A rose by any other name…

I was driving up the hill the other day when my cell phone rang.  I almost never leave home without it, though it rarely rings or buzzes with a text.   I was sold on the free bbm messaging while my daughter was away in Mexico and the turquoise blue, berry scented case it came with for free.  But since she’s returned, my kids ask why I bother with the fifty bucks it costs every month.  I can’t part with it though.  It makes me feel relevant, connected and I’m a sucker for things that smell good.

I didn’t recognize the number that came up on the screen of my berry scented blackberry that afternoon.  In a split second, a myriad of scenarios rushed through my mind about picking up the call.  Should I risk getting caught and ticketed while taking a crappy ‘congratulations, you’ve won a — ‘  sucker call?   But what if it was one of my kids, calling from an unknown friend’s number, in a potential crisis?  I grabbed the phone as I cornered at the light, hoping no cops were around.

‘This is the Office of  the Registrar’, an official sounding voice told me from the other end.  My heart lurched in  giddy, sick anticipation.   After turning in my portfolio last week – the portfolio I’d bled and freaked out over – I discovered, I’d accidentally applied into the General Arts, rather than Visual Arts program.  My advisor had put in a request for transfer and wasn’t anticipating an issue.  I’d barely thought of it since. I was pretty sure this was the do or die call of acceptance or not into the Visual Arts program based on my portfolio.

‘About your application transfer request – you missed the application deadline into the Visual Arts program and we’re unable to process your program transfer request’ she began.  Her words sounded blunter, colder and more uncaring than perhaps they were.   I pulled over to the side of the road,  those words making their way in with sweeping disappointment.  ‘You can reapply for admission and resubmit your portfolio for the 2014 session,’ she continued, handing me the consolation prize.

We ended the call and I sat for a few moments at the side of the road.   My brain is pretty much the jerk described in this article.   It didn’t comfort me with logical words of reason, it belted me in the face with scorching emotion, ‘you idiot – you’ve built your entire self view on being accepted into art school!  In fact, dummy – you even named a blog after it – and look at you now!’  I slunk down in my seat, literal pain coursing through my chest.  Damn that voice, anyways…

It’s been a few days now since the call.  I’ve more or less reorganized my thoughts, and the disappointment has more or less subsided.  I can still continue my degree path, transferring courses later but there’s no  actual title of ‘visual arts program student’ until next year.  I know in the scheme of things,  this is a minor glitch but I would have loved the validation of  being accepted into the program, and my gosh, all that work and worry for nothing.

Oh, how I wanted that  ‘art student’ title…  Is a rose by any other name as sweet?

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buddha's brainI’ve been reading an awesome book lately by Rick Hanson called Buddha’s Brain – The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness.    Hanson is neuropsychologist, author, speaker and meditation teacher.   His book isn’t about Buddhism as much as the intersection of psychology, brain science and contemplative practices.   I discovered him on my friend Scott’s blog in the article I referred to above.

I’m massively interested in brain science, because it gives bill brysonconcrete evidence and  thus strategies for dealing with  the nebulous emotional things of life.   This has added to the foundation of CBT techniques I’ve been learning and practicing.   Coming to understand the science of the brain and the inner universe has had as large an impact on my thinking as coming to understand the science of the physical world and the larger universe.  Bill Bryson has a great book called, ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’, if that’s something you’re interested in exploring.

I’ve spent over half of my life exploring christianity.  I ‘found god’ at 24,  married in to it, and it continues to impact me, though not always in positive ways.  Although there are parts of it I love,  there are also other parts that have stripped me of my ability to appreciate it overall.

These past years, I’ve deconstructed my belief system and in doing so, have become a dissenter within the circle I once belonged.  Sadly, in such circles, alternate views have little place.  If you’ve ever stepped outside or challenged the belief system or code of conduct of a religious community, you’ll know what I mean.  It usually involves at least a questioning of your character and faith, and often far more.

As I’ve dissembled the thinking I once accepted, some big issues have come up.  This is my philosophical shortlist, ignoring the other practical and relational impacts.

– If there’s a benevolent god,  interested and acting on my behalf in the minutiae of my daily life – why then is that god seemingly absent in the daily lives of people in far more extreme circumstance?

– Would an all-knowing benevolent god insist we belong to an exclusive ‘club’ of understanding or  would that god take in consideration our differing cultural and religious upbringings and sexual preferences?

–  Is truth really a narrow path or is it an encompassing one with room for the many positive contributions from other avenues of thought?

– How, given the vast scientific evidence for the evolution of the world and it’s species, can religion blind itself to such findings?

But perhaps most notably for me, is the question of how religion can claim to understand the complexities and mysteries of eternal life, when we can’t even comprehend the complexities and mysteries of this physical life. At least not yet.

eat pray loveA few years ago, I was taken with the book, ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ which was  later made into a movie.  The movie was dismissed as a chick flick, a romantic comedy.   At the best of times, I can barely endure chick flicks, but Elizabeth Gilbert’s story is more than that.  It’s a memoir, a personal recount of her journey in, an awakening of sorts.

Gilbert  traveled a path of personal healing. faith and self discovery that began in Italy, progressed to India and concluded in Bali.  Each of those parts of her life contributed to her evolving, broadening spiritual mosaic.  I imagine her journey in continues still.

The idea of a spiritual mosaic is new to me and in some ways makes me a little uneasy.  It’s not the well-traveled road I’m familiar with, but I’m liking what I’m learning.   I’m incorporating into my daily routine meditation, mindfulness and visualization – because they literally change the physiology and landscape of the brain toward peace, love and self-mastery.  Whether they answer the existential question of what lies beyond, is still, well, a question.

I have no idea what lies beyond this life.  Is it jeweled streets?  Is it the music of string theory? Is it one-ness with the universe?  Is it nothing ? I don’t know.  And neither does anyone else, no matter what authority they claim it upon.  But I do know it’s within my power to live and love well.

My youngest son asked me anxiously the other day, ‘Mom are you still a Christian?’ And honestly, I’m not sure I am, except by my own definition.   Just as I’m an art student, a student of  philosophy, religious studies,  psychology, literature and science – by my own definition.

Is that enough?  Is a rose by any other name still as sweet?

I’m beginning to think so.

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Fall down seven times, get up eight…

So I’m sitting here, post panic attack, snacking on a big bag of Cinnamon Toast Crunch.  This isn’t something I normally do on a Tuesday afternoon,  but since I’ve spent the past couple hours frantically seeking and finding cancerous lumps to attach my run away anxiety to, I need a good comforting distraction.  And nothing says comforting distraction like eating crispy, sugary nutrition-less kid’s cereal straight out of the bag, without milk.

I’ve been, I don’t quite know how to describe it, humbled I suppose, by some of the blogs I’ve been reading lately.  People talking openly, insightfully, humanly, about the things that have messed them up and how they’re making their way through them.   It takes a great deal of courage to stand  symbolically naked, telling your story.  I know that, because I don’t do it very often.  But when I chance upon someone brave enough to tell theirs and who braver still, is trying to make life better in spite of it – it, well, gives me hope.

Because sometimes in life, really shitty things happen.  And most of the time, we’re unprepared, or at least ill-prepared to deal with them.  No one teaches us important stuff like how to deal with grief, or trauma or death or loss or abuse before it happens.   Or how to tell when it’s messing us up afterwards.    And because of that, those shitty things make their way in and cause a whole bunch more trouble.

I know this, because back when I was pregnant with my first son,  people in my family started dying – dropping off like flies.   Within ten years, we had 17 funerals for family members, including both my parents.  It got to the point where we joked at funerals about who’d be next to go and when our next family ‘celebration‘ would be.   We  pushed away our pain and fear and questions with morbid jocularity, not knowing how to deal with the seeming unending loss. It wasn’t Rwanda or the Holocaust, I know,  but loss and death are loss and death no matter how it happens.

After those funerals,  we went back to our ordinary lives, where at least to me,  nothing seemed very ordinary anymore.  I think once we’ve been traumatized by something, it’s like we stand outside looking in at everyone else,  who just don’t seem to get what a dangerous and painful world this is.  Our experience no longer reflects our expectations of the world being good or at least as it should have been.  Suddenly death, specifically cancer, which I’d paid little attention to before,  stalked me with the relentlessness of a predator after vulnerable prey.

So for the next 20 years I tried to outmaneuver death.    Monitoring every lump, bump or potential health threat,  learning to expertly work the medical system for the fastest results,  in search of peace of mind.  If you ever need a seasoned medical system jumper, I’m your girl.   What began as responsible health care quickly escalated into hyper vigilant health care.  I had a large family, which spread the fearful possibility of loss beyond myself to my five small kids, who I loved, and still love with everything in me.

kids.jpg
circa 1997

I visited doctor after doctor at the first sign of anything wrong,  seeking assurance that things were ok.  I suspected as I regularly walked in, 5 kids in tow, the  doctor’s office would collectively sigh, ‘oh great, here comes cancer check woman again’.  However that embarrassment was worth the tentative relief.   Tentative, because as soon as one concern was resolved, another would follow immediately after.   It was as exhausting and terrifying as it was useless.

What I didn’t realize with all my medical maneuvering, was that I was literally hard wiring a dysfunctional coping system into my brain.   One that demanded a specific set of actions to manage anxiety and ambiguity; one that became more demanding and deeply ingrained over time.  Prozac couldn’t touch it.  Neither could Ativan,  religion, self-help, community or Growers Berry Cider.  And god knows I tried.

What eventually helped was a combination of  cognitive behavioral  therapy and simply talking out the difficult things that had happened in life.  For me, it was unwinding the impact of religion, relationships and loss. They say that by 40, most of us have been traumatized by one thing or another. And for some of us unfortunately, it happens a lot earlier and is far worse.   It leaves us looking about at a seemingly functioning population,  feeling like we’re the  only anomaly struggling with life, separated from the norm, because of our experience and difficulty coping.  The reality is that we all struggle, though some more than others. Struggle is an inevitable part of life.  But there are better, more functional ways to struggle that still leave room for hope, happiness and growth.

Real change takes a long time and a lot of practice.  Changing a dysfunctional coping mechanism is almost as hard as enduring one.  I envision it like learning to walk again after a stroke.  It takes way more effort and concentration to relearn a skill after damage.  However, the brain has amazing adaptive capability and with enough commitment, effort, time and support – it literally is possible to rewire and alter the physiology of the brain.  And that’s science, not opinion.

A good thing about looking at change as brain rewiring is that when inevitable ‘fall downs’ happen, I view them as a technological glitches, not a personal failures.  Of course there are always things to improve upon, but I can nearly always trace returning to old coping mechanisms back to their roots now.  Or to stress, lack of self-care, distortions or triggers.  Which makes returning to equilibrium faster and less painful.  I don’t feel as weak, stupid or dysfunctional and I can forgive myself for stumbling when I understand my personal whys and know how change direction.

But it still happens, often when I’m not expecting it.  Like this afternoon – when I didn’t consciously realize it was the anniversary of both my dad’s death and birth until I  found myself wrestling with unnamed dread and anxiety and checking for cancer.   My dad was a measured and meticulous  man, an accountant, so the beginning and ending of his life falling on the same day of year almost seemed like a cosmic joke.  I have yet to have an April 9th pass without an emotional glitch.  Or a July 1st, which marks the birthday of my first son and the death of my mom.  But it’s still a cognitive distortion to attach fear or anxiety to certain dates – one I’m determined to manage better next round.  It’s also a distortion to fear every health concern is cancer, or that death is bigger than life.

I like the Japanese proverb ‘fall down seven times, get up eight.’  Or more, if necessary.  It’s not the falling that’s important, it’s the getting up afterwards.

So here’s to everyone fighting their way back up.  I applaud you.

fall down seven