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Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Scaffolding of Success: Centering. And Death.

Oh Readers, my GR interview is almost ready, but not quite. I am waiting for the best place to put it for maximum exposure. In the meantime, let me enrich you with a little example of my success scaffolding in action. 

One of the planks of my scaffolding of success is mindfulness. I’m actually going to change that to centering. Centering is one of the planks in the scaffolding of success. Not everyone likes meditation, but everyone likes some kind of centering activity that tamps you down when you want to fly out of your skin and brings you back to a more peaceful place. Yoga, exercise, singing, a walk outside, and prayer are other examples of centering. Well, centering came into play this week. 

You see, I fell down the black hole of pondering death. Why? Well, why not? Or - because I had to have this tiny skin cancer removed and it triggered - trigger-warning - fear of death. Although, come to think of it, there’ve been other triggers around here of late. Last week something bad happened to a neighbor, something involving an ambulance. One of the children? One of the parents? I don’t know, because I don’t know the neighbors. They are pretty new in the neighborhood. I left them a note, but I haven't heard a thing. The situation makes me a little sick.  

Okay, so I’m a hypochondriac. I’ve earned it. People I loved and depended on have died, more than one of them. But especially my mother. I’ll admit it freely, her death did a number on me. I’m what they call "anxiously attached” to the people I love. This is basic attachment theory. Just ask my sister the psychoanalyst. Or trust me. I read three volumes by John Bowlby on attachment theory when I was working at Widener Library. It wasn’t part of the job. The job was data entry; but the perks were grand. All kinds of books filtered past my desk. Some of them stuck around for awhile. For example, the works of Bowlby (1907-1990), known for his Attachment Theory. So you can trust me when I say I’m anxiously attached. 

And one of the things I’m anxiously attached to is, well, life. So when I get a little something that needs to come off, suddenly, I am under a cloud of imminent death. I try to remember the wise words of high school acquaintance Victor Tolken (Class of 1981? 1982?) who said, “When I’m dead, I won’t care.” This gave me the most blessed moment of release from my anxiety (which was plaguing me even back then, in high school). Yes, right, I thought. I’ll be gone and I won’t care. So it’s the dying I fear, not the actual death. This sustained me for a good while. Otherwise I probably wouldn’t have tried some of the things I tried in college. Ahem. 

Of course this calculus changes when I consider my progeny. I may have f-d them up. I will cop to a certainty that I have indeed f-d them up in some way or another, just by being a fallible human. But if I die before they grow up, I will have f-d them up in an irremediable manner. I cannot do that. So now, unfortunately, it is both the dying and the being dead I fear. Victor, where are you? 

My point is, despite joking to the husband that I had to go to the plastic surgeon on Monday to get my throat slit, and then making disparaging remarks about being trussed up by the legs and turned upside down over a bucket - so I would be kosher, at least, I was kind of wound up through the weekend and into the plastic surgeon’s office. 

Let me take a few words to recognize that I am one lucky person, having only to worry about a little skin thing, and that I am fully aware that right now there are people facing much worse problems and much more immediate threat of death. I know this. And now you know I know this. Nevertheless, this is what I was dealing with.

The thing about the anxiety was this. There it was, inside of me, consuming me. A big ball of it, expanding and crushing me. I wanted to take it out. I wanted to give it to someone else. I wanted to hand my big ball of anxiety to someone else - okay, to the husband (poor husband) - and for the someone else to say everything was going to be alright. But the thing was, everyone had already said it was going to be alright. There has not been a single doctor who has said anything other than that this little skin thing needs to come out and then it will be all gone. So there was some other thing going on. 

The other thing was that just as death comes for the archbishop, death comes for us all. Maybe not now, in this little skin cancer, but definitely at some time. That’s the real problem. The problem of death. It’s the kind of thing Buddhist monks meditate on, sitting in graveyards and outside of charnel houses; but I am not a Buddhist monk. I’m not even a Buddhist. I’m kind of an atheist JewBu. This means I get all of the neuroses and none of the reassurance, in other words. There is, sadly, no one to hand over this particular anxiety to. Because no one can solve it.

Fortunately, the last time I saw her, my friend Jo made me a beautiful necklace that is also a set of mala beads.  

She is amazing, isn’t she? 

She also made these earrings: 

Anyway, I’m not really a talisman sort of person, but I wore the necklace to the plastic surgeon’s office, and I held it in my hand while he numbed my neck and prepared to kosher me. The beads helped me remember that I am a person who meditates. This means that I am a person who sets aside a particular amount of time several days a week to sit on a cushion and try to pay attention to my breath. To try and to fail and to try again. That is what I mean by meditation. 

So I did that while the doctor removed the little skin cancer and stitched me up. I noticed my heart felt crushed and pained with anxiety and beat rapidly in response. This added another layer of anxiety about my heart exploding. I reminded myself that anxiety is just an emotion, and just because I feel it, doesn’t mean there is anything more to the feeling than that it is there. I reminded myself that behind the cloud of anxiety was clear sky. The anxiety would pass. It didn’t pass then, Readers, but at least I was able to see around the edges of it. Pema Chodron would be proud of me. Then the doctor applied a bandage and brought me a hand mirror. The gigantic slit I’d been picturing was a small thing, hidden behind a steristrip. Then I got dressed and left. I still have to wait another week for the stitches to come out and the pathology report, but I feel much better. 

This is the scaffolding of success supporting me. 

Thursday, February 18, 2016

#TBT Finding the Sock

Today, on the 14 year-old's 14th birthday, this post from Feb. 13, 2012, about having my first child seems appropriate.

Finding the Sock

I was in labor with my first child. Contractions, fear, anxiety, and excitement rippled through me. The husband had my suitcase. The bed was made. Our one-bedroom-with-a-den apartment was tidied. I was all ready to go.

Then I saw a sock on the floor. It seemed, in my contracting and anxiety-ridden state, too hard to bend over and pick it up--and I am proud to say it also seemed too niggling a detail about which to bother the husband.

I'll get that when we get home, I thought.

And I went and had the baby. Which, as you can imagine, based what you know of me, was a totally trauma-free experience from which I got out of bed and danced a tarantella within twenty-four hours.

Not so much. But I digress. This is about a sock, not a baby.

Six months later, when I could finally bend again, I picked up a pile of dirty towels and soggy breast pads and discovered, pushed into a corner of the bedroom, that dust-bunny covered sock.


I used to tell that sock story as an analogy for the chaos that having a baby creates in a life. You know, so that something as easy as picking up a sock and putting it in the laundry hamper just gets swept away in those early months. I had the naive idea that I'd actually notice that sock once I had a bobble-headed barracuda gnawing on my boobs day and night, a c-section to heal, and amazing and engulfing surges of thirst and hunger.

Now that I'm older, and I've used up that story--all my friends that are going to have babies have had them-- I've discovered another use for the sock. Another analogy.

Because the thing about having babies is that nothing is quite as overwhelming as that first one. You can learn from the first one, and apply what you've learned to the second one.

Life, though, you can't learn from in the same way. Sure, you can learn from it; but usually it's a matter of realizing stuff and then not really having any way to apply it to yourself. So you want to tell other people about it--so they can apply it to their lives, and thank you for your wisdom.

My point, my dozens of readers, is that it's not just babies that cause you to lose the sock. It's parenthood. Parenthood does it to a lot of people. To women, especially. It's a long-term radical change that sweeps you away from who you were before babies.

I'm thinking of Eric Fromm and his theory of love. That when you fall in love, you cathect with the person you love. It's an all-engrossing feeling of being totally bound up with this other person. And really, it can't be a permanent condition, because the sense of self dissolves. Which isn't that healthy for a prolonged period.  Although it's gratifying for awhile.

Parenthood creates a cathexis of sorts between the mother and her offspring. Eventually, once they can wipe their tushies and brush their hair, the boundaries start to resolidify. At least for the children. That's what growing up is about, after all. Becoming yourself.

Which leaves a lot of moms like me feeling undefined and confused. Women tell me they're not sure who they are, that they're not sure what they've accomplished. These are educated women. Women with advanced degrees and theories of child-rearing. Women devote prime years to motherhood, forgo capital-P professions, and then find (for too many reasons to enumerate here) that they don't feel on firm footing with themselves without a professional frame on which to hang their identities. They don't feel successful, because how does success apply to raising 'tweens? How can they feel successful when we measure success by end-product and parenting is a process?

And we start cleaning up a bit, taking inventory, considering values, writing blogs.

And we find, pushed back in a corner somewhere, maybe caught in the rungs of the old Dutalier glider, covered in dust bunnies, a sock.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Grown and Flown

There are so many ways I have to learn to let go as my children grow up. One of them is letting go of detailed knowledge about what they are doing.

I'm delighted to have a piece up at the excellent blog Grown and Flown. It's about the weekend we left the senior at home alone, and she announced that she wanted to try getting drunk.

Please click here to read my post.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Update - Includes Advice From An Expert

Here’s what’s going on around here:

  • My neck. I have this skin cancer on my neck and it’s not going away until Feb. 22nd, when the plastic surgeon can take it off. No one is concerned about this skin cancer on my neck except me. So I am concerned enough for all of them. My concern about my skin cancer on my neck can stretch to envelop the concern not shared by the husband, the dermatologist, the dermatologist’s nurse, the receptionist at the plastic surgeon, and the plastic surgeon. Although he did say it isn’t something you’d want to leave alone. Which statement would have sent me scrabbling in my purse for a stray Xanax, if I’d remembered I might have one. My ability to recall this potential savior was blocked by the enormous wave of concern this statement by the plastic surgeon loosed within me. Yes, my concern is flexible and expanding, like a mother’s love flexes and expands to encompass each new child. 

  • Speaking of a mother's love: The senior. Apparently college application deadlines weren’t the last time the applicant had to communicate with her schools. Now we’ve entered the stage when, apparently, the applicant is expected to ping these schools with updates on her awards, grades, and activities. I thought we were going to be allowed to just pretend there was nothing going on until late March when the notifications will come out, but no, apparently, there is no rest for the stressed. 

  • Speaking of the Senior: Externalization:
Externalization is a technical term describing how teenagers sometimes manage their feelings by getting their parents to have their feelings instead. In other words, they toss you an emotional hot potato. 

I am pretty sure I’ve been juggling hot potatoes for the last couple of months. Now I understand.  I’m going to buy this book by Lisa Damour.

There’s a short interview with her on this website. 

  • On the plus side, I’ve been working on the draft of my book and that’s going well. 
  • I'm excited about Einstein's gravitational waves proving to be true. 

Have a nice weekend, catch those hot potatoes, and for heaven’s sake, wear sunscreen. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Update on Success and Happiness Talk with Gretchen Rubin

Hello, Readers, how the heck are you? I’m here to say that I did have my meeting with Gretchen Rubin (GR) on Sunday. Indeed I did. And I look forward to getting into what we talked about, because it was quite interesting. But I have yet to transcribe my recording, and I have yet to send my piece to GR for approval (I offered, she didn’t ask it of me), so I’m going to save the main bits for another time. I'm aiming for next week. 

Meanwhile, suffice it to say that I had no time to transcribe because I only returned home Monday night and there was “Downton Abbey” to watch, and then Tuesday I was busy all day, most of that busyness revolving around the Capital Region Spelling Bee. The 8th grader was representing her middle school, along with 4 other students, at the regionals. Boy did it take a long time. It took hours, literally. First there was an hour of written testing. Then there were two rounds of onstage bee. With over 150 kids, each of whom was able to ask for pronunciations, definitions, and usage in a sentence of each word, it took a long time. After that, there was elimination down to twenty-five spots, and the semi-finals began. I kept screaming (in my head, mind you, not aloud), “Auntie Mame, fall off! Fall off!” 

Since it’s likely you aren’t as interested in “Auntie Mame” as I, and since it’s even likelier that you don’t consider it a filmic instruction manual for life, as I do, you won’t know that this reference means, “Just flub your way out of this terrible situation.” Which is what Little Patrick Dennis urges Auntie Mame to do when she finds herself having to ride to hounds - side-saddle, no less, even though nobody rides side-saddle anymore— on a horse the town veterinarian has ordered put down, a task she seems likely to fail at most miserably. She doesn’t fall off, in the end, and neither did the 8th grader, until well into the 7th hour.

But you wanted to know about my meeting with GR. Well, I was doubtful it would come through, because I’m something of a pessimist, even if I’m overall an optimist. I insist. But the meeting did come about. I shouldn’t have doubted, actually, come to think of it, because GR is what she calls an Upholder. That means she meets inner and outer expectations, so if she agrees to do something, do it she does. And did. 

It happened in Washington, where I was visiting my father, and where she happened to be giving a book talk and signing at Politics and Prose Bookstore Sunday night to promote her newest book, Better Than Before. When I emailed to confirm, we arranged to meet at the bookstore before she gave her talk. With my friend C (as in met her in college) to support me, and to save me a seat, I met GR in the store’s office and recorded our twenty-or-so minute conversation. 

She was engaged and engaging. In fact, I seem to recall doing a distressing amount of the talking. She was good at drawing me out. Was I amazingly articulate and charming? I can’t say. I haven’t yet listened to the recording. But contrary to my usual self-deprecation, I’m going to mention that I had recently completed some online personality test like the Myers-Briggs but called something else, and the results said I am a charming and charismatic person. So, let’s go with yes. Because online quizzes don’t lie.

Anyway, the conversation went on until it was time for GR to go out and speak, so I considered that a success. I joined C in the crowd. There I marvelled at how GR worked the room. She was quite funny, fast-talking, and smart, and she took a lot of questions at the end. Meanwhile, I became worried that I might accidentally delete my voice memo recording, on the sort of impulse that makes you think you might pitch yourself over the railing of a high balcony or drive into oncoming headlights. (This is a documented impulse, by the way). So I saved it every which way I could think of, including email, Evernote, and text message. Afterwards, I had a nice spanikopita with C and my father.