Christmas cookies

The other day I was procrastinating by looking through food-related websites.  Before long I found myself looking at Christmas cookie recipes and repeatedly landing on pictures of beautifully decorated sugar cookies (this picture is a good example from the FoodNetwork website).

I’ve often admired beautifully decorated cookies.  It seems like I see them frequently, more so than I remember from the past, and for all occasions.  They’re often in unusual pastel colors, light blue snowflakes, perfectly light yellow on pink Easter eggs.  Have you noticed them too?  I don’t know, maybe perfect little cupcakes have replaced them now (but as it is, I’m not a fan of cupcakes).  Anyway, I’ve admired the intricately decorated, beautifully designed cookies for a long time, and this year I decided it was time to learn how to do it myself.

So I navigated back to the Food Network site where they have a nifty instructional slide show on decorating cookies, complete with a sugar cookie recipe from Paula Dean (which contains two sticks of butter, of course) and royal icing recipe from someone else.  How pleased I was to learn I already had all the necessary tools: the offset spatula, the pastry bag with multiple tips, the special little squeeze bottle.

I went about making the dough one evening after dinner and tucked it away in the fridge.  The next night I rolled out the dough, cut out the shapes, and baked a couple dozen snowmen and stars.  And the third night I made the royal icing – some white, some the pastel blue – which didn’t seem quite as beautiful as in the website pictures.  I should have known to stop right there.  But no, I filled the pastry bag and followed the FN directions, outlining the perimeter of the cookie with piping and adding water to the blue icing so it would be easier to spread.

Before the piping was halfway around the snowman’s belly it was clear to me that these cookies would not look like the pictures.  My piping lines were wobbly.  I couldn’t fill in the space adequately and the icing seemed like maybe it was too runny.  And I couldn’t seem to make just a dot of icing without dribbling a whole streak across my snowman’s face.  The poor guy’s eyes looked more like daggers than the cute little button eyes of a proper snowman.

I soldiered on hoping I would catch on with the next cookie.  Or maybe the one after that.  I think I got through four snowmen and two stars before I decided to just smear some blue or white frosting on the damn things and toss on some sprinkles to make them festive.  I won’t bother you, or embarrass myself further, with a picture of the results.  Not beautiful.

The flavor, however, is fantastic.  Yum.  So they’re hidden away in the Chrismas cookie tin, only to come out for family and friends who know us well enough not to care about what the cookies look like and not to judge me for being a decorating failure.

The next morning it dawned on me that it’s nice to accept one’s own limits.  Even though I love to bake, and even though I admire and am truly amazed by beautifully decorated cookies, I did not enjoy my decorating experiment.  In this case I realized, my pleasure comes from appreciating the beauty, not from trying to do it myself.  I am better off admiring someone else’s talents and giving my own energy to endeavors I enjoy.  Next year, I’ll stick to my usual stock of Christmas cookies- not the decorated kind- and buy a plateful of beautifully decorated cookies from my favorite bakery.

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Coming Out

This is another post I wrote a while back…

I’ve come across several “coming out” stories recently. One is a graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel called FunHome ( Bechdel writes about coming out to her parents, (ie acknowledging/revealing her lesbianism), but in her book she “outs” a lot more than that too. Her father’s abusiveness. Her father’s homosexuality. Her father’s pedophilic tendencies. Her mother’s complacency and perhaps, preoccupation. It’s a fascinating book written plainly and unsentimentally and as a result leaves the reader with a palpable sense of the mindf*&! that abuse and secrecy create.

Today I read another kind of coming out story in a New York Times article about a well know psychologist, Marsha Linehan ( Dr. Linehan developed a therapy ‘method’ known as Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). Started as a treatment for some of the most difficult to treat patients, those with Borderline Personality Disorder (who often manifest alarming symptoms like cutting, other forms of self harm and interpersonal volatility), DBT has become the de rigueur of treatment for many other more common problems like depression and some issues related to trauma. It’s a skills based treatment and is very successful in teaching people how to cope effectively with intense emotional states and with intra and interpersonal conflicts that inevitably develop in day-to-day living: self-doubt, hurt feelings, misunderstandings and so on.

What’s different about this article is that Dr. Linehan has “outed” herself as someone who has suffered from severe mental illness. I’ll let you read the article for the details, but the gist of it is that the impetus for creating DBT was her own suffering. She suffered as a teen and young woman with what we would now call BPD and got over it, despite the often inadequate treatment she received. Through her efforts to help herself she ended up creating a new treatment to help others recover from similar symptoms. But the point here is that after many years of not telling patients, or anyone else except those closest to her, that she has recovered from the very issues they are coming to her for, she has decided it’s time to be candid, open, and authentic– just as Ms. Bechdel was in her memoir.

I find these people’s candor incredibly refreshing and inspiring. I often remind clients that we all suffer from something. We really are all in this together– no matter how polished, successful, happy we might look on the outside, on the inside we’re each contending with our own demons of one sort or another.

As Brene Brown suggests ( it’s through our vulnerability that we deeply connect to people and in turn feel better about ourselves. Does that mean we need to go around whining all the time? Of course not. But it does suggest that as we share our true stories, our struggles, our successes and our failures our world of connection (so important to mental health, by the way) also expands. Don’t you think it’s worth the risk? I do.

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Letting Go

Thanksgiving is rapidly approaching, and for many, with Thanksgiving comes mixed reactions about spending time with family.  Who doesn’t regress to 7th grade (or 3rd or kindergarten?) mentality the moment they walk in the front door of their family home, literally or metaphoricaly, even if only for a short time?  How is it that those habits we’ve worked so hard to practice during our adulthood- positive self regard, non judgmental empathy for others,  effective listening skills- seem to evaporate as soon as we’re around our family of origin?

Regressing to childhood angst, past family roles, bad feelings, and long held grudges is commonplace during the holidays.  We probably all do it to some degree or another and yet it often makes us feel bad about ourselves and others and ultimately sabotages our ability to have a good time.  Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just let it go?

Clients often come to me in hopes of learning to ‘let go’ of something- hurts from childhood, a spouse’s infidelity, a coworker’s backstabbing, a parent’s failing – the list goes on.  “Why can’t I just get over it?” they wonder.

Just what does it mean if you haven’t ‘let it go’?  You still hate the offending person?  You think about It, whatever It might be,  all the time?  You live in fear that It will happen again?    It clouds your perception of all your relationships, not just the difficult one?

And how will you know when you have ‘let it go’?  Does letting go mean you never think about It anymore?  That all your negative, hurt feelings have gone away?  That you’re suddenly best buddies with the offending person or persons?  Does letting go mean you’ve forgiven the offender?  Can you let go and not forgive?  Forgive and not let go?  Must you forgive the offender?

There’s an amazing video (go to Blogroll for link to the video) from a 1999 Bill Moyers interview of Archbishop Desmond Tutu about Tutu’s involvement in the South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission (aimed at helping people heal from the wounds of that country’s institutionalized and brutal apartheid).

Moyers asks Tutu , “What do you actually do when you forgive someone?”  Tutu’s answer is fascinating:

     Well basically you are saying ‘I am abandoning my right to revenge, to payback….The fact that you have…hurt me… you have given me a second right over you…The right to retribution.

When I forgive I jetison that right and open the door of opportunity TO YOU (my emphasis) to make a new beginning.

So Tutu is telling us that forgiveness does involve letting go of something very specific– “the right to retribution.”   This implies that when we’re hurt by someone else’s misdeeds we’re entitled to some sort of apology- to an amends.  But he’s also saying, I think, that in forgiving we stop demanding, stop expecting the apology or even recognition of harm done and instead we become willing to let the offender come to his or her own conclusion and make amends has he/she sees fit- or not.   We are recognizing and accepting that the offender may or may not have the capacity or willingness to make amends to us.   Accepting the reality of that person’s position is not the same as not having any feelings about it, or about the hurt that happened, or not having any  memory of it, or suddenly trusting that the offender will cause no more harm.

So how do we make the shift from demanding or expecting amends to simply allowing for the opportunity?

Lo and behold now we are back at letting go.  Letting go requires us to be in the moment of what is, not what was, or what could be or what should be.  Just here and now, what is.

I think the quickest route to the here and now is through our senses.  Sound, sight, physical sensations, smell, and taste.  When we focus on our senses it’s nearly impossible to simultaneously focus on our hurt feelings or thoughts.  It’s a great way to maneuver through Uncle Joe starting in on the same stale jokes for the umpteenth year.   Or sister/mother/ father/brother/ cousin’s  annual cutting remarks.   We turn our attention to the sensation of our own breath,  to the flavors of the meal on our plate,  the sound of other voices or music, or tinkling of glass and silverware, the familiar smells of the Thanksgiving meal, the sight of the light in the room, the colors of food on the table.   As we do this we begin to notice that even as we feel the familiar sting of old negative feelings our world at that moment is also BIGGER than the those feelings, bigger than the memory of previous hurts, even bigger than the hurt or the sadness or the fear or anger we might feel in that moment.

Perhaps letting go is simply choosing to be present.  Over and over and over again.

Posted in Family, Forgiveness, Letting Go, Mindfulness, Thanksgiving | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

meditation and the brain

This is one of those posts I wrote months ago

Last night I heard Jon Kabat-Zinn speak.  I’ve read his books, but never laid eyes on the man (he’s handsome!) or heard him speak publicly.  If you don’t already know, he’s responsible for coining the term, “mindfulness’ as a way of introducing meditation to westerners and making it more accessible.   He started a research project at Mass General almost thirty years ago in which he proved the value of meditation in helping people improve their quality of life, and health (like blood pressure, etc).  The outcome of that study was the birth of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction.

At any rate, among other things, he talked last night about new research that is showing that meditation can actually change the structure of the brain, specifically the amygdala and the hippocampus. The amygdala is the fear center of the brain- so people who have had scary things happen to them often have enlarged or overactive amygdalas.  The hippocampus does lots of things, including effecting memory.  It’s highly (negatively) effected by stress.  So in these studies people who meditated regularly for just 8 weeks showed physical healing in both those structures!  That’s pretty damn amazing.

ps- i just came across this today

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Beginning Anew…

It’s time to start posting again…

In the months since I last posted, I fell prey to some of those very mind traps that limit many of us at any given time:  self doubt, disorganization, laziness, over-commitment, perfectionism etc., etc.

I wrote a blog post here and there but never quite finished them enough to feel comfortable posting them.  Eventually I found myself avoiding WordPress so I wouldn’t feel ashamed, embarassed, pressured and so on.

Finally though, at this point, I’ve reconnected with wanting to write and enjoying the process of writing and learning about blogging.  Even though it doesn’t come easily to me.  Even though I feel vulnerable and exposed when I press ‘publish.’  Even though I’m afraid I’ll become disorganized and/or perfectionistic again and let months go by before the next post.  I’m letting myself be inspired by Brene Brown’s work (see recent posts and Blogroll) and others like her.  I’m encouraging myself, as I do my clients, to be authentic and to let what inspires me be my guide.

So we’re on this journey together.  As I share things that inspire and intrigue me -professionally and personally- I hope you too will find inspiration and resources that spark your drive to grow, learn, and change.

Posted in Anxiety, Cognitive restructuring, Personal transformation, Self esteem | 4 Comments


Are you ever riddled with anxiety?  I am.  One night recently I tossed and turned.  Maybe it was the big moon keeping me awake.  Maybe it was the Vietnamese spicy duck.  Whatever it was I lay there worrying. 

If you ever experience worry and anxiety you know the drill.

willanyonelikemyblogshoulditellmyfriendsi’mdoingitorjustkeepitasecretGodihatesocialanxietyargh  what’swrongwithmethatican’tsleeptonightwhatsgoingonwithmyfifteenyearoldisheexperimenting withdrugsshouldiforcemyothersontogotocampthissummersohegetsawayfromCallofDuty?imustbedoingsomethingwrongigottagetittogetherican’tbelievehowmuchineedtogetdonetomorrowi’ll nevergetitalldonehowdoesmyfriendkeepherhousesocleananywayiknowshehasahousecleanerbutshe hastwoyoungkidstooandtheplacelookslikeafreakinmuseum…..

Somehow I woke up the next morning feeling pretty good.  In fact I had forgotten about the anxiety.  Until my second cup of coffee.  By the last sip the tension was back in my gut.   I began to feel like I couldn’t focus successfully.  So I forced myself to make some breakfast even though I felt like puking.  I found myself enjoying cutting up the banana.  I was looking forward to getting it in my belly even though I didn’t really feel hungry.  But then I was distracted by thinking about writing this.  So next thing I knew I was sitting down  frantically tapping at the keyboard trying to get it all out before I forgot what I was thinking.  Within minutes my stomach was craving that food.  And, of course,  I was still feeling anxious.  

I decided it was time to practice the anxiety reduction and management skills I preach.  So what’s my sermon?

Well, first, make sure you’re nourished (with real food, not sugar bomb cereal or Twinkies for breakfast).  Hunger often feels like anxiety because it sets off all sorts of hormonal and biochemical reactions designed to let you know you’re STARVING and in need.  

So first, I ate. 

Next, practice some cognitive restructuring by taking a hard look at your self talk.  A central tenet of anxiety treatment is learning to become comfortable with discomfort.  Everyone experiences anxiety sometimes.  In fact studies show some anxiety is actually necessary for optimum performance.  But when we feel anxiety elevate we often worry about worrying as well as whatever we’re actually concerned about.  We can lower our anxiety considerably by accepting that anxiety is a normal human emotion and by challenging our anxiety producing thoughts with thoughts that reflect reality instead of our fears.  So for instance, in my case I worked to replace my thought, “this anxiety is going to send me over the edge” with self talk that sounded more like, “ok, i’m not going to go over the edge, but I am really uncomfortable.  And I see that my thoughts are pretty reactive right now.  And I feel like I’m going to jump out of my skin, even though I know I’m not.  There are things I can do to feel better, even if I can’t completely get rid of the feelings.  And if nothing else, I’ll probably feel better tomorrow.”

That was enough to motivate me into the next step: doing some type of physical activity that meets the intensity of the anxiety you’re experiencing.  Ideally this would be exercise (because exercise also gets feel-good chemicals like endorphins and seratonin going) but it could just as easily be cleaning the house, listening to loud music, dancing, etc. 

For me  it was most of the above.  I forced myself to go out for a walk in the cold sunshine (27 degrees here in northern Vermont on the Vernal Equinox), then I scrubbed the kitchen while listening to music. 

Finally, practice some mindfulness skills.  That might mean sitting down and meditating after exercising, enjoying a warm bath (mindfully, of course), doing some deep relaxation, or simply focusing on your breath for a while.  I practiced my mindfulness skills while I walked.  A walking meditation of sorts.  Feeling the cold air on my skin.  The warmth of the sun.  The sensations of my feet in my shoes, step after step.  By South Prospect Street my mood had lifted.  I began to notice the sound of spring birdsongs.  And to appreciate the beauty of the architecture at UVM.  I noticed my breath deepen and slow even though I was walking briskly.  When we’re allowing ourselves to mindfully focus on our senses- sight, sound, touch, smell, taste- we really can’t simultaneously worry about the past or future. 

By the time I returned home I was feeling optimistic again and ready for the rest of my day.  Residual feelings of anxiety surfaced periodically but I found I could apply my anxiety management skills with less effort and quicker results.  And indeed, by the next day I was feeling just fine again.

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I had to put my cat down today.  She would have turned 20 years old this summer.  My son calculated that was about 96 in kitty years.  Just about any therapist will tell you that with each loss all the previous ones come barreling forward in one way or another.    It might be thinking about the people, pets, homes, other losses you’ve experienced.  Or it might be just feeling the same feelings. 

 I’m noticing that even though emotionally and mentally I’m confident and comfortable that putting Chloe down was the right thing to do, physically I want to curl up in a ball and pull the covers over my head (after I’m finished writing I just might do that).  My heart is heavy and my gut hurts.

 Martha Beck ( is a life coach who has written a few very good books including The Joy Diet and Finding Your Own North Star.    She talks about the value of ‘cocooning’ as the first of four stages of human transformation.  Cocooning as she describes it means finding comfort in things like a warm blanket, a cup of tea, snuggling with a friend.  She says this is necessary because personal transformation inevitably begins with loss.  Loss of a job, relationship, etc.  Sometimes these are losses we choose, sometimes losses that choose us.  Either way, loss invites us to change. 

Loss changes our perspective. Things were one way and now they’re another.  It requires adjustment.  Letting go.  The emotional willingness to mentally reorganize where that person, place, pet belongs in our day to day life.  The relationship doesn’t go away.  But it does change.  Now it’s something in our memory bank, and maybe, depending on our perspective, in our spiritual awareness.

 I think maybe instead of pulling the covers over my head, I’m going to cocoon by sitting here in the room Chloe liked being in.  She usually slept in her basket by the fire while I read or worked on the computer.  Or she would snuggle up next to me or lay on the window seat basking in the sunshine.   Wherever she was, it was usually in this room and I was usually with her. 

This morning after she died I put away her basket, moved the furniture around, and cleaned.  But here I am now, in my usual place, sometimes writing sometimes staring into space and listening to the rain fall on the skylight.  The room seems empty without her, kind of hollow.  But full of her at the same time.  As though she’ll never really completely be gone. 

I’m taking Martha Beck’s advice and cocooning with cookies and milk and a warm fire.  And I’m also taking Brene Brown’s  advice (see March 21 post) and doing my best to meet this transformation, whatever it brings, with my whole heart.

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