Better & Bolder, the Blog

Pride

art show


I do not take pride in being white. Or being Jewish. Or being female. I had nothing to do with any of those things. They aren’t an accomplishment. They are my inheritances, and I can take pleasure in them and pleasure in being part of the group, or not.

Pride is defined as “a feeling or deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one's own achievements, the achievements of those with whom one is closely associated, or from qualities or possessions that are widely admired.” I don’t understand deriving pride from something we admire. Pride should be earned. But I do understand pride derived from the achievements of someone we love.  

When my daughter Siobhan returned to ABQ after living in New Orleans, she wanted, fervently, to continue creating art as she’d done while living in NOLA. I think there was some fear – would living in ABQ de-inspire her? Her remedy was to plan and produce a pop-up art showing.

Two nights before the show, the home she’d planned to use for the show became unavailable. Siobhan embraced the challenge. Instead of getting stuck, she threw herself into the work of making her own rental home the new site of the show. Her brother, also an artist, threw himself into the work with her.

It was a great show – a fun atmosphere with interesting and diverse art from young artists. It was exactly the type of learning-and-thriving experience that a mama wants for her kids.

Mixed in with pride was joy. My daughter was creating what she needed. Her goal was to encourage the creation of both art and community. She wants to support other artists.

Last week was a shit-show of horrors in the world. I’m certain some good has come of it. For instance, after decades of ignoring monuments to men who upheld the value of slavery – men who were willing to commit treason and war against the US government – now we are emboldened to see them for what they are and take those motherfuckers down.

Today the Wall Street Journal reports that “Daughters of Confederacy ‘Reeling’ From Memorial Removals.” One woman sobbed, “I feel very hurt, like this is not my America.”

It’s not your America. It’s ours. The monuments to your supremacy should have been removed decades ago during the Civil Rights movement, but -- and you know this, Ms. Daughter of the Confederacy -- that’s when so many of them were erected. Their intent is to terrorize people of color while you sob about “culture” and “pride.”

Take your “pride” and shove it up your white ass because you didn’t earn, nor did your ancestors earn, pride. Racism is what allows slavery to exist, allows Jim Crow laws to exist, and it is not your cleverness or superiority that has kept you in power. I take that back: your ancestors were, as Frederick Douglass in his autobiography describes, excellent thieves. Does that make you proud?

I’m proud of my daughter. I’m proud of her father and me for raising someone who values art and community, and I’m proud of us for nurturing her skills. I’m proud of us that our daughter feels good coming to us for advice and help. That is the most awesome of feelings: she mostly doesn’t need us but sometimes does and even better, she wants us.

No, even better is this: I am inspired by my daughter. I am learning from her. When I gave up the scale a few months ago, it was because she’d done it the year before. When I think of who and how I want to be in the world, I want to be better for both my kids – less judgmental, less anxious, more willing, more fun, more thoughtful.

When I was growing up, I was ashamed of the parts of me that felt most Jewish – big nose, unruly curly hair, and most especially my loud voice and manner. I felt big and pushy and ugly. I felt unfeminine. This shame, I am guessing, is the origin of many pride movements. We did not earn that shame; we did nothing of which to be ashamed, though somehow we took that on – ashamed to be female or Jewish or fat or whatever else.  We replace that shame with pride, but I’m going to hold with this: we need to earn our pride.

Self-respect does not need to be earned. We are born with love and respect and if it’s beaten out of us, it becomes our sacred duty to return to that state. If you’re caught up in shame, get busy getting beyond it. Do things to make yourself proud. 

Love

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I spent several days in Colorado to celebrate my mother’s aunt’s 90th birthday. Her family made her keep it small – no book group, no havurah; she’d have to hold separate celebrations with those women because the restaurant’s large room could hold only 60 or so of us --close family, a little less close family, friends, her latest boyfriend (a cute older man in his early 90s).

The theme of this woman’s life is love. Over and over at her birthday celebration, friends and family stood to say how welcoming Sheila was, how full with love, how special. It was awesome to witness. How many of us could fill a room with people who love us and are filled with gratitude to have known us? May we all have a few good close friends, those who need us entirely, as well as family we both love and enjoy. May we all, though we don’t.

Sheila’s life has been about making connections and staying connected, and she spread that joy to everyone.

Her first husband – and that’s how my mother is related to her – was not Mr. Love. Henry was, as was his twin sister (my mother’s mother), an alcoholic with a variety of other addictions and bad moods. The twins’s mother died when they were just two years old in the flu epidemic of 1919.  Both twins died young as well, my grandmother in her 50s and Henry just past 60.

After Henry’s death, my mother’s aunt-by-marriage stayed connected with us. We continued to travel to Colorado each summer to be with Sheila and her kids, all closer to my sisters’ age than to my mother’s. Thus my cousins-once-removed became my only cousins: neither my mother nor father had siblings. Not true – both had half-siblings, though the connection was faint and there was not much love between them.

At the celebration dinner, Sheila told the story of her very fast and intense courtship with Henry. I think Henry chose Sheila because she radiated love, and he wanted some of that.  They quickly had five children, which Sheila has described as some of the happiest years of her life.  When my children were small, those were some of the most difficult years of my life because I lacked the patience. Or maybe I lacked the confidence it takes to slow down and be on toddler time.

I don’t think Sheila needed confidence or patience as much because she had so much love.

Here’s what I learned on this weekend trip. I learned that love is a choice that I sometimes refuse to make. I retreat into judgmentalism, a trick analytical people use to stay in their heads and defend their positions. I learned that I’d rather be loving than judgmental.

I have decades of unnecessary harshness towards others that I wish I could erase. It’s wonderful that as we get older we can learn to be better, stronger, softer, wiser. It makes it hurt all that much more, though, that I didn’t know and couldn’t do then what I hope I know and can do now. The stakes feel even higher: there’s less time to get it right. There are decades of habits and layers of defenses. I learned well how to judge and withhold love.

On Friday night, the first night of Sheila’s birthday celebration, I spent the evening catching up with the cousins and their kids, who are close in age to my own kids. It was great fun to see them becoming their adult selves. I did not avoid my sister at the gathering, but I didn’t seek her out either. I just didn’t care. Though I hadn’t seen her in a year and had talked with her only a few times since then, I felt little desire to connect. There’s a long history there of alienation.

I assume that I love my sister, even though I do not wish to spend much time with her. I don’t feel the love, and I don’t seek to increase the connection. I did try to do that, for years, and when it ended badly in all sorts of ways, I just gave up.

I don’t know what happens to love then. I don’t know if we love less, or we just let the love settle underground, some place safe where we can’t really feel it but it lives nonetheless.

I have begun to question what love is. Is love when we like someone and hold values together and spend time nurturing each other? Or is love something that’s built on experience, on years of living together, of family ties, and it’s something that can’t be destroyed because it’s just there, like it or not?

I know I love the people that I love. I have no difficulty telling them that I love them. But I don’t feel that love so much. I don’t wake in the morning and feel love in my heart. That’s a choice. I could focus my awareness anywhere I want.

On Saturday morning, I took a Nia class in Denver. When I’m a student and not the teacher, I can close my eyes and go inside and just dance. That morning, as in many Nia classes in which I’ve been a student, I had a moment of clarity, deep and profound, a knowing that does not come from my analytical mind and cannot be ignored. With this knowing, I felt a sense of grief and then calm. The root of my judgmentalism is there in my history, and seeing its source, I lighten. This is the bright side of an analytical mind – just explain it to me! Just let me see what it really is and why it is. Once I understand something, I am free to move beyond it.

A friend told me recently that I don’t need to feel love for someone to act with compassion toward that person. What a relief it is to not have to search for that feeling of love. For some people, it probably comes easily. For some people, like Sheila, love radiates and spreads and informs everyone around that person. I am not those people. I come from the line of Henry, addicts, alcoholics, insomniacs, who are depressed and grumpy and judgmental and smart and smarting.

Like Henry, I married a partner who finds it much easier to love (and to sleep and to avoid addictions). My husband is less judgmental and demanding than I am. Sometimes, when I want to know if I’m normal, I think, what would Hugh do? (One of Sheila’s grandchildren admitted the same thing, offering wondering not WWJD but What Would Grandma Do?)

If I eat a huge meal and feel regret, I think, well, does Hugh regret when he eats big? No, he’d just say his belly hurt and then absolutely forget about it. It’s just food. It was just a meal, not a judgment on someone’s worth. Like, how ridiculous that would be if eating a bunch of cookies was the measure of a man? 

If I plan a workout but decide not to do it and feel really lazy and guilty, I think, well, would Hugh feel bad? Fuck no. If I don’t call my mother every week, am I a terrible daughter? Hugh rarely called his folks, and he never really thought about it. If they wanted to talk to him, they could call him. I’m not saying whatever my husband does is optimal. It’s just not tortured.

I have several core beliefs, absolutely messed up beliefs that do me no good. I believe I am a bad person, and I believe that whatever I do will never be enough.  If I help someone, that’s good, but I could have done more and I should have done more. If I worked hard, I look for the ways I could have and should have worked harder. If this were simply seeking self-actualization, perhaps it would be a positive force toward personal improvement. But really it’s just a way to lash myself and reinforce my inherent not-good-ness. It is an incredibly selfish and self-conscious worldview. It is me connecting to myself, over and again, in a loop, ruminating on my faults and wishing desperately to defend myself. Well, I will never be enough. So be it. Now let’s get on with things! Now I can focus on enjoying my moments and being kind and loving to the people that I love and valuing connection. I can focus on knowing what I value and living those values.

I hadn’t written this blog for 18 months, I’d said, because I wasn’t sure anyone cared to read what I had to say. But it’s more than that. I know others have feelings and experiences that I have had, and sometimes reading about it in others makes us feel less lonely. Writing is one way to connect. I wasn’t writing this blog because I couldn’t get past my frustration with focusing on myself. I would write about myself and then, oh, lordy, I am boring myself with myself. I am so tired of me being me.

But now I also hold a tiny strand of hope: what if I turn away from a few of the habits that hold me down? What if I embrace a slightly kinder way of being in the world? What if I gave fewer fucks about all sorts of things, including whether I am enough or I do enough? I have this terrible and limiting core belief, and what if I treated it like no big deal? Stop giving it so much power. Stop ruminating on it. Stop feeding it. Just notice it, wave hello every now and then, oh, there you are, and move on. I will never be good enough. Yeah, yeah, that’s the human condition. What else you got on deck for today? Nothing to see here. Move along.

I will never have the shining love light that Sheila has. It’s just not my constitution. I will always be analytical and by extension judgmental. Next up: I can catch myself in the act and shut it down when it’s not doing me and my loved ones any good. It might take me a few decades of practice, and if I’m lucky, I’ve got time. I’ll start now.

May I make it to 90 years old, and may I look back at all my years with gratitude and love. May I become less depressed and anxious with each year. May I connect more where it’s important. May I live on compassion when love fails me. 

How to Be Happy When You’re Not in the Mood

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I’ve been depressed, on and off, these last few weeks. Maybe more. I don’t know.

My depression as a teen didn’t weigh on me. It was angsty and expected. But it worsened. I remember one time in college, locked in an icy Massachusetts winter, dreaming of shedding all my clothes and walking out into the snow. I remember one night at midnight, vacuuming my dorm room, as if cleaning could clear away the awful feeling of being detached from life.

I could live with it, though, until I became a mother. It’s not okay to be depressed while caring for small children. There isn’t room for that shit. There were times I did not want to live. That wasn’t an option, though, because I was a mom and my kids needed me. Since my life was so privileged, I felt churlish and ungrateful to be depressed and not want to live. So on top of being depressed, I felt awful that I allowed myself to be depressed. I refused drugs – who knows what are the long-term effects of those things? – and yet I really really wanted a magic cure.

Being a mother required that I become a much better person. It wasn’t okay to be depressed and tired. I ate less sugar so my blood sugar wouldn’t spike and I wouldn’t become so nasty and hangry. Still, my kids recall that I yelled. A lot. That was me being unable to handle stress. And blowing up. I have never had a high-stress life but I have lived, each moment, holding my breath a fraction too long. I have lived with the constant sense that I am not good enough or doing enough good, and this keeps me on the edge of unworthiness and despair.

I used to say our dog Lola was my Prozac. We’d go out for long walks and somewhere an hour into it, my mood would shift. This was before I was running. Besides walking and running, I discovered Sonja Lyubomirsky’s The How of Happiness. She says happiness is about half genetic and about 10% whatever’s happening in our lives. That’s why I can be depressed even though I have a spectacular life—a home, a family, always enough food to eat. Healthcare. A car of my own to drive. Work that I enjoy. I have a very long list of what makes my life particularly easy and wonderful.

The rest of our happiness is the 40% of techniques and behaviors we choose. The most powerful are the ones that connect us to others, such as expressing gratitude or helping others.

After reading Lyubormirsky’s book, when a bout of depression would overwhelm me, I’d go into solution mode. I’d write out everything for which I’m grateful. I’d write down things that I’d done well (or well enough) to remind myself I have worth. These activities always helped, or maybe there would be some other change – the end of the term, for instance, or the resolution of some conflict that had been wearing me down. I expect that bouts of depression will recur, and my goal is to make those bouts shorter and less intense with more time in between them.

It never feels okay, but I’ve stopped wishing for a drug or a cure. I’m calmer about the whole thing: “Oh, look, depressed, again. Shit. I hate this. I feel haunted. Help. Help! Okay, I’m deep in it now, the really yucky part where I don’t want to live. But other people depend on me and I have a great life, so I’m going to keep moving forward and really hope this starts to feel better soon. I wonder what I can do this time to make it go away. I hope it doesn’t last long. Long walk. Write it out. Tell a few people about it. Distract myself with a good book. Notice how beautiful the sky is and how awesome that Nia class was. Keep breathing. Try to get better sleep. You got this. Keep going.”

One theory of depression is inflammation. Our bodies are inflamed, and we respond by wanting to go hide in a cave until we’re better. This theory makes a lot of sense to me. I saw it with Lola, when she was hurt; she didn’t move or eat or respond for a few days while she healed. I think (think think think think) that certain foods have caused inflammation in me so dramatically that within 24 hours, I’m wishing a truck would take me out. That’s why I stopped eating wheat (btw, current theory is that it’s the fructans, not the gluten, that causes negative reactions in non–celiacs, and I think think think think that could be true for me).

I’m also more depressed when I’m tired because, duh, go to sleep and feel better. Perhaps the sleep helps with the inflammation. Some depression maybe is a response to a change in hormones. Maybe it’s my vagus nerve or my gut biome or my brain chemistry or my genes or my gene expression. Or all those things, cascading. Maybe it’s habit.

When I’m disconnected from spirit, I’m stuck in my head. I’m thinking negative thoughts; I’m worrying or feeling anxious. I may have a glorious hour of relief when I’m dancing or moving or out by the river with Zee. But then I’m tired, and I despair. Everything that aches or itches on my body calls for my attention. I’m staring at everything that’s wrong and that is all that matters. It’s all I can think think think think about. Got a rash? Why? What am I doing that I have a rash? That rash bothers me. Maybe it’s what I’m eating. Or not eating. Let’s look it up online. Let’s try solutions X, Y, and Z. A supplement? What if that supplement makes me worse, not better? This rash means something is wrong with me.

Beth, it’s just a f**king rash. Put on some cream and get on with life.

Anxiety is thought to coincide with a tendency toward depression. There’s some evidence that there are certain genes that predispose us to both. Rumination is the silly human thing we do when we cannot stop thinking about something in an attempt to fix it when really there’s nothing to do but live through it and give it btw waaaaaaay less energy instead of that constant think think think think. Rumination may precede depression and anxiety or maybe it’s all just one big unhappy mix.

I have never used the word anxious to describe myself. Sure, I get depressed, but I rarely have anxiety attacks.

However, I’ve been tracking my brain the past few weeks, and that weird worrying seems a lot like anxiety to me. For instance, on Friday, I spent the morning cleaning. When I’m in the mood, cleaning feels very satisfying. But on this morning, I spent the whole time I was doing things thinking about the other things I wasn’t getting done. I love checking things off a To Do list, and by 8pm, I had checked off so many many things – yet I still felt dissatisfied. I was anxious all day because while I was doing one thing, I was not able to do something else simultaneously. I spent the day being anxious, feeling ill at ease, unable to relax into what I was doing.

Then it hit me: holy heck, I’m an anxious person. Do not laugh at me, those who have met me and have noticed I have a certain tendency to be, oooh, dramatic or intense or completely unable to sit still. I didn’t until this week think, hmmm, maybe “anxious” also describes me. I thought I was cranky or irritable or judgmental or restless or impatient and certainly depressed but I never labeled myself as anxious.

You might think that I would resist this label, but it’s a great relief. Whatever its origins, now I have a name and a perspective. I am not a bad person because on Friday I should have been feeling okay but couldn’t relax. I’m an anxious person who didn’t have the skills to work with my anxiety that day.

When I’m anxious, I can say, “This is what anxiety feels like. It’s a feeling, not a reality. I do not have to respond to it. I do not have to think about it. I just do what I’m doing and it will resolve on its own.” The special name for this is self-talk or mindfulness. Notice what’s happening, give it a name if that helps, and stop the process of distress. I may not be able to stop being anxious but I can stop the distress I feel at being anxious. Or if I can’t stop the distress, I can at least note this isn’t permanent and it’s not a sign of total system collapse.

I think a lot about what I eat. I mean, a constant think think think think. Did those walnuts cause the rash? If I ate just the right things, would my inflammation lessen and my Achilles would not ache so much? I think think think think and I think I might be eating disordered. Maybe so, and also I’m an anxious person and I fixate on food.

One of the cures is to, you know, just eat and don’t worry so much. That doesn’t mean not eating a healthful and nurturing diet. It means not freaking out about walnuts. It means if I have a rash or a speedy heart or any number of unsettling reactions, I can ponder for a short bit and then STFU. Thinking through a problem is good. Rumination should be reserved for life-threatening situations in which I must really think through an issue. Otherwise, stop it. Stop.

Lyubomirsky has suggestions for when we are stuck in rumination. The first is my favorite: distract. Do something to take our mind away. I like to read, immersed in another world, a fake one, and most enjoyably an impossible one (sci fi and fantasy and none of that political allegorical stuff). Lyubomirsky also suggests writing it down, which does help me. Movement helps. Hugs help.

Neither my depression nor my anxiety is life-threatening. They drain my joy and energy, but they haven’t stopped me from being functional and productive. There’s possibly a positive flip side to them; in some ways, perhaps they have stimulated growth. 

I recognize that for some people, depression and anxiety is debilitating and life-threatening. I recognize that self-talk, writing things down, and distraction as coping skills could be like using a fly swatter to deal with Godzilla. I’m not talking about depression and anxiety as conditions; I’m talking about me. 

This depression and anxiety and worrying and rumination are simply part of who I am now. Here’s the kicker: I can love these things about myself. Yeah, I’m a sometimes depressed and frequently anxious Jew who overthinks things. Yeaaaah, that’s me.