Seriously, are we still calling girls sassy?

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I’m tired of feeling apologetic for my sassy eight-year-old daughter and I know I should try to rise above but I’ve become more concerned about it as she gets older. It’s ironic that in this Amy Schumer/Jezebel/Beyonce world that even 30-something year old women still feel the need to point out my vocal young girl. It makes me think we have still have a lot to change. My Noona as I have called her since she was a baby has always had a strong personality, maybe naturally but also probably because we let her. But I often notice people’s discomfort with a brazen young girl. Just the other night, I was at a BBQ where Noona was having a blast, hopped up on cupcakes and playing outside past her bedtime. I do what I do at parties, which is chat away with people while Noona runs free chasing cats and searching for lizards or whatever. I was talking with a new mom and was oohing and awing over her newborn baby girl, when Noona comes over to swat me or do something randomly silly and loud. Just then New Mom says, “Oh is this one yours?” New Mom then tells me that earlier she had asked Noona about her nail polish color and I guess my girl put her hand up and popped her hip and said something, like “Yeah, I got a manicure.” I dunno, it didn’t seem that weird to me, but I could tell New Mom was surprised by Noona’s sassy level. I responded by over-explaining about my child, telling funny stories about her sassiness in a self-deprecating way. Finally, New Mom says to me “Oh I’m sure she is sweet at home.”

That comment just stuck in my craw. Why do girls have to be sweet and what does that even mean? Is her sassiness more acceptable if she is also sweet? Of course, sweet girls never talk back, interrupt, pop their hip, or roll their eyes or say “whatever.” Oh no, if a girl is sassy, people say, “woah you sure do have your hands full.” And I always laugh, oh yeah, she is a handful, har har har. I even laughed for a second when another mom said “She sure is filled with vinegar.” I did correct her and I think she got the point. Filled with vinegar, who says that? But this just happened in 2016, by progressive, open-minded folks. The comments sometimes make me wonder if I’m raising a “mean girl.” Other times I have stupid worries that she will grow up to be a career-climbing bitch with shoulder pads and big hair, knocking down all the sweet ladies that come in her way. In fact, New Mom even called Noona an “alpha” at one point and that bugged the hell out of me too.

So let me explain. My Noona is not an alpha, she is not bossy, or sassy, she is not interrupting me for attention, and she is not a mean girl/bully. When I drop her off at camp or school, she has a group of friends that immediately gravitate towards her to play. My Noona organizes her playdates, confidently handing out my cell phone number to other moms so we can finalize details. She walks right up to new kids at the park and asks them to play without hesitation. She comes up with silly new games, like pretend restaurant or find the lizard, and the kids happily play along. I’ve always called that leadership and assertiveness. She has caring and connected long-term friendships. The other day she and a close friend were reciprocating back rubs after a long morning at a swim meet. Noona laughs out loud at her own jokes and can handle sarcasm better than some adults. This amazing young lady is determined, filled with care and a natural curiosity. We snuggle every night but now she has turned the tables and reads to me instead. And yes, she is vocal, opinionated and highly observant. All the while, I pay attention to her growth and there are certain behaviors I’m not going to stop.

For example, Noona has been raised not to accept aggressive behavior and anger. She will even point out when I sound angry and ask me to speak with care, and though it’s tough I will try to readjust my tone. So what others call “mouthing off”, I call advocating for herself. What sounds like “talking back” is really an immature kid trying to figure how to challenge authority or express an opinion, they’re just not very good at it yet. Labeling these behaviors just shuts girls down, and I bet most of us women have a defining moment when we were criticized or put down when we speaking up. I hope Noona never gets squashed, or appease others who feel uncomfortable around feminine dominance. I never want her to be abused or used. I never want her to feel shame for speaking out about her safety. And I hope she always asks questions, just like her mother.

So, instead of worrying about her eye-rolling or “whatevers” I’ve been busy building a foundation of communication based on mutual respect and advocacy. This type of relationship means my husband and I listen to her opinions, and we expect her to defend her positions with well thought out reasoning. Sometimes, we have to allow her to butt heads with us, and sometimes I walk away to diffuse the situation so we can talk later. In my opinion, this is better than reminding her to be sweet and obedient. I hope when is older she never begins a question with “I’m sorry to ask but….” Of course, I try to model kindness, teamwork and care. These values are not mutually exclusive–a person can be direct, opinionated as well as compassionate.

It’s interesting that I still bump up against prevailing societal norms that dominant women come off mean, or that little girls are bossy or type A (whatever that means). Let’s not pretend that the world is equitable. We still say “boys will be boys” when they act aggressive or rough. We never assume they have a sweet side in private and maybe we should! Nor do we call boys alpha or bossy if they are loud, outspoken or vocal. When a boy yanks a girl’s ponytail we still stay, “oh it’s okay, he just likes you.” I know my Noona would tell a boy who bothered her to stop it!  We’ve been talking about these double standards for a long time, yet we’re still making the same comments. If a boy is acting rough, we don’t worry that he will grow up to be a douchebag. If a boy has anger issues we still let him express himself freely without saying, “he is spirited.” If a boy talks back to their parents, we don’t then assume he is a bully. I’m pretty sure that bullies come from homes where there is a level of toxicity, abuse, and abandonment. And trust me, I was bullied in school, so I think I’d be pretty aware if my child was treating someone badly. And if she were I’d be the first to figure out solutions.

And why am I justifying any of this to anybody? Because it still astounds me that I bump into people that need to label my child’s outgoing personality. Even when they try to go with it, I still discern a sense of unease, or worry that I will be so screwed because she is really expressive. In the end, these judgments are exactly why I protect her rights as a child to form her personality, to experiment and modulate her communication as her brain matures and makes new neural connections. I’m trying protect her from developing shame and debilitating self-doubt because society still wants to pigeonhole little girls as nice and sweet. Those type of creeping thoughts make it hard to make clear decisions in life, trust me I know! It is much more challenging to parent in this way, constantly strategizing ways to assist her development as human. But I remain resolved to this process and will always stick up for my intuitive, self-motivated, and smart Noona. She has to go out there and become an adult at some point. Leadership, strong communication and critical thinking skills are already in her toolbox. So you know what, seriously, she can roll her eyes or pop her hip if she wants! If you see her, or any girl express themselves this way, don’t get all judgmental and concerned that she is not acting right. Just think you’re watching the growth of an assertive, independent and self-assured woman, these are more useful descriptions than sassy, alpha, bossy, or type A.

Do negative thoughts ever go away?

092715I have just returned from a place where darkness and negativity had taken over. But I’m back, sitting upright. Today I will write and slowly pound out each word one letter at a time. I’m force feeding myself little gulps of motivation. This post is not a call for sympathy, but a profile that shares how it can feel to live with depression and anxiety. I may look like I’m having fun, or this blog might seem like it’s written by someone who has figured out how to be self-important and filled with positive energy. But depression can take on many forms, it can look like and sound like me. Someone who has fun, enjoys life, with an abundance of energy, filled with dreams and ambitions. And other days, I can look sad, feel angry, alone, and am filled with all manner of negativity. My goal as a writer is to journey into truth, the changing nature of life, and how identity can be obscured by emotions. Because, here I am again, already doubting what I felt so strongly just a few weeks—when I was ready to write, engines on, gaining speed, ideas flowing.

I’m told living a creative life is an exercise of faith in yourself. But this faith is blind, offers little solace, and requires a massive amount of fortitude. To create without understanding the purpose, ignoring the futility, but soldiering onwards, resembles insanity. There is no real way to control the progress, there is no cleared path or manual on how to achieve creative success. The thousands of books written on this subject will never fill the void of self-doubt that creep into every artist’s mind. For the source of self-doubt is individualized, in some it’s calcified and difficult to root out with simple advice. Sure these books and motivational quotes offer some tips, insights, encouragement. I read them and recognize myself, I gulp up the soothing words, like a comfortable bowl of pasta.

But when I am rolled up in pain, positive words do not reach me.

These words sound hollow, stupid and ridiculous. They’re shrill voices say “just change your story, don’t limit yourself, honor your best self, be true, follow your bliss, chase that dream, happiness and achievement is available to all those that believe! If you just believe and motivate and write that journal, pin that dream board, hug your inner child, it’s all here for you, YOUR BEST YOU!!!”

And I want to scream,

I can’t hear you!

What do you know?

I’m wrapped in an eggshell,

the world is my enemy,

I can’t do this.

I can’t do this.

This is how bad it’s gotten. The other night a stranger made me cry. It was Friday, a cap to a week I white-knuckled and tried to smile my way through. I don’t think anybody recognized that my mind was filled with a ticker tape of negative thoughts. I didn’t want to be present or “in the now” because I couldn’t go there. I thought I’d topple over if I tried to feel the pain. So I marched onwards.

I was left tickets for the symphony, Beethoven’s Ninth, vestiges of a failed night out with my husband. He said, “take the child, it will bring her some joy.” My intuition tried to reach me, but I ignored it. Instead, I pushed myself to attend. Already late, I took a wrong turn and drove a whining child through the hills in a desperate search for parking. I found a lot, it cost $20, I only had $16 and I was forced to back out against a flow of incoming cars. I continued to drive in maddening circles. Once we found a spot 45 minutes had passed, my body was a live wire of nerves and clammy sweat. My child kept asking me to slow down, and as she put her hand in mine, I held back tears as we frantically made our way through the darkened amphitheater. The usher pointed to an aisle, we walked down the stone steps and I tried to time our disruption between interludes.

I was hyper-aware of the glares and the silent judgments. “Why are you so late? Who brings a child to a symphony? You are a jerk, an idiot, an asshole.” We found row 6, but it turned out we were on the wrong side of the aisle and a nice woman said “It’s okay just sit here a bit.” She must have read the stress on my face, she patted my shoulder, it was the first time in hours that I took a breath. I needed her niceness and I sat in the aisle and we watched a world-class symphony play in the warm fall evening. I really didn’t want to find our seats and move from this comfortable spot. But just as I was starting to relax, a man tapped me on the shoulder, he hissed “Where are your seats?” I pointed, and his horrible wife glared at me too and he said “You can’t sit here, it’s a fire hazard.” And then I wept, I put my hands on my face and wept right there in front of him. Shoulders heaving with tears dribbling down. The nice woman told me “It’s okay, just sit.” But in my humiliation, I grabbed my daughter’s hand and ran up the steps. We found our seats in the middle of the row amongst annoyed people. I felt trapped, on the verge of a panic attack, with a squirming child who liked some portions and sighed heavily with boredom through the quiet sections. I didn’t hear a note of the music, I just wanted to run, run, run through the hills and scream;

Mind your own business!

Your rude words could be the last straw!

Leave me alone, leave me alone, leave me alone!

It struck me later, that we were in an outdoor amphitheater, with open air seats made of non-flammable stone, and if there were a fire, everyone could’ve easily evacuated. The man that made me cry was just a jerk-off. He and his sour-faced wife probably thought I hadn’t paid my fair share to sit in their snooty section.

But this is not the point, a stranger made me cry, because I was on edge. But it was the moment I realized I had gone too far into the land of depression. I had to figure out how to turn back. I was left with no patience, no reserve of composure or ability to function in public. I scared my daughter, who took care of me and talked quietly and held my hand. Because I live with constant pain, there are times that it becomes too much for me to contain. It can send me to bed for a full day.

I know the source of the pain, deep long childhood trauma that nobody in my family will validate. I live with self-inflicted wounds brought on by my own mistakes as an adult as well. This past record of misdeeds fuels an intense desire to be perfect, flawless, creative, beautiful, mothering, nurturing, the very best of everything and to fail yet again is an utter, abject disgrace. I have mounds of guilt and shame that don’t seem to erode over time. I’ve tried to live with them in a semi-state of denial because dealing with the past bores me and distracts me from my family and writing.

By now you’re worried. Please know I have therapied, medicated, self-soothed, acupunctured, talked, discussed, meditated, begged, prayed, cried, breathed, opened up wounds and figuratively bled out my veins. Yet the pain returns. And all of those well-intentioned words, they don’t help. I’m sorry, Oprah, and Brene Brown, and Elizabeth Gilbert and every other person who espouses that we can get passed all of our obstacles if only work at it, little by little. If we honor ourselves. And dream big. Stay vulnerable, or whatever profitable catch phrase they sing to high holy heaven, are all supposed to help me get passed my personal limits and reduce the pain. But they haven’t.

I want to believe that limits wash away.

I want to believe I can be free from the past.

I want to believe positivity will clear my mind,

like a warm shower after weeks in the wilderness.

So what I’m left with is the unknown, as in nature and art. Because feelings ebb and flow, the way trees interact with the seasons. Thoughts are unreliable. A day under the covers is not a bad thing. Guilt is just a useless habit. Negative people are powerful and abundant. Positive words are pointless in times of distress. This too shall pass. Sadness, anger, pain, isolation will return. Maybe I can keep on writing. It will get interrupted. We all have limits.

10 obsessive questions I ask myself when I have political discussions

political postsI have what some consider a nasty habit, one I’ve had all of my adult life. I love to discuss politics–in any forum, on social media, in person, on the phone, at protests, yelling out my car window, wherever I can. Oh, it’s horrific. I’ve tried to reduce political posts on Facebook in recent years because I can almost see the eye rolls. I’ve also read posts from friends who express their annoyance or frustration when anyone shares opinions about politics. Since I’m a people pleaser, and I obsess over what others think of me I’ve tried to tone it down as much as humanly possible for a self-professed political junkie. But now that I’ve been defriended a few times for posting political opinions, I’ve decided to go outside of my comfort zone and try to worry less about pleasing everyone–it’s simultaneously liberating and scary.

Here’s some background about me, discussing politics is a large part of who I am today. I dislike blaming others for my problems, but it’s my dad’s fault I’m so politically opinionated. I recall when I was about 12 I attempted to read George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” thinking it was a book for kids. When my dad found out, he taught me about satire, totalitarianism, and communism, and it was the start of many such conversations. Kind of cool, orrr maybe it’s the source of my troubles? I realized early on that my dad opened up, and he was impressed with my curiosity, so we both fed into each other’s need for acceptance. Since then we’ve rambled on and debated politics, for lengthy periods of time, sometimes in loud voices taking up space in the living room. We’ve been yelled at by the rest of the family to shut up, and they’ve expressed that we seem exclusionary and elitist.

Nearly 30 years later, my dad and I still discuss politics but with less comfort and openness as we once had since the constant criticism has put a damper on our enthusiasm. We talk outside in his beautiful garden, or we discuss the news on the phone, but the energy of the past is gone. It’s a sad loss. But we’ve made a pact that nobody will ever fully stop us from being engaged in political affairs, current events, literature, philosophy, and sociology because we gain enjoyment from discussing these topics.

But lately, I’ve become sensitive, overly-concerned, and I judge myself more harshly than ever before when I express an opinion. Here are some of the obsessive questions I ask myself when discussing politics in person or online:

1. Who in the hell do I think I am?

My credibility is one of my most over-riding concerns, really I have no formal expertise or profession to discuss politics. I agree with this on face value, I’m not an academic or journalist. But I do like to state my opinions and I work hard to be sure they are well-thought-out with research and evidence to support my claim. Admittedly, I read so-called liberal publications, and my points can be progressive, somewhat activist, strange, and off-center, so I’m sure I annoy a lot of people. Sorry, that is not my intent, and I realize that this reaction is a result of our bifurcated society. I also admit that living in The Bay Area has an influence on my world-view, but that doesn’t make my opinions invalid. When the illustrious Sarah Palin came on the scene, I remember thinking if she can go around blabbing about whatever she feels like without any evidence, I shouldn’t feel so worried, at least my viewpoints are intelligent and well-informed. Not that I’m hoping to emulate her but in a weird way I do admire her “you betcha” tenacity. Okay, she is not a very high bar to reach, but you get the point. I just notice others display a delusional amount of self-confidence when stating a position, so why can’t I? I know, my people-pleasing streak is showing, I got to get over it.

2. What if I get negative feedback?

I wish I could understand how people arm themselves against feeling vulnerable when posting opinions or making really strong statements, especially online. I should be ready for questions or disagreements, and so far I do take them seriously and try to respond with respect. But it’s super uncomfortable at times, and when people disagree I feel stupid and self-centered, again I have to learn to get over it. But no matter what, I should expect backlash and disagreement as I become more outspoken about political viewpoints. For example, recently Nicholas Kristoff from The New York Times posted a strong statement about the Republican presidential debates:
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He had so much opposition to his concerns about vaccines that he was compelled to respond to readers by posting this article as scientific proof that they are safe.

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Guess what? He still received comment after comment arguing against vaccination, accusing him of being misinformed, asking him to look at another side and many posted articles that proved their points too. So even the best get this backlash to a position they stand by, so I suppose I could take some solace that this is expected. I don’t think I will ever get over the discomfort, but perhaps I can take more time writing extremely well thought out posts, clearly state my position and then resist responding right away.

3. How do I know I’m posting or stating accurate information?

Accuracy is a tough subject because there is so much information that can be misconstrued to prove any side of a debate. I try to stick to reputable publications, but I’m well aware The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Economist, The Guardian, and the BBC, all have their political slants. Even so-called bi-partisan organizations such as Pew Research still operate within a defined set of beliefs and bias. It just so happens I feel most comfortable with the general position of these media outlets, but if I can find source material, I will use it instead. I’m also fully aware that these media sources can be disproven and they’ve all had scandals surrounding inaccurate articles. But to function and have some semblance of sanity, I have to have a basic trust in the news, and at the same time read it with a grain of salt. And I know that lobbying groups distribute press releases to these organizations projecting their self-interests in articles. Again, all these factors are a huge constraint because it has become increasingly difficult to read untainted information. No matter how hard I try to avoid it, I may be spreading untruths but I hope to be the first to point it out and I will always own up to it.

4. What is my motivation for posting a political statement?

I struggle with this as well, am I posting my position to make a point, or convince people to change their minds? Sometimes I may be doing this, such as with issues surrounding climate change, women’s health and gun control. At the same time, I know that I’m unlikely to make an impact with those who have strong beliefs. However, many people’s positions on issues fall in the middle, and some haven’t formed an opinion. So, despite all my intentions to share information for the sake of discussion, I admit that I do hope to influence or inform someone. At the very least, it would be fun to have a healthy dialogue that is not peppered with hateful criticism and false judgments.

5. Why should I care, it’s not like I can make a difference?

Yeah, I can take on this apathetic point of view from time to time. I don’t see much point in discussing every issue, or fighting for every cause. Certainly, it seems that the powers that be are doing what they want with little input from society. But every once in a while I do see glimpses of change, and I totally fall for it time and again. There is something to be said about the democratic process, call me a Pollyanna, but I believe in the power of the people!

6. Am I a pretentious and entitled liberal latte?

I have been accused of this over the years and, in theory, I try to “own it” as friends have suggested. But, I was just called a stuck-up yuppie, so maybe I should take heed? Or develop a thick skin? I can see that I may come off as an entitled, bleeding- heart liberal. And I’ve noticed that the progressive point-of-view is going out of favor and becoming outdated even in the liberal bastion of San Francisco. So maybe one of my goals could be to refine my positions based on what super cool millennials or even libertarians believe. I do try to listen to other ideas, and it’s a challenge to change completely, but I’m open to trying. Some of my viewpoints have changed as I’ve gotten older. At any rate, I hate lattes they have too much milk, I prefer hipster cold-brew coffee, low ice, with a splash of unsweetened organic almond milk. Yes, please!

7. Should I just get over it and post cat videos all day?

It’s hard to accept that perhaps I should consider eliminating all political discussion online. Honestly, a sort of malaise sets over me when I consider this approach. And I do feel like such an outsider, alone in my liberal, hipster garage in Oakland writing pretentious literary and political posts. I know my close friends will try to support, but they will burn out too. I notice I get more likes on Facebook when I post pictures of my coffee or a cute quote by my daughter than one of my long blabby blog posts (like this one). I wish I could be more neutral. I do post silly memes and the latest hip-hop dance craze, and I find it funny too, I’m not being fake. I do have a sense of humor. I swear, really I do! But maybe I should keep this in mind,

You have to remember one thing about the will of the people: it wasn’t that long ago that we were swept away by the Macarena. –Jon Stewart

I guess it’s true, about all we can agree upon now is ironic posts of TV shows and kitty cat videos. Yay kitty cat videos, nobody ever gets mad at me for posting Dance Kitty Cat. Dance, I’m a kitty cat, and I dance, dance, dance.

8. Really, maybe I should think about shutting up for once in my life?

I do think it’s probably better to keep quiet and post mundane items on Facebook even though there is so much happening in the world. As I’ve become more openly political again, I already feel a little drained by the conversations. I still feel this need to explain my positions in a way that doesn’t offend, but somehow I still do! I always obsess about other people’s feelings and have lost hours of sleep over a comment or a post. This conflict is insane for someone as loud-mouthed as me, and I do live with constant inner turmoil. It’s awesome!! But I do believe that political dialogue is a crucial activity for a functioning Democracy. As Plato says (and yeah screw it, call me snooty),

One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.

9. Am I well-informed or am I an out of touch, intellectual snooty-pants?

It’s difficult for me to stay out of a political conversation for long. Sooner or later I will see or hear something, and my curiosity will get the best of me. I learned from my father early on that those in power want to stifle our voices, quell our passionate discourse, keep us muted because it makes it easier for them to govern without our involvement. Yes, politics seems more confusing and divisive than ever, but this is done on purpose to promote disengagement. For example, a common accusation is sounding too academic or “professorial” (an insult hurled at Obama), or stuck-up, or holier than thou. These are all tactics to quiet people who have an opinion, to discredit those who are trying to speak out.
Also, it’s easy to point out that elitism is separate from populist sentiment and that being well-informed, well-read, and educated is not compatible with the ideals of the general public. I disagree wholeheartedly, one of the benefits of the Internet is the availability of information to a broader public, now we can access what was once only available to those in the ivory towers. It doesn’t have to take a lot of time to read one article, or search for some background to be engaged, or as informed as only the elite once were. No wonder political leaders want to keep us divided!

10. Maybe people don’t want to express their opinions as openly as I do? 

I do understand that not everyone likes to be open or feels comfortable expressing a strong opinion. I think it does take a little bravery, slight egotism and desire to engage. Some of my friends have admitted they dislike discussing politics because they don’t feel fully informed. Again, it’s not about being perfectly accurate, and sometimes clarity can come through discussion. Sometimes, in the midst of a heated debate I might not let someone get a word in edgewise, but it’s okay to interrupt sometimes! Anyhow, everyone has their weaknesses, and I’m always working on my listening skills. On the other hand, I do wish people would try not to feel bothered when anyone posts articles, quotes, or posts their own opinions. My hope is that everyone tries to take the time and engage in political discussion a little more, even if it is scary. I swear it can be a lot of fun, and it maybe change the way you see the world around you or inspire you to act, or learn a new history or point-of-view. Isn’t this a good thing?

Lessons from The Writer’s Studio and Completing Goals

Woman writer2I did it! I finished 10 weeks of The Writer’s Studio workshop. I had to go back and count them up and yup I have 10 new stories. Now I have nurtured a mini-collection of healthy seedlings–starts to short stories or dare I say chapters in a novel. As I mentioned in this post, I was filled with trepidation about starting (and finishing) yet another workshop. In the past, I’ve struggled with workshops, unable to process feedback without inciting more self-destruction. I would feel angry that fellow classmates did not understand my intentions. The stand-out authors in class became a source of judgment and comparison, rather than healthy competition. I would read exemplary writing and kick myself for not doing as well and began to spiral in self-doubt. What came next is obvious, I would lose the energy to write, my ideas began to stagnate, eventually settling into debilitating writer’s block. I never asked for help or ever tried to reach out. I would just stop writing, skip one class, then another and slowly fade away. The self-defeat would feed more distraction from the very thing I have always desired in life–to write stories.

This time around, I gave myself one goal, to simply finish every assignment and never skip a class. Not to expect Nobel-prize winning narrative, oohs and awws over dozens of well-turned sentences and standing ovations. I just had to complete every assignment, in earnest. But most importantly I had to show up, week after week, ready to listen and learn. At first, 10 weeks seemed a long stretch and I was concerned about keeping up momentum. I am VERY guilty of starting off strong and petering out by the end. But it flew by. The best part, I never missed a single class, never “called it in” and I felt energized the entire time. It’s hard to put in words the immense feeling of pride I have for achieving my simple goal, but on the night of the 10th class I felt elated. I might as well have gotten a call that I won a Pulitzer Prize, Booker Award and National Book Award all on the same day. (Yes I know this is impossible, they are not announced at same time, just go with my metaphor please).lady writing

However, there were some positive side affects to my goal, changes that I didn’t expect, huge tweaks to my creative process. Because of the time I spent, huge mental blocks have been cleared. New ideas and perspectives have been forged. Aside from perfect attendance, here are some of the unexpected lessons I’ve gained in the past 10 weeks:

1. An idea is only the first step-I learned not to get over-confident just because I had an idea for a story. The seed still has to be harvested and the work has just begun. An idea invites us to sit down, open a notebook, turn on the computer and begin typing. An idea is a tiny fraction of the whole process. It’s only the start. Ideas are everywhere; what I have learned is how to begin to make them alive.

2. Begin by writing an intention for the story-The Writer’s Studio process includes writing a prologue before we begin creating the story. This can be a short statement that includes the type of persona narrator (ex. first person-present tense), types of techniques (such as playing with time) and objective of the story. I also began to think about the characters and their back-story and relationships to each other, so I had some guidance. When I would stray or felt stuck, I would read my prologue and it helped me get back to the story. This is a very useful technique, one that will stay with me as I write.

3. Writer’s block is an opportunity to try new techniques-Of course I had writer’s block, even if an idea sparked right away in class. For the first assignment, I wanted to write about marriage and kept getting stumped. My idea had a personal elements and it felt hard to get on paper. So I decided to write in the voice of a male character, something I had never done before. It was liberating because I could explain the situation in a totally fictionalized manner, however I wanted. Later I learned I practiced a writer’s trick without even knowing it.

4. Readers need a break from bleakness and caustic tone-This is a big one for me. Many of the stories I have yet to write are bleak–drug addiction, abuse, mental illness, failed relationships–and what I have come to learn is that readers (and the writer) need space. It’s not that writing about difficult emotions is taboo, but being heavy handed, negative and dark for pages upon pages makes it tiring for readers to stay engaged. Techniques such as adding dialogue, surrealism, abstract sounds, humor or simply changing point of view allow the reader a chance to take a breath. When I experimented with these tricks, I felt I had better responses to very emotional stories.

5. Don’t avoid your personal identity-Until this class, I have NEVER written characters of Indian descent, maybe I thought they were in my head, but I would give them Western names, talk about American ideals and culture. My characters did not reflect my full identity and this left out a huge part of my story. I felt comfortable talking about others, but this tactic kept me away from the richness of my own blended heritage. I finally wrote a story about a mother and daughter, named Ritu and Meera. I was able to get deep with the theme of culture clash, because I have lived this and know the way an Indian mother would think or react. It’s mind boggling to me, that I have never written this story. I feel open to a very large portal of personal material. These characters are not Lindsey and Michelle (yes at first I gave them these names) they are Ritu and Meera.

6. Editing is where art begins to shine-As I mentioned above, an idea is just the first step. With the first 2 assignments, I gave myself little time to edit, mainly because I was so sure my idea would just pour onto pages in perfect form. (Silly me). Procrastination, gave me little time to edit and I only whizzed through a draft to catch typos. The third assignment was to write a scene focusing on setting and I forced myself to start early. Immediately, I wanted to write about a man and his peach orchard. I gave myself a full 5 days to write. I spent more time hacking away weak adjectives, choosing obtuse words to describe a world of mud and trees and peaches, through sounds, smells and touch. I worked to create movement, following the man as he walked around to check his crop. I deleted his thoughts and showed his character through actions. I learned to push myself further, strengthen and hone. I realized something obvious, good writing does not happen in one draft.(Yes, you can say duh). It takes time to make art.

7. Feedback is a positive thing-Last but not least, the act of giving and receiving feedback. First off, we all hammered out themes, techniques and the style of each piece out loud in front of a silenced author. I quickly learned to focus on the prologue and point out the strength of the piece. Nobody in our group was negative, we all were encouraging. If we there were places to improve, we pointed to it as an opening to expand the story. Not as something bad, or wrong. The mostly positive feedback, helped me get over my lack of confidence and I began to feel safe and willing to experiment outside of my comfort zone. I believe strongly, that to put down any art in the beginning phase is negligent. We all seemed to really enjoy something in every piece. For me, this kept me alive and not afraid to write. I think this is the trick to The Writer’s Studio method and kept me from falling off the wagon.

mechanical-writing1I hope this inspires all of you to keep on with your writing or art. I am beyond energized. Now that I have an idea, I know that is just step one. I have begun to create my own process and can’t wait to share my stories with more readers and continue working on my craft. I have signed up for another 10 week session and I can’t wait.

From Self-Loathing to Self-Worth

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I should be working on a final term paper for my marketing class, but I feel like procrastinating.  As I was “taking a little look at the internet”  I got sucked into this weekend’s edition of The New York Times Magazine and read this amazing article called The Problem With How We Treat Bipolar Disorder. Linda Logan, wrote in a literary style that I wish was more prevalent on blogs and articles and she elevated the conversation with her very painful and courageous story. The notion that we treat mental illnesses as a list of symptoms only to be controlled through medication and therapy, without any connection to a person’s psyche can cause a lot of confusion and may even stunt recovery.

Based on my own experience, psychiatrists and sometimes even therapists are only trying to get at the root cause of the illness, asking about symptoms and only working to alleviate these issues–which is just not the whole picture. Its true, as the article pointed out that little to no conversation is centered on the erosion of the patient’s self. There is usually no work done to identify the changes to a patient’s personality, or talk about important aspects of a patient’s self, or how to cope with the harsh reality that their self identity may be changed forever. There is a very apparent connection between mental illness and the loss of self and anyone that is suffering can attest to this idea. I have struggled with losing touch with my inner self, as I wrote in a previous post, I felt like an out of focus lens. This is a frightening place, the wavering vision of your own reflection only fuels more anxiety and isolation.

Raising a child reminds me of how the self is formed and how strongly we identify with our self from almost the start of our lives. This is the reason kids can seem selfish and self-centered. The age we call “terrible twos” is really the first outcropping of our self identity. I always thought that it must be overwhelming for our young minds to realize for the first time there is a “me” and that the world is not  just outward stimuli. Between the frustrated moments of tantrums, I remember feeling empathetic toward my daughter watching her struggle with a the idea that she has a name, that there is a “me” and that this growing idea of self wants and needs attention and of course her own way. In fact, my favorite aspect of raising a little human is watching a personality form into a unique combination that is all her own.

I realized as I was reading Logan’s article that being lost in the fog of anxiety and depression is an attack on our own identity. We self-loathe, berate, beat down and hate our own “self”. That little self, the very one we protected as children on the playground, that talked back to our parents and threw fits over bedtimes rules–somehow becomes our sworn enemy. How did we let this happen? And as we realize what has been lost in the battle, we begin to grieve, mope around, lay prostrate and lose interest in the world. Reading Logan’s article, brought on the same questions she was pondering, why not focus on getting to understand our new self? She is so right on when she states;

For many people with mental disorders, the transformation of the self is one of the most disturbing things about being ill. And their despair is heightened when doctors don’t engage with the issue, don’t ask about what parts of the self have vanished and don’t help figure out strategies to deal with that loss.

In a way, this journey that I am venturing through in this current phase of my life is simply my way of getting back to my self, or more accurately embracing the hodge-podge of my new self. I guess I must have figured out that I did need to understand the transformation of my self. It makes sense that a person struggling with any kind of mental illness would feel disconnected from themselves. The past can feel like an out-of-body experience, except its someone else’s life played by an actor that happens to look exactly like yourself. I often think back and feel uncomfortable pangs of regret, but at the same time don’t truly identify with that person. Logan explains that, “the sick self has no accountability; the improved self has a lot of explaining, and often apologizing, to do.” I have done my fair share of apologizing and have tried to explain my condition many times–sometimes people get it other times I am met with blank stares or courteous nods. 

For now, I am focused on changing patterns, doing things in a new way and molding together a better image of my newly crafted self–with parts of the old and new. I could probably do with a bit of healthy grieving for the bits of my self that have been lost. I can think of a vibrant 17 year old, a kind of naive and overly exuberant young girl, a part of my self that has been chipped away. She may not be the same, but what is left standing is a stronger and wiser self, with moments of that same youthful energy. This is why I found Logan’s article so important, because she is still searching for new ways to reach out and understand how to make the process less painful, perhaps even more rewarding. As she began to share her story she learned that “the more often I spoke, the less traumatic my experience seemed, the less sad, the less painful and, somehow, the less personal”. This is key, if we all could open up and relinquish the hold that this very common illness has on ourselves, friends and family, perhaps we can reduce some pain. There is no need to go on suffering alone. I have talked about the process of writing releasing me from so much pain, giving me new levels self-worth. My other intention is to pass along some inspiration to just talk more openly and plainly about any type of mental illness, without stigma and shame, so that more selves can be set free. There is no point to life if we just keep things inside and pretend things are okay. I have been trained to always tell people that I am “fine”. Its no wonder that when I talk more openly about my suffering that I am met with surprise from some (my close confidants know my story all to well).

Obviously, I still enjoy a bit of self-loathing, procrastination probably falls in this realm and I still feel the monolith of work towering over me. I could use a good night’s rest without twisting around in worry over a paper I should have started last week. So I better get off the soap box for today, it did feel better to get this off my chest.

What do you all think we could better to help with any kind of mental illness? Not just dragged to the hospital and put on lithium type of illness, but also for those of us who are functioning as the walking wounded. 

Stakes in The Ground.

I’ve finally cleared a few things up with myself. Once and for all. Here, they are:

1. I am a mother. Nurturing, caring, strong.

2. I am an artist. Creative, intuitive, risk-taking.

Simple, to the point, seemingly obvious. Yet I have struggled to carry the weight of both roles. Allow me the entitled pleasure to take you back into my life just 8 months prior.

My life was a mess. If you asked me then, I would probably not have been this direct in my assessment of my regular ole normal life. Job, married, car, kid, city apartment, health and family. I am not trying to diminish anything I had in my life by saying that I felt very unhappy. If you want to relegate this to “first-world whining”, a bourgeois breakdown or bratty adult tantrum, please read no further.

Anyhow, I ended up back on “the couch” because I had the wherewithal to recognize that my weekly crying fits were a huge sign that something was off kilter. In the midst of panic inducing anxiety and depression its very hard comprehend the cause of the suffering. I only knew that it was painful. Several endless loops of self-examination helped me realize I may be in big trouble. I asked myself, “Is this getting out of control? Is my roller coaster of emotions affecting my loved ones? Can I function at work? Is hiding under the covers for 2 whole days healthy?” I was frightened by the answers.

I asked for help, medical help. Now here is the thing, I was walking around with everyone else. Attending weddings, school functions, happy hours with friends and co-workers, family trips, playing with my daughter and functioning on almost a daily basis. The good times were just book-ended with days cocooned in my cozy little room. But the middle days were getting to closer to the hidden days. The cycles were shortening.

OutofFocusSo there I sat, on a chair, looking at a Grad student, ramping up her clinical hours with my mess. And this is what I remember most clearly. I said I felt like an out of focus picture of myself. Like looking through a lens that created multiple layers of gradation, some days would come into focus, and other days my face would blur at the edges, pulling from the center figure and unfolding into an endless repetition of a scattered soul. I was losing myself. I had no idea who I was anymore. Panic inducing is an understatement. I wanted it to end–if ending meant something other than leaving behind a shattered family. I wished for some magical erasure that just deleted me from the picture, where no one would be the wiser.

But I, nor anyone else in this world, has such power. There is no delete button. I was still here, not erased. At first I relented to this obvious realization. Since I can’t go anywhere, I might as well try a different approach. I took some immediate steps to remedy physical symptoms, such as taking medication. But, I didn’t really believe in myself, yet. I sheepishly poked around for names of therapists. I kept the holidays very very simple (something I will continue going forward). I planned a short getaway with my dearest friend. I booked my first appointment with a new psychologist on my way to the airport. I came back from my trip, and within a few hours I was fired. My appointment had ironically been set for my first day of unemployed life.

I can’t hold anything back anymore. For so many years, I created a narrative that was not my own, but one that was easily validated and acceptable. I was a one-stop-shop of marketing wizardry, a working mom, successful career-woman, striving to climb the ladder part way to middle management, a hard nosed disciplinarian keeping out of my daughter’s way and a competent juggler of complicated schedules who didn’t need help from anyone. I take business classes, I talk in acronyms and douchebag business-speak pushing the envelope, thinking out of the box and at the end of the day….I felt empty and alone. I trusted nobody, work “friends” confused me, I just wanted to hide away. I can remember coming home, filled with numbness, reaching for a bottle of wine, sending my husband for carryout, barely able to read a bedtime story to my daughter.

But, somewhere, buried deep beneath the mess I had created on my very own, were some nuggets of truth, safely stowed away. There is way more to me than the artificial identity I had thought I wanted for myself.

I remember being filled with love, dancing to 80’s music with a tall Icelander on the top floor of The Hilton Hotel. I was less full of myself, less concerned with what I ought to be doing, a little out there, a little unmoored. I played in a silly punk band, surrounded by friends and a scene that continued to invite us back for more fun and snack cakes. The best part was that we had the freedom to make what we wanted. I had something more than work, career and cared little for other people’s opinions. I admit, I did feel self-conscious of this attitude, I always felt like an immature child around the other adults at work. I felt I should be doing more, I felt that this could not last. I let myself fall in love with a man who liked me this way. He had fun with me too. I remember his beautiful smile. softfocus1

At some point, I stopped having fun. Even with my tall Icelandic free-floating husband. Sometimes I would rally for the sake of my child, but I pretty much convinced myself that the fun times were gone. I had to work, I needed a 401K and benefits, needed tons and tons of benefits and retirement accounts, raises, bonuses, promotions, new jobs, better clothing, nicer shoes. Life is serious, this is important times, better buck up, better grow up. You fucked around for too long.

And this landed me on the couch, vibrating with stress, in pools of tears, dripping with sorrow. I saw my saddened husband who could only offer me his hand. I cried with each consoling hug from my 4 year old daughter. This is not what I envisioned. At all.

So, I am starting to make my way back. I have a vision. And I have planted two very solid stakes in the ground. Motherhood is power. Artistry is freedom. When I die knowing that I nurtured, protected and cared for these gifts in my life, it will be a happy day. The role of mother and artist is right in my focal point and I can see it with crystal clear sharpness. The image I see is smiling, relaxed, resolute, forgiving and is me, its my face, my body and my bits of soul. I don’t to have to strain to figure it out, its always been inside.

Focusing on motherhood means honoring birth and rebirth–its love, sometimes mundane, filled with minute details, but all the thought and energy I have to provide is what feels so right to offer to my family. Now I see motherhood is about nurturing the nature of self, fostering a home filled with love, health and happiness. I have the power to create a small bit of space filled harmony, safety and fun for myself, my husband and daughter. I am the mother of this house. The well-being of this home is centered through me, its a reflection of my generosity and love. This is empowering and has been an immense revelation to me, as I have tried to run away from this vantage point of motherhood. I never believed I was worthy or good enough to have earth momma power. But I get now.

Being an artist is a role I have never really owned, but it has been at the center of my discontent. Up until this point, I have incorrectly characterized an artist as a flaky, poor, unsuccessful dreamer. Yet, I have always viewed the world through a lens of an artist. The very traits that have gotten me in trouble in the office are exactly what will help me stick to my artistry. Overthrowing the tyranny of status quo won’t make me nervous, rather gives me a freedom to express myself. For example, I really have no concern what is said on this blog, something I would have been so worried about in the past. What if someone read this blog and I never find a job again? What if my boss thinks I am a delusional neurotic rebel who hates management? I can only write this blog as an artist. If this makes little sense to you, I also have no concern trying to explain this. If this sound like crazy talk because you think that being an artist means I will never make a dollar in this world, than I will simply ask you to reconsider this stereotype. I am committed to my role as an artist, and this identity will be with me wherever I land.

stained glassMy next steps will be to create tangible goals that fall within the role of mother and artist, artist and mother. I have the rest of my life to fill these buckets with accomplishments. Even if I do feel a little fear, trepidation, slight unease with the nebulous pathways I am paving, I also know I have hit the nail on the head this time around. Artist. Mother. I can’t wait to see what will happen.

“The job of the artist is to deepen the mystery”. –Francis Bacon

Damping the Echo.

Listening hard is a choice.  At first, we open ourselves to hear everything. To use “big ears” and soak in all the noise. The trick is in the tuning. Exposing the clarity of crystal notes that break through the interference. To feel the warm hum of low frequency embracing us with forgiveness. The quiet descent of a slow fade. Letting the walls of our heart absorb unwanted waves. We can use discord in our favor. The echo chamber is softened. This is an artful craft. To create an acoustical wall where sound is controlled. No reverberations, still and noiseless.

I don’t want to hear everything. Just what needs to be heard. Crank the volume–full blast. It leaves me floored. My face is contorted. I cover my ears to stop the ringing. The electric thumps of my heart joins the squeal. Sensory overload jams the circuits. It feels like all is lost. Good noise and bad. Will it ever go away?

Is it possible to have stillness without isolation? This is part of the practice. A chamber with no echo is maddening. Our souls need reverberation. We bounce off ideas. Children scream in tunnels, as we smile. This is the joy of sound. Carefully controlled chaos that brings us closer to hearing the truth.

Messages don’t always arrive in four part harmonies. Most are a grinding blast of negativity. My mind wanders into a dark place. The sounds are thin and reedy. I can change stages, find a new set. Good sound is always noticed and rarely applauded.

Yet, the universe is full of glorious sound. I am beginning to tune in.