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Come Home To Yourself


A quarter century ago, my boss Dave tried to set me up with his opposing counsel. I’d said no. A bad breakup with a cheater had put me off men for good, or at least that’s what I went around saying. Then Dave made plans to meet up with the guy at my regular hangout. Every Thursday, my entire law school class drank and danced our stress off at Murphy’s Law. When I spotted Mark standing at a high boy with Dave in a chambray shirt that matched his blue eyes, I couldn’t believe my luck. With an easy laugh and a jaw line that could cut glass, he changed my mind in an instant.

Within days, Mark and I turned into lovesick zombies, staying up all night to fill each other in on everything that had happened to us so far. We had been found. One day during that time, we woke up early, began the conversation where we’d left off and by the time I looked at the clock, it was 5:00 pm. Days passed without us.

Having dropped off the planet, we veered into dangerous territory. Mark had recently been made partner, the youngest at his firm. Stopping by the office whenevs was not part of the deal. I got a ‘D’ in Criminal Procedure, decimating my GPA. The fear of not getting a job as a lawyer with all that student debt brought me back to earth with a thud.

We cleaned up our acts and here we are, celebrating our wedding anniversary, twenty-two years ago yesterday.

All this time later, we are like a lot of couples. We play the same handful of fights on a loop. Through my writing practice, far better than all the expensive therapy, I realize that these frustrations don’t match how I feel beneath the surface. Journaling has unearthed a sense of unworthiness for our beautiful life, for this love I had been so lucky to find. I do a lot of pushing away and a fair amount of nit-picking. It’s time I dealt with that.

If you have been around a while, you know I am constantly on the hunt to improve how I do life. Admittedly, this also stems from insecurity but it does lead to progress so that is a net gain. A dear friend who has heard every grievance about my marriage from its inception has recommended a program of Byron Katie’s where one partner works out a conflict with the other by making a series of inquiries, then turning the questions around on themselves.

To give you a frame of reference, here is one of our handful of arguments from a couple of days ago:

Me: Remember I told you I wanted to go see Kat in Atlanta? The only available weekend is the last one of the month.

Mark: Jackson has his drivers license appointment that Friday.

Me: Since it’s already in your calendar can you take him? Consider it a lunch hour maybe?

Mark: (heavy sigh) It’s at 2:45 during the work day. You time is flexible, mine isn’t.

Me: You were away the whole holiday weekend. I have to do things to take care of myself too.

Mark: You do that a lot. And it’s usually for more than a week at a time.

Me: If you add up all the times I’ve left town, you’ll know the exact number of hours that I could count on my own plans going forward. When I am home, they are often derailed by someone else’s needs. Conversely, when you make plans, there is a high likelihood they will happen. Imagine not being able to make solid plans for eighteen years.

Mark: An out of town trial is not a leisure activity.

Me: I don’t consider taking a weekend to be with my friend optional. It is critical for me to do something for myself. By the way, I don’t appreciate your attitude, like my needs are such a burden. That being available for this one Friday afternoon appointment for our son is such an unreasonable imposition.

Mark: Don’t you think that maybe this is your problem?

Me: I guess if I thought it over, sure. But I am letting you know that when you huff and puff over your precious schedule, it makes me feel like you don’t care about me. My hair becomes a raging inferno.

Mark: I feel like we both have expectations of each other that neither of us are meeting.

Me: What am I doing?

Mark: Criticizing how I am responding, I can’t say anything right.

Me: Well I can’t not say what is bothering me, so here we are.

End scene

I would like to drop this argument loop and the others on our hit parade, if that’s not too much to ask. Happy anniversary to me.

Friends have made some interesting comments about Byron Katie’s approach. She can be very polarizing. I’m glad that stuff works for you—it doesn’t for me. Some of it is totally out there. I’ve also heard that Byron Katie and Eckhart Tolle are the most enlightened spiritual teachers of modern times. I was ready for it.

First, I listened to The Work in Relationships* to hear how this is supposed to go down. Truth be told, it’s pretty radical. I mean, for a blamer like me, I had to listen to several others go through it before it started to sink in. Basically, it facilitates taking personal responsibility for your own garbage to a degree you never imagined. There is no pointing fingers at anyone, ever. I’ve had zero luck trying to control anyone so far anyway.

Then I tried it myself. Katie’s website** supplies all the instructions and materials for free in every language imaginable. She recommends completing the Judge Your Neighbor worksheet*** about anyone you have been in an argument with or a stressful situation. She teaches that judging someone else is the easiest way to see what you really think. I completed them for Mark and for my mother. I also had a conflict with a friend but after I listened to Katie’s book, A Mind at Home With Itself,**** it was clear that I was no longer attached to any negative thoughts about what had happened between me and my friend. I texted her and bygones became bygones. I don’t think I have ever let anything go as easily in my life. And it was one of the worst friend breakups I have ever had. It was downright freaky.

To preface this next part, the friend who recommended I do this work flat out refused to explain it to me. She tried a little and I resisted what she said straightaway. If you are dug into the belief that the other person in your life is to blame for the issues between you, you may need to wait a while to do this too. I had to give it a while. But I’m going to let you in on how it went for me, in case it could be helpful to anyone else out there.

Katie recommends doing The Work for breakfast everyday, metaphorically speaking, for as long as it takes for the questions to become part of your automatic internal inquiry. I completed the Judge Your Neighbor Worksheet a couple times and the results were pretty immediate. I know this isn’t over by a long shot, but I’m off to a great start.

If you are curious, go ahead and click on the worksheet*** yourself. A series of inquiries help to dig up all of your resentments and stored up emotions about one person, one conflict at a time.

 

I answered these six questions about my husband.

  1. In this situation, who angers, confuses, hurts, saddens, or disappoints you and why?
  2. How do you want him/her to change? What do you want him/her to do?
  3. What advice would you offer him/her? “He should/shouldn’t ____?”
  4. In order for you to be happy in this situation, what do you ned him/her to think, say, feel, or do?
  5. What do you think of him/her in this situation? Make a list. (It’s okay to be petty and judgmental.)
  6. What is it about this person that you don’t ever want to experience again?

In Katie’s relationship workshop, people were super uncomfortable answering the name-calling question, probably because they had to say all those mean words out loud in front of a crowd. Here in my quiet writing space, no one heard me call my husband self-important, dismissive, rude, condescending, negative, elitist, arrogant, cold, curt, stressed-out and unappreciative. I got to keep that to myself. What a relief! 😉

After you excavate all the hard feelings, you then ask each of the four questions about each one of your answers above. It’s a little confusing, but if you listen to the examples and then do it yourself, it won’t be.

  1. Is it true? (Yes or no. If no, move to question 3.)
  2. Can you absolutely know that it’s true? Yes or no. (This requires a level of honesty that escaped me until I did this work myself, not just heard about it anecdotally btw.)
  3. How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
  4. Who or what would you be without the thought?

The last question is the real kicker. WHO WOULD YOU BE WITHOUT THIS THOUGHT? Who would you be if you didn’t think this awful thing, this thought that plagued you every day, made you feel bad about yourself, about your relationship and judgmental of someone you care about. Think about that. Who would I be if I didn’t believe my husband thought I should have no time to take care of myself? I’d be enjoying the crap out of my life, that’s what. I would unburden myself from the weight that drags down our otherwise beautiful life. How great is that?! And, not for nothing, letting go of the thought of my mother rejecting me is huge, whole other subject but not unrelated. Just saying, that is freedom.

The last step is also a doozy: the Turnaround. All the statements you make about the other person are then turned on you. You ask yourself if they are as true or truer than your original statement about the other person. My statements went from accusations about my husband to revealing how I project my feeling about myself onto him. Again, sounds confusing but it’s really not. Here is my turnaround:

  • I hurt myself because I think every second of my life should be taken up by kids’ stuff and I should have no time for me. Also, I hurt Mark because I think every second of my life should be taken up by kids’ stuff and I should have no time for me.
  • I want to respect my own need to take time for my work and welcome taking breaks as necessary sanity time. I should fully support it. Also, I should respect Mark’s need to take time for his work and welcome his taking breaks as necessary sanity time. I should support that too.
  • I shouldn’t give myself a hard time when I want to do something just for myself. I shouldn’t give Mark a hard time when I want to do something just for myself.
  • I need to be positive, light and loving, not judge myself or the kids if they haven’t measured up. I want to work on myself and stop putting my issues on everyone else.
  • I am self-important, dismissive, rude, condescending, negative, elitist, arrogant, cold, curt, stressed-out and unappreciative. That is true or truer. SHEEEESH.

This story has functioned as my own personal torture device over the course of my marriage. During this work, I laughed and cried at the same time. I knew it was exactly what I had been waiting for. Until now, it had been far more important to be right than to be free.

“The truth is that your partner is your mirror. He or she always reflects you back to yourself. If you think there is a flaw in him, that flaw is in you. It has to be in you, because he is nothing more than your story. You are always what you judge him to be in the moment. There is no exception to this. You are your own suffering, you are your own happiness.”

-Byron Katie, A Mind at Home With Itself

I know Mark and I are still those two people who couldn’t believe our luck on a random Thursday night back in 1996. He is home to me. And I am finding my way home to myself.

When you are finally ready to take responsibility for yourself, when you value your freedom over your self-righteousness, you get the sense that it’s all going to be okay.

Love,

Elizabeth

WRITING PROMPT: Do you have a hard time handling conflict? How’s it working out? Do you think you will try doing this work?

*https://www.audible.com/pd/The-Work-on-Relationships-Audiobook/B002V0RC76?asin=B002V0RC76&source_code=ASSORAP0511160006

**https://thework.com

*** https://thework.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/jyn_en_mod_6feb2019_r4_form1.pdf

****https://www.audible.com/pd/A-Mind-at-Home-with-Itself-Audiobook/B0741G363M?asin=B0741G363M&source_code=ASSORAP0511160006

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The Skill Set of Wellbeing

 

I crack a wry smile every time I do the exact thing I said I’d never do. I will never let my kids eat junk food or I’m never going back to the United States, and best of all: you’ll never catch me at one of those dorky programs for self-improvement. I would have put good money on that last one.

Turns out, one of the best things I’ve ever done was attend a dorky program for self-improvement. My former therapist mockingly called them “weekend miracles,” and I assumed they were strictly for suckers. My whole persona was much more ‘cynical know-it-all’ than ‘personal-growth-loving optimist.’ The old version of me wouldn’t even do lunch with this new version. In truth, that ‘weekend miracle’ put me on a path to becoming someone who lives a far better life.

 

Making room for the notion that we cancultivate a positive outlook and that it makes a difference to our wellbeing was a huge shift in mindset. I used to think our baseline happiness was a fixed thing, simply the result of the way we are. It’s now clear to me that the thoughts I hold onto determine whether I live in a state of low grade misery or peaceful contentment. I’m not suggesting we pretend to have no problems. I simply mean that when you condition yourself to operate from a calm, positive place, the physical and mental benefits are profound. It doesn’t work with Swiss watch precision, but it does work.

 

In our head-centered culture, we value ticking off our to-do list far more than increasing our positive experiences throughout the day. According to author and world-renowned researcher Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, cultivating positivity is more important than happiness. She teaches that finding more ways to have micro-moments of connection is just as critical to physical health as exercise and eating your veggies. All day long we have the opportunity to connect with others in a positive way. Saying good morning to a stranger, laughter with loved ones, smiling at a baby—doesn’t even have to be your baby! I notice a boost in how I feel after I’ve said thank you to the traffic cop who saved us from arriving late, chatted with my neighbor Bob and helped a kid find her chile lime at the grocery store. Most of the time, our brains are being shaped unwittingly. Looking for ways to bolster our outlook makes a difference.

Choosing moments of connection is known to increase our wellbeing. It is just one example of a simple habit that builds our overall positivity. We now know there is a formula to wellness and any one of us can shape our brains through training. Lucky for us, all these neural circuits exhibit plasticity. Wellbeing is an actual skill set to be learned. It’s like playing the piano. If you practice, you get better.

So what skills should we target to improve our wellbeing? According to Richard Davidson, Founder of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, there are four components that can be improved with practice.

  1. Resilience. After experiencing an adverse event, we can return to baseline more quickly when we focus on the things we can control instead of the multitudes we have nothing to do with— our own goals, for example. It’s helpful to recognize that the problem likely doesn’t pervade every aspect of our lives. For more tips on how to bounce back quicker, check out: https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/resilience.htm
  1. Positive Outlook. If you are someone who has the ability to see the good in others and to savor positive experiences, you lower your risk of all sorts of mental and physical illness.  Developing the habit of focusing on the good to come out of a challenging situation, being able to laugh, even when times are tough lowers stress, anxiety and depression. Spending time with positive people raises your self-esteem and helps you see the bright side too. Speaking sweetly into your own ears doesn’t hurt. If you start the day on a positive note, you increase feelings of peace and positivity.  https://www.healthline.com/health/how-to-think-positive
  1. Paying Attention. “A wandering mind is an unhappy mind.”  A shocking 47% of the time, American adults are not paying attention to what they are doing. Being present and deeply listening is critical to wellbeing. You can learn to maintain focus through mindfulness or other cognitive training. Most obviously, maintaining good sleep, nutrition and exercise is key. For more, Harvard has some tips: https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/tips-to-improve-concentration
  1. Generosity. When we engage in altruistic behavior, it has a ripple effect. If someone else sees us do something kind or generous, it makes them more likely to be generous too. This has a direct effect on our feeling connected to others around us, like what we do matters. It helps us feel less lonely. All these wellness circuits are interconnected. The more positive we are, the more full of joy, the more we want to share it with others.  https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/click-here-happiness/201902/what-is-generosity-and-how-be-more-generous-person

When we understand that we are the ones responsible for the quality of our lives and that the tools to improving them are at our fingertips, we get the sense that it’s all going to be okay.

Love,

Elizabeth


WRITING PROMPT: Would you say you have a positive outlook on life? What do you think of the “weekend miracles?” Ever been to one? What was your experience?

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Start Fresh In Covid 2.0

Back To School Season is upon us. Whether you are a student, teacher, parent or just an innocent bystander at Target, you cannot escape the message: it’s a fresh start, people! It may feel more like Covid 2.0 than a sparkly new school year, however. But we are wiser and more prepared for whatever this is going to be. In my home, we are fully vaccinated, masked up and ready to go. The question is, after all we’ve been through, combined with lingering uncertainty, how do we start over?

  1. We begin by taking stock. At the beginning of the pandemic, author Elizabeth Gilbert joked that if aliens came to earth, it would be off the front page by Tuesday. We adapted, it’s what humans do best. Granted, many of us, including my own family, had the privilege of having our needs met and access to the support we required. Not all of us ended the Covid school year without lasting scars. Battle weary though you may be, you can acknowledge yourself for the effort. It wasn’t easy, but you did it anyway.
  1. Experience is everything. The confidence we gained to handle the next iteration of this pandemic is a tremendous comfort. Masks indoors again? A pain yes, impossible: nope. On the bright side, no colds or flu. I personally dug that part. Random cancellations? It happens, but for the love of all that is holy, please don’t. It’s really horrendous on the kids. I’m going to visualize lots of safe fun over the coming year.

  1. How ever we’ve weathered the Covid storm, it’s tempting to tick off a list of regrets, wishing we could have done things better, somehow. Try giving yourself some grace, resisting the urge to judge. It’s impossible to steer your life in a positive direction while staring into the rear-view mirror. We can’t change anything back there. This year showed us how resilient we are. We are stronger for whatever is around the corner.
  1. When time stopped, it presented a unique opportunity to prune away some activities, even some relationships that didn’t serve us. It provided insight into where we derived fulfillment and what felt like a drain. I stepped back from roles I felt pressure to take on but that sucked up my time and sapped my energy. When asked again to recommit, I drew a healthy boundary and said no. Obviously, we all have responsibilities that are non-negotiable. I don’t mean those, I mean the optional stuff. No need to fill your calendar with people and activities that drag you down.
  1. Why not DREAM BIG? Eckhart Tolle advises to use your imagination only for what you want. Your mind is the most powerful tool you have. If you don’t actually wantthe worst case scenario, stop visualizing it. What you focus on, you get more of.The more vivid a picture of your big, beautiful life you place squarely in front of you, the greater power you give your brain to make it happen. Now’s the time to do more than just dog paddle. Caution around Covid is a long term necessity. Pursuing our dreams and taking action despite the pandemic is imperative.

 

  1. Choose happiness. When awful stuff happens that you can do nothing about, do not allow it to dominate your thoughts. If you are taking concrete steps to solve a terrible problem yourself, wonderful. You may feel compelled to spend time hand-wringing but it is a false productivity. Making yourself miserable helps no one. If you don’t know how to choose happiness, take a look at Positive Intelligence by Shirzad Chamine. Yes, I know I’ve recommended it before–it works! He teaches neuroscientifically-proven techniques to direct your mind towards a state of curiosity, calm and collaboration rather than stress. Building healthy neural pathways can be detected in an MRI. Choosing happiness is real.

7.  Mind your business. According to Byron Katie, there are three kinds of business in the universe: mine, yours and what simply is. You can call the third one God or reality. It’s basically anything that is totally beyond our control. Much of our stress comes from mentally living out of our own business. When you think, “I want you to be happy, you need to take better care of yourself, you could do so much better,” I am in your business. When I’m worried about the spread of disease, hurricanes or when I will die, I am in God’s business. To think that I know what’s best for anyone else is to be out of my business. Even with the best of intentions, it is presumptuous, and the result is tension, anxiety, and fear. My only business it to decide what is right for me. It’s on me to work with that before I try to solve your problems for you. If you understand the three kinds of business enough to stay in your own business, it could free your life in a way that you can’t even imagine. The next time you’re feeling stress or discomfort, ask yourself whose business you’re in mentally. (P.S. How Katie came to these insights is an extraordinary story: https://thework.com/about-the-work-of-byron-katie/​)

When we acknowledge ourselves for our efforts, focus on what we really want and resist the urge to judge, we get the sense that it’s all going to be okay.

Love,

Elizabeth

WRITING PROMPT: What helps you to start over again?

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Put Down The Burning Coal

 

 

‘Holding onto anger is like grasping a burning coal to strike another’— so goes the ancient proverb.

This week, the thing I most dread in the world happened.

After a few bites of a shrimp burger she had prepared on the stovetop, my teenage daughter fanned her face.

“Mom, something’s wrong.”

She leaned across the kitchen island from her barstool and grabbed the container of mustard she had just squirted on the bun.

“Nutmeg,” she said, scanning the ingredient list. She hadn’t reacted to nutmeg since she was little. I’ve baked with it for years. This didn’t make sense.*

“Call 911, I can’t breath,” she said. I swiped my cel off the counter and phoned for help.

Jane dug in her purse for the Epipen, lifted her arm high and jabbed her thigh, holding it in place to drain. Despite the full dose, she continued to gasp for air, nearly passing out between labored respirations.

I took her by the shoulders and locked eyes.

“In through your nose, out through your mouth,” I repeated, assuming panic was making it worse. Trying to calm her breath accomplished nothing. Her throat was closing.

Seventeen interminable minutes later, the ambulance arrived. Masked up paramedics filled our living room. One of them swiftly fitted an oxygen mask over Jane’s face, another attached a monitor to her finger and started an IV. She fought for every breath.

Stepping back to give them room, I willed the epi to work. I aimed my phone at the scene and texted her dad a photo.

Nutmeg in the mustard, I wrote.

“Ma’am, her oxygen number is low. We need to transport. Covid protocol doesn’t allow you to ride with us. Do you prefer Baptist or South Miami?”

Going to hospital, I texted.

If you go to Baptist, remember Radha works there, he wrote back. The wife of Mark’s former partner was an ER doc.

Is she there today? I recalled her describing a three day on, four day off shift.

He didn’t answer.

Jane would arrive at the hospital alone. If she had a friendly face to receive her, it would make all the difference to her and could improve her treatment. I had heard some terrible things about ER visits without an advocate on staff. My friend’s son had nearly died waiting for someone to notice him.

I waited for an answer from Mark until they insisted I make a decision.

“Let’s do Baptist,” I said.

They strapped Jane to a gurney, I kissed her head and they wheeled her away.

She would be cold.

I ran down the hall to her bedroom, grabbed a sweatshirt, swiped books off the nightstand and took off in my car.

Still no word about the doctor. The ambulance would be pulling into the hospital any second. I called Mark at the office, openly frantic now that Jane was no longer watching me.

“Is Radha there?”

“Let me check.”

“YOU HAVEN’T ASKED?”

“I’ll call you back,” he said.

 

 

 

Pulling up to a red light, the memory of the first time I had felt like this flooded my thoughts. Fifteen years earlier, I lay on the wood floor, very pregnant with my second child. On my way to the bathroom in the wee hours of the morning, my back went out and I crumpled to the floor. Mark was out of town. With a toddler due to wake up any minute, I chucked a pillow at the landline sitting on the desktop. It clattered to the floor next to me and I dialed my husband.

“What am I supposed to do from New Jersey?” he asked. I don’t know, say something comforting to your hugely pregnant, incapacitated wife maybe?

“I’ll call Dr. Mike,” I said, stung by his lack of concern. Our chiropractor had mentioned house calls under special circumstances.

“You can’t call him at this hour,” he said.

“So, you have no suggestions and I shouldn’t bother Dr. Mike.” He hadn’t mentioned calling his parents who lived in town.

“I don’t know what to tell you,” he said. I hung up.

The light turned green and I snapped out of my reverie. The phone buzzed.

Not sure if she’s working today. Trying to find out. 

Two minutes later Mark texted that Radha had Jane’s date of birth and knew she was coming.

 

 

At the hospital, the lot was jammed. From my faraway parking spot, I traversed the distance of a football field to get to the entrance. Rushing through the Covid gauntlet, I searched the halls for ER Room 49. Through a glass window, I spotted Jane, slumped on a mobile bed with her eyes closed in a room by herself. The nurse followed me in and mechanically ticked off a list of meds. Jane opened her eyes halfway.

“I thought I was going to die alone,” she said. I held her hand and smoothed her hair away from her forehead.

One of the EMTs who’d transported her came by to check in.

“Can you tell Dr. Radha Jane is here?” I asked.

“You know Dr. Radha? She’s just next door,” It had been an hour and a half since I had asked Mark if she was working that day.

A few minutes later our friend entered the room.

“I missed seeing her come in or I would have asked to be assigned,” she said.

The EMT injected a steroid ordered by the doctor. Jane began to convulse.

“Just flush it out,” Dr. Radha told the nurse. “That one has really bad side effects, like fire in your veins, burning and itching. I am so sorry,” she said. “We have another one that doesn’t do that.”

If only my kid had been assigned to someone who worried about side affects.

Over the next few hours, Jane stabilized enough to go home.

We were too exhausted to share much with the family about the experience that night. We crashed early.

 

 

 

The next morning as I washed my face, I glanced up at the two baby pictures I’d recently displayed next to my mirror, one of me as a wide-eyed one year old and one of Mark as a toddler on a tricycle. I had read that keeping images of yourself as a child serves as a reminder that you are worthy of unconditional love and empathy, just like you were as a kid. The you before the walls went up. Before you tried to protect yourself and pushed people away. Keeping childhood photos of loved ones around also helps locate that unconditional goodwill for them too.

 

 

 

My husband’s sweet photo brought back a story he’s repeated over the years. As a third grader, he’d raced through their apartment building with a friend while his parents met with movers. When he reached the end of the hall, he stuck his hand out to avoid slamming into the wall. He didn’t see the window. As pulled his arm back from the shattered frame, a thick piece of glass lodged deep into his forearm. Not wanting to disturb his parents, he went for help at the friend’s apartment, leaving a trail blood on the white shag carpet. I could relate. I didn’t feel comfortable telling my parents when bad stuff happened either.

That evening after dinner, I pulled Mark aside and told him I wished he’d reached out to Radha sooner to make sure Jane had received the best care during the scariest moment of her life. How awful it was to find her in a huge room of cold equipment all by herself. How it reminded me of how I felt when he didn’t do or say anything to help me when I’ve needed him over the years. It felt far worse when it was our child.

“But Jane was the one going through it, not you,” he said.

“As her mother, this experience was terrifying. I am allowed to have my own feelings about it.” There was nothing more to say. I left the room to go read.

I stared blankly at my book. We didn’t see this situation in the same way, that was obvious. And then I recalled something from a recent relationship class we had taken. Oftentimes in couples, we think, “we are one and that one is me.” I know that I am prone to overly identify with my emotions. Intellectually, I know that we are not our emotions but rather the awarness behind our emotions. In the moment, I forget this. Mark’s way is to bury his emotions. Both ways are trouble.

On his way home from the office the next night, Mark texted me and Jane with the contacts of his former law partner in Los Angeles where Jane will be at school in a few weeks. This woman also happens to be the mother of Jane’s good friend, a wonderful coincidence. Jane leaving home after this experience concerned us most.

Save this number. She is available if anything happens when you are out there. 

He had asked for help for his daughter. A little while later he forwarded a text from another parent out there who also has a son with serious allergies. This other mom offered to supply contacts and anything else we needed. Jane had some people she could ask for help if she ever needed it. That was everything.

When you realize we are all just doing the best we can with good intentions, you get the sense that it’s all going to be okay.

Love,

Elizabeth

 

WRITING PROMPT: Do you hold onto past hurtful experiences or do you easily let them go?

 

*If you are reading this footnote, you are probably concerned about allergies. This is how it happened, according to Jane’s allergist. She’d had a mild allergic reaction a few days prior to this event. For thirty days after an allergic reaction, the body produces a heightened response to even the slightest allergen. In Jane’s case, to a seed (nutmeg is a seed, believe it or not) she hasn’t been sensitive to in years. In other words, after you suffer an allergic reaction, hyper-vigilance is a life-saving necessity. Also, it was the first time she had administered the Epipen. Her continued labored breathing indicated that she should have had another dose. From now on, she will always have two on hand.

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What Is Your Biggest Question?

 

Lately, the question of forgiveness has been sitting in the front row of my mind, waving madly like Arnold Horshack.

An old friend and I had a conversation about our mothers. Her experience was similar to mine except she lived with her grandmother until she was twelve, then with her mother after that. At that same pivotal age, my mother left. Somehow, my friend has been able to forgive her mother, while I continue to stew.

“What has slowed me down is that I buy into my mother’s version of me: the demanding daughter with a big mouth. It’s our one point of connection. If we didn’t have that, we’d have nothing,” I said.

“You would not have nothing. My mother gave me my life, a few times over actually. When I think about it, I am so grateful I could cry. When she observed how badly my grandmother treated me, she took me away. And when my grandmother tried to stop my education, she didn’t allow it. Had my mother not intervened, I would still be in that tiny town in Jamaica. She gave me my life, over and over again.”

You would not have nothing. The thought seized my throat.

The next morning while I meditated, a summer rain beat down on the metal roof. A sign that the August heat had cooled. I threw on shorts, laced up my shoes, and set off on the steamy Miami streets.

As I ran, the gifts my mother gave me played like a movie.

An image of my three squealing kids discovering their Easter baskets popped into my head. We are Jewish. My mother had converted for marriage but had no qualms practicing her beloved, former traditions. To our Jewish friends, we referred to our Christmas tree as a Hanukkah bush, somewhat guiltily (like good Jews). I do the same thing, using my converted husband as the excuse. The truth is, I love our Christmas tree. It brings me true delight to collect ornaments from all the places we’ve traveled and mementos from milestone moments like marathons and play performances. Like my outlaw mother, I don’t allow the opinions of others to guide my choices.

With the excuse of research for my book, I asked my mother why she left us with our dad. After they announced the divorce, we never revisited what happened. No discussions or explanations, no repair. She replied that dad was able to afford four children, she was not. She didn’t want to repeat her own childhood experience of having the PG&E shut off when her parents split and her mother was left with seven kids. What did that mean for me? We moved across country with my father to the suburbs of Chicago. All the John Hughes movies of the eighties (including the sketchy bits) pretty well summed it up. My friends took for granted that they were all college bound, so I was too. Their parents, most of them, showed up at their games, knew all their friends and celebrated their milestones. Those people taught me how to be a family once I had kids of my own. Above all: SHOW UP. I wouldn’t have learned these Midwestern values if my mother hadn’t opted out.

When we were little, I recall my mother surprising us with thoughtful little gifts. I know she enjoyed it. Fresh gingerbread men from the bakery. Beautiful antique angel cards for Valentines Day with a little treat. Gift-giving is far from over the top in my house, but part of her is with me when I randomly order baked Alaska for my son who’d been curious about this flaming ice cream cake. At CVS, when I select hair ties and a keychain in the shape of a unicorn that poops sparkles for my daughter. Or when I make lunch for the whole street full of sweaty skateboarders so my youngest will feel special. Spontaneous thoughtfulness. I am reminded now to do more of it.

When my family broke up, I had to face facts. In some basic ways, I began to provide for myself. As a result, I don’t owe much to anyone. My decisions have been mine to make for a long time and I know that’s not true for a number of adults, even at my age. There’s a lot of personal freedom in that.

 

To her friends and sometimes to me too, my mother is a badass anti-hero. My mom did everything for us when we were little. We barely saw my dad. Even on weekends, he’d go rock climbing while we went swimming at Princess Jeanne with mom and our family friends. She cooked, she shopped, she schlepped. He underwrote the operation. After thirteen years of raising us alone, she left. When my own kids were small and my husband traveled for long stretches, it overwhelmed me. During those times, I understood the temptation to take off, allowing the whole scene to recede in the rearview mirror. If I had wanted to have my own Thelma and Louise moment, I had precedent. Mom’s oldest friends from that time are totally with her on this. As her kid, I didn’t get it, but as a mom, I do. Especially that one time Mark had a six week trial out of town and all three kids were puking and pooping their brains out. I chose to stay and I knew I didn’t have to.

So, this is what she gave me. I had a mom who served who I am today.

 

I am grateful that my friend shared her insight with me and am forever on the lookout for others who have transformed their pain into a richer understanding of humanity. Once such person, Ronit Feinglass Plank, has generously offered to speak with me on this topic TODAY(!!!) Friday, August 13, 2021on my Instagram Live Series Tell Me All About It. Ronit Plank is an author, podcaster, teacher and storyteller who shares her personal story in her first book, When She Comes Back. I was immediately drawn into the story of how Ronit grew up in the shadow of her mother’s devotion to guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. When her mother joins his cult and moves to India without Ronit and her sister, Ronit stays with their single dad who raises them alone. I won’t spoil the book by telling what happens with her mother but suffice it to say, Ronit’s big-hearted nature shines through and the end, you will cry happy tears. It’s a moment that has come back to me over and over. I so want that.

From these experiences, Ronit developed a passion for learning how other folks have survived hardship and have gone on to learn something valuable to pass along. She created the podcast And Then Everything Changed to highlight individuals who have had that transformative experience and made it their mission to help others find their way. Ronit has certainly done that for me and I can’t wait to talk to her.

WHO: Ronit & me in conversation

WHAT: Tell Me All About It on INSTAGRAM LIVE

WHEN: Friday, August 13, 9:00 EST, 12:00 NOON PST

WHERE: @elizabethheise1 on Instagram

Be there!

When we learn from others who help draw out our own truth, we get the sense that it’s all going to be okay.

Love,

Elizabeth

WRITING PROMPT: Who has helped you understand a deeper truth about yourself, someone else, or your relationship? What can YOU teach someone else about what you have been through?

Do you subscribe to these weekly stories? If not, please sign up here elizabethheise.comor follow me on Instagram @elizabethheise1 and Twitter @heiseelizabeth1. Thanks for reading!

 

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You Are Perfect, Whole, And Beautiful

“Life will give you
whatever experience 
is most helpful
for the evolution of your consciousness. 
How do you know this is the experience you need? Because this is the experience you are having
at this moment.” 

-Eckhart Tolle

This principal is constantly at work in our lives.

Not long ago, I learned about the work of neuroscientist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor in her Ted Talk, My Stroke of Insight.* She experienced a stroke that totally shut off the left side of her brain. As an expert in the field, she was able to study the effects in real time. The left hemisphere thinks linearly and picks out details from the present moment, connects them to the past and projects them into the future. It allows our past to govern how we react to new events. This is where our internal brain chatter lives. It’s the side that worries and ruminates and plans. It helps us contextualize our experiences but it also limits what think is possible. We need our left brain, but it can also create barriers to our potential.

Dr. Bolte Taylor got a mini-vacation from all that when her left brain went off-line. It’s bizarre to think of a stroke in those terms but she describes the feeling like a visit to Nirvana. The right brain has no concept of past or future, it exists only in the present moment. In an instant, all the baggage of living for the last thirty-seven years instantly vanished from her mind. She felt a sense of euphoria, energetically connected to everything, yet lighter in her body. In the present moment, she felt perfect, whole and beautiful. Amazing, right?!

The takeaway is that stress and unhappiness reside only in left brain thinking: ruminating on regrets of the past and the anxiety of the future. When I reflected on that insight, I recalled a time when I was so sick, I could only think of how to manage what was happening right then. Even though my physical body didn’t feel great, I recall the lightness and peace of sustained present moment thinking. I said to myself, remember this when you feel better.As soon as I got well, my brain chatter started back up and I forgot all about it.

 

In case you are skeptical, take a look around the space where you are reading this story. Where are all your problems? Are any literally right in front of you? I doubt it or you wouldn’t be taking the time to read this, you’d be dealing with whatever the emergency is. We are always totally fine in the present moment, even when something not so great is going down. We can deal with it. If the past year has taught us nothing else, it’s that we can adapt to anything. If the problem isn’t in our immediate midst, we can take action steps to solve it, then stop thinking about it. (I could probably straighten up my writing space, for example). Allowing our brain to spin nightmare scenarios makes us feel like we are doing something, a sort of false productivity, but that’s the left brain lie. Worry is unproductive and can paralyze us into inaction if we let it.

So, Dr. Bolte Taylor taught me why it would of great benefit to spend more time in right brain thinking, but I really didn’t know how to do that. I meditate and do breath and energy work but I still respond sharply to stressors. As recently as a few hours ago, in fact.

After hearing the recommendation at college orientation to have a “go bag,” my husband expressed doubt about whether our California-bound daughter needed one for emergencies like fires and earthquakes. I am a native Californian with family members up and down the coast who I believe all have them. He continued to push back about whether it was necessary.

“Why would you question something that comes directly from my own experience. Do you think I am lying?” I asked, raising my voice to express my full annoyance.

“Would you talk to your friends like this?” he asked.

“If they were constantly questioning me, yes I would!”

I bet if I wasn’t automatically attaching this conversation to the ones in the past where he refused to just take my word for it, I wouldn’t get to this place so automatically. Left brain thinking is where my exasperation lives, plain and simple.

So, clearly I will benefit from more connected, creative, right brain thinking.

 

You know what happened next? A dear friend invited me to partake in a six week program led by neuroscientist Shirzad Chamine. It started this week. His book Positive Intelligence describes how spending a few minutes a day in mindfulness exercises he calls “PQ reps” create new neural pathways directly to the peaceful part of our brain. These exercises make it more likely that, when presented with a challenge, you will respond from the right brain instead of the left where most of us get stuck. Right brain thinking allows us to approach problems with a sense of cooperation and collaboration with others. It sounds like the difference between reacting like a petulant child or a mature adult. This method is scientifically proven to retrain your brain.

I need to learn how to do this for the development of my consciousness or it wouldn’t be coming back to me over and over again. For years, I operated in a mild panic, worried that things would go terribly wrong at any moment. It was a really hard way to live but survival mode had become a constant state of being. Therapy helped but I am now at the point where I am ready to learn new ways of thinking. This program is only a few minutes a day. I will keep you posted on how I feel at the end of it.

“The more time we spend choosing to run the deep inner peace circuitry of our right hemispheres, the more peace we will project into the world, and the more peaceful our world will be.”
Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor.

Peaceful ways of thinking give us the sense that it’s all going to be okay.

Love,

Elizabeth

WRITING PROMPT: Do you recognize when you are attaching an old story to a new set of circumstances? Do you question whether your conclusion is really true?

Do you subscribe to these weekly stories? If not, please sign up here elizabethheise.com,  follow me on Instagram @elizabethheise1 and Twitter @heiseelizabeth1. Thanks for reading!

*https://www.ted.com/talks/jill_bolte_taylor_my_stroke_of_insight?language=en.

 

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Understand More, Fear Less

 

“Now is the time to understand more, so we fear less.” Marie Curie

If you are a regular reader of my Friday stories, you may wonder what happened this week. With my piece ready to go on Friday morning, I hesitated over the send button. The story involved a common scenario between me and someone else that led to an insight into human nature—my favorite. I asked permission to write about our shared experience. The person is also a writer who has published personal stories of her own. Because I had been the problematic one in the situation, I wasn’t surprised by her consent to let me tell it. At the last minute, I had a funny feeling. I sent over the draft and gave her the last chance to kill the story. She did. She may have felt comfortable sharing other personal details in her own work, just not this one.

Out on the road this morning with my running partner, we discussed what happened. Not sharing the story wasn’t the worst tragedy, but I had looked forward to the discussions it would spark and who might be helped by my own vulnerability. Also, I had worked hard on the piece. Above all, I was glad I had checked in and respected the other person’s feelings.

And speaking of honoring other people’s privacy, I have received some surprising feedback since I’ve been writing. In conversations with a few friends, I’ve been asked not to share their personal stories. To anyone else who is concerned, let me assure you, your story is not mine to tell and I would never do that. If we have an experience together that I want to write about, I will do you the courtesy of asking permission first. My goal here is to help all of us connect to ourselves and to each other better, not to embarrass anyone by putting their life on blast.

 

As for my family of origin, I go by Anne Lamott’s credo: You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.

As we made our way down the grassy path, my friend and I discussed why people don’t like to speak openly. My feelings on this have evolved over time. As a lawyer, my concern was that my words would come back to haunt me. I had good reason. Once at a document review, the opposing side sent paralegals to sift through the mountain of banker’s boxes. A few of us lawyers from the other side showed up looking for a specific piece of evidence. The opposing paralegal asked, “why did your firm send lawyers instead of paralegals? Not wanting to reveal strategy, I made a joke. “We just like to charge our clients more.”  Quoted by opposing counsel in an affidavit filed the next day, I regretted those words. For most of us, no one is trying to sully our reputation in a court of law but we hold back for other reasons.

“No one wants to be judged,” my friend said. I agreed.

“If you think about it though, people are judging us anyway, based on their own assumptions. We may as well straighten them out so at least they’ll be judging us on the right stuff,” I said and we laughed.

 

At our core, I think we are all a little afraid if people really knew us, they would reject us. Our imperfections, our doubts, our screw-ups, the B Side of our lives. But the truth is, we are all flawed creatures and sharing it brings the comfort that we are not alone.

Ever since I began to write, I have let go of so much fear around sharing what is really going on in my life. Because I hear from readers each week, I know many of you experience similar things. If I have accomplished nothing else by sharing my own personal stuff, I hope I have encouraged you to show more of your true self too.

When we reveal who we really are, we create opportunities to connect and free ourselves from fear. When we are less afraid, we get the sense that it’s all going to be okay. In truth, we are all far more lovable as our true selves than the image we try to curate for the world.

Love,

Elizabeth

WRITING PROMPT: Do the people in your life know the real you or do you project an image that doesn’t quite match up?

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A Plan For When You Feel ‘Off’

 

I had been in and out of town for weeks which had invited a certain chaos into our domestic realm. My book revision deadline took it’s place behind a vacuum* repair gone wrong, a busted well pump with the repair guy ignoring my calls and the early return from summer camp by the one kid who’d had plans for the summer. Having all three back at home was psychic relief, but now I had a full house. This was not shaping up to be the quiet summer I had counted on to get my book out the door. While directing traffic around my busy home, my cold computer lay motionless on the empty writing chair.

Brene Brown has cautioned that unexpressed creativity turns malignant. By day three of little to no writing, I became the flame-haired poster child for this dire warning.

My pronouncements at dinner that night didn’t garner any sympathy.

“I am getting no work done. If you come into my room to talk to me, please close the door when you leave. And if you need me for something, let me know in advance. Don’t just barge in and announce I need to drop everything.”

“You sound like you are blaming us,” my daughter said.

“Way to kill the vibe, mom,” said my son of his welcome home dinner.  

My plea to convince my family not to make things worse by adding to the interruptions hadn’t gone well. I was like a cornered cheetah swiping a clawed paw at everyone.

On day four, it became clear that no Uber would be pulling up to whisk me off to a quiet writing space where no one would ask me to spark up some chicken tenders and fries for ‘the homies’ skating out in front of our house or come join a Zoom call I didn’t have on my schedule. I decided to take charge of the situation and do the things I knew would help me out of this harmful mindset. On the off chance you find yourself under a pile of children and broken home appliances or other frustrations, I share them with you below.

  1. Return to the Breath

As the bridge between body, mind and consciousness, a simple deep breath can center and restore calm almost immediately. Here are a few forms to experiment with that I learned in Ayurveda:

  • Alternate nostril breathing brings balance to the right and left hemispheres of the brain, thus equalizing both positive and negative forces and restoring integral health to the system.
  • Inhale for four, exhale for eight, breathing only through the nose. This stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system which relieves stress and brings clarity and focus.
  • For irritation, Sitali breath creates a sense of calm in acutely stressful situations – roll your tongue and inhale through the rolled tongue, exhaling through the nose. If you cannot roll your tongue, suck the air in through gently closed teeth with the tongue behind your teeth. This cooling breath is great for summer heat or feeling overwhelmed. (I once did this before a super stressful meeting at my son’s school. It slowed my heartbeat down so I could think.)
  • If you prefer an app, try the Insight Timer. Taylor Somerville is Elizabeth Gilbert’s preferred guide for breath work. This app has all sorts of options for meditation, sound healing, you name it.

2.   Journaling

Like nothing else, free writing first thing in the morning unloads the noise from the subconscious and helps focus your thoughts. Oftentimes, I drill down to what I am really grappling with on page three. (That’s the last page if you do Morning Pages from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.) I am the most at peace when I practice this daily or at least several times per week. It’s like a mental shower. (Or bath, as the case may be. What? You don’t write in your tub?)

3. Caring for My Body

Hydration and food choices go off the rails when I travel (and sometimes just because) which always affects how I feel. Well-hydrated means drinking half your body weight in ounces of water per day. In New Mexico, I was intent on maximizing my green chile stuffed sopaipilla intake which has all the ingredients to make me feel horrendous. But it’s a now or never situation, so when I visit, it happens. One night I finished a chile-less dinner then met a friend out to recoup the green chile, intent on fully OD’ing before I left town. There might be a State minimum before you are allowed to leave so this could actually be the law. In any event, I will acknowledge myself for always exercising no matter where I find myself.

4. Mindful Self-Talk

That quiet critical voice really needs a full-time babysitter. It’s so insidious that it creeps back into your head the minute your conscious mind lowers its guard. Not feeling my best after all that rich food had me silently criticizing myself which bummed me out. Then I started making decisions in compliance with that mean little voice. On vacation with my family, I hesitated to go tubing with everyone because the entire boat was filled with magazine-quality physical specimens, minus one: me. I swatted that mean voice away, hopped on the tube in a bikini and hung on tight. I haven’t laughed so hard in years. When I got off, I vowed to shut that mean girl up if it’s the last thing I do.

5. What You Focus On, You Get More Of.

This oldie but goodie comes from parenting expert Dr. Becky Bailey. My husband and I have joked about how the best parents are the ones with no kids, i.e. Dr. Bailey, however we totally subscribed to her parenting advice and hold on to this gem to this day. When I had focused on all the distractions preventing me from doing my work, it just made me feel worse. When I decided instead to focus on the healthy family I love, the delight of a tireless bunch of skateboarders all over my home, and the chance to do better for myself and everyone I care about, I felt better.

6. Getting Out In Nature

A walk in the morning sun, out among the trees, to listen to the birds and absorb the aliveness of nature always clears my head. And when I breath in the healing light of the universe to scrub out any negative energy, it makes all the difference.

 

So, I will squirrel myself away this weekend and crank through my work.

When you focus on all that you have instead of what you don’t, you get the sense that it’s all going to be okay.

Love,

Elizabeth

Writing Prompt: What techniques do you use to overcome frustration?

*In case you are intrigued, I own an amazing vacuum that is recommended for allergies and post-construction fine dust: the Rainbow. It cost a king’s ransom but it works on drapes, pillows, furniture, you name it. Our dealer has been great, showing up to the house for repairs and providing demos for its many functions. All was well until she lost our vacuum during a move and then tried to “give” me some other crappy brand that looked identical to a Rainbow. I ended up threatening legal action if she didn’t bring me back a new Rainbow. That’s the second time I have threatened to sue someone this summer. Who says I don’t use my law degree? So, we now have a new Rainbow. And a new dealer. Let me know if you need one.

Do you subscribe to these weekly stories? If not, you are invited at elizabethheise.com. Join me on the gram @elizabethheise1 and Twitter @heiseelizabeth1. Thanks for reading!

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Liberals Like Me Are Not Helping

 

Dear friends had invited our family up to their lake house in North Carolina. We’d made the twelve hour drive up in one day, but decided to extend our trip with a stop along the way. Because we hadn’t planned ahead, we couldn’t be picky about accommodations. My criteria was simple: a comfortable place on any available body of water where we could catch a sunset. An exhaustive search turned up one house on the Florida-Georgia border.

As we pulled into the small Southern town of St. Mary’s, I took in the American flags waving from permanent poles in front yards, Christian churches every few blocks, pickup trucks with gun racks and the single color of person: white. It’s always a bit jarring to leave Miami and discover what’s right outside our multicultural, multi-religious, multinational flag-flying town.

We had encountered a similar vibe on a spur of the moment trip last year around this time.* Everyone was desperate to escape Covid-ravaged Florida, or so it seemed from the lack of available rentals in North Carolina. Determined to leave town, we hunted for a place with a mountain view. A modern cabin with a massive American flag out front popped up in Franklin, North Carolina, a town we also knew nothing about.

 

The morning after our arrival in Franklin, I took a hike around the mountain and snapped photos of wild flowers, the thick canopy of trees and unique cloud formations. I sent a photo to an old friend who shares my love of clouds.

“Where are you?” she asked over text. I told her about the last minute trip.

“We don’t do that,” she texted back. She explained that, as a Black woman from Jamaica, substantial recon was required before she traveled anywhere in the United States.**

“Even when my son drives back to his apartment after dark, I am a nervous wreck until he calls.” We’ve all seen the news reports that back up why she feels this way, but unless it’s your lived experience, it’s impossible to fully grasp. Like the difference between watching a hurricane on TV and having one blow the roof off your house.

My friend’s words came back to me as we located our rental in the mystery town of St. Mary’s, Georgia. American flags everywhere, the monster trucks, the occasional Trump 2020 sign, still up nearly a year after he’d lost the election. There’s no way she would bring her family here.As a Jewish woman, I felt mildly unsettled here but with my lily white, German-looking family members around, I felt safe.Not a luxury I imagined my friend would enjoy in this town.***

 

As is our custom with any new place, my husband and I set out to explore it on foot. We dropped our youngest son at the local skate park and walked around the neighborhood. Down a quiet street, a weather-beaten house with overgrown grass and all manner of appliances out front drew my attention.

“If you have no less than four refrigerators in your front yard, you might be a redneck,” I said, mimicking Southern comedian, Jeff Foxworthy, whose bit anyone with cable in the early nineties had seen. Mark laughed. Telling that joke made me feel a little bad but I didn’t dwell on it.

The next day, I asked my husband if he thought people who installed flag poles in their front yards were necessarily the same ones who supported the insurrection on January 6. During the last administration, the increased American flag-flying had seemed more aggressive than patriotic, particularly the huge flags affixed to the back of pickup trucks and boats.

“This is a military town, Elizabeth. That base takes up most of the property here.” I hadn’t considered that. The Naval Submarine Base adjacent to St. Mary’s spanned sixteen thousand acres. It was a safe bet that many of them had retired and bought property there. They’d been flag-flyers regardless of who was in office.

Back at the rental, I perused the bookshelves for signs of political affiliation. How do these people not care about offending paying guests?

And then, I began to see myself. Pre-judging everyone who lived here on outward appearances alone. On their own personal bookshelves, for pete’s sake. I had been guilty of the very thing I had assumed these white, American-flag flying townspeople were doing. I was certain they were all close-minded bigots despite knowing nothing about them.

I recalled the story of a Black Jazz musician who’d collected over two hundred Ku Klux Klan uniforms of men he’d befriended who’d then quit.**** He had started conversations in bars, bonded with them over music or whatever and then built on common ground. He’d had an open mind and treated them as equals. Conversely, I had shown up with a know-it-all attitude and a closed mind.

I thought more about my old friend and recalled how accepting she was of a wide variety of people at our firm. She was friends with everyone who was friendly to her. She gave people a chance. How would she ever feel comfortable traveling around the country if white people like me wrote off whole sections of the country and refused to engage? Wouldn’t it serve us all better if I changed my energy toward other white people who believed differently than I do?

Yes, it would.

The next afternoon, a Sunday, we waited for a table in the quaint little seafood restaurant our host had recommended. A number of Black families occupied several tables, enjoying the afternoon. Perhaps I didn’t know everything about this little town. If that jazz musician could keep an open mind and convert the freaking Klan, I could give this town and these people a chance too.

When you open yourself up to others instead of prejudging them, you honor all of our humanity.

Love,

Elizabeth

WRITING PROMPT: Have you noticed prejudice in yourself? What did you do about it?

*You might be wondering why I’d frequent towns like this, given my discomfort. My thinking comes from an episode on the podcast SCENE ON RADIO, the Seeing White Series. https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/scene-on-radio/id1036276968 If your education was anything like mine, it went light on racism in America. The researchers discussed how the South has the reputation for being the most racist place in our country. They went on to recognize systemic racism in “progressive” Northern cities, all manner of violent acts across the mild-mannered Midwest and clear evidence of it everywhere. It’s just not true that the South is the only place in the U.S. where racism exists. If I had wanted to spend vacation dollars in racist-free zones, I’d have zero choices, not even Austin.

**The singular terror experienced by Black women traveling alone is not something you can fully appreciate unless you’ve had the experience yourself or heard someone’s story. https://www.outsideonline.com/2296351/were-here-you-just-dont-see-us; https://www.outsideonline.com/2416929/out-there-nobody-can-hear-you-scream

***When the movie The Green Book came out, it was the first time many of us (me) had even heard of the guide book for Black motorists during the Jim Crow era. The Black middle class sought out car ownership in part to avoid segregation on other forms of transportation but that presented a whole other problem: where to get the car serviced, where to eat and stay for the night. Black visitors to certain all-white municipalities required any Black person to leave before sundown (“sundown towns”) or else face threats of violence. There’s no official guide book anymore, but the practice of sharing information about safe towns to visit is still alive and well.

****https://www.npr.org/2017/08/20/544861933/how-one-man-convinced-200-ku-klux-klan-members-to-give-up-their-robes

 

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House of Dreams

 

 

Many years had passed since I’d visited the town where I grew up. News of my father’s illness had caused enough panic for me to book a flight to New Mexico. Last minute plans over a holiday weekend meant changing hotels mid-trip. The first was a casita at a tiny inn called Casas de Suenos.

 

I couldn’t recall the last time I saw my dad and stepmother. It might have been at the hospital after he flipped his car about a half dozen years ago. There hadn’t been any other reason to come back. After white-knuckling it to seventeen when I left to college, I wasn’t motivated to keep in close touch.

 

The airplane touched down in Albuquerque and I got a text from my stepmother.

 

“Are you here?”

 

“Haven’t gotten off the plane yet.”

 

“Still? We’ll just keep circling.”

 

I stopped at the bathroom to wash up. My fifty-one year old face didn’t match the age I felt. People-pleasing, anxious, and insecure. Like I did when I was twelve.

 

Once outside the terminal, I spotted the two of them inside a battered white Volvo, Dad’s latest used car, stopped in the intersection. I strode into the street and pulled open the door to the back. A hair-covered dog blanket covered the seat with all manner of detritus occupying the space where one might otherwise place her feet.

 

“Can you pop the trunk?”

 

“Just toss your stuff in the backseat.”

 

No matter how many years had passed, their way of receiving me caused my chest to sink. But they had offered me a ride and that was good. Dad got out of the passenger seat and reached out to me. He’d lost weight. Weariness weighed down his features and his eyes held a sorrow that was almost too much to bear.

 

“You look good, Dad.” For what he’d been through, it was true. Half his appendix had been removed and he’d been sleeping most of the day for weeks. Too much, maybe. In the last couple days he’d been able to walk the dogs and have real conversations.

 

“Did you make the whole thing up?” I joked. Humor was the one thing our family pulled from the fire of our most difficult years together.

 

 

“It got you out here, didn’t it?” And there it was. A tiny glowing ember of proof that he actually wanted me here.

 

 

 

 

My stepmother drove us through the semi-deserted streets to their home, the blue range of the Sandia mountains etched on the edge of town. When she unlocked the front door, two Rhodesian Ridgebacks shoved their noses into my crotch, the new one snapping at my hand. I yanked my purse away from her bared teeth. In the living room, the dog nudged me off the sofa. My hosts seemed to notice none of this.

 

I sat in a stiff chair opposite Dad and caught up for a few minutes about my other siblings. My stepmother disappeared into to her office. Sounds of a child’s voice warbled from a phone speaker. With the cel in her hand, she moved through the house engaged in casual conversation.

 

Walking past the living room, she mouthed, “it’s my granddaughter.” An hour later, she returned.

 

“You’re still talking about your son?” she asked.

 

“I was just telling dad how my older boy is really into the stock market. He’s got some pretty conservative views which, of course, we are hoping he outgrows.”

 

 

 

“We felt the same way when you became a cheerleader,” she said.

 

“I was never a cheerleader. I danced. Maybe it’s the pom pons that threw you off.” She looked confused.

 

My squads had been my pretend family in both middle and high school. It hurt that she didn’t know this about me. Her son had played soccer. I imagined she remembered every play of every game. I think they might have come to one of mine but I couldn’t be sure.

 

She said she’d put some salmon on and asked if I would I like any.

 

“That’s okay. I had a big breakfast burrito in Dallas during my delay. But I can make a salad.”

 

She removed the entire vegetable shelf from the refrigerator and plunked it down on the counter. I picked through wilted yellow peppers and floppy parsley to find a bag with the remnants of romaine hearts and some cellophane wrapped cucumbers. I took a ceramic bowl down from the kitchen shelf and threw in the salvaged vegetables, added canned chickpeas, and an avocado then tossed it with a squeeze of lemon and olive oil. I looked around for plates and set the table.

 

I served my dad some salad. “I’ll need to get to the hotel soon,” I said.

 

“You’re not staying here?” he looked at me, incredulous.

 

“I told you she wasn’t,” said my stepmother.

 

“It’s close by. I need my own space. You can relate to that, I’m sure,” I said. In the numerous rentals we’d inhabited after the divorce and move away from Albuquerque, he spent most of the time at home in his room with the door closed. Sometimes he emerged. On many of those occasions, he yelled. I don’t remember what for.

 

As an adult, my bedroom with the door closed is also my refuge. I’ve yelled at my kids too.

 

 

Since Dad hadn’t been driving, he lent me his car that he’d kindly filled with a tank of gas. I felt the warmth of that gesture spread in my chest.

 

Seated behind the wheel, I plugged the hotel into the traffic app and breathed a sigh of relief. The couple of hours back in the space I had occupied as one of five kids, took a toll. Each of us must have faded into the next, all but the youngest: our stepbrother. He’d had the undivided attention of his mother. The entire gleaming inventory of Toys ‘R Us seemed to be crammed into his side of the room. It must have been hell on my little brother on the other side.

 

 

 

Casas de Suenos faced the green hills of the Albuquerque Country Club in one of the more upscale parts of town, the very neighborhood my mother moved to when she first left our family forty years ago. I had visited that perfect little home only once after they split. As a kid, it felt like visiting a new dimension where I had never existed. The memory of polished wood floors and pristine white tile countertops is as vivid as if I’d seen it this morning.

 

I had taken care to arrive before dark to check in, not wanting to navigate a now strange town in the dark. I couldn’t wait to get some sleep.

 

Tammy, the front desk clerk, lead me across the cobblestone courtyard to the casita I had reserved.

 

 

 

 

She pushed on the antique french door and a blast of hot, humid air hit my face.

 

“Does it have a/c?” I asked. Tammy placed a hand under the ceiling vent and peered into the digital display on the wall, it’s high tech look out of place among the old Spanish architecture. Dark wood beams lined the ceiling and a heavy wrought iron chandelier hung in the center of the living room.

 

“Yes, but this unit is tricky. When people put the air down too low, it freezes up and stops working.”

 

“Can you call someone? There’s no way I’ll be able to sleep in this.” She held a finger up for me to wait and went back to the reception area.

 

I opened the two doors to the outside for a cross-breeze and took out my computer.

 

After my dad’s I was not in any shape to be turned away. If this place was too inept to provide habitable conditions, I couldn’t be held responsible for my behavior.

 

I connected to the WIFI and googled a/c repair, curious of the offerings in town. “Top Ten HVAC repair services.” So many they have a top ten. 

 

Tammy returned. “The owner has offered to refund your weekend. Hotel Albuquerque is up the street.”

 

 

The old Sheraton. I could not stay in some sterile corporate hotel. I needed a place that felt like a home with people I could pay to take care of me.

 

 

“It’s 9:00 pm and pitch black. That’s not at all what I feel comfortable doing.”

 

“That’s the solution she offered for your comfort. The owners figure you are not going to be happy otherwise.”

 

“Leaving will not make me comfortable whatsoever. I have had a crazy long day of travel. I am here to visit my sick father, not get shuffled around town because your owner doesn’t want to do the responsible thing and fix what is broken.”

 

“I’m sorry, I don’t know what to say,” she bit her lip.

 

“Have these people not heard of Yelp or Tripadvisor? I will destroy this place. How about this? I am a lawyer. I will call a repair service myself and sue her for the charge.”

 

“Please don’t do that.” Tammy started to cry.

 

“Just have her call me,” I said.

 

“Please don’t tell her what I said about this unit having problems.”

 

“You’re fine,” I said. She wiped at her eyes and left the room.

 

A few minutes later, my cel phone rang.

 

“I understand you are not interested in moving to another hotel,” she said. It’s fourth of July weekend and we wont be able to get our guy out here until Monday.”

 

“There are plenty of other companies.”

 

“We don’t want some stranger stomping all over our property. We have someone we trust and that’s who will be fixing it. On Monday.”

 

This lady cared nothing about me. A mix of rage and shame churned inside me.

 

“When something breaks in my home, I know my family is counting on me to fix it. I am your guest. I was very intentional about selecting somewhere I felt safe and comfortable. The responsible, hospitable thing to do is repair it. If your regular person isn’t available, get a recommendation from someone you trust. Major repairs follow Murphy’s Law. Our well broke on Thanksgiving and we had no water. We fixed it because that is what you do.”

 

“We aren’t going to do that,” she said.

 

“Well I don’t feel safe leaving, so what’s the next option?” I said.

 

“We can get you a fan and comp the night.”

 

We ended the conversation. A tearful Tammy lugged a cylindrical black contraption of her same height into the front door.

 

By 3:00 a.m., the high desert temperature had cooled down the adobe walls enough for me to finally sleep.

 

I woke up, regretting the bad vibes. I went for a run and explored the neighborhood. The homes all had the look of a place someone had loved.

 

I replayed the conversations of the night before. I wasn’t proud of how I acted. I had taken out my unmet need to feel cared for on these unsuspecting strangers. Moving to a high rise would announce too loudly that no one here considered me dear enough to make up a special room, not even if I paid them. To place a little plant on the bedside, or scented soaps in the shower like I had done for guests at my own home. I knew my expectations were out of line with reality but I couldn’t stomach there being no special place for me here.

 

When I returned back to the casita, I told the morning front desk clerk that the room was hot but all was well. I would not be leaving.

 

I dropped Dad’s car at the Sparkle on the corner and ordered a full detail, wax and carpet shampoo.

 

Oddly, this act of kindness for him made me feel better. I’d be driving this car so it was also for myself. And my brother who’d be coming after I left. I’d spread a little love around to everyone.

 

Over the next few days, I cleaned up my energy before heading over for a visit. Frequently, I noticed myself mining the conversation for evidence of my lack of worth. In this dynamic with these exact people, I had trained myself to do that. I had been given the perfect opportunity to unlearn the pattern.

 

With each conversation, I realized that how they related to me was not about me. They had formed patterns of relating in their own families of origin. I learned that the plan for the rest of our childhood had gone awry. Dad and Mom had agreed that she would finish her education, find gainful employment and take us all back. She never did that. His limited role in our lives before the divorce did not prepare him for any of what came next. He had done the best he could. He didn’t say that, but I assumed he had.

 

I began to have conversations without narrating my own story in my head. It brought ease and lightness. We joked more.

 

 

 

 

Each day, I spent as much time at their home as made me comfortable. Luckily, my need to care for myself coincided with Dad’s need for rest. When I left, I used the time to restore. I enjoyed long conversations over meals with old friends and friends who felt like family. I poked around the shops in Old Town. I soaked up every ounce of beauty this part of the country offered in its vast blue skies, rugged mountains and fragrant juniper and sage brush that sprung up everywhere.

 

 

 

The next inn I had booked sat in the middle of a lavender field. The place delivered exactly what I was looking for. Fragrant soaps, bike trails, wild flowers by my bedside. And best of all, kind hospitality.

 

Five stars.

 

When you understand what you need and take care of yourself, you get the sense that it’s all going to be okay.

 

Love,

Elizabeth

 

WRITING PROMPT: What patterns do you see in yourself that were established way back when? 

 

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