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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.

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Stories

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

 

Categories
Stories

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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Categories
Stories

Traveling While Female

Two days in the Pennsylvania countryside wouldn’t be much but I planned to make the most of it. I’d turn my son’s camp pickup into a mini retreat out in the woods for myself and some nearby writer friends. A group of us were psyched to share our work, prepare good meals and enjoy each others’ company. I’d discovered a cozy little cabin on Airbnb for a steal.

Like most women, I follow the rules about traveling solo. Anytime I could achieve safety in numbers, I did that instead. We were a group of five. Check. My early flight would likely get me to the cabin a few hours before everyone. I’d be dealing with this man alone. I mined the reviews for proof that the owner wasn’t a psycho.

One woman’s comments suggested that the cabin was his primary residence.

“Don’t be surprised if he’s out there in the workshop tinkering around.” Alone in the woods with a tinkerer.

I emailed the owner through the website to check out his vibe myself. I told him about our group and asked for his exact address so we could coordinate our trips. Several days went by before I heard back.

“I give out the address the week of your stay,” he replied. Super helpful.

After I booked the place, two of the writers had to bow out. Then the group trip fell apart. The cabin was cheap enough for me to stay on my own, but I wouldn’t dare. I clicked on my reservation and selected cancel.

That night, the tinkerer called.

“What happened? Did I say or do something that made you uncomfortable?”

I didn’t want to tell him that loitering around the property you were renting out was straight up creepy. It’s not something you should have to explain. He had asked, which was a good sign, but in my experience men attribute accusations of creepiness to women’s character defects. I could already read his thought bubble. What a b!tch.If I had a nickel for every man who happily took up space where he didn’t belong, I’d definitely have enough for a Starbucks run.

 

And just so you don’t think I had judged him unfairly, another review demonstrated how the guy handled negative feedback. Another woman had complained about a manure smell which had made the otherwise lovely evenings out on his porch distinctly unpleasant. The host went bananas, accusing her of being a clueless city slicker with no knowledge of the nearby farming community’s seasonal fertilizer. He recommended she study agriculture and time her vacations accordingly.

“No, no, all good,” I said. “Our group trip cancelled and I won’t need all that space for myself.”

“You sure? I’m there alone all the time. And I’m sorry I didn’t get back to you right away, I’ve been up in New Hampshire at a motorcycle rally.” He told me all about his adventure, how great his cabin was and too bad I wouldn’t be staying. I’d make nice with the guy until my refund was processed. No need to antagonize a strange man who had my money and my contacts.

When Airbnb sent a questionnaire about my cancelation, I reported my concern about the owner lurking around the property during one’s stay. That discharged my duty to all future women who stayed there which was really all I cared about.

With the prospect of my peaceful cabin in the woods fading to black, I googled hotel options. Maybe I’d find a place in a wooded area. It wouldn’t be out in nature, but at least I’d get a little trail run in.

Tons of cheap rooms at a golf resort were available.

Too many.

I clicked through the photos. The place was enormous and looked deserted.A serial killer’s paradise. Nope.

 

I took a break to scroll through Facebook and read a post from a friend asking if she’d been too paranoid while out on a solo hike. Some guy had been sitting in his parked car at the trail head. She felt his eyes on her as she passed. She hiked quickly away and disappeared into the hills. Two minutes later, she got an eerie feeling. There he was behind her, coming up fast. She sprinted past him back to her car.

“Not much of a hike!” he called after her. Her gut had told her he meant her harm. The comments were filled with similar stories set in dark parking lots, of handsy men on buses, and haunting memories from childhood, all encouraging her to follow her instincts. The book The Gift of Fear was recommended over and over and over.

I once heard that men’s core fear about women is that we will ridicule them. Women’s core fear about men is that they will kill us.  

 

I gave up on the woods and booked a room at a small, fancy hotel surrounded by a lot of trees. Hopefully I would find a populated running trail of non-killers.

The day before my flight, the tinkerer phoned again during a walk. “I was really looking forward to having you all,” he said. “I’ve so enjoyed talking with you.”

“Ya. Too bad it didn’t work out.”  

“What time are you getting in?”Are.You. Kidding. Me.

I lied about the time and said I had to go. This guy clearly considered Airbnb guests his personal dating pool. The second my refund came in, I would block him. If I pissed him off, he might try to keep my money or come find me.  

That night, I set my alarm for 4:30 a.m to get up for the first flight out. Instead of Ubering to the airport, I would leave my car in long term parking. It didn’t dawn on me until I slipped into bed that the cheaper option would mean walking through a dark parking lot alone.

“Will you give me a ride?” I asked my half-asleep husband. “I don’t feel safe.”

I felt guilty springing it on him. Rides to the airport weren’t our thing. With so much business travel and pick up times conflicting with other obligations, we just didn’t do it. Plus, he expensed his rides anyway. This was different and I know he realized that. He told me to wake him up when I was ready to leave. Phew.

My flight descended into the tiny town nestled inside a forest. At the hotel, I asked the front desk attendant for a running route. “You should probably stick to the main road,” she said. We both knew why. But there were enough people around that it seemed fine for me to try to find a trail myself.

 

My room wasn’t ready, so I stashed my bag and headed down the prohibited golf cart path. Lo and behold, I found a wooded path off the course between two busy main roads. The freeway traffic blared, drowning out the sounds of nature, but I focused on the majestic trees and thanked them for the shade and oxygen.

Soon, the trail grew oddly dark, incongruous to the engines roaring on the other side of the green wall. Perfect for drowning out screams.

I hadn’t seen anyone in a while.

A guy in a navy Sigma Chi sweatshirt leading a beagle on a leash meandered down the trail. No rapist is gonna call timeout to first tie up his dog. Safe bet I would survive the interaction. I said hello, remembering to look him directly in the eye, and strode past.  

A few minutes later, another guy pedaled his bike down the trail wearing special cycling shoes, a backpack and a sturdy helmet. No one with that much gear on had time to hop off for a quick rape.

 

I added to my safety list: there is nothing to fear from a man with cumbersome accessories (bike/dog).

I had been paying close attention to each turn of the trail but got lost anyway. The hair on my arms stood on end. One guy with no props and I’d be done for. I loved being out in nature but this was a lot to go through.

In the distance I spotted a woman running, wearing airpods. Bold choice. Every woman runner knows you don’t wear earphones in places where you are worried for your safety. She had the purposeful look of someone who knew where she was going—probably a local. If she was confident enough to listen to music, this must be a low-assault running route. I breathed a cautious sigh of relief. Soon after, another woman in hiking boots plodded down the path, smiled at me and commented on the nice breeze.

Up ahead, I caught sight of the manicured lawns of the golf course. Soon I turned the key to my hotel room and hopped in the shower. The phone chirped with a text as I toweled off.

“How’s the trip so far?” Airbnb guy. Seriously dude? I confirmed my refund online and promptlyblocked him.

The next day, the camp delivered my son and all his gear to the hotel and we were on our way home.

During the flight’s delay, I searched up places to stay for my upcoming trip to New Mexico to see my dad. A little inn off a main street had two available casitas. I called and asked the attendant which one she’d recommend.

“If I were a woman traveling alone, I would choose the one in the courtyard. The other one is nice and private but on the outskirts of the main property.” The other casita looked better though. Man was I sick of having to make all my choices based on avoiding physical harm, nevermind the stress of constant vigilance.

Staying hyper-aware of my safety as a woman traveling alone is the only way to get the sense that it’s all going to be okay.

Love,

Elizabeth

WRITING PROMPT: Do you think men will ever take responsibility for how terrifying they have made the world for women?

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Six Lessons From The Scrap Heap

I am knee deep in revisions on Scrappy, the book I finished writing last August. Before I draft the book proposal, I am taking the hatchet to it for stuff that doesn’t belong. It’s painful, but necessary. Like any other major endeavor, running a marathon, childbirth, writing a book is a metaphor for life. Here are the takeaways:

  1. Your voice matters—let it be strong. I developed my voice on the page by writing this book. In parts, however, I hear myself trying to be someone else. Mary Karr’s, The Liar’s Club, sat close by for inspiration. I do a 10 cent impression of her which makes me cringe. The only voice that belongs in my book and my life is mine.
  2. Feel all the feelings so you can actually let them go. One of the key elements to the revision process is asking how the main characters felt in the beginning of the chapter and how their emotional state changed by the end. In some chapters, the reader is left wondering how I felt because I just marched on to the next thing. When I ran away from home, for example, I didn’t pause to absorb the emotional impact of it. I was too busy surviving. That didn’t mean I had no feelings, of course I did. I just stored them up. It’s not a great plan if you want to be physically and mentally healthy. Feel the feels and release them. They cause trouble if you don’t.
  3. If an experience doesn’t lead to personal growth, delete it from your story. Sometimes we replay terrible events over and over for no good reason. Prolific author and writing guru, Joyce Maynard teaches that your story must take the reader on a journey. You start in Maine, zip through the Midwest, then climb the rocky mountains to get to California. If your story doesn’t do that, keep working. I had to nix some really crazy stuff because it was just crazy. From the retelling, we learn nothing other than, wow, her parents really shouldn’t have hired the town derelicts to babysit. That’s not a story, it was just something that sucked. We don’t need to hang on to experiences that didn’t lead somewhere better.
  4. Recognize when you are assuming you know what someone else is thinking. In parts of the book, I commit point of view violations with my parents. I had a conversation with my father the other day and learned something new about why my parents divorced. This lesson has come to me over and over again. Tap into your curiosity instead of your judgment. Wonderful therapist and writer Linda Carroll loves the phrase tell me more. It takes us on a miraculous path from reaction to empathy. My book could use more openness and fewer rigid convictions.
  5. Look for the helpers. This gem comes from Fred Rodgers of Mr. Rodger’s Neighborhood. I have always thought I survived hard times on my own. I didn’t realize how often teachers took me under their wing. One lonely afternoon, my first grade teacher brought me over to her house and made me hot chocolate. My fifth grade teacher met with me every afternoon to help with my science project even though I was in sixth grade at a different school. I asked him and he said yes without hesitation. A high school teacher encouraged me to journal about the difficulty with my dad. When I shared a horrible friend betrayal with a college professor, she told me these are not the best years of your life and it gave me the will to keep going. A law school professor gave me a teaching job probably because he knew I was broke. Spuhler, Bruce, Romanenghi, Binion, Fischl all went out of their way to care for me. Educators are angels on earth. They see kids for who they really are when no one else does. Please vote to pay these people more. They are literally saving the world, one neglected kid at a time.
  6. Appreciate how far you’ve come. I have spent so much time waiting for someone else to appreciate me. It’s lovely when people thank you for going out of your way for them but the only validation that truly counts is the kind that comes from inside. Today I honor that first grade girl who told her creepy principal off in front of the whole class. Good for you, little lady. Cheers to me and cheers to you too.

When you get some perspective on your life and learn from the hard seasons, you get the sense that it’s all going to be okay.

Love,

Elizabeth

WRITING PROMPT: When you reflect back on your life, what can you appreciate about yourself?

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If You Do Not Transform Your Pain, You Transmit It

My dad is ill.

It took almost a week for me to get word he’d gone in for emergency surgery. My stepmother shared the news with my sister, assuming she’d pass it along. You can’t assume stuff like that in our family.

It turned out that the original surgery wasn’t necessary but they had discovered an infection that could have caused sepsis. It saved his life. Recovery had been slow.

“Should I come?” I asked, having finally reached my stepmother.

“Do you really want to wait until your dad is dying before you come see him?”

It was a good question but a complicated one given our family history. My brain automatically scrolled through the times he chose not to show up for me, said no when I needed him, yelled at me instead of offering support. I felt petty and guilty.

Years ago when I was still a student, I bought a plane ticket I could ill afford to go see my dad for the holidays. Mom hadn’t invited me up to her place and made excuses about it not being a good time whenever I’d ask to come see her. I stopped asking. He hadn’t invited me either, and my brother and sisters didn’t plan to come. But I wanted to spend the time with family, same as my friends. I never had it in me to invite myself to my friends’ homes which I imagined were warm and welcoming. My siblings seemed much better at being taken in by their friends. I was too ashamed to admit I had no one asking for me.

One afternoon, Dad and I walked the dog around a snowy track at the nearby university. The subject of his parenting came up. We were years past accusations and harsh words so the tone was light.

“All I wanted was for my father to leave me alone,” he said. “That’s what I tried to do for you.” He’d been a rebellious only child with a father who’d knocked the crap out of him. His mother didn’t step in.

“But Dad, there’s a happy medium. None of us wanted the kind of father you had. Leaving us to raise ourselves was a whole other thing.” If you don’t transform your pain, you transmit it.

My kids have made fun of my stories for years. They roll there eyes at my version of I walked ten miles to school in the snow.

“Did you know I had to buy my own socks?” They’ve heard that one so often they might put it on my gravestone. Unfortunately, it hasn’t had the intended effect of making them extraordinarily grateful.

The upside of getting a job at 13 and figuring out how to navigate my life without much guidance was that I became resourceful and self-sufficient. Where others might be discouraged, I push until I find a solution. It may involve rule-breaking or stepping on toes, but those are key components to my no one’s going to rescue you training. I think the lesson sticks best if you are left to figure out some critical stuff for yourself as a kid.

I have tried a milder version of it with my own children with less success. Like when I was the only parent not to go on the fourth grade class trip so my very responsible daughter could tell food servers about her allergies herself. For the entire trip, a well-meaning, lesson-thwarting, father informed the buffet attendants, cooks and wait staff of her life-threatening cashew allergy.

Despite our painful past, I did want to be with my dad. Over the next few days, I mulled over the best time to fly out. Should I go before sending my son to camp this week? Or before I pick up my other son at camp next week?

Then I got a message that both friends who’d attended camp with my son were headed home early. He texted that he wanted to come home too. I wasn’t sure what to do but it had become clear that my window to leave town without bailing on my own kid had closed.

I called Dad to see what was happening.

“I’m being released. I am in the wheelchair on my way out.”

The next day I called him. No answer. I tried my stepmother. Voicemail. When last we spoke, I had told her I’d try to figure out a way to come out there.

Calls continued to go unanswered. I assumed he didn’t care if I came one way or the other.

A couple days later, I got a text from my stepmother. Recovery at home had been difficult. He’d gotten another infection. They didn’t answer because they were busy. That hadn’t occurred to me.

The next day, he picked up, his voice hoarse and strained. I told him I wanted to come out.

“There’s not anything to do. I sleep most of the day.”

“Maybe in a few weeks? In the meantime, how about we do a Facetime call?” A smart friend had given me the idea. He said he’d like that.

“It’s really in your best interest to get better, Dad. If your kids descend on Albuquerque, you might be sorry,” I joked.

One sister didn’t talk to either sister but did speak to the brothers. One brother talked to everyone and the other brother preferred to stay out of it. The other sister was mad at just about everyone. If you don’t transform your pain, you transmit it.

I do want to show up for my dad. Not right this second, but I’ll go. There is value in staying in touch with him. When we do speak, it’s a real conversation. Along with learning the skills to take care of hard stuff for myself, he also taught me that our relationship is a no-pressure situation. I do what works for me and he is just fine with it.

I’ll try him again on Father’s Day. He’ll definitely pick up then.

When you have a big decision to make, check in with yourself. If you feel a tightness in your chest, it’s not the right thing. If you relax, it is. When you stay true to yourself, you get the sense that it’s all going to be okay.

Love,

Elizabeth

WRITING PROMPT: What big decision did you have a hard time making? Did you check in with your body to see how the decision felt?

Do you subscribe to these stories? If not, please do at elizabethheise.com. Come check me out on Instagram @elizabethheise1 and Twitter @heiseelizabeth1. Thank you for reading.

Copyright © *2021* *Elizabeth Heise, LLC.*, All rights reserved.

 

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10 Things NOT TO DO When Your Kid Applies To College

On my Friday March 25, 2021 story, I shared my daughter’s unexpected struggle with the college application process. That was an examination of the water they are swimming in, but this is a PSA just for the parents. My apologies to those not in this position. I’ll see you next time!

I received a number of questions this week after the high school held it’s annual event called The Secret Sauce. Each year at this time, the college counselor assembles a panel of a dozen or so high achieving seniors to give advice to underclassmen in this brutally competitive environment. He selects a wide variety of students, all with a unique perspective.

 

My daughter was invited to speak. Jane was her candid self, advising kids not to fixate on any one college, even though on paper they should have had no problem getting in. She had done that to her detriment with the encouragement of her well-meaning, yet ill-informed parents.

At the end, the counselor asked each of them what advice they’d give the parents who had yet to go through this with their child. Jane didn’t hold back.

“My dad got a 1080 on his SAT and got into Vanderbilt. I did way better than him and got rejected. Things are much harder now so parents, manage your expectations. Your own experience may be irrelevant. Just be there for when your kid is crying.”

Now that the process is over, we definitely know what not to do and sure wish someone had told us. Other parents who have been through the process may totally disagree with this list. If you had a different experience, please show up in the comments. Others needs guidance and we are only one set of naive parents. If this discussion helps just one parent pipe down so their kid doesn’t have to cry harder, it will have been worth it.

  1. Do not take your kid to visit any colleges for the purpose of matriculation. If they go with a school group or someone else, fine. Once you are involved, there’s pressure. If you must tour colleges, be there for some other purpose. An athletic camp, summer program or just to pop in if you happen to be in town. Some schools keep track of applicants’ visits to campus and clicks on their website. I’d rather spare my kid the heartbreak than worry about that so it’s a tradeoff. This advice originated from my friend Hagit who’s genius parents followed it when she applied to school. In this climate, your child doesn’t need to get their heart set on going ANYWHERE until they’re in. My kid didn’t get into several safety schools with her insane credentials. Each admissions office is putting together a class and they may already have one of your super special kid. And some schools may be trying to manipulate their acceptance numbers by rejecting students whose record suggests they are applying as their safety school. COUNT ON NOTHING. Take all the virtual tours  you want. Show up in person when she’s got some acceptances in her hot little hand and not one minute before.

  1. DO NOT give a college handbook as a gift for book night on Hannukah/Christmas/Kwanzaa. Jane’s reaction was, “Oh. Fantastic. The thing I’ve been stressing out about for most of my life, you thought would be a fun beach read over break. THANK YOU SO VERY MUCH FOR THE THOUGHTFUL GIFT.” Perhaps your child isn’t as highly strung and may enjoy it? If so, I have one for you. For the rest of you, just no.
  1. When your child actually needs to decide where to apply and starts to hyperventilate, then and only then is it time to break out that college book you’ve been hiding in the closet. Casually leaf through the offerings. Your kid can make sure their scores line up with the requirements, NOT YOU. Your only job is to encourage them to think about where they see themselves loving their life, that is also within your budget. Consider what each place has going on, the size, student life, academic offerings, geography, etc. and ask if it seems like a place they’d feel happy. City or out in the woods? Conservative or liberal campus? Screw the places they think they SHOULD want to go. Jane’s friend got into the school he’d planned on since childhood (Penn) and hates it. Anecdotal but you get it. An otherwise well-regarded school might really suck for your specific kid.

 

  1. If your kid rejects a seemingly great program for them, their reasons may not be clear, even to themselves. When Jane took the virtual tour of the school she ended up committing to, she said she’d never want to go there. It made no sense to us because we’d seen the beautiful campus, knew about the strong the academics and the geography was spot on for her: fun city with a beach! When it was all over she said she never thought she’d get in that’s why she rejected it, then applied anyway. She doesn’t like to have her heart broken. Who does? Just let your kid vent, say nothing, and encourage them to apply to a wide array of schools where they could see themselves.
  1. Don’t join their chaos. When the college counselor says some dream-killing nonsense or the standardized test tutor turns crazy, be the rock.* Assure them that everyone is stressed and doing the best they can. No one can predict the outcome. If any one of these relationships aren’t working and you aren’t contractually bound, find someone else and move on. No need to claw anyone’s eyes out even though it would be extremely gratifying. We were actually good at this one thing which was a suprise considering my checkered past as a hothead.
  1. Whatever you do, do not tell your kid they will have no problem getting into X school. We did this daily. And when the deferments and rejections started pouring in, it became clear that we had committed parenting malpractice. DON’T DO IT. Your instincts will tell you to reassure them because this is your precious child who has worked like a dog and every school should let them in. JUST DON’T. All you may say is, don’t worry, it’s going to work out. You will end up exactly where you are supposed to be.  
  1. Don’t say a word about your own college application experience back in the Stone Age. Doing so will frustrate your kid to no end. This was Jane’s sole piece of parenting advice and it cannot be stressed enough. They will only think you are a clueless moron who doesn’t deserve the academic credentials you now enjoy without a hint of the same kind of suffering. And whatever you do, do not mention your unimpressive scores and lack of AP’s. Mark actually told Jane that Palmetto didn’t have AP’s back then. Oh really. Ask Jeff Bezos, MPSH Class of ’82, if they had AP’s. (For the record, I had enough credits to start school as a Sophomore so I wasn’t the offender in this scenario. Regretably, I did most of the others on this list.)
  1. Your job is to be a sounding board and to validate feelings. Mainly it is TO JUST SHUT UP. Seriously, most of the stuff I said just pissed Jane off during the process. If I’d shut up more, she would have had one less thing to be upset about.
  1. If you happen to interview for your alma mater, don’t come home talking about how impressive some other kid is. Don’t ever talk about how amazing ANY OTHER KID is. It’s basically like announcing. “Hey! I found a kid who is SO MUCH BETTER THAN YOU at literally everything.” Don’t. No one wants to hear that.
  1. Just keep reminding them that it will all be over soon and they will be happy at their college in a matter of months, rid of your inane commentary, and that you are proud of them and love them no matter what.

That is all. Good luck everyone.

When you listen more than you speak, those around you feel seen and then EVERYONE feels like its all going to be okay.

Love, Elizabeth

WRITING PROMPT: did you give college app advice that backfired? What about advice that worked? Please share! Do you agree or disagree with this list? Other parents and I would love to hear your experience.

Do you follow these Friday stories? If not, you are invited! Sign up at elizabethheise.com, follow me on instagram @elizabethheise1 and Twitter @heiseelizabeth1

*It sounds like I am casting aspersions here. To be clear, the Palmetto college counselor did no such thing. The only relationship that proved to be an unhealthy one was with Jane’s standardized test tutor who we were contractually bound to for some period of time, are now rid of and won’t be recommending. If you are in Miami, let me know.

 

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Don’t Worry, You’re Normal

I’m normal. 

That was my first thought after I took the Enneagram test.* Initially, I resisted doing this assignment for our relationship class. It categorizes people into numbered personality types. Only nine varieties of human struck me as a bit reductive.

But in the spirit of doing all the homework, I completed the assessment and holy cow.The results explained why I never felt like I belonged anywhere. Why I detest small talk. The reason friends often tell me I am too hard on myself. Why I always want everything to be better.Apparently, it’s my nature to search for what’s missing. And there are others who see the world that way too. I found it comforting to know that in this peculiar worldview, I am not alone.

According to the Enneagram, each personality type has a unique core belief which then motivates behavior. Knowing your type helps you examine your organizing principle and consider what critical life lesson you are here to learn. My enneatype is here to reclaim wholeness in the present moment by appreciating what is here and now. Being grounded in my body instead of getting caught up in story.** It is absolutely worth the $10 and 45 minutes to validate your existence.

I wanted to know more about the origins of the Enneagram and how it could be so totally spot on. A google search revealed a mysterious history. Ancient roots in Babylon some 4,500 years ago, an appearance in Greek philosophy 2,500 years ago. But when I read that one of the first modern gurus had been responsible for introducing the Enneagram to America, I stopped cold.

George Gurdjieff.

This name had been spoken in my home growing up so often I thought he was a special friend of my parents. After a while, I realized it was the man’s teachings that had made him seem more important in our family than me and my sisters and brother. He was the reason my parents spent money we didn’t have on a farm house and a few acres out in East New Mexico. My parents planned to live communally with their group and study Gurdjieff’s path to enlightenment called The Work. My father, a clinical psychologist in private practice, would lead them.

Despite the dusty property having nothing for us kids to do but roam around and dig in the dirt, all the parents brought their kids to The Farm.

 

As often as we could get away, a couple dozen families met at someone’s home in Albuquerque to caravan up to Santa Rosa. Kids were left to catch a ride in whomever’s car had room—my least favorite feature of the weekend. My siblings and I were little and I didn’t like to ride with just anyone.

On one memorable trip, my older sister and I got stuck in creepy Richard’s car. He had a history of swindling kids out of their beloved toys and getting them to wait on him to earn their stuff back. On the long front seat next to Richard, Miriam pushed me against the rickety passenger door to keep away from him. I held my breath and tried not to panic as we sped down a one-way dirt road on a sheer cliff with no guard rail. Once we pulled into the dirt-packed lot, I staggered away from the car having barely breathed the whole way.

At their weekend commune, Dad played the part of guru​The house had not one stick of furniture, save for one long, splintery dining table. We all sat together for dinner, listening to the adults discuss esoteric this or that which often erupted into arguments. One time, a fight broke out and the table was tossed onto the unlucky ones seated on the other side, food crashing down, little kids shreiking.

Days were filled with the adults digging ditches and other make-work that seemed hard and pointless. My mother didn’t love Dad’s harsh interpretation of Gurdjieff’s conscious labor and intentional suffering. That wasn’t how she taught it when we kids lived with her at a commune up in Taos where she lead the group. But she was done being a guru and had left this one to Dad.

One morning I heard a commotion outside and picked my head up over the sleeping bags in the kids’ room. Adults were lined up against the barn, stark naked, while Dad took photographs from a distance. When I asked about it years later he said, somewhat defensively, “that was a body study and it was really well done.” He wouldn’t say much about it so I looked it up and deduced that the comparison of ectomorph, mesomorph, and endomorph body types was a critical part of awakening to the inner experience.

The one thing I actually liked about Santa Rosa was the abundance of baby frogs. Past the barn, at the foot of a large reservoir, I sat with my knees tucked under me in the dirt, as tiny frogs hopped into the palm of my hand. I delighted in their little webbed feet jumping off me like I was their friend.

My siblings had tried their hand at pets. Kitty, my sister’s cat, had dined on her fair share of my brother’s gerbils. No one seemed bothered by the periodic loss of life, but it put a chilling effect on my desire to own a pet. But I loved the frogs so much and it seemed like they liked me okay too, so I planned to bring some home and take care of them. I had stuffed a Tupperware container in the back of our turquoise Subaru for just this purpose.

The morning we were set to leave, I popped the trunk and grabbed the container. At the reservoir, I peeled the top off for the frogs to jump inside. They didn’t go in right away, so I let them hop into my hand then placed a dozen or so gently inside and sealed them up.

I walked them carefully back to our car and shoved the container in the way back so that they could ride undisturbed. I didn’t tell my siblings. I figured they would want to play with the frogs and squish them by accident.

Smooshed between kids on the way home, each bump in the dirt road caused my heart to jump. I pictured their tiny frog heads hitting the top of the container and prayed they’d be okay. My stomach was in knots by the time we arrived home a couple hours later. I scrambled out of the car, slipped the container out and took the frogs up to my room. I hoped they would like their new home. Maybe I’d save up and get a fancy terrarium at the pet store so they could live in style instead of in the plastic box.

I nestled the container on my pillow and gently lifted the top off.  The frogs lay motionless at the bottom. Why weren’t they moving?

And then it hit me. I hadn’t made any holes in the container. I had killed my first and only pets.

I didn’t tell my parents. I didn’t even think to share it with them. I had broken my own heart and they didn’t even notice.

 At the time of the frogs, I felt flawed and alone. It is only now, some 45 years later, that I am taking a personal development course with my husband and dear friends that Gerdjieff has shown up again. Up until now, his name has evoked only a dim flicker of heartache. His enneagram has helped me understand myself though, specifically the ways I react under stress. I try to be someone I am not. I attempt to guess what the other person wants and act like that even though it’s not me. When I am feeling whole and peaceful, I am a responsible, organized person who seeks to make the world a better place.

Gerdjieff is here to tell me those feelings I had all those years ago were normal and I don’t have to feel shame about being who I am now or ever. My identity has nothing to do with my parents–they didn’t ignore me because I was unlovable. Today I seek only to know how to do my life better. As a healthy enneatype four, I am honest about how I feel. I own my motives and contradictions without bullsh!tting myself.

This experience has also helped me understand where my parents might have been coming from back then. At the time, their way of seeking enlightenment was as foreign to me as I’m sure my zoom call would be to them. I just want to laugh and grow with people I care about. At our core, we weren’t looking for such different things, my parents and me. I’d just prefer my friends to remained clothed during the zoom calls, so don’t get any ideas, Matt Goodman.

When you realize you aren’t alone in your quirky view of the world, you get the sense that it’s all going to be okay.

Love,

Elizabeth

WRITING PROMPT:  Is there anything from your past that has come back to change you mind? Have you done the Enneagram? If so, what did you learn about yourself?

*Click here to take the test: https://www.narrativeenneagram.org/-test/. And for my friends who’ve wondered why I am such an odd bird, this explains it: https://www.narrativeenneagram.org/types/the-romantic/

**It also provides insight into how different types react with one another. It totally nailed Mark and me. You have to take the test first and find your number and then do this one:

https://www.enneagraminstitute.com/the-enneagram-type-combinations

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Let It Goooo

 

Let it go.

Before it became a Disney song that played on a loop in your head, it was a glib remark, typically delivered with a judgey side of eyeroll. How annoying is it to hear these words? Without exception, my inward response has been: “I’ll let it go in my own damn time.”

But guess what? We actually can let stuff go, once we are aware it’s a choice. Just this week, I learned that a feeling, positive or negative, lasts for only ninety seconds.* A chemical process occurs in the brain and it takes that amount of time to work its way through the body.

When the ninety seconds are up and you continue to feel the anger, sadness, or fear, it’s a sign that you have chosen a thought that is re-stimulating the circuitry. The thought, not the emotion, is what causes the physiological reaction over and over again.

Why would we do this to ourselves? Because telling stories is how we humans make sense of the world. We build a narrative around the emotion. We connect our past experiences to the feeling and voila, we continue to suffer. Once the emotion has a deeper meaning, we can then cling to it until we drop dead.

The better news is, we don’t have to make up awful stories and continue to feel bad. We can stop ourselves in the act of creating a story after the feeling has passed. And now that I know it’s an actual choice, I am determined to let stuff go like a champ.

I tested this theory last night at the children’s hospital. My son, an avid skateboarder, has rolled each ankle and been x-rayed so many times that Gerardo, the x-ray tech at urgent care, seems more like extended family. I’d noticed that the slight limp after Finn skated all afternoon in front of our house hadn’t resolved. We are a week away fom skateboard camp. I decided we should go in one more time to see if he’d receive the same advice as always, stay off it for a week.

“It’s a fracture,” said the doctor. “You should cancel camp.”

We both crumpled. He needed this camp. He is the baby of the family and Covid has been the least tolerable for him. Starting middle school where he knew no one was particularly cruel to a kid during the masked-up pandemic. On top of that, everything he’d looked forward to for the last year had been cancelled. All except for skateboarding camp.

But also, I needed this camp. A portion of my brain has been on high alert for him all year. I’d put off my big revisions and book proposal until the weeks he would be taken care of by someone other than me. At camp.

I can’t ever get time to do my own work. Everyone else matters more than me. My work doesn’t matter. I don’t matter.

And then I caught myself. I had done exactly what one does to cause suffering in perpetuity. I had attached a crappy meaning to the feeling. I had chosen to be preoccupied by my son’s every move and pushed all the work to the three emotionally-free weeks in my calendar. Intellectually, I know he has his own path and he will be okay. I don’t need to use him as an excuse not to get my work done.

Once I realized I had turned his injury into a story, I noted the familiar theme. I don’t matter. That was an ancient one for me. My story around self-worth goes back to my mother. She left us and I took it personally. As a twelve year old kid, I figured I wasn’t enough to stick around for. And that is what I need to let go.

I wondered if the ninety second thing could conquer this emotional mountain. I called in an expert to ask. Relationship therapist and friend, Linda Carroll emailed me some advice.

The ninety second rule doesn’t count for grief.

When you think about your mom, and the chemicals fire for ninety seconds, what do you do next? How do you minimize or maximize the feeling? Both ways are trouble. Can you allow it like a wave and then continue on? Allow it and make it your Tonglen. It’s a Buddhist practice for empathy where you take in the suffering of someone else and sending them back what they need to heal.**

I try not to think about my mother at all actually. When I do it’s more like an empty cavern inside me than actual emotion. My feelings about her are so desolate even I don’t want to hang out in that place with myself anymore.

As I sat in my writing chair overlooking the quiet backyard, I closed my eyes to try the Tonglen. On the in-breath, I inhaled her sadness as the eldest of seven. The one who heard the stranger say to her mother, “you have lovely children. Each one more beautiful than the next.” As the first child in the row, she took that to mean she was the least beautiful. I breathed in her urgent need, at the age of thirteen, to leave a home ruled by a violent, alcoholic stepfather. Then to escape a lonely, faithless marriage, leaving behind her four children. My chest filled with the torment of damaged relationships with me and my brother and sisters.

The darkness filled me and I sobbed out loud. My heart began to pound as I struggled to turn her pain into loving energy, pink and airy, and send her back light and healing. I was shaky, but I did it. When it was over, all that remained was sadness for her.

I know grief for the relationship won’t disappear in one go, but the exercise opened space for compassion. I felt something for a mother I have felt very little for since she ran out on our family back in the eighties. I will do anything to unburden myself. I don’t want to create distance between me and the rest of the world in service to the story of my mother.

When you let go of fear and open yourself to empathy, you get the sense that it’s all going to be okay.

Love,

Elizabeth

*https://onebodyinc.com/the-90-second-rule-you-cant-afford-to-ignore/

**https://www.lionsroar.com/how-to-practice-tonglen/

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Categories
Stories

Why Do You Stay?

The other day I asked my husband what topic he’d like me to cover in a Friday story.

“Why do you stay married to me?”

“That’s what you want me to write about?” I asked.

“You’ve got a lot of gripes, Elizabeth.”

He was not wrong. I am a fixer. Of everyone and everything. He’s been the one closest to me for twenty-five years, so you can imagine how much I’ve tinkered around in his head.

The night before, we had rushed through dinner with the family to get on Zoom for our relationship class.* It started off well. Mark shared a breakthrough he’d had in communication. As he spoke, the other couples inside their Zoom squares finished last spoonfuls at their kitchen table or settled into the pillows in an unfamiliar bedroom.

“Elizabeth told me how stressed she was about an upcoming trip to Philadelphia. I thought to myself, she’s traveled the world, why is she acting so incompetent? Instead of expressing that, I said nothing, which hurt her feelings. I thought about it during my run afterwards. When I came back, I asked her to tell me more. What she shared helped me understand her better.”

“That’s wonderful,” said the therapist. “You listened with true presence. Tell me more is a powerful phrase.”

I was glad for his effort to understand me, but what he said stuck in my craw. If it had been a private therapy session, I would have pushed back, but the topic had changed to rituals.

The therapist explained that a daily practice to foster connection keeps us continually learning about each other.

“Couples tend to undervalue them,” she said.

I could understand why people bailed on these exercises. When I feel disconnected and ornery, the last thing I want to do is “share” and “connect” with my “husband.” Especially if he’s stewing in his own negativity. We retreat to our corners and a gulf widens between us.

“We don’t stop doing other important things just because we don’t feel like it,” she said. “Changing the oil, brushing our teeth. We do those things no matter what. Often, we treat rituals to keep our marriage strong like they are optional. If someone gets their feelings hurt or has a long day, we drop them.”

Our ritual was for me to share something with Mark that had upset me and for him to say nothing. I now understood that in his head, he’d been judging me all along.

The therapist suggested a daily practice that included five separate categories. Before life got complicated and we became marriage bots, we did these things naturally.

 

Appreciations

Share five things you are grateful for about your partner.

Meeting a minimum threshold hadn’t been a problem before now. After we had our first child, Mark sent extravagant flower arrangements every time he left town for business.

News

Often one person is better at sharing information than the other—this is a reminder for both partners to let the other know what is happening in their life.

I couldn’t wait to show Mark how I found out our then six-month-old daughter was a genius. “You have to see this,” I said when he walked in from work. “Jane, go get your monkey.” She scooted to her play area and dragged back the stuffed toy. He slapped his knees and hooted.

 

Puzzles

Clear up mysteries before they become suspicions or resentments. Most “puzzles” have simple explanations.

Years ago, Mark had gone to a football game out of town with his best friend. As he was dressing in their hotel room, Harry noticed a gaping hole in the butt of Mark’s underwear. As Mark told me the story, he could hardly speak over his own laughter, “I’d cut the hole for Norm’s tail so he could wear them after he got neutered. I forgot to throw them out.”

 

Complaints & Requests for Change

This helps us say what we want, along with what we don’t want, and teaches us how to make a complaint rather than criticize.

The therapist asked us all to go off camera for ten minutes and practice “giving a complaint and request for change.” Mark went first.

“I feel like there’s a disconnect between your Instagram posts and how you are at home,” Mark said.

How dare he.

I did not do the steps to pause and rebalance that we had learned.

“Do you think I can’t be inspired in the morning and post about it, then raise hell after a day of interruptions? Try working from home with house guests, virtual school, and Cocoa barking and let me know how sunshiney you are. I am a full human being with all the complexity. You’d accept my imperfections if you ever allowed yourself to have any.”

Mark turned back to the laptop, now a grid of screen savers.

“You want to hear my complaint?” I asked. “I don’t like that you judged me for being nervous about getting lost in a new city. That doesn’t make me incompetent. Some people are good with directions and some aren’t. So what? Even though you weren’t saying anything, I could feel you being critical.”

I knew he wouldn’t respond. I clicked our video back on to join the class. We spent the rest of the session parked under separate black clouds.

I thought about Mark’s question for a couple days. I took a long walk and reflected on what each of us had witnessed as kids. In our homes growing up, resentments and anger went unexpressed, polluting the air like toxic waste. When my parents announced their divorce, my mom said, “your dad and I haven’t spoken in four years.” At his house, there was lots of muttering under their breath. I didn’t want that for us.

When I got home, Mark stood at the bathroom sink, brushing his teeth.

“How come you never said what you were thinking until now?” I asked.

“I was afraid you’d bite my head off. Or use what I said against me in a future argument. I figured it wouldn’t change anything. There was no point.”

He had been trapped in his own head with an inner dialogue he never felt safe enough to express. For years. While I felt free to say all the crazy things I felt. I don’t know how he did it. My own head would have popped off ages ago.

As I felt the unfamiliar sensation of empathy for my husband, it dawned on me that I had judged him for judging me. Both of us considered ourselves the authority on how the other should act. Until now, neither of us had been curious enough to ask what was really going on.

“If we learn nothing else from this class, those three words were worth it. When either of us says something that triggers a judgment, we replace it with curiosity. Tell me more. That’s gold,” he said.

“So why do you want to stay married to me?” I asked, knowing I still hadn’t answered the question myself.

“Out for my run this morning, I had the thought, I’d like to feel more connected to Elizabeth. I never would have learned how to relate better if you hadn’t forced me to take that class. Believe it or not, I actually want to do this.”

I guess that’s my answer. I stay married to this guy because he is still willing to grow with me.

When you show up to your life as your true self without reservation, the people who stick around give you the sense that it’s all going to be okay.

Love,

Elizabeth

WRITING PROMPT: What uncomfortable conversations have lead to breakthroughs in your relationship?

*I suggested a six week course with Therapist, Author and Life Coach, Linda Carroll based on her book Love Skills, The Keys to Unlocking Lasting, Wholehearted Love. For more information on her awesome programs, check her out on lindaacarroll.com.

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