The Space Between Life and Death

Underneath the Busy-ness of Life is the silent awareness that we are only visiting planet Earth.

This past week, my mother went into the hospital for a minor procedure. Small. Common. Something that caused nothing more than a mental note to check up on her that afternoon to hear, what I had naively assumed, would be filled with verbal green lights and thumbs up.

There’s a famous quote from one of my favorite books, The Art of Racing in the Rain (author Garth Stein):

“People and their rituals. They cling to things so hard sometimes.”

Mom is 78. Deep down, I know any procedure—young or old—is risky. Deep down, are feelings too painful to ponder. So, when I wished her good luck on her procedure and assumed all was well, I clung to my work and the business of life. Work, chores, responsibilities—the Building Blocks of Busy-ness that help stave off thoughts often too daunting to face.

Seconds before her procedure began, my mother went into AFib: an abnormal heart rhythm which can cause a stroke or death.

While we waited for my mother to be stabilized, I spoke with my father. Normally, he is the King of Busy-ness—always in a great hurry to do something and get somewhere. He is also the King of Rituals. Whether it is how he likes to keep track of bills or how he plans his day, there is a long unwritten list of routines he “must” (a word he will often use) do. The rituals and busy-ness have altered through the decades, but the theme remains.

All that changed when his wife, my mother, went into atrial fibrillation.

Several years back, my parents were in a terrible car accident. My father walked away with nothing more than a few scratches. My mom was severely injured and is still in pain as a result of that car wreck, years later. 

My father was driving when the other car slammed into them.

Yet, it wasn’t until my mom’s life was in immediate danger that he shared sentiments with me never before expressed:

“Your mom’s in pain because of me. She saw that man coming at 90 miles an hour at us. I didn’t react in time. I see pictures of her from before the accident. She used to smile. I loved seeing her smile. But since the accident, she doesn’t smile anymore. It’s all my fault.”

If life were like a Pac-man video game, where three lives were guaranteed, would my father have expressed such raw emotions? My father’s voice overflowed with yearning to see his wife’s smile. Would such yearning be felt if he knew she would return from the hospital like she looked and felt before the car accident?

This fleeting time between life and death is a gift. It’s life’s brevity that makes each moment matter. Mortality is like caffeine for the soul—a wakeup call to make moments matter.

My father shared more while we waited to hear news from the doctor. 

“I keep looking at that picture of us outside all those years ago. Remember that one? You were about 6, your sisters 10 and 3. Oh, and your mom looked so happy. Those were the best days.”

I didn’t tell him what I was thinking. Yes, that snapshot captured a precious memory of our nuclear family in the backyard of our Long Island home. But it didn’t show my father filled with Busy-ness before and after the Kodak camera’s click.

Mom is back home and stable, a prescription of Beta blockers, the latest change in her life. I spoke with her today, and she sounded the happiest I’ve heard in a long time. And my father’s voice beamed through the phone and made me think of George Bailey at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life.

“I have my wife back,” he said.

   There’s a powerful line in Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library:

     “In the face of death, life seemed more attractive.”

      Here’s the truth: We are in the face of death (we just forget this or choose to forget this—thank you Busy-ness and Denial). Moments in this Earth School are precious because they are just that—moments. Each of us has a finite number of days on this planet to live!  Some of us know or can sense this (Just look at our American Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton and the late and great American Composer, Jonathan Larson). There’s an inner fire ignited when one is cognizant of their mortality.

     Consider the ecstasy felt upon eating food after fasting or sitting beside a fire after hours spent in the kind of cold that numbs your extremities. Or how about a petite mort—the French expression for an orgasm (translation: a little death). It’s living on the edge of things that make us feel so alive, that allows us to taste the juice of life with all of our senses.

https://www.medicinenet.com/atrial_fibrillation/article.htm

Did You Just Cancel Yourself?

When we lack compassion for ourselves, we are dismissing and cancelling our very experience.

The 21st century has brought us a world of “cancel culture” where one wrong phrase or action could land you on a figurative island of ostracism. Cancel culture is “political correctness on steroids.” American culture has morphed from a gentle parent to mind one’s manners to a shame-inducing zealot of morality. And no one is immune from getting “cancelled.” Heck, as I’m writing this now, there’s a good chance that someone is silently seething in their seat from these words on their screen.

When did we get so sensitive? When did we go from speaking up to shaming? When did we go from making a mistake to paying for it for the rest of our lives?

There’s an old Twilight Zone episode that comes to mind: Rod Serling’s The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street. We often hear, “history repeats itself,” and the 1960’s sci-fi episode is proof of this aphorism. Without giving the episode away, the story involves neighbors in a “quiet, suburban town” who suddenly lose electricity, sans explanation. When one neighbor’s car starts on its own, the other neighbors begin “canceling” him. Before long, with other lights in the neighborhood going on and off sporadically, neighbors begin to turn on neighbors. The late and great Serling was using sci-fi as a vehicle to highlight the onslaught of fear of communism.

Fear itself is the all terrain great vehicle for cancel culture: the unspoken “what if” that is temporarily flattened when attacking another. It’s temporary because, again, the next person to be canceled could be you.

However, there’s another side of cancel culture that goes unaddressed: canceling ourselves. Rejecting what we think and how we feel. The other day, I spoke with a friend who was upset with something her fiancé did. 

“Do you think I have a right to be upset?”

Wow. It doesn’t matter what her fiancé did or didn’t do; what stood out to me was her unconscious decision to question her very emotion. She went on:

“I think I’m just going to stay quiet. Things are good between us. I don’t want to upset that.”

Double wow. Instead of allowing herself to feel the negative emotion—not bathe in it, mind you—just feel it, she shoved it down, away—no different than the way we cancel culture each other. There’s a famous quote by Rumi that comes to mind:

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing, there is a field. I will meet you there.”

The field, I believe Rumi was referring to, is Compassion. When we have compassion for ourselves and others, we are able to make mistakes and learn from them. We are able to grow and forgive ourselves and others. We are able to see that we are all in this life together and canceling one of us is canceling all of us.

Source: Author D. Eric Schansberg https://www.courier-journal.com/story/opinion/2021/03/29/cancel-culture-america-political-correctness/6991235002/

The Bar Date or the Coffee Date?

First date coffee or first date drinks? One of them is better than the other. The answer depends on where you are right now.

*Samantha and *Matthew are good friends. Both are divorced, though Samantha is 10 years post the end of a marriage and Matthew is in the embryo stages of life after divorce—a few months shy of a year. Friends since college, there is an ease between them that can only come from a combination of time and knowing each other in their formative years.

Since Matthew’s divorce, their friendship has morphed into an unspoken mini therapy group of two: sharing each other’s trials and tribulations in the dating world. Matthew wants to get laid; Samantha wants to experience a romantic relationship. Their different goals cause the other to shake their head.

“Why are you wasting your time on a coffee date?” Matthew asked.

“I want to get to know the person.” Samantha said.

“But you can’t make out with a person in a Starbucks.”

“I don’t want to make out with a total stranger. You do?”

“Uh, yes! That’s the whole point of meeting at a bar.”

Both have approached me separately, telling me how foolish they think the other person is. They are both right…and wrong.

Matthew is newly divorced and still licking his wounds from his ex’s desire to end the marriage. “I was happy,” he tells Samantha. Married for almost 19 years, the only roles that remain constant in his life are father and business consultant. Overnight, he’s gone from living in their family home to residing in a one-bedroom bachelor pad. 

“What are you looking for on all those dating sites?” Samantha’s asked.

“I don’t know. Nothing serious. I’m all messed up now. But I’m still a guy.”

So, Matthew meets women at bars. For now, this works—for him. He doesn’t want a relationship now; he wants to “make out” and wake up the next morning and drive his daughters to school. He wants physical intimacy without emotional intimacy; he wants easy sans—for now—self-reflection.

Samantha wants to get to know someone without alcohol coursing through her veins. She doesn’t want the commitment of a meal with a total stranger. She wants to pay attention to the person she meets without the distraction of loud music or the subterfuge that comes with a smoky, dark bar.

“Meeting at a bar just sets up a different set of expectations,” Samantha says.

“Exactly,” Matthew says.

                        Again, they are both right…and wrong.

                        Both Matthew and Samantha are dating the way that works best for each of them. They’re both honoring what they need. The issue between them is wanting the other to live through their lens; the dating diet that works for each of them is a prescription that works for them and them alone.

                        Matthew is hungry for physical intimacy; Samantha is hungry for emotional intimacy. Both have different ways of acquiring what they want. Both are good people figuring out what works best for each of them.

                        When it comes to dating, honor the journey you are on. Decide what kind of dating style works for you. There is no right or wrong when you heed your intuition. 

*Names have been altered to retain the privacy of individuals.

Adolescent Depression and the One-Inch Picture Frame

Like adults, sometimes tweens and teens need to reframe their perceptions..

            *Kira is a twelve-year-old with a penchant for animae and Greek mythology. She is articulate and kind, responsible and perceptive. Unfortunately, she also considers herself a disappointment to her parents and feels like she is failing her friends and family.

            *Mandy is just shy of thirteen. He attends school virtually, participating in class daily, turning in assignments on time, and deftly plays chess. Yet he has attempted suicide twice this past year. “My parents were pretty angry when they found out—my Dad especially. I think he’s upset that he didn’t know how bad it was.”

            As a middle school English teacher, I have the pleasure and responsibility of working with Kira and Mandy. After over a decade in the classroom, I’ve witnessed an unprecedented and palpable uptick in depression in tweens and teens this past academic year. No doubt, the psychological toll of pandemic life has left its mark on humankind’s psyche. The economic duress alone created waves of stress in families. Regardless of the reasons for the increased depression, unlike adults, our adolescent population may not have the tools to seek or get the help needed. 

            I teach six separate classes, and there are 1-2 students in each class struggling with depression or anxiety tainted with thoughts of hopelessness. A numbness will often emanate from them as well. As one student recently shared with me, “Nothing matters anymore. I just stopped feeling.”

            There’s a writing exercise the talented Anne Lamott shared in her famous book, Bird by Bird that I share with my students who honor me with their honesty, with the raw, underbelly of their emotions:

            “All I have to do is write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being.”

            Now, I am not asking my students to start writing their feelings or anything at all for that matter. I am asking them to consider the idea that they are in one picture frame of their life right now—that’s just it, one frame. And while that frame might look overwhelming or render them numb or any other negative emotion for that matter, it is simply one frame. The frame, however unbearable to them, WILL pass.

            Besides, I remind them, there must be other frames that they like in their present life. Here are some recent ones they shared:

            “When my dog licks my face.”

            “Drawing—I’m working on a book!”

            “Soccer—kicking the ball.”

            “The smell of my dad’s pancakes.”

            It need be noted that the above frames were spoken with smiles that could light up a room.

            Whatever we focus on we get more of. We always have the choice to focus on a frame that makes us feel worse or better.

            I am not a doctor or therapist, nor do I play one on TV.  I am a teacher and mother who lost someone dear to suicide when I wasn’t much older than the students who are courageous enough to share their often-concealed pain with me. Perhaps they can sense the experience in me; the unspoken guidance I’m able to give that will nurture us both.

            Regardless, these students’ parents were informed; help is on the way. Help is always on the way. 

*Names have been changed to protect privacy

Small Talk: Benefit or Risk?

Knowing who you are engaging in small talk with can sometimes make all the difference…

            I recently went for my second vaccine shot. The verbal warnings from well-meaning others streamed through my head like a bad TV montage:

            “Take off from work the next day—you’ll need it.”

            “It felt like an invisible weight was pulling me down.”

            “It’ll hit you about 12 hours later. You’ll see.”

            “I wanted to die.”

            So, it’s no surprise that I approached the nurse (*Jenny) a little nervous.

 My anxiety typically manifests in a desperate need for small talk. There is this comfort, however fleeting, found in small talk for me. And according to a 2018 study by psychologist Mathias Mehl, my instinct to schmooze is understandable: 

“Small talk…is associated with more happiness than one usually experiences when one is alone.”

            I certainly didn’t want to be alone with my mental montage of dire physical warnings. I needed to focus on the sunny room of the vaccination site and the warm smile of Nurse Jenny.

            Too late—I already saw the almost comically long syringe. Too late, I asked Jenny how she was, inquiring about her children as well (a small detail I recalled from our earlier dialogue the few weeks prior) as I turned my head away.

            Too late—Jenny let out a big sigh—a hot air balloon puncturing and plummeting fast:

            “My husband is an awful man—just awful. He’s been cheating on me and now he’s suing me in our divorce. I just can’t—”

            Too late—Jenny’s emotional turmoil was let out on my arm.

  I saw stars.

            “Why does that hurt so much?” I asked.

            “Oh, you poor thing—I’m so sorry. You’re bleeding. I hit a vein.”

            Once the blood was cleaned up, Jenny wrote her name and number on a neon Post It.

            “Call me. We need to get together—go for dinner.”

            Somehow, a Small Talk Attempt to ease my anxiety had caused Jenny to think we were…Friends? Therapist (me) and patient (her)?

            Mathias Mehl’s findings regarding our tendency to find happiness through small talk may be true, but if that small talk signals another to lay down on the metaphorical Freudian couch, perhaps we need to refrain from trivial banter with people holding sharp objects…

 Source: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/out-the-ooze/202001/why-small-talk-is-big-deal

Trigger Happy

Our triggers just might be a hidden gift waiting for us to discover…

We all know the term “triggered” at this point. A good decade ago, the word may have referred to a psychological meaning related to PTSD or some other mental disorder. Yet today, you don’t need letters after your name to be familiar with the slang of someone who gets “triggered.”

According to Urban Dictionary, “triggered” refers to “when someone gets offended or gets their feelings hurt, often used in memes to describe feminist, or people with strong victimization.”

Regardless of whether one is experiencing an emotional reaction based on a genuine trauma or mild offense, the reaction is real: the blood boiling, the heart racing, the urge to scream, cry or express negative sentiment. The individual experiencing the “trigger” is in emotional pain.

But what if we could look at the cause of one’s trigger as an opportunity to grow? What if identifying and acknowledging our triggers could be the first step towards changing? What if we considered our triggers as gifts to open and observe rather than Jack-in-the-boxes to avoid at all costs?

Consider Terry Wright, the sixty-five-year-old woman charged with resisting arrest after refusing to wear a mask at a Bank of America in Texas last month. Wright is certainly entitled to an opinion on the mask issue; she is not, however, legally permitted to go mask-less into a private institution (i.e., Bank of America) that requires a mask for all visitors.

For whatever reason, following Bank of America’s mask policy to wear a mask for a mere visit triggered Wright. It triggered Wright enough that she perceived herself as a victim: 

“Hold up! Hold up! Some old lady [Wright] is getting arrested here!”

Wright’s trigger created more misperceptions:

This is police brutality.” The video cam shows no police brutality and audibly offers several bank witnesses flat out disagreeing with Wright.

Yet there was one form of brutality: Wright’s cruelty to others and herself. Her inability to reflect on her actions and continue to see herself as a victim instead of an agitator is the true crime. 

The irony: Wright stated on a phone interview, post her childish scene at the bank (and Office Depot shortly after):

“My civil rights were violated.”

One of the first definitions of civil is “cultured and polite, as in someone who is civilized.” Wright’s behavior was the antithesis of what it means to be civil, to think about others within the community and our interconnection to each other. Wright was too steeped in pain, lashing out at others instead of reflecting inward.

The next time we feel triggered, consider an alternate choice; consider the opportunity for growth. Ask yourself:

What is the lesson here for me?

What does my potential reaction say about me?

Is there another way to perceive this situation?

Is there another way to react in this moment?

When we consider a potential trigger to be a blessing instead of a curse, our perception changes and so does our reality.

*Sources: KPRC 2, Vocabulary.com, Urban Dictionary

The Parent Trust

Some new insight on raising resilient kids…

We all know helicopter parenting is a “no-no.” The idea of micromanaging our children enables an unhealthy tendency for our one day grown kids to depend on their parents or other adults to solve their problems. No doubt, helicopter parenting is a behavioral pattern that fosters co-dependency at best, inhibiting self-reliance and a strong sense of autonomy needed to thrive in this world.

            Yet there’s a more subtle, more insidious variety of helicopter parenting that many of us (myself included) are demonstrating with our kids that needs to, at the very least, be curbed: imposing our thoughts on a subject without giving our children a chance to consider, form and articulate their own thoughts.

            So how do we curb those thoughts and opinions we have? We bite our figurative and literal tongues. We listen. We listen more without reacting. We ask questions and listen some more. We wait. We trust.

            A dear friend of mine who has spent a lifetime mentoring kids recently explained the beauty of the biting-one’s-tongue process: “When you ask questions that make a child think and listen, really listen, you are setting the foundation for true cognitive muscles.” 

            I witnessed the magic of his insight moments later, when my older son talked with him for over an hour. Normally, he’s on the phone for no more than 10-15 minutes with an adult. Curious, I asked him what caused him to talk for so long. His response spoke volumes:

            “He’s easy to talk to. He asks good questions and then really listens.”

            The mentor and dear friend is the talented author, Steve Bernstein (Stories from the Stoop).  I am happy to report that implanting his sage advice has created a subtle yet powerful shift in the relationship between my sons and me. When I approach a conversation from a place of trust in them, in a genuine desire to hear what they think and how they perceive someone or something—without judgement from me, their faith in themselves and in our relationship strengthens. 

            While there are some clear black and white “rules” in this life that we need to impart by word and deed (i.e., Look both ways before you cross the street; floss your teeth daily), the more nebulous, opinion-based questions to life offer an opportunity for open dialogue founded in both mutual and self-respect. Trust is an invaluable gift we can impart to our children when we actively listen to their words without reacting, offering them a safe space to return to again and again. The gift only grows with time, instilling a grounded sense of faith in their intuition and judgement and demonstrating what a healthy relationship founded in trust looks like.

Our children are hungry to know that they matter, that their thoughts matter. When they feel heard, their self-love ignites. And we all know: Self-love is the foundation for success in any life endeavor.