Conversation #5: Shine a Light on Danelle

“How far that little candle throws his beams!  So shines a good deed in a weary world.”-  William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice

Have you ever met someone who, while you are standing there talking to them, becomes a source of light?  It’s kinda bizarre when it happens.  But that is precisely the experience of being around my friend Danelle.  It’s time for me to shine the proverbial light on her and let you get to know her too.

Danelle is a gift which yoga has given me.  She is an instructor at my studio, but practiced next to me long before I knew she taught as well.  I always saw her in class, smiling, but it took me an introverted long time to actually talk to her.  I remember thinking she was just way too positive and enlightened a  force to be down with a sailor-mouth like myself.  But that is the thing about her.  You are comfortable the minute you talk to her.  She is easy in an elegant, breath of fresh air, open and sing-song kind of way.  When you are in class, sweating your ass off, struggling, wishing for the end, that’s when Danelle steps in.  With her words and with her energetic presence, you are somehow reassured.  You know you can make it.  It’s a remarkable quality.

As well as being a yoga instructor, Danelle also runs a massage practice out of her cozy home.  Before I received a massage from her, I worried about telling her some things I didn’t like during a massage.  Like talking too much.  Or being cold.  Or pain.  But of course, she is incredibly honest and makes you feel so comfortable that things you might worry about are not an issue.  Not because it didn’t hurt a couple times.  It did.  But because her unspoken message to you is that you are her first concern and you will be given the TLC and difficult work that you are not able or willing to give yourself.  She knows things.  I am not sure how, but she does.  If she wasn’t such a goddamn charming combination of vulnerable and commanding, it would be annoying.

As someone who can quite easily go to self doubt and the “dark side,” I find Danelle’s dogged insistence on the positive to be refreshing.  You know those annoyingly upbeat people who you want to shake?  She is not one of them.  Danelle has had pain and heartache, but has a matched dose of realism.  She calls herself “woo-woo” and others have called her “dreamy” because of her upbeat and spiritual sensibility, but she is decidedly pragmatic.  She can be tearful and willing to bare her soul, but she also is able to put the hammer down when it comes to what she believes in.  For example, when talking about her adorable 4 year old son, she says her goal as a parent is that  “he will never, ever, ever (like 20 more evers…) feel that he is not good enough.”    And I feel the resolve in her words.   Spoken by a person who has known how it feels to be abandoned, but also knows she is not going to fucking let that happen to any child of hers.  Ever.

One of my favorite words is Sanskrit is satya or truth.  Danelle embodies truth.  She has an active meditation practice (I am jealous.  I am someone who has always wanted to have one) that relies heavily on mantras.  She is cognizant of how thoughts and vibrations can “create a situation” and is extremely self aware on how to stop this from happening.  During a disagreement with her husband, she might remind herself of the beach or something else she loves to change the energy. At times where she is frustrated or off center, she returns to places of happiness rather than adding fuel to the fire.  This is incredibly difficult to do, but she manages to pull it off.  She says the more you do it, the easier it gets.  And somehow, from within my deepest doubting self, I believe her.

Danelle also gives me a suburban smackdown.  When I ask her how she keeps the suburbs from crushing her soul, she tells me that the suburbs are not robbers of the soul, they are keepers of community.  As her voice cracks, and her big beautiful eyes widen, she tells me that the suburbs are a place of family, unlike the one where she grew up.  It’s about taking a deep breath, going and knocking on your neighbor’s door and asking for eggs.  Or a jumper cable.  It’s knowing that there is someone there to help.  Even if that someone is you.

In the future, Danelle hopes to open her own yoga studio from where she can have her massage practice as well.  She hopes that her globe-trekking pilot husband will be more local more often.  Her son will feel loved and accepted.  She will be making a profit and making a difference.  She is so task-oriented and organized, you know she will make it happen.  She is crystal clear on what she wants and where her skills lie.  She knows that in order to be there for others, your own needs have to be met and then you can be there for others.  (From her years in the airline industry, she knows you have to first put the oxygen mask on yourself).  I can’t wait for you to go to her studio!

You can’t help but be a better person simply by knowing her.


Many thanks as always to Barbara Paulsen at Mt. Hood Mama Iphoneography for the photo.

YOU-meeting someone new

Glad to be back writing after a long holiday break.

Meeting new people can be an exciting, anxiety-provoking or downright boring experience (think your spouse’s work party).  Depending on the venue, meeting new folks sets your brain in motion in a clinical manner you may think is reserved for things like chemistry and quantum physics.   Think about the last time you met someone new.  As you were talking with this person, your frontal cortex was processing all the sensory information available at the time.  How did the person look?  Were they focused on you, or were they looking around the room?  Were they wearing make-up?  Did they wear perfume?  All this information is put into a mental image based on a checklist your brain has previously laid out.  Thus, the “gut feeling” you get about a person is really an emotional reaction generated by your amygdala.  Pretty cool.

Let’s take the example of the first time I met my husband.  Technically, the first time I met him was on the phone.   It was a blind date so he called me first.  I had a great conversation with him.  All the while we were speaking, my brain was drawing a composite based on his voice and affect and the description of him that my friend had given me.   The frontal parts of my brain were busy drawing social references and making judgments about his language and social ability.  Couples who have been married a long time always say it’s a good sense of humor that contributes to longevity.  Well my husband made me laugh on that first phone call and on the first date more times than I can count.   All this laughing and smiling was a direct result of my brain processing how it felt to just be with him.  Neurologically, I was very attuned to how connected he was to me and what I was saying.  I was subconsciously reading all his cues:  he leaned in closer than he needed to when the bar was noisy, he asked lots of questions and waited patiently for an answer and his facial expressions were warm and happy.

Can we change our first impressions?  Neuroscientists say no.  You can’t really update your first impressions of anyone.  Your initial associations and emotions are fairly persistent.  What you can do is learn additional things about a person.  A first impression is rapid and the first line of information for our species.  “It only takes a moment to make a first impression” is quite true.  It’s really a survival skill when you think about it.  You are making a very rapid and concise decision about whether this person is a solution to the “problem” you may have, such as needing another friend, wanting a mate, creating an alliance, needing a reference etc.

Once again, the brain is searching for relationships.  Once again, the people you meet every day challenge you to change the paradigm.  Is the relationship we seek with others a reflection of the needs of our neurochemistry or the needs of our soul?  Or are they the same thing?

Are our brains really the housing for our spirit and our souls?

Mirror Neurons: A Little bit me, a little bit you

I am a bit of a neuroscience geek.  It goes way back to graduate school at Thomas Jefferson University in occupational therapy.  As a teaching assistant, I helped out in the neuro lab and got to handle and assist students with cadaver brains.  I can still smell the formaldehyde and feel the cool marble of the lab tables.  Full brains, cross sectioned brains, diseased brains and healthy brains.  Pretty cool stuff.  But what does it have to do with forming our first impressions?  Making friends?  Forming stereotypes?  Plenty.

Do you find yourself smiling when someone else smiles?  Gawking at a couple canoodling in a corner booth at a restaurant?  Ta-da!! You are using your mirror neurons.  Mirror neurons came on to the scene of neuroscience in about 2006.  An Italian researcher noticed something in the brains of monkeys.  A monkey reaches for a peanut. Bing!  Specialized motor neurons fire.  A monkey watches a researcher reach for a peanut.  Bing!  The same specialized motor neurons fire in the monkey’s brain, even though he didn’t move a muscle.  We have just witnessed the underpinnings of social interactions, culture, consciousness, representation of thought and empathy.

As if that’s not mind-bending enough, researchers have also found that the better we are at interpreting facial expressions, the more active our mirror neurons.  Get it?  When you are looking at someone and taking what their face is telling you, you are feeling what they feel.  You are empathizing.

In my work, I see lots of kids with autism and other disorders characterized by poor social interactions.  These kids barely look at you, and when they do it is fleeting.  This makes it incredibly difficult for them to connect to you on a deeper level.  You can use your mirror neurons to establish what it is they are feeling, but a person with autism likely has less active mirror neurons than you do.  It’s not that they aren’t interested in you, they just have a hard time experiencing you.

When you think about it, it explains so much of how we react to situations we encounter.  Why it is we can’t turn away.  Our brains are trying to learn, discover and protect.  Our brains like to categorize and contain.  When we look at an accident on the side of the road, our brains want to know how it happened so we can avoid doing the same.  When we watch sports, particularly if we have played that sport in the past with people who look like the ones we are watching, it’s like virtual reality for our brains.  As a cyclist, I love watching the Tour De France.  Those hills, the danger, the cheering fans, those muscled legs fighting for a chance at the podium:  that’s a thrill for me because I have experienced the pains and joys of cycling, albeit at a much lower level.

Look, we are intensely, unapologetically social creatures.  Isn’t it fascinating to know that there are parts of your brain whose only job is to live in another person’s experience?  That means that when we meet someone new, we take in how they look, their gestures (my friend Marci couldn’t believe when she met my mom, saying our mannerisms were exactly the same:  now I know why) and their language.  Then we try and make it our own.  It’s the human way of creating culture, and in the case of suburbo-types, friendships.  Something in that first interchange lays the groundwork for a relationship.  Was the way I looked at you like the way another person you love has looked at you before?  Did I laugh in a way that somehow makes sense to you?  Are we good at the same games?  Are we connecting on not just a social but a neurochemical level?   It doesn’t really matter.  As humans, it just feels good.

About Me and Suburbo-types

Suburbo-types was inspired in many ways by turning 40 and thinking about new ways to connect with my community and also to flex some writing muscle.  I love to write and think deeply so this project seemed like a perfect marriage of the two.  In looking at my friends and neighbors, I recall thinking that I was often prone to one-sided opinions about people and making judgments before all the facts were in.  Suburbo-types is part meta-analysis of such ideas, part personal commentary and part neuroscience interpretation. 

 Obviously, I live in the suburbs.  I live in a place where relatively few people grew up here, and a large percentage are from “somewhere else.”  This lends itself to starting over, which is what my husband and I did when we moved here from Philadelphia.  It was nice to shake free from all my pre-conceived ideas about myself and make new friends who didn’t know anything about me.  It was liberating in fact.  But why?  What was wrong with who I was?  Every person in my community was a first impression, I didn’t know anyone.  What did they think of me?  What informed their opinions?  What informed my opinions of them?  Suburbs are defined as communities which surround a larger urban area.  We are not rural and we are not the city.  How do these attributes contribute to how we form social connections? 

Stereotypes are a common and inescapable aspect of our lifestyles.  I wanted to know how we come up with these and why we can be so quick to make assumptions about others.  Am I being naive to think I can live without stereotyping others?  What can I do to draw our suburban community closer together?  How can I make this social network a living and breathing force to hold each other up in times of need?  What is it called?  How can we level the playing field?  How on earth can I get to know the names of my neighbors in a culture that values privacy and independence?

This is the start of an evolving conversation.  Join me with your comments and ideas.  I promise I won’t judge (hee-hee)!  I plan on blogging once or twice a week so if your inbox isn’t overflowing already, consider hitting the follow button.  Your thoughts will be my inspiration.  I plan on scouring media and neuroscience literature to contribute to the dialogue.  I also will interview my friends and neighbors and get their two-cents.  Most of all, I want to keep it fun and readable.  I am prone to a curse word or two if I get really passionate.

Personally, I am married to my anchor and have two exquisite school age daughters.  My daughters teach me every day that new possibilities are out there to be created and explored.  I have always been told that I was a good writer but my profession is occupational therapy.  My work is with kids which informs my natural curiosity and challenges me daily.  I am a devoted yogi, lover of books, collector of friends, driver of a minivan and carbohydrate addict.  You will get to know me more from posts but I am happy to have met you here today. 

My first impressions of you are pretty good.