Choose the Right Words and Change your Life

As wordsmiths, we have the power to heal or hurt. As coaches or parents, we ought to know when to simply walk away and breathe deeply. I had a post lined up for today, but a silly marital argument with my husband yesterday left me drained and then determined to make the most of the rest of my weekend with the family. The following piece isn’t seasonal – I wrote it last January – but the concept is timeless.

Please read on if you’d like to learn how to

  • Radically improve your life and marriage
  • Hurt your loved ones less
  • End arguments sooner
  • Build better relationships
  • Get on better with the teenagers and children in your life

War of the Words

If you’ve never argued with your spouse, kids, partner or family members, then I don’t know whether to write to you for advice, shout “…pants on fire!” or campaign to get you acknowledged by the religion of your choice! Most of us have hurt others with our words at some time, and even though we may be trained coaches and linguists, I’m convinced that most of us still don’t fully comprehend the power of the words we use to shape – or destroy – our lives.

I had a foul exchange with my husband the other evening, but even while I was in mid-rant, our consistent language patterns kept standing out in sharp relief, as if I was watching a soap opera. I drive him wild  by constantly analysing, mid-argument, the words and intonation he’s been using. He sees it as an annoying diversionary tactic and proof that I’m not really interested in what he’s saying. I naively think it might help us see how we’re snowballing into hell. We cover lots of unpleasant ground in our arguments, from raising our voices and talking over each other to intensifying the language we use.

My husband’s most hurtful argumentative language pattern is to exaggerate his adverbs of frequency and the intensity of the words he uses. “You’re always attacking me for…” “You find fault with everything I …” “Everyone hates it when you…”

Most of us crank up our adverbs of frequency to some extent but I’ve started to notice my daughter doing the same thing, and that really worries me. I’ve started gently asking her if she knows it to be true when she begins a complaint with “She never….” or “You’re always…..”. I’ve also tried to discourage her from answering everything with “OK.” So many words available to her in her rich vocabulary, to describe her days, her experiences, her feelings yet how much teenage indifference and misery can be expressed in those two syllables! I’ve also tried drawing her attention to how often she peppers her speech with sarcastic ‘actually’s.

And what kind of messages do we send our brains when we dress the relatively undramatic events of our daily lives in the most colourful, intense language we can, convincing ourselves that we’re doing it simply to be more expressive? Did he do something without telling you that mildly disappointed you or did he ’stab you in the back’? Did she say something that peeved you a bit and made you vaguely sad or did you ‘take great offence’ at the way she ‘attacked’ you? Are you ’shattered’, ‘terrified’ and ‘heartbroken’ or simply very tired, a bit worried and feeling hurt and sad?

How often do we torture ourselves with ’should’s when a ‘could’, or an honest, authentic ‘want’ could turn our lives around?

How often does a sloppily worded email cause unintentional offence?

Another area of language that can truly change lives is first to notice, then change how often we cancel out the best of intentions with a ‘but’.

“I love you but …” “I’m sorry but ….” “I’m good at _ing, but I’m useless at….” Try, just for a week, to listen out for the phrases we tag on after a ‘but’ – then leave out part two! Let’s try loving and apologising unconditionally, or revelling in our strengths for a micro second before we cancel them out with a ‘but’!

I created this piece in my head as I stood at the kitchen window, watching the falling snow bend our trees in the eerie orange glow of a street light in the middle of the night. I’d gone to bed mid-argument, couldn’t sleep, my husband  came to bed, I got up, so I’d decided to go and make some camomile tea. I stood at the window, mesmerised by the swirling orange snowflakes and wondering how something as delicate as a snowflake had the power to bend and break the branches of trees. As I stood watching, I saw one supple branch rebel under the weight of the thousands of snowflakes heaped upon it,  catapulting its burden with surprising defensive venom. I went outside in my bare feet and dressing gown and gently swept the snow off the remaining trees with a broom, knowing it was too late to take back the thousands of tiny thoughtless comments I heap on my husband over the days, weeks and months until he feels he has to lash back at me about my lack of appreciation and my seeming obsession with perfecting details. I hoped I could at least save some of our branches.

The morning after our argument – we never usually go to sleep angry – my husband apologised graciously and we narrowly avoided having a fight about who was most sorry!

I’d like to leave you with a great tip for apologising.

We’ve taught the kids to do it, and although it’s really hard, it can cancel out huffs and resentments with the positive power of language and empathy. We call it the three part apology.

First, we say sorry for what it is we think we’ve done. Then we try to empathise with how the other person might be feeling; if we get these first two  parts wrong, it’s still useful because the other person has the perfect chance to explain kindly and simply what was going on from their point of view! The third part is to ask if there’s anything we can do to fix things. So, an example might be: “I’m sorry I criticised you for buying things at the supermarket that I didn’t want. It must be really frustrating for you that I didn’t empathise with how tired you were and that I mentioned the things you got wrong without praising you for everything you got right. How can I fix it?

And by the way, bare feet in the snow? PAINFUL!!!

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Please try some of these and let me know how you get on.

What are your most hurtful – or self sabotaging  – linguistic habits?  Which patterns do your arguments consistently follow?

Treasure Hunting

As a writer, you should have a sticky soul; the act of continually taking things in should be as much a part of you as your hair color. ~ Elizabeth Berg

I’m a quote-hunter, an unashamed gatherer of quotes. Capturing the words that resonate with me is like gathering wild berries, nuts and seeds, windfalls of fruit – food for thought.

Some stand out from the page or computer screen like the flash of a robin in a winter bush. Others are a rainbow of satin ribbons, waiting to be the right words to wrap around a bouquet of thoughts or to become the bow that sets off a simply wrapped sentiment. Then there’s the unexpected treasure, precious gems that dazzle with their brilliance. I keep them somewhere safe so that I can bring them out later, like a child fingering treasures wrapped in a handkerchief, hoping to find a special friend to show them to, someone who will understand.

I never go out without a pen, a notebook and a book to read. When I read a book with a ‘quotebook’ and a pen handy, it’s a signal I send to myself and to the universe. It says “I’m open. I expect nothing, but I’m prepared to be moved, enlightened or entertained. I’m a student, ready and willing to learn from the lives and the wisdom of others.”

In my Filofax, stuck on the fridge, pinned to my pinboard and incorporated into my art work, albums and blog, quotes serve as flashes of inspiration, mini mission statements and signposts to keep me on track. Dead poets become heroes, strangers become mentors.

I use a different instinct, a different skill when I capture a quote. In many ways, it’s like the honing in and the active listening I do as a coach.

Finding the perfect quote that illustrates several sentiments or pulls together a complex train of thought is similar to recognising an Aha! moment in a coaching session. It’s synchronicity’s way of helping us focus and pay attention.

Our first instincts are often the ones that bypass our censors and cruel inner critics which is why many quotes become deeply personal and precious to us. They’re like messages sent from our own souls. Every time you choose a quote that resonates with you, don’t stop to ask why; just write it down and keep it safe. Quotes are like photographs, snapshots of who you are, who you were. They’re music that moves you, lyrics that leave you scarred. They’re memories of a moment when you came upon someone else’s words and felt connected, not only to another human being, but to the moment, the thought and the feeling that overflowed from them and cried out to be heard. The ‘Me too!!’ or  ‘That’s it exactly!!’ moment.

It’s our unique life experience and how we channel, choose and arrange the moments, the music and the words that makes us writers, creating collages that turn our lives into works of art.

Learning to resonate with those moments strengthens the treasure-hunting in our coaching sessions; those repeating words that draw our attention, those powerful silences when our clients connect to an answer nestling patiently in their souls, waiting to rise and take flight – they’re the gems.

I never know how my words will affect others but I do know that my best coaching happens and my best pieces write themselves in the moments when I’m most alive, aware and open. Some moments of clarity or emotion are so powerful they brim up and overflow and make me feel that if I don’t channel them into words, control them and create something from them that I will drown or that something very precious, something vital will be washed away and lost. When I sit down to recreate those moments, I feel like my whole life, everything I know and everything I am is a prism being used to refract the light of a message coming, quite simply, from somewhere else.

When I coach well, I feel the same connection.

Know then, that if anything I ever write affects, moves, touches or supports you, it was meant for you, sent from somewhere that neither of us can fully comprehend. I’m happy to be the messenger.

Sharing the Journey

It is…the parent willing to nurture a child that will decide our fate. ~ Barack Obama, in his inauguration speech.

For many of us, too many choices can be overwhelming. For the anxious perfectionists among us, the thought of making the wrong choice from an overwhelming array of possibilities can be paralysing, especially if the first step feels like a leap of faith.

As a parent, I’ve often found it hard to deal with the anxiety that comes with such a  huge responsibility. Turbulent times and global financial crises haven’t helped. I’ve had to learn to trust more, to take things less personally and to balance letting go with being more present and engaged. Constantly trying to evolve as a coach has helped me become a wiser parent, a more grateful wife  and a less judgemental daughter. Coaching is a career journey that has finally enabled me to blend all that I am with all that I’ve learned and believe in. Continue reading →

Black Holes and Hurtling

It’s the end of the world as we know it
…and I feel fine! ~ R.E.M lyrics

 My kids came home from school yesterday, bursting with all the gossip they’d heard about The End of the World. Luckily, because of what I’ve learned on my coaching journey, I’m no longer daunted by conversations about particle physics and quantum physics, about energy and focus, manifestation and momentum. I love discussing the details of how we create our own lives, our own worlds.

So, we chatted about black holes and the Big Bang experiment currently taking place in a circular chamber deep under the Alps in Switzerland. My daughter, a teenager, couldn’t believe that some of her classmates had cried when they heard that one of the undesirable side effects of this particle collision experiment might be that we’d all turn into goo or simply disappear. Her approach? I’ve had a good life, if we’ve got to go, we’ve got to go. Nothing we can do about it. Our life has been a roller coaster ride recently, partly caused by our daughter’s emotional ups and downs and what we call her ‘horrormoans’. I was stunned that she’d decided not to make a drama of it and that she considered her life so far to have been “good”.

My son, on the other hand, looked at me for reassurance, his huge grey eyes overcast with the threat of tears. I asked him if he’d like to be with me when they flicked the switch and he hugged me and smiled a nod.

I remember looking at the night sky as a child, then crying myself to sleep thinking about where the universe ended and what was beyond it. Years later, I smiled when one of the kids first asked me who God’s mum and dad were. I’ve never lost the wonder and the curiosity I had as a child, although in this case, I admit to having very little curiosity about how creation got created. Maybe it’s a throwback to those days when some unanswerable curious questions just made my head hurt and my anxious heart worry.

I’m not being flippant here, but the total and instant end of the world doesn’t worry me; being separated from my loved ones does. So does watching a beautiful planet die a slow and painful death because a species who ought to know better not only destroys its home, but its fellow Earth-dwellers.

As I sat with the kids at 8:29 this morning, waiting for some scientists in Switzerland to switch on an experiment that really began decades ago, I didn’t think it would do any harm to suggest we quickly say a silent sorry for everything hurtful we’d ever done and a big thank you for everything. Without prompting, they both turned and said “I love you.”

The moment came, it went and as they headed off for school, I realised we create our own universes, our own new worlds every day, without the need for billion dollar experiments. Love a lot, serve others, say sorry, say thank you and every moment that ever was until now disappears down your very own black hole. We create a new world with every thought, every breath, every loving gesture and every decision to do something differently, something better.

If those scientists had asked me, I could have told them for free that there’s already a black hole in our house, caused by me hurtling around in circles at the speed of light and colliding, hormone-ridden, with one or other of my kids’ crises. Full of Dark Matter, our very own black hole swirls ominously in the vicinity of the kids’ bedrooms, the place where stuff, sanity and socks strangely disappear…My husband would probably tell you there’s been a black hole in his wallet since the kids were born!

As this Swiss experiment is due to go through various phases until October, here are some questions to exploit its media presence or maybe even turn some energy shifts into Big Bangs!

  • If you could create a black hole in your home, what would you dump in it?
  • If you could create a black hole in your life , what would you dump in it?
  • If you could live five parallel lives, all as yourself, who would you be in each? (For example, in one life, I’d be performing all over the world and making albums as a singer songwriter; in another I’d be writing my latest novel with my lace curtains blowing in a sea breeze…)
  • What causes the highest levels of creativity in your life, in your home?
  • How would you like to spend your last few weeks in this known universe?
  • What, if anything, would be on your “I wish I’d done that!” list?
  • What song would you have playing as the soundtrack to your life?
  • What would be the last things you’d want to smell, see, taste and touch?
  • What would you say to your loved ones that could really, should really be said NOW….?

Foil

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time… ~ T.S. Eliot

I never know who I’m going to be in January. Sometimes the New Year infuses me with dynamic energy and renewed determination. Sometimes the old year haunts the new, leaving me deeply introspective and longing for nothing more than profound simplicity and clarity. Last year’s roller coaster ride has left me feeling weary and buffeted yet believing even more fervently than before that everything is fuel for coaches and writers. All life is learning. Capturing and filtering moments for this column remains a blessing, a constant reminder to stay open and connected and to be grateful for the life-affirming insights I find in the most unlikely of situations.

The other day, I dropped a roll of metallic kitchen foil before I could tear off a piece to line the grill pan. Cursing under my breath, I watched it unfurling like a broad silver ribbon before I could catch it. (Now, if this has never happened to you, I suggest you try it just once!) The beautifully smooth, wrinkle free, neat, tidy tube of shiny, delicate foil, which starts off wrapped snugly around its cardboard core, has to be rolled back up by hand.

I can never, never get it back tight, smooth and neat. Holding the tube at both ends, I wind and roll, roll and wind, but no matter how carefully I do it, I always leave crinkles and the rustling roll that was once tightly, mechanically wound and smooth becomes fatter and uneven at the edges. It rarely goes back into its cardboard box, you know, the one with the saw-like cutting edge. Nor is it ever as easy again to smoothly tear off pieces along the cutter.

But today, I found myself smiling, then grinning as I rolled up the metallic foil, knowing it would end up crumpled and squashed. It reminded me of me.

Every time I pick myself up from a disappointment or a fall, or an unplanned life detour, I’m never the same. As long as I can still do what I was created to do, does it really matter if I never fit back into the tidy constraints of the original ‘box’, a box that was precision cut to contain something perfect and unused, leaving no room for untidy growth, movement or change?!

If we tumble out of our ‘boxes’, if we’ve fallen or ‘failed’ or made a break for freedom and found ourselves travelling, unravelling out of control away from our cores, we don’t want to be wound back up tight and constrained in the same way ever again. Or even worse, scrumpled up into a ball and binned because we no longer fit some artificially constructed notion of perfection. If we roll out of control and need to be gathered up and rescued, it’s nice to be valued despite the wear and tear or because of the wear and tear; it’s even more empowering if we’re the ones doing the rescuing.

All journeys expand the layers of our awareness just as our flaws increase our learning and our wisdom, making us ‘bigger’, richer people – like the roll of metallic foil getting fatter, more crumpled, more interesting as it’s gently reeled in and furled back around its never changing core. We may spiral back to where we started on our journeys, often feeling frustrated that we’re back at the same place – but it never is exactly the same place if we’ve learned and grown along the way.

 

 

Birdsong

Love has no other desire but to fulfill itself. To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night. To wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving. ~ Kahlil Gibran

I woke very early today, too early to start clattering and clanging in the kitchen so I grabbed a book, a pen and spiral bound notebook and wandered out into the garden, heading for the table,  sipping the glass of blueberry juice I’d poured for myself.

I laid my books on the table, the blue and white tablecloth dew-damp under my sleepy arms, and I sat there thinking ‘These birds are really loud!’ Cheeping, cooing, chirruping, whistling, trilling, tweeting, chattering…I slowly started to single out each songbird’s soaring celebration of a new morning.

The sun, burning off the last few patches of mist, cast shafts of light through the laurels, turning web-hung droplets to twinkling crystals whenever the fresh morning breeze rustled the branches, dark green against a clear blue sky.

I breathed in the fragrance of moist earth and caught the scent of the mock orange blossom by our back door. Feeling more alive than I had for months, I thought about writing some morning pages, hoping to explore and dispel the shadows that have been settling round me.

I opened the notebook, half heartedly fiddling with my pen as I sat listening to the birds.  Soon I would hear the sound of distant traffic; the humming of an aeroplane across the sky; the faint clattering of cereal bowls and spoons; the sound of kettles and radio alarms carried on the breeze. I put down the pen and leaned back in my seat, unwilling to leave the moment even to capture it.

A big fat bee came buzzing around the bushes by my feet and made me smile! I hadn’t seen one for months. So many tales of the bees disappearing; with them would go the soundtrack to my childhood garden memories of damp grass and daisy chains, dandelions and buttercups.

Suddenly, a flash of red and a choot choot choot –  a robin, on the fence behind the berberis bush. He stopped, looked at me, bobbed his head three times  and flew off.

And I knew, knew then as I know now, with a certainty that leaves no room for fear or doubt: I was meant to write this piece. I was meant to write. I was meant to wake up early, to love that bee, to be that robin, to share with you the beating of my “winged heart” on a grateful spring morning.

And you were meant to read this. For without the life and the breath and the experience you bring to these words, they would only be pixels on a screen. Like the bee, you touch the lives of strangers, you’re woven through the fabric of a million memories, you create moments that leave the world a better place. You and I – like the robin – have a message to bring, a song to sing in the eternal dawn chorus.

Today, as you choose to wrap your heart around the moments that make up a life, how will you share your precious gift with the world? You were born with talents, you’ve worked hard to build skills, to create connections – but they’re just the channel.  You are the gift.

‘R’ Words…or How to Redefine the Recession

I’ve recently read a surprising number of newsletters and blogs which have used the phrase “the ‘R’ word” to refer to economic recession. Now these aren’t coy writers I’m talking about; they’re highly respected, powerful coaches who inspire and lead many others. I don’t know why they use the phrase, but it got me thinking about what recession means to the coaching world and also set me off on a journey exploring ‘R’ words.

Real estate, reaction, response, re-positioning and relief…

I live in a tourist area where many local newly-weds can’t afford to buy homes because of inflated house prices. In other parts of the country, families are faced with the prospect of downsizing or negative equity because of the post-boom drop in property prices. I’ve seen how distressing this can be, so it’s not a topic I’m being dismissive of or disrespectful about. I’d like to share a story with you about one of the best coaches I’ve ever known.

He started to feel the waves of worry over the US sub-prime mortgage situation last year; his wife works in real estate and they have a young family. His initial reaction was to increase his networking and marketing until the pace became almost hysterical and frenetic. Then, after an aha phase, he responded from his heart by putting the theory of ‘letting go’ into practice. He focused on the abundance he already had – his family, friends, training, experience, wisdom and qualifications – and acknowledged that they weren’t going to evaporate if he didn’t fill his coaching practice immediately. Instead, he started applying for other jobs to supplement his coaching income, even though he already had more clients than most coaches I know. The job offers came flowing in. He  accepted one that allowed him to work from home and the relief was almost tangible, like a breeze of fresh air blowing through his life, bringing with it financial security and a continuation of the family dynamics and routine he’d worked so hard to build. And then – no surprise to those of us who believe in the law of attraction – the clients came pouring in too. Eleven new clients in two weeks.

Redundancy, re-evaluation, readiness, relocation and resourcefulness…

My husband works in the Scottish branch of an international company and we’ve been affected by the global crisis too.  Every October for the last three years, his bosses have announced that hundreds of people in the company are to be made redundant. The list of those about to lose their jobs  isn’t released until December.  It’s become harder for me every year to celebrate Christmas in the carefree way we used to. It’s become increasingly painful for my husband to lose colleagues at a time when workmates all over the world are celebrating the holiday season with office parties and frivolity. But as we’ve narrowly ‘escaped’ for three years in a row, we’ve been given a great gift – the chance to re-evaluate what’s most important to us in a deeply authentic way.

We have to ask ourselves what we’d really like to do with our skills and talents and which risks we’re ready and willing to take, seeing as our children are thriving at school. If we were to move anywhere in the world for work, where would we go? What would we do? Why would we choose to stay here in Scotland? My dad is 84 but has another daughter and grandsons here. Heart-searching talks, provocative conversations. Despite my heart-wrenching wanderlust, we always end up feeling that we’re here in Scotland because we want to be. We’re always left knowing what we’re willing to fight to keep.

Not moving house also makes us more resourceful with what we have. Downsizing our consumption, expenditure and stuff is a pleasure for us, a solution, not a form of imposed deprivation. It makes us feel prepared for anything, like we’d be ready to move if we had to. It makes us feel ‘clean and clear’ while we choose to stay. Most of what we own is useful, beautiful or treasured.

Relishing, ritual and religion …

I’ve also coped with looming redundancy and the threat of ‘forced’ relocation by strengthening my love of ritual. It can be a powerful glue in every relationship, religion and society. My daughter laughingly told her Religious and Moral Education teacher at school that her mum steals the best bits of every religion she comes across!

We love creating our own rituals too. On Mother’s Day, I never expect presents, flowers or chocolates. My kids volunteer to be ‘servants’ for a day and keep the home running while I stay in my bedroom and read a book from cover to cover – a rare and cherished treat. They make me cards and create ‘cheques’ promising to pay me in love, respect, tidied rooms and fewer tweenage tantrums! I laminate those and use them as bookmarks.

We also make homemade cards, sweets, presents and crackers at Christmas and have created fun-filled, friend and family rituals throughout December. It gives us all so much more to look forward to than shop-bought gifts.

It was my mum who instilled in me a love of details and ritual, and although we didn’t have much money when I was growing up, we grew up rich because of her.

I’m sharing this with you now because if you’re anxious about your future or your finances, this is the time to start being open to creative ideas to reduce your consumption and expenditure. You’ve time to design cards, make personalised bookmarks, write books of gratitude and ‘love memories’ for your loved ones, compile photo albums of treasured memories, and create works of art from digital photos. You’ve time to plan home baked gifts and to research unusual charities to donate to instead of sending gifts…You can give away heirlooms now and register the recipient’s pleasure rather than wait to die to do it. You can have clothes swap evenings with friends, bake and take to the homeless, give away the contents of your attic or garage to folk who need it.

I’m having a meltdown at the moment, trying to decide how to redesign my kitchen to get a bigger table in. As I hear of the tragedy unfolding in Burma, it puts my dilemma into proportion. By not buying meat, wine or treats for a just a week, I can send a Burma emergency relief fund enough for mosquito nets, water purification tablets or plastic sheeting for shelter. Doing without pizza or a bottle of Chilean red isn’t going to kill me.

Remembering, regret and reaching out…

My mum died a few weeks before Mother’s Day, while I was expecting my son. She’d gone into hospital to have an aneurism removed and never spoke again. Complications meant she had to be ventilated through her windpipe, even though she was fully conscious. She spent her last weeks on a gurney in intensive care, awake but hooked up to dialysis and a ventilator, defying all the odds. The day before she died, she was restless, hardly lucid and spent the whole day trying to point to her left wrist with her wrinkled, right hand. Everyone speculated; was she experiencing pain down her arms? Was she wondering where her watch had gone? She mouthed the words “I love you son” to my husband before she drifted off and we were asked to leave. That night, she developed an infection and didn’t regain consciousness. My dad was asked for permission to switch off the machines. The next day, I watched her slowly slip away. When the LED displays finally all reached zero, I looked up to the ceiling and said “I’m sorry.” So much I hadn’t said when she was alive. So many memories I’ve relished since.

I reckon she was pointing to where her watch had been, telling us it was time, telling us not to waste it.

Don’t let regret be one of your ‘R’ words. As folk who are involved in the coaching world, the recession is a chance for us to reach out, to inspire, to share our skills and our wisdom and to make a difference. It’s not all about marketing and money.

A few of my favourite ‘R’words… why don’t you make a list of your own or get your clients to make one as an attitudinal antidote to ‘R’ word anxiety!

reading,
rose scented laundry,
relishing truth,
rugs on real wood floors,
reaching out and really enjoying people,
rainbows (my mum sends them),
rock pools,
rusty-red painted wood,
rose flavoured Turkish delight sweets,
retsina and red wine,
rustling olive groves,
rustic tables (laid with blue and checked tablecloths, bread, olives and salads)

Ebb and Flow

We must be open to all points of the compass; husband, children, friends, home, community; stretched out, exposed, sensitive like a spider’s web to each breeze that blows, to each call that comes. How difficult for us, then, to achieve a balance in the midst of these contradictory tensions, and yet how necessary for the proper functioning of our lives. ~ Anne Morrow Lindbergh, (A Gift from the Sea – 1955)

It’s well past midnight. I’ve just looked at my watch and realised I’ve been working at my laptop – harvesting inspiration, quotes and ideas  – for hours. Deep in the flow, I haven’t moved, spoken or eaten.

My first thought? I’m lucky that I love what I do when my kids are asleep or at school – my writing and my homelife coaching. I love the thought of a life spent helping people create that ‘holiday house’ simplicity and clarity in their lives and their homes, ridding their rooms, their bodies and their relationships of clutter. I love co-creating design solutions for folk who feel they’re suffocating under piles of stuff and paper that leave no room for a breath of fresh air or spirit.

Ah, but then, with the almost audible thud of an email landing in the inbox, my heart sinks.  I feel my gut clenching and my spirit shrivelling. I think how much easier it would be to have the funds to pay a professional website designer to sit by me, instantly transforming my ideas into a site that’s a joy to navigate and an inspiring haven for weary surfers.

Then I think of the affiliate links I’ve still to negotiate, the materials and new client contract forms I haven’t created yet, the files of resources to be sorted or written and the website video technology I feel I ought to be mastering. The flow dries to a trickle. A sigh followed by the sound of a laptop lid clicking shut.

One of my favourite questions is ‘Does it expand you or contract you?’ Deceptively simple, but hugely powerful. It works with everything from diet decisions to decluttering, from discovering passions to deciphering feelings. It reminds me of a bush that used to grow in the dusty soil at the foot of a tree in the pavement outside my first apartment block in Greece. It had deep pink and yellow trumpet-like flowers that opened and closed depending on how much light and heat it felt.

I’m back where I was a year ago; writing expands me but feeling I ought to be doing more to make money contracts me.

Surfing through inspiring websites expands me. Always feeling technologically challenged contracts me.

Loving my husband and children expands me; the tiredness that often comes with consistent, conscious parenting contracts me.

Creating an authentic, spirit-filled homelife expands me; trying to explain that ‘stay-at home-mum’ doesn’t mean I’m a constantly available stand-in for every ‘working’ mum when the school needs volunteers doesn’t just contract me, it often twists me up into a squirming, screwed up ball of resentment. And so it goes until I feel like I’m cancelling myself out.

In our society, craving ‘less’, writing to touch people’s hearts, staying at home to nurture kids and coaching people for free or for bartered services or affordable fees all have fluctuating value, depending on the financial circumstances and paradigms of the observer.

On the one hand, many people say they wish they could be doing what I’m doing – nurturing my family and others in a small but deeply authentic and satisfying way, yet, when they’re tired after working long hours outside the home, ‘working’ mums often ask me how my husband feels about ‘funding my hobbies’ and ‘paying for me to stay at home all day’.

Many supportive coaches write and tell me they value my Coaching Moments pieces; others write articles about how it’s damaging for coaches to undervalue themselves and their products and to give too much away for free.

I suspect a bit of balance and some shadow work would expand me right now. So would a week alone in a small house by the sea, writing at a rickety wooden table overlooking a brooding ocean, listening at night to the sound of the waves, the ocean’s sleep breathing.

So, no touching moments of heart captured awareness this month. Just questions, wave upon wave of questions pounding a restless shore.

Loving Letters

“We lay aside letters never to read them again, and at last we destroy them out of discretion, and so disappears the most beautiful, the most immediate breath of life, irrecoverable for ourselves and for others.” ~ Goethe

I’d like to start this month’s article by begging you, pleading with you not to take a moment of your life for granted today, no matter how creatively in the flow you are or how jam packed, bogged down or productive your day is. Don’t let one single breath slip by unappreciated, not a smile, or a phonecall, or a scrap of paper from a friend, or a coffee date that you’re considering cancelling because of work. If you’ve drifted away from a loved one because of busy-ness and stress, head for home and find a safe harbour before it’s too late. Say thank you, say sorry, say something.

It all started in the attic. I went up to find a map for my son’s homework and while I was rooting around among teetering piles of cardboard boxes, I found an old plastic bag with Portuguese writing on it and I knew it must contain something from the time my husband and I spent teaching there twenty years ago. I carried the dusty, musty smelling thing down to my bedroom, spilled the contents onto the bed then gasped with my hand to my face as I saw piles of envelopes covered in my mother’s handwriting.

Guilt came first; here were all the letters she’d written to me in my years abroad. So many letters. Most of the time, between brief phonecalls, all I sent my folks were scrawled postcards and clichéd tourist gifts. She ended every letter with “We love you” and every letter was an expression of unconditional love. If she was saddened by the self-obsessed way I neglected my family or anxious about me living alone in foreign countries, she never showed it.

Tears streaming down my face, I realised, for the first time, that my mother had a gift for fresh, immediate writing. I savoured, in a way I’m sure I didn’t back then, the details of her everyday life as she described, with a canny eye and gentle humour, the simple goings-on in our Scottish mining village.

I felt her presence wrap itself around me as I laid them to the side, knowing I would keep and treasure them – but I had to read the others now. A window to my past, to another world, to another self had been opened. Like an archaeologist, a time traveller, I kept reading.

I found cards and letters of love and support from friends I’d written to before I went into surgery to have a tumour removed. I suddenly remembered sitting by the hospital bed, writing ‘thank you’ and ‘I love you’ letters to everyone in my address book – just in case. How I wish I could turn back the clock now and thank them again, with an older, wiser understanding of how powerful and authentic their messages were. There is deep, raw strength in the honesty that brings us closer together in situations where we feel the wings of death brush past our shoulders.

A pile of flimsy blue air mail envelopes with their red and white striped edging, letters from my best friend in his beautiful Greek script, teasing me and loving me, unaware that in a few short years his life would be tragically cut short by cancer.

A funny postcard in what we called Portuguenglish from a linguistically brilliant student of mine who’d become a good friend; he threw away his lonely young life with a heroin needle a few years later.

A bundle of fat envelopes addressed in the small, shy handwriting of a Scottish friend I’d been at university with, envelopes bursting with beautiful, expressive, heartfelt letters to cheer me up and keep me company during many a painful, lonely time abroad before I met my husband. He wrote to me about music, art, books, life and love and it didn’t dawn on me until today – so selfish and self-centred was I then – that he was in love with me. My heart stumbled and I wiped my wet face on the back of my hand as I  realised that he saw then the very best of me, a glimpse of my real self, my soul, the part of me that has been rediscovered and nurtured by my marriage, my children and my coaching journey. He let me go eventually, “getting rid of dead wood” he called it, and the pain I felt then was excruciating because I didn’t realise why he was doing it. I do now, but I can’t apologise, can’t thank him, can’t start again and show him pictures of my kids. And I wouldn’t wish this feeling on anyone.

As I sat  shredding letters for recycling, letting go of all but a precious few and whispering silent apologies and gratitude for the memories that made me the person I am today, I decided I’m going to write some real letters and notes to the folk I love, something they can hold and choose to keep in a ribbon-tied bundle if they want to; real letters in unique handwriting on scented notepaper or carefully chosen postcards like we sent back then, when people left a part of themselves on paper and thank God they did.

War of the Words

If you’ve never argued with your spouse, kids, partner or family members, then I don’t know whether to write to you for advice, shout “…pants on fire!” or campaign to get you acknowledged by the religion of your choice! Most of us have hurt others with our words at some time, and even though we may be trained coaches and linguists, I’m convinced that most of us still don’t fully comprehend the power of the words we use to shape – or destroy – our lives.

I had a foul exchange with my husband the other evening, but even while I was in mid-rant, our consistent language patterns kept standing out in sharp relief, as if I was watching a soap opera. I drive him wild  by constantly analysing, mid-argument, the words and intonation he’s been using. He sees it as an annoying diversionary tactic and proof that I’m not really interested in what he’s saying. I naively think it might help us see how we’re snowballing into hell. We cover lots of unpleasant ground in our arguments, from raising our voices and talking over each other to intensifying the language we use.

My husband’s most hurtful argumentative language pattern is to exaggerate his adverbs of frequency and the intensity of the words he uses. “You’re always attacking me for…” “You find fault with everything I …” “Everyone hates it when you…”

Most of us crank up our adverbs of frequency to some extent but I’ve started to notice my daughter doing the same thing, and that really worries me. I’ve started gently asking her if she knows it to be true when she begins a complaint with “She never….” or “You’re always…..”. I’ve also tried to discourage her from answering everything with “OK.” So many words available to her in her rich vocabulary, to describe her days, her experiences, her feelings yet how much teenage indifference and misery can be expressed in those two syllables! I’ve also tried drawing her attention to how often she peppers her speech with sarcastic ‘actually’s.

And what kind of messages do we send our brains when we dress the relatively undramatic events of our daily lives in the most colourful, intense language we can, convincing ourselves that we’re doing it simply to be more expressive? Did he do something without telling you that mildly disappointed you or did he ‘stab you in the back’? Did she say something that peeved you a bit and made you vaguely sad or did you ‘take great offence’ at the way she ‘attacked’ you? Are you ‘shattered’, ‘terrified’ and ‘heartbroken’ or simply very tired, a bit worried and feeling hurt and sad?

How often do we torture ourselves with ‘should’s when a ‘could’, or an honest, authentic ‘want’ could turn our lives around?

 How often does a sloppily worded email cause unintentional offence?

Another area of language that can truly change lives is first to notice, then change how often we cancel out the best of intentions with a ‘but’. “I love you but …” “I’m sorry but ….” “I’m good at _ing, but I’m useless at….” Try, just for a week, to listen out for the phrases we tag on after a ‘but’ – then leave out part two! Let’s try loving and apologising unconditionally, or revelling in our strengths for a micro second before we cancel them out with a ‘but’!

I created this piece in my head as I stood at the kitchen window, watching the falling snow bend our trees in the eerie orange glow of a street light in the middle of the night. I’d gone to bed mid-argument, couldn’t sleep, my husband  came to bed, I got up, so I’d decided to go and make some camomile tea. I stood at the window, mesmerised by the swirling orange snowflakes and wondering how something as delicate as a snowflake had the power to bend and break the branches of trees. As I stood watching, I saw one supple branch rebel under the weight of the thousands of snowflakes heaped upon it,  catapulting its burden with surprising defensive venom. I went outside in my bare feet and dressing gown and gently swept the snow off the remaining trees with a broom, knowing it was too late to take back the thousands of tiny thoughtless comments I heap on my husband over the days, weeks and months until he feels he has to lash back at me about my lack of appreciation and my seeming obsession with perfecting details. I hoped I could at least save some of our branches.

The morning after our argument – we never usually go to sleep angry – my husband apologised graciously and we narrowly avoided having a fight about who was most sorry! I’d like to leave you with a great tip for apologising. We’ve taught the kids to do it, and although it’s really hard, it can cancel out huffs and resentments with the positive power of language and empathy. We call it the three part apology.

First, we say sorry for what it is we think we’ve done. Then we try to empathise with how the other person might be feeling; if we get these firsttwo  parts wrong, it’s still useful because the other person has the perfect chance to explain kindly and simply what was going on from their point of view! The third part is to ask if there’s anything we can do to fix things. So, an example might be: “I’m sorry I criticised you for buying things at the supermarket that I didn’t want. It must be really frustrating for you that I didn’t empathise with how tired you were and that I mentioned the things you got wrong without praising you for everything you got right. How can I fix it?

 And by the way, bare feet in the snow? PAINFUL!!!