In a way I have been writing pieces of a memoir for years on this blog. Indeed, I have been recording my life and sharing it publicly, and at many different points I thought that I had a story to tell, one that would resonate with other readers. Recently I have been thinking about why I have not yet taken on the challenge of putting all the pieces together and fashioning out an organized publication. Most memoirs that I read and enjoy, tell a story of memories and resilience in the face of adversity, which come in various forms including difficult or abusive childhoods, catastrophes or life tragedies. I have no doubt that many people who write memoirs also work through issues in their life, dealing with grief, or trying to understand how their lives panned out.
In therapy, and in this blog, I work through my issues, deal with grief, and understand how and why I made the life choices I made. At times I even marvel at my resilience in the face of various adversities, and how I become more aware of why I have done the things I did, or how my relationships developed. Indeed, I have uncovered most of the family myths and secrets during all the years of self-work, and have allowed myself to confront some of the most painful situations. I am even able to understand how the past affects my personal or professional relationships in the present. There is no doubt in my mind that this type of self scrutiny has helped me become more confident, self actualized, and empowered.
Today I no longer have a need to create a formal memoir. My story is not more unique than so many others out there. I feel fortunate and grateful that I have been able to survive and, indeed, thrive personally and professionally. These realizations have given me a new kind of patience, acceptance, and inner peace for my life going forward, and I am developing courage that will help me formulate different stories as I enter older age.
Here, for example, is a short one: In June I was visiting my 98-year-old mother in Israel. The two weeks were filled with all kinds of complex feelings: sorrow at seeing her large and vibrant life fading away, amazement at her lucidity and wisdom, pain at remembering some of the ways I wished she had noticed me when I was young. During the last week of my visit, my mother wanted me to know the name of one of the flowers she especially likes. My mother was always an avid gardener. I learned to love gardening directly from her through her enthusiasm as she shared wonder and delight about this or that flower, creeper or different colored leaves of plants in her yard. Now that she is bed-ridden and unable to physically tend the earth, her carer gardens for her according to her instructions and ideas. Outside the window of her bedroom is a piece of land full of exotic plants and flowers - some in pots and others directly in the ground. As I walked through the garden, I was filled with wonder and love at her energy and enthusiasm even at this grand old age of 98 years. During that last week together, she wistfully mentioned the one type of flower in her garden, and longed to remember its name.
Yesterday I visited a dear friend in Princeton. It had been a painful couple of weeks for me as I transitioned to a new position at work, and after I had finished setting up my new office, my friend offered me comfort and support in her home sharing a fine lunch of quiche and salad, including a desert of tiny mini-eclairs filled with luscious cream. When we had done eating and talking, we looked through her large windows into her garden. She pointed out some new flowers she had planted recently - daisy-like in bright oranges and browns - and she named them: Gaillardias. Instantly I remembered the flower my mother had described to me in June, and marveled at how she had longed to remember its name. I said to my friend, "I will buy some this week and plant them in my garden in my mother's name."
As I write this, I smile and think of how grateful I am to my mother for modeling such a love of plants, and especially for how much comfort I received yesterday from discovering the name of one of her favorite flowers.
A year ago at Mining Nuggets: Don't let go ... live it through!
Quote of the day:
When a person doesn't have gratitude, something is missing in his or her humanity. Eli Weisel
I sink my teeth into a meat-loaf sandwich neatly cut diagonally in half, and slightly flavored with a smidge of ketchup. It is one of three food items perfectly prepared, separated, and packaged each in a small plastic bag: a hard boiled egg, two walnut fudge brownies, and the meat loaf sandwich. I sit in the airport lounge early in the morning; my eyes still drooping with unfinished sleep, while hundreds of people bustle to and fro around me coming and going between food stalls and airline flight gates. I feel warm and cared for. Like a child, whose mother stayed up late the night before, placing in a brown bag all the food she had carefully prepared for me while I slept. She was thinking of my tiring journey ahead and wanted me to sense through her tender gifts of special food that home was never far away, even as I chose to stray far afield. I sit on the hard chair by the table outside the security check point, where I had come through rushing chaotically with hundreds of others, frenziedly pulling off shoes, jackets, and dragging out laptops and plastic bags of toiletries to place in large, plastic, grey trays on conveyor belts. Walking through the screening gate, machines beep and whistle as security agents pull me aside to full-body check me only to discover I had forgotten to remove my necklace in the mad dash through. Exhausted and drowsy from rising at the edge of dawn to make it in time to the airport, I munch on the sandwich staring vacantly ahead at nothing in particular, and as I start to relax an overwhelming feeling of gratitude envelops me to the point of tears. I realize that I cannot remember when anyone in my own family had so lovingly made me such a food parcel to take on my way anywhere. Indeed, I fended for myself – alone - from as far back as I can remember. I silently give thanks to my mother-in-law for the care she has shown me with my goodie bag – not only for today in the Seattle airport on my way home to Philadelphia – but for all the tins of Christmas cookies she sends me year after year in December just because she knows I like them so much. Gratitude in that moment gives me renewed energy and exhaustion drifts away. In its place I discover a stronger sense of self-worth, and now when I stare ahead I notice women and men, young and old, families with children, a man walking his dog, and a couple hand in hand. I feel a part of the human family around me, knowing that home in Seattle is never far away even as I set out for my own in Philadelphia.
Gratitude is key to a sense of self-worth and belonging, I realize. There is joy and hope in feeling grateful for who we are, what we have, and how we give and receive. It washes away bitterness and ancient wounds, and helps me open myself up to love.
A year ago at Mining Nuggets: Countdown to 65
Driving down the road the other day, reflecting on this or that personal situation happening in my life, I suddenly experienced a rush of emotion that tapped into an old feeling from childhood. It brought tears to overflowing, and surprised me so much that I exclaimed out loud alone in the car: "Please don't hurt me. I want you to love me." I realized then and there how much I had longed for my mother to love me even when she disapproved of my behavior, or if my self expression was not what she wanted to hear. Perhaps I needed her support especially because I was struggling to find my own identity even if it meant pushing against her will.
Mother's Day is upon us, and it has me thinking about mothering in the broadest sense, especially since the other day at a coffee shop where I had gone to write, I witnessed a young mother being harsh with her young child.
One of the core challenges in parenting or teaching young children is creating boundaries for them without repressing their authentic emotional selves. Please don't hurt them - they want us to love them. That's the dance - the constant negotiation.
We want our children to be safe and successful, and act like we know the way to get there. We have learned from our parents and our own mistakes. We have learned what to fear and what not to care about in order to survive and become successful ourselves. We have developed a perspective and world view about how children should behave and what constitutes success in general. We pour our fears, biases and survival skills all over our smallest children, and try to formulate little people in our own image. We do all of this with good intentions and love ... whatever that is. Because what do we know about love other than the way we have been loved?
Are we loving in the same way we were loved, or are we trying not to do what was done to us? Whatever all that amounts to - do we really know who our children are? Or what they aspire to? Or what they fear or long for? So much of what they do is either to please or push against us depending on their developmental age and fears. At the core of a young child must be a feeling that they cannot express: "Please don't hurt me. I want you to love me." For young children need our love to survive, but they also want us to love them for who they are - for their unique constellation of characteristics and personality - for the complex configuration of genes from generations ago and from right now.
Can we love them fat or thin, shiny or sad, angry and grumpy, joyous and loudly enthusiastic? Can we rejoice in their independent thinking, sexuality and smarts, support their confusion and insecurities, and not take it personally? As they find out who they are, what they need or desire, and how to express themselves emotionally, can we be there for them with full attention, love and support for that exploration?
The process is complex to be sure, for how much do we really know ourselves? Are we aware of how our own early childhood affected our world view, or are those memories already repressed somewhere deep in our psyche? What do we do to get in touch with those feelings, and if we recognize them, how much do we allow ourselves to face them?
How do we allow our children to follow their heart all the while loving them for it, even when they are so different from who we are?
I had the weirdest sensation on Sunday morning as I prepared to walk in the Wissahickon Valley. I hooked up my earphones and opened the Map-My-Walk app to record how many miles I would go. As I set out, music started playing from the playlist I created for my four to six mile walks, each song or melody reaching into my brain much like a meditation as I strode out into the spring day. It was the perfect spring day with cool temperatures and an almost clear blue sky above the tall, old trees lining the Wissahickon creek. Leaves turning the softest shades of green and some trees or shrubs bursting out in pale, pink or white blossoms. Along the way people were arriving onto the path as if tumbling out of their wintry stupors to soak in the fresh, hopeful air of rebirth everywhere around us. Some accompanied by dogs of all shapes and sizes, others jogging, cycling, riding astride the odd horse or two, or walking steadily along Forbidden Drive like me.
Out of the blue, I felt something strange happening around my wrists and ankles - something I had never felt before. It was as if iron shackles were snapping apart and releasing me. So vividly real was the feeling, that I could hear the irons clanking open, and I almost stumbled with the force as they broke apart. I stood still briefly experiencing the sensation, and tears of joy and relief filled my eyes. A rush of freedom washed over me, and I started to walk again. This time, my step was light and I seemed to flow forward along the path with a force of energy the likes of which I have not experienced before. I might have thought I had dreamt it all except that the feeling of freedom and relief stayed with me for the full two hours of my walk, and even through the brunch I treated myself to in the little coffee shop at the end of the trail - a full three miles before returning on the second half of the walk for the next three miles. Indeed, even two days later, the full force of that feeling has remained with me.
I am still not quite sure what it portends, and there will be time to process it further going forward, but one thing is sure, I am letting go of something big within me. After all, I have been a prisoner of my mind and ancient paradigms for long enough, and the old rules that helped me survive as a child clearly no longer apply to me.
Have I been so busy that a month has passed me by without writing on this blog? I know there were travels across the country and many presentations, that's true. But what about all the thoughts and feelings wandering through my brain while these things were happening? I know I thought of many blog posts even as my days were full of this and that.
Ah, and there's always the book that I am writing. That takes up much of my time, for it fills my thoughts throughout the days, accompanying me on trips to the grocery store, on my walks, and at times even when I am chatting with neighbors. I had forgotten what it is like to be all consumed with my literary endeavors, and I am so privileged this semester to have the time to do just that: allow myself to be consumed.
Apart from all of that though, this past month I have found peace of mind about my early childhood and the connections with the present reality. It started in March in Oxford, although it had been a long time coming through all the psychological work that I have been doing on myself over the years. I felt it in my presentations this past month, and as I stride out on my daily four-mile walk. I sense it as I take care of myself more and more - whether it is in preparing a variety of salads for dinner just for me alone while Life Partner is away on his travels; or sleeping in until six in the morning - one hour later than usual! Something has shifted within me.
It has taken a long time getting here, and continues to be a process of uncovering the inner workings of my emotional memory. I understand the reasons why. Some might call it forgiveness. Forgiveness for the people who hurt me so deeply - who broke my heart over and over again - forgiveness for myself for some of the choices I made. I call it understanding with my emotional brain - not the rational one. Understanding in my guts, if you will. Understanding that people who broke my heart knew not what they did. They had unresolved emotional issues, which they took out on me because I was so willing to believe their truths - so desperate was I for their love and acknowledgement. Understanding that the choices I made were the best I could do with the undeveloped awareness I had at the time.
This type of understanding helps me heal my broken heart. It allows me to forgive myself for who I am and what I feel.
This past week, being in Oxford in my own right as an academic and intellectual, I experienced what can only be described as a feeling of closure. Indeed, it was the first time in my life that I did not yearn for acknowledgment from my mother or older brother for my accomplishments. I felt completely comfortable in my own skin: included in a community of my peers, and up to the intellectual task set before me. I wandered the streets of the ancient collegiate city, probably down the very streets that my brother had walked decades ago when he had the good fortune and privilege to study there. And, for the first time in my life, I felt akin to him, and equal in academic stature. At times I even allowed myself to feel pride in the hard work I had done these past twenty years to place me where I am today. It was a very good and solid feeling. Not arrogant or prideful - but peaceful and happy. On Friday, last week as I sat with Life Partner at a quaint but classy little pub in Hampstead, London, it suddenly occurred to me that in order to experience closure, I had to first be opened up.
It has taken years for me to face my deepest feelings about so much that went on for me as a young child. While I might have known about my situation cognitively, I would have to allow myself to feel what I felt as a child before I could truly understand what I had been through. I would have to digest the hurt, experience the pain, and confront my fears head and heart on, in order to let go and move on. It took me until my late fifties to allow myself to do this. As I write this I realize that I waited that long because I must have feared the pain. And yet, when I confronted it together with my therapist these past few years, it was not at all as excruciating as I had anticipated. Oh, there were times that I wept and raged, but when I held still and allowed myself to feel the sensations from decades prior, it became more and more manageable, always followed by a feeling of relief that was worth everything I had gone through.
My older brother died about a year and a half ago, and what with one thing and another, I was unable to attend his funeral. And so, with my trip to Oxford, I initially planned a type of pilgrimage to his grave in another town to pay my respects. I had hoped that I might experience a feeling of closure with such a visit, because of the many complex feelings that I had within the context of my past relationship with him.
However, as I walked the streets of his alma mater, it was enough for me to feel a deep sense of peace in taking my leave of him.
I am a rule follower. Yes indeed. I follow the rules. When I break them, as inevitably I do, once I think critically and independently, I feel anxious. For example, I remember when I decided that I preferred coffee over tea. I thought I was quite the rebel! For, in our family tea is the drink we drink to be social, to cure all ills, in crisis, or if there is the slightest hint of emotional discomfort. Growing up in Rhodesia, we were served daily with trays of steaming pots of strong, sweet, delicious tea. Coffee felt like a rule breaker for me - as if I had become unfaithful in toeing the party line! But, oh my - how I love it!
When I move into a different job, visit a family other than mine, or travel to a new country, and especially when I joined academia-land, I observe and learn carefully and quickly what the rules are within each and every type of culture. How to speak, what to say, when to say it, what to do, when to do it, and so on. When I first came to America, for example, I learned very quickly not to talk with my mouth full, and to suck on a breath mint immediately if there was the slightest hint that I had been eating garlic.
In my youth, when I belonged to an organization, I followed their rules! In fact, each time I became a staunch and loyal member, and expected everyone to abide by all the rules, I was as harsh on myself as I was judgmental of others. No double standards there! As I look back on my life and recall the organizations I have been a member of, I am appalled about how loyal I was - sometimes unquestioning in my obedience. It is no wonder that nowadays I am fiercely dedicated to helping students think critically for themselves, for I know intimately and personally how important it is to be able to think independently when making choices that will affect me or others close to me. I have to admit that because of my strict adherence to blind obedience that I learned as a young child at my mother's knee, I only allowed myself to entertain feminist ideology at the late age of 40.
Now that I am older it seems that there are even more rules to follow: not to drink coffee, yes to drink coffee, not to eat bread, yes to eat the right kinds of grains, not to drink wine, yes to drink red wine, to walk every day for 30 minutes or more, not to sit for too long, to do cross word puzzles or play Scrabble or lose my mind, not to be involved with social media, yes to belong to a group on Facebook, not to eat before gong to bed, yes to eat the right kinds of food before going to sleep, to sleep in the dark, not to watch television before sleeping, to read but not on Kindle, to ... the list is endless. Study after study comes out and tells me what I should or should not be doing to retain my health, grow old gracefully, or whatever it is the study shows.
All those should's and should-not's - it's exhausting.
So sometimes the best thing is to just sit quite still, breathe in and out, and toss all those rules aside. That way all those demanding, dominant voices in my brain are silenced, and I can consider what it is I want and need at that very moment.
A year ago at Mining Nuggets: Leaving to be left
Looking back and thinking forward. I have noticed that I reflect on the past a lot, especially in the one or two years leading up to, and for a few years after becoming sixty. Mainly the purpose of that has been to make sense of my life, and how I came to be me. It has caused much regret, but at the same time it led me down nostalgia lane.
How much better it was when ...
It seems I have dwelt in the land of yearning for awhile. And yet, for the past week or so, I think I am starting to think about retiring nostalgia and regret, and leaving them behind in the past. Over the years as I have made more sense of my earliest childhood and how I made the choices growing into an adult and beyond, I look forward to a different time. Of course, at the core I will always be the unique me, who was born almost 66 years ago. And I am sure I will retain most of my neuroses even though I understand better than ever how I tick emotionally. However, it seems to me more and more lately that the past is exactly where it needs to be. Behind me.
This older version of me has a different life ahead.
Being on sabbatical this semester has made me realize I am not anywhere ready to retire. I love the work I do, and would miss it terribly if I left it. Recently, talking with a financial advisor about retirement was an interesting experience. I noticed that all the financial advisors in the building were young people, including our own very competent and understanding fellow. There he sat, as young as could be - full of life and exuberance, bright as a button and sharp as a wit. And he gave us advice about our future - a future that was capped by a certain number of years - a future that very clearly has an end. I wondered if developmentally he understood how that feels - a future that will end ... soonish. One thing for sure though, he helped me see that the choices I make for this next piece of the journey will be very different to those of the past.
On my walk yesterday afternoon I wondered if I am really ready to give up on looking back. In a couple of months I will head out to yet another reunion. Ten years later, another group is organizing another such reunion. A time for people to gather together, gray haired and life experienced, to look into each others' eyes and seek out past memories shared together - dipping into nostalgia as never before. I remember the first one. Even as it was joyous to reconnect with old friends from the distant past, it also raised feelings of longing for a simpler, and more passionate time. It brought back regrets of lost loves and thoughts of, "If only ..." over and over again. I wonder, do I want to do that again? Really? After all, most of the people I see for an afternoon or evening, I will most likely never see again.
Is nostalgia and looking back to the past a way of me holding onto my youth? I realized recently that when I think of losing weight, I have an illusion I will become younger if I do. I mean, I say that, at my age, I am doing it for my health. But in reality, am I hoping I will become young again? For me, leaving the past behind means letting go of holding onto my youth. Bidding farewell to an era gone by. I must admit it is a bit wistful. Saying goodbye is always a bit sad. But, at the same time, letting go of the past means moving forward and onto a different future. While it may be unknown, and challenges certainly lie ahead, as I look back over my life I realize, that that never stopped me before!
Quote of the day:
Within two hours of welcoming students to a retreat on using food as a doorway to their inner lives, I ask them to list 10 criticisms they've hurled at themselves since they arrived. "Just 10?" someone usually asks. Then I introduce the concept of The Voice. I ask a few people to read their lists out loud (using the tone in which The Voice usually speaks to them). Some things I've heard: "I can't believe I came to another thing on weight." "What is wrong with me for thinking I could wear a sleeveless dress?" "My toenails are disgusting." "I'm wasting my time and I should go home." You probably wouldn't let anyone else talk to you the way you talk to yourself. You're inured to insults from this inner critic who sounds so much like you that you believe it is you. You think you're telling yourself the truth.
How do you free yourself from The Voice? You begin by becoming aware that it exists. One good way to do that is by listing the ways you've berated yourself and reading the insults out loud in the voice of The Voice, the way my students do. Next, you work on disengaging from The Voice - understanding that it isn't you. You can begin to separate from The Voice by remembering a time when you knew the delight of being happy for no reason, a moment when The Voice was silent and you were your essential self.
When you stop believing The Voice, when you know it isn't you, when you talk back to it, you are free. You have access to yourself and every thing The Voice pretends to offer, but doesn't: clarity, intelligence, strength, joy, compassion, curiosity, love. When you stop responding to the continual comments on your thighs, your value, your very existence, then you can ask yourself if you are comfortable at this weight; if you feel healthy, energetic, awake. And if the answer is no, you can ask yourself what you could do about it that would fit into your day-to-day life. What you can live with, what you can maintain. What feels good, what stirs your heart. And you can give that answer in your own voice. Geneen Roth, February 22, 2015.
Lately, I have been thinking a lot about compassion. In the new book I am writing, I have been describing my pedagogical principles, and compassion features strongly. It leads me to wonder how I can get teachers of young children to understand this. Most of us growing up have not experienced much validation or respect for our emotions, so how do we know what it feels like to do that for children?
And then about a week ago, I watched Alive Inside, and was made to wonder about compassion even more. How do we help people understand about empathy and compassion when they have never experienced it themselves? Or, are some people born with a compassion gene, and others not? There are skills that can be taught: like listening without judgment, for example. But how do I teach that skill when most of us know only what it feels like to be criticized or shamed? How do I help people feel what it is like not to be judged, and thus not to judge?
Is it impossible?
I am not able to stop what Geneen Roth [above] calls, "the voice" inside my brain either. My inner critic is relentless! Therefore, I struggle to hold back my judgment of others too - just like any pre or in-service teacher I teach. I mean, I judge those who are critical of others, and who lack compassion, for goodness sake!
For the past forty years I have observed teachers and families as they interact with children. Their expectations are too many to list ... children are judged for being too much of everything:
Mostly we need people to be like us - within our own comfort zone. When they are different from us, we try and squeeze them into an obedience box of our making. We feel comfortable with those, who follow our orders, or do as they are told - forgetting that most of our expectations we learned from adults, who were critical of us when we were young. Sometimes, we reach for the opposite of what we were taught, especially if it was painful. Either way, unless we become aware and reflect about how we were brainwashed as children, we will find it impossible to learn the skill of listening without judgment, develop empathy, and become compassionate.
At the foundation of my pedagogical principles must be compassion, for it contains within it empathy, and, while we can never fully put ourselves in someone else's shoes, we can try to feel what it might be like for others. If we cannot feel what they are experiencing, at the very least we can learn to listen to them - really listen - without judgment - and hear the story as they experience it.
As I wonder out loud about all this, I can already hear caregivers and teachers wailing at me: "But there is not enough funding - we have no time to stop and listen to everyone. there is so much to be done, so much paperwork, so many expectations on us!"
So - then - it follows that one of my pedagogical principles must be:
Building time into this institutional structure for practicing listening without judgment; validation of feelings; and respect for each individual voice.