Mary Licanin

An open letter to myself

You are going to be okay.
No, actually, you are going to be absolutely fine.

You’ve been through so much in your life, you’ve learned so much from all of it, and you are an incredible person because of it.
You are kind and compassionate, empathetic and unconditionally loving. There are no stronger traits than these in human life. You are amazing. You are a minority in your field. You have survived personal abuse and neglect. You faced situations that seemed impossible to find your way through. You stumbled and you fell – many times.

Yet, you became something because one by one, you defeated the demons.

And then, when you weren’t satisfied, because you don’t settle, you went after more, and you became something more. You became someone admirable. Not many know your story, but you know where you’ve been and what you’ve overcome. You are strong. You are the bravest person I know. And you are my hero.

Now, the next challenge begins. I want you to take all of that compassion and loving kindness you’ve learned to give to the world, and start learning to give it to yourself. Hard.

If it feels selfish (which, remember, isn’t a bad thing), think about how much more you’ll be able to put back into the world once you accomplish that. It’s time.

The Lover

Imagine you are your lover – because you need to be your first and last love. You came here together and you will leave here together. The love and attention of others will always be changing, always impermanent. Sometimes there will be an over abundance of it, other times there will be none. Learn how to have to make room for it when it comes, and how to once again let your own self love and attention ease back to fill that space when it’s gone. Yours can be reliable if you ensure it. Only you can do that, and this is the only love and attention you can guarantee yourself forever. Without it all other love becomes less valuable, less important, less like something that can bring you joy and more like something that will bring you trepidation.

Inevitable Darkness

When you start feeling the darkness coming, be kind to yourself. Understand that everyone has a threshold for stress tolerance and you are not weak because of this. If the darkness turns into a void, find patience for yourself. You’ve been there before and you will, with time and patience, find your way out. If you can do nothing else, get up, dress up and show up. Push yourself to stay active and socially connected, even if that means going to a meetup or talking to a colleague about work. Hell, just go to Starbucks and order, and call it an accomplishment for the day. Do something to ensure you’re not isolating or withdrawing. We all need human connection. If you feel like you crave it more than most, maybe it’s because you look outside yourself to validate your worthiness, success, beauty, importance….

You will always have more worth to yourself than to anyone else.
Your success will impact your life more than anyone else’s.
You will be most beautiful if you can be beautiful to yourself, because you know your ugliest self best.
You are the best person to love, care for, and nourish your soul, because nobody will ever know you like you know yourself. External love is garnish.

Take damned good care of yourself. You have gotten this far, and you will continue to go even further. You, yourself and you.

The Toxicity of Cynicism

That said, I know that time and experience has started to make you cynical. Let this wash off of you. This is toxic to your joy. Some people will come and go quickly, maybe they see a shallow opportunity in knowing you, or they just move on for reasons you may never understand. Others will not have yet grown to understand how to love with the same vulnerability as you have. They are all traveling their own journeys and that has nothing to do with you. Others will love you to the best of their ability. Don’t compare it to the way you love, because it will never seem to be exactly the same. Learn to appreciate and accept love in whatever form it takes. As innumerable as grains of sand in the desert, so too are there as many different types of love. Every one is a precious gift – accept them all.

Every person that comes into your life offers a lesson you can take away, if you keep your mind and heart open to listening and learning. Cynicism closes that door, if you allow it.

Remember, too, that relationships will change over time, and everything is impermanent. This may mean that someone you love goes away, and it may mean someone draws nearer to you. Open your heart to both extremes, and to all shades in between.  Don’t be afraid of pain, welcome it. Sit down and have tea with your sadness when it visits, and lean into it. Remember the dread will pass, and remember that every interaction enriches your life experience and ability to offer compassion to the world. And if you remember nothing else, remember that your first love (you) will always be with you.
Out of the ashes rises the phoenix.


If you have trouble thinking about yourself as a lover, and I can understand why you might because it’s pretty fluffy and ethereal, think about it from the Buddhist perspective and almost the polar opposite, that there is no “me” or “I”. We are all one. Okay, this may be ethereal too, but you do understand it, reach a bit if you need to.

While there is much suffering in the world, and you give your compassion and positive energy to those enduring hardships, so too are there parts of this great collective sending out loving kindness to you. Open yourself to allow feeling it. Since you can’t always see it or directly witness it as an outpouring, this is a kind of faith in humanity. Even in the darkest times, you know in your heart there is kindness in the world. All you have to do is open your eyes to it to see it in all things.

And if all that fails you, find a dog.  No, seriously.

Be Mindful of Goals
(but not absorbed by them)

Ease up on hitting your goals. I know this sounds contradictory to what you think every self help book teaches, and to what you’ve always done. I’m not saying to travel through life aimlessly, but let go of being goal oriented. It’s going to sound cliche, but learn to truly see the value in the journey getting to your destination. You face challenges to meet your goals. You have countless opportunities to accomplish milestones along the way. While you’re preoccupied day after day lamenting in the fact you ‘still’ haven’t reached your goal, you’re missing out on the joy you could be finding in all the little milestones you’re hitting. You only get to do today once. Find the joy of accomplishment in every one. Some days that will only mean you got up. Other days those accomplishments will feel bigger, more tangible or seem more meaningful. None are better accomplishments than others by weight of what society values. You are your harshest judge, and you need to set your sights on those things that make you a better version of yourself, because in the end, that’s what really matters to you. Don’t ever change that, because that is what makes you so uniquely you, and so very precious to me.

I love you,

Act without expectation

Quietly helping others

It’s amazing, that ripple effect we have on others. This description was the closing remark in something that someone wrote and asked me to read over this weekend. It came across my desk in such a timely way, it’s hard not to feel like the universe was reaching out and thumping me on the head.

Three simple words that struck me as an incredibly profound sentiment; one that could only be used to describe the most humble of people, and the type of person I aspire to become. I think that helping people without the expectation of recognition or acknowledgement is the highest form of service we can offer each other.

Act without expectationI think we can all recognize quiet help when we see it. Quiet help is what we witness when we see a stranger helping another stranger, reach something on the high shelf at the supermarket. Quiet help is found in volunteerism. Quiet help can be found in financial donations, when there are few beans to ration, but they are rationed nonetheless. Quiet help is a kind word. Quiet help is where we find true happiness, it is the place we go to turn our positive energies outward. More than all of these, quiet help is giving of ourselves without expectation of something in return. I think this quote (Dao De Jing, Ch 77), speaks to this point (bold mine).

The Master can keep giving
because there is no end to her wealth.
She acts without expectation,
succeeds without taking credit,
and doesn’t think that she is better
than anyone else.
– Lao Tzu

The Dalai Lama is quoted for having said, “Being aware of a single shortcoming within yourself is far more useful than being aware of a thousand in someone else.” One of my shortcomings is not giving enough help to others. My excuse is I haven’t found as much opportunity to help others as much as I would like. Rather, I should say, not enough opportunity to extend my help has fallen conveniently into my lap, and so they’ve gone unfound. Part of my spiritual journey is to be mindful about this shortcoming, and to more actively seek out opportunities to give help, in the face of feeling unsure of myself, feeling awkward, fearing rejection, and recognizing that all the things that hold me back are the result of my own ego.

I am grateful, though, that this weekend one of those opportunities fell into my lap, and I lept at the chance to offer my help. As much as my ego wants to write all about how amazing I am, I will just say by getting involved in something and offering my help, I was inundated with a tremendous amount of energy, excitement and enthusiasm. This Sunday night, I am left feeling an overwhelming sense of contentment for having been able to quietly give of myself.

Mother's heart | Mary Licanin Photography

My Mother, My Hero

Mother's love | Mary Licanin PhotographyI thought I could write about some of my lifelong heroes. Immediately, I mentally ran through a list of some of the greatest women to have ever lived. Where to begin? I decided I couldn’t possibly start that series without mentioning my first, and greatest hero — my mother. It may sound contrived, cliché or obvious, but my mother was no ordinary woman, and no ordinary hero. The unsung kind if there ever was one.

While many have undoubtedly shared kind sentiments and kind words about her, I also heard the quiet exchange of whispers and unspoken words that isolated her for one of her greatest struggles, which was her battle with schizophrenia. Harder than the fact that I heard those things and knew those things, she heard and knew, too. My mother was sharp as a tack and quick as a whip, up  until the last few years when age started catching up. I wasn’t around to witness first hand much of my mother’s dark days, but I heard stories from other family members, and from my mother herself. I remember mom telling me one of her darker times was having had delusions of grandeur, and in one of her breakdowns, thought herself a saint.

Mom confided in me that she was not religious for many years (which was really strange for me to imagine), and that she went back to the church when my father got very sick, I think somewhere after my 3rd brother was born. My mother went from playing with dolls at 16 to having a real baby at 18 and I suspect she was so unprepared for the slap in the face life would deliver to her over and over again that she reached her limit. “We all have our limits,” she’d nag, when she worried I was doing too much. She reached hers and broke, maybe somewhere in between re-embracing her faith, and in that place where sickness takes hold there is an inability to distinguish reality from delusion. In that time, my mother’s sickness got entangled with her religious devotion, and they walked hand-in-hand inside her for a time, each crossing over into the others’ lane at will. My mother was the stage where that entanglement played out for the world to see.

In time, I suppose because of improvements in medicine, she was able to regain control and keep her literal demons at bay. My mother had her final breakdown when I was an infant. In all my life, for as long as I could be aware of her state of mind, I never knew her to be unmedicated or out of control. I was fortunate that she revealed herself to me with a clear mind, and in retrospect. Others in my family were not so fortunate, and witnessed it happen firsthand. Having experienced this illness with my sister, I know how difficult it can be and must have been for my older siblings.

Unfortunately, what is seen can never be unseen. A lot of people saw my mother during her darkest times. She was fully aware after that, that some people looked at her differently. Naturally, when she tried to confront them about it, her accusation was chalked up to ‘the paranoia’.  What a frustrating cycle for her. I watched it happen. It came from family, it came from friends of the family, it came from people we knew at church, it came from doctors. My mom had few true allies, but I was fortunate to be one of them.

“Don’t tell anyone you’ve been on antidepressants,” she told me when I was in my early 20s, “because they’ll brand you forever and they won’t take you seriously.” For a long time, I followed her advice, because I saw how some people treated her. She couldn’t escape the stigma she inherited for having been sick. She was a prisoner – and yet she did not give in and cower in a corner or remain silent.

My mother never missed an opportunity to answer questions and challenges about her religious beliefs, Catholicism, Jesus, the ways of the church. She would say to me, “He who sings prays twice.” (St. Augustine) and as horrible as her singing voice was, (much to my dismay as an awkward teen) she’d sing as loud as she felt in her heart to sing when we went to mass together. She’d pray aloud, she’d go to mass, she walked the walk in the face of judgement, snide remarks and distasteful jokes about her.

She told me often that I should have been a lawyer, because of my ability to debate her on the church and, well, just about anything. She must have recognized that I got that from her. She wouldn’t ever back down from the opportunity to defend her beliefs, and at the same time, she knew when her opinion wasn’t being asked for and wouldn’t push religion on people.

She told me once I’d burn in hell for something but she still loved me anyway. I laugh when I remember this now, because it was so purely a ‘my mother’ thing to say.
I realize she said that because she truly believed I’d burn in hell for whatever it was, and she wanted to make sure I was aware of the fact. I also realize she  really did still love me anyway. Mom could be sharp, blunt and even hurtful at times, but I never had to wonder where I stood with her. 

I was fortunate in being the last, late child because I got so much one-on-one time with my parents that my siblings didn’t get because they were all growing up at the same time and the house was very crowded. I would often sit at the kitchen table with both parents, or just my mom, and I’d ask questions…and I’d get answers. I asked a lot of questions about when she was sick. I was always aware that her illness had a profound affect on my family, so I guess that made me curious about it and want to understand how it changed the dynamics of my family. One night it was just me and mom sitting at the table, talking as we did so many other nights. But this conversation I’ll never forget. She leaned in to confide in me that during one of her hospitalizations, they gave her a frontal lobotomy! She waited and watched my face change as the horror of it started sinking in and then let out a great big hearty laugh. The dark humor I carry around is, no doubt, thanks to her. She could laugh at herself and her imperfections, and that too, no doubt, I carry thanks to her.

My mother was my first hero. She was strong. She was a survivor. She was passionate about her devotion to God. She was pretty open minded (especially for a woman born in the 1920s), and funny as hell. If I grow up to be half the woman she was, I will consider my life a success.

As a side note, and a bit of background about the photo I chose for this post. I was born late in my parents’ lives, and there was always this concern about how long they’d be around. My mother and I talked very practically about death. She told me that at the time of her mother’s death, she could smell a very strong scent of roses, and she took that as a sign her mother was okay. I asked her to send me a sign, when she died, to let me know she was okay. We agreed she’d send me a rose if she could. Over the years, I reminded her when the topic came up. When she died, I lived in an old house in rural Southern Illinois. My backyard had a big, beautiful, old and gnarled sassafras tree. It was my absolute favorite tree. Under that tree, just around mother’s day the year after she died, I received my sign. (I don’t know what flower it is, exactly, but to me it looked close enough to a bazillion roses, and I took that as my sign.)