Wednesday, December 12, 2018

A thing that is better than awesome

First, a little backstory:

I'm awesome.

We all are. We're all awesome at something whether we make it public or not. 

Let's agree on that. Think about your awesomeness, and just keep that in mind while you read.

Here is why I'm awesome.

I'm honest. With myself, with others, but mostly with kindness.
I know where my love and attention makes a difference .
I will embarrass myself sticking up for someone who won't, or can't defend themselves.
I will likely spend my life helping little kids work through problems that keep them from feeling strong.


107 days ago, I sat at this laptop and considered my trepidation over going back to school for my degree. I am, what is called, a "non-traditional" student.

I found myself as anxious and unsure as I was on the first day of summer camp, of second grade, of the first real job with high heels and a purse that matched, of the first week in a new town with four little kids and no friends.

I wrote about it, and then I went to school.

In no time, I wasn't  waking up worried about the day ahead. In no time, I was parking in the right place and sitting in the right classroom. In no time, I was sitting in my loft surrounded by texts and studies and folders and Gus. In no time, I was getting first grades which were – oh my GOD! – A's!! In no time, I got my first F because I didn't know the instructions for the assignment were on line. 

I resubmitted, but I was crushed.  Not only did I realize how much I had to learn, but had to learn just to do homework. 

I started asking myself, do I really need this?

Do I need to be waking up worried about an exam or paper deadline?  Do I need to be sitting amongst hungover teenagers in a shuttle bus on a freezing cold, overcast day in Durham listening to the driver whistle along to hip-hop? Do I need fussy, nervous professors lecturing me and my adult classmates about proper classroom behavior ("an absence without documentation is considered unexcused!").

Non-traditional students have what's called "life experience." My experience going in was about becoming who I am, and teaching younger people to be who they are.

And where would I use that, I wondered?  Will I confront the classmate who badmouths other classmates who are absent? Stop her in the hall and say, "You know, if you found out someone was doing that to you, wouldn't you be crushed?" Should I sit down with a project partner who is never prepared for meetings and ask him, are you really doing your best?"

I've been keeping track of the effects of discomfort, which I now understand are actually the effects of learning if one has only planned to stay the same.  Yes, I wanted my degree, but I wanted my degree in my existing awesomeness, which is not why degrees are made. Degrees reward what's called "learning," not "being."

Or, in my case, degrees reward being willing to learn, to adapt, to change and ultimately make refreshed decisions about pretty much everything.

The worst moments were when I realized what I didn't know and didn't think I wanted to learn but really feared I wouldn't be able to.

I decided to have a little talk with that non-traditional student in the mirror.

Maybe I could put new eyes and ears on this situation of not-my-habitat, maybe think about affecting change rather than being so affected by it. How about that?

Moments still arrived like little moment-coaches to show me what I didn't know but would learn. Other moments came when I realized what I do know, and don't have to learn. I reached out to a young student who seemed to be just a little too stressed. I held the hands of a homeless man while he cried over what he'd let happen to himself. I got to know the janitors in Durham and Manchester, making one repeat his name until I pronounced it correctly. I met fantastic twenty-somethings who made me laugh really hard, or just rethink something in the car later.  

Time after time, I used the advice of a child development professor I met twenty-five years ago:  never miss an opportunity to shut up.

I am a worrier by nature. In the beginning, it put me in my own way. But I began to learn that there is limited satisfaction in how well you do things when it's because it's all you know. That is what worry will do when it is rooted in uncertainty and self-doubt, before it flowers into humility and finally, change.   

Change is how new-awesomeness happens.

New-awesomeness is how thoughts of "Maybe I can't," turn into "I'll just do it."

107 days ago, I couldn't believe the awesomeness of what I'd signed up for.  In no time, I wished I'd never started. In no time, I was listening to selected classic rock favorites in the car to get fired up for an exam. Three weeks ago, I was registering for the next semester like it was nothing.

That was, this is, life. It was, it is happening every day. I wish sometimes, that I could gain the best understanding of life not 100, or 50, or 10 days later, but in real time. That, however, is like saying I wish I could learn to make great beef stew in thirty minutes. Beef stew is glorious and memorable because there is time and simmering involved.  

I was awesome. I raised fantastic kids, and have great relationships with outstanding people that make me whole. I'm a published writer who has contributed work to a parenting book that is now with a major publisher.

But I wasn't open-minded, tolerant, humble, observant, or grateful enough. 107 days later,  I'm a better person, a thing that is better than awesome.

I can live with that.

I finished my last final of the semester today. The next semester starts in fifteen days. It will be here in a blink. I'll let you know how it goes.

See you soon.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

I am uncomfortable, but soon I won't be.

It's showtime.

I start school today.

In ten months, I'll have a degree in Psychology.

But right now, I am uncomfortable.

More than what I'll learn, I'm looking forward to handling myself better when I encounter what I don't know; things like linking to the university network, using unfamiliar software to take notes, even where and what I'll eat during the day make me low-level panicky.

I'm looking forward to allowing things to remain undone until I can get to them. My essay didn't go out. My birthday letter for my son isn't done. I haven't planned and shopped for this week's meals. I haven't changed my closet over or paid the bills early like I planned to.

I'm practicing focused and delayed thinking. I  have one job today and it is to dress, charge my devices,  enter my destination on my GPS,  find the building, find my seat and just observe what is happening. There isn't a thing I have to actually do, other than that.  

I am not unprepared.
I am not over my head.
I am not wrong to think I can do this.
My life will change for the better, starting today. 

But right now, I am uncomfortable, because my life will change at all.
If something comes up, if something wasn't done, I won't freak out. I'll make a note, and I'll make a plan to take time and address it.

There is incredible joy in pausing from time to time to realize: I'm where I wished I could go.  

There is relief to remember that before I reached any major goal, I was uncomfortable.

If I don't feel comfortable yet, I know how it will feel when I am.  

And so.

Like I have done before, I will imagine the next person I would like to be until I am that person. So far, I'm  good with me. I'm a person I think I'd want to know if I met me. I'd want to be my friend and I would look forward to seeing me. I'd like my humor and reason. I'd ask me questions if I had a problem.
I ask myself, like I used to ask my kids, "what would make you feel more comfortable right now?" And, the answer is always, "knowing what's coming."  But I think today, I will try to be comfortable knowing that whatever is coming, I can handle it.

I wanted to write this for me. But then, I wanted to write it for people I love. 

Because, really, what is loving people about if it isn't to be honest with them about moments when you feel least at ease, knowing they may be  more likely to share their own with you, when they need to.

I'd ask you to wish me luck, but I know, if I am lucky enough to be loved by you, that you already do.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

How Love Is

Recently, my mother asked if I would prepare a reading for her to offer at the wedding of her granddaughter and my niece, Kaley. I was honored.

With thoughts of my niece and her love, Stephen,  I wrote the piece below. Yesterday, my mother delivered it with every bit of tenderness and love that inspired me.

Later, I was asked by guests for copies of the reading.  Here it is, and thank you for loving it as much as I loved writing it.

How Love Is

You know how love is.

So inconsiderate, love
How it walks right in front of you, trips you, makes you fall
How it wakes you up early, and won't leave you alone.
How it keeps you awake with its arms around your heart.

So "me first," love
How it interrupts your thoughts and talks over them.
How it makes you smile when you're supposed to be doing other things
Because you can't forget something your love said.
How you felt.

So bossy, love
The way it takes over everything and makes it better.


Such a trouble-maker, love
Making you reckless like that, saying all those perfect, risky things before you can stop yourself.
Making you believe things that are too good to be true.
But which are.

Things like:

All you need, all you are, all you can be, starts with love.
All you deserve, all you've hoped for, and wished could happen someday, comes with love.
All you've waited for, all you've feared you might not find, ends with love.

So in the way, love
How it won't leave you alone,  because it's always right there.
That demanding way it makes you give your best self to it, even if it gives back a "you" that is better.

So controlling, love
Opening all those doors and windows to your minds and hearts so that nobody grows alone
And not closing them again when it rains

How it makes you forget what you should
And remember what you must
And oh, that way it follows you everywhere, checking for wrong turns, leaping into your path, yelling, "No! No! Not that way! This way!"

But how you need it, love.
How easily you summon it, hear it, see it
How you stop everything to look for it when you've misplaced it.

How you know when you've found it.
How you know you won't let it go.

Because you know, like you know your own voice, that you were in the right place, when love came looking for a home. 

You know how love is.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

What we won't do to stay put

Who doesn't like a science 
book that starts with a picture
 of ducks?
A long time ago, I had this problem eating alone in nice restaurants. One night, I sat alone in an intimidating Boston restaurant, all dressed up, waiting for my husband who was flying back from some trip. 

I sat in the restaurant waiting, but he didn't arrive and I finally got word that his connection had been cancelled. I hadn't ordered anything, I had to decide to stay or go, and I remember having this thought:

I want to be comfortable with this.

I called the waiter over, ordered steak and asparagus and a glass of wine, and did what I wanted to become good at, even if it felt like I was the most noticeable person in the place.  

It was a bigger deal than I thought. Some of you know exactly how big a deal it was. It changed many, many things, that little dinner alone.

Two posts ago, I wrote about choosing to leave college when I was twenty-one, before I had a degree. I was 87.5% finished. This is also known as quitting. 

That's fine. I went on to have a nice life with mostly normal bumps and turns and revelations, but eventually, I began to think about that 12.5%

I know the joy you can experience when you return to unfinished business and kick its ass with all the stuff you've learned while you were away. I also see it as a duty to the self to act on any notion that life could be better, even  if all you do is learn what the steps are to reach "better."  

Hence, I made arrangements to go back to school and get the 12.5%  that I left there on the quad, next to my towel, sunglasses, baby oil and cassette of Eagles songs. 

I'll start in the fall and I'll major in psychology. If you think I write about psychological wellness now without the credentials to do so, just wait.

My daughter asked me recently what my "end game" is, if I know yet what I'll do with the degree. The answer is I do and don't.

It will take a little time to get over myself. I may have to use phrases like "oft times" in casual conversations with my loved ones until they mock me, and then I'll be fine.   

After that, I'll probably start exploring options for further degree work, because people who get their degree at age never-mind do it for the love of learning, not because someone else wants them to.  

And why wouldn't I go further and get a master's? And then, why wouldn't I want to talk about psychological wellness with my new, 100% education?

If this were a few years ago, there would have been one reason which is that I was a classic self-saboteur when it came to change, a thing most of us "don't like" but which most of us need to master if we ever want to sleep in the big bed of life. 

Even without a degree, I have learned that while certain unhappiness will come from resisting a pull toward change, it is, for many, still preferable to uncertainty.

For me, it would take about an hour and a half after I came up with a great idea for my anxiety and self-doubt to ride-share to the center of my mind and say: "Wait, wait, wait. Don't confuse a fantasy with possibility. My God. What if you're wrong? You'll never be able to go back!"

I  have learned a few things about silencing those two, and if you've identified with what I just said, maybe these observations will help.

First, great plans often start as far-fetched fantasies. They don't come fully formed, there may be many, many steps.  It is a fragile juncture you're at when this happens. Innocent fantasies usually can't stand up to practical considerations long enough to flower into plans, and that  is how great ideas die on the why-bother vine.

Second, self-talk – the things we say to ourselves - is everything. It isn't just a concept that psychologists began exploring in the thirties. We choose our self-talk. Out of habit, out of fear, out of doubt. And, we say defeatist things to ourselves without even knowing it. Then we believe it. Then we act on it.

Third, mantras. Ask the Wall Street Journal, they work. Mantras, are what you say to yourself to stay above the mental fray. They are usually short phrases, a word or two that deliberately interrupts your self-talk before it leads your train of thought into the side of a mountain.

When my self-talk choice is a bad one, I say, often out loud, "choose again." I'm amazed at how easy it is to change the mental subject.  

Choose again.

I still take the memory of that night in the restaurant out like a souvenir to remember the feeling of doing a small thing, that I would be proud of - or not.  In a small way, I became my own ally. 

There is word for what happens when you realize you've held yourself back, but then cannot imagine doing it again.

The word is choice. 

And there is a word for how it feels to choose and choose again. 

The word is brave.

How *oft-times it happens, that we live our lives in chains. And we never even know we have the key.

---The Eagles.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

For a very depressed person, it can feel impossible to "ask" or "reach out" for help. Give them your words instead.

Maybe if we changed the name.

Maybe, not "mentally ill" anymore, which, in the minds of very sheltered, unenlightened people still conjures grainy images of abandoned brick buildings and barred windows, vacant, aimless hall walkers, and wards of untreatable outcasts shouting at ghosts in the overhead lights. 

Not helpfully, in my town, our former "state hospital" (you know what that means) still looks like this on one unattended side----->

And, yes, those are bars.

We can't correct the terms of the past. We can't retro-label those lost souls who did wander halls and battle with overhead lights as mentally more-than-just-ill. 

But we can distance from the old associations with the words mental illness; a scar on the psyche - easy to cover up, but you know, there just the same. 

It is these perceptions that lodge like splinters in the minds of sufferers who are not crazy, or damaged or doomed, but are as nice and earnest and hard-working and kind as anyone, with one exception: 

However they got there, they've found themselves at the bottom of a hole feeling so deeply, impossibly, and hopelessly sad and disoriented, they sometimes don't have the energy to cry. 

For a person who is in that hole, this does not feel like a setback or a lack of energy. It feels like the new truth of their life. It feels beyond the reach of a friend's encouragement, or counseling, or chemical intervention, or a change in diet or location or career. 

It feels like forever. 

As a co-worker used to say before showing me how to avoid a disastrous mistake: "Ask me how I know." 

My first experience with depression came with a move to the opposite coast, one day after marrying my husband. I left my friends and family and job behind, not to mention a sweet, single-girl apartment which offered a view of the water if you carried a chair to the roof, stood on it, and looked through the trees in February with binoculars. 

The second came after the birth of one of our children. Every morning, I woke tired. Every day felt dense with fog until I stopped expecting sunny weather at all. I was exhausted of course, but oh my God, the guilt, because, oh my God, look at this gorgeous baby. And yet, there I was with a brain full of this: 

I knew I'd moved from an early to later stage when I couldn't shake the frightening feeling  that this would not get better.  For weeks, I scrutinized my mood. Is it better? Is it better yet?  

I was lucky. In both cases, my depression lifted spontaneously; in the first case ,with intensive contact with my family and friends back home, and in the second, with a hormonal makeover almost three months to the day of its onset.

Depression used to be explained in terms of a person's fit with their life; their ability to cope with setbacks, or their negative self-talk, or, in the minds of the sheltered and unenlightened, their weakness or strength. It is no wonder that sufferers are reluctant to ask for help; the most remote possibility that they will be accused of failing themselves, or not helping themselves hard enough is unbearable. 

Please hold while I feel my full contempt for sheltered, unenlightened thinking.



We know better, now. We know we can be mentally healthy, develop a problem, become mentally unhealthy or "stalled", but regain our health with attention, intervention, and action and become stronger than we ever might have been otherwise. More and more we are seeing this recovery the way we see people take exercise to heart after a serious not-mental-illness, and wind up running marathons, or teaching others to honor their own bodies.

And, you'd think we'd be blasé now, nonchalant about someone struggling with a mental health issue, the way we would be if Karen in Accounting had bronchitis, another not-to-be-screwed with ailment which is highly treatable with medication or other treatment. 

You wouldn't tell Barry from HR about Karen's bronchitis in hushed tones by the coffee maker, but that's how a lot of people talk about someone who is coping with depression or some other disorder. Worse, it's how a lot of people fighting it think about it.

Even with celebrities coming forward and nice people saying, "it's okay, it's okay," people suffering their own mental health disorder often will not - without swift and meaningful attention - see themselves in those shoes. 

Their shoes are different. They aren't even shoes. They're slippers. Nobody talks about slippers. 

Very depressed people often have given up and simply want to avoid scaring others, shaming themselves, or discovering the worst thing of all: that they can't be helped like the ones who wear shoes.

This is what they do, before they are saved.

Before they are saved.

And that is the way to think about people who are struggling with mental health problems, whether fleeting, chronic, or hidden.

They are stranded, in their dark holes, wearing their slippers-not-shoes.

Struggling with a mental health issue alone is the loneliest thing in the world and it breaks my heart to know there are people who would do anything for someone in their kind of pain, but won't do it for themselves.

So, I plan to be brave enough to approach someone who might be underwater. If it's too hard for them to converse, I'll write them a card, or pass them a note.

I plan to make noise about this. I've got some words and I know how to use them. I hope you will, too.