Monthly Archives: May 2015

Challenged by Challenges – Choosing to Grow not Wither

Right now, teachers in public infant care, kindergartens, and after-school programs in Munich are on strike, demanding wage increases. While striking has happened periodically throughout the year, a single day here or there, this strike has now entered its third week, and there is no end in sight. Parent representatives for the Hort (the after school program) have informed us that the strike will go on indefinitely.

On the one hand, I work from home so I have the luxury of being here when my daughter gets out of school. On the other hand I WORK. Most days of the week, school ends at 11:20, which means after getting up and sitting with my daughter while she eats breakfast, then running, showering, and dressing, I am lucky to have 2 hours to do work before it’s time to pick up Emmy. As you can imagine, this puts a serious dent in both the quality and quantity of work I can do on a given day.

I have never been a “I’ll make lemonade from these lemons” kind of gal.  No, I’ve always been more of a “This totally sucks” kind of gal. My history is to ruminate and wallow.

Lemons

Lemonade? A lemon martini maybe, but usually I can’t even see past the bitterness of the lemons to do that much. Image courtesy of pippalou (morguefile.com)

But I’m trying to be resilient. I’m trying to learn to accept that life is difficult. Shit happens. Keep moving forward. I’m trying to see silver linings. Really.

One of the first things I did when I heard about the strike was send emails to the moms in Emmy’s class whose daughters are also in Hort. “I can watch your daughters 1 or 2 days this week,” I wrote that first week of the strike. I wasn’t thinking about single parents or parents who have to punch a time card at their job. My motives were purely selfish. I was thinking how much easier it would be for me if Emmy had friends over so I didn’t have to be interrupted every 10 minutes with, “Mom, I’m bored.” Maybe I could get a little work done.

The email resulted in a sequence of events that I came to recognize as a silver lining. For one, I began a daily correspondence with a group of parents who live in our neighborhood. I didn’t know there were families in our immediate vicinity. And, these parents all speak English. The parents agreed to take turns watching the group of girls throughout the week. As a result, I’m meeting new people and Emmy is fostering new friendships.

Yes, the strike goes on, and it will be tough, but it’s also opened up an unexpected opportunity for me and Emmy. Silver lining.

Now this has been a relatively minor inconvenience for me, but in the past I’ve had some really dark clouds in my life. The clouds have come during personal, emotional droughts, times characterized by the absence of security, happiness, abundance, and peace. And I became more insecure, unhappier, and distraught. I withered in response to challenges.

Take my first hospitalization when I was 28. It was the end of summer, and my marriage was falling apart. I had moved in with my mom and started an affair with a much older professor who happened to be the graduate advisor of my PhD program. He was  in a position of power over me and wielded his power through emotional manipulation. Then, my stepfather (of 20+ years) died in a freak accident. To top it all off, I was arrested on a felony charge that undermined my self-identification as a good mother. I’m not making up this shit. It all happened in the span of 6 months.

Did I see this as an opportunity for growth? Hell, no. I was too far under, and I ended up attempting suicide and being admitted to a mental hospital.

But, I pulled myself together…mostly. I broke off the unhealthy affair, got divorced, and kept my depression in check.

Over the next ten years, depression still reared its ugly head every 6 months or so but the confluence of circumstances never reached the nadir it had when I was hospitalized. And then I moved to Germany.

Life was okay for the first 18 months or so after the move. I made a handful of friends, including Liz, from California, who had been in Europe a few years. She became my closest friend in Munich, and her daughter became Emmy’s best friend. I found a good job, a career opportunity that seemingly wed two of my passions – science and reading. I learned enough German to get by in daily life. Things were alright.

But then the shit storm started. In May, the legal department of my company called and told me that I was violating terms of my contract. It took several months to resolve but during that time I wasn’t sure that I would even have a job when all was said and done. In October, our apartment was broken into. The burglars stole all my jewelry, including my wedding ring and family heirlooms. Then my friends started moving away. Eventually, every single friend I’d made in Germany, including Liz, left the country.

Emotionally, I knew I was slipping, and I sought help. Getting meds was easy but I had to jump through hoops to get the insurance company to approve therapy. Seriously, it took almost a year, reams of paperwork, and thousands of dollars out of pocket before they did. While all of this was happening, I was under enormous stress – the job, the burglary, the friends leaving. I felt unsupported and hopeless.

I hit rock bottom and winded up back in the hospital again.

When I got out of the hospital, I felt totally alone. If I’d been in Austin when this all happened, I would have had friends and my mom physically around me. I need and want their support, but it’s also like a Band-Aid. It stops the immediate hemorrhage but doesn’t heal me. And in another 6 months, because the underlying damage hadn’t been corrected, I’d probably have another depressive episode. That’s my history.

But, I don’t want to repeat history, not with this sad story anyway. So, I’m (finally) learning from my past, and what I’ve learned is that in order to heal, I have to do the work myself. No amount of outside support, which I love and appreciate greatly, will bring about the change. Only I can change myself. Yes, my mom, my husband, my friends, and my therapist could show me the tools. A book could give me some instructions. But, until I actually started using these tools, picking them up when I needed them, I wouldn’t change. So, being so removed from everything I knew, away from my comfort zone, I got to a place where my options were to keep spiraling down or to try something different. Thankfully, I chose the latter.

Silver lining.

…..

In the moment, it often requires extreme optimism or blind hope to see a silver lining. In theory and in hindsight, a difficult experience can have the potential to be transformative, but in the midst of that difficulty, it’s just plain hard. Life is hard.

lemon meringue pie

I may not be making lemon meringue pie from my lemons yet, but I’m acquiring the components of the recipe so that someday soon I can. Image courtesy of MaxStraeten (morguefile.com)

I’ve come to accept that life is difficult. Shit happens, but I keep moving on. This is resilience.

 

Living Ethically (without being overloaded)


A few years ago, my sister told me that she had stopped watching the news. She said she would turn on the TV, watch 30 minutes of reporting on violence and despair, and get paralyzed. How can one person make any difference? How can anyone effect change on the other side of the world, for people we may never see or talk to or know?

I’ve found myself recently going through something similar with respect to living ethically.

Okay, it’s easy for me not to kill anyone, but the day-to-day details of living ethically are, honestly, quite challenging. Is there anything I can drink or eat or wear or buy that doesn’t kill animals, produce more plastics, or exploit workers?

Garbage

Image courtesy of lisasolonynko (morguefile.com)

I already do so much. I don’t own/drive a car. I use my own grocery bags. I recycle everything. I eat mostly vegetarian and often vegan. Blah, blah, blah. But it doesn’t seem like enough.

And I read in the New York Times last week that I can’t even get a pedicure in good conscience anymore. Salon workers are underpaid. They work daily with toxic chemicals, which are unregulated in their work, and, as a result, have higher incidences of cancer.

So the other night, this is all spiraling out of control in my head, and I told my husband, “What are we supposed to do – eat only fallen fruit and wear leaves that are still attached to the vine?”

How do we live in today’s world and do it as ethically as possible without going completely nuts trying to figure out everything we need to do in order to live ethically?

After a few deep breaths, a good night’s sleep, and some Internet research, I found the answer I sought. It came from Carroll Muffett, deputy director of campaigns for Greenpeace. He wisely said, “Even for the best-intentioned person, it is impossible to make ethical choices about everything.”

We simply cannot do everything right all the time and exist in our 21st century lives. It’s just not possible. I can’t do my job, take my daughter to school or even survive a winter in Bavaria subsisting on fruit that might fall from nearby trees while cloaked in leaves.

So what can we do? The following are my top three things to make living ethically somewhat manageable.

  • Prioritize what’s important. There is no instruction manual for how to live ethically, and sometimes 2 things will be in conflict and you have to choose one. Like let’s say you’re committed to buying local, organic produce. But one day you’re at the market and, for whatever reason, you have to make a choice. Either you can buy local or you can buy organic. Which do you choose? Something has to come first. So decide what comes first for you, where your priorities are.
  • Put 1 or 2 things into practice. If you’re overly ambitious or set your goals too high then you’ll be likely to get frustrated easily and give up. What are a couple of things you can do today and actually achieve? Just for today, can you not eat meat? And if you can do it today, can you do it on a regular basis (once a week, three times a week, whatever seems doable)? If you can commit to that (or walking to work or whatever it is you can commit to) then put it into practice.
  • Don’t beat yourself up for mistakes. Life is messy and complicated and things aren’t always black and white. You’re not always going to be able to make the best decision, because you’re not always going to have the information or resources you need to make the best decision. If my 6 year old is screaming because she’s thirsty and our only option is to buy something in a plastic bottle, then that’s what we’re going to do. So don’t get worked up about what you could have or should have done. Just do the best you can with what you’ve got to work with.

The bottom line is this. The next time you watch a documentary or read some investigative journalism or hear about some exploited land/person/animal, don’t get overwhelmed. Don’t get your liberal guilt all out of whack. Just breathe and keep moving in incremental steps in the direction of your goals.

 

 

 

 

Random Things on the Web I Dig Right Now (May 2015)

  1. Holstee

Brothers Mike and Dave Radparvar founded Holstee as a lifestyle/shopping site. The site includes cool products they sell – cards, wallets, and art. I want all the art they sell, especially the Austin city leaf map poster. I’m definitely buying some new art from Holstee. The site also hosts a magazine with articles focused on living a meaningful life. On top of all that, Holstee hosts different event series, including monthly pot-luck dinners in Brooklyn where they’re based, to build community connection. Cool.

There isn’t much you won’t like about this site. Their design principles appeal to those who lean toward a modern aesthetic and sustainability. Their articles, organized by themes such as Intention, Reflection, and Connection, are inspirational and timely. But, the best thing about Holstee is their company manifesto. Yes, they have a manifesto and it’s pretty damn Up With Me! so I’m totally down with this site.

The Holstee Manifesto

The Holstee Manifesto

  1. Brain Pickings

Writer Maria Popova describes her website as a “one-woman labor of love — a subjective lens on what matters in the world and why. Mostly, it’s a record of my own becoming as a person — intellectually, creatively, spiritually — and an inquiry into how to live and what it means to lead a good life.” She posts a weekly newsletter, which I liken to  On Being, my favorite radio show ever. The two are very similar in terms of probing deeper questions in life and having poets, philosophers, scientists, and spiritual leaders address those questions.

In addition to Popova’s writings, Brain Pickings includes book recommendations, a literary jukebox (thematically pairing books with songs), art, and audio files. The latter include interviews (again, a la On Being), poems, and even speeches from yesteryear (for example, JFK talking about poetry and power in 1963). It’s everything I love in one place. Very cool. Go meander there.

 

 

 

Musings on Grudges and Resentment, Forgiveness and Being Your Best Self

You know how you feel when someone says something that is both ignorant and inflammatory? When I hear a sexist, racist, ethnically disparaging, or LGBT-phobic comment, I’m shocked. I can’t understand how, in 2015, some people still think these things, let alone feel comfortable expressing them out loud – to me of all people! But, I’m never at a loss for a response. I always speak up and point out what I believe to be offensive, ignorant thinking.

In my intolerance of intolerance, I’ve noticed that I’ve developed and am holding onto resentment. I’ve created distance, mentally and emotionally separating myself from those with whom I have fundamental differences of opinion. And, I’m not talking about politicians I only know from TV or random people I read about in the newspaper. I’m talking about family members – people I know and love and have to interact with on a regular basis.

As I’ve allowed this distance to grow so has my ego. Self-righteousness does that. My thinking has allowed me to make these people the “other.”  In my moral indignation, I’ve become just like them, the judge and jury. I’ve segregated a group of people who are both not like me and not liked by me. And whenever I think about them or their words, I get angry.

When I get to that point, it’s mantra time.

I am imperfect. I allow myself to make mistakes, because I am still learning life’s lessons.

I can repeat this mantra to myself no problem. But if I have to apply it to others, well, sometimes that is a problem. But the reality is that the mantra is true for me, and it’s true for everyone else. The vast majority of us are not the most enlightened beings. The vast majority of us are still figuring out things as we live. That’s how life works.

Ÿ Ÿ

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .

 

When I first started this piece, it had nothing to do with me. The impetus was to write about another person I know, someone who is embittered about something that happened a long, long time ago and has not been able to get over it. This person has been harboring resentment for decades, and these feelings still affect her.

Whenever I thought about her and this resentment, I’d wonder, ‘What’s up with that? How can she still be rehashing this stuff? Why is she still so bitter?’

Then the light bulb came on. My own experience with resentment has the same end result as that of my friend with her decades old grudge. We are both suffering because of what we choose to think and where we choose to put our mental energy. We are both allowing past events, perpetrated by others, to continue to take up space in our minds and hearts. And when we do this, we are preventing our own emotional growth and freedom.

With all my talk of enlightenment and self-awakening, I’m obstructing these very things with my behavior. That’s what resentment does. That’s what holding grudges does. It keeps you stuck.

Social science journals are full of studies demonstrating that being unforgiving is self-sabotaging. It puts people at greater risk for a host of negative physiological consequences. Every time the person brings up the injustice, the stress response kicks in. So after years and years of this, the person is engaged in a chronic stress response, which results in cardiotoxic events, reduced immune responses, and greater risks of depression and anxiety.

Forgiveness, on the other hand, has the opposite effect. It fosters physical and mental health and emotional resilience. It reduces negative emotions and stress and increases positive emotions. Forgiveness makes you healthier. It is the antidote to the poison of harboring resentment.

It’s important to point out that forgiveness is not about abandoning justice or condoning what happened. It’s about liberating yourself, not the other person. Being unforgiving is continuing to rip open your emotional scabs while being forgiving allows them to heal.

Ÿ Ÿ Ÿ

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .

 

So I’m brought back to my own situation. In order for me to be happy, in order to continue growing and living with integrity, in order to have peace, I have to be able to let go of stuff that hurts. It’s just that simple.

I can’t change the past. I can’t change anyone else’s behavior. But I can change myself. I can practice forgiveness and reveal my best self. In doing so, I don’t allow someone else, through his or her hurtful words or actions, to control my happiness and well-being. Only I control my happiness and well-being, through my choices, my words, my actions.

I am imperfect, and I make mistakes. But I have learned to forgive myself for this. Now I need to learn to forgive others, because they’re imperfect and make mistakes, too.

Forgiveness

http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_new_science_of_forgiveness

http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/healthy_aging/healthy_connections/forgiveness-your-health-depends-on-it

 

She is the Best Part of Me

My mother is always with me. Even though we live on separate continents, she is with me. In the language of e. e. cummings, I carry my mother with me wherever I go. She is alive in me, and she is the best part of me.

My mom and me (1969)

My mom and me (1969)

My self-confidence and independence come from growing up with a woman in charge. A single mother of two with a non-child-support-paying ex-spouse, my mom created an independent life for herself because she had no other choice. She ran a household. She ran a business. She maintained her passion (playing old timey music). All the while, it was clear that my brother and I were her priority. All the while, I knew I was loved and cared for and always would be.

My love of reading is a result of being read to every night, well into grade school. I remember my brother and I snuggling in the same bed with mom, listening to her steady voice. She read us all 470-odd pages of Watership Down in bedtime hour installments. She seemed to never tire of sharing this time with us, and we certainly felt the same way.

When I got pregnant, my mom initially questioned my choice to have the baby. I was 19 and unmarried. I was living in another state, in a dorm room at an all women’s college. But, once I’d made up my mind, she got behind me and never wavered.

She never said, “You are throwing your life away.” Instead, she stood by me. She loved me and supported me.

When I left my husband in my late 20s, my mom took me in. She loaned me money. She got my sons bunkbeds for her house. She babysat them so I could study. She even let me sit on her lap and cry when I needed to do just that, when no one could stop the hurt but my own mom.

She never told me to “Grow up already.” Instead, she stood by me. She loved me and supported me.

When I fell apart last summer, she dropped everything and crossed the ocean to be with me. She spent weeks just sitting with me, letting me cry or read or stare off into space.

She never asked, “When will this stop? When will you get yourself together?” Instead, she stood by me. She loved me and supported me.

I certainly wasn’t the mother to my sons that my mom was to me. Even though she wasn’t that much older than me when she became a mom, she had access to something in her soul that I couldn’t seem to find in myself at the time. She was and is infinitely wiser than me, probably more than I’ll ever be.

When the boys were young, I spanked. I drank too much. I let them watch TV as much as they wanted and let them eat whatever they wanted. I never read them long chapter books. I was too tired. My fuse was too short. My energy was spent in my head, wrapped up in my own thoughts.

While I was not the mom I was taught to be, two decades after my sons were born and several years into raising my daughter, I am starting to become that mom. I’m developing skills of patience and perseverance. I’m letting go of needing to have things my way and focusing always on myself. I’m learning to accept life’s challenges and not give up.

I am growing myself up – both to be a good mother and, honestly, to become my own mother. And I am giving this gift to my children, to carry with them through their lives. I am giving them this part of me, hopefully the best part of me.

My mom and me (2009)

My mom and me (2009)