Strength In What Remains

I have mentioned before in this blog that the circumstances that divided my life by zero have affected me in many unexpected ways. Realizing how seemingly unconnected events are connected is always fascinating to me and easy for me to see in other people but much harder to see in my own circumstances.

I used to be a voracious reader, both professional and personally. As an academic, reading is preliminary to writing and writing is the key to publications and advancement. In the past 7 years, since my marriage ended and through the years that I was involved with the abusive therapist, I have struggled to read. Why reading should be affected by those circumstances has been difficult to determine, but the result has been the same. I have struggled to read which means also struggling to write and publish in academic journals. I have however, for whatever reason, increased my grant writing skills so there is that.

I have several friends who know about this problem and they have wonderfully tried to help. My friends Tony and Jonathan have recommended books as well as helped me think through academic papers. Tony has co-authored papers with me. It has been a huge help. And I am finally understanding that I may never again read like I once did. I have changed. I am different and it’s okay.

I recently read a book that was recommended to me and it had a profound affect on me. It should be required reading for anyone who has ever had a traumatic incident that they have struggled to recover from, cares about someone in that situation, and for all mental health care workers. It is called Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder and portrays the story of Deo, a survivor of civil war and genocide in Burundi. Deo manages not only to survive but to make his way to the ghettos of New York and, without knowing English, gets a job as a grocery delivery person while living in Central Park. From there, he gets admitted to Columbia and then medical school at Dartmouth and becomes an American citizen before returning to Burundi to start a clinic to provide medicine, nutrition and clean water to a small village.

Deo’s amazing story of resiliency and courage is very profound, but what touched me wasn’t how he was able to come through things perfectly, seemingly without any difficulties because he didn’t. I was touched by his authenticity and imperfection. What touched me was seeing his changing emotions as he struggled with the memories. In his native language that phenomena of being triggered by memories of a traumatic event is called Gusimbura. To gusimbura someone means “that the individual, upon hearing the name of a dead loved one, is forced to relive the suffering and sorrow of that loved one’s death”. The idea is that it isn’t just a memory, the person who is gusimbura’d is actually reliving the events. I think in western psychology it would be called a flashback. But for Deo, it is culturally not acceptable to talk about the death he witnessed. Yet at the same time, as a survivor, it is profoundly necessary for him to bear witness to what happened by talking about it in order to heal the wounds of his soul.

Deo’s transitions between repressing memories and then having them come out in other inappropriate emotions when he was triggered, to facing the memories and seeing his rage and fear, to trying to move on from them explains a lot about the behavior of someone with PTSD. It shows the delicate balance between psychologically needing to remember yet simultaneously, needing to move on and not be caught forever in memories where you are only half alive.

Typically whenever I have read a book like this, the main character will be a person who survived significant trauma and then rose out of it in an exceptional way, seemingly perfectly “whole” and “normal”. What this book showed me is that, for all of us who have gone through trauma, we are irrevocably changed (although I would argue we are still “whole” and “normal”). We can’t go back. We have to find the strength in what remains. Those memories will always be there, like a disease which lives dormant in the central nervous system which comes out in times of stress. However unlike such diseases when society empathizes with the physical suffering of that person, somehow when it is the darker side of our emotions, society sees it as weakness in people and shuns them rather than empathize with them. Deo’s story which is so brutal makes it easy to empathize with him.

When you love or care about someone with PTSD or even just someone who is struggling to move on in their lives, or if you are suffering yourself, realize that sometimes emotions will come up in ways that you can’t anticipate and can be triggered by things that you don’t even realize until later when you are looking back. It can come out in simple ways like fluctuations in someone’s weight, overreactions to seemingly mundane events, substance abuse or more horrifically, in acts of violence. For PTSD sufferers it is imperative to stay as aware as possible, to realize that when you get that feeling in your gut, that churning that something is wrong or your don’t feel good… it is imperative to listen to what your body is telling you.

If you care about someone with PTSD, if the person is reacting in a strange way, don’t take it personally and don’t let their behavior scare you or push you away. The person close to you might not be reacting to you at all, but to a situation or circumstance from their past. I once remember being in a club at Whistler with some friends. All of a sudden, I had to leave, not in 15 or 30 minutes, but right at that immediate moment. I had to be outside. I had two good friends Kaare and Chris that recognized my panic and paid my tab and got my coat out of the coatroom for me while telling our other friends we were leaving. They didn’t judge, they just helped me. My friend Matt has done the same thing for me on countless occasions. I don’t think I have ever said thank you for that. I remember it took me a long time that night at Whistler, even in a roomful of my friends, to realize I was safe. My advice if you care about someone with PTSD is to be aware, be tolerant, just listen and accept them for what they are. Be patient while they find the strength in what remains.

If you get a chance, read the book “Strength in What Remains” by Tracy Kidder and check out Deo’s organization Village Health Works.

The Garden

P1090067My grandfather was a fantastic gardener. He had the cleanest garden, there wasn’t a weed in it. He grew things in the rocky, dry soil of Maine with no landscape fabric, pesticides, modern fertilizer, motorized tillers, or any of the other modern gardening equipment we use today. Pappy gardened organically back when organic wasn’t a “thing”. He did it that way because he was really frugal. I still remember going over to his house with my Dad on a weekend afternoon. I would tell him I was hungry and he would reach down and pull a carrot out of the ground, wash it off under the faucet, and hand it to me. Those still are the best carrots I have ever tasted.

Since I am home, I decided to use some of my sabbatical time to plant a garden. I don’t hope to be as good at it as Pappy was, but I aim to learn. There is something mystical about planting things and watching them grow like magic out of the ground. I often wonder how disconnected from the earth we become when we only have the opportunity to buy food from boxes and Styrofoam trays wrapped in plastic from a grocery store. Everyone should have the opportunity to just stick their hands in the dirt and plant something and watch it grow. 

The other day when skiing, a friend and I were talking a lot about my garden, about what I was going to plant and I told her about my grandfather. At lunch, she ran into an old friend who she had lost touch with. After they chatted for a few moments, my friend and I went back out skiing where she told me the story of what had happened to her friendship with this other person.

She said at one time, they had been best friends. When I asked what had happened between them, she shared a great analogy with me. She said it was like they had together planted a shared garden, in this case, the garden represented their friendship. They would meet at the garden, plant seeds, discuss soil, communicate what needed to be done, share responsibilities and divide up tasks. When one person was busy or having a tough time, the other picked up the slack in the garden of their relationship. They tended the garden of their friendship together every day through their communication which kept the weeds away and the ground fertile. My friend went through a challenging time with a divorce and lots of life changes and it was difficult to be around her at that time. After a while, her friend stopped coming to the garden as often. My friend continued to go there, continued to plant and nourish the relationship, but as time went on, she felt more and more devalued by her friend’s absence. My friend was hurt and finally, she started going to the garden less and less frequently until one day she just stopped. Not too long after that day, her friend came to the garden to find it empty, untended, and overgrown. She called my friend to find out what was up. My friend, although heartbroken, kept her resolve to honor her boundaries and not allow herself to be taken for granted. Her friend decided that the friendship wasn’t worth the effort. They hadn’t seen each other again until the other day when we were skiing.

I loved the analogy of the garden as a relationship. If you have ever gardened before then you know how hard it is. It takes planning, preparation, planting, daily effort, watering, weeding, fertilizing, pest maintenance and harvesting. Gardening isn’t for the faint of heart. But the rewards of the garden, the best tasting most incredible food you have ever eaten, is absolutely worth the effort. It is the same with relationships. It takes communication, effort, shared experiences, mutual value, respect, compassion, caring, and time. Relationships aren’t for the faint of heart either. The rewards however, are priceless. It is the difference between pulling the best tasting carrot from the ground or buying something processed from a box. Both will feed you, but only one nourishes your soul.

The Most Boring Post Club…

I have been really busy trying to figure out what I am doing with my life now that I am looking at the last half of my sabbatical. My fears and insecurities about my life have made it hard for me to write this blog.  As usual, my incredible friends have given me inspiration where I least expected it, from Facebook.  One of my friends posted a thread asking the question of if/how we know our lives had an impact. At the same time, another one posted in a group that is entitled “The Most Boring Post Club”.  Both of those things made me think pretty deeply about the stories of our lives.

We influence people every day, in every contact we have with them. Those influences aren’t necessarily good and it is important to remember that when we interact with people.  We can be friendly, give someone a smile, say hello, show compassion… or we can hurry along, ignoring someone, being cruel, making fun of people, judging.  I find it interesting that the most judgmental people I know are also those people who see the world around them as a bad place, their lives are never what they want them to be, and their pasts are littered with the emotional wreckage of their interactions with people.  But every day, we have a choice to be who we want to be.  Every day we can make our story and our impact on the world what we want it to be.  It doesn’t have to be a huge thing, it doesn’t have to be anything to do with our job.  It can be as simple as taking time for people, accepting, and understanding.

Enter, the second Facebook post, in a group called the Most Boring Post Club. Facebook is an interesting medium for communication.  I know people who will see this group, read some of the posts, see themselves in something someone posted that is similar to what they post on their own Facebook and think “I am boring”.  And then they will get insecure and change what they are posting to conform to what they think people want from them. Let me go on record right now, people give me grief all the time for what I post on Facebook.  Guess what?  It is MY Facebook page, if people don’t like it, they don’t have to read it.  Unfriend me. Please, it won’t hurt my feelings. I have no desire to make anyone else miserable by forcing them to read my Facebook.

Whether it is in real life or on Facebook, I don’t want to be wasting minutes of my life judging people’s behavior.  My life is short enough as it is, I don’t have time to waste.  Complaining about what someone else is posting on Facebook is wasting my time, what should I care what they post on their page?  There are REAL problems in the world that I can do something about, to have a positive impact on the world. I am not going to worry about whether I am boring to someone, that is a waste of my time.  In fact, if one of my posts makes it to the Most Boring Post Club, then it is a WIN because I just amused a whole group of people!  I might try to post boring stuff from now on, kind of like my campaign to post food pictures on Instagram ever since someone gave me grief about posting food pictures.  Yeah, I know, I don’t play by the “rules” where I conform whenever I am criticized.  I thank Matt for that.

I have said it before and am going to say it again…  be who you are and the people who want to be in your life will gravitate toward the authentic you, because you don’t want people who don’t want you for who you are.  Don’t worry about what other people are doing, what they look like, what they are wearing, eating, or posting on Facebook.  Gravitate toward those people who you like and who like you in return.  And don’t waste one second of the precious seconds of your life worrying about what people think of you or what other people are doing with their own lives.  If you want to have an impact, if you want to influence the world, just be yourself.

For me, I gravitate toward people who can show vulnerability.  That is a critical characteristic of people who I want as my friends.  If they can be vulnerable and show their “crazy” it gives me the freedom to be vulnerable in return. The people who influence me show courage, compassion, loyalty, forgiveness, acceptance, honesty, and who keep their word.  Everyone makes mistakes and has times where they screw up, but the people in my life who couldn’t consistently show those things are gone.  Period.

So post them up folks.  If you are my friend on Facebook, I want to know what you were eating, what your problems are, what you are doing today, what your insecurities are, and what you passions are.  I want to see your pictures and hear about your children and your travels.  I want you to be gloriously boring and amazingly authentic.  That is the way you can influence my life.  And if what I post bothers you, well, maybe you can find some better friends in the Most Boring Post Club.


Something old, something new…

I had two times this week that my mind was blown.

Even though I am 50 years old and not a “digital native”, I am still pretty competent in the use of technological tools.  I am a “digital immigrant”, meaning that I remember a time before mainstream digital devices when communication was primarily face-to-face, via telephone, or handwritten letters. So even though I can use technology, I find that interacting with younger “digital natives” helps me to understand new social and emotional paradigms for using those technologies.

From some internet discussion forums I belong to, I know that real friendship can grow from online communities where people never have met in person.  I have met some of my most trusted friends online. And it isn’t just that we established a friendship online, that happens all the time, it is that we maintain friendships in a online space. That is a powerful shift in human interactions.  But until the other night, what I had never considered is that intimate relationships in the digital age can also be sustained online.

The other night I went to a goodbye party for my friend Kare who lives in Germany now.  He came to the states to snowboard and on his last night here we met for beer. I had a great conversation with Rachel, a woman Kare had worked with when he worked in the US and she gave me a perspective shift on intimate relationships that I had never considered.  Rachel is in her mid 30s so just on the cusp of the “digital divide”. Rachel is the definition of a strong, confident, independent woman who has a stable job, disposable income, and is emotionally secure in who she is.  We recognized pretty quickly that we are kindred spirits. Commiserating over beer at a local German bar in Seattle, we both described the same challenges for dating in Seattle. The Seattle dating scene (Dateless in Seattle) is pretty well documented and some even blame the tech factor for it.  Rachel had a different idea about technology

We were complaining that we meet men, either in person or through online dating, that say they want a “strong, confident, independent woman”… until they actually meet one.  That is when they realize that they really want a ball of fluff that is waiting for them to come home so she can fix them a sandwich and get them a beer.  Yeah, that isn’t gonna happen in my world or apparently Rachel’s either.  Rachel said to me, “Robin, you are not going to find a real man in Seattle, you have to go east coast”.  To which I replied that I have a job and can’t move to the east coast right now. She said, you don’t have to move, just use technology.  Then she told me her boyfriend lives in Pennsylvania and they have no intention of changing that situation any time soon.  They talk online daily and fly to see each other regularly. Her philosophy is that, in the 21st century, relationships can be defined differently than how we traditionally have thought of them. I sat there blinking at her with the owl stare because she had just rocked my world.  Wait a second, I thought…Intimate relationships can also be fostered online?  Mind = blown.  That totally opens the dating pool up to a wider spectrum. An interesting shift in perspective that I need to think about more. Thanks Rachel!

1796702_610644625682982_709339069_nLater in the week, my roommate and I threw our first small house party with a few ski friends. I have to say, it was great just interacting with them again. Between laughing over Cards Against Humanity to watching the Boy Dance Party SNL skit, I Iaughed hard enough that my sides hurt and I realized how much I have missed them and love their company.  At the end of the night, my roommate and I were cleaning up and I noticed that she had used an antique plate that belonged to her grandmother to serve food. When I questioned her about it, she said “what is the point of having it if it doesn’t get used?”.  Again mind = blown.  I was reminded of why I gave up all my stuff. The thing I realized this week is that the possessions aren’t the problem, it is the fact that for many people, they don’t use what they have.  They keep the good candle, china, lingerie, clothes, or whatever it is they have in storage for a “special occasion”.  Well, today is special.  You woke up, you are reading this blog, you are alive.  Celebrate.  Break out the good _______ (fill in the blank with whatever you have hoarded away). Use it.  Light candles, buy flowers, eat the good chocolate, and invite people over that you haven’t seen in awhile. Why?  Well because it is Monday that is why.  You don’t need a reason to live and love your life or to cultivate friendships.  Cultivate those friendships like you cultivate a garden, friendship is food for your soul.

So this week I learned from something old and something new.  Maybe next week, I will learn from something borrowed and something blue.  I never know where life’s lessons are coming from, I just try to be open to whatever I am learning.  Have a great week.

The right limit of (1 life)/x as x approaches 0 = infinity

Today was one of those spectacular spring days in the Pacific Northwest.  The sky was this amazing shade of blue, the sun was out, it was relatively warm. It is one of those days that teases us that spring is just around the corner.

I love this time of year.  It is the time of year that winter and spring war for dominion over the land so there are great swings in temperature and weather. The buds on trees are swelling with signs of the potential of new life.  The deciduous trees are starting to leaf out and there are so many shades of green that it almost hurts your eyes.  It is a season in which you can see the potential that the world holds, the promise of tomorrow. It makes my heart just sing.

On a day like today, I can’t stay in the house, I have to be outside.  I also needed to exercise so instead of going to the gym, I ran to a nearby park that has a great jogging path around it.  To get there, I had to go about a mile up a pretty busy street that has a really major hill on it. It is uphill there, downhill home.  So I put my music on, went to the park, ran a few miles, enjoyed the beautiful sunshine, laughed at the unrestrained kids that wave back when I wave at them, just in absolute awe of the beauty of the distant mountains (both the Cascades and Olympics can be seen from the top of the hill) and then turned around to head home down the busy street.

On the way home, my music trifecta comes on:  Good Riddance by Green Day, Learning to Fly by Tom Petty, and Wake Me Up by Avicii.  They are songs that were made for moving.  All of a sudden, with the sun on my face, birds singing, the glory of the big northwest evergreens all around, I just wanted to dance.

Now remember, I am walking down a really busy suburban road.  When I lived on Capitol Hill in Seattle, the sight of a 50 year old crazy woman dancing down the street in her black capri leggings and a big purple University of Washington hoodie wouldn’t have even raised an eyebrow, in fact, there probably would have been people dancing with me.  However, where I live now everyone drives, no one is walking down the street let alone dancing. Hmm… didn’t change anything, when it is time to dance it is time to dance. So I danced. Guess what happened?  No one noticed.  I didn’t even get one glance. People were so focused and in a hurry to get wherever they were going that they failed to notice a crazy woman dancing down the side of the road. The less they looked, the more outrageous I got trying to get at least one person to honk at me and smile.

Social media seems to be filled with people who are sad and lonely, people longing for simpler lives with less stress, and to have the spirit and the joy of children again.  Guess what? In order to have that, you actually have to be willing to do it. You can’t say that you want a simpler life and not be willing to find the joy in simpler things, things like sunshine, fresh air, dancing, and noticing the world around us.  And you can’t be restrained by being worried about what other people are going to think.

Here is my advice.  Take the handsome man or beautiful woman you are with or, if you are by yourself, take the handsome man/woman that you are and go for a walk.  And while you are walking, just dance, arms in the air, unrestrained by what people think, heart and senses open to the world around you. You will feel fantastic.  What is the worst that can happen?  People might think you are crazy?  Guess what, being crazy isn’t a crime. You might make someone smile?  Yeah, that would be tragic. Of course, you might make it on YouTube like this guy   If you do, I will be so jealous, I couldn’t even get one person to look at me.

Tonight, I am going to Drag Queen Bingo.  I am going to wear a feather boa. The great part about that is I am riding the bus.  Who wants to speculate about how many pictures make it to instagram tomorrow of the crazy old woman riding the bus in a feather boa? It is going to be a hoot.

Life is short, whereas, when divided by x is infinite as x approaches 0. Go ahead, divide by zero.

No regrets…just lessons learned

I was watching a TV show yesterday. For those who don’t know me personally, I haven’t had a TV in a couple of years so watching TV feels like a whole new activity for me.  Anyway, it was a talk show and during the show, they had a twitter feed in the background.  The host was talking about how every experience in our lives can teach us a lesson, so rather than look on those experiences as negative, look on them as lessons.  A viewer tweeted a quote that went something like “instead of being a victim, be a student”. I really like that thought.

I have several friends who have gone through amazingly difficult struggles in their lives. Their lives were divided by zero many times.  Abusive childhoods filled with alcoholic parents, marriages with abusive spouses, dealing with infidelity from someone who made sacred vows to honor and cherish, amputated limbs, quadriplegia from a car accident, death of a child, recovering alcoholics/addicts, cancer, Lou Gehrig’s disease, and so many more.  Most of the people I admire the most have overcome tremendous obstacles, it is what refined their character.  They used those struggles as opportunities to grow, they refused to become victims.  They became students of life instead.  I would say that most of them have the equivalent of a PhD in life lessons.

Then there are the people in life that are mired in what has happened to them, refusing to let it go.  Now, I am not saying that all of us don’t go through that, heaven knows I have had my walk through the dark side of life where I just couldn’t seem to claw my way out of the pit of despair.  It might take awhile, but the trick is to not stay there. And it doesn’t just happen that you come out of it magically on your own, you have to fight for it.

So how is it that some people can make hard choices, do the right thing, feel compassion and forgiveness for those who have wronged them, own up to their mistakes, problem-solve, and move forward while others just wallow, refusing to take responsibility for anything they have done and making the same mistakes over and over again?

I don’t have the answers to those questions only my own ideas.  I believe it has something to do with what the person tweeted… people who can move on and build a better life out of the emotional ruins of trauma are people who are unwilling to stay the victim, instead can morph themselves into learners.  They refuse to take life as it is, just because people believe they should stay down.  They refuse to stick to the stereotypes that people force upon them. They are willing to muck around in the dark times of their lives as a chance to learn.  Why would they do that? Because they don’t want to make the same mistakes, they want to do it better the next time.  I once had someone say to me on an internet forum that “you’d think some of us would learn as we get older, but that isn’t the case”.  Guess what?  Age by itself isn’t a teacher.  Age is only a teacher if you learn the lessons as you go along and do the hard work needed to overcome challenges.

I believe the people who can grow from adversity are people who are willing to reflect on their lives and who have the courage to say when they made a mistake and are willing to make amends.  They aren’t afraid to put themselves out there, to be vulnerable, to risk, to be authentic, and to care.

I was just sitting here at the student union of the amazing university I get to teach at, reflecting on learning as I get ready to be immersed in an incredible professional development program, and I find I am in awe of where I am in my life.  I started to say I was the luckiest human being on the planet, but it isn’t luck. I have learned, that is why I am here.

Soon I will begin my traveling adventures again.  All the experiences I have had, the choices I have made, the people I have met and the obstacles I have overcome have brought me to this place. I have no regrets… just lessons learned.

I had a lovely meeting with my friend Sally yesterday.  She wanted to hear about my sabbatical adventures.  I told her about being in Spain and feeling like I was emotionally and mentally going backward and texting my friend Matt and saying “I am taking one step forward and three steps back” to which he replied “take bigger steps forward”.  He always knew just what to say to make me laugh and put my issues into perspective.  Sally was laughing at the story and said the same thing many of my friends have said.  She said “I need a Matt to text when I am struggling”.  To which I thought…don’t we all?

So we thought, why not a website?  Why not indeed?  In the absence of such a great website, today, I am trying to channel my inner Matt. There are a few women I can think of that need some Matt wisdom.

To Sally, Jessica, Heather, Rachel, Keri, Amanda, Tracy and all the other young women I know, some that I have spoken with recently.  You are young women who are struggling to figure out how to do it all, to love deeply the men and women you care about, risk having and raising children, push forward in careers, struggle with worries about money and how you are going to accomplish everything.  You think about the impact you are having on the world around you as you are managing the mundane of everyday life… Here is what Matt would say to you:

Embrace it all.  All of those moments, put together like pieces of fabric in a quilt, is what will ultimately make up your life.  Love, loss, careers, staying home with babies, cooking, cleaning, saving lives, teaching, jumping out of planes, skiing, getting a dog, playing softball, getting a PhD, going to China… each moment, together with the moments before it and the moment after it, become your life.  None of it is wrong and every moment is as important as the last, whether you are cooking dinner, carting kids around, programming software, or marrying the person you love.  All of it has value.  Stop spending all the time worrying about doing it wrong and just do it.  Because whether it is right or wrong, at least you didn’t let the moment pass by, unlived.

Many people live their whole lives refusing to take risks, sitting safely on the sidelines watching their lives go by, fearing the unknown of change, wrapped up in bubble wrap in a state of perfection which, underneath that façade is anything but perfection.  They live in an endless struggle of wanting others to believe that their lives are perfect, afraid to show vulnerability, afraid to be real.

Matt would tell you to live a life that is sloppy, messy, and imperfect.  Just let it hit you with all the struggles, joys, challenges and opportunities and embrace them all.  Find sloppy, messy, and imperfect people to surround yourself with.  People who accept you in all your crazy glory. You are strong and will get stronger as you get older.  Don’t let anyone make you believe otherwise. Be true to yourself and keep dancing around the kitchen, unrestrained. Be vulnerable, authentic, whole, and wide open… people will think you are batshit crazy because of it, but Matt would say to you… batshit crazy is the best way to live your life.

Love the men and women you love, live the life that makes you happy, and never ever let anyone tell you that you are doing it wrong. Soon, the day will come and you will be looking back across the years at all you have accomplished.  You will be watching those children become adults, with struggles of their own.  You will be laughing about the adventures you had, remembering the people who have come and gone from your life, and being thankful that you were given this ride on the planet.  You will look across your career at the lives you touched and impacted, whether directly through occupations like teaching and nursing, or indirectly through creating clean water or a better living environment of a newly designed house. And you will know that your lives were well-lived.  There is no greater joy than that of a well-lived life.  That is what Matt would say.

From me:  I am so proud of all of you.  I am grateful that you all came into my life. You have enriched my life and changed me as a person.  I am a better person from knowing all of you. I know that when my time is up on this planet that there will be a generation of strong confident women who are impacting the world around them, making it better for the women and men of the next generation.2013-12-26 21.01.25

Oh, and Matt also says:  Just say no to crack.