You’ve waited months for a break. And you’ve been scrimping and saving for the special beach vacation splurge with your partner and kids. You find a cute little cottage right on the water. For the past few months your dreams have been filled with sunshine and warmth, the smell of sweet ocean breezes, images of the kids happily building sandcastles, all of you watching stunning sunsets together, and then going out for dinner and letting someone else cook for a change, and yes, a margarita or two. But it doesn’t always turn out that way.
One year our vacation started out fine. The weather was great, the kids, who were about three and six years old, were delighted to play in the water, catching tiny minnows in their colorful plastic buckets, and finding hermit crabs hidden in snail shells. It was the magical vacation that I dreamed of having. For about one day.
Then, suddenly, the weather turned and rain moved in. For days. Lightning, thunder, heavy rain and wind. The rustic cottage didn’t have TV or internet. And it began to smell like mildew. All our clothes were damp. My husband had a work crisis and had to drive back to the city. I was alone with two kids who were getting bored and starting to fight with each other. Constantly. I was running out of things to do.
One bleak morning I began to feel sorry for myself, and my negativity bias began to kick in. Somehow the weather seemed like a personal affront: ‘Why is it raining on my vacation?’ I wondered. ’But I really need a vacation,’ I started to whine to myself since there was no one to listen. I began to spiral down into what I call my “Eeyore state of mind.” I’d been reading a lot of Winnie the Pooh books to the kids those days. “Oh bother,” I thought, “it never works out anyway. Nothing ever goes the way you want it to. This vacation is going to be a wash. Nothing to do. I shoulda stayed home. All that wasted money…” (At this point I think I was channeling the more negative traits of my family of origin.)
My mood began to plummet, and I started to get more and more upset, dejected, and irritable.
But then someone called my name. I looked up. And there on the sand flats was a dad who had rented a neighboring cottage. He was a painter and was out in the wet shallow flats with his easel and paints, happily painting away. We had just met his family the previous day, and they also had young kids.
“Look!” he said, “look at this magnificent sky. It’s like Rembrandt or Vermeer. Seventeenth-century Dutch landscape painting. Isn’t it amazing!”
I realized that all I’d seen were the rain clouds and the dark sky. I only saw the problems. I’d been so focused on how I would entertain the kids, I hadn’t noticed how beautiful the sky was. I walked out to the flats in the drizzle, looked at the sky, and he was right. It was magnificent. It changed my day. His words have been an inspiration ever since. Although my friend wasn’t a therapist, it was one of the best “cognitive reframes” I’ve ever encountered. His enthusiasm made me realize there was another way to experience both the external and internal weather. And the constant storms in our lives.
We got all the kids together, pooled our games, resources, and food, and they played and painted together for the rest of the vacation, happy as clams (sorry, couldn’t resist that pun). The take-home for me was that dark clouds aren’t always bad news; sometimes they can be “Seventeenth century Landscape painting” with a silver lining. And we stayed good friends for years.
Source: Susan Pollak
The following is a practice you can try when you are feeling trapped by life (or the weather, or a moldy cottage, or parenting alone, or the kids constantly fighting, or a vacation that isn’t what you hoped for…). It is inspired by my friend who found beauty in the storm clouds. This can be done with kids on the beach, at a lake, in a park or playground, your garden, or on a street in your neighborhood. In this practice, look for something that makes you smile.
- Take an adventure walk with your children, or by yourself if you need some downtime.
- Start by seeing what you notice around you. The ground, the animals and insects, the grass or sidewalk.
- What do you hear? The singing of birds, the chirping of cicadas, the sounds of cars or buses?
- People talking on their phones? Be attentive to all sounds. Try not to privilege one over another.
- Notice the sky, the clouds.
- Breathe in the air; notice the temperature. Is it warm? Is it cool? Humid? Dry?
- See what it feels like on your skin.
- As you walk, keep your eyes open for a something that you find interesting and that makes you smile. It could be an acorn, a flower, a shell, a stone, a twig, or even a weed. It could be a baby bird or a butterfly. An ant, a slug, a beetle.
- For this practice, it is fine to have your phone. Feel free to take a picture. One of my students found beauty in a hydrant that had mottled shades of red and blue.
- See what speaks to you. Spend some time with your object; really look at it.
- You may want to spend 3-5 minutes really looking at one thing.
- Let this connection bring you back to earth.
- If you are doing this with your kids, help them find objects that they like—ants, earthworms and puddles are fine (see if they can look for 30-60 seconds—great for developing attention and concentration).
- If you can find something that you can take home—an acorn, a weed, a rock, or shell–take it with you and use it as an anchor when you need to remind yourself of some beauty or joy.
- Let this help you keep perspective.
I’ve tried many variations on this practice. When my daughter was young, she found beauty in weeds (which I was pulling out because they were “weeds”) and even had a favorite weed, which was beautiful, and which I had never really noticed. Now, whenever I see the weed I smile. Once, in a meditation class, we were given the assignment to go outside and look at something for 15 minutes, which at first seemed like an eternity. I looked at a petunia for that time, something I thought of as an ordinary, rather boring flower. But I was astonished at how complex and beautiful it was. I now see petunias in a different light.
Whatever we find can help us gather our attention, get perspective, and help shift our state of mind. Pia was having a hard day. A co-worker had been rude and dismissive, and she began to worry about her job security. At dinner she snapped at her daughter when she was setting the table because she wasn’t doing it fast enough. “Hang on, Mom,” the daughter said, trying to help, and ran out of the room. She returned with a moon snail shell that Pia had collected on their walk together. “Here’s your beautiful shell that we found at the beach. Maybe it will help.”
“It wasn’t that the shell itself that made a difference; it was more symbolic,” she said.” It helped me remember the closeness I felt when we had our walk together. And I was touched that my daughter noticed I was having a hard day and tried to help. That little bit of love and care was what turned things around for me. It made me realize that there wasn’t a rush about setting the table. Snails move so slowly! It put things back in perspective. I didn’t need to yell at her. I didn’t have to take out my work worries on her. And at least I don’t carry my home on my back,” she laughed.
It isn’t only family burdens and emotional baggage that we all carry. We can also carry reminders of our strengths, our parents’ wisdom, as well as our own inner tool box of mindfulness practices that help us keep perspective, be resilient, and stay grounded in the present moment.
This practice is adapted from my upcoming book, Self-Compassion for Parents: Nurture your Child by Caring for Yourself. Guilford Press, 2019