room or a baby grand in the lobby of the world’s fanciest hotel. And if the music from the upright can bring the chills to the back of your neck and the tears to your eyes,  imagine what the notes from the baby grand will do when your true self makes it to that fancy hotel one day. 

There are so many ways that HSP’s can own their superpowers and use them to strengthen their path, find deep rooted optimism,  and benefit the world.  Every day we all walk through life, looking to feel connected and be understood.  HSP’s have the ability to offer this gift to others, but it’s in mastering the art of self care for our sensitive souls that we attract relationships with others that care for us too.  We have to find the ways to be comfortable in our own skin to be able to integrate our sensitive ways for maximum health. For years of my life, my heart beat faster and my mind raced, I didn’t understand the heightened state I was trying to work from and it sapped my energy.  Learning to recognize my sensitivity as a core strength instead of a curse that had to be muted, freed my soul to discover true calm, deep sleep, and more connected relationships with the amazing people that fill this world. If you are feeling weary by all you have taken in, I encourage you to slow down and breathe.  If I can help you build these tools, reach out here. Freedom and strength are your birthright, we can be our strongest and most optimistic selves, even at the height of our most sensitive and vulnerable moments, if we uncover the tools that give our deepest feelings a comfortable place to rest. 

Let’s face it, we’ve had to say goodbye to a lot of things these past five months. When things are as uncertain as they have been, the skill that I have had to improve is  to let go of my planning ways and rest on my faith and intuition. The news shifts and changes every day. I find myself with no desire to read the latest newsflash on my phone or another email from the school district or University (Stanford, please take your students back and reinstate Mens Volleyball) because I feel like whatever I digest and plan on is going to take another turn before I can finish taking it all in.  These months, whether we feel the strain of finances, relationships, changing work or home environments, or just the flat out scariness of managing the great unknown without our go to escapes like concerts, movies, dining in, hot yoga, and gatherings with our favorite people have taken their toll.  It’s no different for the younger generation. Do they get to go off to college? For Luke and Stanford that answer went from a mid September yes to a no this week. Yet another disappointment to test his resilience, there have been a lot of them since March. I have coached and managed myself and others through the feelings of anxiety, isolation, and loneliness, looking to master the art of staying present and build sustainability in the unknown because when I stand in that place, it brings a sense of strength and deep calm…but I won’t tell you I am there in every moment, it ebbs and flows like the waves I’ve been watching.  But I know in every moment, if that strength is escaping me, it’s not far away, and we all have access to if we channel the skills of Active Optimism that help bring us there.

It’s been a week of goodbyes, after sending Lauren off to Texas on Saturday, Tuesday morning, I woke up before the sun, our eight year old Lab had cancer, although we couldn’t tell what type after many tests, and he was suffering.  It’s the hardest thing to watch and the worst part of being a pet owner.  We’ve had Lucky since Matthew was five, with some twists and turns in that story that I won’t get into here.  Needless to say, he is loved and Matthew is the best dog owner I have ever known.  There is something about the unconditional love of a pet that strengthens us if we lean into it, and he has.  He is a kid that no matter how hard the school day is, he’s come home and found love and purpose taking care of Lucky.  And on Tuesday he made the decision that he needed to be free of his pain…such a brave decision for him and not easy on my Texas dwelling kiddo as well, to have to say goodbye from that distance. I realized as Tuesday went on, there was a lot attached to this goodbye for me too. Yes, losing the unconditional love of a pet can be counted among the worst days for anyone, but Lucky himself held memories of old times, when things were different in my life, and it got me thinking about the reasons we have to say goodbye, even when we don’t want to. As with every goodbye, there are all of the thoughts of how the good times far outweigh the difficult moments, but there is no getting around the heaviness of today. Sometimes we have to say goodbye, even when we aren’t ready…Tuesday is was to Lucky, but it happens over and over in life…with kids, relationships, homes, the list goes on and on.  We can only follow our true path if we are strong enough to say goodbye, when pain is greater than growth and deep health isn’t an option anymore. When we are strong enough to say goodbye to things we love, then we can be strong enough to let go of things that don’t serve our best life, like insecurities so we can find greater love for ourselves, fear so we live bold and free, relationships that are keeping us in a holding pattern instead of uncovering deeper layers of ourselves, and expectation so that we can find simple gratitude for what is meant to be today.  Whatever it is we are experiencing, whether it is the greatest or saddest day, the only certainty that we have is that this moment will not last.  Mastering the art of letting go is not what creates our suffering but frees us from it.  And then, somewhere in the strength of goodbye, we let go and we gain - wisdom, strength, adaptability, faith, and confidence in ourselves that we can handle whatever comes our way.  

By a certain point in life, we all have trauma, whether it’s with a big ‘T’ or small ‘t’, and we have to find a healthy way to work it out or the pattern keeps repeating itself in our own life and in the generations that come after us. And just like the big ’T’ or small ’t’ can afflict us, the ways that we pass down our hurts become a cycle. The good news is it only takes one person, who makes the brave decision to heal, to break the cycle. That fact is one of the reasons for my optimism and even more importantly, the ‘why’ in my life. When we don’t heal from the ways that life has come at us, we end up with other wounds that cause us to make choices that don’t allow us to make our greatest positive impact on our life and in the lives of the people we are closest to. Sometimes those choices put us and the people we love in real physical danger, where lives literally hang in the balance. Other times these afflictions, that are more like a dull scratch at a wound, like the way we choose to communicate or attach to relationships in our lives and create a lackluster and less connected existence than what we were meant for. 

For much of my life, I battled a shameful conscience that made me feel like I didn’t deserve the goodness that came my way.  It silenced me and made me live smaller, so even though I had all of these big thoughts in my head, I had a hard time putting them out there for other people to hear.  It wasn’t until I got my first sense of real struggle, through parenting, relationships troubles that ultimately ended in divorce, and then the healing process that I chose to take to recover from these challenges, that I realized that generational patterns run through all families, there isn’t one that hasn’t faced a struggle and had to figure out what to do with it.  Do we shine a light on it and create connection with our vulnerability or do we choose to keep it in the dark and let shame take over.  The two paths are so different. Today, instead of the outside looking in, four kid family living by the beach, I am a divorced single mom with four amazing kids, with a mission to spread optimism to help other people process their own stories so we can heal together because resilience is as close to perfection as we can get…and I feel more aligned, healthy, and like myself than I ever have in my life.

I talk almost daily to my best friend from high school.  The last few weeks during our hour long conversations, we trade stories back and forth as we support each other through the ups and downs going on in our lives, and lately there seem to be plenty of them.  Whether it’s relationships, work, family, or kids, having a go to that has known you for most of your life is invaluable and I’m forever grateful to volleyball for bringing us together for a friendship that has lasted 30 years now. She is the most personable, kind hearted human being that keeps my optimistic spirit in tact with her ability to listen. What I have realized through our talks is that there are ways to protect ourselves and the people we love, and live fully, out loud, and on the big stage of life, if we master certain skills to deal with the trauma that comes our way. 

1. Surrender to the struggle.  I put up a post on Instagram about this in the last week or so because it is the first step to working through our struggles. Trying to keep up a facade is exhausting and keeps us from living a free life. Surrender is not a sign of weakness but the ultimate sign of strength that puts our feet on solid ground to begin to heal. It is the scariest moment of the battle that lies within us because we look our weaknesses squarely in the face. Whether they are relationship challenges, addictions, or the ways we have been lying to ourselves to live a less than true story, it’s the moment we look in the mirror without any makeup on.  This is where the good work starts. 

2. Spend the time to heal. The biggest trauma that I have faced in my life has been my divorce.  After 20 years of marriage, facing life on my own, feeling like a failure, and worrying about the pain my choice would cause my kids put healing on the front burner from the first day I was separated.  What I learned was that while it has been said that you are only as happy as your unhappiest child, your children benefit from your strength and resilience as an example to find ways to tap into their own, so I toughened up and flipped the script. I went about healing myself, mind, body, and spirit.  Whether it has been through yoga, beach volleyball, acupuncture, a diet that heals the gut/brain connection, alkaline water, opening a business that taps into my passion for sports to train life, or writing this blog and my book, 365 Days of Optimism, there is nothing that has been without a healing purpose and the time dedicated to all of these things builds confidence and healing. Even when the going gets tough and self doubt rears its ugly head, we can answer back with breath, movement, and connection to heal the relationship we have with ourselves and then everything gets better from there.  

3. Befriend your nervous system. This sounds so scientific but it’s so basic to our human existence.  I spent much of my life feeling anxious, worried I was going to do something wrong, looking for external validation that I was “doing it right” and not understanding that the power to be fine was already within me…I just needed to learn to control my breath to tap into it. Did you know that when breath reaches the lower lungs, neurotransmitters send signals to the brain to release “feel good” chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, and melatonin to calm and uplift you? They will help you know that you are safe to experience and allow your mind and emotions to work through traumatic thoughts. When I had Matthew and my experience with life on the spectrum began, I began a self education process that lead me to learn so much about how we can calm ourselves and handle the stress of life.  As a mother, I thought I was learning to help him, but soon I realized that we are all so much more alike than different and the same things that help him, help me, my other kids, and even the most elite athletes in the world.  Learn more about nasal and diaphragmatic breathing here, it’s a simple game changer.  It’s brought me calm, focus, and healing, it’s all within our control and it doesn’t cost a dime!

4. Visualize the “Best Picture”. This is the moment where you believe it’s all possible, that you can heal, that you are strong enough and that your best life is ahead of you if you put in the effort. It’s seeing yourself in a connected relationship, or with a healthy relationship with food or alcohol, believing that you can live a lifestyle that will uplift you and everyone around you. If we can’t see ourselves as successful, whether in relationships, health, business, prosperity, we won’t have the energy to get ourselves there. It’s believing in our “enoughness” even in our most broken moment that our optimism will carry us through. If we can’t believe in our power to heal, it won’t happen.

Now is the time. The stories of my days are heavy, but our human potential is too great and we can overcome our trauma. My vision is for a continually healing family, society, and world and I believe it happens one connection at a time. Put your best foot forward, be honest about your story, do it for yourself and the generations that come after you, they will never know how much they have to thank you for walking that path, but life will begin to be brighter the moment you take the first step toward healing.

Photo credit: Rian Basilio

If there is anything I have learned over the past months, it’s that we cannot afford to take any moment for granted.  These unprecedented times, that have all of us wishing to find some normalcy, certainty, and deep health, have taught me that we never know when things will change, when something could be the last time, or when we will have to give up something that we care deeply about.  It’s been my practice for the past many years, as I have walked through divorce, parenting struggles, and questions about how I want to show up for myself and in the world, to allow myself to feel it all…the good and the difficult, the heavy and the light, the joy and the sorrow and, through it all, remain optimistic that the best is yet to come.  Acknowledging all these feelings is what makes us human.  It’s how we learn to appreciate and understand what we value most in life. Connecting with ourselves so that we can connect with others is one of my pillars Active Optimism. 

The truth is, allowing ourselves to feel is an important first step; learning to sit with those feelings calmly, process them, and respond with patience and a solid voice, is what stitches the whole experience together.

I’ve always been grateful for my memory. My forte is not facts and figures, but capturing the human side of a story and then backtracking to find the research that backs up the why of what we feel the way we do. Emotion sticks with me…even memories dating back to two years old.  I swear I remember foraging around my back yard in Mendota, nose against the fence trying to see what was going on outside of my space. I often think about the places we go in a lifetime, I go from moments as early as this one, to incredible trips to Normandy and Paris, to some of the most traumatic, like Matthew being at the bottom of the pool or the times prior to the end of my 20 year marriage that I hadn’t learned to respond with patience and clarity of mind when I felt hurt, to the freedom I feel today to tell my story and help other people process their own in a matter of minutes. It’s not frenetic, I just love to think about life. Through all this, the message that emerges to me is this:

You have a choice how you want to show up in this world.  We are not victims of circumstance. it’s not what happened, it’s how we choose to respond that is most important…it takes training, and that training is entirely up to us. 

There is a quote by Maya Angelou that hangs prominently in my home where I can read it everyday (one of the first purchases I made after my divorce) and it reads:

“People will forget what you said, they will forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.” 

Maya has had a profound impact on me, as she has for millions of writers, thinkers, and actually probably any human that has been exposed to the other worldly perspective and talent and faith that she brought to this world. Until a few years ago, I had never read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and one of my favorite quarantine reads has been Mom & Me & Mom, about the real and highly charged relationship and life she shared with her mother throughout her lifetime. I highly recommend it to any mom out there who is feeling insignificant in the role that we play as mom’s in our kids lives.  It comes with struggles, worry, and mistakes but this book will show you to never doubt the impact we have the chance to make in our children’s lives at every stage of the game. 

As I sit in the mountains at the cabin that I have I haven’t been to in eight years because life and kids and volleyball tournaments took over, finishing this blog on the birthday that Lauren and my mom have shared for the last 20 years, I realize how blessed I am to have always been surrounded by people who care deeply how they make other people feel.  It’s given us challenges to accept in life, like learning to set boundaries and realize that we can’t control outcomes and even ultimately the way our choices and actions influence the thoughts and feelings of others, but I wouldn’t trade being raised by and with people who have a deep desire to bring warmth and connection to the lives of the people who surround them  It’s important to move away from an “I’m ok if you’re ok” mentality, but caring about how others feel will always matter to me and fuel my optimism that it will be returned because of the example I have been shown by my family.  Optimism is contagious and trainable, as we move along in life, the ability to have a heart for others and a mind that knows how to take care of myself feels like an incredibly freeing place to be…and that calm translates to my home and the future generations of my family.  We know what to live with, what to accept and what to let go. We care, we love, and we are learning to connect with ourselves so that our connection with others can grow deeper…and the optimist’s lens will always grow from this place. 

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