Monthly Archives: March 2015

Finding a Spiritual Life When I Left Religion Behind

Like many people my age, I consider myself spiritual but not religious, but that wasn’t always the case. Despite growing up in a family of atheists and agnostics (or maybe because of it), with no religious upbringing whatsoever, I found Jesus. I don’t know where’d he been before that, but I found him when I was in high school.

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I’d been baptized and confirmed in middle school (salvation – checked off) but by high school I was feeling a little rough around the edges. I was going out to clubs, drinking, smoking pot, sleeping with my boyfriend. Then, I upgraded to an older boyfriend with a motorcycle. Let’s just say I was much more Mary Magdalene than the Virgin Mary. At 16, I was already feeling unhappy from and tired of life. I’d had some near misses with my risky behavior, and I wasn’t so sure I’d get another free pass. Something had to give.

Enter religious conversion.

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As with all the boys I’d pined for up to that point (and, okay, maybe for some years afterward), I threw myself at Jesus pretty shamelessly. It’s true. I worshiped him and changed my behavior so I could be more like what I thought he wanted (based largely on highlighted and underlined New Testament passages in my New International Version Study Bible). People, I was in love. Seriously in love. I’m not shitting you when I say there was a time during my senior year when I actually contemplated becoming a nun. Yeah, that idea passed pretty quickly, but still, I had it.

I don’t do anything in moderation. So Jesus got 150% of me, all the Christian fervor I could muster at 16. Being His personal advocate, I took it upon myself to speak to my family, sinners that they were. How sad I would be that they’d be burning in hell while I strolled with the angels in heaven. (Yes, I actually said this to them.) I was pretty dogmatic, but I was 16 and, apparently, knew everything.

So in my senior year of high school, much to everyone’s disbelief, I joined the youth group at church, started going to religious retreats, and wrote my college essays about religion. If you could have dinner with any person, living or dead, who would it be? St. Francis of Assisi of course! Who are the three most important people in your life? My mom, my best friend, and Jesus (not necessarily in that order). No, I wasn’t applying to Bob Jones University. But, like I said, when I go in, I go all in. I was dedicated. No more drinking, smoking, or fooling around. I went to school, worked, and was hyper-involved in church activities.

In college, resisting temptation didn’t prove too difficult. This was undoubtedly helped by that fact that I was attending an all women’s school in the suburbs. Plus, my boyfriend  was in Texas, and I was in Massachusetts. A long distance relationship poses few opportunities to sin. So I happily led Bible study in my dorm room, taught Sunday school at the neighborhood Episcopal Church, and attended the college’s Christian fellowship group.

And then everything went to hell. In college speak that means spring break happened. No, it wasn’t a Girls Gone Wild video, although there were copious amounts of alcohol and immodest behavior involved. For the record, I was in love and had gotten engaged that spring break of my sophomore year. It was the ensuing celebration that involved alcohol. And carnal mischief. Then, 8  weeks later, I found myself crying in the student health center. Forget scarlet letters, I was going to be wearing something much more damning for a 19 year old – maternity clothes!

There was something about getting knocked up, getting married, and being forced to grow up too quickly (though truth be told I think I’m only now really starting to grow up) that created a small crack in my core. And, over the years, that crack widened and spread. It happened slowly. First, I stopped going to church because my kids didn’t like Sunday school but then they wouldn’t sit still for a service either. Then, I started questioning why things were the way they were. What was wrong with being gay? Or living together before marriage? And then, some years later, I just woke up and realized, I just don’t love Him anymore. This relationship is not the answer, not for me anyway.

What’s happened over the years since that parting of ways is that I’ve realized two things. First, there is no one right path for me. Second, I can be a moral person without religion. In fact, I’m probably more moral without religion. While I have nothing but happy memories of my experiences with organized religion and all the people I met when I was involved in it, ultimately, I chose a different route, one where I use my own moral compass for guidance. For now, this is where I need to be, the path I need to take. As I walk this path, growing in my understanding of right intentions and actions, I engage in meaningful self-reflection and find that my heart widens and my dogmatism softens. Which is to say, I have more compassion and love to give to myself and to others.

I think Jesus would probably approve.

 

Growing the Garden of My Life

How to Grow a Garden

Step 1 – Preparation

Soil is the foundation of your garden, but it may be poor quality, lacking necessary minerals or unable to hold water. So you’ll need to prepare it for planting. The first thing to do is to identify the weeds, what you don’t want growing, and pull them out. Then turn the soil. Dig into the ground, exposing the underlying dirt, breaking up hard clumps, and aerating it. Add compost, which acts as growing medium. Now the soil is ready for seeds. Choose what you want to grow, perhaps bushes that attract butterflies, beautiful flowers that you can cut and give away, fruit and vegetables with which you can feed yourself, or all of the above.

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After 44 years it was time to stop thinking that this poorly maintained ground that was me would miraculously grow lush without effort. It was time to prepare for and plant the garden of my life. To do this, I first had to identify my weeds, what was stifling my growth. This wasn’t difficult. After years of therapy, I knew that when faced with certain challenges I often chose one of two extremes. I numbed myself to avoid experiencing a hard emotion, or I over-identified with my emotional response and entangled myself in such a way that I spiraled out of control. Pulling weeds meant learning to recognize when the unhealthy thoughts and behaviors came up. It meant learning to be comfortable with uncomfortable feelings and not to let them incapacitate me. Next, I needed to turn the soil. What I could see on the surface was years of shame, self-loathing, and feeling not good enough. But when I dug deep, I brought the root of these issues to light. I wasn’t inherently flawed, which I always assumed was the case. Rather, my issues were the culmination of a lifetime of experiences, especially those I had as a child. The tension, fear, and shame, which came with being the child of an abusive alcoholic engendered unskillful responses in me. Recognizing that these were learned patterns was the first step in my being able to change. Finally, I needed to add compost. The mixture of healthy responses I have made, lessons people have shared with me, and mistakes from which I actually learned something gave way to life wisdom, which I could use to grow myself up.

With this foundation in place, I decided what I wanted in my garden. I would plant the seeds of awareness, compassion, fellowship, forgiveness, health, and resilience. These were values that resonated with me, that I admired in others, and that I wanted for myself. With healthy soil, these life principles would grow and blossom.

 

Step 2 – Maintenance

Remove weeds as they grow in and insects as they appear. Don’t wait until there are so many that you feel overwhelmed. Water and feed your plants as needed, and continue to add compost. Do not be hesitant to prune when necessary or to cut blooms. These practices stimulate new growth. Be aware that sometimes plants need additional support like a stake or trellis. Finally, pay attention to the weather. With sustained attention and care, your plants will not wither. They will flourish.

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Just because I have identified my weeds doesn’t mean that they don’t continue to come up on occasion and wreak havoc in my garden. Sometimes I am able to take notice of my wanting a drink to avoid a difficult emotion, and I do something different. Sometimes I catch myself before I become overwhelmed with my sadness. Other times I am lazy. I let my weeds grow, only to suffer the consequences of neglect. But, I also do things to feed my garden – meditate, write, go to therapy, run, connect daily with my family and friends. These activities are nourishing. Naturally, there are times when I require more support than usual, but there are also times when the conditions are as close to perfect as can be, and I thrive effortlessly. Still, I have to pay attention. I have to pay attention to my thoughts and behaviors, because unhealthy ones need to be removed as soon as they appear. I also have to pay attention to the environment. In times of drought or when the sun disappears and seems like it will never return, I have to trust that the weather will change. My garden will not suffer long-term if I am vigilant.

 

Step 3 – Savor

You may choose to garden in order to grow something beautiful, to produce food, or to have a creative outlet. Regardless of the original impetus, growing a garden yields additional benefits that you may not expect. Gardening is exercise. It is a whole body workout, which you do in sunshine and fresh air. Gardening is play. You put your hands in the dirt and create something wonderful. Gardening is grounding, connecting you to the Earth and allowing you to take part in the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Gardening is satisfying. Not only do you get to enjoy what you have grown, colorful flowers or healthy food, but you have the opportunity to share the fruits of your labor with others. Enjoy what you have done!

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As I gain insight from this work I’m doing, my garden is just beginning to come in. It is not yet in full bloom, but there are tiny, green shoots. They have broken through the dirt and turn toward the sunlight, seeking what nourishes them. This garden signifies transformation. What was an ignored plot, a mix of overgrown weeds and native wildflowers, is becoming a beautiful landscape. I am establishing more secure roots. I seek support when I need it. I am growing myself up and blossoming. This is the Garden of My Life.

 

Inhabiting (and Embracing) the Body I Have

For me it happened sometime in the last few years. I looked in the mirror and thought, ‘When did I start looking like this? Where did these wrinkles come from? And what is up with this back (arm, hip, back, [insert random body part]) fat? What the hell happened to me?’

I can’t speak for men, but I know from many conversations with my girlfriends that becoming a woman of a certain age sucks is a challenge. On the one hand, as you age, you typically become more financially secure. You gain some life wisdom. Yet, while you are achieving this, life marches on, literally across your body – stretch marks, wrinkles, hair in strange places, the belly that simply will not be lost no matter the number of calories you restrict or the number of crunches you do. Who is that stranger looking back at you in the mirror?

A recent scientific study surveyed over 1500 American women over the age of 50 to assess their body image. The data reinforce what we know about how American females feel about their bodies in general – overwhelming dissatisfaction. Only 12% percent of the women in the study reported being satisfied with their body size. Most women in the study declared that maintaining thinness was as an active endeavor in their lives. Not maintaining health. Not maintaining sanity. Maintaining thinness.

We compare ourselves to women in magazines who are Photoshopped to perfection. We compare ourselves with women on TV and film who have makeup artists, good lighting, and probably plastic surgery to highlight their best features or just give them new ones. We compare ourselves with women at our offices, gyms, grocery stores, and neighborhoods. And, for some odd reason, we compare ourselves to ourselves…20 years ago, as if we are going to magically recapture the energy, collagen, and body fat distribution that we used to have.

Now you’re mid to late 40s or older and starting to feel body conscious. Maybe a little low on the self-esteem scale. And just when you think it can’t get much worse, shit perimenopause happens. Night sweats, memory lapses, anxiety attacks, and crazy ass mood swings. The copious volumes of coffee and wine you drink to help you deal with this serve only to intensify the symptoms. Life simply is not fair.

Friends, you know I suffer from depression as it is, but, now, thanks to perimenopause, I have 2-4 days of the month during which a full-blown nervous breakdown is guaranteed. I’m not kidding. For no reason whatsoever, I’ll start screaming at my husband and the next minute I’m sobbing uncontrollably. Thank you, hormones! This is just what I need to make me feel better about myself. Said no woman ever.

Enough already! I’ve had a period every month for over 30 years. I’ve been pregnant a total of 27 months of my life. People, I’ve done my share of hormone flux already. I certainly don’t need more of it at this point in my life. I don’t even want to know what menopause will be like if this is the entry point.

I told my husband that from now on, about 2 days out from my period, he should just leave the house. Leave me for a few days while I lock myself in our bedroom with junk food and 48h of romantic comedies on Netflix. I demand quarantine while I’m experiencing my hormone-induced-temporary-insanity. It’s just better for everyone. Trust me on that.

 

Oy, this gets me so worked up that I need to go to my happy place for a minute.

Calm, blue water. Calm, blue water. Deep breath.

Okay, all better.

 

Let’s get honest now. You know that Tim McGraw song Live Like You Were Dying? If you found out you were dying, would you really care about your tummy rolls or your laugh lines or that new chin hair you’re sporting? Hell no! You would not spend the last year of your life, not the last 3 months, not even 3 weeks, obsessing over how saggy your boobs are or how to get an inner thigh gap.

Newsflash. You are dying. I am dying. We are all dying. That’s the one thing you can count on happening. Do you want to spend the time you have left being critical of yourself? Would you be as critical of your spouse or your child about their bodies as you are with yourself about your own body? This life journey is already difficult enough. Let’s not add anymore to that difficulty.

We are human. We are human with all the flaws that accompany humanness. And our bodies are the road maps of our lives. Our bodies manifest the choices we’ve made and the experiences we’ve had. The journey is never easy, and we don’t always do what’s best (eat more leafy, green vegetables and less refined carbs, get enough sleep, drink more water and less wine, exercise more). I admit that I ate entire pints of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. I admit that I spent many years sitting by a pool with nothing between the ultraviolet waves and me but a liberal application of Crisco. But I also made many good choices. I ran many road races, 5Ks and marathons. I hiked the Grand Canyon with my husband. I danced with my girlfriends. I lived life, bearing 3 children, laughing so hard that my flabs ached, smiling with joy. I made it through my difficult depressive episodes with a few scars, both mental and physical, but here I am. Here I am with my wrinkles, and sags, and spots. I inhabit this body and I embrace it.

Helen Reddy sang, “I am woman. Hear me roar!” Well, here’s my roar.

This is my body, and I choose to wear it proudly. This is my body, and I accept it for what is is. This is my body, and I embrace it. I challenge you to do the same with yours.

MYWRINKLES

MYSTRETCHMARKS

Reference

Runfola CD1, Von Holle A, Peat CM, Gagne DA, Brownley KA, Hofmeier SM, Bulik CM. Characteristics of women with body size satisfaction at midlife: results of the Gender and Body Image (GABI) Study (2013) J Women Aging. 25(4):287-304.

 

Help – Don’t Handicap – Your Child

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My baby started school this past fall. This is not my first rodeo (I’ve got 2 twenty-somethings, so I’ve been there and done that), but this is my first child to start school in another country. Despite being a native English speaker, her (cruel) English-only speaking parents threw caution to the wind and put her in the local, public (German) school. And all was well in the world.

Until it wasn’t.

months into this adventure, Emmy began to complain that kids were making fun of her. They taunted her. “You don’t speak good German. You parents don’t speak German.” I knew from my sister and friends that the transition to the first year of school is difficult. I hoped this was just a manifestation of that and nothing more serious.

Naturally, we talked about this with her in a loving but realistic way.

“You know what, “we said. “It’s true. Your German isn’t as good as the other kids, because you weren’t born here, and we don’t speak German to you at home. But you’re learning really quickly (and well). And who cares if you’re not the best in German. I bet you’re the best in English! Besides, other people don’t determine your worth. We love that you are joyful and loving and happy.”

Okay, part of this was the pop psychology stuff that you tell your kid when you’re at a loss for words, when you’d really like to be kicking the asses of the mean kids (which of course you’d never do in real life) for making your child feel badly about herself. And if I caught Emmy doing something similar, I called her on it immediately. “See, this is how you complain about Paul and Kathrin – that they make fun of you. So do not act that same way toward others.”

As the leaves turned and September turned to October then November, Emmy’s behavior took a turn for the worse. Way worse. Our formerly, sweet, calm, loving child turned into a demon, throwing tantrums at the slightest provocation. And these tantrums always ended in a screaming, sobbing, door-slamming catastrophe. We assumed her behavior was a manifestation of her frustration. She didn’t know how to deal with the mean kids, whom she continued to mention on a weekly, if not daily, basis. Hell, we didn’t know how to deal with the mean kids.

After spending a few weeks (Christmas holiday) with us, Em’s behavior came back down to “normal,” where, thankfully, it’s been since. But that didn’t mean the mean kids let up. It just meant that she internalized it. One Friday in mid-January, I picked her up from her after school program and asked her about her day. She turned to me and said, “I hate school. I don’t want to go back. I want to go to an English speaking school.”

When your child tells you she hates school, it is heart breaking. This should be the beginning of the love affair – nurturing teachers who help her love to read, who allow her to express herself in art, who encourage her. She can hate school later when she has a Pre-Cal exam and PSATs to take. But now? And her school day is 8am to 12noon. She is there for 4 freaking hours.

So now the shit’s hit the fan. Time to get serious. This is not just a transition issue. My little pookie is in pain. Seriously.

My husband and I make an appointment to see her teacher, who is, by the way, the principal of the school. She seems totally surprised by our account of the situation. The summary of that conversation goes something like this, “In general, the Germans are very focused. Even the 6 year olds know that school is serious and when they are here, they are here to do work. Emmy is a bit of a daydreamer, staring out the window and forgetting her homework, which impacts the entire class. But, most of the kids accept that this is who she is (although it’s unlike them). The “mean” boy is just kind of a wild kid. He’s not very nice to anyone. I think the “mean” girl just doesn’t accept Emmy’s non-German, non-focused behavior, and this is how she expresses her frustration.” The principal said Emmy’s German was fine and she has enormous potential, but is often sidetracked by forgetting things and finishing quickly to try to be first.

I’m at a lost for what to do, which is only intensified when she says to me a few weeks after we meet with the principal, “I don’t like myself because no one at school likes me.” Fuck. I get in serious parental fix it mode (read: freak out). I start making crazy threats to my husband, “If this doesn’t improve, she and I will just move back to Texas and I’ll put her in school there.” Then I put her on the wait list for the private international school in our neighborhood.

Then I started thinking about my own experience as a high school teacher. I remembered the students who I referred to as entitled, the ones who expected that things would be easy for them and when they weren’t, mom or dad came to the rescue. I remember one mother who called me after her 18-year old daughter failed a major paper because she plagiarized entire paragraphs. Mom wanted to ask if I could at least give her daughter a 70 (instead of the 0 she earned) so her GPA wouldn’t be so badly affected. No, I wouldn’t. What would happen when this girl went off to college and failed a class, or plagiarized? What if she got a poor performance review in her professional life? Would Mom step in to fix this, too?

I’m raising my kids to be independent, competent, and emotionally resilient adults. End of story. With me for a mom, no way am I putting them in the same effed up place I am. If I “fix” this problem (take Em out of this school, move her out of the country – wow, that sounds so crazy when I write it) then what am I teaching her? That’s I’ll fix her problems? That hardship is not part of life?

Well, the truth is life is hard, and we will all have to deal with the disappointment. Shielding your child from this natural part of life in order to protect her ego at all costs is a recipe for producing an entitled adult who can’t solve her own problems. I love my daughter and I want her to be happy, but she won’t be happy all the time, and she needs to learn to be prepared to deal with the hard stuff without giving up and expecting someone else to solve her crises.

You know what? My daughter is never going to be the best German speaker in her class. So freaking what. That doesn’t mean she is any less worthy or valuable as a human being. So I had to take a big old mental step back. Then I had to tell her that I love her, but there are mean people in life, and there are struggles in life.

Those are the times we really learn. Yes, those times suck. Yes, in the moment, we may hate those times. But that’s life. My husband and I told Em that we are incredibly proud of her for her efforts to learn a new language on her own (because she doesn’t get help from us and we can’t model correct grammar for her). And we told her that people who behave badly are unhappy people; that’s their issue, not hers.

She’s not perfect. Neither am I. And that’s okay, because perfection isn’t necessary for her to be valuable and worthy. We love her regardless, and we are grateful that she can share her struggles with us because she’s not alone. We share those struggles with her.