Sunday, November 20, 2016

Civic engagement is the new prozac

Like many of you, I'm in suddenly all aflutter with motivation to speak up and embrace my individual voice as an activist.  This newfound fire under our collectively complacent white privileged asses is one of the silver linings of the giant orange, gross storm cloud known as Trump.

At times I want to wallow in hopelessness and fear.  I could easily let my facebook posts dissolve into a flurry of righteous fury (see how I did that?  With the flurry and the fury?  They're like, almost the same word, except for the letter L, and the extra R for some reason!).   Sometimes my posts are self-righteous and indignant, and when that happens I go hit delete.  Because there is enough negative crap in social media world.  And the truth is, all we really have, ever, is the present moment.  And in this present moment, I can choose to take action.  Small actions, yes, but if ALL of the millions of Hillary voters and disillusioned 3rd party voters and non-voters started doing small things on a regular basis???  The world wouldn't know what hit it!    

Sadly, it takes a drastic situation to get many of us off of our asses (apparently I really enjoy writing the word "ass").   The reality is that it takes a sense of desperation for us to embrace activism, which still carries with it a stereotype of angry old hippis with long gray hair and an affinity for slightly out of tune folk music and mason jars.  BUT...what if activism became hip?  What if hipsters put down their PBRs to call their representatives?  What if millenials took selfies at marches instead of, uh, wherever millenials currently take selfies?  What if all the rich white conservative Christians who I used to go to church with in Bellevue attended a Black Lives Matter march?  What if people who claim that they "aren't political" (as it this is the same thing as saying you don't like to bowl) could see that civic engagement is really just like being part of one big PTA, but on a larger scale, and with less mompetitors?  

Yes, I do know that it's important to grieve, and to allow ourselves time for our emotions.  I am admittedly not very good at the aforementioned feeling of the emotions.  So maybe this post is one big avoidance tactic.  Also- I get that many people are truly afraid for their safety and may not feel inclined to show up on the streets to protest.  Many of you have experienced far more oppression than I have; I grew up as an upper middle class straight white Christian. I even attended a private Christian high school in Bellevue (gags to self).  So I cannot claim to know what it is like to be a person of color or a Muslim or a member of the gay community.   But based on my intermittent and very humble involvement in the gun violence prevention movement, I can share that there is nothing more healing and empowering than getting involved.  It's like chicken soup for the Trump-traumatized soul.  

So, for those of you who are ready to take small actions, and who find action to be healing (insert lewd joke about getting action), I am sharing my own humble to-do list. I can't take credit for this list.  It's a compilation of brilliant suggestions from the many brilliant people I interact with daily on facebook (despite my daily vow to spend less time on FB).  It's not thoroughly researched, nor is it comprehensive.   But at least it's somewhere to start. 

1) Support your local Muslim community.   One great organization is CAIR (The Council on American-Islamic Relations).  CAIR is the nation's largest Muslim civil rights organization. Their mission is to enhance the understanding of Islam, encourage dialogue, protect civil liberties, empower American Muslims, and build coalitions that promote justice and mutual understanding.   Visit the Washington website for local opportunities to support and advocate for our Muslim neighbors.  There are links to lists of anti-Muslim organizations, as well as suggested actions to take to fight Islamophobia.

2) Support refugees in your region.  Here in Seattle there is a fabulous organization called ReWa which "has grown to become one of the largest non-profit refugee and immigrant service providers in the Puget Sound area".   They have a wealth of fantastic volunteer opportunities.  If you're a teacher or a school based SLP, consider volunteering to help ELL students.   I'm going to look volunteering for their summer program in 2017.   

3) I am the last person to ever tell someone to go to church.  But on a personal level, I have been craving the sense of intergenerational warm fuzzy community that is nearly impossible to find outside of religious organizations.  Community support of some type is a good way to stay engaged and not lose heart.   And I want my son to learn about social justice and be around people of other backgrounds and beliefs. However, my husband is not a Christian, and he suffered some pretty ugly stuff at the hands of his Catholic classmates when he briefly attended a Catholic School that had a program for dyslexia.  So for him, communion triggers memories of sitting on the sidelines during school chapel services and being teased.  I have my own weird history with Christianity and I'm still sorting it out.  So to summarize, a Christian church is not an option for our family at the moment.  Drumroll...enter the Unitarian Universalist church (UUC). UUC members have a long history of involvement in social justice, beginning with their support of the abolitionist movement. For those who aren't familiar with the UUC, here is the national website.  

We attended our first service this morning at the Shoreline UUC, and it was like putting on a giant warm blanket of community that smelled like freshly baked bread. The "pastor" (I use this term loosely) based her sermon on the teachings of Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun who is one of my favorite authors.  Candles were lit for individual struggles, which were shared by members in open community support group style.  We sang hymns of reconciliation and unity. People cried about the state of affairs.  People offered each other hope.   Amidst all this, our son opted to sit next to us and draw pictures of bombs (his current cartoon-based obsession) (note to self: no more Inspector Gadget) instead of going to Sunday school, but no one really cared.  In other words, we felt right at home.   I'm looking forward to getting a weekly dose of hope and community in this sacred space.  I'm excited to have a group to meet up with at Marches and meetings and other small acts of engagement.

4) Support the "Black Lives Matter" Movement.  

I am attending the march in Seattle on Black Friday.  My privileged white angst is telling me that it may be dangerous, the police may be involved, and that there may be rogue protesters who incite violence, even though it is specifically meant to be peaceful and family friendly event.  But hello- this sense of fear for safety is something that people of color live with EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.   So yes, I can stand to leave my safe suburban bubble for just one afternoon and act in solidarity with people whose basic rights have been silently ignored by white liberal privilege for far too long.   There will always be a fringe group of people who don't understand the value of nonviolent protest.  But we can't use that as an excuse to NOT show up.  

5) Host a "calling" party, where you gather friends and call your representatives about the infinite number of concerns we all have.  Because let's face it- calling government representatives is scary and painfully awkward. Personally, I always feel like I'm back in 7th grade history class, and find myself forgetting how the government actually works (side note: people who work in politics and law- God bless those analytical fact-retaining brains of yours- I'm going to just stay over here in musician/speech therapist land and applaud your efforts).  If you're worried about the timing of calling east coast offices, a wise fellow mom I know who used to work for Patty Murray in DC (cough cough Susan cough cough) said that you CAN indeed leave a message, and the messages DO get checked and recorded onto the list of callers.  So yay!  Happy hour calling party!  Who's in?

6) Focus on just a few areas, or just one area.  With the current state of affairs, there is just SO much to do.  But no one person can do it all, and anyone who tries to do it all will get spread so thin that they run away in fear, leaving a life-sized tiny toons hole in the wall.   I say this as a founding member of the "try to do all the things and then freak out and do none of the things" club.   And thus, my list will end here.  Although I could go on about the environment, gun control, oh God oh God oh God...panic what was I saying???  Oh yes, this brings me to one more thing...

7) BREATH.  None of us are any good to the world or to each other if we've got ourselves so tangled up in anxiety that we can't leave our bedroom.  Breathing (and sometimes, prozac) centers us, and reminds us that really, truly, all we have is the present moment.   Right now, the world is NOT exploding.  Right now I am sitting on my couch, with a yoga pants wedgie that needs to be addressed as soon as I finish this post.   Right now my cat's ever-growing muffin top is hanging over the side of the couch, and my child is obsessing over Christmas Lights.  Right now I should probably help with this parenting situation before my husband goes insane.  So I'm going to breath in, breath out, and be present.  And turn on a cartoon for the kid.

Happy action-finding to all of you (snort).

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

How to survive divorce and Trump

I am blogging for the first time in years because, well, duh...Trump-mageddon.  Like many of my Hillary-supporting comrades, I just never, ever, ever (did I mention EVER?) thought this would happen.  Just like when I was pregnant for the first time, and I never, ever ever thought I'd end up on the ultrasound table at 10 weeks, with an awkward and stone-faced med student telling me " the results show that the, um...the pregnancy was not viable".  Just like when I walked down the aisle for the first time (yes, there have been 2 times) I never thought I'd be walking into a chilly, gray toned mediator's office 2 years later to settle the terms of a (thankfully) amicable divorce.  The thing is; I could explain those events.  Miscarriage happens to 1/3 of women (though most have been too shamed into silence to speak of it...see many previous blogposts on that topic).  Divorce happens to half of us.  They are shitty events but they unify us all, because divorce and miscarriage transcend all boundaries of human existence.  Well, maybe not the monastic existence.  Because if you're celibate then the chances of being divorced or miscarrying a baby are quite slim.  Especially if you're a monk.  But where was I?

Anyhoo...the reason I keep going back to those experiences is because that visceral feeling of being completely and utterly let down and abandoned (by God, my spouse, or 50% of the voting public) has the same impact on my heart, my faith, and my hope.

But here's the good news.  I got past those heartbreaks and went on to live a far better life as a result. And I'm pretty sure all 5 folks reading this blog have had similar experiences. Those heartbreaks actually grounded me, gave me strength, and ignited my passion to make my life better.  They brought to life every single cliche about closed doors and open windows (tell that to someone who has a partner with chronic gas issues...) (not referring to my husband) (maybe to my cat though).

So I'm going to approach this entire debacle as a macro-version of my micro-betrayal experience. And by that I mean my divorce.  After the initial anger and let-down of being dumped subsided, I came to just feel really, really sad for my ex.  He wrote me an email (possibly while drunk) 2 weeks before I married Rob.  He told me he regretted leaving me, and that he was living with his new fiance but couldn't bring himself to even buy her a ring.  How sad is that???? That POOR WOMAN.   I realized when I got that email that I was the lucky one.  I got to go forward without regrets.  I got to expand my horizons and experience love on such a vastly greater scale.  Still, I felt so very sad for him.  When you have loved a person on any level, you can never let go of a desire for them to be happy.  I don't know what he did with his life, but I still hope he is at peace, wherever he is.  I don't think of him often, but when I do, I like to picture him happily married.  I truly want that for him.  I want him to be as happy as I get to be.

As for the miscarriages...well, I am still processing that shit.  I am still angry that some female bodies just seem to have an easier time making babies than others.  But I know one thing; my own beautiful child would not be here if I had not lost one.  And my students get more of me because I only have one child.  That means a lot to me.

 What does this all have to do with the election?  I'm not really sure but here are my initial thoughts, based on my very personal and admittedly self-absorbed perspective:

1) Our friends and family who voted for Trump are going to suffer just as much as we will.  It won't feel good for them either, and that will be really sad, because we really do love them.   Let's repeat: WE REALLY DO LOVE THEM.  I am sure I have a minimum of 3 aunts/uncles who voted for him. And some cousins too.  I believe that these folks have good intentions.  Under the small town blond hair and blue eyes, I know they do have good hearts.  I'm sad for them that they've missed out on the incredible love that is felt when you truly and deeply attempt to open your heart to other people, no matter their gender, race, religion, or sexual orientation.  What kind of base level fear must be in a person's heart to find Trump remotely votable?   I am guessing it has a lot to do with a lifetime of hellfire and brimstone brainwashing.  Those of us who have been there and escaped know that this is no way to live.   But that's another blogpost altogether.

The point is; the people who voted for Trump aren't running around screaming "I love hate!  I'm a hater and I LOVE it!".  Well, except for the KKK members (who by the way totally LOVE Trump!).  Most people who voted for him think on some level that Trump is part of the solution to their current state of unhappiness.   They also think he is going to make the world easier for their children to navigate.  I know it sounds crazy friends, but I really do believe this to be true.   Think about how scary the world must look like to the people in these communities who are women or closeted gay men.  That is a seed for some true compassion, folks.  

2) Sometimes folks need to hit rock bottom.  And I can't think of a better way than by following a scary dark ego maniac down a tunnel of ignorance and hate.  The folks who love the Trump are going to experience first hand the truth that many of us know: he doesn't give a shit about anyone.  You can be the whitest, most KKK-loving person, and he doesn't give a SHIT about you.  And that is going to become readily apparent very quickly.  This gives me hope, oddly, that we are going to become MORE united in the wake of the suffering his administration will induce for everyone.  It's like when you have a friend who is dating a married guy, and you try to bite your tongue for those 5 years, and then that friend comes to you after being dumped for good and asks "why did you let me get involved with him???".  You don't state the obvious.  You just open your arms and love them.  Let's try and keep our hearts open so we can do the same for our fellow citizens when they need our support.

3) Compassion.  It is so easy to say, and so hard to feel.  For those of us with bleeding liberal hearts, compassion is easy when we're thinking about the homeless and the downtrodden.  Or kittens.  OR rats (OK maybe not everyone feels compassion for rats...but our poor rat has cancer and it's really the saddest thing!).   It is a hell of a lot harder to feel compassion when we're thinking about a stranger one block away who made a very poor voting choice and yet feels really, really smug about it.   But I know it is possible to feel compassion for even the most challenging people (or rats) in our lives.   So I am taking this turn of events as an opportunity to get back to my spiritual roots; to be grounded by the wisdom of the many peace-loving spiritual guides who have gone before us.  Folks who found compassion in the face of, frankly, far more trying circumstances.   I'm going to read the works of Dietrich Boenhoffer (a german pastor who helped Jews escape Nazi Germany and plotted to execute Hitler, but was himself executed in a concentration camp) Thich nat hahn, Ghandi, and other wise folks who have faced far more difficult political situations and oppression, and yet still maintained love and compassion for everyone.   Weirdos.

And on that note, I'm going to go pet my cancerous rat, play my guitar badly, and be present for my students tomorrow.  Ommmm....

Monday, December 28, 2015

ANTI-resolutions for 2016

I have not blogged in over two years.  I'm not sure why this's not as if I used to have more free time, or more thrilling content to write about.  But despite the resounding silence on my blog, I have had a plethora of mental breakthroughs, which I have subsequently forgotten.  But I am reminded of these breakthroughs at New Years, when the web is aglow with miracle diets that purport to finally turn us all into supermodels for only $49.99 (plus shipping and handling).  In an act of sheer rebellion, I have developed a list of "anti-resolutions".  These concepts seem terribly counterintuitive as half of our nation stampedes towards the nearest Whole Foods to purchase the "Nature's Pantry Way Shelf Natural 30 day diahreah be a model instantly cleanse" (TM).  But I have a sneaking suspicion that resisting the stampede will be better for my health in the long run.  So without further adieu....(clears throat dramatically)....

Lana's TOP 5 ANTI-RESOLUTIONS for 2016! 
(Copyright "Lana doesn't know what she's talking about", 2015)

1) I will NOT sign on for any restrictive/extreme diet plans.  

This includes diet plans which meet the following descriptions:

a) eliminating entire food groups from your diet without documented, individualized and scientifically-based health benefits

b) Promises to give us all a beach body in only 10/21/30 days

c) includes the words "breakthrough", "revolutionary", or "amazing"

d) Developed by celebrity personal trainers who exercise for a living

e) feature "before" and "after" photos in which the "before" picture just looks like a normal woman who has had a child and/or a life

f) includes reviews from other fatless fitness gurus

g) Named after a doctor who lives and Florida and whose head shot indicates a clear history of excessive tanning salon patronage

I will instead continue to chip away at the slow, bumpy, ever-changing, and ultimately more gratifying goal of eating mindfully and intuitively.  I will continue to focus my inner attention on a long-neglected source of wisdom; my body's cues.  This thing (referring to said body) is a result of eons of evolution.  And while it may be easily led astray by the shiny bright lights of high fructose corn syrup and white flour, it is generally quite skilled at sending clear signals when I need more veggies, less sugar, or a god-damned piece of CHEESE.  The problem is that I usually don't listen to these cues because I am busy reading diet books written by Dr. Fake and Bake, famous fitness consultant to the stars.

Don't get me wrong.  There is nothing more comforting than a book that promises a new life if only you would just live on quinoa, beets, and green drinks which take 5 hours to make each morning, you lazy loser!  I have purchased SO many of these books.  And they all wind up at the goodwill, because GUESS WHAT? Extreme diets are NOT realistic for anyone who has a) a job, b) a child c) a life or d) a pulse.    In my humble experience (which I suspect is somewhat similar to the experience of many of you) these diets always, always, ALWAYS end with a sense of failure.  Driving away from the Goodwill drop-off I find myself thinking "Why wasn't I able to modify each bite that enters my body at all times, and in all situations?  Why wasn't I able to ignore the constant stream of internal cues which my body sends me because it is STARVING.   Ah, meh, gawd, eh em SO fat" (because duh, knows that self-critical voice talks like a valley girl!  She uses a vocally destructive vocal fry too, because her full vocal range makes her look fat).   

Instead, I will work towards the ultimate goal of being a human being; you know, those weird creatures who eat lots of healthy things and sometimes eat not so healthy things.  Beating myself up for the not so healthy things has NEVER gotten me anywhere.  EVER.  Did I mention that beating myself up doesn't work? I just want to reiterate this because the aforementioned beating up of the self is SUCH a popular pastime for women in our culture.  

2) I will NOT weigh myself anymore.

My weight does not fit within the "average" range dictated by many a distressing BMI chart.  But even when I ate 1200 calories a day in my mid-twenties (I had recently been dumped by a guy obsessed with thin women and had decided that the only way to keep a man in our culture was to be "thin enough").  Even during that awful time, I was still on the upper end of normal according to the BMI charts that assume that every woman who is 5'5'' has the exact same build, bone density, and muscle mass.  NOPE!  I have the build of an athlete, and I always have.  I'm just sad it took me so long to appreciate this aspect of my genetic make-up.  I have run 4 half marathons, albeit slowly.  I have climbed mountains...slowly (OK fine, they were more like hills, but was an accomplishment, OK??).  Also?  I don't mean to brag, but I can do each posture in a 75 minute hot power yoga session.  Well, except for those that involve balancing in positions that could result in head injuries to myself or others.  The point is, I feel like a total badass when I'm going into warrior 2 and my "heavy" thighs get to show off what they can do.   THAT is what I want to focus on.  Sometimes my eyes gaze enviously upon the slender 20-something on the mat next to me (given that my yoga studio is very crowded, I usually have plenty of opportunity to study my neighbor's anatomy in excessive detail).   But then I recall looking just like that girl (mumbles number under breath) years ago, and I was not happy at that time.  I was anxious and lonely.  Yes, I did get more attention and recognition for my physical appearance.  I got hit on far more often because my body met our culture's dysfunctional picture of attractive.  But no amount of "oh my god you're so thin/you've lost SO much weight" comments ever silenced the inner angst.   

3) I will only do forms of exercise that I enjoy.

I started jogging when Elliot was an infant.  For a few years, particularly when I was home with Elliot full time, I really enjoyed running.  I loved the zone I got into around mile 2.  I loved the sense of physical exhaustion and achievement after completing an 8 mile training run by myself in the rain.  Mostly, I enjoyed the sense of community and belonging at various running events.   It was like I'd finally been admitted to an elite girl clique, and the only cost of admittance was a pair of running shoes and an ability to run a 5k without collapsing. 

I may enjoy these things again one day, but lately I have zero desire to run.  This fall, my old ACL injury flared up and my knee got sore whenever I went jogging with my running girlfriends.  While I was sad to give up that time with these women whom I adore, I decided to listen to my body and I started walking instead.  Yes, I said WALKING!  It's this miraculous form of exercise used all over the world by people of all ages!  When I was really into running, I thought walking was "boring" and an inferior form of fitness, primarily because it didn't burn as many calories.  But to follow up on anti-resolution 1 and 2: WHO GIVES A SH*T ABOUT THE CALORIES? It is such a joy to meander at a reasonable pace through the hills of our hood without feeling like each stride is a mental battle of will.  Perhaps I don't burn as many calories after a 3 mile walk as I would during a 3 mile run, but I certainly feel energized, revitalized, healthier, and a heck of a lot happier.  

4)  I will keep coming back to the present moment.  When I remember to.  One moment at a time.  

My bookshelf is overflowing with books about mindfulness (see list below).  I bought these books in a desperate flurry when my mom suffered a stroke and my husband was recovering from foot surgery and I felt like a walking, pulsating bundle of stress and fried nerves.  After reading these incredible gems I am not a zen guru, nor do I have a regular meditation practice.  I have no idea if I ever will have the discipline to set aside intentional time and meditate.  But what I DO have is a newfound awareness that there is in fact a different way to think and live.  

Meditation is not only for rich hippies who carry their home-brewed kombucha around in organic, grass-fed mason jars.  It doesn't mean you have to clear your mind.  It simply means you take a step back and observe the hamster wheel of your thoughts, offering your own brain the same judgment-free, objective lens you would offer the hamster (unless you hate hamsters, in which case we probably can't be friends).  You can do this for 30 seconds here and there; while washing the dishes, exercising, showering, driving, helping your 5 year old put on his pants even though he clearly knows how to do it himself, etc.  Thanks to my exploration into the concepts of mindfulness, I have a set of skills that allow me to insert the slightest distance from the inner monologue and fretful storyline that used to dictate my entire mental space. This ability to step back helps me wake up when I'm getting caught up in the future or the past, and the miracle is that just recognizing this and shifting my perspective ever so slightly can change my mental state instantly.  Suddenly the a-hole driver who honked at me doesn't mean the whole world is out to get me and ruin my day.  The whiny child does not mean I am a crappy mom who doesn't know how to manage her child's behavior.

The concept of focusing on the present moment alone is a miracle for those of us with, hem hem, "anxious tendencies".  I have always tended to spend a LOT of time and energy in future-land, which is a terribly dark place full of global catastrophes, sudden death of loved ones, loss of jobs, car accidents, plane crashes, cancer, and dreary financial situations.  Some recent examples from my voages to future-land:

  • Personal Health....."So and so died of cancer.  She smoked for 20 years.  I smoked for one year in my 20s.  Oh GOD, I'm going to die of cancer and leave my family behind and....[shallow breathing]....what will they do without me???"
  • Work....."I didn't take great data about that one kid who I worked with a few months ago.  I think he may have had a lateral lisp rather than a protrusional lisp.  OR what if he actually had tongue thrust and I missed it?   What IS tongue thrust anyway?  What if his very bitter and mentally unstable mother decides to sue all of the special educators who ever worked with him, and I lose my SLP license (note: this is a fictional child) and we have to sell our house and then Elliot doesn't get to go to college???".  
  • Parenting: "Elliot has never been invited on a playdate by a kindergarten classmate.  Does this mean I am not teaching him adequate social skills?  Should I be scheduling playdates? Never mind that he seems very happy and has great bonds with my friends' children who are his age...clearly I am ruining his social life by not facilitating closer friendships with children in his class!"
  • My parents' aging process and health: "Such and such happened to such and such old person who I worked with during my nursing home rotation in grad school.  What if this happens to my parents?  What if this happens to my mom?  How will my dad handle it?  What if this happens to my dad?  How will my mom handle it?  And how will I handle the weight of this burden, because clearly I have to do it ALL BY MYSELF!" 

Clearly there is some hyperbole involved here, but as you can see, future world is really no fun.  Thankfully it is not very likely to occur.  But even if it did occur, living in future world will not make these catastrophes any easier to cope with.  In fact, by living in future world I wear down my mental resources with a constant influx of cortisol, thereby reducing my stamina and emotional energy to cope with unexpected challenges. There is some real fancy psychological research to back this up, which I would cite here if I had the energy.

But thanks to the ancient spiritual wisdom of folks like Buddha, Jesus, and Oprah Winfrey, I am now aware that there IS an alternative place to mentally exist.  I don't have to be trapped in future land ALL the time.    Instead I can come back to the present moment, which truly is ALL we have (it's mind boggling to think about this fact for a few minutes...seriously, we have NO idea what the future holds, the only thing we have is right here and now...crazy huh???).  

I have found that returning to the present moment requires that I take a step back and redirect my mental energy towards 2 simple (but challenging) things: 



So just to recap....



When I'm going for a walk, usually I spend 90% of the time planning what I'll do for the day, the year, the decade...but the difference is that now I can take a step back (literally) and stop, even for just a moment, to focus on the smells around me (the smell of evergreens on a rainy day is intoxicating), the sights (amazing how much wildlife there is to see when I'm not obsessing about whether I said the right thing to a parent during a meeting two weeks ago), and the sounds outside of the constant inner dialogue (did you know you can hear boats on Lake WA even from a half mile away?).   

Washing the dishes, I can take a pause from my little annoyances (e.g. Elliot's love/hate relationship with all things edible).  Instead of going down the road of "why is my kid SUCH a picky eater?  What am I doing wrong as a mother?" I can choose to look at the rotund squirrels bouncing around carelessly in our backyard. Animals provide ideal (and hilarious) models of living in the moment.  I very much doubt that the obese balls of gray fluff out there spend ANY mental energy worrying about their non-existent squirrel waistlines.  They probably don't have a stack of books about the latest fad diet in their den (nevermind that squirrels can't read.  Work with me here!).  There is something to be said for sheerly focusing on survival.  Our superior brains and our capacity for meta-cognition (the ability to think about what we are thinking about) can be such a curse sometimes.  

5) I will try to practice self-compassion.   

Writing this last point, I must confess that I feel like Stuart Smalley, the famous self-help addict from 1990s SNL (see clip below for hilarious sample of Stuart in action).    

Despite the ridiculousness, he has some good points.  I grew up with a unique combination of 12 step programs and Southern Baptist Christianity that resulted in a very destructive idea that I should be constantly vigilant about my defects of character and daily seeking forgiveness for my endless list of sins.  Well aware of a family history of alcoholism on both sides, I was convinced I was an alcoholic before I ever tasted alcohol.  No pressure!  As a teenager, I wrote in my journal to God each night with a list of sins that needed forgiveness.  A very blunt therapist once asked me "what the hell did you even have to write about??".   So in other words, I tend to be just a wee bit hard on myself.   Thankfully I have realized that the only purification I need is to be cleansed of all the shame-generating sermons and bible studies of my adolescence.  

It's a slow process, but I have found lots of guidance from the wisdom of Buddhism and progressive Christianity (by that I mean the version of Christianity that actually follows Christ's clear focus on love and compassion for everyone).   While taking time to put on my imaginary blue cardigan and recite self-compassion meditations (with a lisp, obviously) may feel painfully awkward and ridiculous, these exercises are necessary to undue the aforementioned hellfire and brimstone brainwashing.  Also, a little self-compassion allows me to be far more compassionate with others, particularly my child.  The work of the fabulous psychologist Kristin Neff has been quite helpful (see her awesome website for resources and free guided meditations....narrated with a lisp, of course).  

On that note, may you all have a fantastic 2016, free of unattainable resolutions and full of self-compassion.  Because you're good enough, you're smart enough, and DOGGONIT, people like you!

Books about Mindfulness:

1) The Mindful Way Through Depression (multiple authors who I'm too lazy to list)

Great info about anxiety and how to use mindfulness practices to interrupt the anxiety hamster wheel.

2) The Mindful Brain, by Dan Seigel

Heavy on neuroanatomy and neurophysiology, but lots of fascinating research for you science dorks.

3) Peace is Every Step, Thich Nhat Hahn

Written by the famous zen buddhist monk who brought the concepts of mindfulness to the west during the Vietnam War.  Written very simply and quick to read.

4) Wherever You go, There you Are, Jon Kabat-Zinn

Written by the doctor who developed "Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction", a program for patients suffering from terminal illness, chronic pain, and mental illness.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

5 ways to be nice to other moms (and to yourself).

It's been awhile since I posted about the trials and tribulations of modern day parenting in rich-green-mom-ville.  Thankfully our parenting journey has been relatively "smooth" the past year or so, though by no means easy.  But I've been jogged awake by a few events:

  • My recent clinical training as a speech pathologist, which focused on helping parents whose children have developmental delays of many sorts (speech/language/social skills/feeding skills/num chuck skills...). 
  • The periodic quandary about when to have another child (at some undisclosed and likely far off point in time) and the resulting trips down memory lane; recalling those early days of parenting a newborn, and the pure shock of realizing how hard, and amazing, and hard (that's what she said) and amazing parenting is. 
  • reading the best parenting book ever written....and no, I'm not talking about Dr. Sears...I'm talking about Tina Fey's "Bossy Pants".  There are two chapters that she devotes to mom issues; 1 about being a working mom, and the other about breastfeeding.  Those short, silly and wise chapters sum up how I feel about both issues, and the biggest message is "do what works for you and stop judging other moms if they do it differently".  

Tina (my new BFF) talks about breastfeeding nazis, and I'm sure you all know who I'm talking about.   I've known a few.  They made life hell when I was no longer able to breastfeed Elliot.  One of my clearest memories of new parenthood was sitting in a lactation consultant/nurse's office when Elliot was 3 months old.  He had started to scream whenever he saw my boob come near him (I mean, they are quite large, but can a baby resist THESE? [insert lewd gesture of your own choosing]).   He had stopped gaining weight as a result of this lack of enthusiasm for my aforementioned well-proportioned boobs.  We would later discover that the source of this aversion was infant acid reflux (his poor tiny esophagus had been burned raw from the acid, and so he was in tons of pain when he ate.  Being a smart kid, he learned not to like eating and subsequently developed a feeding aversion which took months to undo).  Anyhoo, back to the nurse/lactation consultant's  office.  Actually, let's just call her "nurse asshole" to be more efficient.  She put him on the scale, looked at me quizzically, and said he was not gaining weight and I would need to pump more often and bottle feed him.  Since I produced roughly .00006 ounces of milk each time I pumped, I did the math and asked (through stifled sobs) about supplementing with formula. Her response, and I'm fairly certain this is a direct quote: "Well, you can do that if you have to, but just so you know, there are new studies showing that formula can actually cause some diseases".

I subsequently went home, burst into tears, and glided swiftly into a fun romp with postpartum depression.  I furiously pumped for hours each day, obsessively measured each ounce Elliot drank,
and mentally whipped myself each time I opened the jar of formula to supplement my meager breast milk product.  I soon developed the same anxiety and dread around feeding that my poor child was experiencing.  I don't know how we got through that but we did.  Let's just say it was not a fun way to start out our mommy/son journey.

I am not blaming this nurse for my post partum depression.  Though clearly she did not help the situation.  I'm certain she sat through numerous classes about how breast is best, formula is worst, and new moms need to be "encouraged" to breastfeed by any means possible.  She was just trying to do her job.  I am now sitting in some of these same classes, though thankfully the instructor who teaches our pediatric feeding course is far more fair-minded and down to earth about the topic.  But as I sit in these classes each week with these beautiful young ladies who do not yet have children of their own, I worry that they will set themselves up for future self-torture, just as I did as a beautiful young lady (chortle chortle).  Because what I finally realized is this: The greatest source of mom guilt was and still is my own expectations of myself as a mom, and my failure to meet these expectations.

Prior to actually having a child, I expected myself to breastfeed Elliot for at LEAST a year.  I expected to LOVE being a full time stay at home mom and find it to be the most fulfilling experience on the planet.  Neither of these things happened.  But some things happened which I wasn't expecting.  I was not expecting to love him THIS is unreal how much you LOVE these little creatures who come out of you!  I was not expecting to still need the balance of a career.  I was not expecting him to look like a mini-version of my husband, and I was not expecting to find that so ludicrously adorable.  I was not expecting to find such delight in his knobby little knees and stumpy big toes.  I was not expecting that my favorite part of the day would be snuggling next to him and reading stories each night.  I was not expecting to be so inept at coming up with crafty activities and games to play at home.  IN essence, parenthood is NOTHING like you expect it to be; it is so much harder, and so much better (that's what she said).

So this brings me to my very profound advice for new moms, or for people who work with new moms, or just happen to have conversations with new moms:

1) Focus on what you do well!  In any job, there are things you struggle with, and things you suck at (erm, I mean, "areas for improvement").  Try to do the sucky parts better when you can, but more importantly, focus on what you're GOOD at!  I am good at singing and dancing and acting ridiculous with children.  So I do that with Elliot...a lot.  I don't do crafts with him because it usually results in someone throwing glitter across the room in frustration (hint: I'm not talking about Elliot).  If nurse asshole had only affirmed what I WAS doing and that it WOULD be OK, I may have left her office smiling instead of sobbing.  When I was tagging along on speech therapy home visits to families of infants and toddlers with special needs, I was taught to always point out what the parents were doing WELL with their little ones, and to build on those great skills while giving additional tools to help with the challenges.  And EVERY parent encounters challenges, whether their child qualifies for services or not.

2) Ignore the breastfeeding-nazis (to quote Tina) and the mom-petitors.  The more passive aggressive remarks they make about daycare or formula, the greater the hole in their own sense of self.  Sad for them, but not your problem.  When Elliot was two and I decided to return to graduate school, it was such a relief to meet other moms who worked AND were great moms with happy, well-adjusted children. I finally felt that I had found my niche as a parent.  Not to say that there is anything wrong with staying home!   Which leads to my next point:

3) Don't define yourself OR other moms by these dumb categories;  work vs. stay at home, breastfed vs. formula fed; single child vs. multiple kids; "typically developing" vs "delayed".  We are all in this together.  Being a mom is just hard.  There is no easy way around it.  It's hard if you work outside the home or inside the home.  Either way, you are ALWAYS WORKING.  None of us has it easy, but at the same time, we are all SO fortunate to have the honor of raising these miracle boogers (seriously, they were inside of us!  Now they are here!  And they have legs!  And arms!  And tiny little noses!  How crazy is that????).   I have to make a conscious effort not to compare myself to the other parents who have a 2nd or 3rd child. When people start talking about the ideal spacing of siblings (should you have your kids 2 years apart or 3 years apart?) I think about having another child before you're ready and how that stress can impact the whole family.  And then I do my best to leave the conversation and find people without children to talk to.

4) Try not to build up expectations about how it's going to be.  That is impossible to avoid, I realize, but just know that it will be different than what you expect, and that really is OK.

5) Unless you are a pediatrician or a healthcare specialist of some sort, please do not start out conversations by asking moms about their child's developmental milestones. In fact, just add milestones to religion and politics on the list of things NOT to bring up in casual conversation. 

And on that note, go give your little nugget a big fat squeeze, and then go give yourself a giant pat on the back (or a huge piece of chocolate). You're a good mom!  Your kid is alive, loved, fed, and as healthy as you are able to get them.  You rock.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

5 of the most ludicrously gorgeous sacred carols EVER (with fancy links)

Lately I've been missing the spiritual aspect of Christmas.  Having spent many of my adult years working in churches as a paid choir singer (aka "ringer"), my December calendars of yore were always full of rehearsals, services, and concerts.  But when I went back to school last fall, I made a commitment to keep my priority list simple so I could be as available to my son as possible.  I didn't want to be away from him all day, only to see him briefly at dinner time and then rush off to another evening rehearsal.  So this is the second year that I find my December calendar oddly devoid of musical commitments.  And I'm left feeling that some crucial element is missing from the holiday season.  That element is music; not the corny, boisterous carols like Jingle Bells, but the brilliant choral masterpieces that celebrate the sacred, calm, and mysterious aspect of this season. 


Although I've drifted far from the comforting black and white Christian faith of my childhood, I still hold onto a sense of reverence for the birth of Christ.  I am not sure whether the whole story of Christ is an elaborate myth, or if Jesus actually was God incarnate (though if He was, he had a few wise spiritual brothers who inspired their own religions, in my very humble opinion).  Despite my lackluster identity as a Christian, I do maintain faith in some Divine Power greater than us all.  It is a benevolent presence that is beyond my understanding.  I like it that way.  I'm fairly certain that the Omnipotent Being who created the intricacy of a snowflake and the vast power of the Universe has qualities that are far beyond my puny human brain's capacity to comprehend.  And that mystery is exciting, because it tells me that there is more to our existence than the day to day ups and downs.  It tells me that there is hope beyond the horrific tragedies that we see each time we turn on the news.  As we approach the 1st anniversary of the Connecticut school massacre, that darkness and tragedy is particularly close to the surface of our realities.


I see this beautiful mystery when I look up at the stars and attempt to grasp just how tiny our little world is in relation to the grand scheme of things, or when I look at my little boy sleeping peacefully and try to fathom the miracle of his existence. Pema Chodron, a well-known American Buddhist nun and writer, talks about our awareness of such mystery in an article called Waking up to your world: "Awakened mind exists in our surroundings—in the air and the wind, in the sea, in the land, in the animals—but how often are we actually touching in with it? Are we poking our heads out of our cocoons long enough to actually taste it, experience it, let it shift something in us, let it penetrate our conventional way of looking at things?"

This mystery is captured so perfectly in the image of the baby Jesus.  Mind you, I don't mean the bigotry-spurning Jesus portrayed by fear-fueled fundamentalists.  I mean the radically loving and compassionate Jesus who unconditionally accepted EVERYONE; republicans, democrats, prostitutes, judgy pharisee asshole types, gay people, straight people, alcoholics, meth addicts, compulsive shoppers, potheads, anarchists, welfare queens, CEOs, and even George Bush Jr.   Whether He was literally the Son of God or just an amazing leader and teacher, his life embodied compassion, and his birth and existence was and is full of miracle and mystery.

As a musician, I have found that music conveys this mystery far more fully than any sermon, book, or dogma I've ever encountered.  So as I prepare for the Christmas season, I am going to try and take a few moments here and there to be still and be awake to the mystery of the baby Jesus and all that He represents.  When I'm tempted to obsess over our limited gift budget or the catty annoyances that come up between family members, I'm going to listen to songs like those I've listed below (with fancy youtube links so you can hear them too!).  These are choral classics which I've had the honor of singing many times with various choral groups.  They never fail to quiet my soul and help me tap into the mystery of the Divine. 

  1. Lux by Eric Whitacre, a modern (and living!) composer.  The video is almost as orgasmic as the music (and no I don't mean THAT kind of video).

  2. A Christmas Carol written by the great American composer Charles Ives, and sung here by the exquisitely in-tune choral group Chanticleer (*PS: if anyone needs more evidence that gay men are indeed just as blessed as Godly as any straight person, I suggest listening to a few of their spirituals, and then try to spout reasons why they shouldn't be able to marry one another in a sacred union).  And speaking of Chanticleer, here is their amazing recording of the next song on the list...

  3. Ave Maria by Franz Beibl.

  4. Bogoroditse Devo, the "Ave Maria" movement of Rachmaninoff's obscenely gorgeous Vespers. 

  5. Oh Magnum Mysterium written in 1572 by some guy named Vittoria (clearly I've forgotten everything I learned in my music history courses). 
On that note (HA!  Get it?  Note?  Music?) whatever your belief system or religion, may you all find a moment to stop, breath, and ponder the mysterious spirit of this season.  I'd also love to know, my dear readers, which songs bring you BACH to your spiritual center (get it?  BACH? the composer?  Oh nevermind...).  No seriously though, I really would love to know, so please share, either here (if you can figure out how to comment) or on facebook.  Happy singing/listening!

Friday, November 29, 2013

The Idiot's Guide to Gratitude (do not read if your life is perfect).

Yesterday facebook was abuzz (not a real word) with a flurry of gratitude lists.  Many were refreshingly honest and real, and a few may as well have had a friendly signature line that said "sincerely, Mrs. Perfect, from Pleasantville".  I tried to avoid the public gratitude flurry altogether, and instead posted an annoying braggy photo of my husband at a yuppie running event called the, hem hem, "turkey trot" (note that the picture was taken before we actually started running.  Had I posted an action shot, you would have seen not only our bodies running, but also the snot from our noses and the complaints from my whining mouth).

However, I do think there is a place for gratitude in all of our lives.  It can be tremendously therapeutic.  And I don't mean the fake, "my life is perfect" gratitude that just makes the rest of us feel like big fat failures for having flawed existences and waistlines.  I mean the genuine, frightening, and vulnerable gratitude that allows us to treasure the gifts and people we value, even if we're scared shitless we may lose them to "death and grief and sorrow and misery" (the title of a brilliant song from Steve Martin's old-school stand-up routines) (I'm too lazy to find the youtube link, but I highly recommend that you look it up in your nonexistent spare time) (I'm not sure who "you" are, but right now I am picturing an odd conglomeration of people who actually respond to stuff I post, and you are all sitting in my living room and we are watching Steve Martin while eating pizza).

Having now taken numerous classes on depressing neurological disorders (Aphasia, Alzeihmer's, Parkinson's Disease) I have learned about a plethora of research-based "strategies” (Speech Pathology buzz word) for improving the mental functions of future clients.  And  I have found it very useful to apply these tactics to my own disordered brain.  Like 99.999% of the people I know, I have struggled at various points of my life with anxiety and/or depression.  I have also adopted an impressive array of unhealthy coping mechanisms to combat these challenges.   However, I’ve realized that the tools that can help a client with a TBI recover some of his/her executive functions (e.g reason, planning, emotion regulation, "self-control") can also help any of us with our day to day neuroses.  And one of those tools is gratitude.

So, in an effort to use gratitude to thwart the neurotic thoughts that can lead to hours of obsessive first world worry, I've developed a slightly odd but effective visualization exercise.  I find it  helpful to imagine that my more negative and fear-based neural pathways are like transformers, and these transformers (note: I do realize this analogy is weak at best) can "transform" into far more sane and logical neural pathways with the help of a magic little laser beam called "gratitude".   So, without further adieu (except for the 5 minutes I will spend figuring out how to spell “adieu”) I hereby conclude this post by presenting this very professional-looking table, to illustrate the profound “mental transformer laser gratitude light beam” process (copyright 2013, TM, LLC).  I could make this table 5 times longer, but that would be boring for everyone involved.  Happy slightly-less-neurotic Holidays everyone!!!!!

Neurotic and/or anxious
1st world problem
thought process
Magic Gratitude
laser light beam tool
Slightly less neurotic and far more sane
thought process
Oh my god, my son is not potty trained yet.  AND he still uses a binky.  All the other parents are judging me.  I’m clearly a bad parent because I did not potty train him beginning at 12:01 a.m. on his 3rd birthday.  And we may as well just move into a trailer park where he can suck on a binky until he’s 10.  Why am I even trying to work with children?  I clearly don’t know what the HELL I’m doing!
Every week, I see children Elliot’s age who struggle to do very basic things like speak or walk.  Not to mention the kids in foster care who don’t have a parent obsessing over these things.  I am so thankful that my child is healthy and loved.
Kids develop in their own time, and there is a huge range of when they will acquire various skills.  Some skills happen earlier than others.  Just as I don’t judge my clients parents (or at least try not to) I am not going to beat myself up or nag my kid incessantly if he’s a little behind the curve when it comes to pooping techniques and oral comforts.
I have zero self control and I lead an unhealthy lifestyle because I still eat gluten, drink ludicrous amounts of diet coke each day, and have an excessively passionate relationship with McDonald’s French fries.  I used to be a size 6, and now look at me!  My muffin top is hanging down to my knees!  We should be on the Paleo diet, but we should also be Vegan.  WHY oh WHY can’t I just live off of raw nuts, chia seeds, and kale????  What’s WRONG with me?
a) We can afford to eat!  Hallelujah! 
b) We have made some very positive changes in the past year towards living a healthier lifestyle.  We don’t drink anymore (unless you count diet coke...which is probably just as unhealthy as alcohol), Rob and I recently started running together, and we only eat DiGiorno pizza for dinner 1 or (mumbled number) times a week. 
3) We are lucky to have so many choices about what we eat.  Not everyone is so lucky.  As someone once blogged, you rarely hear poor people worrying about their food sensitivities.
Healthy living is a process.  Our family has come a long way and we continue to improve and make “better choices” (air quote).  So it's not the end of the world if we indulge in a sinful plate of cheesy, creamy pasta now and then.  After all, great food is an important part of our quality of life.
[after listening to NPR or receiving the Nature Conservancy calendar]: the world is falling apart!  Climate change is going to send us all into anarchy and chaos and there will be NOTHING left but deserts of misery.  Also, on that note, the man is out to get us with the evils of the oil industry (these are things I think of while guzzling up fuel on my daily commute).
I am so grateful for amazing organizations LIKE the Nature Conservancy.  Having worked there briefly (it did not go well) I know they are making genuine changes for the better.  They and the many  environmental organizations around the world have supporters in powerful positions who are working hard to ensure that we all do what we can to preserve our beautiful planet.  Also, look at how far the world has come in terms of environmental awareness and policy. 
While the state of the environment is troubling, there is still hope, and there are positive changes occurring every single day; both on a local and personal scale, and on a worldwide scale.  Yes, there is tragedy and horrible raping of the earth happening, but there is also positive change.  And I can contribute far more to that change by sharing this hope, instead of hiding in a fearful, end-of-the-world green bubble.