Thursday, February 25, 2010

Pause for a Reality Check

As caregivers--and in our other life roles--we sometimes create drama around how important our activities are. We load up on anxiety believing that if we don't accomplish something immediately or don't act right now, the whole world will fall apart. At least our little corner of it. I find myself falling into that stress-anxiety cycle, and I'm not a primary caregiver at the moment.

How do we control that anxious reaction to our situation?

I saw a recent report of research that discovered that people can control their irritated and angry reactions by asking one simple question: How important is this?

I've used this question to explore the source of my own nervousness and anxiety, but I frame it more specifically: On my personal Importance Scale of 1 to 10, 10 being imminent injury or death, how close to 10 is this situation?

We throw out the phrase "a matter of life and death" without really thinking. "A matter of life and death" is when a surgeon calls a librarian (me) and says that he is operating on a child, and he has encountered an unexpected complication in surgery. He expected and is familiar with two things he sees in the operative field, but the third is not usual. He'd like to know (right now, please) if this third condition has ever been reported in the literature. Any information would be helpful. This qualifies for a 9 or 10 on the Importance Scale.

Today's reality is that I have overbooked my schedule, want to visit a friend recovering from surgery, plan to exhibit at a local conference tomorrow and realize I may not have a car. Yes, this is all stressful, but certainly down near 1 to 3 on the Importance Scale. My anxiety often comes from pride. I like to be in control, like to be on top of things. I feel that I'm really good at time management. But life has a way of grinning and going its own way. Time for that reality check.

When your own anxiety meter starts to ratchet up (Yes, you know what it feels like. Either the tense stomach, aching shoulders, squeezing headache, or some other physical sign that is your personal symptom), your mini-vacation should be a pause to ask
"How Important Is This?"
and then use the Importance Scale to get some perspective.

Most of the time, you'll recognize that what you're trying to accomplish or solve is not so critical. A little time, a bit of adjustment on your part, a shift of your perspective will resolve the issue or show you a different way to approach it.

One small question. One small caregiver victory.

Try it. Let us know if it works for you.

Happy mini-vacation!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Consider the Empty Bowl

There is a story Sue Bender relates in her book “Everyday Sacred” of a monk who, each morning, takes his empty begging bowl in his hands and stands in the flow of crowds in the city. Whatever is put in the bowl that day—money, rice a bit of fruit—he uses for his nourishment. Each morning he begins again with an empty bowl, and each day he finds that he receives enough to live.

Each morning we are blessed with a new day. A new beginning. Whatever we did the day before, whatever decisions we made, are done. Finished. Can not be taken back.

But the new day provides the opportunity to do something new. To change the direction that we might have chosen yesterday. To begin again.

Move on. Move forward. Look back only to seek clues for how to move forward today.

Nothing is set in stone.

For each morning, you have an empty bowl.

For your mini-vacation, find a bowl in your house—any bowl. Something that reflects you. If you love to bake, perhaps a mixing bowl; if you cherish fine china, a piece from your favorite pattern; a cereal bowl that you use for breakfast. Place the bowl where you can see it and remind yourself that yesterday is past. You have an empty bowl into which to gather new gifts, new decisions, new challenges, new woes, new joys.

Maybe things are not going very well today. Mini-vacation!

Consider your empty bowl.

Remind yourself to do something different, to look at the problem from a new perspective, to seek out new advice.

Are you berating yourself for past decisions? Do you miss the present because you’re focused on the past? Can you not look at today with fresh eyes because of the past? Do you sit in judgment on yourself? Mini-vacation!

Consider your empty bowl.

Life gives you endless chances to make a new decision, change directions, take a breath. Life gives you an empty bowl.

Blessings on your caregiving day!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

A Calendar a Day

One of the best items ever created for lightening the day is the Page-a-Day calendar. And I will shamelessly co-opt these handy little helpers for our Mini-vacations.

You've seen them in gift shops, book displays, and of course in those shops in the mall devoted to calendars. They're usually a standard size, about 5" X 6", just enough to display nicely on your desk, workbench or kitchen counter. And they come in a variety of topics--jokes, games, languages, quotes, inspiration, tips, pets, puzzles, comics. I'm partial to the Scrabble(TM) calendar and Dilbert comics. But I've used ones for women who do too much and scripture verses. You really can't miss with these babies.

Now I know that there are many websites and electronic versions of these page-a-day calendars. I'll even share some good websites in the future. But there's something about having a calendar in paper (you can recycle!).

A daily paper calendar reminds you that yesterday has passed, you can't see tomorrow, so your best plan is to focus on today. Rip off a page. That's right, give it some attitude. Yesterday's gone. A new day!

It would be nice if our concerns and troubles could be solved just that easily, but at least with a page-a-day calendar, you take action to separate one day from another and give yourself a pat on the pack for getting through the day just past.

If you want to browse the possibilities, go to your favorite search engine and type in "daily calendars". Skip all the entries for the government calendars of daily activities. You have enough things in your life that will raise your blood pressure. Watching state or local government move ponderously forward will not help you lower it. There are several websites that specialize in paper calendars and there you can browse and get an idea of what might suit you.

Pictures and facts about dogs. Or cats. Or fish. Music. Inspiration. Favorite TV show. Dream Cars. Fact or Crap (this is real!). Golf. Sudoku.

This is something you choose totally for you.

It's not too late to start for 2010. Find a calendar. Rip a page every day. And take time out from your caregiving to take care of you.

Blessings to you!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Get a Hug...And Then Another

A hug is an excellent mini-vacation. You connect with another living, breathing human being. A hug is warm and wonderfully supportive. A hug lets someone else care for you.

Mind you, hugs come in various varieties. So I am not advocating those wimpy embraces where a four-inch space separates you from your hug partner and everybody's elbows are poking out. Those kinds of hugs are hardly worth it. And avoid the vise-huggers. They believe that a good hug should squeeze the air out of you so you're gasping for breath and wondering how your nose got smashed against their chest.

No, my fellow caregivers, find people who will let you wrap yourself around them, move in close and hug you like they care deeply for you. You need an embrace long enough to allow time to sink into the comfort of warmth and strength. You need to feel supported, not smothered or afraid that the other person will break. Think about the child who jumps into your arms with no inhibitions, and wraps herself around you. Truly, that's the kind of hug that gives you the connection you need.

If you're short on people, a pet can offer good hug potential. Same principles apply. Goldfish? Not a good hug. Too slippery. Gerbils? Too small. Cow? Now there is some possibility if you like cows. I'm partial to dogs, but a good llama can work, too.

But really, folks, there is nothing like the hug of a spouse, a child, a friend, a family member who wraps you in love and care. Just walk right up to one of these special people and say, "I need a hug."

Nothing wrong with asking for what you really need.

Get a hug (or two or twelve) today!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Light a Candle

It's winter right now in the Northern Hemisphere and that means short days, skies of slate gray, piles of snow at times, and the tension of cabin fever crawling up your spine.

It's a time for candles.

There's a reason why February 2--in addition to being Groundhog Day, a Quarter day in the solstice calendar and a Roman festival to Pan--was called CANDLEMAS in the Christian calendar. Well, all right. The Christians took over Pan's festival and transformed the torch-lit street festivities into a more sedate candle-lit procession. They both had the right idea. In the darker days of winter, Let There Be Light! And lots of it.

You can celebrate, too, with a Candle Mini-Vacation. Any candle will do. Tiny little tea light; big, fat 3-wick; slender taper. You pick the size, the color, the scent. Put it in a safe place (out of reach of children, pets, ailing elders and wayward spouses) where you can see it. Take a deep breath...and light it.

And watch.

Notice the color of the flame. Does the flame flicker as the furnace kicks up a gentle current? Is the flame unmoving in stillness? Catch a whiff of the candle's scent or the lingering burnt tang in the air. Clear your mind of all that is pressing in at the moment and just enjoy the soothing simplicity of the candle.

Leave it burning for a while, or blow it out. Light it again later.

Until the candle has melted down to a puddle or burned away to nothing, you have instant mini-vacation. I'm heading to my matches and my cafe-au-lait pillar candle right now.

Blessings on your caregiving day!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Watch the Little Birdies Go Tweet!

I'm not talking about the tweeting on Twitter or the cartoon Tweety Bird (even though she's a favorite!). I'm talking about watching our feathered friends who hop around on our lawns, across our decks and perhaps in our indoor cages. Taking a few minutes to observe the birds flit about, scrounge for food and just sit there can be very relaxing and can remind you of the whole of nature that exists and continues to thrive right beside your current situation.

There are lots of ways to watch birds. And just as Your Situation is Unique in caregiving (Care Tip #3 in Caring for a Distant Parent), your bird watching opportunities right where you live will also be unique.

1) The easiest way to watch is to take a little time to observe the surroundings right around your home or apartment. Where do birds congregate within sight? What time of the day do they appear (birds do have rhythm!). Then when you need a mini-vacation, be at the window or on the porch at that time and watch for a few minutes.

2) Draw the birds in closer. Go to the local hardware store and buy a small bag of "all purpose" birdseed, usually the store brand. It's inexpensive and several bird families like that seed. Scatter the seed where you'd like the birds to appear. If you scatter, they will come.

3) Get formal and buy a window-mounted bird feeder. These come in small sizes or in the large economy sizes, but the point is that you will hang your feeder on any window--somewhere you can easily and safely refill the feeder--fill it with that all purpose seed and see who shows up for lunch.

4) Get crazy and buy a whole set of feeders with pole systems and hanging hooks and suet feeders and nut feeders and ones that look like lighthouses and others made from copper that shine in the sun and...

Sorry, I've got a small deck system that holds 4 feeders and I participate in the winter Feederwatch for Cornell University, so I'm just a little crazy.

5) Or go indoor crazy, do some research on birds that do well in cages and buy a pair to live in your home with you and provide endless mini-vacation possibilities.

Birds reside everywhere that we do. (In big cities, the birds are called "urban birds". So sheek.) So go to your window. Walk out on your balcony. Hang a feeder. Scatter some seed. See what kind of feathery beauty appears. Smile at the antics. Scold the birds for arguing over a sunflower seed. Share your troubles.

Just lovin' these mini-vacations.

Blessings on your caregiving day!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Count Your Blessings!

Have you taken a mini-vacation today? If not, this is the time. Right now.

Close your eyes and let your mind wander over the last 24 hours. Pick out something positive that happened, something a little surprising, something a bit wonderful.

Was a co-worker especially effective? How about that smile from a friend? Did someone at the grocery let you in front of them? A good show on TV, a hug from your child, the warm sun on your face, sparkling snowfall.

Can you remember at least one good thing that happened during the day? Picture it in your mind. Savor it. Remember it with a smile. If you had more than one good thing happen, take some time with each event to remind yourself that all is not stress and tasks and caregiving.

Take a deep breath and let it slowly out.

Open your eyes.


Put this in your basket of mini-vacations to take out and enjoy anytime.

Remember, life gives us blessings every day if we only take time to look.

Blessings on your caregiving day!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

What's a Mini-Vacation?

A Mini-Vacation is a brief count of moments to stop and smell the roses--literally or figuratively.

In the midst of caring, while facing the challenges of parenting, employment, eldercare, and living, we often become so enveloped in the “have to’s” and the “musts” that we forget to breathe. We don’t look up and notice that the sky is clear blue or that our children have just made a marvelous discovery or that the snow sparkles like glitter or that our spouse is looking particularly good that day.

Caring for elderly parents is not a sprint, but a marathon, and as a caregiver, you need to find the right caring pace that will allow you to thrive during the journey over weeks, months and perhaps years.

The most powerful technique I learned and used during my caregiving experience was one I learned from one of my spiritual teachers, the late Sister José Hobday, an American Indian nun who lived in New Mexico. She taught that the quality of experience we foster in our lives will ultimately give us more joy and peace than the quantity of tasks or things we do. She recommended a simple daily practice:
Take 20 mini-vacations a day.
Throughout the day, take regular micro-breaks in your routine to focus on something pleasant. All you need is a few seconds or a few minutes and your focused attention. When you shift your attention from your current concerns to something you truly enjoy, you briefly release your mind, body and spirit from stress and clear them to continue with renewed energy.

In her teachings, Sister Hobday encourages 20 of these breaks a day. That averages out to about two every waking hour. What does this mean? It means that as we look toward the future in our caregiving role, we don't have to see endless stress and tasks before us. We learn to divide our tasks for others into short bursts of activity interwoven with time for ourselves.

Mini-vacations may take a small amount of planning, especially if you wish to have pictures or music readily available. But for the most part, just look up, notice the world around you, move around in it a little. There are endless opportunities for a break in your routine.

Twice a week in this blog, we'll be sharing ideas for mini-vacations and reminding each other to take a break, take a breath, and care for ourselves.

Blessings on your caregiving day!