Joy and I took a little “holiday” from blogging at the end of 2016.  We were busy enjoying a family visit together in the Northwest filled with snow shoeing, aerial yoga with our girls (including Roja!), and ringing in the new year at “pretend midnight” for the kids and then official midnight for the adults.

Photo Description: Scenic winter picture of our family snow shoeing.

Image may contain: 8 people, people smiling, mountain, sky, snow, outdoor and nature

Photo Description: Aerial yoga swings hanging from the ceiling with red mats underneath.  Roja is laying on a red yoga mat in the left corner of the picture.

Fast forward to January.  The egg nog is long gone, the holiday decor packed away, and it’s back to the routines of daily life.  In many ways it feels refreshing.  A new year offers new beginnings, and yet old habits often follow us into new years. I’m choosing to share one of my on-going challenges knowing that many of us struggle with our inner critic.  I invite you to try some self-compassion exercises along with me as a step towards a healthy 2017.

This “self-compassion lesson” begins with a story followed by some self-compassion exercises.

The sun streamed brightly through the trees, illuminating the large piles of crisp white snow as I rushed out the front  door.  I chatted distractedly with Joy on my cell while grabbing the long blue sled from the front porch and tossing my son’s after school snacks and snow gear onto it before zipping off.  Joy and I finished up our conversation as I walked the 1/2 mile to Benny’s preschool.  I quickly plucked his lunch box from the sled to prepare for his famished after school snack requests, and discovered that the bag of snow gear I had packed him was no longer in the sled.  I’ll just retrace my steps and find it on the way home, I thought, and signed Benny out of school.  I knew finding a white plastic grocery bag against white snow would be challenging, but Benny is a good little helper and I figured we’d stumble on it eventually.  But soon we were home with no bag of snow gear.  My husband. who works from home most days, had just started his lunch break and offered to take the car out and look for the missing gear.

Meanwhile, I started making lunch, but was so distracted with texting friends and neighbors about the missing items, that I forgot about the sauce simmering and burnt it to a crisp.  My husband used his entire one hour lunch break searching for the items with no luck.  I felt defeated as I recalled how much money snow gear costs, especially the brand new high quality Burton mittens that just arrived from Amazon the day before.  I could feel the tight knots in my empty stomach as I scrounged around the fridge, trying to put together a new lunch, and I snapped at my husband when he asked me a question.  He retreated back to his home office, likely relieved to escape the presence of his edgy wife.  Tears started rolling down my cheek as I thought about how much I had screwed up that day.

My pity party was interrupted by my phone ringing.  It was my Uncle Mark calling.  Joy has written about our uncle in previous posts.  He calls each day from his room at the nursing home to read us the AA prayer of the day.  Though Mark’s developmental disability keeps his mind at the age of an adolescent, his intuition often exceeds his mental capabilities.

I sniffled as I picked up the phone. “Hi, Uncle Mark.  I’m kind of having a bad day.”

I proceeded to tell him about my lost items, burnt lunch, and cranky behavior..

“I’m sorry you burnt lunch.” he stated in a flat tone.

“Thanks,” More sniffles.

“I’m sorry you lost your son’s snow pants.” he continued, still mono-tone.

A few more tears rolled down my cheek as I muttered another “thanks” into the phone.

“I’m sorry you lost your son’s hat.” he offered.  Oh man, is he going to say sorry for every damn item I lost?
I wondered to myself, feeling grumpier by the second.

“I’m sorry you lost your son’s new mittens.” he added.

I was about to mutter another bland thank you when I heard him say, “But you’re still a good mom.”  Now the hot salty tears came flooding out of my eyes as I sobbed,”Thank you, Uncle Mark! I really needed to hear that right now.”

Uncle Mark’s words cut right to the heart of why I was crying.  I wasn’t shedding tears over lost stuff, or martial tension, or burnt lunch.  I was feeling inadequate as a mom, and I was beating myself up over my mistakes.  Mark’s simple affirmation caused me to remember all that I have learned about the importance of self-compassion.  I first learned this concept from Brene Brown and Kristen Neff, and was able to put it into practice at the Daring Sisters women’s retreat last summer.  For yesterday’s fiasco, I chose to write myself a self-compassion letter, which is far less complicated and hokey than it may sound.  Other times, I’ve chosen a guided meditation.  There are lots of great tools to choose from on Dr. Neff’s website. 

Below is a step by step guide to writing a self-compassion letter that I found on Berkeley’s Greater Good In Action site.

Time Required:15 minutes. Try to do this practice once per week, or at least once per month

First, identify something about yourself that makes you feel ashamed, insecure, or not good enough. It could be something related to your personality, behavior, abilities, relationships, or any other part of your life.

Once you identify something, write it down and describe how it makes you feel. Sad? Embarrassed? Angry? Try to be as honest as possible, keeping in mind that no one but you will see what you write.

The next step is to write a letter to yourself expressing compassion, understanding, and acceptance for the part of yourself that you dislike.

As you write, follow these guidelines:

  1. Imagine that there is someone who loves and accepts you unconditionally for who you are. What would that person say to you about this part of yourself?
  2. Remind yourself that everyone has things about themselves that they don’t like, and that no one is without flaws. Think about how many other people in the world are struggling with the same thing that you’re struggling with.
  3. Consider the ways in which events that have happened in your life, the family environment you grew up in, or even your genes may have contributed to this negative aspect of yourself.
  4. In a compassionate way, ask yourself whether there are things that you could do to improve or better cope with this negative aspect. Focus on how constructive changes could make you feel happier, healthier, or more fulfilled, and avoid judging yourself.
  5. After writing the letter, put it down for a little while. Then come back to it later and read it again. It may be especially helpful to read it whenever you’re feeling bad about this aspect of yourself, as a reminder to be more self-compassionate.
 Another tip I learned from Dr. Neff is to add “I love you. I love you. I love you.” at the bottom of your letter.

Given the holiday that’s right around the corner, and the political tension in the air, I find gratitude and attitude are two words to focus on this month.

I’ll start with attitude because if that’s not in the right place, then it’s difficult to approach gratitude.  While this is by no means a ground-breaking message, I believe it is a message we need to hear again and again.

I was reminded of the impact attitude can have on life at church on Sunday.  As I scrambled into the last pew (late as usual, two rowdy kids in tow), I wondered what Pastor Denise would preach about, given the recent election.  Similar to the country at large, our congregation is divided on many topics, including the recent election.  Yet Pastor Denise chose to deliver a message about attitude.  Not exactly what I was expecting, yet exactly what I needed to hear.

The sermon reminded me of how my vision loss has given me an on-going opportunity to choose my attitude.  For example, it often takes a whole lot of juggling to figure out transportation for my kids and me, and I feel angry and discouraged that this part of my life takes so much effort.  I sometimes find myself caving to a negative attitude, grumbling ”I’ll just stay home rather than hassle with all this.”  While I allow myself to feel sad and frustrated, I don’t allow myself to stay in that space.  I choose to move forward.  I choose to participate fully in all that life has to offer.

While choosing a positive attitude is not always easy, it ultimately brings more fulfillment.

Which brings me to gratitude.  It turns out that saying “thank you” is more than just polite manners.  Expressing gratitude leads to a healthier, happier life.  All this according to research compiled by my sister, Joy.  Read all about it in her latest Crixeo article, “6 Daily Gratitude Practices That Can Change Your Life”.  Perhaps Thanksgiving should be a year round holiday – for health reasons, of course.  Bring on the turkey, gravy, and pumpkin pie! And if someone (who shall remain nameless) accidentally dumps the entire gravy bowl into the sink right as dinner is being served, choose a good attitude.

Photo Description: Turkey on a computer with a farmer walking behind him holding an ax.  The turkey has a thought bubble that reads, “I wonder what it means when the farmer unfriends me on Facebook?”

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When you live with a rare degenerative eye disease, it can feel isolating at times, as if no one understands what it feels like to be you.  Then, one day, you open up a book and read a story that makes you feel as if you’re reading your own diary.  This is how I felt when I read Look Up, Move Forward, a recent memoir by Becky Andrews.  While the connection I felt to the author drew me in, your life doesn’t need to mirror Becky’s in order for this book to captivate your attention.      

I first met the author, Becky Andrews, last fall when a mutual dream of creating retreats for blind and visually impaired women brought our paths together.  We connected online, and the majority of our correspondence focused on details for the “Daring to Own Your Story” retreats that launched last summer.  When I finally met Becky in person at the first retreat, she struck me as the type of person you just want to sit down with near a cozy fireplace and talk for hours.  The intensity of the retreat didn’t leave time for fireside chats, and I went home from the retreat wishing I had more time to get to know this energetic woman.   Continue reading

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recent Salt Lake City gathering.

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Following an epic 3 day yard sale (a pathetic yet lucrative way to spend Labor Day weekend), my eyesight appears to be at it’s best.  No, I have not discovered a cure for Retinitis Pigmentosa.  But I have discovered the cure for not being able to find what I’m looking for.  

Three simple words:

Own
Less
Stuff

I can hardly call myself a “minimalist”, and yet I’ve recently taken the minimalist approach in several categories, creating the illusion of improved vision.    Continue reading

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One year ago today, Roja and I graduated as a team from Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, CA, and life hasn’t been the same since. In addition to getting Roja, this past year has been full of both amazing and difficult changes. From moving across the country and being apart from dear family and friends to growing in confidence as a mom, writer and teacher, Roja has been a constant companion who shows unconditional love (and licks!). Continue reading

Snowboard Photo

Photo description: Ashley holding her snowboard with her guide dog, Rick, by her side.

As soon as I started connecting with Ashley Nemeth from Mommies With Guides, I immediately noticed something refreshing about her: she is completely matter-of-fact about her blindness and her accomplishments.  She is almost totally blind, so as soon as I heard that she is an avid snowboarder, I of course, had to ask how she does it.  I think you’ll find her response quite interesting!  

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When you have a guide dog, you sometimes feel like a famous person getting stopped frequently to sign autographs, minus the actual signatures and paparazzi.  When I first got Roja last year, I loved it when people stopped me to ask questions.  I didn’t mind if it turned into a longer conversation, as long as I was able to share all about Roja and Guide Dogs for the Blind.

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So much has transpired in the last 5 years of blogging together.  Our perspectives have shifted dramatically.  If you look at one of our very first posts, “To Tell or Not to Tell”, about whether to disclose our vision loss in public, to more recent posts about guide dogs and canes, the shift is obvious.  But it didn’t happen overnight.  And it didn’t happen without a lot of input and support from friends we met in the online community.

2011-2012:  We’re not alone.  Between our readers, Facebook groups and fellow bloggers’ posts, we discovered a whole new “blogosphere” of people with Retinitis Pigmentosa and other conditions.  It was this connection that pushed us to keep writing, keep exploring, and keep discovering new things about ourselves and the unique world of vision loss.

2012-2013:  There’s a lot more to life than going blind.  If you look at our archives, you’ll notice this is the year we took a little hiatus.  Jenelle had her second baby, Joy started working on other writing projects, and life got busy.  We took a little break from both writing and reading vision-related blogs for awhile, realizing that there are so many more aspects to our lives than vision.  But when we picked back up and started writing consistently again, we were once again greeted with enthusiasm and encouragement.

2013-2014: The blind community is as diverse as the general population. Blindness is something that crosses all cultures, age groups, genders, and socioeconomic levels.  Consequently, the personalities, likes, dislikes, hobbies, views, etc. are extremely diverse.  This was the year we really began discovering the wide array of people in the blind blogosphere.  We have had the privilege of connecting with a multitude of interesting, yet often very different friends in the online blind community, including blind active mama friends, crafty comrades  adventurous, witty intellectualsartsy, clever New Yorkers, blind Canadian advocates, bold blind fashionistas, and let us not forget our guy-friend blogger and his amazing TEDtalk. And this just scratches the surfaces of interests, personalities and geographic locations.  IMG_3646

Even among assistive devices, people have their things; some like dogs, others canes, still others echolocation, some nothing, some braille, some hardware, some software. Under the umbrella of “blindness”, there are a select few who are in complete darkness (10 percent, like our friend and Youtube talent Joy Ross), others who have light perception, some shapes, some puzzle pieces, some just in daylight, some just at night, some large print, and even some who “drive blind“.

2014-2015:  The blind community has a strong, growing voice.  There is a growing voice in the blind community that is influencing culture.  This is the year we really started noticing an explosion of public awareness in the media: bloggers started popping up left and right (blind mamas, blind papas, blind professionals, you name it!).  These people have always existed, but it seems they have been growing in their public presence and confidence.  A major magazine, Real Simple, feature spread on blind moms with guide dogs, and reality tv producers have been seeking out blind talent.

Most of these efforts are positive and have the intention of educating the public, though this rise in media attention has created some controversy over whether people are overdoing it in regard to “inspiration”.  We in the blind community are, after all, just living our lives, and humans have a way of adapting to most anything.  It can be confusing when simple daily tasks are hailed as “amazing”.  On the other hand, there are unique challenges when it comes to sight loss, and the human capacity to overcome and move forward is, in itself, inspiring.  From our perspective, if it can help inspire others to do the same in their own lives, whatever their unique challenge happens to be, then it is noteworthy.

IMG_36472015-2016:  Shame is a common theme.  We used to think that we were the only ones who tried to hide our vision loss.  We have since discovered that this is actually a common phenomenon among people losing their eyesight.  Fortunately, amazing organizations such as the San Francisco Lighthouse for the Blind, are recognizing that this is an issue and have training, counseling and other programs available to help people get past the stigma.  “For those with changing vision, the daunting part is not usually the fear of darkness, but.the fear of admitting that you’re different.” – San Francisco Lighthouse For the Blind & Visually Impaired