self-ease

Summer 1980, age 21 — I was certain, then, that no one could be more monstrous than I was. I look at myself then, so fresh and young and pretty, and can’t imagine how I saw what I saw. I still can remember what I saw, and it makes me shudder.

The really terrible thing about being seen and described as a monster by your mother is the way that gets internalized, right from the start, before you even have words of your own. It’s like a slug of radiation, slow-leak-poisoning you for decades. She did her thing, and I finished the job for her long after I left her and never saw her again. I believed I was the monster she saw. I believed I was a fat cow, as she called me. Her words transformed into the very lenses in my eyes. The clinical term for it is body dysmorphia, but that seems so bloodless. It’s confusing to other people who look at you and see a perfectly ordinary human being. Maybe they see beauty, maybe they see plainness, but they just can’t see what you see yourself. They have normal lenses. 

The changes that come with aging are twofold. First, if you’re lucky I suppose, you simply become more comfortable in your own skin, which at that point is softer and sagging. And second, also if you’re lucky, you dig out those old lenses, delete and replace those old stories, and find a new voice in your head that wishes you well.

Here I am with Nancy, my boon companion. Isn’t she lovely?

Selfies are fascinating to me. Young people seem to take them to practice different ways of self-presentation, to be flirty, to show their youth. Selfies can show you in a special place — here I am, on Machu Picchu! At the Parthenon! In a little boat in the middle of the Mekong River Delta! Here I am with my daughter, my granddaughter, one of my grandsons, my friend.

And sometimes I think people take them for the same reason I do, which is to try to see themselves clearly. To snap a picture and then gaze at it, ah, that’s me. That is my nose, that is my smile. Taking selfies has helped me learn how to see myself. I look closely at all of them, the awkward ones, the ugly ones, the mid-grimace ones, the lovely ones, looking for myself. It’s a digital effort to build my own database of myself. I have a folder on my laptop full of them, and I keep trying to remember to delete them all in case I die unexpectedly and my kids find them and think I was surely narcissistically self-centered. For some reason it’s easier to see a photograph than to see in the mirror, where I move and live and my face morphs. I too easily get distracted by my thoughts in a way that I don’t, with a picture.

When I started sharing them a couple of years ago, people’s comments and responses were extremely difficult to take. They made me uncomfortable, and I wondered if people thought I was fishing for compliments. If they had been inside my head they would have known the truth of my humiliation, and the courage it took to share them. I’d thank them, and for a very long time I thought they were just lying out of kindness. And then, about a year later, I started to think it wasn’t that they were lying, but that their vision of me had everything to do with them and their generous hearts, and little to do with me. So I thanked them for seeing me with such grace and love. 

January 1, 2017, in my 58 years of glory

When I share one now, and someone leaves a generous compliment, my gratitude is very different. I see a bit of what they see. And best of all, I can’t see what my mother saw, no matter how hard I try. I see an aging woman with a kind face (usually), with a nice smile and a generally attractive appearance. I usually like my hair (especially that glorious white streak that frames my face, how I love that!). I’ve come to like my nose well enough. I see echoes of my father and his mother, both of whom I was always told I resembled. Actually, I was told I looked JUST like them, and in fact I have their hands exactly, although my hands have never been violent.

OK. That’s me. I see.

I guess this post is just an alternative way for you to think about seeing people’s selfies — and especially if it’s a somewhat older woman sharing them. Maybe it’s not at all about showing off, or hoping for compliments, or about narcissism. Maybe she is just trying to see. Be kind. Help her.

destabilization

It was not the first time he raped me, but it was the first time my mind severely broke. In the middle of it, while I was crying, my stepfather said, “I don’t know why you’re crying, I’m not doing anything to you.” My mind felt like it was bulging so hard it was going to shatter my skull, and at some point I completely dissociated and went away. The conflict between what I knew was happening, and what I was being told was happening, was too great. Before I left, I remember thinking that I had to pick one or the other, what he was saying or what I believed, and so I consciously picked believing him because the constancy of his and my mother’s versions of reality was so overwhelming, and they had all the power because I was a child. Obviously this wasn’t the first gaslighting experience in my childhood home; this technique was constant, daily, and applied to lies big and small. But this time, the conflict was so great, my body was screaming at me in pain, and my mind could not endure it any more.

The gaslighting that’s happening in my country is definitely hitting me hard, and it’s obviously affecting me because of my history. Except to watch Saturday Night Live, I have not turned on the television since the election. During the campaign, I rushed to mute it or turn it off anytime a Republican was on the screen, but since the election the risk is constant that he or his liars will appear — since they are causing chaos every single day — and so I’ve just kept the television off completely. I keep my computer speakers muted because some websites autoplay ads or videos and I once had to hear his voice before I could get to the mute button. If I have to read their lies, my stomach gets wet and wobbly, and I feel a kind of panic that is hard to convey in a way you can really understand. My eyes fill with tears, my breath becomes shallow, I instantly sweat, I feel frantic and start pacing like I have to run to save my life, it’s that intense. It’s hard. I keep thinking I will eventually get used to it, maybe this will be good, by throwing me completely and headlong into a non-stop gaslighting government, I will become inoculated and immune. Maybe that would be good. Hasn’t happened yet.

These flopped. Tough, hard, unpleasant.

But what has happened is that since the election, my cooking has failed every time. My knitting has failed every time. I have been making cinnamon rolls since 1979, and until now, I only had one batch that wasn’t scrumptious, back in ~1988. Even then, they weren’t a failure as much as they just weren’t as soft and puffy as usual. Since the election, I have tried to make them five different times, and they were all complete failures. The Moroccan chickpea soup that I can make blindfolded, with one hand tied behind my back, failure. The shakshuka? Either the eggs are cooked too much, or they’re slimy and the whites are raw. Chocolate chip cookies, the most reliable thing ever, nope. Lemon cakes, nope. Flops.

These at least worked, although I’m not very proud of any of them (but I am proud of my friends).

Except for the pussy hats, curiously enough, all my knitting has failed too. I’ve tried to make hats for grandkids — failures, either giant or tiny. The Kai-Mei socks, that pattern I’ve made easily in the past, gloriously beautiful socks, failures. I have to completely frog the one I made in New York and start again. I’ve been making patterns I’ve made before, simple things, and each one has failed. Scarves, shawls, hats, socks, failures one after another. I try to be mindful, to pay attention, to be present; I put on music that I love and enjoy, I remember to breathe, lower my shoulders, find the pleasure of making, which is my oldest pleasure after reading. And yet it all fails.

My self-care has been hard to maintain, too, but like with my cooking and knitting I do keep trying. I have a sense that all those things are important to helping me keep going. My already failing memory is worse than ever before, and I’m sure that’s related too, connected to the mental overwhelm of trying to battle for the truth of things.

I’ve had a LOT of therapy, and especially I’ve worked on learning how to trust my own perceptions. According to this site (and validated by my own experience, “People who are victims of gaslighting may behave in ways that cause them to appear unstable because they have learned that they cannot trust their perceptions and cannot count on the validation of their thoughts or feelings. They are also less likely to continue to voice their emotions and feelings, knowing that they are likely to be invalidated.” YEP. My sole strategy at this point is to avoid, leave, run away, turn off, disappear however I can, but I wanted to see if there were known strategies for dealing with gaslighting, and I found this kind of horrifying article — horrifying because it’s like they looked at the current slate of Republicans in charge and just took notes. For each strategy used by these people, the article lists some counter-strategies you should employ. I’m in no way strong enough even to stand and listen, so they won’t work for me but I’m glad to share them in case you are stronger than me in this regard.

I just want to be able to cook and knit again. I just want to comfort myself with those things, and show my love through them. It has taken me a while to notice that this is a long pattern, now; at first it was just weird. Huh. Why did my lemon cakes flop? Or That’s weird, I know how to knit a fucking hat. I finally realized that this has been going on since November. I want my cooking and knitting back. Any ideas?

perfect knowledge

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about perfect knowledge, after realizing that again and again I was wishing for it — I just want to know exactly why people came to vote for the completely monstrous Trump, for example, how did that happen? I don’t mean the equally monstrous alt-right people in this country, I mean all the rest. How did that happen? I want to understand it completely. That’s maybe not even the best example of the spate of wishes I’ve had lately, but it’s the only one I can think of because I am so absolutely terrified of him right now my fear is consuming me.

f1And then, without quite [at least perfectly] realizing that the book focused in part on this theme, I started reading Frankenstein for the first time. I actually started reading it because the Lars Book Club was reading it (especially fun to follow via her Instagram account, because she finds the most extraordinary images to accompany each book). This is one of those books I always meant to read but for one reason or another I thought it wasn’t right for me, like my idiocy in thinking I wasn’t smart enough to read Moby Dick….and we see how that turned out! I’m not sure what deep prejudice kept me from reading Frankenstein, because I did always want to. And it’s extraordinary, and what surprises me most is how much I detest Victor Frankenstein. Detest him, completely. He sought perfect knowledge in terms of creating life, and then when he did, and looked at his creation, he flung him away and threw his hatred on him, again and again and again. And everyone suffered for it.

f2Of course this is the same moral as Adam and Eve in the garden; everything but perfect knowledge, y’all — can’t have that, the consequences will be fatal. “How dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow” (Mary Shelley, Frankenstein). (Without meaning to circle back to Trump, though, that quote reminds me of the recent report showing that one big predictor of voting for him is if you still live in the same hometown you grew up in. Hmmm. The danger of not seeking knowledge, right there.) Setting aside the fact that perfect knowledge simply isn’t attainable, no matter how much we may yearn for it, why is it always cast in such terrible terms, I wonder? Is it just our Bible-focused western culture that raises that spectre, that threatens us? Is it that this framework only allows God to have perfect knowledge, so anyone who attempts or reaches for it is threatening God, or seeking to be like God? Is that it? As a method, science understands perfect knowledge as an accretion, each scientist adding his tiny thread onto the pile, a final Truth very rarely acquired and held in place with the eternal possibility of a conflicting finding toppling it to the ground.

In my recent obsession about this idea, I’ve also been thinking about my desire to be known . . . fully and accurately. I got on a jag of watching every version of Annie Lennox singing “Why” that I could possibly find. The line from that song that always crushes me — crushed me when I was getting divorced and feeling completely unknown by my husband, and crushes me still to this day is

And this is how I feel
Do you know how I feel?
‘Cause I don’t think you know how I feel
I don’t think you know what I feel
I don’t think you know what I feel
You don’t know what I feel

Of the many versions, I think this my favorite because of the way she performs the last stanza, with the dramatic STOP.

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That kills me. I’m no slouch at telling people how I feel, and I’m pretty sophisticated at understanding and describing my emotions. No alexithymia here, folks. But there is a huge gap between what is said and what is heard, and everything falls into that gap. The listener doesn’t hear perfectly, and even in the telling, the teller gets it wrong. I even get it wrong, in part because the current moment is attached to so many different things that plucking it out of that constellation to tell it gets it wrong. But how I long to be perfectly understood — for my mistakes, my longings, my fears, what’s underneath, what I’m trying to do. And how I would love to perfectly understand those in my life! I long to do that.

The world is stewing in hate, and the temperature is coming to a boil. Why? Why? I want to know, I want to understand, and it’s a HUGE picture to take in, so many variables feeding in, but perhaps it’s just one or two, and the story is too complex to see since I only have my tiny spot to stand on. And what would I do with that perfect knowledge, anyway? Maybe it would be a torment, because I could not change anything. Maybe I would see that it’s really simple, but it looks a terrifying mess and unless everyone else knew, too, it would simply come to its rolling boil and I would understand why but be helpless. I’m helpless now, anyway, and it feels terrible. Would it feel more terrible if I understood, perfectly?

I’m getting nowhere except lost-er. Scared-er. Despairing-er.

on the misnomer of “mentally ill”

meBefore I say anything else, I’ll claim it: I deal with mental illness. I’m not embarrassed by that, or ashamed of it, and I don’t think it means I’m weak, or broken, or less-than anyone in the world. This simply is, in the same way that I am tall, I have blue eyes, and my smile is gummy. All that simply is. (That doesn’t mean I’ve always been accepting of and happy about those things, except the blue eyes, but they’re all true whether I am happy and accepting of them or not. They simply are true of me.)

But I do very much take issue with two things: the idea that this relates to weakness or brokenness, and the terminology. I assume this was first termed “mental” illness to contrast it with “physical” illness — as if those are discrete, non-overlapping islands of experience — but my own experience, and the experiences of others I know, relate more to a framing as an emotional or psychological illness. I’m not sure what bugs me so much about framing all these struggles as mental illness, exactly, but I do think it’s the apparent separation from physical, which is mystifying, and also that it just drifts too far away from the experience, which then means people are on the wrong track when they try to understand others.

If I told you I suffer with an emotional illness, what would you ask me? Are you sad? Are you anxious? Are you scared? Do you feel despair? Do you feel like it’s too hard? Those questions get right at the nub of it, don’t they? Yes, when my depression is with me again, I am sad, and scared, and I feel despair, and like it’s too hard. When I answer those questions you understand something about me. I could also tell you that my brain chemicals are wacky, but what do you do with that, exactly? That’s a potential treatment approach that a doctor might help me with, but it doesn’t tell anyone anything.

And then there are other kinds of emotional/psychological illness, some of which I also deal with but have learned to keep closer to my chest because they are too frequently misunderstood. I’m not being cagey about them, and again I don’t think they mean I am broken or weak or less-than anyone, but they require more careful language and much more careful listening (and frankly, it’s the more-careful listening that’s the biggest problem). I’m talking here about different kinds of psychosis, for example, some of which are transient, some of which are nevertheless understood by the person in the midst of the experience, and some of which are devastating and debilitating, like the real tragedy of schizophrenia. People are starting to talk more openly about psychosis, and if you don’t know her already, Elyn Saks is an extraordinary woman with schizophrenia that roared forward while she was a student at Yale. Her memoir, The Center Cannot Hold, is exceptionally good at letting you see that illness from the inside, and her TED talk will leave you amazed. I saw her speak in NYC and with the rest of the audience, listened with my mouth open, in amazement.

But even more than my wish that these experiences were called “emotional illness” instead of “mental illnesses,” I wish they were conceptualized differently. They do not mean that we are broken. They do not mean that we are weak. They certainly don’t mean we are less than anyone else who does not have these experiences. Having these experiences simply means that we have these struggles, these painful experiences, these difficulties to deal with. Maybe they become so debilitating that it’s hard to keep a job, but much more often they simply mean that we suffer, and we too often feel all alone with that suffering. I hate that. I won’t draw the kinds of parallels that people usually draw with a physical illness (most often to diabetes or cancer, both of which people are also blamed for, at times….), but I will say that the suffering is real. If you know that someone you love is suffering and you dismiss it, well, you might want to examine that a little bit.

I do suffer. Partly I suffer even without emotional illness because I feel everything so intensely, and because I truly think that to live my life the best way I possibly can, that’s what I’m here to do. I’m not here just to deeply experience the “happy” bits, and to shunt off all the rest as quickly as I can. I’m definitely not here to take the position that well, that doesn’t serve me so I won’t feel it. I think it all serves us, and deepens us, and allows us to grow and learn more about who we are. And so I suffer when my experience is painful. AND I suffer quite terribly from periodic and chronic depression, and sometimes from suicidality. AND I suffer from PTSD, which also includes some strange experiences I’ll write about one of these days. And you know what? Not only do I reject anyone’s notion that therefore I’m weak, I instead say (with a bit of a fuck-you attitude) that actually, I’m stronger than most people I know. I’m strong enough to go there. I’m strong enough to come back. I’m strong enough to stand there and look at it in the face. I’m strong enough to go from here to there:

Yep. Strong enough to go from there to there and back again, strong enough to endure and get richer, and sometimes just strong enough to survive it. Strong enough not to be broken by the pain and sorrow and struggle. It’s the opposite of weak to sit inside that suffering, man, and anyone who has ever been there will give a very loud AMEN to that.

Can I get an amen on that up in here?
Can I get an AMEN on that up in here?

I’m satisficed

satisficerThat’s not a typo in the post title — it refers to my stance as a satisficer. According to psych research, one is a satisficer or a maximizer. When you’re trying to make a decision, what is important to you? Being sure you get the VERY BEST option, or being happy enough with what you pick?

Here’s a real-life example of this. My husband and I eat dinner at a neighborhood diner in NYC on the nights he finishes working around 10PM. If you’ve ever been to a NY diner, you know that their menus can be huge. Here’s how we approach deciding what to eat:

ME: I start with the section I’m most likely interested in — let’s say salads. I read the first option on the list, then the second. Which of the two do I want? Then I take that option and compare it to the next one on the list, which of those do I want? With a series of pairwise comparisons, I end up with the one I’m most interested in from that section. (And actually, if I pick the same one two or three times in a row, I figure that one must be the one I’m wanting so I don’t even read the whole list.) I’m satisfied! It’ll be good, I’m done. And if I don’t know what I want, I do this same exercise with the sections first. Sandwiches vs salads — ok, a salad. Salads vs the daily special — ok, still a salad. Salads vs burgers — ok, still a salad. Then the pairwise comparisons within that section, and I’m done. I’ll be happy with my salad, because it’s just dinnerIt’s just a salad. It doesn’t have to be the most amazing meal I’ve ever experienced. Hell, it doesn’t even have to be the most amazing salad I’ve ever had!

MY HUSBANDHe begins at the top of the menu and reads every single item on the menu, beginning to end. He pauses, mulls each option (I wonder if the onions are grilled….do you think the tomatoes are good yet? Bad tomatoes would ruin the burger), goes back to an earlier option, keeps reading, keeps interrogating me and the waiter, and this is a slow process because he’s also extremely dyslexic, and when he gets to the end of the menu, several big laminated pages later, he needs to re-read the beginning page since he doesn’t really remember what those options were. Finally he’ll pick something, and as soon as he places his order he realizes that he really should’ve ordered the other thing, what he ordered won’t be as good as that would’ve been.

What matters to him is that he get the very best meal he can possibly have at the diner. I always feel sad for him, because he rarely enjoys his as much as I enjoy mine. And how could he? It carries a heavy burden! It has to be the best! Mine just has to be good enough to be an enjoyable meal. There’s a lot of evidence that satisficers tend to be happier than maximizers, and of course the distinction brings a lot of stuff with it, like temperament and personality (maximizers are more likely to be neurotic, for instance, and which came first, being neurotic? Maybe!). If you’re curious about yourself, here’s a little quiz:

satisficer

My score is 75 (the possible range is 13 to 91), so I’m not completely without standards. 🙂 Like everyone else, I care about the things I care about! It’s just a question of how big an umbrella that is, right? Do I care about my meals? Yeah, sure, I like tasty, healthy food. Do I care about what I’m wearing? Sure, I guess I care enough. Do I care about my family and friends? OH HELL YES. Do I care about my ethical concerns? ALL THE WAY. Do I care about my car? Sure, to the extent that it’s safe and cost-effective. Do I care about how well my home is decorated? Enough. I still haven’t done anything at all with the dining room, and I’ve lived here almost four years.

Like temperament, I think this is kind of a “just who you are” deal. If you tried to force me to be a maximizer at that diner, I just don’t think I could do it. I might fake it if you held a gun to my head, but I’d be faking it because really, it just needs to be a good enough salad. I’d pretend to read all the choices, but I’d be thinking about something else. If you forced my husband to be a satisficer, he’d get kind of paralyzed and pick something because of that gun to his head, but he’d hate what he ordered and would be torn up the rest of the night thinking about the perfect meal he didn’t get.

And thus ends today’s psychology lesson, offered after a lengthy telephone conversation with my maximizer husband going over possible hotel options in Laos, with me saying, “Sure honey, I like that one! Well yeah, that one sounds great! I don’t know, I like that one too!” I probably drive him crazy. 🙂

aphantasia

mindeyeMAN! This is the coolest thing, the most interesting revelation about my experience I think I’ve ever had. I do not have mental images — just nothing! I can’t close my eyes and see your face, even if I have known your face from the moment of your birth. I can’t close my eyes and count the number of windows on the building across the street, the one I’ve looked at for ten years. I can’t close my eyes and imagine how this thing would look if placed over there. It’s just always been that way, my whole life, and I haven’t ever really cared about it or missed it being otherwise, because it’s just always been.

I’ve heard people talk about being able to do this, to have mental images, and it never made any sense to me. It wasn’t that I thought they were lying, it’s just that I thought they had some way of imagining that they were imagining something. Isn’t that funny — I thought everyone was like me, but they’d learned some kind of trick to pretend to do this thing, this seeing images in their minds’ eyes. Although once in a while when I’d mention it to someone, as I did once with Marc, the response is confused. Lots of questions — but can you… but don’t you… but what happens if you…. The best explanation I could give was that I ‘see’ words, but that’s not right, I do not ‘see’ the letters because I do not ‘see’ anything.

When I try to see an image in my mind, it’s just a dark, blank screen. I can hold concepts and ideas, but they’re present in word form, in story form. If I try to ‘see’ Marnie’s face, it’s word descriptions in my mind — she has that pretty mouth, and big brown eyes, and very nice teeth, and strong eyebrows. But I’m not ‘seeing’ her face as I think that description. At all. Unlike my husband, I’m not faceblind; when I’m actually looking at things I’m brilliant! My memory is fine, my recognition skills are ace, my corrected vision is just fine. I just do not have a mind’s eye — even a nearsighted one.

I never really thought it was a “thing.” I thought it just was. So I wouldn’t expect to learn a surprise about having hair any more than I’d thought to learn a surprise about this mind’s eye business. Same normal.

Then I read this article in The New York Times, and it turns out it IS a thing! It’s called aphantasiaAs it was first being uncovered, it was studied in people who had once been able to see mental images, but due to illness or an accident lost that ability. That’s great, because it lets researchers understand the functional part of the brain that contributes to this ability. But then they started figuring out that there are people like me — and lots of us, apparently! The researcher who is focusing on this has invited people like me to write him, so I did. We’ll see. I’m just so curious! I’m extremely verbal; on that subtest of the GRE I scored at the 99th percentile. I wonder if that’s common for people like me.

But the really cool thing about it is that I have a different understanding of so many things that have stumped me.

  • Drawing! I can draw what I’m looking at with a reasonable sense of recognizability (thank you Marnie), but how in the world do people draw something they aren’t looking at?? That has felt as mysterious to me as the ability to, oh, I don’t know, sing a piece of cake into existence. What?? I’d watch Marnie sit and draw, I’d watch figures and landscapes come into existence from lines that made no sense, until all at once they did, and I would just have NO clue how she did that. It really was like magic. I think this is why! I have no images in my mind at all.
  • Various aspects of design — like quilting, for instance. I can replicate someone else’s quilt top beautifully. I am a master technician. But to just imagine a design? To just imagine shapes and color combinations? This is so literal, I can’t even just hold bolts of cloth next to each other and imagine how it’ll work in the quilt, I have to see the pieces cut out and in place before I can know anything at all about it.
  • Directions. I’m remarkably good at following a map, but if you just tell me directions, and it’s more than a turn or two, forget it. I am not constructing the route visually in my mind because I can’t. I’m better if you tell me landmarks — turn right at the Exxon station, it’s across the street from the car wash — but in that case I’m remembering those words.

This has really been the coolest revelation. Ah! Now I get it! It wasn’t that I ever beat myself up about these various inabilities, it’s more that they were mysterious to me. I’m going to be 58 in November, I seriously doubt that at this age I’ll somehow find a way to have mental images (and believe me, over the years I’ve tried), so it’s just about answering a riddle. I love little more than getting riddles answered. Now if I could just solve the riddle of the giant red itchy spots I get in exactly the same locations whenever we travel in SEAsia, I can rest easy.

so amazed I want to fly

flowering teaA couple of days ago I wrote about this stunning insight I had that probably sounds dumb to anyone else, the way insights are. Yeah, I knew that all along about you, obvious. And? But an insight changes everything, so it’s not just the mustard seed of the thing itself, it’s the way the world changes as a result. That insight just keeps unfolding, like flowering tea. It does feel like a flower is blooming inside me and it just keeps blooming.

Over the years I’ve come to believe that we are born with a temperament, we’re born who we are. I used to think differently, that we’re born kind of a blob and we become who we are, but that’s just not right. And fundamentally, we are who we are throughout our lives. I look at sweet little Oliver, such a happy, even-keeled boy, curious and self-contained, busy and a little cautious and laughing so easily. He was born that way, it’s who he is. I imagine it’ll ebb and flow as life happens to him but it’s fundamentally who he is, and he’ll return to that even if he wobbles. This is supported by a body of research; people who are in devastating accidents and become paralyzed and people who win the lottery have an immediate response, becoming devastated or overjoyed, but with time they return to whatever level of happiness they had before. So temperamentally happy people will adjust to paralysis and find their way back to themselves, to their ordinary happiness. A curmudgeon will adjust to having money and after the initial thrill, will return to being a curmudgeon. We are who we are, and we are born with ourselves. That’s not to say, of course, that it’s a fated full-on deterministic thing, but it’s a temperament, and I do believe that. I don’t know why I knew and believed this about everyone else and just didn’t see it about myself. Maybe, like others who hear about my younger life, I was just blinded by the circumstances.

So more unfolding in two tectonic directions:

My mother, age 16, right before she ran away with my father and immediately got pregnant with me.
My mother, age 16, right before she ran away with my father and immediately got pregnant with me.
  • I never could really understand why my mother hated me as much as she did. I knew that I ruined her life, she said that over and over. And I can even get that; she ran away from home just before she turned 17 and married my dad, who was 18 and also running away from home, and she probably imagined she was now going to have the life she wanted…..and BAM. Pregnant. So that part I could get. I understood what she meant when she said I ruined her life. But she hated me, viciously and frighteningly. I always thought, but I was a sweet little kid…. and that left me so confused. But that’s exactly why! How obvious! She hated me and I had the nerve to be happy anyway. She would be so cruel and vicious it would take your breath away, and then a little later I’d be happy about some little something. No matter what she did, no matter how hard she tried, I could still be happy. I’d still dance around the coffee table. Each time I was happy, it must have made her just double down, it must have been so galling, so enraging. I totally get that! Not from my own experience, but as a dynamic. I think it’s very common — like someone we think is unworthy, maybe a bad writer, wins a prize for writing, and they’re a much worse writer than you! Much worse! So you hate their writing and them even more. The world is unfair, why do they get the rewards? I think it’s that dynamic.

So she hated me because no matter what she did, I could still be happy. I can’t tell you what a relief it is to understand that, and her. She is a psychopath, but that’s just a diagnosis. I always said she was a black box, completely impossible to understand, but it was just a small, mean thing all along. After 57 years, I finally understand her. Unlike with my dad’s suicide, I never thought it was my fault she hated me, because I didn’t choose to be born, but it was so bewildering, and finally I have an answer.

  • And the other thing — gosh, how could I not have seen this before? — relates to an explanation I always gave for my survival. “It was just a failure of imagination,” I’d always say with a wry smile. Why didn’t I become a prostitute as a way to get money? Why didn’t I turn to drugs or alcohol to escape? “Failure of imagination. All I could think of was to find some place to do my homework and sleep and then go to school the next day. Failure of imagination.” One thing I did, and I’d tell this story, was to go to the disco in our small town (this was the late 70s) when it was bitterly cold, or when I was filled with despair. I’d take my one dress and change in the bathroom, and then go out on the floor and dance and dance, spinning around until I got out of myself and into a kind of bliss. Hours would pass and I’d be warm, and I’d be out of my real life. But that wasn’t a failure of imagination, or a “gee I’m so clever” tactic, I was just being myself. That’s all. No more, no less, no failure, no admiration. I was just being myself, that’s all. I am so grateful that I was born like that.

You cannot imagine how earthshaking this is — and I’m not being dramatic, that’s not hyperbole. The ground has shaken and I see myself there, I understand myself then, my life then, my mother, my father, my family. Finally, I understand. Finally. I understand. I was there all along. Do you remember these little handheld games?

dexterity
these are called dexterity games, for some reason

You had to roll it, tilt it, try to get ALL the little BBs into the small holes. Aaah, you’d get 2 in, but when you’re trying to get the 3rd in the others roll out! So frustrating for a little kid! But this is how my early life is now. My mother is in her little hole. My father is in his. I am in mine. And the game is done — and I win. 🙂

a quiet little voice from a deep, dark hole

Depression is so awful, as you know if you have experienced it in its bad form. I mean, not the kind where you’re so depressed because you couldn’t find any fresh strawberries and you really wanted some. I mean the kind where your eyelids are heavy and your arms and legs are heavy and breathing feels heavy and the air feels heavy and the light looks dim and your brain whispers horrible little slugs of poison to you all day and night long:

No one would care if you weren’t here. It wouldn’t matter one bit.

That’s such a lie, and even I know it in the midst of this darkness. People from all over the world are doing their best to hold me up and keep me going, and they tell me the lie of it straight out. And I believe them.

I lie in bed and know all the blessings I have. My daughters. Their sons. Their husbands. My dear, dear friends, from right next door to throughout Austin and Texas and the United States and around the world, with a beautiful antipodean contingent. I know that I am healthy, and I know that makes me lucky. A friend has been fighting for her very life, and how obscene it is that I am wishing not to be alive, with all I have, all the riches, excellent health, beautiful people who love me dearly. Who would be devastated if I left. And I know that very devastation.

And it’s so funny how I can know the truth of all that in the deepest dark. It isn’t that I don’t know it, and it isn’t that I don’t care about all that, it’s just that depression is another world, a different landscape, an outside mind. A tomb. In fact, knowing all that makes it worse in some ways, because I have no reason to be depressed. None whatsoever. Sure, I have heartaches and worries and sorrows like anyone in the world, but all my blessings and riches outweigh those by far — and my heartaches and worries and sorrows are ordinary.

netI’m SO touched by the ways my loves are helping me, so touched I can’t even describe it. There are so many ways I can’t even list them all, even though this is my blog and there are no word count limitations. But there are so many, big and small, tangible and intangible, expressed and given with love and concern and big care. I was telling a friend how aware I  am of the net beneath me, the thousand tiny little knots strung together, each so small, really, but they’re everything. I started thinking about this after Gracie died, and wrote about it here. The image has stayed with me, and I feel it now. My friend told me about this, so perfect:

The metaphor of Indra’s Jeweled Net is attributed to an ancient Buddhist named Tu-Shun (557-640 B.C.E.) who asks us to envision a vast net that:

at each juncture there lies a jewel;
each jewel reflects all the other jewels in this cosmic matrix.
Every jewel represents an individual life form, atom, cell or unit of consciousness.
Each jewel, in turn, is intrinsically and intimately connected to all the others;
thus, a change in one gem is reflected in all the others.
This last aspect of the jeweled net is explored in a question/answer dialog of teacher and student in the Avatamsaka Sutra. In answer to the question: “how can all these jewels be considered one jewel?” it is replied: “If you don’t believe that one jewel…is all the jewels…just put a dot on the jewel [in question]. When one jewel is dotted, there are dots on all the jewels…Since there are dots on all the jewels…We know that all the jewels are one jewel”

The moral of Indra’s net is that the compassionate and the constructive interventions a person makes or does can produce a ripple effect of beneficial action that will reverberate throughout the universe or until it plays out. By the same token you cannot damage one strand of the web without damaging the others or setting off a cascade effect of destruction.

Isn’t that beautiful? And so, even as I deeply understand and believe all this, even as I recognize all the extraordinary love around me, even as I know everything I have, even as I have beautiful good health, even as I have everything, the poison of depression whispers to me all day and night. It’s so terrible, and if you know and understand that I’m so sorry that you do.

Thank you for all you do for me. I know you are there and I love and appreciate you, and this is what it’s like to be me right now, and for the last several weeks.

I’m not saying it’s magic, but….

Remember a couple of days ago I wrote a post about sitting with feelings — the ‘you are the blue sky’ one? In that post I talked about sitting with extreme anxiety that seemed to be due to a memory trying to come back. WELL! Once I was sitting with the anxiety and I realized that all that physical stuff was the memory. It was the memory of how it felt then, that specific and horrible dread and anxiety in the night — and just to be sure I figured it out, my little mind kept making me ‘see’ a man standing in my room at night.

!!! That was the memory, how it felt. I acknowledged it, understood it, accepted it.

Since that insight, I have not had a moment of anxiety. I haven’t been waking up with it in the middle of the night, I haven’t been seeing the man, my heart has not done that pounding thing. I can breathe. I am amazed.

wonderWould I have gotten through it so quickly if I’d treated the symptoms to make them go away? Taken Klonopin constantly, had a beer here and there? Would it have passed so fast if I’d distracted myself so I didn’t have to feel it? (I’m not sure that would’ve been possible, it was pretty intense.) Would it have moved through if I’d indulged it and gone to talk to someone about this extreme anxiety? Of course I have no idea. But I think not.

Here.

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Happy Friday everyone. Stay warm if you’re in the north! And don’t be afraid of your feelings, they won’t kill you. And be kind. For heaven’s sake.

 

I do it my way

“You are the sky. Everything else is just the weather.” ~Pema Chodron

I’ve been steadily meditating on that idea since last June, and it fits so beautifully — of course — with the focus on mindfulness that has also been part of my life since June. Meditation and mindfulness help you develop an ability to be in the present and simply allow what is, to be what is. (Newsflash: it is anyway, whether you ‘allow’ it or not.) The blue sky is your clear mind, which is always available even when the sky is filled with storm clouds of stories and emotions. Your clear mind is there, behind it all. It’s available to you.

If you’re lucky, the stormy weather is ordinary. A too-busy schedule that leaves you resentful and overwhelmed. Drudgery that leaves you frustrated or resentful. A bit of trouble with a friend that leaves you feeling abandoned or hurt. A project you’re behind on that makes you fearful you might lose your job. Various issues with the kids, your spouse. Those ordinary things can feel pretty big from time to time, but they’re great to practice on. Having a clear mind and not getting swept away by the stories and emotional overwhelm can be helpful (and it certainly feels better). Sometimes ‘what is’ is dire, of course — your loved one is dying, or facing harrowing treatment. Your child has to be hospitalized and the prognosis is scary. Your child is going through anything dreadful, actually. You find a lump and you have a family history. I am so so sorry, and the fact that your clear mind — the blue sky — is available to you is probably not too helpful right then no matter how much practice you’ve done, although it’s good if you can find some of it.

see? look at the bottom corner of the storm clouds...there's still blue sky behind it. There's always blue sky behind it. And the storm always passes, no matter how terrible it is.
See? Look at the bottom left corner of the storm clouds…there’s still blue sky behind it. There’s always blue sky behind it. And the storm always passes, no matter how terrible it is.

Sometimes the trouble simply comes from within. I can provide two examples from my own life of different kinds of trouble from within. The first is my son, and my heartache and anger and worry and heartache (worth saying twice) that he has again abandoned us all and refused to communicate with any of us for the last 19 months. That’s how long it’s been since he has said a single word to anyone. My heart aches, I miss him, I’m pissed off at him, I feel helpless, I cry a lot sometimes, I’ll get caught off guard by something that reminds me of him and I feel the devastation of his absence. I imagine he’ll never come back, that something bad will happen to him and I won’t know. My helplessness overwhelms me sometimes I want to lash out, yell at him, write my anger to him, howl to the sky. That’s an awful lot of weather, and here you can surely see that calling it ‘weather’ does not minimize the very real quality of these thoughts and feelings. But I’ll tell you this: meditation has honestly helped me with this. When those feelings and thoughts come, I open my hands and just sit with them. Heartache — I sit there with my hands open and feel the heartache. It hurts, and sometimes I cry. I let it be, I don’t grab it and clutch it to me, I don’t engage in battle with it, I don’t push it away because I don’t want to feel it. I feel it, it is, I remember that I am the sky and this is the weather, I take deep breaths, and the heartache begins to ease. It was a real feeling, it is a real feeling, but without all the story attached to it (stories of blame falling all around, stories of why he’s doing this, stories of the future) it’s a sorrowful and painful feeling, and it appears and is and then fades. It will come back, but I have felt it and it passed along and my clear mind returns.

In this way, actually, I have known the heartache more clearly than if I’d done something else with it. More clearly than if I put my energy into denying it (that doesn’t really work anyway). More clearly than if I sat there clutching it and embellishing it. More clearly than if I turned my head to imagine scenarios in the future. I know my heartache, I have felt it, it hurts, and it drifts away with the moments. It doesn’t stay with me as long as when I try the other approaches, and the more experience I have sitting with it, the sting is a little less, the crushing feeling becomes bearable — because I have born it. This is my heartache. I am stronger than it.

The other inside thing I’m having to sit with is an old memory that’s trying to resurface. For the last several days I’ve been suddenly consumed with anxiety so great my hands shake. My heart has been pounding so hard it can be difficult to breathe. It’s not a panic attack. I’ve been waking up throughout the night and each time my body holds a very specific kind of anxiety, gritty, filled with dread, sickening. I’ve been thinking I see a man standing in my bedroom. I have a pretty good guess what this memory is, but I don’t know yet. This kind of experience used to terrify me, because the things I already remembered were so terrible, how much worse must be the ones that I repressed? It doesn’t terrify me any more when this happens. A friend asked if I surely want to push it back down, build a wall around it, shut it down. But I don’t. I don’t look forward to remembering, but it’s my memory, from my life — not all of which has been great, but I don’t want to know only the super happy peppy stuff, that’s not my life, then. So instead of spinning out fantasies of what the memory might be (“to prepare myself”) or pushing against it, I’ve been dealing with the sudden periods of anxiety by sitting with them. Feeling them (it’s not fun). Allowing them to be. Remembering that I am the sky and this is just the weather. And knowing that I am stronger than them, I have born others, I can bear this, and it’s simply a memory of something, it isn’t real right now. What is real right now is that I am sitting in my living room in my own beautiful house in sunny Austin filled with strength and light and I know I can bear a memory. I know I can bear a feeling. I am strong. So I feel whatever there is to feel and it passes away. And maybe I’m left with a shadow, maybe I feel tired, but it passed like a storm and I will be OK if it comes again, until it’s done. And still then I will be the blue sky. And I deepen my emotional intelligence.

And one time it was simply too much, too big, my anxiety was so huge and I could not breathe and I took half a Klonopin. Because sometimes that’s how it is. That’s real. Meditation is a process, a practice, not a one-time-fix-all, but always always worth the effort. When the physical response stilled just a little bit, I was able to return to sitting and allowing it to be.

I am the blue sky. You are the blue sky. Everything else, it’s just the sometimes-shitty weather.

fighting the not-doing

Doing savasana in Nong Khiaw. Gosh I wish I were there right now.
Doing savasana in Nong Khiaw. Gosh I wish I were there right now.

At the end of a yoga practice, you end in corpse pose — savasana. My yoga teachers always call it “the most important pose” and then they say something about integrating something something something. Before I started doing yoga in earnest, before I undertook this massive mindfulness change in my life, I thought that pose must be great because you’re tired from doing the yoga, so aaah, you get to rest. Silly me.

It’s the hardest pose of the whole practice, whatever the practice entails. Other poses may be difficult to hold, hard to find your way into, they may require a lot of hours of practice to be able to do fully, but they’re hard in such a different way, a kind of fun way. Can I balance like this today? Can my legs become a little straighter today? Are my hamstrings loosening (nope!)? But when I am moving into the pose, it focuses and holds my attention and I am doing. Rib cage lifted and shifted right (hmmm, ok), slide right hand down my leg to the floor (hmmm, ok), and voila. I’m there to some degree.

But in corpse pose, I’m meant to just be. Instead, my mind is racing with things I need to do when I get up, lists I need to make, chores to do, conversations I am in or need to be in, things I want to write. NO NO NO, be. The challenge for people my age is that the task will be completely forgotten if it’s not acted on, but . . . um, so? So what. I’ll make the list, and if something slips off it I will deal. If I miss a chore, um, so? If I completely forget the point of what I wanted to write, OK. But it doesn’t feel that way when those thoughts are pressing on me during savasana. How very hard it is not to do something.

worryAnd not just during this pose, either. When we worry, we feel like we’re doing something. Or rather, if we just stop worrying, we feel guilty because it feels like we don’t care (or however you might construct that). If we’re anxious, and all we’re doing, really, is focusing our mental and emotional energy on thoughts, it can feel impossible NOT to do that. Right? When the lawsuit was hanging over my head and would suddenly rear up again, all my energy got dark and swirled hard inside me as I imagined all the ways it could go badly, all the damage it could cause to my life. Of course it’s retrospect joy to say, “Well, and look: it all came to nothing and so that was wasted time!” But I could also note that however it turned out, all that swirl and worry was wasted time, because it had no impact on what was happening. What it did, though, was to keep me terrified and exhausted. Unless it’s a kind of focused, problem-solving thinking that results in an action that can be taken (even if the action is just a way to help yourself deal emotionally), it’s not “doing” anything. That’s a big lie. When you worry and indulge anxiety, you aren’t really doing anything. You’re indulging thoughts of all the most dire consequences. My worrying, my periods of anxiety, sure aren’t indulging thoughts of how great it might turn out. I’m feeling as if the worst has happened — and it’s not like that prepares me in some way. There have been times in my life when the worst did happen, and the consequences were not lessened because I’d been practicing experiencing them during my worry and anxiety! If anything I was so exhausted by the time they happened I was less help to myself and others.

Oh so easy to say, just don’t do it. Yeah, right. But you can practice! Savasana lets me practice, when the biggest consequence is that I won’t remember an item on a list. Meditation lets me practice, when the biggest consequence is that I will not be able to find a moment of just being. I’m now in my seventh month of nothing terribly dire happening to me or anyone I love, which means two things: (1) easy for me to say, what would I be saying if I were in trouble?! AND (2) seven lovely months of practicing, so I am likely to be able to be more helpful to myself and others when it comes, as it will.

Savasana is really just meditation, you know. Sit up on a cushion, lie down on your back, sit on the couch or in a chair, sit under a tree outside, sit in your car. Be still and present for five minutes. That is practice, and it’s harder than you can imagine.

authority

Of all the ridiculous ways you can divide people (i.e., “There are two kinds of people….”) I have another one: There are two kinds of people — those who just plow forward and do things, and those who think they have to be taught first. Count me among the second group. [kind of.]

yeah, I made this quilt without having a clue what I was doing.
yeah, I made this quilt without having a clue what I was doing.

Even though I had already made a whole quilt, hand pieced and hand quilted, I didn’t think I knew how to quilt so I took a class. And guess what: I knew more than they taught in that beginner’s class. So silly! I’ve long admired people who have an idea for a business and just go do it. Me, I’ve thought well I don’t know anything about that. I don’t know how to set up a business, I don’t know the legal stuff, who would buy my stuff/hire me/whatever, I’m just me.

And then, in 2010, I quit my comPLETEly miserable job on Madison Avenue and hung out my electronic shingle as a freelance editor. I could not and would not have ever done it if my husband weren’t there to support me in all the ways — financially, emotionally, with encouragement and belief in me. Nope, couldn’t and wouldn’t have done it. But I did, even though I had never done the things I was claiming I’d do. I’d never copy edited. I’d never evaluated stories critically. Not even once, had no idea how to do them. My job as an editor was in acquisitions, which means I was the gatekeeper to publishing.

oh Cartman, how you make me laugh
oh Cartman, how you make me laugh

Like so many people, I struggle with imposter syndrome, and boy was it strong in my first couple of years freelancing! Whenever I returned an evaluation, or a copy edited manuscript, I fully expected my clients to challenge me and demand their money back because clearly I didn’t know what I was doing. No one did that. Over time I have finally gotten faith in my abilities, and now I even know that I’m very good at evaluating manuscripts, in particular. The reason I’m good at it has nothing to do with the reason people hire me! They hire me because I have a PhD and I worked as an editor in publishing. They think those two things vouch for me, when in fact they don’t have much to do with anything. I’m good at it because I’ve been a good and thoughtful reader my whole life, and I’m smart. But I had to learn how to trust my own reactions and responses. I had to learn how to go ahead and say what I think when I write an evaluation, trusting that what I think has authority and value just because it’s my opinion. Of course I’m not the sole authority, it is just my opinion, and other opinions might conflict with mine. But that doesn’t devalue mine.

Maybe there are people who implicitly trust themselves, who implicitly understand that what they think has value because they think it. I keep thinking that this will generalize in me — that now I’ve realized it in one area it will happen more automatically in another area. Not yet. 🙂

And one thing that’s actually the most interesting of all is the disconnect between belief and action. I made a whole quilt before I took a class but took it because I thought I didn’t know how to do it. Why didn’t I realize that I had already made one, so obviously I knew something about it! I started college fully believing I would fail and be laughed out, but I started anyway (while fully believing). I put myself out there as an expert editor fully believing I’d be called out as an imposter. I wonder about that, about the way I (and surely others) do one thing while believing another. Marnie once told me that one thing I taught her was to just jump in and do something, just do it. I never realized I was teaching her that, because I guess I was always thinking I didn’t know how to do things until someone taught me. But she was seeing the doing, and I was stuck in my head, never really seeing the doing.

Yet another good reason to learn how to get out of your head. Yet another good reason to be present and not get stuck in those whirlpools and eddies of brain crack. I love my sweet little mind, but boy howdy can it mislead me. It seems to have its own story and agenda that often has little to do with what I’m doing. Isn’t that strange?

empathy v sympathy

empathyFor the longest time I thought I knew what empathy meant.  I’m a smart person, I feel things deeply and connect to others, and I’m a psychologist for heaven’s sake. And I always thought I was a very empathetic person. (I still do, I’m not throwing the baby out, but….) Then I was reading some Buddhist-focused article, maybe something from Elephant Journal, can’t remember, and it said this:

Empathy is not putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and imagining what you would feel. Empathy is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and understanding what they are feeling.

You know, I’d never really understood that! Did you? It sounds like a small thing but it’s a huge thing. One little word, a universe of difference.

And taking it as a given that all we can do is rely on our best guess of what they are feeling because we can’t actually know, that shifts the game — for me, anyway. I can think of a couple of times someone did this for me and it felt like all the spotlights in the world turned their warmth on me. YES, I thought, yes. Yes, that is how I am feeling and why this hurts me so much. Why it is so painful for me specifically. Because understanding that moment means they understand me.

I think we often — I often — mistake empathy for sympathy. Oh, I know how much that hurts, you poor thing, I am so sorry. That’s not empathy! It’s sympathy, which is lovely and comforting, and perhaps compassion. And sometimes we go beyond, to show the person that we really do understand because a similar thing happened to us too. Oh, I know how much that hurts, I felt the same way when I lost my job. The intent is a good one, to show that it’s not just idle sympathy but born of a shared experience, but that’s actually turning even farther away from empathy.

People need both, I think. And maybe there are times when they need one more than the other. But in my experience, sympathy provides a bit of comfort, a feeling that I’m not all alone, but I am still alone with it myself in some way. Empathy goes so far beyond and embraces me, lost inside the experience.

Reading that definition hurt me because it made me see how rarely I actually offer empathy. I’d thought of myself as an empathetic person, but I have been a sympathetic person. There are worse things, obviously! But having experienced empathy myself, that’s where I want to be when someone I love is hurt.

Y’all have a nice Saturday! It’s a day of food shopping, working, and making myself a yummy dinner. This, I think, minus the soju. (Or maybe the soju minus the alcohol.) Smiles and waves from Austin — xo

yeah, there’s no box

boxIf you’ve read this blog for long you already know how much I hate that oxymoronic cliche “thinking outside the box.”JC I hate that phrase, and when people use it in my presence to indicate that they are uncliched thinkers, depending on my mood I might just come out with both arms swinging and with more than a little sneer point out the way they just proved how wrong they are. SHEESH. Getting me all riled up just thinking about it. There is no box, there is no half-filled/empty glass, cut it out. Seriously. I used to think “cliche” just meant trite, tired phrases like these.

Ali
Ali

I once mentioned a man named Ali who cracked open my mind in a profound way, and a friend wrote me and said she’d like to hear more about that. When I met Ali I was in graduate school, maybe 41 years old? Right around that age. I was/am smart, but in a super conventional way. All the received wisdom was/is perfectly received by me, without question, and I believed my goal was to absorb it and work with it. Oh, this is the deal? OK, that’s the deal, that’s how I understand it, that’s how it is to be understood. I knew people who were really different in some intellectual way I never could articulate; I tried to understand if they were smarter than me, but that didn’t seem to be the right dimension. They were differently smart, but smart really didn’t belong in the mix, it wasn’t about smart. They thought differently, they saw things differently, they understood something very different than I did. It wasn’t until I really got involved with Ali that I figured out that it’s about having an uncliched mind. And oh how I wished I had that kind of mind, once I figured it out, but I just felt stuck in my little array of boxes. This idea = this definition. That concept = that rigid framework.

Ali had a bunch of things going for him. He was (and still is) an incredible poet, first of all. Poets are sometimes unconstrained, original thinkers. Ali was (and still is) from Pakistan, and had a very different understanding of the world than I had at the time. I was apolitical, really. I considered myself a Democrat, but really just didn’t care very much, didn’t have reasons for feeling what I felt, thinking what I thought, and didn’t feel much need to interrogate any of it. But the whites of Ali’s eyes could literally turn red when he talked about the World Bank, about the IMF, about immigration policies, about poverty, about the West. He could sometimes be kind of frightening when he looked like that, all red-eyed and intense and fired up, intensely animated. I listened with ignorant bewilderment, not even knowing what the IMF was but seeing that he thought it was bad. Google was brand new, and maybe I did a Google search to see what the IMF was, but probably I didn’t. I was kind of dazzled by Ali, who was very tall and wrote incredible poetry, and who had a quicksilver mind I couldn’t understand and experiences I’d never encountered. OK, he thinks the IMF is evil, whatever……

We fought a lot because the way he saw the world made absolutely no sense to me and I was thoroughly disoriented. Gandhi was a terrible, terrible person. (What?) Country borders should not exist. (Huh?) I often felt like he was telling me that the ground was really the sky and that I’d been lied to all these years. I was so uninformed politically and that was a big gap between us, as were our cultures. He didn’t really see himself as a separate person; when he needed to think about something, a decision, it could only be made in collaboration with his very close Pakistani friends who had become his family. It took me a long time to realize that Ali didn’t have personal relationships with people, which is just the best way I can think of to describe it. I tried to talk about this with him and in bewilderment he said that his parents had never spoken personally to each other. He and I had both known terrible suffering, but of such different forms. He told me that no one in the West knows anything at all about suffering — the source of another whopper of a fight, since I believe I have indeed known a thing or two about suffering (obviously I took that one a bit too personally). But his father died when he was a kid, leaving his mother to raise seven children alone in Islamabad, and with no money. One of his poems was about seven grains of rice and his eternal hunger. He told me that morality is the privilege of a full stomach, and all these years since I think about that and no matter how hard I poke at it, not wanting it to be true, I believe it is true at a general level. Individuals can transcend of course, of course.

On 9/11/2001, I witnessed laid-back weird Austin change as quickly as the rest of the country. At the time I had a bumpersticker on my car that said “Bush Is A Punk Ass Chump” and usually people would pull up beside me, grin, and do two thumbs up. But on 9/11 and afterwards, Austinites shook their fists at me. One tried to run me off the road, and it was my bumpersticker they were so offended by. For some reason, that cataclysmic event and our country’s response to it was the iron wedge that caused my skull to crack and I suddenly understood everything Ali had been saying. Black was white after all! Up was down, right was wrong, the US hadn’t been everyone’s “good buddy neighbor.” The point of this post is not a political one at all, it’s just that it was a political event that did the trick for some reason. I witnessed people spitting on Ali. A few days after 9/11 we went to lunch at a Greek restaurant near campus and other customers screamed terrible things at him when we walked in, someone came over and spit in his face, and the manager asked us to leave.

I saw at that moment that I’d been understanding the world exactly and only as it was told to me, described to me. I’d accepted it all without question, it never occurred to me to think beyond the given components, only to try to arrange them in a neat form. That my cliched mind was nearly complete — politics, religion, nature, existence, philosophy, whether those things even are — my thoughts snaked through those little boxes as if they were Truth describing Truth, full stop. It may sound like I’m being hyperbolic, but I’m really not. I had a very good mind, I was smart, I was just not at all original. I’m still not. I’m a great copyist, though.

It does not come at all easily to me, being an original thinker. It’s effortful and I have to remember to do it, and usually I forget. All at once I’ll realize that I should poke at the precepts, question the definitions, try hard to think about what I’m thinking about and get outside it. I’m very glad I got the chance to learn that there is this other kind of mind, even if mine is not that. Even that feels like a kind of liberation — a big enough gap to hold the light and awareness when I think about it.

* * *

I loved Ali’s poetry and huge mind — I’m always a sucker for both of those things. I much prefer people who are smarter than me, and larger in their own ways, and poetry too? Please. He wrote one poem about me titled “The Poem of Ji,” and I inspired the first line in another poem (the line: The sky here is American like the blue of your eyes; / the folds of your eyelids the Hindu Kush mountain.) He published this poem when I knew him and I still love it; he’s listed in The Poetry Foundation (here) and this is one of his poems I really love, “The Emerald Mosque on the Hill.” He has since published two volumes of poetry — and not self-published — and “The Poem of Ji” is included in his first book.

Not too long ago I found him on YouTube, a recording of a reading he did at a university. He’s on the faculty of a university in Colorado, maybe it was there I don’t recall. Anyway, one of the poems he reads is “The Poem of Ji,” and it tickled me to death to hear him read it. You know how other languages have diminutive forms at the end of names to add an endearment? Like -ita in Spanish, -itchka in Russian? In Urdu it’s -ji. So I was Loriji and he was Aliji. Well, without knowing better I just started calling him Ji, so he started calling me Ji. (Can you imagine calling someone Ita? Itchka? Somehow Ji worked differently to my ear.) Still, even though he also called me Ji he thought it was the silliest damn thing, so he wrote a kind of long poem about the Land of Ji, and it starts beautifully and ends horribly. Here it is, if you want to listen; move the slider to 3 minutes to just start right at the beginning of that poem:

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I’m grateful to Ali for getting me started on cracking open my cliched brain. I’m grateful to Ali for helping me understand the big-picture political world so differently. I’m grateful to Ali for making me understand the world as a whole differently. And I’m grateful to Ali for his poetry — the ones about me, and all the rest.

mind and body

In graduate school I took a course called Psychosomatic Processes. The way the mind and body influence each other. I learned that cultures differ in psychosomatic illnesses; for instance, few people in Germany suffer with allergies, but they are high in instances of psoriasis. I thought it was interesting that cultures express psychologically-influenced illnesses differently. Before, I’d thought that allergies probably occurred at the same rate in countries with allergens, ditto psoriasis. Nope.

heartYou probably have your characteristic places where trouble, stress, upset, anxiety show up. For my husband, it’s his stomach. For me it’s my heart, and it always has been. That kind of chokes me up — my broken heart really does hurt. Sometimes it hurts so badly that I cannot stand up straight.

When my dad killed himself, I instantly felt like I’d been impaled through the chest. I was impaled through the chest, like a bug on a taxonomist’s pin, still alive and wriggling but stuck, forever. I couldn’t uncurl; even when I tried to stand up my chest was curled around my fist, trying to absorb the blow, and I was bent at the waist.

Do you know about takotsubo cardiomyopathy? It’s also called broken heart syndrome. It’s a temporary heart condition that’s often brought on by stressful situations, such as the death of a loved one. People with broken heart syndrome may have sudden chest pain or think they’re having a heart attack. In broken heart syndrome, there’s a temporary disruption of your heart’s normal pumping function, while the remainder of the heart functions normally or with even more forceful contractions. The apex of the left ventricle balloons out. I imagine that’s what happened to me when my dad died. It was absolutely physical, not at all “just in my head,” and it was such a profound representation of my emotional state.

Throughout the years, intense stress manifests itself in me as chest pain, heart pain. I press my right fist into my sternum, imagining that will bring relief. The funny thing is that I think my dad must have had the same response. When he was very upset, he’d have his hand on his chest in a funny way that always made me think he had probably cut his wrist. I think he was just pressing on his sternum in the same way I do.

In New York, during a prolonged period of intense chest pain I found a wonderful physician who specialized in gender-specific health (and this is an enormous concern where the heart is concerned, and that was her specific specialty). I kept saying over and over to my husband and then to her that it was nothing, it was just pain. I’d said that my whole life — “don’t worry, it’s just pain.” They both said over and over in response that “just pain” can still cause damage. “Just pain” can kill you in so many different ways. She told me about takotsubo cardiomyopathy, that it’s named after an octopus trap of all things because the ballooning ventricle looks like an octopus trap. That it occurs most often in women, whose hearts, I suppose, are more susceptible to breaking.

To me there is something so deeply poetic and perfect about that, and it’s not an accident that we talk the way we do — broken heart, heartache, fear in the pit of my stomach, etc. Emotions really do dwell in our bodies and in certain places, and that’s why we talk in that way. It can’t be a coincidence that women who were raped or molested as children are more likely to suffer with IBS, are more likely to get cancers of the organs in the pelvic region. That may be poetic injustice, but it is still poetic. You suffer where the hurt is.

Stress also tightens my jaw and shrugs my shoulders, fear hits me in my gut, but deep emotion punches me in the heart. I imagine you have your own characteristic place where trouble lives in your body.

No octopus trap for me today, or yesterday, and I hope not tomorrow. But I know it will return. My heart is distributed among so many people so it’s vulnerable to breaking.

xo

hope

Yesterday my friend Cyndi posted this quote by the Dalai Lama:

The very purpose of our life is happiness, which is sustained by hope. We have no guarantee about the future, but we exist in the hope of something better. Hope means keeping going, thinking, ‘I can do this.’ It brings inner strength, self-confidence, the ability to do what you do honestly, truthfully and transparently.

I could not agree more (easy to agree with HHDL). As I said to her, hope is everything. Without hope people die. Of my three suicidal depressions, one was profoundly about having no hope. No hope of release from pain, no hope for today, no hope for tomorrow, no hope for anything at all. You see that in the eyes of profoundly depressed people, and when I see it I feel a kind of panic because that is the bottom of the hole where there is no light.

hopeThroughout my life, I believed that I was not a person who had hope. Except for that depression, my ordinary experience of it was that I was just kind of flat inside. I expected bad things to happen, I expected my efforts to be thwarted, I expected nothing. One of the two longstanding arguments I had with Sherlock in graduate school was about this subject. I’d say, “No, I don’t have hope, they killed it in me but it’s OK.” And he’d argue with me, and we’d go back and forth. One day he thought he finally trumped me with this: “But you do have hope! You are in graduate school, you hope to finish!”

“A-HA!” I gloated miserably in response. “I do not have hope. In fact, I expect every single day that something will happen and I’ll have to quit. I’m here pure and simply because of endurance. I just endure. Today I will endure. Tomorrow I will endure. I am the standing ox.” He just shook his head, as he often did in the face of my unyielding and inaccurate certainty about myself.

Years later I was driving from Manhattan to my job in northern NJ — a miserable commute, I’m telling you — and the song Somewhere Over the Rainbow came on, the version by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole. I was singing along but not really paying attention when I had one of those terrible and enormous insights: Hope is what saw me through. Hope is the reason I was there to drive up Rte 17. Hope is the reason I was still alive. When I was a little girl and read books and stories about different kinds of lives than mine, I’d think Someone was able to imagine that, so maybe I can make it happen someday. I thought it was all fictional, that no one really got to have those kinds of lives without violence and danger, but maybe I could figure out how to do it, since someone was able to think of it. What is that but hope?

Unlike the other tattoos on my spine, which are black, HOPE is red. Red is an auspicious color in China.
Unlike the other tattoos on my spine, which are black, HOPE is red. Red is an auspicious color in China.

And Sherlock was right — yes, I may have been enduring, but if I was enduring in the full belief that it would be taken away from me, every single day, hope was driving that effort. A couple of weeks later I found a tattoo artist in the Village and filled the last, empty spot on my spine. I’d left a space at the bottom and for years tried to see how I’d fill it. Obvious. Hope. Hope is at the bottom of my spine, the thing on which all the rest exist. The foundation. I cannot tell this story without tears in my eyes. How could I have been so wrong?

I’d had the wrong idea about hope. I’d always imagined hope to be little yellow unicorns sliding down rainbows in a fluffy pink landscape. Kind of like the My Little Ponies that Marnie loved to collect as a young girl. There was nothing unicorn-ey and rainbowey and fluffy pink inside me. But that’s not what hope is! Hope is something else. Emily Dickinson said, “Hope is that thing with feathers that perches in your soul.”

ravenMy image of that line is a fierce bird, dark, maybe black, with enormous talons. Ragged feathers, a large beak. A raven or crow, maybe. To me that is so clear in her line of poetry. I was surprised to hear that others imagine it as a small fluffy bird, a songbird maybe. That feels inadequate for the ferocity of hope, the power of hope, the tenacity. Or rather that feels inadequate for my hope.

writing dissociation

Dissociation gets an often misunderstood bad rap. YOU dissociate, we all do! I like to imagine the word elongated, as dis-associated. When you are tired or overwhelmed or distracted you might ‘zone out’. That is dissociation! Maybe you arrive home in your car and don’t exactly remember the drive. (I always hate that one.) I’ve seen very little kids dissociate; you can spot that wide-eyed, stare-y, not-quite-here look a mile away. It often happens right after a nap.

dissociationOf course dissociation is also a psychological phenomenon that helps a person ‘escape’ from an unbearable experience and just leave the body behind. Crime victims, soldiers, witnesses to trauma, these people can experience dissociation during (and in the aftermath too) of the terror. It can become so deeply enmeshed in one’s experience that entire segments of a life, various aspects of one’s self, personality, various states, get compartmentalized and tucked outside of everyday awareness. It’s a fascinating phenomenon, and I think it’s one of the gifts of our mind, that we can whisk ourselves away from something too terrible to process. It will still need to be processed, but that can happen later, with help, in a safe place. It may take a LOT of help, but it can certainly be done.

I have a PhD (with a post-doc) in dissociation. So much experience with it, so much work on it, so much struggle to understand it. I remember the first time I was aware of the process, though it wasn’t the first time it happened; something was going on that was truly horrible and I was crying, and the person doing it said, “I don’t know why you are crying, I am not doing anything to you.” I remember feeling like my mind was about to break from the impossibility of the experience PLUS the conflict between what I believed to be happening and what he was saying. I remember feeling like my mind was bulging out of the gaps in my brain, like the pressure was building up inside my skull and then I don’t remember anything else for quite a long time. Just before I “left” I remember thinking that both could not be true and so I would believe him instead of myself. Really awful in every way, complicated, confusing. I think I saved myself from going insane right then.

Because I was so good at it, and it was my primary coping mechanism during my childhood, my mind kind of got a deep groove there until it happened with even smaller troubles. *Blink!* gone. As you can imagine, that is not so great! And how frustrating to deal with me! It had become a kind of emotional/psychological habit, and as I was finishing up the work to deal with everything I wanted to be able to recognize when it was beginning, so I could remind myself of when I am, where I actually am, and what I know in order to catch myself. The problem is that it happens so quickly and absolutely. I wanted to figure out the little tells, the earliest vibrations. With a lot of attention and effort I figured out two very useful signs: I started counting everything (floor tiles, ice cubes, leaves or flowers, my shallow breaths if there was nothing else to count), and/or I started moving my head — very small movements, nearly imperceptible — in this shape:

head

Identifying those two things really helped me a lot and I am able to stop myself from dissociating (on the very rare time it happens anymore) about 90% of the time. Success. (But I am SO curious about that shape. Kind of weird, right?)

Think about this: There is a real challenge in writing a memoir or story in which the main character dissociates — especially when the dissociation happens frequently. First, the story really has to be told in first person, otherwise the person is just kind of there and the reader doesn’t know what’s happening. If you take an omniscient perspective you can still present some of what happens, but it’s such an enormous psychological experience, before, during, and after, that the first person perspective provides the best view. But what is the experience? There is no experience, that is the entire point of dissociation! And yet there very much is the experience, because it can often be recalled in terrible detail, and sometimes there is the experience of the dissociation itself. Mine is always an entirely white space, no corners anywhere, with buzzing in my ‘ears.’ The terrible thing was also experienced, it’s just that the experience is blocked from view, in a way. Frequent dissociaters talk about “losing time,” because that’s how it feels. Here you are sitting on the 1 train, planning to get off at Penn Station, and the very next thing you know you are standing somewhere in the East Village, how did that happen? Whoa, where am I, how did I get here?

I’m trying various ways of writing a scene in which the main character dissociates and nothing really works yet. I haven’t figured out how to show that without explaining to readers, while still not leaving them too confused. It’ll definitely be something that the readers will have to piece together from clues, and that’s a challenge to do well. If you remember reading a book that features a dissociating character, please let me know!

Friday Friday, gotta get down on Friday, everybody’s looking forward to the weekend, weekend … (hope I didn’t get that song stuck in your head, sorry!). But I do hope you have a good weekend ahead of you! xo

all the feelings

Several days ago someone — I can’t remember who, now — said that others were telling her how to feel in the face of whatever it was, I don’t remember that either. (Too much Oliver, Marc, barbecue, and Tex-Mex intervening.) Anyway, that is familiar to me as it is to you: Oh, don’t feel that way. You shouldn’t feel that way. You don’t really feel that way, do you? You should be happy! And that got me thinking about this broad topic.

It’s one of my common old topics; I’ve loved to think about this for decades. My favorite paper I published when I was in graduate school was about valence and emotions, and the impossibility of assigning “opposites.” What is the opposite of love? Hate? Indifference? (Solomon, R. C., & Stone, L. D.(2002). On “positive” and “negative” emotions. Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, 32, 417–443, if you’re into that kind of thing.)(And this tickles me so much:)

ha! Bob was the philosopher, not me. But I'm a philosopher-wanna-be.
ha! Bob was the philosopher, not me. But I’m a philosopher-wanna-be.

Anyway. Back to all the feelings. In addition to the problem of opposites (which is a very silly idea if you think about it), there is also the problem of complexity, and this struck me when my friend was talking about others telling her how she should be feeling. There are some emotions, perhaps, that are pure and purely one thing. I don’t really think so, but I’ll go ahead and plant that as a starting point. Most, though, are very complex; some of the complexity is in our awareness, and some may not be. An example will help.

UntitledLet’s say I get an email from my son who has not spoken to any of us for so long. I haven’t, but let’s say that yesterday I got such an email. And let’s say it’s a nice one, maybe even one that includes an apology for his general assholiness. How do I feel? Happy to hear from him after so long? Yeah, sure. Furious at him for jerking us around? Absolutely. Relieved to hear that he is OK? Well of course. Sad that he is causing me so much pain? Yes oh yes.  Hopeful that he’s gotten his act together? Well, a mustard seed but maybe not even that. I feel like laughing and crying and punching something all at once. What the hell do I feel? I can’t tell you in a word, or a sentence (other than “lots of things at once”). And there are other feelings that are deeply embedded and maybe so common to me that I don’t recognize them but they are DEFINITELY part of the mix. Desperate, perhaps, because I am afraid he will simply disappear / hurt himself / abandon us.

But I have experience with other people whose children have just sailed, relatively speaking, through adolescence and into adulthood without being such a jerk, and some (but by no means all!!) just cannot get it. They can’t get what’s up with him in the first place — but that’s OK, neither can I — and worse, they can’t get the complexity of my feelings in the face of what “ought” to be simply a happy thing. So I have actually had people dismiss my aggregate of feelings and kind of scold me, telling me I ought to just be happy.

You ought to be finished grieving.

You can’t be furious at him for dying!

You shouldn’t be mad, I didn’t do that on purpose.

You have no right to feel hurt, you did it to me in the first place.

I don’t know why people tell others how to feel, or that what they’re feeling is wrong, or not what they should be feeling. Maybe some people prefer a simple world where feelings are this or that. Maybe some people feel afraid of others’ feelings for a number of reasons — perhaps because they can’t fix it (like someone else’s grief), or perhaps because they’re scared of feeling it themselves. Maybe some people feel something so different and can’t imagine that you might feel/experience it differently.

Actually, I think we often do this to ourselves, too. Or I’ll just speak for myself: I do this to myself, too. For quite a long number of years, I couldn’t acknowledge that I was furious with my dad for killing himself (never mind the rest). It took a long time to realize that I felt it, and then a longer time to be OK with feeling it. Guilty, check! No problem feeling that one. Relief, check! Sad, …… um …… yes? Overwhelmed, check! Partly it was hard to acknowledge the anger because what do I do with that? OK, I’m furious . . . and he is dead. Can’t get any satisfaction by telling him, and telling other people didn’t drain my fury. (What did drain my fury is a topic for another post, and it took me so very long to get there and then magically I was there, and then I went to eat barbecue.)

Why do we resist the feelings that we feel? We can be so scared of the “bad” or “difficult” feelings that we fight them, resist them, push back. That doesn’t work, and the harder we push the harder we have to push. This is one thing meditation does to help; you become able to sit with whatever you are feeling and acknowledge it and that very fact, the very ability to just sit there, helps a whole lot. OK, this extraordinarily broken heart is not actually going to kill me. It feels like it will, but it won’t. It’s a feeling. Fury won’t kill you. Despair won’t kill you. Heartache won’t kill you. These feelings won’t kill you. You might do something with them, you might turn the fury, despair, heartache against yourself or against someone else and act on the feelings, but the feeling is not going to kill you. I learned this for myself in January 2013. I often had to clutch the bedsheets to bear it, but I felt them all and they did not kill me. (In fact, sometimes seeing that it won’t kill us can be upsetting — as if it “must mean” that the thing wasn’t that big to us after all. We are a funny species.)

Anyway. Whatever you do, don’t tell someone else how to feel. If they tell you how they are feeling, don’t tell them that they are not feeling that, or that they should not be feeling that. For heaven’s sake. They may be telling themselves the same thing, and need some space for it to be OK, some validation that they feel that thing. As is often the answer, here’s what you do: shut the hell up. Listen. Try to understand.

Busy busy Tuesday for me, and a gorgeous day forecasted here. Hope it’s the same for you (and don’t tell other people how to feel). xo

more on writing and therapy

I actually had glasses exactly like these! Wore them all the time, loved them. Wish I could have another pair.....
I actually had glasses exactly like these! Wore them all the time, loved them. Wish I could have another pair…..

Yesterday a good friend mentioned a technique she’d heard about involving rewriting your personal history with rose-colored glasses. As I went to reply to her Facebook comment, my mind started whizzing so many thoughts about it I became paralyzed and unable to leave a simple response. When she mentioned it, I realized I’d heard of it before, but my efforts to Google it didn’t pull up anything useful. I think it might be at least similar to the idea of writing a new ending — or maybe just exploring your history and reframing it. Instead of “I have suffered with depression for 10 years,” maybe “I have learned how to live with depression.”

If I assume the goal is to feel better right now, there might be two routes:

1) to reframe what happened in the past
2) to imagine a more positive present or future

Through my life, I’ve grappled with the first option. All along, even in the immediate aftermath, I wondered how different I might feel if I were able to tell a different story about what happened to me when I was growing up. I believed it would make me feel very different than I felt, and I desperately wanted to tell a different story. After years and years of work, I was finally able to see the other possible story I had to tell, which is one of brilliant survival, perseverance, creativity, wow look at that, what a great story. But in the midst of those years and years of work, I couldn’t even see other stories, even as I wanted to and even as I tried so hard I nearly blew out my mind and heart. And I wrote and wrote and wrote about it, too.

One problem, and I definitely know this from my graduate research, is that the more I wrote and talked about it the more concrete and solidified the story became, until I could essentially disconnect and think about anything else while the story came out of my mouth or fingers. I could make a mental grocery list while my mouth told the story; it became rote and fixed. And of course the fixedness of it kept me from getting somewhere else with it. We know that the more we tell our story differently (and our research focused on pronouns, emotion words, and the small words, articles, a an the) from one time to the next, the better our outcomes. And of course the degree and extent of trauma have to be considered in the mix too; if the worst thing that happened to you was the untimely death of your dog, your work will be qualitatively different than if you were held hostage and raped for years and were constantly afraid you would be killed, like those girls in Ohio held hostage by Ariel Castro. It just will be.

I do suspect that writing — with some help and guidance — might help you find a different story inside the one you tell. I don’t know that for sure, because we never tested it (at least when I was still in graduate school and involved in that research). Perhaps there’s something about a person who does that automatically that helps them get somewhere faster, and ‘forcing’ someone to do that, who wouldn’t otherwise do it, is a failed enterprise. It’s an interesting question.

The other possibility for writing a new ending is the one that confuses me, although perhaps it confuses me because I see all the brilliance in my life. Maybe it would be different if I tried to write a new ending during one of the periods I was in the dark hole, grappling with the monsters. Although at those times, I couldn’t even see if there was any light above the hole, much less imagine a different ending. Since it’s all a continuous stream, today is my ending, and tomorrow will be my ending too, and the next day. Each of the days I’ve lived since I left my original family has been the new ending, and even the terrible ones were connected seamlessly in time to earlier periods which had been better.

I think of the psychological concept of chunking, which refers to how we understand when something begins and when it ends in order to determine causality. People chunk things to their own benefit, quite often; if I am having a fight with someone I am likely to feel like I was just there minding my own business and the person antagonized me or picked the fight, or something. And so I start it right there, BANG. He started it. That’s where the chunk begins, that’s how I explain what happened after that. But he might have been responding to something I did a bit earlier, so he starts the chunk right there with what I’d done. Countries in conflict do that too — look at Israel and Palestine, such different stories about the start of the trouble, about the instances of ongoing retaliation. When you’re trying to write a new ending, it’s a question of where you draw the line at the other end, because the beginning of the chunk might be clear — it was the way you were wronged. But how do you know where to draw the end? Every day is the ending.

And that relates to my sense of the mystery of my own life, and perhaps you feel the same way. When I think of the various ways I have imagined my life going over all these years, I don’t think any of them came to fruition, whether they were ‘good’ things or ‘bad.’ And when I look at how my life has actually gone, absolutely none of it was how I thought my life would go. Even when I started college, and graduate school, I started believing wholeheartedly that I would not get the chance to finish them, that my life would get hit by some kind of big bomb and I would have to quit. Yesterday I was talking to a very dear friend about where we find ourselves right now, and that we never thought we’d be here. She never thought she’d be living where she is, doing the things she is doing (though I for one am so grateful she lives where she does!!). I never dreamed I’d live in Austin again. I never dreamed I’d work for myself. I never dreamed I’d get paid to read. I never dreamed I’d go to the kind of conference I’m going to this summer. I never ever dreamed I would love living alone the way I do. I never dreamed I’d travel the world the way I do. (I also never dreamed the bad thing that is happening in the background. UGH.) Never dreamed or imagined one little bit of it.

Maybe I am just so passively oriented toward my life and others are more ambitious, more decisive and goal-directed. I’ve kind of followed my life where it led because I didn’t have a sense of agency. But still, I find myself constantly surprised by how my life is turning out. This is not at all an ending I’d have written with my rose-colored glasses, nor are any of the other versions of my happy ending. And yet they are my happy endings.

Perhaps the answer to writing a new and happy ending is not to be too specific. Not “I will get paid to read” but instead “I will be free of the guilt/shame/sorrow.” Maybe simply “I will find a way to be happy with myself/my life.” I just don’t know, I’m missing something. I hope to get to talk to my friend about it since she knows more than I do.

And this is why I couldn’t write a quick response to her Facebook comment. 🙂 It’s a busy Friday for me, breakfast with a friend and lunch with a friend and then a haircut. Spring is making its way here in fits and starts, and I hope today is a start for us all! xo

shut the hell up

“Who do you think you are!”

“Why do you think anyone would be interested in anything you have to say?”

“You’re full of shit.”

“You’re nothing but a liar, and if you tell, no one will ever believe you.”

“You’re nothing.”

“You’re nothing.”

“You’re nothing.”

“What makes you think anyone’s interested in what you have to say?”

this woman is NOT my  mother but looks like her to a frightening degree. her voice is the one in my mind.
this woman is NOT my mother but looks like her to a frightening degree. her voice is the one in my mind.

Welcome to my mind. Not all of my mind, of course, but the part that tries to shut me the hell up. The part that sneers at me, that exists solely to knock me down a notch or hundred.

This voice drips with contempt. It assures me that it has known me since before I was born, and no one knows me as well. No one knows who I am but that voice, no one knows the corners of me the way that voice knows me. And who do I think I am. Just who do I think I am.

This voice is screaming at me because I’ve decided to go ahead and try something, I’m going to do something with my own writing — or try to, anyway. I keep putting my hands over my ears and going into my bathroom to look in the mirror. I put my hands on the sink and lean towards the mirror and say, “You are too a writer.” I say that over and over, even though I do not believe in the Power of Affirmations. But this is not an affirmational effort, this is an effort to shut that voice up, to claim that I know more than she does.

Please, this post is not about whether I can write or not. I’m not wanting you to leave comments about my writing, whatever you think about it. This post is about cruelty and harshness and the way our inner voices can have so much power.  It’s quite terrible, how truthful they sound — because for many of us, I suspect, these terrible inner voices are the sounds and words of parents, whether they were meaning to be dismissive or not, whether they were simply not paying attention or trying to destroy, as in my experience.

But of course I haven’t heard her voice in real life since 1987 . . . on purpose. So at this point I am responsible for that voice, for maintaining it in any way, for giving it any weight or credit. I know it’s not as simple as just brushing my hands off and walking away, it’s not as easy as thinking, eh, shut the hell up. One way to talk back to it is to go ahead and prove it wrong. Just go ahead anyway. Oh yeah? Who do I think I am? I think I am a writer — good or less-good, strong or weak, but I am a writer. I am, actually. A writer is someone who writes, and I must write every day. Why do I think anyone would be interested in anything I have to say? Well, let me just see! Will people be interested? I think enough will, I think some people would like it, and that’s enough. One needn’t be the Best-Selling-Author-Of-All-Time to have something to say, to have people interested in it.

One of the many risks in going ahead and trying something is that I will fail, and that mocking voice will then sneer, “See! You are nothing.”  I’m preparing myself to fail and I have a lot of ways to think about it. Everyone fails when they first try something new, I have to have permission to do that or I will be too clenched and frightened — and that may guarantee failure. Failure is giving up.

I’m not a unique snowflake; lots, maybe most people have critical inner voices. If you don’t, I am so very happy for you, from the bottom of my heart. If you battle a critical inner voice—whether you’ve learned how to get around it or whether it’s an ongoing struggle—I’m very curious about your approach(es).  My dear friend Marian has written about it, and has developed a successful program to help people with this struggle. If you have found something that works, and if you are willing to leave a comment, I’d love to hear about it.

My not saying more about what I’m trying is not about caving to that harpie voice, it’s much more ordinary than that. It’s just about superstition. It it happens, you’ll be among the first I tell. 🙂

I hope it’s a good week for us all, with some blue skies in the mix, some laughter and happiness, and all kinds of things to be grateful for. xox

control

Headline:  “Having a strong sense of control over your circumstances reduces the risk of dying by 13 percent, and can offset the negative health effects of getting less education.”  Crap. 13%, really?

But that’s a very thorny word and concept. We mean so many things by the word control:

1) self-control — which usually translates into not eating that Snickers even though you really, really, really want it, but you’re trying to lose a few. This meaning overlaps with another thorny word, willpower.

2) controlling — which is usually followed immediately by the word bitch or bastard. Such a damning idea, “being controlling.” Frightened people, like me, exert this kind of control — an attempt to be on top of every single thing to prevent disaster. Turns out I was a controlling mother, but all I was trying to do was keep everyone alive and safe from disaster. Of course there are controlling people who operate from a different place too.

3) in control — which is probably most like the concept of self-efficacy. That’s probably the version of the word meant by the authors of the article. The article is based on research, and here’s how the researchers measured control:  To measure “control beliefs,” participants reported how much they agreed with statements on their sense of “personal mastery” and “perceived constraints.” The former included statements like “I can do just about anything I really set my mind to,” and the latter had statements like “What happens in my life is beyond my control.”

But see, here’s the thing, and I’m not sure what it means for my risk of dying. If you’ve lived long enough and paid attention, you see that actually, there is very little under your control. The most trivial things are, of course. A little later this morning I’m going to get in my car (under my control!), and drive to meet Karyn for lunch (under my control, unless I am in a car accident), and then go to the Mid-Winter Festival of the Austin Friends of Traditional Music. And then I’ll drive home. A little day of happiness, food and friendship and good music, surely all under my control. I have a car and I know how to use it, I know how to get to the restaurant and to the festival site, and I know how to get home. I have money and gas and a driver’s license. “I can do just about anything I really set my mind to.”

But — and not to be a gloomy gus or anything, or a gloom-and-doomsayer — those are my plans. I make a lot of plans, we all do. Will I succeed? Yeah, probably. Yeah, I’d bet money on it. But will I succeed because it was all under my control? A little yes, and mostly no. These are the things over which I have little to no control: I hope I don’t have a stroke or a heart attack. I hope another driver doesn’t lose control or get sick or decide to text and crash into me. I hope there isn’t a disaster, natural or otherwise, at the restaurant or the festival. I hope the drivers on the road when I’m heading back home are all sober and paying attention and that their cars have been serviced. I hope my children are happy and healthy all day and nothing happens to them. I hope my friends are all happy and healthy today and nothing happens to them. I hope Marc is happy and healthy all day and nothing happens to him.

Katie and I often talk about the fact that there are SO SO many things that can go wrong during a pregnancy, so many things. A frightening number of things. And how surprising it is, really, that most of the time they don’t happen — especially given how many there are. And so pregnant mothers go along blithely (unless they’ve had a tragedy), taking their prenatal vitamins, eating well and avoiding things they should avoid, doing everything their doctors tell them to do, and simply expecting that they are going to come home with a baby. Because they’ve done everything right.  (see: the “just world hypothesis”)

Maybe the trick is to balance two conflicting ideas (ambiguity! I love that actually!): To believe that you can do just about anything you set your mind to, while simultaneously knowing that the universe is far, far, far more complicated than a simple cause-and-effect between you and your plans. To hold both beliefs in mind requires mindfulness and that can be hard to manage in the heat of excitement over something — nah, I’ve got this one. This one’s entirely under my control. And the universe laughs. 🙂

Happy Saturday, y’all! We’re allegedly moving into nicer weather today and tomorrow, and even some longed-for sun tomorrow. If so, I will be soaking it up on my patio, opening my eyes wide to let it in. xoxoxoxo

mirror mirror

come on, you think of this any time someone says mirror mirror, don't you!
come on, you think of this any time someone says mirror mirror, don’t you!

Since the big thing in the social sciences these days is neuroscience, though I can talk a blue streak about how ridiculous it can be I’ll go ahead and bring up mirror neurons in this post. (Here’s a description in Scientific American, another from NOVA, and a counterview from Psychology Today — I like that one the most.) Basically, the idea is that we are neurologically hardwired by “mirror neurons” to feel and experience the things we see enacted by others. They are hypothesized to underlie empathy. They are hypothesized to explain our enormous physical response to watching sports. They are hypothesized to be the causal neuronal connection that makes us human. (I say harrumph, come on…..and it’s actually enormously controversial.)

But let’s just go with it. Mirror mirror, I see you doing something and I know how it feels, I respond in kind, perhaps. I see you crying and in pain and those same feelings are aroused in me, my mirror neurons are activated and my own eyes fill with tears.

I actually think there’s something to this, though of course it’s outrageously reductive to point to a damn cluster of neurons and claim they explain something so complex. Come on, seriously. Especially if you want to make a causal argument. Harrumph. But I was thinking about this because I was thinking about some people I know. We all know each other, and they are among my very best friends and I love them, and they do not click with each other. It happens, right? Just because you like Susie, and you like Jane, there’s no guarantee that Susie likes Jane. We think it’ll work, because since they both like me they must also like each other, but it’s just not the case. Sometimes it’s just a meh, and sometimes it’s much worse, almost an intense dislike. I’m sure you’ve had this experience too.

What made me start thinking about this is that Susie is just luscious, one of the most generous-hearted people I’ve ever known, deeply loving and caring, and so open. Jane doesn’t see Susie like this, and perhaps that’s because Susie isn’t like this with Jane! And with me, Jane is warm and embracing and generous and loving and insightful and so many of the same things as Susie. They’re actually quite similar to  each other, although their presentations differ in some slight ways. But Susie doesn’t see Jane this way, perhaps because Jane is different with Susie than she is with me!

So I started wondering: not that Jane and Susie are just acting a particular way around me, or around each other (at all!), but I wonder if something in me pulls out a particular response in them. If we are mirroring each other in a deep way. So I started thinking about myself around other people, and I think it’s possible. When I’m with lighthearted friends who just have fun, that gets pulled out of me too — because it’s in me! In those settings, I don’t even want to talk about Moby Dick. (Well, I do, but it doesn’t kill me to keep quiet about it.) When I’m with a friend who dives deep, I dive deep because it’s in me! When I’m with knitting friends I just chatter away about projects and the making side of me is activated because it’s in me! When I’m with wisecracking friends OH do I crack wise. And in none of those instances am I just putting something on, never am I just performing. It’s that something about her pulls this out of me, while something about the other her pulls something else out of me. Because, like Walt Whitman, I contain multitudes. (But not in a creepy way. Well, not any more. 🙂 )

And so I think that Jane will never know the Susie I know, and vice versa. Because Jane with me is my Jane, and ditto Susie. But that’s the wonder of life and friendship, isn’t it! One other consequence of this system is that my deep-diving friends may not ever know that I can be silly and that I am hilarious, because when we are together we’re leaning in and talking about the sounds and the seas. What’re you gonna do. Maybe with the luxury of enough time each friend will eventually see the wholeness.

So happy Sunday, everyone. My day will probably be starting with a kayak ride on a river (I’m writing this ahead of time and scheduling it to post) and a luscious breakfast and some excellent conversation, and then I’ll head back to my cozy little home to write. I’ll write, and write, and write, and write, and then maybe I’ll stop and work on little Oliver’s quilt. And maybe I’ll read some poetry or Moby Dick, and hopefully I’ll talk with Marnie and maybe I’ll cry and maybe I’ll crack wise, because all of that lives in me. I love having the chance to see what lives in you, too.