My Sister-Mother

My Sister-Mother

Pictured:  My sister-mother, Martha, and me.


I have no tools for you in this post—just pure, unadulterated inspiration.

I want to introduce you to Martha, my sister-mother.  To be in her presence is to know grace. She is the personification of strength, courage, determination, motherly love.   I want to tell you her story, and the story of how I came to know her.

When I was little and dreaming of what my life would be, I always wanted four children.  This was initially spawned by an obsession with The Bobbsey Twins mysteries and their two sets of twins, but that number four stayed with me.  And although those four children didn’t come to me the way I’d imagined, my wish did come true.

After my bout with cancer left me infertile, Himself and I decided we would adopt our children. We adopted our two babies from a faraway place, Guatemala.  I’m ashamed to admit it, but we did so not only because there were so many children there who needed families. In my heart of hearts, my ego and insecurity desperately wanted to ensure that my children would be “all mine.”  Naively I thought that physical distance would somehow erase biological bond. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

By the time our babies were school-aged, we were searching for their birth mother, having come to see that she was an integral part of them, and their bond with her was a precious lifeline.  We began corresponding with her, sharing letters and videos over the years, and though we never were able to meet her, she is absolutely a part of our family.  She became my first sister-mother.

Over the years I have come to realize how much of parenting is in fact about sharing your children with others, and ultimately giving them back to the world – to their own lives. I came to cherish my children’s biological mothers, my sister-mothers.

Later, two other children came into our lives, manifesting that number “four” that had first whispered to me. One was a 12-year-old boy newly emigrated to this country from Africa and living down the street.  He and our son became best friends instantly and soon he was at our house daily.  He was the youngest child in his family, and while his older siblings and his mother, Martha, were working hard to create a new, sustainable life here, he was still very much a kid. As the youngest child, he was living a hybrid childhood, half rooted in the traditions of his native country and half imbued with all things American.   It seemed to make sense that he needed both his family of origin and an American family.  Soon we were stepping in to help with field trip forms, sports camps, and basketball shoes. Soon he had a bed in my son’s room and joined us on our family vacations.  All the while, Martha welcomed our participation and graciously shared her son with us.   She became another sister-mother to me.

Almost ten years later, our families have developed a deep and lasting bond through this shared child who is now a young man. We’ve spent holidays together; we’ve cried together in difficult times and shared joyous milestones. This Mother’s Day weekend was one such milestone: we were privileged to attend the college graduation of our shared son’s older sister.

There is something about a graduation, isn’t there? The literal and musical Pomp and Circumstance, the procession of fresh young faces with their mortarboards placed at that jaunty, hopeful angle.  It was incredibly moving to witness all this alongside Martha, who had crossed countries and continents to make this day a possibility for her children.  She’d survived war, persecution, the loss of her husband.  She and her kids spent years – years! — in a refugee camp in Nairobi, waiting for the chance to come here.

Martha will tell you that her faith is what gave her the strength to keep going in the face of all she endured.  She is a deeply religious woman; her faith is unshakeable.  Yet on that graduation weekend that I shared with Martha, I kept thinking that another of her lifelines must have been her imagination. What had she imagined when she pictured this day?  The quaint New England town, the bagpipes’ melody, her daughter’s mortarboard decorated with an empowering quote. Did she have any reference point for all this?  She may as well have been conjuring the surface of the moon.

Imagination allows us to inhabit a world that does not yet exist for us.  If we rely only on the evidence of our current circumstances, we often have very little to pull us forward.  To take a leap of faith, to reach into the darkness, we must engage our imagination, deploy it in the direction of our dreams, our desires. When Martha lived in that camp in Nairobi, she not only kept her faith alive.  She willed herself to believe in things she couldn’t yet fathom.

What do you need to believe that you can’t yet see clearly?  Sometimes in our busy lives and the daily grind, our imagination gets muted, tamed.   It fades to the background, neglected.  Our power and energy are often wasted on things we can’t control, but our imagination deserves some of that attention, that fuel.  Our imagination is a renewable resource.

I’ll leave you with a parting image, one that both tickled me and moved me to tears.  On graduation day, Martha was decked out in a fabulous igitenge, the traditional dress of her native Congo.  And strapped on her delicate ankles were the cutest, most quintessentially American pair of kitten heel shoes.  I just love that this pillar of strength, this woman who’s been moving, pushing herself forward all her life, now gets to indulge in some gorgeous but impractical footwear.  She has arrived.

I hope my sister-mother, Martha, has inspired you:  Keep moving, keep dreaming.  Let your imagination be wild. And when you arrive at your destination, strap on your kitten heels, and celebrate.


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Tools in Your Pocket: Mindset

Tools in Your Pocket: Mindset

Pictured: Himself and myself on our honeymoon in 1999.

My husband and I have a longstanding argument about this one.  Early on in our relationship it became apparent that I was the “glass half full” person and he the “glass half empty.” We’ve had countless versions of the same conversation — about who’s “right” of course — in our twenty-three years of marriage.

Himself and I have learned over the years that any debate between two people who want to continue to spend their lives together is best done lovingly and with humor – so that’s generally the approach we take, whether we’re wrangling over the big questions or our never-ending quibbles about whether it’s in fact reasonable to drive the speed limit or the correct way to clean a kitchen counter.

On the optimism front, we agree to disagree.  Himself believes that pessimism helps him prepare for the worst and protects him from future disappointment.  I argue that pessimism creates disappointment ahead of time, regardless of the outcome.  It’s an illusion of control that actually holds us back.

About a month after we were married, I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.  In those days, this was considered pretty much a death sentence.   As newlyweds, Himself and I returned from an idyllic honeymoon and were thrust headlong into some of the darkest times we’d ever known.  Chemo, surgeries, loss, terror – those first years were a kind of white-hot crucible that almost broke us and our brand-new marriage.  Ultimately, it forged the bedrock of our relationship.

One of the most beautiful gifts I’ve ever received was a poem he wrote for me, in the aftermath of that time, called “The Optimist.”  It was about how he’d come to realize, over time, how my optimism wasn’t an innate trait bestowed upon me at birth, or a willful blindness to reality – optimism was rather something I chose.  Something I worked hard to cultivate, with tenacity.  Optimism was something I fought for, sometimes moment to moment.

Our optimism/pessimism set point is likely a combination of genetic predisposition and environmental influence, according to research. Thoughts we’ve practiced thinking over and over become beliefs; collections of beliefs coalesce into a philosophy or system of thinking that becomes our mindset.  This mindset is a tool, and like any tool – it doesn’t work for us unless we attend to it.

Our expectations, whether about the little things or the big things, are the stories we tell ourselves about the future.  These stories, which often run by default in the background of our consciousness, are more powerful than we realize.  Our stories about the future create our emotions in the present. Our stories about the future influence the information our brain filters in or out of our awareness.  These things, in turn, drive the actions we take.  Optimism orients us toward a positive outcome.

Did optimism help me survive cancer at age 34?  I honestly have no idea.  I had amazing medical care and incredible support from family and friends, but beyond that I will never know why I was one of the lucky ones – I’m just so grateful to be here. But I do know this: Optimism is the fuel that allowed me to pick up the pieces and move on from cancer.  Optimism is the fuel that helped me build a life out of the rubble of the worst thing that had ever happened to me.

An optimistic mindset is the fuel of persistence, of perseverance.

I write this not to portray myself as some transcendent being who’s been able to overcome the odds.  Hardly.  While I’ve made photo books chronicling many events of my life, I’ve never been able to tackle my wedding photo book.  I’ve also never been able to watch the video of my wedding day.  If I get too close to the memories of that beautiful day, it’s hard not to fast forward to the pain of what came next.  While that day was unfolding, arguably the most amazing day of my life – my body was silently betraying me.  There was a tumor the size of a football inside me, and I had no idea. Any time I’ve attempted to watch my wedding video, it feels like the first scene of a horror film, where the characters blithely go about their activities, unaware of the evil lurking in the shadows.

The decades that now sit between me and cancer have brought acceptance, forgiveness, and the mellowing that can only come with time.  Cancer formed me as much as anything else that’s happened to me.  During my treatment, I was participated in a mindfulness program for patients at Dana Farber, thus beginning a lifelong study of the power of mindset.  As my hair fell out and the chemo ravaged my body, any moment where I felt some small sense of control became a lifeline.  In retrospect, I can draw a direct connection from that patient experience, through my career as a counselor, to this current coaching practice, writing these words to you.

Mindset is too powerful a tool to leave its contours to the vagaries of genetics or fate.  In choosing our mindset, we set our internal GPS toward a desired destination.  In this human life where everything can change in an instant, mindset is something over which we have some control.  In choosing our mindset, we take back our power.  Whether we’re predisposed toward optimism or pessimism, the truth is we do not know what the future holds.   But we do get to decide what we bring into that unknown future, what we carry forward from our past, and what we leave behind.   Mindset is the container in which we can deliberately place those intentions.

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A Different Kind of Spring Cleaning

A Different Kind of Spring Cleaning

I live in a northern place, and we take our springs very seriously.  Every clue that the harshness of winter is softening, that the world is waking up around us, we take notice. We mark every rising degree of warmth, every minute the light lingers in the evening, every new flower bulb emerging.  We discuss these things with loved ones and strangers. We turn ourselves toward spring and hold fast, like a ship coming into safe harbor.

One of many rites of spring is the “spring cleaning” of our indoor and outdoor spaces. Indoors, we open the windows to let in fresh, clean air, vanquishing the darkness and dust accumulated over winter.  Outside we take to the garden beds and get things ready for planting.  It’s like the earth is celebrating, and we want in on the party.

These rituals feel good. Tending to the space around us strengthens our sense of efficacy.  Taming the chaos and putting even a small corner of your things in order creates inner and outer calm.

In this post, I’d like you to consider another space that is worthy the same care and attention, and perhaps a spring cleaning of its own. That space is your mind.  Your brain, the organ whose filters and functioning create your entire experience of your life….It is worthy of the same care and attention you give to your living spaces, your vehicle, your closet.

What do you do when you “spring clean” those external places?  You set aside time and attention.  You gather up things that aren’t serving you: clutter, dirt, the worn-out things – and let them go. You attend to the things you love and want to last – you give them some shine, some TLC.

You can apply a similar process to your mind.

Set aside some time, even just 5 or 10 minutes would be a great way to start. Have a pen and paper handy or open a document on your computer or phone.  Just be still, take a deep breath, and write.  Jot down all the sentences from your brain. Don’t censor, don’t worry about how it sounds. Just notice what comes up. How are you really feeling? What are the primary thoughts that are present for you on any given day?

After you have downloaded all of those thoughts onto the page – read over what you’ve written down. Just as you do when you’re cleaning out a drawer: Look over all the sentences you’ve lifted from the drawer of your mind.  What’s useful and what isn’t?  Ask: how is this serving me? Is this way of thinking just worn out?

Another great question to ask yourself: Is this thought even true? So much of what our brain offers us is pure prediction, speculation, crystal ball reading, mind reading of others. Yet it is broadcast to us by our brains as fact, like it’s just the weather report.

You get to decide.  Just like you take care of the things around you that you love, you get to take care of this inner world, too. You get to decide what’s worth keeping. What is your brain holding onto that is that’s actually just an old, negative mix tape from the nineties? Can you clear some of the mental clutter to make space for what you cherish?

What are the things in your brain that, as Marie Kondo would say, “spark joy” — inspire hope, growth, compassion for yourself and others?

The disruption of the last few years may feel like the longest, hardest of winters.  You may feel stuck in survival mode or burnout after all you’ve had to endure.  All the more reason to take a look at what’s going on inside your mind. Can you turn inward and notice, with curiosity and compassion, where you need to make a mental shift?

What do you want to think – on purpose? This is where all your power is.

I hope this post inspires you to give your mind — and yourself — some loving attention, the way you tend to all the spaces, people, and things around you. How you feel matters. You matter.