Creating rituals around the tough stuff


For almost everything we call “hard,” it’s hard in part because our tendency is to force ourselves to jump in and “just do it.” We live in a culture that loves the idea of “just do it”.

And sometimes just doing it is totally helpful and appropriate.

And sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it makes the hard stuff harder.

When we think of something we want to do that scares us as a big, solid mass, like some monolithic thing rising up out of the sea, and we tell ourselves to “just jump over that!”, of course it’s going to feel really hard.

Everything that we think is hard has many, many increments and layers to it. And we can approach it this way, too.

Once, I was asked to create a piece of writing around a photograph in a museum exhibit, then read the piece to an audience as part of a writing festival. I had only about a week to get to the museum, look at the photograph, write the piece, and practice the reading.

A week goes fast, and I had lots of other stuff going on that week, too, so in reality, I knew I’d only have a few hours to do this. But it felt fun and challenging, so I decided to take it on.

Except when I looked at it all as a whole, it felt really hard. And when I say hard, I mean it actually felt hard, like a glinting black bowling ball. I could feel my abdomen contract just thinking about having to write this thing.

And this is what we often do when we’re confronted with something difficult that needs to be done: we get really hard and rigid ourselves around that thing. We set up walls around it and then we talk about “breaking through them.”

What if we set up softness around the tough stuff? What if we created a relationship with it that we enter and exit?

If I go back to my example of that piece of writing, I notice that there was a lot of entering and exiting the hard parts, within the whole process of getting it written.

There was going to the museum to look at the photograph. I made that softer by wandering around the exhibit for a while, letting the work of these photographers sink in and appreciating it. I made it softer by doodling stars and cat faces in my notebook before I started taking notes. I made it softer by treating myself to coffee on the way home.

Then I made the process softer by giving myself some time after I got home to sit with my notes and the feeling I got from the photograph. I let my notebook simmer next to my computer before I sat down to write. I let myself take a little time to get a good sense of what the picture conjured up in me.

And when I sat down to write, I made that process softer by reminding myself that right now, I was just writing, not sharing. I wasn’t thinking about the sharing until I was good and done with the writing. And I was writing one sentence at a time.

And within that writing, I took little breaks from time to time where I exited the process.

On the day of the actual reading, there was a lot of entering and exiting, too.

I didn’t turn it into, “Just do the reading! Just Do It!!!” Instead, it was more like: Get up. Have coffee while taking ten minutes to do a run-through of the reading. Keep enjoying that coffee while choosing an outfit. Ride train to reading, and while on train, start getting into reading mode — start entering reading mode and preparing for the reading.

Ahhh. Being allowed to enter and prepare, and making that a completely separate thing of its own, made the impending reading feel so much more soft.

There was a little period before the reading, where I congregated with the other readers, who were also freaked out, and acknowledging each other’s freaked-out-ness made it all feel much softer.

And then there was the reading itself, and meeting the warm eyes of certain appreciative audience members. And that made the reading itself so much softer, so much less like a glinty, flinty bowling ball and much more like a marshmallow or some Silly Putty.

Fast-forward to the present. When I sit down to work on my novel, it often feels hard, until I remember about creating rituals of softness.

There’s getting coffee and feeling the warm cup in my hand. There’s turning on my computer and watching my wallpaper come up (it’s a picture of my cat stretched out on the couch, sleeping). There’s opening my document and noticing all the other documents alongside this one, documents full of things I’ve written in the past, and that makes me happy and gives me courage: Oh, yeah, I’ve done this before, this writing.

And then there’s the first sentence of the day. I make that softer by allowing it to be a totally crappy sentence. And I make that softer by reminding myself that I can go back and change it later. And then, nine times out of ten, I’m off and writing. If I get stuck (which I often do), I make the stuckness softer by allowing myself another crappy sentence which I can change later. A lot of days, my cat jumps into my lap while I sit at my computer.

Ahhhh. So soft.

How do you create tiny rituals of softness around the tough stuff? I’d love to know.

Image is “Necessities” © Liz Van Steenburgh |

Starting 2013: The Bitter and the Sweet

The tree; the culprit.

The tree; the culprit.

I’m welcoming the New Year a few days late, thanks to getting hit with the flu just as the old year was ending.

As usual, I don’t want to take down my Christmas decorations. Sometimes, I love the after-Christmas “hush” more than Christmas itself. I like to sit in my dining room and stare at my little three-foot fiber optic Christmas tree on its table in the corner, where it has sat for the past seven Christmases. I like to reflect and be still, preferably with a manageable coating of snow outside, to make everything sparkly and glistening.

But this may be my little fiber optic tree’s last year of service. Because of:

The Bitter

Eight days ago, while I lay half-asleep in bed and the flu wormed its way through my body and I flashed hot, cold and sweaty, there was a crash in the dining room.

My cat, ever-fascinated with my little Christmas tree, had jumped up on the table, gotten scared by the aluminum foil I’d put around the base of the tree for the sole purpose of keeping him away, and bolted, bringing the tree down with him.

“Good God, no,” I thought. “Don’t do this to me today, when the ibuprofen hasn’t even kicked in yet.”

I shuffled into the dining room and the tree lay on the wood floor like a slain animal, ornaments rolling in all directions. My cat lurked in the bedroom doorway, surveying the destruction with rapt curiosity, as though he had no part in it.

At first I thought that, amazingly, no ornaments had been broken. Everything seemed to be intact. But then, the carnage came into focus: a red flocked deer leg, delicate and tiny, lay on the floor a few inches from the tree. It was from my very favorite ornament ever — my vintage deer with the white wreath around its neck.

“No!” I moaned, cradling the tiny leg in my palm. “No!”

But more carnage was revealed: the Puss ‘n Boots ornament my boyfriend gave me for Christmas last year was smashed to pieces. A paw here, a boot there, his sword flung all the way to the kitchen doorway.

I cleaned up the mess, sweating and shaky. By the time I talked to my boyfriend, I had accepted that things I love had been ruined. Puss ‘n Boots, at least, was beyond repair.

And, I discovered later, the tree no longer lights up.

“That is so terrible,” my boyfriend kept saying into the phone. “That is so terrible.” He’s very into Christmas ornaments, and he’d helped me decorate the tree.

His reaction helped me put things into perspective. It was disappointing, but not terrible. My good friend’s dog had passed away unexpectedly just a couple of days before, and I stared at my little twelve-year-old kitten culprit and felt such deep gratitude that he’s healthy enough to wreak havoc with the Christmas tree.

Fast forward several days, to:

The Sweet

I read a beautiful, magical short story by Kij Johnson, called “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss.” Of course, it’s a fact that I am completely obsessed with monkeys, but I don’t love this short story just because of the monkeys. I love it because it reminds me of how the everyday and the tragic are always, always, interlaced with the magical and the mysterious, if we look closely enough.

And: New clients to begin the New Year, clients whose authenticity, brilliance, and willingness to go there remind me of why I wanted to become a coach. Thank you, brave souls.

And: I’m flu-free!

I hope that you, too, are starting the New Year with hearty glimpses of health, magic, brilliance, and bravery.

A couple of announcements, & gratitude!

A while ago, a coaching buddy of mine and I were talking about how it’s difficult to experience a feeling of abundance in our lives when we don’t take time to really feel it, don’t slow down enough to be with it, don’t take a moment to say “thank you.”

I can forget. I can get so focused on what I don’t have that I get into “lack” mode. And then I see evidence of lack, everywhere. When I remember, when I notice what I have been given — often with no conscious effort on my part –I see evidence of this in my life, everywhere.

We can practice this. We can practice by noticing. Yesterday I noticed I was a little bit tired, and although I felt a tremendous urge to rush over to the computer to respond to email, I decided to sit quietly on my couch. My cat woke up from his nap, looked at me, and immediately came over and jumped into lap. I listened to his purr and felt it reverberate through my hands, my chest, my abdomen.

I breathed in the abundance of this moment. I was sitting on a soft down throw my mother gave me for Christmas last year. My living room felt warm, even though it’s in the 40s outside. The sun was sneaking out, after a clouded-over, gray morning. It felt good, to just be, to realize I had all I needed in that moment. And in this one.

Here’s to noticing what we have. Here’s to saying “thank you.”

And here’s to more abundance — a couple of announcements:

* Last week, I officially became a Martha Beck Certified Life Coach (woo-hoo!).  In celebration, I’m offering four FREE half-hour coaching sessions — first come, first-served. Bring me any issue (it doesn’t have to be related to creativity, but it certainly can be) and we’ll do a little exploring and get you a little less stuck. To get your free session, email me at and mention “free session” in the subject line.

* Also, I am super-excited to announce that I will be a coach for the next session of Jenna Avery’s Just Do the Writing Accountability Circle, which begins Nov. 28. I’d love for you to join us — it was the amazing encouragement of this circle that helped me finish a first draft of my novel last session, which I wrote about here. To sign up for the Writer’s Circle, click here. The last day to register is tomorrow, Nov. 23, so don’t wait!

Wishing you the gift of noticing what’s beautiful, good and right in your life.

Image is PUMPKINS © Paul-andré Belle-isle |