November 23, 2014

New Website Alert!

I just launched a new website called a blissful interlude.  In addition to some personal musings on finding those blissful moments in life, the site features stories and profiles on folks who are making a difference in the world, however big or small.

The first story is a feature of Andrew Taylor, co-chef and co-owner of the renowned Portland, Maine restaurant, Eventide Oyster Co.

Stay up to date on new posts by subscribing to the website here, like on Facebook, and follow on Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.  New features will be posted at least once a week!

Happy reading and stay blissful!

Sarah Woehler

October 15, 2014

The New Normal

The new normal is city living.  It is ambulances screaming by at odd hours of the day, food fumes wafting through my apartment window, walking down the street for my favorite ramen.  The new normal is ocean drives and city views.  The new normal is slightly unconventional and unpredictable (therefore simultaneously scary and exciting).  The new normal is facing my fears.

The new normal didn’t happen overnight.  Instead, it crept up unexpectedly, and later than I thought it would arrive.  But I knew it had arrived when I woke up one Wednesday three weeks ago and realized the sadness had finally almost disappeared.  At first I thought it was a fluke – a day with no tears, gut-wrenching guilt, and an urge to numb my emotions with sugar-laden carbs.  But I coasted through one day, and then a second day, and then a third day without any tears, and I realized that the dawn of a new life that I had intentionally pursued and crafted – even having lived the framework of my new life for several months - had finally arrived.  

It didn't hit me like a flood or even like a wave, like the high of new love; rather, it was a sense of elevated evenness that might not have otherwise felt so remarkable if it hadn't been contrasted against months of mourning and grief.  It felt like the old (new) me was back.  

Falmouth from causeway to Mackworth Island, Maine.
It was only upon the arrival of the new normal that I  realized how much my life had changed in less than a year, the result of huge life changes that I had made in merely six months.  I had not only made the decision to get divorced, but consequently had moved to a new city and changed office locations (albeit at the same company).  Throw in a family life crisis, and frankly, it was a lot.  

And though, minus the family crisis, it was not without careful consideration that I made these decisions voluntarily.  Just the same I could have never anticipated how altogether these changes would initially wreak such havoc on my emotional (and physical) well being.  One life change can be hugely stressful, but three is triply stressful, even if they are changes intended to improve your life in some way.  But that is life, and it is these kinds of experiences that ironically make our lives feel so rich.

So, when I woke up that morning, experiencing joy and gratitude simply from the sun that was filtering through my bedroom windows, things suddenly felt new, and simultaneously normal. The new normal had finally arrived. 

It goes without saying that life is different than it was a year ago. Having once lived in a house in the country, I now live in an apartment in a city.  Having been a country club member, I am now a card-carrying Planet Fitness member.  Having had established friendships and a life in a community in which I lived for nearly 10 years, I am now in a new community making new friends.  

At the same time, my essence is still the same: I still enjoy my same morning routine of working out and eating oat bran; I still relish in me time; my heart still beats for the same kinds of passions and pleasures.  And though there are aspects that I miss from the old normal, it is the possibilities - those intangibles - in the new normal that I could never attain while remaining in the old normal, that which ultimately guided my decision-making in the end. As hard as it is (and hell, it really was so hard), sometimes you have to say goodbye to the old to usher in the new.  

September 7, 2014

"Being alive is a paradox."

“Being alive is a paradox, an ongoing mix of things that on the surface don’t always seem to make sense.  But voicing what doesn’t seem to make sense helps. It’s like an orchestra tuning up to play together. We have no chance of discovering the fullness of our inner music, if we don’t let the players in our hearts and minds and spirits tune.” 
– Mark Nepo, The Book of Awakening

In having lived in Portland now for just over three months, I have to pinch myself  every day because I love it so much – the energy, the people, the food(!), the architecture, everything.  Lately, I've been waking up at dawn to take my daily constitution (i.e., power walk) down Congress Street, to the water, back up Commercial Street, and through the West End and back to my apartment.  The sights, the sounds, the smells of the city – it’s a completely sensorial experience that makes me feel so fucking happy to be alive. 

Conversely, there are moments at the end of the day, when I'm reclined on my sofa, reading and/or listening to music, that I'll reflect on a foregone memory or experience and tears will suddenly well in my eyes.  Typically, it'll be over in a few minutes and the brush with sadness will be washed away with the tears.  This, quite ironically, makes me feel fucking alive too. And there is no shame, no guilt, because for me, it's a fleeting emotion that I clearly needed to deal with.  A big part of life is experiencing and feeling it all – the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The spontaneous tears are less frequent than they used to be, especially 6-9 months ago when all I seemed to do was cry, but they’re still there on occasion.  And it would be wrong to ignore them, to dull them somehow by distraction, or to otherwise feel guilty about feeling fleeting moments or sadness, because they’re a byproduct of an emotion that is very much alive in me. If I sanitized myself of that, I would be denying a big part of who I am and where I’m at.  

The other day I came across a Brene Brown quote that says, “We can’t selectively numb emotion. Numb the dark and you numb the light.”  I thought that was so poignant because many of us feel that in order to feel happy (the pinnacle of all emotions) we need to scrub away all sadness or all remnants of it, and that if allowing sadness to creep into our lives, there will be no room for joy or pleasure.  In actuality, it is the full range of emotions that are essential to the fabric of living an authentic life.  Diluted joy and self-convincing pleasures are not nearly as rich as the kind of joy/happiness that is felt when contrasted with sadness/anger/hurt, and all are inevitable and natural human emotions that should not be dulled or diluted. 

Sometimes crying at odd times doesn't "make sense," especially if you feel like your life is otherwise rich and full.  But it is the accepting of the paradoxes, the shades of gray, the complexities within us that provide us with the platform for growing and evolving.  By not accepting these paradoxes - these moments of unexpected tears or brushes with sudden joy and love - we are rejecting an authentic, genuine, sometimes messy life.  

Call me crazy, but a self-imposed sterile and safe life with no risk, no curiosity, no complications is inevitably a boring one.  I'll take a slightly flawed orchestra in development over an auto-tuned produced electro beat any day (though I do like my electro on occasion - but in my ears not as a metaphor to life).

August 9, 2014

I am my hair.

As women, our hair is as much of our identity as our mind, our voice, our soul.  More than just a crown to cover what contains the most defining part of our personality (our brain), our hair serves as a vehicle of expression.  Whether that changes by whim or mood, hair is far more than just an accessory – it is a representation of who we are.

My hair has always been my thing, but it wasn’t until about five years ago that I experimented with it in ways I never did before.  Before then, I never realized how changeable hair could be, and upon that discovery, how fun and exhilarating it was to change it on a whim.  After all, I would often say, “Hair grows,” just like you. 

Five years ago I chopped off my hair into a super-short pixie.  Most men hated it; women loved it.  I kept the pixie for about six months until I decided I missed my long locks and realized that my thick tresses were more manageable in long form, so I began the painful process of growing it out, entering several phases of worse-than-teen-angst awkwardness. 

After that, I decided I wanted to highlight it to return to that pale, cool-toned blonde I had when I was five.  So I did.  And then I experimented with going lighter, then darker, and then back again.  Now I am closer to my natural hair color with swaths of buttery blonde highlights blended throughout.  

Fast forward to a year ago I had a far too belated discovery that my hair, which I always thought was naturally unyieldingly frizzy, was actually naturally curly when not blown out and then straightened into oblivion. I was surprised that I liked my hair in its organic state.

Congruous with undergoing a phase of embracing and discovering who I was as a single girl I found myself letting nature do its thing more often than not.  To my surprise, people responded positively to it.  Men told me it was sexy; women told me I looked like Shakira.  These were not primary reasons for rocking the curly locks, of course, especially since previously I felt that straightening my hair made me prettier (which brings to mind Beyonce's song, "Pretty Hurts"), so I won’t deny that they were comforting things to hear.  But the biggest compliment was when someone said to me, “Your curly hair is just so you,” to which I thought for a second, and said, “Yeah, you’re right – it is.”   

As I’ve grown up and undergone life changes and challenges, my curly hair has become a means for my own personal evolution, for stepping out of my shell, for revealing my vulnerability, and saying, “Here I am.  Take it or leave it.”

June 15, 2014

Downsizing - Weeding the Dandelions

Downsizing has its pros and cons.  Over the past six months I’ve gone from living in an overly abundant 3,500 square feet,  to a moderate 1,100 square feet with storage space that was more than enough for one person, and then just recently to a "cozy" 580 square feet.  Though the choice from move to move was mine, it was no less a challenge reducing my belongings scaled to 3,500 square feet down to 1,100 square feet, and even more so from 1,100 square feet to 580 square feet. (The primary reason for me quoting numbers in this case is because, let's just be real: in the case of space, size does matter.)

These subsequent reductions in space challenged my attachments to my personal possessions in a way that surprised me.  After all, I am no hoarder, or so I thought.  Growing up, I was a purger, doing “spring cleanings” twice a year, tossing books and toys that I didn’t need anymore, reducing the unnecessary clutter in my bedroom, a child's microcosm of a grownup's house.  But as you get older, get married, expand your living space, you collect things both intentionally and unintentionally: china from your great grandmother, Christmas ornaments, greeting cards both received and for future use, winter clothes/spring clothes/summer clothes, wrapping paper for every season purchased end of season from Target - you get the idea. 

Downsizing to my current living space was perhaps less emotional than my initial move, but it was no less challenging.  Because my first move was the result of leaving my marriage, packing up the pieces of my life that I decided to take along with me was extremely difficult, especially because it meant that I had to choose between X and Y, both of which were linked to memories, most of which were fond.   

So while that move involved packing stuff into boxes, the things I took and the things I left were much heavier.  And every single thing that I left or placed into those boxes bore the weight of emotion: a potpourri of guilt, abandonment, sadness, fear, and also, of course, love.

This time around, particularly because I was moving further geographically from my relationship there were still emotions involved, but because the things I was packing had since been desensitized from the first move there were less tears.  This was counter-weighted by the self-imposed reflection on, “What do you I really need?”, which of course transpired into a series of philosophical questions about materialism and connection to stuff.  And even though I’m far from a hoarder, I'll be the first to admit it: I am a member of the Finer Things Club. You're welcome for the homage to The Office.

Personally, I thought I had done a great job getting rid of precious cookbooks that I loved but had never used, clothes that I hadn’t worn in a year, serving dishes that had yet to be pulled from the above-fridge cabinet since I had moved into my apartment five months prior.  This was only confirmed by my frugal friend, who said, “That’s a good roasting pan – are you sure you want to get rid of that?”  “Yes,” I responded with the confidence of a newly minted minimalist.  "Those are good wine glasses in that box."  "Yes, I'm sure."  This was before I entered my new pint-sized apartment in the city, of course, where minimalism was no longer a more luxurious exercise, but a mandated requirement. 

There, I was faced with the dilemma of getting rid of things like camisoles - the necessary staple of every woman’s closet – of COURSE you need one in every single color and all the assorted Bell canning jars that looked so homey and chic in generously-sized cabinets and which suddenly appeared greedily plump competing for space with efficiently slender packets of beans and nuts.  And let’s not even get into the pots and pans situation or the wine-glass situation or the button collection.  And I won’t even mention the tchotchkes.   

By the time I had pared down my belongings to the bare necessities, giving away my nearly 10-year-old Cuisinart food processor (that, let’s be honest, I may have used twice a year, which was nothing that my streamlined basic Ninja couldn’t serve), those wine glasses that had to be given up for more functional drinking glasses, and unused gift boxes, et al., I felt kind of empowered by the challenge of getting rid of possessions that previously I had not been able to part with.

When I was faced with the dilemma of Do you need/use it vs. Do you like it? the plaintiff clearly won.  While my appreciation for minimalism has been developed out of sheer necessity, I now understand the greater importance of not being too attached to material things.  But perhaps even more importantly, I’ve realized that weeding out the dandelions in your life makes way for the morning glories to grow, for which morning glories need not only water and sun, but space too.   

May 21, 2014

Music Therapy

One of my favorite things to do, particularly when the weather gets balmy and breezy, is to drive around with my windows open and the stereo on full blast.  It should be noted that the image I’m trying to project here is not quite how I've painted it, because in actuality, this is one of my favorite things to do when I’m feeling not only happy and joyful, but also somber and reflective too.  But, whatever the mood is, late spring/early summer is perfect for this, and there are very few better music-listening experiences than in a car equipped with a good stereo. 

Along with the continued theme of self-soothing, music appreciation is one of the best forms of therapy, incomparable to almost nothing else, besides your best confidant, or perhaps a really great therapist.

Though I’m in a better place than I was a month ago, and therefore a markedly better place than I was several months ago, every so often I’ll take a turn and get hit by a wave of sadness or other somber emotion and wonder why.

As a result, this often cascades into a series of over-thinking and self-questioning, which I realize is "only human."  A wise friend said to me a few weeks ago as we were talking about this particular subject: “Just be gentle with yourself."  Such simple but profound advice, right?

In the race to the finish line why do we expect that if we don’t get through it in lightning speed unscathed and devoid of bumps and bruises that we’re doing it all wrong? Why does the notion of slowing the pace and taking time to tend to our wounds by not slapping a band-aid on them and instead by lapping at them to be a signal of failure?

As soon as I realized that it was okay to be gentle with myself did I realize how this approach is actually more productive than trying to race through the pain by shunning out the sorrow.  But in order to do this we need to learn to be gentle with ourselves, because for many of us being gentle with others to be much easier than being gentle with ourselves. 

Feeling a bit somber tonight, I bought myself two new albums (if you must know, The Roots’” …and then you shoot your cousin” and Lana del Rey’s “Born To Die”), had a picnic (in my car) in the park, and then drove around town with the windows down.  My emotional state matched the flickering moodiness of the albums: the perfect prescription for “being gentle with yourself” and it felt completely right. Contrary to the act of cruising around, I didn't feel the need to race through the momentary sadness or desire for brooding.  I just sat in it with my favorite friend, Music, and practiced being gentle with myself.  And, for the record, listening to a new album in the car is the perfect prescription for almost ANY state of being.  You heard it here. :-)

April 6, 2014

Learning How to Self-Soothe

“Block out the noise and refocus on what's inside of you.” 
– Russell Simmons

Lately, I’ve been thinking about self-soothing and how it functions in times of strife.  In clinical terms, self-soothing is a term generally applied to infants, such as when they learn to self-soothe rather than relying on other means to alleviate self-perceived discomfort.  But the term is applicable in adulthood too, and likewise a necessary means of working through a difficult time.

When going through a breakup, death, move (or aftermath of any of the aforementioned), we seek ways to avoid the discomfort.  After all, it is only human.  This is when the inclination to rely on things that provide instant gratification is especially tempting, and it is often because we’re looking for a distraction or, in the case of a failed relationship, a replacement, to avoid confronting and feeling the hurt and pain.  But continually searching for distraction rather than facing the pain head-on winds up being counterproductive in the end. 

The problem with the avoiding or shunning discomfort by seeking replacements or distractions is that the grief, and the residual side effects of it, may sink to the bottom but will always be there. 

Pema Chödrön says that “[t]he central question of a warrior’s training is not how we avoid uncertainty and fear but how we relate to discomfort.”  This may seem counterproductive in our LifeHacker, “4-Hour Workweek”, quick-fix culture, but by fully embracing discomfort as the natural valley of our life experience we will only then be able to fully enjoy the subsequent peaks in our life. 

I am learning that there is no way to addressing difficulty than by facing it head-on, and frankly that’s effing hard to do, because no one wants to hurt longer than they have to.  But, if we don’t walk through the rocky path of discomfort can we get to the daffodils, and lilacs, and my favorite – the peonies. Another way to look at these difficult times is to consider them to be beautiful messes and great agents of personal change and growth.  To think that a personal struggle has the potential to make us better people in the end is actually very exciting, I think.

Through these hard times, however, it is okay, and necessary to find ways to self-soothe, so long as they’re not detrimental to our being in the end.  In fact, there is no better time to learn how to self-soothe than during strife when we’re faced with the temptation of affixing a flimsy Band-Aid (Cheetos or cheap beer) to our pain and hurt. 

I’ve found the following self-soothing tactics to be great sources for personal growth during my own difficult time: 
  • Giving yourself permission to be sad.  When you let go of guilt or "feeling bad" about being sad or mad, you realize how much better that makes you feel.  Self-acceptance has been an instrumental means of self-soothing for me.
  • Yoga - Trite, I know, but true.
  • Acupuncture (community acupuncture is incredibly affordable and if you're in Maine, Maine Center for Acupuncture is fantastic); as a side note, the needles are tiny and painless.
  • Reading – I love a good self-help, but fiction has also been a great way to calm the mind.  I had admittedly not been in the right mindset for fiction these past few months but just yesterday I picked up a book I had previously started and surprised myself in getting whisked away by the pleasure of story.
  • Mad Men – Like my best friend says, sometimes you need something to take your mind away, and a well-written TV show does amazing wonders for that.
  • Working out, and lately weight-lifting, which releases a different kind of endorphin rush than cardio, which I’m finding myself surprised that I like so much.
  • Silence – Previously undervalued for me since I love music so much, but lately I’ve realized how necessary silence is in “blocking out the noise.”
  • Tedeschi Trucks Band - There is nothing more appropriate than blues rock when you're going through a beautiful mess.