Just Begin

 

Sometimes, there is no low-impact way to begin. We have to just look for the thing that matters the most to us and move toward it.

~~~~~

“I’d like to homeschool, but I’m not sure where to start.”

“Well, probably with having a kid. Oh, you already did that part? Well, you’re most of the way there.”

~~~~~

 

“I really want to have a cleaned out room, but it’s so messy I can’t figure out what to clean first!”

“Maybe go pick up something and put it away? Then pick up something else…”

~~~~~

“I’d like to talk to other white people about how we can reduce racism amongst ourselves, but I just don’t know how to begin!”

“Have you considered beginning awkwardly?”

~~~~~

When I don’t feel at home with myself I sometimes go and sit at the art museum with Vincent Van Gogh. Fair warning: this post is likely to be equal parts middle school report and shameless fan-girling.

This is Vincent Van Gogh’s The Large Plane Trees.

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From the Cleveland Museum of Art’s website:

“In May 1889, Van Gogh voluntarily committed himself to an asylum near the small town of Saint-Rémy in Provence. His doctors soon gave him permission to paint on day excursions to surrounding fields. While walking through Saint-Rémy that November, he was impressed by the sight of men repairing a road beneath immense plane trees. ‘In spite of the cold,’ he wrote to his brother, ‘I have gone on working outside till now, and I think it is doing me good and the work too.’ Rushing to capture the yellowing leaves, he painted this composition on an unusual cloth with a pattern of small red diamonds visible in the picture’s many unpainted areas.”

So, Vincent (I’ll call him Vincent because that is how he signed his paintings and how he wanted to be known) had just moved to a new place, and from all outward accounts his life was not going too well at the moment. He had only sold one painting for money (though people sometimes took them in trade for goods or services), but he saw things and just had to paint them. This piece in particular has become important to me because he couldn’t even wait for the canvases his brother ordered to arrive. He painted it on a table cloth (or possibly a tea towel, but you get the point). He did another work using The Large Plane Trees as a guide. It looks more polished. He took more time. The Road Menders (which you can see here if you like) is beautiful, but I don’t connect to it in the same visceral way.

I took this closeup of The Large Plane Trees during a recent trip to the art museum (don’t worry…I used my camera’s zoom because getting this close to a priceless piece of art is…well, don’t do that).

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If you look closely, you can see the red and white fabric underneath the paint. It shows through in places; he really just had to paint what he saw before the moment evaporated. One of the wonderful (and, I imagine, stressful for him at times) things about Vincent is that he could not help but engage in his environment. His time here didn’t always go well, to put it mildly. But it went, and then it was gone. And by passionately engaging the world, he was able to leave us with some of the most inspiring works of art ever created.

As much as I aspire to remain present, there are times when I really do feel unable to find any point at which to pierce through to the world around me. It feels as though there is this impenetrable barrier between me and any useful thing. But I have found, more often than not, that the barrier that seems so strong bursts like a bubble the moment I touch it by doing the next right thing. I don’t mean that everything becomes fine. Please hear me. That is NOT what I mean. But there’s a reason that Lao Tzu proverb about thousand mile journeys and single steps is still being used to make cheesy (and not so cheesy) motivational posters today. Taking a single action may not fix everything, but what if it fixes something?

~~~~~

I took my kids to the park yesterday. They needed to run far and climb high and I needed to let them. In the throes of busy-brain, my plan was to find a secluded bench, read articles on my phone, and avoid talking to anyone if I could. When we got there, a lady was sitting on one of the three closest benches. E walked over and put our stuff down within easy conversing distance. Foiled! What do I do? If someone doesn’t want to talk I know how to leave them alone. But what if they want to talk to me? Do I stare at my phone and not talk to them at all, even if they are friendly? Only answer with normal person depth? What even is that?  Make small talk? I don’t think I can do any of those things! “Resting Bitch Face” is completely outside of my skill set!

After a bit of an internal sigh, I decided to poke the bubble and just talk to her, since she was kind and interesting and clearly wanted to talk to me. We ended up talking for an hour and a half. We talked about marriages and divorces and deaths of old relatives and young children. There are lots of things I can’t do. But sitting with people and really caring about what they say to me? That’s one of the things I sometimes do really well.

~~~~~

It doesn’t matter if you know exactly how it will turn out. It doesn’t matter if some of your source materials show through. It doesn’t even matter if your brushstrokes look nonsensical to the Muggles around you. Just begin.

On Privilege (Or…that time I was taunted for my thigh gap)

I went out recently in public for over an hour and nobody commented on my body. Why is this remarkable? Because I actually can’t remember the last time that happened. See, what with one thing and another, I’ve lost some weight unintentionally over last few months. And apparently, people have noticed.

I went out with a group of women a while back. These are fun ladies. We enjoyed girly drinks and talked about what was happening in our lives. One of the women mentioned she’d found these cool new shapewear garments on Etsy that prevent “chub rub” (when your thighs rub together and chafe…an uncomfortable feeling). I nodded along, but apparently not very convincingly because suddenly one of the ladies gestured to me and said boisterously, “What do you care? I bet your thighs don’t even touch! Do they? I bet they don’t!”

I hid my embarrassment behind my martini and waited for the subject to change.

You know what? Having someone make a joke out of your body doesn’t feel good no matter what your body looks like. Being made fun of for having a thigh gap does not feel less crappy than being made fun of for not having one.

Still…I chose not to address it in the moment for a couple of reasons. The main reason is that I recognized that I was coming from a place of privilege in that instance. Looking at magazines or Pinterest even briefly can show you that thigh gaps are, for some reason which completely elludes me, highly desired. If thin people want to see that thin is a way that people can look, that is easy to come by. “Thinspiration” abounds. But you know what? Seeing a body that resembles yours made into something aspirational is weird. I don’t find that affirming. I find it dehumanizing. Much like racism is bad for all of us (even white people, though that is harder to see which makes it harder to get people to understand), reducing any of us to nothing but a body type is not good for anyone.

The woman who made fun of my body is a cool person. I think she may have heard a few too many times that thigh gaps are the way to be, and so joking about it is a way to say, “I’m ok too!” Here’s the thing: my body is not an indictment of anyone else’s body; it’s just the way I look. That means if I was less analytical I would have gotten very defensive when it was mocked. But I get it: seeing a particular shape of a body feature held up repeatedly as the arbitrary “way it should be” gets old. I think mostly what happens for people is that they start out declaring, “It’s ok that I don’t look like someone on tv.” This is good and important and essential and true. But then that morphs into to, “It’s not ok to look like someone on tv.” And then from there it’s not a big leap to, “You look vaguely like someone I saw on tv and that’s gross.” (This is the hard part for me.)

I think this is the essence of beginning to deal with privilege of any kind…realizing that people have been hurt, often over and over again, and that if they are prickly about something it’s often not about you personally. Confronting privilege means remaining clear about this one important thing:

It’s not about you.

Do you need to change your behavior? Maybe.

Does the perception of someone deriding something about you mean that your identity is undermined so you absolutely have to defend yourself? It does not.

It’s definitely one way to go, and it’s a not unpredictable reaction when we feel under attack (witness the “All Lives Matter” counter-movement to “Black Lives Matter”). But defensive privilege often doesn’t take into account where a non-privileged person is coming from. In the case of some All Lives Matter folks, they seem to have missed that the point is not that black lives should matter more than other lives, it’s that they should matter…too. Without that piece of understanding, it’s too easy to get defensive. The reason I almost didn’t post about this (and the reason I usually don’t respond directly in conversation when someone comments about my body) is that saying, “stop making mean-spirited comments about my thin body because I would never call you fat” felt like saying “All Lives Matter!” But I realized recently that it’s not the same.

The point of the Black Lives Matter movement is not, as far as I can tell, to say negative things about other people. In fact, most of the things I’ve read (a whole movement is sure to have a wide variety of voices and should not be treated as a monolith) have been quite careful to say that this is about helping and supporting one group that is under attack, which has the potential to help all of us. I have yet to hear a single Black Lives Matter protester say, “I think white people don’t matter.”

The point of saying “Real Women Have Curves,” as far as I can tell, is to make women who have fuller shapes think that they are real women too. I get that. I can even get behind it to a point. But you lose me when you start feeling entitled to speak to me about my own body in derogatory and dehumanizing ways (and no, telling me I look like that actress you just spent ten minutes describing as “disgustingly skinny” is not a compliment).

Objectifying any of us hurts all of us.

At this point, when someone approaches me in an unkind or critical way, I try to listen and then pause to decide whether I need to change what I’m doing based on whatever I’m presented with. The way I see it, I may need to:

  1. Change my behavior or words.
  2. Point out that maybe they should change their behavior or words (this is only rarely the answer), or at least leave me out of it.
  3. Try to discern what important piece of understanding I’m missing.
  4. Let it go (this is almost always part of the answer).

Back to thighs: these days, it seems Real Women either have curves or a thigh gap. If you think either of those things in an exclusive way, I would like to invite you away from a false dichotomy. Real women have identities. Still, it’s the way we’ve been taught to think about our bodies and it takes a whole lot of work to step out of the framework which tells us that people who look differently than us are a threat. Our culture is full of false dichotomies and it’s HARD to leave that behind. But I promise you, it’s worth it in the long run.

Be Perfect

“Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” -Matthew 5:46

I have hated that verse. It’s always felt so unfair. How am I supposed to be perfect? Why even bother trying to get better at all, if perfect is what I both should and never can hope to be?

Well, I tried. From years of in depth research, with a sample set of one, I am prepared to share my results and even a conclusion or two…not making mistakes is simply impossible if you live as a human in the world. I try to cook all the healthy things. I try to say all the kind and wise things. I try to advocate for others when I sense they can not advocate for themselves. I try to teach my children how to be true people even as I try to learn that for myself. I do many of these things very well. But I certainly don’t do them perfectly.

So have I failed?

I think the teaching I grew up under would say yes. That me failing is the point, because that’s how I’m supposed to know I need Jesus. Like God is this terrible middle school boyfriend who needs you to feel like crap about yourself before He comes and says something kind of nice and you’re so grateful you’ll do anything to keep Him around.

Somewhere along the line I stopped thinking about God that way. God’s no longer a fickle boyfriend I have to figure out how to please Or Else. The problem is, the things that are part of the soil we grew in somehow become part of our very being in a way that is difficult to change. Not impossible. But difficult. So while I can say (and mean) that I don’t think God works that way, I still behave in ways that belie that confidence. I find myself afraid to make mistakes (because as every good little Sunday School student grows up hearing, you may be the only Bible some people ever read so GET IT TOGETHER).

I’ve been thinking a lot about Matthew 5:46 again recently, and how living under the tyranny of it for years may not actually be true to the original intent. What was Jesus getting at? Did he really mean that people shouldn’t make any mistakes? Has he met people? Because words are important to me I went back to the original Greek and found that Teleios, the Greek word for “perfect” used in this case, can mean “without flaw” but it can also mean something like, “having gone through all the steps of a process and reached the end.” Even in English, the word perfect can also mean “complete and absolute” (example: a perfect stranger is not a stranger who makes no mistakes…so an admonition to be perfect in that sense would mean something like “whatever you are be that thing”).

So then, maybe the point of this verse isn’t “don’t make mistakes.” Maybe the point is, “go through all the steps.”

Going through all the steps is how we complete the process of becoming….well I don’t quite know yet. That’s where faith comes in for me. My faith is a belief that if I just keep going, this next part will lead to something…different. Maybe the next moment will be better than this one; maybe not. But I think with faith the general idea is that we move through the world as though the end goal is good and the good points along the way are meant to remind us of that. When people ask me how I’m doing these days, I usually answer, “Lots of ways! But a general upward trend, I think.”

In any given day, I will feel sad, overwhelmed, relieved, grateful, angry, and many more things. I will succeed magnificently, and I will fail spectacularly. I will be perfect.

 

“Enter Title Here” (On Miscarriages and Wisdom)

I had a miscarriage a couple of weeks ago.

I was waiting to write about it. Partly because it’s my story and I can tell it how I like. But partly because I was waiting until I had something clever or wise to say about it…maybe there’d be a pithy title like “How To Succeed in Miscarriage Without Really Trying,” and you’d know it was really hard for me but that I’m doing a Good Job going through it with all the characteristic wit and charm I aspire to have someday.

Or maybe I would call it “Critical Failure” because in my family we often explain things to our kids in terms of gaming. We told them that being pregnant is like rolling a 4 sided die so when the miscarriage started we told them we were rolling a 1. In gaming terms, rolling a 20 is called a “critical hit” because it’s the highest and best roll. Rolling a 1 is called a few different things. Critical failure (though it really isn’t…it’s not like you did something that caused you to roll a 1), Critical fumble (just…nope), or critical miss (this feels the closest to the truth).

Then again, maybe I’d come up with something serious, wise, and broadly applicable. Something that would help other people who have gone or will go through this. That’s a lot of people, by the way. At least a quarter of all pregnancies end this way, which means way more than 1 in 4 women has had a miscarriage. Maybe I should’ve shared my miscarriage story because while birth stories are easy to find, miscarriage is awkward to talk about. Maybe there should be a space where I share my story and invite others to do the same if they want to, so we could feel a little less alone, and maybe someone who is in the middle of it would have a place to look for information about what happens, so things don’t feel quite so scary. One of the hardest and most unnecessary parts was being so unsure of the process of miscarriage and what to expect when you stop expecting. I might still do that at some point. The pithy title for that essay writes itself.

What I have discovered so far is that there is no broadly applicable wisdom for this. There is no one correct way to go through having a body start to grow in your body and then suddenly stop. There are things that might be helpful to me along the way, but that doesn’t mean they will be helpful to everyone whose path converges for a minute. I spoke with a friend who was going through the same thing at the same time and she was feeling very comforted by thinking about the bigger picture and finding the beauty in or around what happened. I would never want to take away what is helpful for someone else, but that place is not where I start. I need to sit with my sad first. For longer than may feel comfortable to watch. If you are reading this and that’s the case, I invite you to look away. At its core this is really kind of a one person job anyway.

Don’t get me wrong. People have come around me in amazing ways. A lot of people. We’ve had friends and family bringing food over (crazy vegan food for our crazy vegan family because my husband had heart surgery 6 months ago…it’s a long ridiculous story but basically the gist is that we’re hard to cook for so when people take the time and effort to figure that out and feed us anyway…it’s a big deal). People who care about me have called to check up on me and come to entertain my kids while I stayed in my bed, bleeding and crying. People have spent time reminding me to breathe when I seemed to forget how. People who have their own stuff have continued to reach out to me through their own pain in really brave ways, and even allowed me to sit with their things sometimes which reminds me that even when I feel broken and small and afraid I am not really made of glass.

Even if I had something that made me feel better every single time I thought about it…I wouldn’t tell it to someone else as a cure-all for their problems. The confusion is part of the process as much as the joy. Trying to take someone’s confusion or sadness away by force will not work. Because it’s not actually possible. Telling someone else how to feel or how to process is like changing someone’s written recipe after they’ve already begun mixing the ingredients together. If you don’t list “baking soda” in your muffin recipe, it’s not going to make sense when the baking soda (which is present in their recipe because they are not you and you weren’t there when they started) and the acidic ingredients have the chemical reaction that causes the muffins to rise. If I really want to help someone, I have to respect that the work has already begun. The recipe is already well under way and instead of telling them what to add first off, maybe a better place to start is to find a way to identify what they have in the mix.

The way that translates into daily life for me right now is that when someone offers me an extra ingredient, like “It’s not that bad…it was early!” or “You can always try again” or “Everything happens for a reason” I can appreciate the kindness behind it, but recognize that it does not belong in my recipe at this moment. I can allow other people to comfort themselves at me without being confused about why the exact words don’t feel helpful. The care is helpful, and that’s enough for me right now.

 

 

Operation Chin Down: Losing Your Mind to Find It

It’s come to my attention that my preferred mode of processing is Quickly and All at Once. I think about things thoroughly, and have a hard time letting something rest until I’ve really processed it. So with something life-changing like heart surgery in the family, what I really want to do is to completely shut down for at least a week. Except I still homeschool my kids. I still have to drive places, make the meals, do the laundry, take the dog to the vet, call the doctors, fight with the insurance company, etc. etc. etc. (etc.). Life doesn’t stop because I’m a mess. Still, I’ve realized that in order to move forward, I need to prioritize being a mess for a while.

When E was a baby and I had postpartum depression, a really smart friend told me, “you have about a hundred hours of crying to do about this. If you work really hard at it, you could be done by the fall.” That was such good advice. The point isn’t to keep track of how long or how many tears. The point is to frame this time as long and intense, but not permanent. It’s a tunnel, not a dead end. There may be cave-ins and things that have to be dug through, but if you keep going there’s light eventually.

I’ve kept my chin up. My chin, literally and metaphorically, hurts. It’s time to stop trying to hold it up all the time.

So I present, mostly for my own benefit (if you’re reading along please note that these are my rules and aren’t meant to apply in a broadly prescriptive sense):

Operation Chin Down: The Ground Rules

  1. By all means, make a few terrible decisions. Allow them to remind you (usually by the lingering bad feeling afterward) why you make good decisions most of the time.
  2. Own your selfish, unhelpful thoughts. Recognize them. Just don’t always act on them. Tell your partner you don’t want him to go play cards on a Sunday afternoon, when he watched the kids all morning so you could get out by yourself. Then tell him he should absolutely go anyway because he deserves a break too and because you’re overwhelmed, but you’re still a grownup.
  3. Repeat after me. “No, Dear Daughter, I don’t want to play Monopoly right now.” In point of fact, I never want to play Monopoly. Ever. It sucks away a little of my life force every time I even see the box. Someday I may again have the patience to play anyway, but today is not that day. Don’t say this part out loud.
  4. Create and listen to a playlist of empowering songs that encourage you to feel whatever you feel and not apologize for it. Do NOT listen to this playlist when the kids are around. They don’t need to be repeating that shit at Thanksgiving.
  5. Say curse words when you need to. It really is kind of like the steam valve on the pressure cooker. Better to curse a little than to let your head explode completely.
  6. Try to have a care where you direct your intensity. Not everyone can handle it, and not everyone should have to. People have their own stuff going on and it makes sense to establish that it’s a safe space before you just start erupting like a volcano of neuroses.
  7. You will likely make mistakes in regards to number 6. Forgive yourself. You’re doing the best you can.
  8. Be honest about whatever you think and feel about God. God is big enough to be able to handle it, and won’t hold it against you. Having faith, for you, has never been about being ‘fine’ all the time. Having faith is about being able to move through things, and about being able to recognize that what you see and comprehend can not possibly account for everything that is. You’re allowed to feel bewildered and unable to form prayers. That’s what liturgy is for. “Amen” doesn’t always mean “this is how it is”. Sometimes it means, “I sure hope so.” Amen. Lord have mercy.
  9. You’re allowed to mourn the clarity that you had before all of this happened. You’ll find a way forward eventually; that doesn’t mean that you weren’t doing a good job before (thanks to my friend Sarah Wilson Belzile for that language).
  10. Go to therapy. There’s no shame in this. Find the right psychologist…you can tell it’s the right person because you can tell they get you and because you believe they are smart enough to tell you things about yourself (lots of therapists are smart enough…but not everyone will make you feel that way…that’s where the “getting you” part becomes especially important).
  11. Go to yoga.
  12. Eat all the carbs.
  13. You’re an extrovert. You have a lot of people. Ask a couple of them to come sit with you, even if you’re in a bad head space. You’ll be able to tell who can really be present in a helpful way, because they won’t need you to be smiling before they leave (it’s ok if you do smile, obviously, but the pressure to appear completely fine according to someone else’s definition is really unhelpful to the healing process).
  14. Have people around you who will tell you if they become worried you’ve gone too far off the rails. Believe them when they tell you that you haven’t.
  15. Recognize that the rules may need to change as you go. This is not failure. This is progress.

One Couch at a Time: On Crisis and Cognitive Distortions

 

There’s this episode of Friends that most older millennials or younger generation x-ers will be familiar with. If you’re not, here’s a clip (the part I’m talking about starts around a minute in). Ross has bought a new couch but refuses to pay the exorbitant delivery fee. Then this:

Ross picks up one end of the couch, then stands there watching Rachel expectantly.

Rachel: Hehehe…are ya kiddin’?

Ross: Come on! It’s only three blocks. It’s not very heavy. Try it! Come on, come on!

Rachael: *lifts the couch* Oh! Oh, I can do it.

~~~~~

Living through a crisis and then trying to reintegrate back into the world is like having this moment 600 hundred times a day. It’s disorienting.

Somebody’s hungry? Oh! Oh I can do it…

Somebody needs to have their pills organized? Oh! Oh I can do it…

Somebody wants to come over and hang out? Oh! Oh I can do it…

~~~~~

A crucial skill I’ve needed during this time (as I type this we are 6 weeks out from a hospital stay and angioplasty for my 35 year old husband) has been to figure out which couch I actually need to lift in a given moment. I’m writing about it because I think maybe it applies to other times too…during times when we are prone to the cognitive distortions that come with anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses, it becomes very hard to sort out what we actually need to spend our emotional energy on, and what can wait or even be disregarded completely.

It’s like standing in a store full of couches but not being able to figure out which one I’m supposed to be picking up.

~~~~~

What if my kids get heart disease someday like my husband? High Lp(a) is genetic and they have a 50% chance of having it. Not that couch.

Did this happen because I saved the bacon grease to fry eggs in sometimes? Just do the best you can with the information you have now. Not that couch.

I’m afraid I talked about myself too much to the people who cared enough to keep asking questions and maybe instead I should have…I don’t know…Not that couch.

I can’t really be there for a family I care about who’s going through a hard moment. I’m going through a hard moment too. Not that couch.

No one will like my food ever again. I love sharing food with people. Not that couch.

I spoke to a prominent physician and researcher on the phone and now I feel like he thinks I don’t care about my family’s health and maybe he’s right. He was in a movie, after all. Not that couch.

I spoke to another prominent physician and she thinks the first one is a quack and now I don’t know what to eat for the rest of our lives. Not that couch. Just eat some taquitos right now.

J’s not here. Wherever he is, there’s a 1% chance that something is going wrong with my husband’s stents. There’s a 99% chance something isn’t going wrong. Not that couch.

We are vegan now. Or something. How will we explain that to the people who thought we were vegan before because they don’t know what that word means? Not that couch.

What if he dies, and I have to support my family and homeschooling doesn’t pay very much and NOT THAT COUCH.

S has three cavities. None of us have ever had any cavities before. Why did this happen? Did I give my family heart disease AND poor dental hygiene? Not that couch.

S has three cavities. I should call the dentist to see about getting them filled. Yes. This couch. Do this thing.

~~~~~

If you’re struggling, I really hope you find the resources you need to pick out your couch from the sea of couches in the crowded store. I know it’s so hard. But if I can do it, that gives me some amount of hope that you can too.

Cerebral Traffic Control

I was driving home from the market this morning and I took a short-cut through a neighborhood near my house.

There were several pieces of construction equipment blocking parts of the road and a person standing there, ostensibly to direct traffic. I couldn’t see far enough down the road to tell what was on the other side of the trucks, so I trusted the person standing in the middle of the road to tell me when I could go.

She held up both of her hands, looking back and forth from me to the other end of the road, then sort of waggled both hands at the same time in a meaningless way. Then she stepped back out of the way. Baffled, I started to go. The trouble was, another driver at the other end did the same thing. Luckily the two of us were able to carefully edge by each other as our would-be traffic controller stood there haplessly looking on.

It made me think of my brain.

Like the lady in the hard hat, I don’t have total control over what comes driving through. I have various expected inputs. Some thoughts barrel through while others come gently by. Of course, brains are much more complicated than two-way streets. Some thoughts approach like a missile strike and others seem to walk by without even stopping, though we wish they would.

Sometimes, I get “busy brain.” There are just too many thoughts. Too many things to care about. Too many puzzles to figure out. So, like the lady in the hard hat, I sometimes get overwhelmed and just waggle my hands ineffectually and hope for the best.

I don’t judge myself for that. But after this morning, I’m left with the reminder that if I can practice effective cerebral traffic control sometimes I might arrive at more conclusions with less inner chaos.