Thursday, October 30, 2014

New Post on Buddha Mama Sans Drama

Baby Grace is seriously pissed off.

I've got a new post on Buddha Mama Sans Drama! I'm trying to rev myself up for a month of BloMiGoMo or NaBlahPoMo. Wait, no it's, NaBloPoMo and it's a month of posting every day. We'll see if that really happens, but I'm gonna give it a shot.

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Destructive Power of Change

When I was getting my teaching certificate, an Education professor told me that in order for students to learn, they had to go from a place of discomfort to comfort.

Think about that for a moment.

Most of us are perfectly content to stay right where we are, thank you very much. We want to believe what we believe, think what we think and stay where we are. Changing our thoughts and minds is upsetting. If we’ve believed that the earth is flat and someone comes along and says it’s round, we’re bound to be confused. Our worldview has literally been disrupted.

Now we are uncomfortable and agitated. We need to right ourselves again. Perhaps we go to Google and see if we can confirm what we already believed, or discover more evidence for this new information. Or we need to talk about it. Process it. And once we’ve read enough, researched enough, and/or talked to enough people and processed our feelings about this new information, we either accept or reject it. We either learn something new or stay where we are. But in order to learn, we have to go through this discomfort.

It’s what I did in my classroom with my students. An English teacher challenges you about what you read. An English teacher asks questions, teases out thoughts and responses, pushes you to consider something you may not have seen or challenges your interpretation. This can be a jarring experience. Students can rebel, argue or just be plain confused. But no matter where the students wind up, a good teacher is disruptive. A good teacher will challenge the students and make them uncomfortable.

In order to learn, we must change. We must go from a state of discomfort (confusion, fear, pain) to a place of comfort (understanding, acceptance, enlightenment). I’d even go so far as to say that change is not only difficult, it's ugly.

Consider the butterfly. We talk about the caterpillar transforming into the beautiful butterfly. But what about the process of metamorphosis itself? Isn’t it ugly? Isn’t it disturbing? Just look at the word “pupa.” That is one ugly word. Consider the process of shedding one’s cocoon or skin. Molting? It’s the stuff of horror films. Whether it be humanoids encased in jellied eggs in Invasion of the Body Snatchers or Jeff Goldblum’s face erupting into greasy insect skin in The Fly, metamorphosis is one ugly process.

It makes sense. In order to change from one thing into another, the prior self must be destroyed. Yes it is replaced with something far more beautiful and evolved, but the process of change itself can be violent and unpleasant.

I think it’s the main reason people avoid therapy. To change your inner self, to undergo the metamorphosis of the psyche requires addressing the ugly stuff that’s buried within that nice cocoon you’ve built. You’ve got to rip it apart. Chew your way out from within. Destroy everything you’ve known in order to be reborn.

Change is hard. We say those three little words as if it makes it easier. As though it’s easily summed up. Heck, I’ve used that phrase myself to help cope with it. For instance I’ve recently changed jobs. I knew it would be hard, but I didn’t know it would be this hard. Yes, it is good for me. Yes, I was stagnating after staying in the same place for seven years. But damn, it’s really hard! I wake up from anxiety dreams where everyone at a meeting speaks a foreign language or speaks so softly I can’t hear them. I grind my teeth at night and my jaw aches. It’s only my second week at the new gig, so it’s not the end of the world.

But I didn’t expect it to be quite this hard.

I’m also in therapy and I’m working on a memoir with a writing coach. Those are acts of transformation. And they are harder than I thought they would be. Facing the truth about what I’ve been through and who I've become is incredibly difficult. We bury our pain for a reason. And I’m one to pull my finger away from anger as though I’ve touched something hot.

But you can’t look at where you’ve been and what you’ve become—and not have to cope with whatever it is you were hiding from in the first place. In my case it's anger. I don't like to be angry and I don't like conflict. I'd rather shove it all deep within my belly and not deal with it. If you're familiar with that strategy of dealing with trauma, you'll know that it's not particularly effective. When you bury all the hurt and anger of being abused and neglected as a child, that sort of pain festers. You haven't eliminated it at all. Instead, you've let it metastasize within you and it will consume you. It will make you sick. If you root it out and deal with it in the light of day, no matter how painful that process, you've at least got a shot at healing. At transforming even.

And all of this is ugly. It is destructive. And it makes it difficult to write here. It makes it difficult to cope with the aftermath of writing about my eating disorder on the Huffington Post. When all you have ever done is work to hide such things, it is indeed difficult to reveal them.

It’s ugly.

It’s destructive.

And yet I want to fly.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

My First Huffington Post Piece

I'm finally dipping my toe in the wide world of publishing outside of the comfortable little nest I've created here.

Hold me.

Just kidding. But do check out my very first piece on the Huffington Post. They liked my write up on my experience with battling an eating disorder. I'd love for you to comment there and share it so I'm not all alone there with my very first post. It's a little intimidating.

Thanks for your support! 

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Lost in Thought: A Week Without Wifi.

We rented a cottage on Lake Michigan last week. The cottage was "rustic" in that it was made of actual logs and was located down a winding, dusty road, far from neighbors or the hustle of a city. It was also "rustic" in that it didn't include wifi and had no cellular reception.

It was excellent timing to see how I did without being connected to technology for a week. I'd just read an article in the New York Times about how necessary it is for your brain to unplug. In the article, "Hit the Reset Button in Your Brain, " Daniel J. Levitin discusses the brain's two dominant modes of attention. While one mode is for focusing on tasks, the other allows our minds to wander. He explains the significance of this latter mode:
This brain state, marked by the flow of connections among disparate ideas and thoughts, is responsible for our moments of greatest creativity and insight, when we’re able to solve problems that previously seemed unsolvable. You might be going for a walk or grocery shopping or doing something that doesn’t require sustained attention and suddenly — boom — the answer to a problem that had been vexing you suddenly appears. This is the mind-wandering mode, making connections among things that we didn’t previously see as connected.
I've noticed the lack of daydreaming in my modern life. The more plugged in I am, the more busy my mind is. My mind is one that naturally likes to daydream. As a child I was frequently gazing out of windows, imagining another life, another world and new stories for me to inhabit. Though I spent much of my childhood alone, I found a way to cope with that by listening to the voice in my head that I called "The Narrator." The Narrator has been my constant companion. I can have imaginary conversations with The Narrator. The Narrator composes my stories before I sit down to actually write or type.  The Narrator describes what's around me in interesting and complex ways. The Narrator fantasizes, dreams, works out and puzzles over everything it sees.

But I can't hear The Narrator when I'm reading the phone, typing on the computer or watching TV. The Narrator's voice and observations are drowned out by the millions of voices vying for my attention in every Facebook status, tweet and Instagram photo. By constantly reaching for my phone, my laptop or some form of distraction, I am not pausing long enough to hear what The Narrator has to say.

And The Narrator is the voice of my inner mind talking to me. The Narrator gives me the greatest insights, the most interesting stories and the most magical combinations of words. The Narrator sings to me a lullaby that makes this world sweet. By driving five hours north and resting on the banks of Lake Michigan without the ability to connect to the world via the Internet, my mind was once again full of that symphony of words that only The Narrator could share.

I sat on multi-colored rocks along the beach, dazzled by the soft pinks, light grays and dusty whites of nature's interior decorator. I watched the sunlight sparkle and dance on the water. I stared at the tiny struggles of a winged ant that tried to carry a spider to its lair for dinner. I watched the patterns he made as he repeatedly worked over and over the general area of where he dropped the spider, not realizing that I had buried it in order to try and save it in some misguided attempt at heroism. The rocks along the beach were suddenly bustling with life and drama, a tiny metropolis which I'd been wholly unaware of as I stomped across it to dip my toes in the lake.

I don't know how much of this I would have seen if I'd been able to connect to the Internet on my phone and read articles on the New York Times as I sat on the beach. There's nothing wrong with reading articles on the New York Times, of course. I've gained wisdom and insight there. But by forcibly disconnecting from technology, it enabled me to reconnect with the real world and very the real drama that was unfolding right before my very eyes, or right beyond my cellphone screen.

My mind was able to buzz and dream and narrate once again. I felt a peace that seemed to resonate right down to my very bones. I felt the warm sand under my feet. I touched the smooth rocks along the beach. I watched my daughter dance in the waves. I was filled with beauty within, without and all around. I felt the hum of the earth and I was one with it.

It was good to come home again. It was good to reconnect with The Narrator. If you're involved in any kind of creative endeavor, whether it be writing a blog, a memoir or advertising copy as I do, you need to allow your brain to switch back to this neutral mode. Technology captures our attention and keeps our brains on the active mode for too long. It's important to remember to turn off the phone. To close the laptop. To reconnect with the dreamer within you, so you can let your mind sing with the world around you.

Like we were born to do. We were born to dream. We were born to connect. And while technology enables us to connect with a much broader swath of the world via social media and the Internet, we also need to connect with the inner world of our own minds. Let's make sure we make time for both kinds of connecting, connecting within and without, and returning to the mesmerizing world of our thinking, dreaming, synapse-firing minds.

Photo credits go to my husband, who was using our pretty sweet Canon EOS 70D.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

When I Stopped Being Skinny and the World Fell Apart.

The first time I was called fat I was actually told I wasn't fat. That may be a strange way to begin a blog post about the first time I was called fat, but there it is. It was a boy who said it and I had a major crush on him. I was 14 years old, tall and still reasonably thin despite the onset of puberty.

"You're not fat," he said, answering a question I hadn't asked. "You just need to tone up."

I stood in my first bikini at the lake's edge and froze. I felt naked and exposed. I wished I could sink into the sand and never re-emerge.

Having been skinny my whole life, the observation was in itself shocking. I'd always been the tall skinny girl who ran through the neighborhood in short shorts, legs and arms windmilling down the street without a care in the world.

Adults often commented on my appearance. I got a lot of praise for being tall, skinny and blond. Grown women would grab my chin and turn my face back and forth in their hands, admiring me.

"Such gorgeous cheekbones," they said.

"Do you know women pay a lot of money to have blond highlights like those?"

"When you get older, you'll love being so tall and thin. You'll look like a model."

I was Tall and Skinny. Long and Lean. It became my identity more than I realized. In fact, I didn't realize how important it was until I lost it.

I stopped wearing shorts after The Crush told me I needed to tone up. Sure I wore the polyester uniform basketball shorts when I played on a team, but I tugged at them during the game and ran to the locker room afterwards to put on sweats to cover how my body was changing. My once stick-like legs were becoming curvy and strong.

"You could be a plus-size model," a girl told me at lunch one day.

By then I was still tall and fit, but I had developed more of an athletic build rather than a slight willowy one ... which is a perfectly acceptable thing to be. But I was surrounded by tiny girls who talked about weighing tiny petite girly numbers. Wearing tiny petite clothing sizes. Inhabiting bodies with such tiny petite bones. I was starting to feel like a linebacker. I'm sure the girl was trying to say I was pretty … but all I heard was that I was fat. She had no way of knowing that I was descending into an eating disorder that would hold me in its grip for decades.

You see, being imperfect was unacceptable. If I wasn't perfect, no one would love me. If I could just attain perfection, then everything would get better. My mother wouldn't drink. My dad wouldn't leave. My brother and sister would move back home. A boy might even like me! I'd make more friends. Get better grades. Everyone would love me and no one would criticize me. The kids down the street wouldn't yell, "Your mother's a drunk!"every time I walked past their house. If I could only be perfect enough, then everything would be okay. I just knew it.

And so the refrain played over and over again in my brain. Look perfect. Feel perfect. Be perfect. Anything less means you're trash. A loser. A disgusting piece of filth that no one will love. If you  allow yourself to eat, if you eat your feelings and shove food down your throat like the love you crave, then you've ruined everything.

It became a vicious cycle of trying to starve myself thin so I could be lovable, binging on the food/love I so desperately craved, and then trying to erase the whole messy affair by vomiting. It was a brutal cycle of failure and disappointment. Which left me alone in the darkest hours of the night when I was at my loneliest … and then I'd do it all over again. I knew with 100% certainty that I was a disgusting beast who no one would ever love. I believed I deserved everything that I got, which was loneliness and despair.

The irony is, 30 years later, I don't think I'm fat but do think I need to tone up. But it's not the end of the world. I know you love me anyway. And I sorta love me too.

Of course I have therapy to thank for that. It took a lot a lot of work and a bit of courage too. For so long I was imprisoned by the shame of admitting I had this problem. That's another great irony of this disease. The shame of it keeps you silent, but the silence keeps you sick. What I learned in therapy was that when I was finally able to let go of the shame, I was able to let go of the disorder too.

I've been in recovery for over ten years and yet I rarely talk about it. Shame is a funny thing. It sticks and clings to us like a dirty scent we're afraid other people will notice. I still battle with trying to appear perfect. I'm afraid that by admitting that I have struggled with an eating disorder, you'll find me disgusting and unlovable.

But I know that's not true.

Nobody ever loved perfect things. Perfect things are scary. You're always afraid you'll drop them or break them or scratch them. We're so much more comfortable with worn things. The chipped glass. The stuffed toy with the missing ear. The girl with the imperfect past.

We can relate to imperfection.

Perfect is a mirage. You can chase it, but you'll never attain it. And if you think you have to wait to be perfect to be loved, you'll spend your entire life alone. It's funny, the more imperfect I've allowed myself to be, the more full my life has become. Now when I sit down, I instantly have two kids, a cat and a grown man all vying for space to get the closest to me on the couch.

"You know what," my husband commented the other day, looking at me with a kid sitting on each side and a cat on my lap. "You have the thing you always wanted. To not be alone."

I may never have attained perfection, but I did attain love.

This is a response to a writing prompt hosted by the indomitable Brittany, Herself. To participate in the August Writing Prompts, click here.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

A Letter to Self of Years Past.

Dear Self of Years Past,

People who are lost often don't know they are lost. This is the worst kind of lost to be. You don't even know you've gone off the path, let alone how far off into the woods you've stumbled. The thing is, Self, you've been lost before. You've struggled to find a clear path to a decent future. You've had your heart broken and you've let bills go unpaid. You've drank too much, slept with the wrong people and made unfortunate fashion choices. But even amidst all that, you still knew who you were and retained the Essence of You.

But now you've arrived at the point where the Light of You has extinguished. You're so consumed with trying to make this relationship work that you've completely forgotten who you are. You're still the plucky kid you were all along. You're the child of an alcoholic who refused to go unloved. You sought out neighbors, teachers, friends, friends' parents and therapists. You never stopped seeking shelter and love. You didn't stand in the rain.

Today, you're drowning. You stand behind Him at parties. You're the quiet girlfriend in the corner. You're meek. You're mild. And you're terrified it isn't going to work. You think he lifted up the earth and hung it among the stars. What you don't know is that he's all bully and bluster. You're ten times more interesting and 100-fold smarter. Only everybody knows it but you.

Yesterday you had an old friend over and the two of you sat chatting on the couch. He walked through the room and said something you barely registered as he went out the front door and closed it behind him. You kept talking to your friend until she stopped you.

"I don't know what shocks me more. The fact that he talks to you that way … or the fact that you allow it."

I know it hurt to hear that. But Self, listen to her. She's not being mean. The people who love you the most are trying to tell you.  You need to listen.

"I don't even know you any more," your mom said on the phone the other day.

The comment still rings in your ears and makes your heart beat faster with a rabbit panic. You think they're wrong. You think you can fix it and make everything work. Once everything is fixed it will all be perfect and then they'll see. You can fix anything. You're determined. You're special. You're hardworking and hell-bent. It has to work. Just this once it has to work. You want the fairytale ending and you're willing to destroy yourself to get it.

Here's the truth. Trying to make it work is only working to destroy you.  And if you don't get out soon, you might lose yourself forever. If you leave, it's going to hurt. You'll burst into tears at a red light and the car behind you will honk while you sob into the steering wheel. It'll hurt so much you'll be quite convinced that it will break you. It will hurt so much your skin will prickle and your stomach will fold itself into such a tight little knot that you'd rather starve than go without love.

But you'll eat. You'll start to drink from the cup of life once more and then you'll take big greedy gulps until you make yourself sick. But you'll get past that too. And then you'll start to be yourself again. Your skin will fit the way it used to and the ground will meet your feet as you walk. You'll smile and pay bills. Friends will call. You'll get a new job and redecorate. You'll buy new shoes and go out on dates.

In fact, you'll not only get back to the girl you once were, you'll become the woman you always wanted to be. You'll be better. You'll come out the other side and your heart will be even bigger than it was before. Your life will expand. You'll reach out. You'll listen. People will call you and heed your advice. You'll find it in your heart to forgive. You'll just keep expanding until you're bigger than the world you knew.

Now start packing. It's time to start living again.


Self of Years Present

This is a response to a writing prompt hosted by the indomitable Brittany, Herself. To participate in the August Writing Prompts, click here.

Friday, July 25, 2014

How to Be Happy in the World of Social Media.

I read a truly wonderful article by Arthur C. Brooks in the New York Times the other day entitled “Love People, Not Pleasure.” The gist of the article is that our drives to be wealthy, famous and powerful are the precise factors that can make us unhappy. If we were to focus more on the quality and closeness of our personal relationships, we would be much happier.

That’s an over-simplification, of course, and I encourage you to read the article for yourself. It is dense with insight. One particular insight that I’d like to focus on today is the use of social media and specifically, blogging. For example, Brooks, says this:

“Consider fame. In 2009, researchers from the University of Rochester conducted a study tracking the success of 147 recent graduates in reaching their stated goals after graduation. Some had 'intrinsic' goals, such as deep, enduring relationships. Others had 'extrinsic' goals, such as achieving reputation or fame. The scholars found that intrinsic goals were associated with happier lives. But the people who pursued extrinsic goals experienced more negative emotions, such as shame and fear. They even suffered more physical maladies.”

I can certainly relate to this in terms of my own life and in terms of blogging. I’d always hoped to one day publish a book. Of course I’ve even fantasized about becoming popular and of one day reading my own book reviews on the New York Times. I’m human. But a long time ago, I found that the greatest pleasure in life comes from personal relationships. I get a lot of satisfaction from my marriage, from my children, from the friends and family I have. I’m lucky to be surrounded by caring, smart, hilarious people. It’s an embarrassment of riches, quite frankly. And I’ve spent a lot of time tending to these relationships. Touching base. Inviting people over. Going to get my nails done with a friend. Stopping to talk rather than hurrying off. Planning a girls night out. Going to lunch. These things bring me the greatest pleasure.

Don’t get me wrong. I still work with a writing coach. I still post when I feel like it on this blog. It is important that I do this work and spend time on my passion for writing. But the key is not being attached to the results. Do I need this blog to be hugely popular in order to be happy?


Do I need to publish my book when it's done to make me happy?


Would those things be nice?

Damn straight they would.

But what do I know for a fact gives me happiness in my current life, as it stands? Writing this post is making me happy at this precise moment. It is an end unto itself. Puzzling over the New York Times article and wondering how it applies to my life gives me a sort of intellectual stimulation, which makes me feel good. Is that odd? Is it strange that this is enough, right here? Maybe so.

But why post it on the Internet for all of you to see? There must be some pleasure in sharing it. And there is, of course. I'd be a liar to say it isn't part of the whole thing. I enjoy your comments. I like seeing what your reactions are to what I have to say. Even more magical is if we connect. If you get it and say, “Ah yes, me too!” For a moment I am not alone in this vast universe of existential loneliness and despair. Okay, perhaps I'm exaggerating a bit, but it does feel good to connect. It’s nice to know I'm not alone with these thoughts. I assume there's some pleasure in it for you too, otherwise you wouldn't be here.

Do I need 100 people to connect? 1,000? 10,000? Or am I satisfied with 1? Oddly enough, it feels good to connect one-on-one, even if it is on the Internet. When I share a post on Facebook and my friends comment on it and laugh, it feels good. I don't really think it's a matter of numbers, but more a matter of quality.

Do I need to be famous, do I need a 100 likes on every post? No. I do not need fame in order to be happy with this pursuit. I do know myself that much. Perhaps that is why I’ve been able to blog as long as I have. I think I started my first quiet little blog on Myspace as far back as 2006. I started with just one new friend who started commenting … and then at the peek I had hundreds of comments every time I posted. It was crazy. And with that came the negative stuff we’ve all heard about or experienced first hand. The trolls. The ridicule. The cruelty. Nasty comments for no damn reason.

So I left it all behind and I returned to a quiet blog with few comments. Familiar friends came and went.

And it made me smile.

This is enough for me, I've decided.

The article seems to suggest that I am an oddity:

“It makes sense. What do you post to Facebook? Pictures of yourself yelling at your kids, or having a hard time at work? No, you post smiling photos of a hiking trip with friends. You build a fake life — or at least an incomplete one — and share it. Furthermore, you consume almost exclusively the fake lives of your social media 'friends.' Unless you are extraordinarily self-aware, how could it not make you feel worse to spend part of your time pretending to be happier than you are, and the other part of your time seeing how much happier others seem to be than you?”

I must be extraordinarily self-aware because Facebook doesn’t make me feel bad. I’m aware that everyone’s lives are much more complicated than the glimpse we get in status updates. I know we all struggle. I know I struggle. I blog about it occasionally here. I see a therapist. I go to marriage counseling. I take an anti-depressant. I’m a work in progress. I suppose I don't experience any of this as "fake."

So maybe there’s hope for us all. This article was a nice reminder. It’s good to know what will yield happiness and what will not. It’s good to know that my instincts are right. It’s not the possessions I accumulate (although I do enjoy shoes). It’s not the amount of wealth I accumulate (although I am very fortunate, I know that). It’s not the popularity that I may or may not have (I have this little blog and I have a lot of Facebook friends). None of those things make me happy. I know this.

It’s the little moments. It’s when you leave a comment and I respond. It’s when we make each other laugh in a comment thread on Facebook. It’s when you come to dinner and I cook for you. It’s my writer’s group, gathered around the coffee table. It’s the friends I’ve made at my daughter’s preschool. It’s the friends I’ve had since high school, since my first teaching job, my first advertising gig … and the friends I have at my current ad agency. It’s when my husband and I get through a really tough marriage counseling session and we hug outside when it is over. It’s when my ten-year-old son tells me it’s been the best week of his summer because he spent it at home with me.

I may not be the most popular blogger. I may never publish a book. But when I die I'll know I led a good life. A meaningful life. And it’s because of all of you. All 3 of you. Or all 30 of you. The numbers never made a whit of difference. They may have given me a momentary high, but it quickly faded. I could either chase that high again and be deflated not to have attained it, or I could let go of the pursuit.

It’s nice to have this reminder. Every so often I think of quitting blogging, like so many of us do. But then I wonder why? It's here if I want it. But I am free to ignore it too. It requires nothing of me and yet it gives me pleasure when I want it. I must remember that, above all else. The next time I don't get very many comments or I see a blogger friend has been published on Huffington Post while I have not, I'll say:

"It's the connection, stupid!"

It always was and it always will be. If we can remind ourselves of that, we'll be much more happier for it. I just know it.