Five Ways to Step into Freedom

“So often times it happens that we live our lives in chains, and we never even know we have the key ” ~ Already Gone, The Eagles

My family of origin wasn’t the healthiest. My dad, an alcoholic, was married to my mom a beautiful, spoiled woman with narcissistic tendencies. Being raised by that pair was not the optimal foundation for a healthy life. For as long as I can remember, I felt shame about who I was. But buried inside all the emotional abuse I suffered was a gift. That gift was the belief that there was something wrong with me. That conviction is what lead me to seek help. Years of unraveling through self-examination and therapy gave me so much insight. They left me knowing who I was and what I wanted, but I was still afraid to live it. My parents where no longer the key holders of my prison of living small. I was.

Many of us let outside circumstances define us and have dumbed ourselves down in an effort to keep ourselves safe. If you’re ready for more than just surviving life, below are five tips to help you to begin to move forward and live free.

1) The first step to being fully alive is the recognition that you are the one holding yourself back. This is the cornerstone for all the other steps. When you get that at a deep level, you can decide your path to freedom. Whether it’s therapy, a twelve step group or the support of good friends, use the resources that are available.

2)  There is a lot of wisdom in the phrase, “acting as if.” Visualize what it would feel and look like to not hold yourself back. In the words of Dr. Wayne Dyer, “You’ll see it when you believe it.” Then visualize a self-aware confident you throughout the day and before you go to sleep at night.

3) Practice not playing small in one area of your life at a time. One place I really held myself back was in my writing. When I made a pact to speak my truth in my blog, I did that one post at a time. I was surprised and touched that so many readers related with the real me. That helped me to extend speaking my truth in other areas of my life. The thought of living your authentic self in every aspect of your life, all at once, can be overwhelming. Baby steps feel safe and build confidence.

4) Don’t use the words like he, she, it, or they coupled with the phrase, “…made me feel a certain way.” Switch it to, “I allowed them to make me feel that way.” For example change, “She makes me feel bad about myself” to “I allowed her to make me feel bad about myself.” That comes from a place of power not victimhood. After all, we do have choices. When you live as a victim, you’re helping yourself to stay stuck.

5) Get strength from a power greater than yourself. I seriously don’t believe I could have moved past my self-defeating behaviors without that kind of help. Call it grace, or call it God, there is a force for good that can be summoned. Ask.

“The power you give others belongs to you. Take it back and take yourself where you would go.” ~ Alan Cohen

Liberating yourself is empowering but also can bring up some fear. Don’t let it turn you around. It’s just the frightened child surfacing, trying to keep you safe. Taking directions from fear may have actually kept you from harm at one time, but it’s now outlived its usefulness. To break the pattern, observe your feelings but don’t give them any credence. Simply let them pass through you. You are a grown-up now and have the right to experience life to the fullest. By holding yourself back, you deprive the world of an irreplaceable gift….you.

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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

How Could I Write a Book About Myself and Not Know It?

Glory in the Morning Book coverNo matter where you go – there you are” ― Confucius

I shared my picture book, Glory in the Morning with the world today. That is code for saying it’s now available on Amazon. Getting this book into physical form and into the hands of children has been quite an experience. When I wrote and illustrated it, I had no idea it would be a way for me to speak my truth. After all, there was no deep thought required to get the words down on paper. It was just a fairytale that seemed to write itself. Today, I see it as a story that affirms my journey to wholeness. It reminds me of the powerful truths embodied in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. I’m curious if the author, Frank L. Baum, figured out that he had been writing about himself, too?

“Just be yourself, there is no one better.” ― Taylor Swift

Glory in the Morning is for anyone who’s ever felt invisible. Growing up under the sharp gaze of a critical mother, I learned it wasn’t safe to be myself. Spontaneity often got me into trouble, so I silenced my free spirit. I devalued my thoughts and feelings. Worst of all, I suppressed my intuition. I used my mind and not my heart to make decisions. Canceling out my “inner guidance” to plug into my mom’s rules, protected me from her wrath. Unfortunately, what kept me safe in childhood, left me the shell of the woman I was born to be.

Nasty old troll

 “With the help of God and true friends, I’ve come to realize, I still have two strong legs, and even wings to fly.” ― Greg Allman

After years of inner work and cultivating a connection to God, I became willing to share the “real me” with others. I knew I had to do that to continue to grow. Opening myself up to trusted friends, helped to heal my brokenness. I began to see myself the way they saw me, not as a mistake but a gift.

Glory in the Morning gives parents a vehicle to share the power of being believed in and the realization that eyes aren’t the only way we see with their children. Kids don’t need my backstory to understand  the underlying message of the book. They naturally intuit the deeper meaning just like we did with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz when we were young.

Jennifer reading to Kendall

It’s hard to know for sure why any of us are born. I’m certain creating Glory in the Morning is part of the reason I’m here. No, I don’t think my picture book will heal the world. But I do believe it’s a drop in a wave of self-acceptance and love that is washing over our planet. In its pages, lives a hero’s journey. A fairy named Glory will disappear unless she finds two people who believe in her before the sun shines high in the sky. Can she do it? Does she do it? Just that I’ve written these words confirms that Glory and I are here to stay. Us invisible? Not a chance.

Ivy meets Glory

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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

Coincidences: We Are Never Alone

I see the moon 300 (1)In 2012, while vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard, I was shopping for a beach read. A little volume, whose cover wore the night sky, caught my eye. Its title, When God Winks: How the Power of Coincidence Guides Your Life, intrigued me. Learning the author, SQuire Rushnell, lived on the island and had signed the book was all I needed. I purchased one. I began reading it that evening and finished it long before we trekked to the ocean the next morning. According to the author, a godwink is a message of reassurance that comes from above in the form of a coincidence. It’s a signpost in our life to let us know we’re going in the right direction. I yearned to feel God’s presence and in the pages of this book was a refreshing way to do just that.

“Your children first learn who God is by experiencing you.” – Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

It’s been said that we model our perception of the Divine by our relationship with our parents. That certainly was true in my case. To me a loving Creator was only wishful thinking. My family was riddled with alcoholism and the mechanism’s formed to cope with it. My father often told me he loved me but looked the other way when it came to my mother’s harsh treatment and verbal abuse. As for my mom, I can honestly say I never heard her utter the words “I love you” my whole childhood. I couldn’t help but grow up with the unconscious belief that although God may be there for others, he ignored me and my prayers. There seemed to be an impenetrable wall between us. Reading When God Winks gave me hope that there is a Higher Power who loves his children (me included) unconditionally. The notion that he puts serendipitous events on our paths to lift our spirits was a lovely concept to me. I liked this way of thinking and immediately began watching for winks. I had no trouble finding them again and again.

“Synchronicity is an ever present reality for those who have eyes to see.”- Carl Jung

I’ve come to the awareness that my life has been filled with godwinks all along. I missed them because I didn’t know they were there. When reviewing important events of the past, I can see them glimmering throughout. One such scenario took place in 1994. I had a strong inner nudge to draw a portrait of Chelsea Clinton and send it her mother, who was first lady at the time. Mrs. Clinton had been getting such bad press about health care reform, I felt compelled to encourage her. I knew she was partial to angels and wore an angel pin on her shoulder. I had the inspiration to paint her daughter as an angel and send it to her. I’m not in the habit of giving my art away, but it was something I felt a strong call to do. For a woman who had little faith in herself, it was a real leap.

Chelsea Clinton

Chelsea Clinton Portrait

I didn’t realize it then but I now see that godwinks were there to give me hope and point me in the right direction the whole way through.  After I decided to trust my intuition, I came across a wonderful quote to include on the illustration (wink #1). Next, I stumbled upon the perfect photograph of Chelsea’s face to base the portrait on (wink #2). My daughter was close to Chelsea’s age and I was able to photograph her body to work from to create the image (wink #3). I was going to ship the piece to Mrs. Clinton in care of the White House until I stumbled upon the more direct route of sending it to her address at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building (wink #4). When the drawing was completed, I wrapped it up and shipped it off to the First Lady. In less than a week, I received the most lovely thank-you note from her. In it she told me I had captured her daughter’s spirit (wink #5). What a confirmation that I should trust my own instincts! Reflecting back, it seems incredulous that I didn’t notice how miraculously everything had fallen into place. But you can’t perceive what you don’t believe exists.

Letter from Hillary Rodham Clinton

Letter from Hillary Rodham Clinton

Godwinks is now a household term in my family. Watching for them has made all of our faith bloom and grow. It’s almost a different form of gratitude. Of course, at times, I still slip back into my old thinking patterns. When I pray for assistance, I’m always given a nod from God that lets me know he hasn’t abandoned me. I’ve found the evidence of his love is everywhere if we only shift our focus and look.

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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

How can I be Plus Size and Invisible?

hello-gorgeous-1

I am a plus-sized woman. There is no hiding that. Although being large was the bane of my youth, at 58 I’ve come to terms with what is. I’ve spent a large portion of my life on a diet merry-go-round that only made me dizzy. It was a cycle of being horrified by what I saw in the mirror, restricting my eating and then slowly going back to my old ways and previous weight.

Sometimes I wonder, “What if there is no changing my body?” For years I’ve tried to shrink myself to a more acceptable size without any long term success. Could I be predisposed to be this way? That seems like a real possibility when I look at my family tree. I come from a long line of big women. I recently came across a photograph of my great-grandmother in the 1930’s. Her life was filled with hard physical labor and unprocessed food. She lived today’s formula for being slender. Yet despite all of that her body was fat, and I’m built just like her.

mollie-with-jane-bill-1

“And I know my creator didn’t make no mistakes on me. My feet, my thighs, my lips, my eyes, I’m loving what I see.” ~India Arie, Video

Perhaps being ample sized isn’t optimal, but I’ve come to the conclusion that just may be who I am. I’m in the process of doing an, “I love myself” experiment. Instead of looking in the mirror in disgust, I bless my body. I wear the beauty of my ancestors. I affirm that my physicality is the perfect vehicle to manifest my life’s purpose. Not only do I have the soul of an artist, I have the fine motor skills to transcribe my vision onto paper. My eyes and brain work together perfectly to mix the subtle colors I envision for my paintings. My body is healthy and energetic. I have good skin and pretty eyes. Most of all, I’m grateful that it had the miraculous ability to grow and give birth to my three children.

So far my self-love experiment has been very healing. I’ve found the voice in my head is much more cruel than the outside world – for the most part. The other day while having lunch with a friend, I felt a sting from her words that I’ve experienced from others before. Lizzie (not her real name) revealed to me that she was worried about her daughter. She was afraid that her little girl would grow up with Lizzie’s sister’s metabolism and not hers. Lizzie, an effortless size four was horrified at the thought of her daughter ever having bigger hips and a curvier derrière. I assured her she had nothing to worry about and our discussion moved on to other matters.

When I returned home, I couldn’t shake my feelings of low self-worth. When Lizzy confided in me, she totally disregarded that I embody the destiny she dreads for her daughter. Instead of speaking up on my own behalf, I  pushed down my outrage. No wonder I felt bad. I couldn’t understand Lizzie’s unawareness of how her concerns would affect me. She was so considerate in other areas of her life. How come she couldn’t see the body I live in is what she considers a fate worse than death? In my silence, I had sold myself out.

“I have no right, by anything I do or say, to demean a human being in his own eyes. What matters is not what I think of him; it is what he thinks of himself. To undermine a man’s self-respect is a sin.” ~Antoine de Saint-Exupery

I remember watching the The View when it first aired. Joy Behar ridiculed Ted Kennedy’s paunch by showing a picture of him boating shirtless. Plus-sized Star Jones sat next to Joy as she got her laughs at the then senator’s expense. I couldn’t believe it. How could Joy not comprehend that the cruel humor she poured over Ted Kennedy washed over Star too? I left a message about Ms. Behar’s insensitivity on the telephone hotline The View had set up at the time. To the show’s credit, I never heard any of their hosts engage in that kind of crassness again.

Looking back, I wish I had had the clarity to stand up to Lizzie’s remarks that diminished me. This kind of of prejudice is oh-so-subtle but still hurtful. It is part of the overall marginalization of women of size. If it happens again, I will shed some light on how her lack of consideration makes me feel. I am no longer bound to a body standard that is eerily close to a Barbie doll. I want to be seen and appreciated for who I am. Being plus-sized does not mean I’m invisible or, deaf either, for that matter.

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My daughter and plus-sized me.

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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

 

Grandchildren: A Shift in Focus

Joy on EarthMy first grandchild, Cameron John Shanahan, was born on April 8, 2014. I was looking forward to his arrival from the moment my son, Brian, and his wife, Pam, told me they were expecting. In fact, I jumped up and down and whooped like I had won the lottery. Now he is finally here, and I am a grandma. His birth has brought out unencumbered tenderness in me. Gone is the overwhelming sense of responsibility I felt with the birth of each of my children. It’s not my job to make sure he moves through the world safely. I can relax because Cam is in the most excellent of hands, knowing that leaves me free to just love him.

Brian, Pam and Cam on Easter Sunday 2014

Brian, Pam and Cam on Easter Sunday 2014

Nobody can do for little children what grandparents do. Grandparents sort of sprinkle stardust over the lives of little children. ~Alex Haley

I had two marvelous grandmothers. Grandma Fahrner and Grandma Ragen were a stable presence in my life. They were interested in me and loved me for who I was. They were like the fairy godmother in Sleeping Beauty who used her magic to tone down the curse a wicked fairy had put on the little princess. My grandmas didn’t have the power to break the spell of being raised by maladjusted parents, but they could soften the blow. And soften the blow they did. Without them, I don’t know how I would have survived my upbringing. With the dad and mom Cam is blessed with, he doesn’t need me to be his port in the storm. What I will give him is my time. I will answer his questions and look into his eyes when he talks to me. I will nurture his creativity and read to him. I will share with him what the world was like when I grew up and connect him to his ancestors. I will believe in his dreams. He will know I love him by the way my eyes light up when he enters the room.

My Grandma Fahrner, my brother Steve, me, and my Grandma Ragen on Mother's Day, 1958

My Grandma Fahrner, my brother Steve, me, and my Grandma Ragen on Mother’s Day, 1958

In Arianna Huffington’s wonderful book Thrive she writes of how Americans stress and obsess over the trivial things in their lives. She believes most people will only shift their focus to what is truly important when a crisis hits. A death or serious illness usually does it. I have decided I don’t need a catastrophe to let go of the inessential and pay attention to what really matters. I have a grandson.

My Grandson, Cameron John

My Grandson, Cameron John

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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

The Big Picture: Perspective is Everything

The Big Picture - Version 2“I’m like the painter with his nose to the canvas, fussing over details. Gazing from a distance, the reader sees the big picture.” – Author Steven Saylor

My sister Ann passed away, without warning, on the morning of October 9, 2008. An undiagnosed heart condition, hypertrophic obstructive cardiomyopathy, took her life. How could that be? She was only 51! She all but sparkled she was so alive. Her death didn’t seem possible. Being thoroughly devoted to each other, I had no idea how I was going to live without her.

For the first ten years of our marriages, I had the luxury of Ann only living a mile from me. We got to raise our children together and see each other whenever we liked. In 1998, her husband took a job three hours south of where we lived. I felt the sting of our separation even before she moved. When what I dreaded came to pass, I was shocked that our relationship only deepened. Even though we no longer got to be with each other in person, thanks to cell phones, we were connected more than ever.

Ann and I had gotten into the habit of speaking to each other every morning and at times throughout the day, being detached from her was unfathomable to me. What would I do without her to run every aspect of my life by? There was such a hole with her gone. The minute I learned she had departed, I heard a voice say, “It’s time to stretch.” My soul knew it was a chance for me to face the world standing on my own two feet. The comfort of leaning on Ann had run its course.

After the shock of her passing lifted, the grief settled in. I went from deep sadness to despair. Worse than my loss was witnessing what her husband and children were going through. Their broken-heartedness pulled me even further into misery.

As the months moved on, slowly, slowly, I began to heal. I still remember the first day that went by where I wasn’t consumed with sorrow. As I lay in bed that night, a little pang of guilt pulled me back. Did my happiness mean I was being disloyal?  And what about Ann’s children? I began to feel what I imagined their anguish to be. I was sinking.

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances.”- William Shakespeare

And then she came to me. Ann was in the form of an angel with wings. She reached down, lifted me by the hand and deposited me on a cloud next to her. If my body didn’t literally feel the whoosh of being pulled upward, I would have thought I was dreaming. As we sat, she put her arm around me and pointed down to Earth. She told me that whenever I felt myself slipping to look at the big picture. I knew exactly what she meant. I shouldn’t let myself become absorbed in the drama on our planet. In the big picture, nothing had changed. She had never left any of her loved ones’ sides. It was time for her to move on, but nothing could keep us from her love. She indicated to me that life would be so much easier if I wore my trials like a loose garment and didn’t allow myself to become engrossed in them. When looked at from a higher perspective, the sufferings we go through don’t seem so overwhelming. Ann’s insight was a gift from one who knew me so well. It proved to be the missing link in the healing of my many of struggles. That experience marked the beginning of my acceptance of what I had considered a loss. Sometimes I still ache for the physicality of Ann being with me, but I no longer resist these feelings. I simply let them move through me. They are part of being human. When I get to the other side of them, I realize nothing has changed…..not really.

Marianne and Kate

My cousin’s Marianne and Kate modeled to help bring my vision to life.

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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

 

 

 

 

Over the Rainbow: Your Life’s Purpose

An illustration I did for a notecard as a gift for Maria Shriver's 50th  birthday.

This illustration graced notecards I did as a gift for Maria Shriver’s 50th birthday.

“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” – Mark Twain

Everyone’s life has a calling. We all come here to fulfill a sacred duty. I am an artist. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been creating things. My aunt recalls me, at age three, playing with a handkerchief for hours. I would fold and form it into different props for my land of make-believe. Although I came here with special talents, I now know they’re not the reason for my existence. My artistic ability is woven through the fabric of my soul to support and help manifest why I was born.

What is a calling? It is different from your talents? Your gifts, personality, and brain power are all part of the intricacies of your soul, set in place to help support your life’s purpose. In the Bhagavad Gita this purpose is referred to as your dharma. It is our soul’s mission, the reason we were born. How do we find our vocation? One thing is certain, although clues may come from the outside, the concrete knowing always come from within.

For a good portion of my life, I assumed my mission was to be an artist. Didn’t the skills I brought to Earth clearly indicate that? But after reading Stephen Cope’s illuminating book, The Great Work of Your Life, I discovered that my gifts are only a finger pointing to my dharma.  He explains, “If you bring forth what is within you it will save you. If you do not it will destroy you.” Reading that set me on the path of digging deeper to uncover what I am here to fulfill. I knew I had a talent for capturing the spirit of children in my drawings and paintings.  I love the whole process. But upon further examination, I came to the conclusion that this just scratches the surface of my true lifework.

A portrait where I was able to capture my subject’s beauty and essence. Clare is a favorite  painting of mine.

A portrait where I was able to capture my subject’s beauty and essence. “Clare” is a favorite painting of mine.

In an email from singer/song writer Rodney Crowell, I found my answer, “I notice things in your work I love about Renoir’s. Seeing soft beauty in the commonplace. Heaven on Earth if you will.” That’s it! I see the allure in the ordinary and reflect it back to my subjects and the world. I do that in my writing, too. We are all here on earth with the longing to be validated. There is not a heart that doesn’t yearn to be seen and loved for itself. In a society saturated with celebrity glitz and glam, my creations celebrate the extraordinary in the ordinary.

Does everyone have a calling that includes an obvious talent? I don’t think so. My sister Ann owned a cleaning business. And no, she didn’t have a passion for cleaning. Over the years, she discovered what filled her cup was to be of service. Explaining the new found contentment in her job she told me, “I clean toilets for a living. I had to figure out a way to find meaning in that. I realized my cleaning and organizational skills were a gift to my clients. When I began focusing on helping others, everything flipped.” Ann had claimed and named her dharma. After her epiphany she couldn’t satisfy all the requests she garnered for her services.

Not in Kansas Anymore

We are all put on this planet with a mission to actualize. I suspect every heart is heavy that has a song in it that’s left unsung. With all of our culture’s frenzy it is easy to overlook our unique gifts and what they were given to help us manifest. Once we answer the call of our life’s purpose, there is no going back. We feel more alive. We go from the mundane to Technicolor. Like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, we realize that we no longer live in the grey of Kansas but have landed in a world of living color. And along with challenges, we discover a place of truth and beauty.

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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com