“Mom, I’m scared.” Yeah, me too.

I'm thinking about fear; how it affects what we do, who we are and how we live.

I’m thinking about fear; how it affects what we do, who we are and how we live.

As parents, we are often called upon to allay our children’s fears.  Spiders, the dark and blood are common fears among the kid-set.  But what about when their fears overlay our own?  What about when the things they fear bring about thoughts about what we fear in ourselves and our own lives?  When your 8 year old says, “I’m afraid that you might die in a car accident,” is there a little voice in your own head that says, oh my sweet girl, that scares the shit out of me, too.

The things I am scared of now are not the same things I was scared of in my twenties.   Then, it was more about worry over getting my heart broken, obtaining a speeding ticket, sleeping through my alarm or getting caught with an open bottle of beer in my car.  Now, my fears directly relate to my people.  I’m sure yours do, too.  Am I doing damage by the way I parent them?  Subtext:  will they get pregnant at 18 and drop out of college?  Am I giving my husband the attention he deserves?  Subtext:  will he finally get tired of the fact that I put my pajamas on at 7:30 and go have an affair?  At this point, all my fears come down to one basic fear:  There are people in this world for whom I am responsible.  They count on me.  I can’t screw this up.  It is no longer just about me.

This week has piled fear on top of fear in our country: bombs, jihad, chemical explosions and all manner of anarchy.  The footage of those young guys calmly preparing to kill people is disconcerting to say the least.  The London marathon, held this past weekend, reportedly had significantly fewer and more jittery spectators in attendance.  My daughter, despite her fears, rides in the car with me on a nearly daily basis. So it got me thinking.   How do we do it?  How do we get past our fears?  Of course, there is a fear and subsequent emotional response when we encounter situations which make us afraid.  Your lovely amygdala, almond sized in the temporal portion of your brain, mediates the fear response.  When you get sweaty palmed, tight lipped and tummy-sick from fear, you have your amygdala to blame.  So what keeps this little guy from going into overload?  Another structure called the rostrate cingulate tells your amygdala to chill out.  In my daughter’s case, having been in the car many times, the rostrate cingulate quells the fears by relying on prior evidence that this car thing is actually pretty safe.

That little gem the amygdala.

That little gem the amygdala.

And also, there is Brene Brown‘s work which tells us that “faith is a place of mystery, where we find the courage to believe in what we cannot see and the strength to let go of our fear of uncertainty.”  According to her research on courage and vulnerability, anything worthwhile we get in life is basically because we put ourselves out there.  And being fearful is in direct conflict with being joyful in the world.

Ok, so I get it.  Fear is part of life.  We rely physiologically on fear to prepare us in case we need to get the hell out of a situation.  We need to walk through fear to feel relief and relinquish the idea that we actually have some modicum of control in our lives.  I think about people like Woody Allen or author Jonathan Goldstein, who have made careers out of their fretful, some would say neurotic manner.  Both are highly successful, but retain a certain level of skepticism and arms-distance from the scarier aspects of life.  Then I think about adventure junkies like that rock climber who doesn’t use ropes.  Or people who hike by themselves for vast distances without knowing where they are going.  We are all part of the same human continuum.  After the Boston marathon, we can choose to never do a sponsored race again.  We can live in blame.  Or we can sign up.  And show up.  And see what happens.

In suburbia, I have heard people wondering if this is the “new normal.”  Worrying about the future of our children.  Of our country.  I get it.  I worry, too.  While following the news coverage of the hunt for the suspects, I heard the story of a community in the heart of the lock down.  The families gathered in a neighbor’s house, made pancakes, the kids played in the playroom and the adults made inappropriate jokes and speculated on the reasons the suspects did what they did.  What an awesome gathering!  What a remarkable way to heal.  Together.  Because really, aren’t we all just a little fucking over being afraid?

So, yes, my 8 year old is afraid.  She frets.  She worries.  But I admire her deeply.  She tells me what scares her.  She trusts me listen, help and most importantly, not judge.  With such unabashed honesty, her giant pooling eyes well with tears.  But she is so smart.  She knows she doesn’t have to go it alone, that sharing gives purpose and meaning to things which make no sense.  In her fear, she does not blame and she does not get angry.  And after we talk and snuggle, she’s better and runs off to play.

We could learn a thing or two from her.

It's okay.

It’s going to be okay.

Thanks to Barbara Paulsen from Mt. Hood MaMa Iphoneography for her beautiful photos.  Don’t be afraid to check out some of them.

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Keeping up with the Joneses in Suburbia

Hell, yes, we are still trying to keep up with the Joneses.

Hell, yes, we are still trying to keep up with the Joneses.

That damn Jones family!  Why do they have to have everything?  Be so rich and desirable?  Why is their prosperity simultaneously my misery?  Here in suburbia, the Joneses remain the ever elusive ideal and we continue to chase them.  Their beautiful new car, their well manicured lawn, their Harvard-bound children and their fabulous dinner parties.  And you know what?  You will never ever be the Joneses.  It’s time to get off that bus.

“Keeping up with the Joneses” was in fact a comic strip created by “Pop” Momand circa 1920’s America.  It was a parody of American life which depicted the petty jealousies of neighbors to the Jones family, who are mentioned but never actually seen in the strip.  This is fascinating because the idea of the Joneses really is an illusion to all of us.  This was made clear over the past couple months in which a number of our friends picked up and moved, mostly to bigger and better places.  Isn’t that how it always happens, after all?  My husband and I, after viewing these spectacular new houses, sat down in our kitchen and thought, hmm…  Maybe we should move.

Right there.  That’s where it starts.  They have a hot tub.  Don’t we need a hot tub?  They have a gazillion square feet.  Don’t we need a gazillion square feet?  Never mind that we are completely fine in our 1950’s fixer upper and that before this we hadn’t had a moment of dissatisfaction (well maybe a couple but nothing move-worthy).  Plus, our house is paid off, why would we do that?  One simple reason.  Those fucking Joneses.

Dave Goetz’s noteworthy book “Death by Suburb” addresses this topic in a novel way.  He calls various ideals of suburban culture “toxins” and offers “practices” to guide sane living in the ‘burbs.   Goetz talks about leading a “thicker” life, letting go of expectations and relying on faith.  While I did not read the book for it’s faith and church principles, it does have meaning for suburbanites in and out of faith communities.  In Brene Brown’s amazing book “Daring Greatly,” she also talks about how there is a culture of what she calls scarcity, meaning we feel like we can never have enough.  We always want more, and are left feeling culturally and personally inadequate if we don’t.

Now, not everyone feels this way. There are folks like my friend Barbara who don’t seem ride the Jones bus.  But most of us do. In any event, Goetz gives us some suggestions for relief from the rat race.  Instead of seeing yourself as your job or even your stereotype, try to see goodness in the world.  Instead of wanting your neighbor’s life,  he suggests budgeting time to “hang with the poor and broken.”  Instead of thinking that life should be as easy as it is for the Joneses, he suggests we just quit fighting a war that is not winnable.  Both Brown and Goetz suggest silence and gratitude as daily practices to stop “jonesing” for the next purchase. The next high.

When you do begin accumulating all this stuff, what are you supposed to do with it all, anyway?  I recently have been going on a donation blitz, collecting stuff in large bags and toting it to the appropriate drop off site.  This feels good.  And moving, after all, is one giant purge.  There is also something so attractive about the simple life, the pared down existence.  Getting rid of excess.  Being free of material goods.  Letting go of consumerism.  But then, living the thicker life also means not feeling green with envy when that Jones kid gets the lead part in the school play.  And when Mrs. Jones always seems calm and together.  And how they always seem to make time to have a beautiful yard and a devoted relationship.

Oh, and there we go again.  Your brain just went to that place.  Actually, there really is a place in your brain that processes jealousy, and it’s the same place ironically that processes pain.  This may explain why it felt like a dagger when your high school boyfriend cheated on you.  It’s called the ventral striatum and it sits in your prefrontal lobe.  So, as many discoveries in behavioral neuroscience, you can take comfort that it’s your brain causing you to behave this way.  Because the Joneses aren’t going anywhere.  Even if you move.

An so ultimately,  we decided not to move.  We are happy where we are.  No, it’s not the biggest or newest house on the block.  The floors creak and it’s on a steep hill.  At the risk of following the above advice, we are lucky to have this old house, even with it’s quirks and it’s imperfections.  It has been here to come home to through the births of two children, through new jobs and new pets.  Through acquisitions and donations alike.  And plus, moving is a lot of work.

What about you?

So there.

So there.

Keeping up with the Joneses strip from Pop Momand, 1921.

Above image from findingthevoicewithin.blogspot.com.

Drug of Choice: Being Busy?

Okay,yes, we are all busy.  We all have full lives and endless to-do lists and a distinct lack of white space on the calendar.  When did it get to be so crazy?  And why do some of us wear our busyness as badges of honor?  For those of us who define themselves as perfectionists, being busy seems to be an attempt to avoid the tough things.  We don’t want to think about the hard stuff like how that bill is going to get paid, what to do about a sick parent and our own feelings of not feeling like we are enough.  We want to be liked and accepted for the long list of things we do, but we have forgotten who we are.  Not to get all deep.  I mean, damn it’s only the first paragraph!

Overheard in Suburbia:

I can’t go, I am crazy busy this week!

I just want to slow down.  I need a vacation!

Today is insane for me.  Can we do it another time?

How are you?  You know, busy as ever!

Years ago, I read “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff With Your Family,”  and I still look at it from time to time.  Apparently the author Richard Carlson died some years back, but this guy was right on.  He has a little chapter called, “When Someone Asks You How you Are, Don’t Answer with How Busy You Are.”  Last week, while sitting with a couple friends, one asked me how I was.  Well, I went into a litany of complaints about being too busy and recounting my schedule for last week.  Really, who the hell cares what I was doing last week?  As my friend, she was just asking how I was.

Brene Brown, in her amazing book “The Gifts of Imperfection,”  tells us that of course people numb with the traditional things like alcohol, drugs, gambling and food.  But we also numb ourselves with food, sex, work, chaos, perfectionism, the Internet and spending.  Yikes.  In our suburban culture, we are used to getting the things we want when we want them.   We can find coffee, restaurants, a gym or a convenience/department store within a 20 minute drive.  The answer to nearly every question is at our fingertips on our phones or our computers.  If we want to contact a spouse or a friend, a text is pretty much instantaneous.  But you can’t ask the phone how you are feeling.  All it does is distract you.  Which is great at the dentist’s office or while waiting in your (parked!) car at your kid’s school.  Filling your calendar also will not get the job done when you are, for example, contemplating a big change in your life.  Like leaving your job.  Telling that guy in the office you dig him.  Or understanding why you go batshit when someone leaves their coat on the floor.

Alright, no one is telling you that you have to make time to meditate or chant or anything like that.  But go for it, if that is your thing.  Some of us get fidgety at the mere idea of stillness.  Brene Brown suggests experimenting with different forms of stillness such as taking a long walk.  Or limiting how long your to-do list becomes.  Or, how about this suburbo-types?  Saying “No.”  For me, I am trying to cultivate the belief that I don’t have to fulfill some mental checklist of what needs to be done on a daily basis and then beat myself up when I don’t accomplish all the things I had wanted to do.  Putting off your peace of mind until you can take a vacation is adding fuel to the fire.  Using words like “crazy” or “insane” to describe your schedule only makes it so.  So, next time you ask me how I am,  hopefully I will say one of the following:

Practically perfect in every way.  (okay I got that from Mary Poppins.  Love her.)

Getting it done the best I can.

Honestly, I could use a friend.  Can we talk?

All is well.

Fan-fucking-tastic!

All immediately followed by “Thanks for asking, how are you?”

Peer Pressure: Not Just for Teenagers Anymore!

After doing a Google search for “peer pressure,”  I found mostly articles about teenagers, advice from parents to teenagers, tweens and the like.  What about us suburbo-types?  Peer pressure really is about comparison:  comparing ourselves to others, then freqently finding ourselves coming up short.  When we do this, our “monkey brain” (as my occupational therapy colleague calls it) takes over.  Monkey brain is assuming the negative, jumping straight to conclusions without intermediate steps.  Take this morning at yoga…

I took my usual 8am yoga Saturday class, and there were announcements that the 10am class was full after the sign-up had been filled to capacity (so you know, there is not usually a pre-sign up for class, nor is it usually completely filled).  I wondered what was going on, and I read a posting in the locker room that said there was a postural clinic available with this class.  I went straight to monkey brain… Why didn’t I know about this, I’m here at least three times a week?  Who was invited?  Why wasn’t I?  What am I missing?  They must not like me.  Why don’t they like me? Then I saw a huge stream of other yogi’s I know coming in the door.  This only intensified the monkey in my brain.  I heard that chimp screeching and jumping up and down and going into full-on histrionics.  What the hell is going on and why am I not a part of it??!!  All Zen obtained during class:  out the fucking window.

Or you may be familiar with the peer pressure from these little snippets overheard in suburbia:

“Both my kids are taking piano lessons at home.  We just really believe music should be introduced early in their lives.  Do you want the teacher’s number?”

You:  (okay, me):  My kids aren’t taking piano.  Should they be taking piano?  Are they already behind?

“Where are your kids going to (preschool, middle school, gymnastics lessons etc.)?”

You:  I haven’t even thought about this yet!  What’s wrong with me!  I have really screwed up now. 

“My last (massage, botox, facial, laser whatever) was amazing!  I feel so good!”

You:  Shit!  I look old.  That’s why they’re telling me this.  I gotta book an appointment.  Wait, I don’t have any money.  Shit!

To avoid monkey brain and the comforting assertion that we actually have some control over what happens in our lives, we attempt to straighten the fuzzy edges and smooth the wrinkly corners.   In other words, we want to be the most perfect we can be, and mistakenly think others are living the perfect life that is as yet just one treatment, class or dollar out of our reach.  Brene Brown PhD, a researcher at the University of Houston, suggests that by trying to straighten the blurry line, we are keeping meaning from our lives.  We are numbing ourselves from the discomfort of unpredictability.  She says we attempt to make the uncertain, certain.  This is obvious in the unbelievably toxic political discourse in our country:  I am right and you are wrong.  Period.  The End.  From this vantage point, how is a relevant conversation supposed to happen?  No wonder I get all sweaty if someone brings up politics in book club or while we are waiting for our kids to get out of school.  The idea of trying to get someone to your side is exhausting and potentially relationship ending.  Ick.

Brown also believes we numb ourselves of our lack of control by perfecting ourselves, or worse, our children.  For ourselves, we go in for a “mommy makeover.”  Okay, don’t even get me started on the mommy makeover terminology because I find it deplorable.  Why do we need plastic surgery simply because we are mommies?  Hey if you want plastic surgery, go right ahead but don’t suggest it’s what I deserve because I stretched my body to accommodate a baby.  That was part of the deal for me, and as far as I’m concerned it was well worth it.   As for our children, we save them far too often from struggle.  I catch myself doing this as well.  It’s not easy to see your child flail and contort against pain and conflict, but it’s how they learn.  It’s our job as parents to lovingly inform our children that life is full of challenges, and that they are worthy of the love and guidance it takes to face them.

Lastly, Brown states that we do a good amount of pretending in order to protect us from uncertainty.  We think that what we do does not affect other people.  That if we put up walls and tuck ourselves away, we are in some way protecting ourselves from the big bad outside world, and from all the pressures that weigh on us.  Actually, what we do has a huge effect on the community at large.  In light of all this, let’s kick this baby into gear and figure out how to live a “whole-hearted” (Brown’s term) life.  This means living without shame, not being afraid to be flawed and releasing pre-conceived notions about what you or your children should be.  She suggests we do the following:

1.  Show up.  Let yourself be seen.  Be vulnerable and open to not being perfect.  You can compare yourself to others if you want, just be aware you may stumble and fall.  Isn’t it comforting to know that even if you screw up, that will lend itself to making you feel like a more authentic you?  That your failures and missteps are in fact badges of honor?  Think about the last insprirational book you read or movie you saw.  Was it about someone who got everything they wanted and was a master of everything?  I know you, you are way more complex than that.  Even Rocky got his ass kicked.

2.  Love with your whole heart.  Open yourself to new experiences and people.  Stop thinking you have to hold back.  Your brain becomes stronger each time you do something new.  More neurons not only fire but are created.  Think of it as your defense against Alzheimers. (Okay, I don’t know if that’s totally true.)  I remember being told in occupational therapy school that you shouldn’t get too attached to your patients, that you shouldn’t cross boundaries and always maintain professionalism.   All very valid points.  But I can’t help telling my little kiddos at work that I love them and give them hugs and kisses.  They’re just so beautiful, I can’t help it!

3.  Practice gratitude and joy.  There are great ideas for these everywhere.  Create a “no technology” day where you just spend time together outside.  For Christmas this year, we did a gratitude chain.  We shared things we were grateful for at the end of every day.  It got long enough to hang all the way around the Christmas tree a couple times.  Do your scrapbook, make a quilt, take the dog for a walk; whatever makes you smile.  Email me ideas, I’d love to hear them.

4.  Believe you are enough.  Because you are.

Peer pressure is partly our brain’s way to try and win the race and conform to groupthink.  But it doesn’t have to be.  It’s nice to know that there are ways to overcome monkey brain and the seething judgment it inflicts on both ourselves and other people.  Imagine the lessons it will teach you and your children.

Now if only I knew what was going on at that fucking yoga studio…

Tell Me Your Story

As my friend Tami says with a shrug, “Everybody’s got their story.”  She’s right.  Our stories define us and make us who we are.  I am curious.  Who are you?  What is YOUR story?  What about your story gets to the truth in me?

In her exquisite TED talk “The Power of Vulnerability,” Brene Brown calls stories “data with a soul.”  She expresses beautifully what it is to live with ordinary courage, walk through life without “numbing” and live a “whole-hearted” life.  As a social worker, researcher and a consummate type-A personality, she realized that to live a full life, you have to be vulnerable.   What does it mean to be vulnerable anyway?  It means you must be willing to put yourself out there and put it all on the line.  Like when I told my husband (then boyfriend) I loved him.  First.  And he took 6 weeks to say it back.  It’s the willingness to say, “Fuck it, I am going to give it a shot.”  Sometimes you fail, and fail again.  Converting the narrative from failure to new opportunity is an expression of vulnerability.   To be vulnerable, you have to tell and live your story.  Brene Brown calls this a sense of worthiness.  By the way, all the times you stumble or screw up, those are the gifts of imperfection.  How liberating is that?   If you don’t see the bumps in the road as gifts, you run the risk of becoming disconnected and shameful.  But here’s the rub: in our society, it’s not okay to allow yourself to be exposed.   You’re supposed to have your shit together all the time.

So anyway.

What’s your story?  How has it shaped you?  And therefore, shaped our community?  I want to hear it.  Of course you know, if I hear it, I am going to tell it.  Being ready to tell your story is a step forward and I hope you will consider it.  Suburbo-types is a place of genuine care and will be a safe place to store the story of you.  Send me a note if you are interested!  I can print your name or not, it’s entirely up to you.  In a world of polarizing voices, trying to slow the aging process and pretending that what we do doesn’t matter, I’d like to change the conversation.  And I would like to start with you.  Are you in?