We All Crave the Mystery Box

Lets-Make-a-Deal_Wayne-Brady_deal-logo

At 2:30 in the morning a few months ago, I woke up in vomit. My husband had brought our crying baby into our room sometime around 1:00 (unbeknownst to me), and at 2:30 we figured out why she was so unhappy.  When, after cleaned and placed fast asleep back in her own bed, she woke up around 6:30 doused in sour pasta, it was time for Mama to call in sick.

After the anxiety of planning for a substitute subsided, I happily cozied up on the couch with my girl, who was so miserable, and yet, so sweet.  It felt like the best part of maternity leave all over again, and I fell right back in the swing of wearing my husband’s sweatpants and eating gluten free biscuits over a sleeping baby in my lap.  I clicked around the tv and settled on an old standby–“Let’s Make a Deal”.

Wayne Brady just makes me feel so at peace with the world.

But I soon found myself with building anxiety again. Oh, the drama of daytime television! These people always go for the empty box or the closed curtain or the unopened envelope.  Just take the two grand and make a clean getaway, people!

But they don’t. And in so many ways, we don’t either. We all pretend to want the safe landing, the guarantee that we’ll walk away with a crisp hundred dollar bill, but deep down we crave the gamble that behind door number one is a brand new car.

We do this not because we want the money or because we’re greedy. We do it because we want an adventure.

We all come screaming into this world not knowing anything about the arms that will catch us. Doesn’t it seem by design then for human beings to naturally want to leap into the darkness, only to be caught by something unknown–and wonderful–in the end?

Wayne Brady wrapped it up. Some contestants lost, some won. But I looked down at my rosy-cheeked, sweat-crowned baby who kept me up all night, who kept me home from work, who surprises me all the time, and recognized that when we have the courage to go for door number one–for the uncertainty and mystery and adventure–what we find behind it will drive us to more opened doors and more great adventures in the end.

 

 

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Why are so many teachers on antidepressants?

FPX57439A few years ago I flew Korean Air on a flight from Honolulu to Bangkok with a group of teachers from all over the country.  To date, Korean Air has been hands-down my best flight experience, but that’s neither here nor there.  What was most memorable about this flight is how it compared to a subsequent flight that I took coming home.

On the way to Thailand, one of the flight attendants came on over the loudspeaker and announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, flying with us today is a group of educators who have devoted their lives to teaching young people.  Please join me in a round of applause to thank them for their service.”  This announcement was a welcome surprise, as I had never before experienced such open gratitude for what I do for a living from strangers.

While in Thailand, we were treated like royalty.  Literally.  Children threw flowers down at our feet and hung leis about our necks as we entered schools.  People greeted us with smiles and even small gifts in boardrooms, meeting halls, and auditoriums.  We experienced life as a teacher in a culture that values educators above most other professions.  In fact, professors and teachers in Thailand are given their own special honorific separate from the rest of the population.

It was an interesting experience to be treated with such respect, especially because upon return to my classroom at my old school, I was called a “motherf-ing b*tch” by a student on my first day back.  But before that even, on our American Airlines flight home, sitting amidst soldiers returning from deployment, a flight attendant came on the loudspeaker and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, flying with us today is a group of brave soldiers.  Please join me in a round of applause to thank them for their service.”  An odd coincidence, but true nonetheless.

I don’t begrudge those soldiers their applause.  And I clapped with everyone else, as I have time and time again on flights, in assemblies, and the line at the post office.  But these moments have led me to note that who we applaud represents what we value as a society.

Fast forward three years later to a copy room in a great school with highly qualified educators running classrooms of intelligent, hard-working kids.  A few days ago at this school, I had a conversation with two strong teachers about what type of antidepressants they were currently or had been on in the past.  I realized that I had had this conversation in the good schools and the bad ones, with the kids who wanted to learn and had every resource to do so, and with the kids who hated learning because they had never been given resources or opportunities to love it.  And everywhere you look, in “good” schools and “bad”, teachers are being prescribed drugs for depression and anxiety or self-medicating in surprising numbers.

I think if the general public knew how much being a teacher takes from a person who works as a teacher, it might stop advocating taking so much and give a little more applause.  I’ve known teachers who drink six to seven beers or half to full bottles of wine each night, and teachers who’ve had to take leave of absences in order to check into rehab.  I’ve sat among teachers as we each discuss all the types of antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications we’ve gone through in order to find one that works, so that we don’t feel like screaming at the end of the day.  I’ve been on the verge of those screams myself and found myself wondering if something from a bottle were the best answer for me too.

I’m not saying that teachers are addicts.  I have found myself in each of the aforementioned situations and have fortunately never struggled with addiction in my life.  But what I am implying is that a lack of respect for teachers embedded in our culture pushes good educators to doubt themselves.  And this self-doubt promotes overwork in order to achieve approval and “success” in all its forms, and the overwork leads to lack of sleep, anxiety, depression, anger, resentment, and any number of stresses that can cause a person to break down emotionally.

My previous school had a 90% free and reduced lunch population, was audited for many years by the state, experienced excessive teacher turnover, and was eventually closed down.  I worked with many talented educators while I was there (many of whom I consider war buddies to this day), and I felt my heart go out to hundreds of students.  But I also worked with some people who couldn’t take it because of some (and eventually most) of the students who ran completely wild with no consequences to any actions.  One of those colleagues found herself in the news and facing a suspension for throwing a chair at a student.  To be fair, I will admit that the teacher did have some questionable mental faculties at the time, but I found myself feeling sorry for her knowing full well the abuse she endured for months from that student before the incident.  But when she finally lost her cool, she was the enemy.  And everyone in town, even fellow teachers, were ready to burn her at the stake for it.  I’m not excusing her actions, but I am suggesting that the more we hear  and talk about these “horrible” teachers, the more we create them.

A friend of mine just began her teaching career as a kindergarten teacher at a pretty needy school.  My advice to her before her first day, and to all new teachers I meet, is to find something far from the realm of teaching to help you get through it.  My first year of teaching I started a jewelry business and sold jewelry at craft fairs.  At the time, it just felt like a hobby–a way to sit in front of the television at night (after not getting home until 8pm and then eating microwave popcorn for dinner) and let my thoughts go while twisting wire with tiny pliers.  But in hindsight, I see that it was much more than that.  It was an escape, a release, a way to be normal in a day filled with unbelievable abnormalities–a much healthier antidepressant.  And the funny thing is that I got more validation from making jewelry–customers complimenting the earrings at a show, coworkers sending emails with orders–than I ever did from teaching that year.

The value our culture places on educators does not compare to the value educators place on their own role.  Teachers feel the world atop their shoulders, and the world refuses to admit the support it receives there.  This dynamic leads to teachers who work hard for validation that rarely comes, like the kid who works hard for a B only to be questioned by a parent as to why it wasn’t an A.  I’m not advocating for flowers thrown at our feet on our way to work, but until our society changes the way it views teachers, we will continue to have teachers who suffer in secret until they make the news for finally losing their cool.

Image taken from Google Images.

What happens when your toddler asks awkward questions

IMG_2204Last week my daughter and I went to TJ Maxx and I, being extremely pregnant, had to pee upon arrival.  We went into a two stall women’s restroom and I could smell immediately that it was occupied.  Nina, being a typical two year old, didn’t seem to notice or care.

I took her into the stall and suddenly, from the next stall over, came the sounds of a person who has clearly eaten the wrong kind of lunch.  Nina, yet again a typical two year old, shouts with surprise, “What is that?”  I shush her, but the noises continue and Nina keeps inquiring.  The lady from the stall over, with serious strain in her voice, answers her, “Honey, I’m taking a sh*t.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.  And I’ve wondered lately why I didn’t.

There is much about the world that Nina doesn’t understand right now, and I think overall my husband and I are pretty good about explaining what we can to her in a no-nonsense way.  But the incident in the public bathroom made me realize that there is still quite a bit that we sugarcoat or avoid or just plain lie about.  But if she is honest enough to be curious (as all toddlers tend to be), then why are we not brave enough to quench her curiosity?

She knows what pooping is; she tells me within minutes when she’s done it herself.  So in this case, I don’t think I was hiding anything from her.  I was trying to avoid embarrassment for myself and for the lady in the stall over, which I guess was the polite thing to do.  But why are we more concerned with etiquette than we are with truth–especially when it comes to our children?

I’m not implying that we should sacrifice the feelings of others in order to be blunt with our kids, but what harm would it have done for me to say something like, “It’s the lady in the other stall.  She’s not feeling well.”  Would that have crossed a line?  Considering how the lady herself answered Nina, I’d say she probably would have been okay with it.  In fact, I think that I might have embarrassed her more by ignoring Nina’s questions and prolonging the awkwardness.

The bottom line is this:  I think it might be better to face the truth together with children, than to ignore their inquiries and leave them feeling yet again like the world is one big unanswerable question that they’re too small to navigate.  Being able to ask a question derived from authentic curiosity and receive an honest answer from those she loves will surely mold my daughter into a more confident woman than having to run out of a bathroom with our heads down because we’re afraid to address the reality of smells and sounds right in front of our faces.

 

 

 

Tales from a Happy Reject

rejectionThe irony of rejection is that sometimes it can actually make you really happy.  My new year’s resolution for 2014 was to write more short stories and start submitting them for publication in literary magazines.  I would say this is the first new year’s resolution that I have ever kept.  And it feels really good.

It even feels good when I get the letters rejecting those stories that I worked hard to craft because with each one of those letters, I get closer and closer to an acceptance.  But the reason I love those rejections so much is more than just that I’m closer to finding acceptance.  I love them so much because they represent me being vulnerable and taking a risk when it actually means something.

Writing has always been a part of who I am–even when I don’t actually do much of it.  I have always written stories in my head and sometimes on paper.  When I think about life as a writer, I can actually feel my eyes welling up with tears.  I have physical reactions to the idea of a life of writing.  So when those rejection letters come in, it means that I’m trying, and there’s really not much more that an aspiring writer can do.

The first letters I received were informal, impersonal, and generic.  I interpreted those as we’ve got so much going on, that your piece didn’t even catch a second glance.  I can handle that.  There are lots of amazing writers out there and who am I to presume I’m better than all of them?

Then I got one not-so-nice letter that was pretty critical of the piece.  I would be lying if I said it didn’t sting when I read it.  But my husband reminded me, “Isn’t that something you can learn from?”  And I pulled my head out of my ass and got real.  They probably had a point.

But just the other day I got the best rejection letter of all.  I’ll share it with you here:

Dear Ashley ,

Thank you so much for your submission.  We enjoyed reading your work but ultimately decided not to accept this particular submission.

We hope that you’ll send us more of your work in the future. We really do. Your prose style is quirky and engaging.

We’re sorry we don’t have the time to explain the reasons why we reject submissions.

Best of luck to you!

They didn’t accept the story, but what does that matter?  Magazines receive hundreds of submissions all the time.  The possibility of getting a story in one is truly slim, and when that day finally arrives, I’ll be thrilled.  But the fact that someone at this particular magazine took the time to thoroughly read my work, understand what I meant to get across, and respond personally to me means the world to me.  Someone gets me.  And isn’t that a writer’s goal in the first place–to find another soul in the world who understands your message?

I have arrived.

 

Image taken from Google Images.

Update: Delicate geniuses need empathy too

I posted a week ago about my frustration with doctors.  Well, not so much with doctors in general, but the slack cut to them verses the constant badgering other public servants (teachers especially) have to deal with.

Since then a doctor from my hometown committed suicide.

Although I didn’t know him personally, I did go to school with his daughter and I started to think about her, whose face I could picture, and other members of her family whose faces I could not.  I felt sick to my stomach for them and reminded myself that you never know who might need your empathy and compassion–even those who seem to have it all.

I’m currently reading a book that has really stuck with me called 10% Happier by Dan Harris.  In it, he discusses his journey through learning how to meditate and become a more compassionate person.  He is a skeptic of the whole process, but pushes through because he feels the benefits of the practice in his life.  Reading his book has forced me to think more about being more aware, more open, and more empathetic to others.

Photo taken from Amazon.com

Photo taken from Amazon.com

When I heard the news about the doctor from my hometown, I tried to remember the lessons I’m learning about mindfulness from Harris’ book, and I spent a while trying to send compassionate thoughts to the gastroenterologist last week who so frustrated me.  It turns out it was pretty easy to do, because just as I try to remind my students and their parents that I am a human and not just their teacher, I should remember that lesson myself as well.  My mail carrier has his own dogs to walk, the woman who helps me at the post office has grandchildren she doesn’t get to see enough, and the twenty-something serving me iced tea works really hard to pay her bills.  We are all more than one facet of ourselves.

I posed this question to my students last week and now I’ll pose it to you:  If you lived your life in a padded room and never interacted with another human being, would you still be you?  Or do all those people shape you into what you believe is your identity?  Am I a mother without my daughter?  A wife without my husband?  A teacher without my students?

We all need each other, and sometimes that might mean being patient with a grumpy doctor and putting aside resentment for the unequal treatment of our professions.  Because you never know what kind of stuff swirls around in his head when he leaves his visit with you.

Learning about compassion in Poland

Teaching has provided me many opportunities–I pretty much have the best job ever–but one opportunity that I don’t think I ever really digested was going to Poland in 2005 to tour concentration camps with Holocaust survivors.  Last night, while digging through baby clothes in the basement, I came across my journal from that trip and felt inspired to write about it.  Here it is…

This place is a grave. This whole place is a grave. Yet, flowers, grass, and trees grow without the knowledge of what has happened here. Life must go on. Suffering exists, but life must go on. May, 25 2005.
I remember, for some reason, feeling like I was starving. And I felt guilty for feeling this way because of everything that I was learning and witnessing. We had scheduled meals provided for us and I even wrote in my journal, “I’m really beginning to enjoy Polish food.” But I couldn’t get eating out of my head. I sat on the bus with fellow teachers traveling from cemetery to monument to concentration camp and all I could think about was drinking a cold, frosty coke, which doesn’t exist in Poland. Europeans like their soda hot, I discovered. I looked around me and saw young and old teachers, Holocaust survivors, Holocaust experts and thought, do they wish they had a coke too?
But about three days into the trip as I scarfed down food at one of the scheduled buffet meals, I looked over to Irving Roth, a Holocaust survivor traveling with us who lived in Kentucky for many years after the war, and who I was both in awe of and felt to be a kindred spirit. With a plate piled with food in front of me and plans already to help myself to seconds, I looked at Irving who sat quietly, almost religiously, sipping one small bowl of soup. I thought to myself, he knows truly what it means to starve and here I sit complaining while he sips silently and contentedly. Every time I thought of food, or coke, I’d picture Irving savoring each sip of his broth as if it were his last, and I’d try to remember to savor it more.

Me and Irving Roth

Me and Irving Roth

I walked in, not expecting to see it, so it startled me. It smelled like death. A pile of hair from the murdered corpses. May 26, 2005.
Fred Spiegel, another survivor with us in Poland, walked with us into the room piled with human hair, the stench of burning flesh and rotting hair hanging in the air, and he stood aghast at the sight of one long blonde braid on top of the pile, perfectly in view from where we stood. He told us, once he caught his breath (this was his first time back to the camp since the war), that the last time he saw his little sister was as he stood watching her blonde braid dance across her shoulders as she bounced away, unaware of her fate. I looked around at my fellow teachers, sensitive people with a desire to foster change in the world, and eyes were welling up with tears at the realization that this man felt true pain and hardship with which we could never understand or relate.
We attempted to understand Irving and Fred’s pain later when we sat for 12 minutes (the amount of time it took to die from the gas) in the gas chamber at Majdanek. I looked at the concrete walls and stared at the scratch marks on them where dying human beings sucked the last shred of air while desperately fighting for their lives. The scratches blurred through my wet eyes, dancing like a very sad and gray Van Gogh painting. Some of us cried softly, dripping privately in our anger and desperation and others of us left choking on our sobs. Some went to be alone, sitting and writing; others were hugging and talking through what they felt. I looked around at my colleagues’ and friends’ blotchy, somber faces and noticed, within walking distance, a house. A woman was on her balcony, hanging dull-colored clothes on a clothesline. Everything I felt from the images my imagination had created for me in the gas chamber disappeared as I thought, this woman hangs her clothes out to dry every day beside a massive human grave. My thoughts were interrupted when someone in my group decided to create a prayer circle. There was no pressure, just some people who quietly joined hands and before long everyone had joined hands in quiet prayer and contemplation. I looked around that circle and recognized that there were people with joined hands from all religions as well as atheists, but everyone came together for one purpose: to pay quiet tribute to those who were murdered.  I looked up to the balcony where the woman had been, her clothes flapping in the wind and wondered if she ever prayed for her neighbors whose graves were below my feet. I hoped that she did.

Gate to Auschwitz

Gate to Auschwitz

I keep telling myself that the war is over and this does not and will not ever happen again. But seeing all this makes my heart ache. I know inside that we’re closer than we could ever imagine. May 27, 2005.
Days later we went to a synagogue where a rabbi and Holocaust expert were to speak to us about both his experience and his knowledge of history. The rabbi was late and we became restless sitting in our cold hard pews waiting for him to show. Finally, as he became inexcusably late, a leader in our group called him on his cell phone to find out what delayed him. He was told, through exasperated breaths, that the rabbi had been harassed on his way to the synagogue. Two thugs confronted him on the street and began pushing him around, chanting Poland for the Poles! over and over again. Again, the teachers sat in silence when we heard this news. A hush fell over the synagogue. I suddenly felt hopeless. What am I doing here, I thought, one teacher can’t stop hatred and violence, no matter how much history I learn. The rabbi finally arrived and his demeanor encouraged me; he was happy to be there and brushed off the act of cruelty as something that could be stopped if we just kept trying. He told us a story about a dog that saved a man’s life during the Holocaust. The man was a Jew who fled through the woods and found a barn belonging to a Gentile man who kept his dog inside it. The winter was brutal. The Jew shivered in the back of the barn, nearing death from starvation and hypothermia. The dog growled aggressively at the Jew in the beginning, but was in the habit of leaving half of his food when his master would feed him in the bowl for the Jew. The dog spread out his hay, sharing it with the man through the days and at night would lie close beside him, warming him with his body. The Jew said later that he suspected that the dog’s master knew he was there, yet pretended not to. He hadn’t enough compassion to let him into his house, but enough to allow him to sleep and eat in secret with his dog. The dog, however, shared lovingly and completely. As this rabbi spoke, his hair messed from the ordeal he had just undergone and glistening with a tint of sweat, I looked in wonder. Here stood a man before me who faced hatred and violence with hope and patience telling a story about a compassionate animal who saved the life of a man when no one else was brave enough to do it. I thought, if a dog can have compassion, surely any human being can, if they let themselves. And I wondered could I ever be as brave as the rabbi had been that day?

“Delicate Geniuses” and Hired Hands

The all-knowing George Costanza

The all-knowing George Costanza

Today I thought about the fact that teachers are held to a standard, criticized openly about the meeting (or lack thereof) of these standards, and often let go when they don’t perform accordingly.  Yet others in the service industry avoid such incessant ridicule, even though their performance affects the lives and well-being of the public as well.  I know I’m probably opening a can of worms here, but I’m talking about doctors.

One of my best friends is a nurse, my husband is a physical therapist, and I have several friends who are doctors, so I hope I don’t offend by going there–but I gotta.  Yesterday I went to the gastroenterologist for my first annual check up after being diagnosed with Celiac.  I’d heard rumors about one particular doctor in the practice–four separate people told me to avoid him, including a doctor in my OB’s office.  So I rescheduled with a woman in the practice who came highly recommended, and I really looked forward to speaking with a woman about my concerns, especially since I’m pregnant.

Now before I go on, I will address some biases.  I went into this appointment expecting to be told that I didn’t really have Celiac disease and it was all a big misunderstanding.  Or, at the very least, that I could go on a gluten binge for a while before being tested again to be sure.  My husband told me I was creating a fantasy that would ultimately disappoint me, and he was right, but I pretended not to hear him when he brought it up.  So, to continue…

Here I sat waiting for my awesome female state of the art doctor to come in, and I am instead greeted by a brusque, agitated middle-aged man–the very man I had been told to avoid.  The first thing he said to me was, “Are you pregnant?  I can’t do anything for you right now.”

I’m not kidding.

Let me address this point now:  Let’s say that on the first day of school, I happened to notice that one of my students has a broken hand, lacks school supplies, or–gasp!–has a learning disability, and rather than work with him or her in the best way I can to provide the best education that I can, I say, “There’s nothing I can do for you right now.”  I would not be employed for long.  Or I might be on the news or someone’s blog as an example of why our public schools are failing.

I explained to him that I really just wanted to be educated on my disease–that no one had really walked me through the ins and outs of it before.  To which he replied, “Well when it comes to the diet, patients really know more about that part than I do.”  I told this to my husband, and although he was appalled by the doctor’s bedside manner overall, he explained that this was pretty typical, even understandable–many doctors diagnose, but know little about the path to recovery.

Huh?

So, to extend this analogy, pretend that I hand back an essay marked all to hell with red ink, but include no directions or feedback on how to fix the mistakes.  I’m pretty sure that one of the major current criticisms of teachers is their lack of improvement regarding moving kids to the next level after the students have been assessed.  Yet it is considered normal and acceptable for a doctor to tell me what’s wrong with me and not be able to tell me how to get healthy.

Finally, this “delicate genius” told me that I really just needed a good nutritionist, and after I explained to him that I saw a highly recommended one who simply handed me a bunch of packets she had printed from the internet, he continued to harp on the importance of working with a qualified nutritionist.  Fine.  I believe him.  But I don’t often get the luxury as an educator of pawning my students’ problems off on other professionals.  In fact, it is often my sole responsibility to see that they get all that they need for the hour that they’re with me–mentally, emotionally, and physically.  The icing on the cake though was when, after becoming frustrated (and even a little hormone-induced hysterical), I said, “You know I really just want to know details…like would it be the end of the world if I had a beer every now and then?”  And he replied, “They have gluten-free beer!  You know, I really don’t often hear patients complain about the gluten-free diet.  Most are pretty happy on it.”

I wanted to slap him.

But I didn’t slap him.  Instead, he ordered some blood work, and I cried as soon as the nurse entered the room.  She whispered conspiratorially to me that many people felt that way after seeing him.  So let’s recap:  Four people, including another doctor, talked me out of seeing him.  His own nursing staff disliked him.  Many patients left his office in tears.  Yet, he still has a job–a well-paid one at that.

Meanwhile, politicians and well meaning members of the general public, discuss the pros and cons of teacher tenure, the importance of balanced teacher evaluation systems, and whether or not teacher pay, retirement, and school budgets can be sliced ever more slightly off the top.  How is it that a doctor can be terrible at his job and the worst that befalls him is…well, I’m not sure.  No one is debating the security of his job, whether he deserves to be paid, or how to best evaluate his performance.  And if they are talking about it, it’s not public in the same way as teacher reform.

Don’t get me wrong, the way I feel about some of these topics would probably surprise you.  I see the importance of cultivating quality educators, keeping them, and challenging them.  But I do get frustrated with the double standard, and I get really tired of being treated like a misbehaving hired hand while others in public service are treated like infallible gods.  We all owe it to those we serve to give the best care we can, and should be held accountable if we don’t.

Photo courtesy of Google Images.

Let it go. Let it happen.

As you’ve gathered by now, I have always suffered from anxiety.

I remember being a small child and, after hearing my parents argue that my dad would have no money while on the road for another low paying carpentry job, I put a five dollar bill that he had given me back into his duffle bag because I worried that he wouldn’t get to eat.

As a seven year old, I watched the news religiously during Desert Storm out of constant fear that my dad would be deployed, even though he hadn’t been on active duty for years.

Yet, oxymoron that I’ve always been, I was also really adventurous. In high school, when none of my other friends dared do it, I was the first to dive off a 25 foot cliff into the lake, not once considering the string of possible injuries. Of course, upon reaching the riverbank afterward, I fretted for half an hour about how “icky” my hair would be from the lake water. That was and is my M.O.: Jump now. Worry about it forever.

Then, three years ago, I applied for a Fulbright Scholarship to study in Thailand and Vietnam with other educators, and when the acceptance letter came in the mail, I began mentally packing for the trip of a lifetime. To say that the trip was life-changing is an understatement: If you met me an hour before the plane took off and then an hour after I returned, you would have sworn you’d made a mistake. Although I had hopped on the plane without a doubt in my mind, when I got there I was riddled with doubt. Will this fruit make me sick? Did I hit the wrong note while singing “I Will Survive” on karaoke? Will this tuk tuk car turn over taking that curve? My brain would not be quiet.

Near the end of our time in Thailand, we went to an elephant conservation camp in Lampang. As usual, when they asked who wanted to ride one through a river, I was the first to volunteer. I climbed the ladder (yes, ladder) up the side and slid onto his back like a professional mahout. I laughed when others feared falling into the rocky water and being trampled to death. When we reached the other side, the elephants mingled with us. They bathed in the water and splashed around. They strolled up to people and took off their hats or tugged at their shirts. I found all of this amusing at first, but then out of nowhere, my old friend anxiety reared his ugly head. When one of the elephants offered kisses by sucking the cheeks and necks of the my friends, I stood back, quietly alarmed. I couldn’t tell you why.

Elephant kisses.

Elephant kisses.

Then, Marilyn, a feisty sixty-something English teacher from North Carolina, pushed me closer and said, “Let go. Let it happen.” Not the first nugget of wisdom Marilyn had shed that trip, but my personal favorite. So I walked up to that elephant, a little bell on his neck tinkling like a shop keep’s door, and it was like he had been waiting for me the whole time. He wrapped his trunk around my shoulder, pulled me closer, and sucked up the skin from my cheek like a wet, furry vacuum cleaner.

Hands down the best kiss of my life.

And I’ve tried to remember Marilyn’s advice every day since: Sometimes you just gotta let go and let it happen. It’s the only thing that will ever really quiet the worrying mind.

I Am Not My Neuroses

This is supposed to be a sad face...can you tell? Call it hormones.  Call it summer boredom.  Call it whatever you like, but the bottom line is that I have had a shit storm brewing in my brain since June.

Allow me to explain.

Really it’s longer than that.  Over the last few years (if I’m being honest, since I started teaching) I’ve come to believe that I am a neurotic person, and that’s just who I’ve always been.  Anxiety disorder and Ashley are synonymous in my mind.  I said this to my best friend who’s known me since freshman year of college and she corrected me.  I was not always like this.

So why is it that I cannot have an idea without doubting it?  Why can I not have a polite exchange with a colleague without wondering what she thinks of me afterwards?  Why do I feel good about myself one minute, and then completely worthless the next?  The answer is that it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.  I have become my anxiety.

The good thing is that I am self-aware.  In fact, maybe a little too self-aware.  I’ve recognized this issue for a while, and since summer began, it’s gotten progressively worse even though I’ve done all the right things.  I’ve walked, traveled, spent time with friends and family, found creative outlets, and eaten (mostly) healthy foods.  But I just can’t kick it.  So I found myself a few days ago in a therapist’s office vomiting the nonsense that has been swirling in my brain.  She cut me off mid sentence at one point and said, “Listen, Ashley, you’re thirty-one now.  You’ve got to stop relying on other people to provide your confidence.  You will never get over this anxiety until you do.”

Easy for her to say.

The truth is I don’t know where the border between me and other people begins, and I’ve spent years (maybe a lifetime) expecting that praise and approval will eventually make me whole.  Last night I was relaying all of this to another of my best friends and she said, “Ashley, you might have an anxiety disorder, but you are not an anxious person.”  For the first time, I’m realizing that there is a difference between the two.

There’s been much talk lately about mental illness with the tragic death of Robin Williams, and I know many are asking the same question I am:  If I’m not blank [an addict, anxious, depressed], then who am I?

I grew up with a mother who hated having her picture taken.  I have few pictures of her, and I’m pretty sure past a certain age, I could probably count how many there are.  Somewhere along the way, I developed the same phobia.  To my credit though, I can take some pretty awful pictures.  My husband, who loves to take photos, calls what happens to me when a camera comes around as “turning into a gremlin.”  Exhibit A is the photo above.  My friend and I were on a girl’s trip to Jamaica and on our last day, she said, “Make a sad face for the camera.”  What you see is apparently what happens to my face when I’m sad.  For others, it’s a frown or a slight grimace, but I literally turn into a golem.  Such mutation has become the reason why I avoid having my picture taken, and if I must do it, from ever looking at the picture to avoid the self-criticism that will come with it.  But I wasn’t always this way.  There are countless pictures of me as a teenager and young adult being silly and clearly loving the camera.  Somewhere along the way worrying about how I look in a photo changed the way I think about myself.  Now I just accept it as fact that I take bad pictures most of the time, when that is not really the case.

But I don’t want my daughters to worry about how they look in pictures or to run when someone pulls out a camera.  There’s more at stake for me now that I’m a mom.  Thinking of myself as an anxious person, constantly thinking and expressing negativity, and ruminating on nonsense that doesn’t really matter will not only impact me (and my relationships with others), but how my daughters see me and themselves.  It’s just not a risk worth taking.

The shit storm will still be a-brewing, but I would rather acknowledge that I happen to have a disorder that I can control instead of believe that the disease is who I am and I just have to live with it.  It’s not easy, but it will be worth it.  And maybe I’ll learn how to take a better picture along the way.

 

The Search in On…

IMG_0963During my first pregnancy, all I wanted to eat was watermelon.  And I went through A LOT of them.  I ate at least two watermelons a week, and the watermelons that year were the best I’ve had in years.

Fast forward to the present day, a second pregnancy, and another nagging hankering for sweet, juicy watermelon.  But this year the watermelons have been crap.  Seriously, crap.  They’re never ripe enough, too tough, not sweet enough, too mushy–you get the point.  My approach to dealing with this has been, “Let’s just keep getting them every time we go to the grocery, and we’re bound to find a good one.”  My husband’s approach has been, “They’re not good enough, so we’re not going to get it.”  The debate has been heated enough that we’ve turned quite a few heads in the produce aisle, but the problem is bigger than getting thrown out of Whole Foods.  The way we’ve searched for watermelon this summer is exactly how we each approach life.

Matt does all the cooking in our house, not because I don’t like to cook or am terribly awful at it (although the idea of cooking a meal after putting on a show for teenagers all day sometimes makes me want to cry), but because I always mess something up.  The food usually turns out fine, but my timing is always off, or we are missing an ingredient so I do a spur of the moment substitute that doesn’t quite work, or one box says 350 degrees and the other says 450, so I just average the two and end up with half frozen, half burnt meals.  I am very impulsive.  Matt, on the other hand, is extremely calculating.  He will study cookbooks or online recipes for several days before planning a meal.  He will lay out all the ingredients on the counter (no matter how crazy it drives me that he makes such a mess while cooking) and scan it all before starting.  If we don’t have the exact ingredient, he will stop midway through and run to the store.

Our difference in this area filters into almost every aspect of our day to day existence.  Before purchasing an item, Matt will look up reviews until his eyes bleed and compare the prices of every possible place to buy it.  I tend to buy a lot of stuff and take half of it back–I’m pretty sure the guy behind the customer service desk at Target rolls his eyes when he sees me coming.  Matt wants the best of the best of everything (especially when the best of the best is on sale), and I just grab whatever I see first.

So our approaches to watermelon this summer hasn’t really surprised me.  What has surprised me is the way it’s made me question so much about myself.  Because, as luck would have it, we did find the best watermelon only a few weeks ago at the farmer’s market across the street from our house.  Apparently the Amish know how to grow ’em, and at $6.00 a piece, it’s not a bad deal.  The thing is though, (even though I will NEVER tell him this) I kind of regret eating all that crappy watermelon, and wish I had held out for the good stuff.

Because I’m impulsive, I do tend to spend quite a bit of time regretting.  Not only do I regret my purchases, but I regret texts I send, words I say, worries I dwell on, and a whole mess of things that if I just took the time to wait, to be a bit more calculating, I might not regret so much.  I’ve always thought that being impulsive was another way of saying spontaneous, and that it was all a part of my flaky charm.  But now that I’m in my thirties, it’s a liability, and it negatively impacts my relationships with others and myself.  If I thought about what I said before I say it, I might not say it.  And if I don’t say it, I might not send the pitiful I’m sorry text after saying it.  And I might not then worry about whether or not the person is annoyed that I sent the text.  And…you get the point.  So, in the end, others become frustrated with me and I become frustrated with myself.  It’s a vicious cycle that always leaves me lying in a puddle of regret.

I’m learning that one of the best things about being in my thirties, is growing into myself.  And that means letting go of some traits that I always thought were “just the way I am.”  There is something to be said for accepting and being kind to ourselves, but if we’re not growing, what’s the point?  When we moved into our current home, I set about preparing to paint the plain white walls.  Having always been a lover of bright colors, I wanted to bring some color in the house, but part of me wanted to tone it down a bit from what I’d done in the past.  Matt, who loves me inside and out, kept saying, “What happened to my Ashley who loves bright colors?”  I listened, went against my gut, and bought a gallon of bright, grass-green paint for the dining room, and about ten rolls in, I realized that it was a disaster.  It was truly awful.  And although I am grateful that I have a husband who would tolerate living in a Pollock painting for my sake, I had to repaint it.  That girl who loved bright colors has grown up, so now her dining room is a bright, although tasteful, gold color.  And she’s stuck with a gallon of ridiculous green paint if you need any.

Tomorrow is Saturday, and we will make our trek across the street for the good stuff, but with each bite I’m going to remind myself that sometimes it’s best to wait for the best and to let go of the way we’re used to being.  If you do, you’ll end up with a properly cooked meal, a bright, yet tasteful home, and, quite possibly, the best watermelon the Amish can grow.