Friday, February 21, 2014

On Bravery; Or, a post on that which is ninja heart

The biggest compliment I have ever received was given by an 11 year old girl who has absolutely no idea of the extent to which she touched me.  This young lady was a client I worked with for quite some time.  At the time of the compliment, we were addressing some bullying that was happening at school.  The bullying was terrible, and she had every right to be intimidated and worried, so she, understandably, did NOT like working on being assertive.  However, she begrudgingly agreed to work with me to make a video of role-plays.  She played the role of herself and I, the bully.  In the first video, we filmed how she was currently responding.  In the second video, we filmed an assertive response I had coached her through that we had practiced. 

When we watched our video at the end of the session and she saw the transformation and assertiveness in herself, she threw her arms around my waist and exclaimed, "You  have the biggest, best ninja heart."

It has been over 6 months since this happened, and I STILL get tears in my eyes writing this.  

I started this year with an intention.  Not a resolution -- an intention -- to be brave.  I didn't take much time to think about it, or operationally define it, or set bravery goals or anything of the sort.  Rather, I was listening to my music, flipping through the songs in my iTunes, and was struck by a theme running through the songs I chose.  First there was "Brave" by Jamie O'Neal.  And then there was "Brave" by Sara Bareilles.  And then there was "Walk You Home" by Karmina with the chorus "Even the brave they depend on someone/the moon only shines with the help of the sun..."  Next was "I Choose" by India Arie, which doesn't have the word "brave" in it necessarily, but it relates...and this went on, and on, and on.  I only need the universe to hit me over the head a few times before I say "oh yeah!  I get it!" and take the hint. 

As the year progresses, I am starting to think more about what this actually means, and how I can live that into reality.  I seldom feel brave.  I am frequently more anxious than I care to admit -- fearful, even, on occasion.  There were days this week -- days which are now blessedly few and far between -- when I just wanted to stay in bed with the covers over my head.  I didn't, but I wanted to, and the concept of being brave in the face of multiple decisions I had to make this week seemed far, far out of my reach.

Bravery is different than strong.  I have a bad history with the word strong, and I hate it.  I spent too much time being strong and being taught that "strong" meant not having/showing feelings.  I was taught that, if you're strong, nothing bothers you -- which was never something I was able to achieve.  I was led to believe, before I was old enough to question it or make opinions of my own, that "strong" was this elusive state I could never quite reach, and I was ashamed that I could not be "strong."  Strong meant the absence of fear.  It meant being able to hold it together when the world is crumbling.  Rocks are strong, and I was supposed to be a rock, strongly holding myself and others together.  (Conversely, I have a client who believes that strength is equivalent to weight - and the more the better.  She routinely tells me proudly, "guess how strong I am now?   96.  I keep getting stronger and stronger.  Last time I was only 94.  Look," she says, showing me her muscles.  "Can you see that I'm 96 now?"). 

I don't really care at this point about being strong.  Bravery, however, is different.  Bravery is not about the absence of fear, or the absence of emotions.  Bravery is about feeling the fear, or the sorrow, or the heartache or loss, and making the choice to do the thing that is right.  It is the choice to do the thing that needs to be done.

Notice my wording here (because I just worked really hard on it, dammit).  Bravery is feeling it all and making the choice to do what is right.  To do the thing that needs to be done.  Not the strong thing.  Not the knight in shining armor "brave" thing as we typically think about "bravery."  Not the courageous thing, or the hard thing, or the difficult thing, or even the thing that requires taking the road less traveled by.  It's not the choice to do what should be done.  Being brave is the choice to do what needs to be done.

In other words, being brave is living life showing your ninja heart. 

It is brave to make the choice to do what it is you are scared to do, AND it is brave to make the choice to respect yourself and your limits enough to make the other choice. 

It is brave to push yourself to do the things that are hard, AND it is brave to love yourself enough to take the easier road without shame or regret. 

It is brave to fight your internal demons, AND it is brave to choose to take a break from that battle to gather the strength you need. 

It is brave to talk when you need to, and it is also brave to be silent. 

There is bravery in standing up and fighting/advocating/marching, and there is so much bravery in putting one foot in front of the other and simply continuing to walk. 

Bravery is the ability to make the choice that is right without shame or guilt.  By making a conscious choice, you are living bravery into action.  By doing that which is right, you are brave.  You are showing the world your biggest, best ninja heart.

Bravery is not the act of doing something in spite of fear, but perhaps it is the act of doing something alongside the fear.  Most ideas of bravery will tell you to just to "do it anyway."  Don't let the fear get you down, they say.  Show it who's boss!

I say: don't try to outrun your fear.  Don't do something with the intention of ridding yourself of the fear.  Instead, acknowledge the fear, the pain, the indecision, the loss, the heartache, and weigh the choices.  Once you have decided on what is right, wrap your arm around Fear's shoulders and take her with you.  If you are truly doing what is right, she will come along regardless.  Might as well invite her along for the ride.

The opposite of bravery is not fear.  It is not cowardice or timidity.  I'm not sure what it is.  Maybe it doesn't have an opposite.  But bravery and fear are not mutually exclusive.  In fact, my ninja heart tells me that they often go hand-in-hand. 

This is a definition I can live with.  This definition lets me know that I don't need to showcase superhuman feats of strength to be brave.  I don't need to choose to do the thing that will hurt the worst, just to prove I can do it.  That is the definition I lived with for a long time, and if I did anything less than that, I was disappointed in myself and I was ashamed.  Bravery is not always the loudest thing you can is only that which is right, which is good, which is ninja heart. 

So may it be.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Storying the Silence

I'm thinking tonight about the ways we tell our stories. 

I pay a lot of attention to body language.  It's always been part of who I am, but that skill has been honed over time and through hundreds of sessions.  I see the trembling hands.  The too-short nails, the sores on the arms, the slump of the shoulders, the twisting of the hair, the folded arms, the slight turn of the body when I start speaking.  These movements tell stories.  Not the whole story, of course, but a story.  One of our stories.  The story of that moment, perhaps.

I think I became a psychologist in part because I am fascinated by people's stories.  This stuff is what makes up our lives.  We live our lives in the meanings we make -- in the ways we story ourselves and our relationships and what happens to us.  There is power in stories.  There is power in telling stories and writing stories.  There is power in creating other stories, or imagining other endings, and there is power in telling the same story over, and over, and over again.   We tell the same stories in different ways: sometimes they are funny and true, and we tell them again and they are also sad and true, or broken and true, or angry and true...there are so many ways to tell a story, and all of them can be true.  We humans can be complicated like that. 

So we tell complicated stories.  Or we tell simple stories, or we let complication masquerade as simplicity, and let simplicity try on complication for size.  We tell fantastical pretend stories that could be true.  And stories that are not quite true that stick like truth in your bloodstream.  Stories that almost false, but taste like freedom.  Stories that you pass off as lies that reek of truth, and stories that you pass as truth that reek of lies with a truth-nugget center.  We tell our stories from one lens, and then we back up and tell it again when the light is different, and again when we change our clothes, and again from the other side of the room.  These stories are truth.

I realized last night, too, the ways that silence also tells the story.  There are times when the story is stuck firmly in your throat, in your heart, in your stomach, and try as you might to tell something -- someone else's story, or a pretend story, or just any words in any sentence you can form -- you can't.  The story's stuck.  And this, perhaps, is the loudest story of all.  That silent story -- the one you can't move around -- it speaks louder than the stories we tell.  It speaks louder, even, than the trembling hands and the twisting hair.  We have to try to story the not-telling, and story the silence to make it real and truthful.  We have to story the stuck, and the block, and the unmoving, unflinching silence that comes from us, and this is hard.  It is, perhaps, one of the hardest stories we create: the story of the time we had no story.  That time we had no words.  That time, when our story was told only by the things we didn't say, and the way it screamed itself over, and over, and over again in the silence.  The way it bled into relationship silently while you tried to hide it, and the way you live with that betrayal.

And this is where I find myself: trying to find the story behind the silence in the wake the silence created.  I am trying to unpack the meaning of the silence, and feel its heaviness and its lightness.  I'm trying to learn if silence was an answer I can live with.  Trying to learn if the silence was truth or lie, or slightly true, or if it was just...empty.  I'm trying to find that nugget of truth in the center.  My body was still in that silence - she didn't twitch, or wiggle, or twirl her hair -- she sat, quietly, waiting for words, or story, or something to move us forward -- and it didn't come.  There was silence.  Only silence, holding all that was and was not told in the absence of words.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

On talking to young people at church (and elsewhere)

I am now 28 years old, and I have been "so young" my entire life. 

Given, this happens when you start college at age 14, graduate college before you're 21, and have your doctorate by the time you're 26.  I get it.  I really do.  When you don't follow the typical social timeline, you're something of an anomaly.

However, when I was in my college English class at 14 and realized I couldn't earn the extra credit for the class because the extra credit was to go out and vote (and bring in your voting sticker), I told myself this couldn't possibly last forever.  In my creative writing class at 15, ignored by the 18-21 year olds and patronized by the non-traditional students, I told myself, "this?  This is only temporary.  I can't be 'so young' for much longer."

And yet here I am, 14 years later.  Lately, I have been told more times that I can count that I am "so young" or "too young to remember" or "too young to get it" or just, simply, "oh my goodness, so young."

Being a somewhat savvy young person, I get it.  I really do.  There are, in fact, things that happened that I was not alive to witness that a large part of the population lived through.  There are, in fact, things that I do not understand because I just have not yet lived enough years to have had that life experience.  Relatively speaking, I am young.  I don't necessarily feel like it (in fact, I've lived most of my life feeling like I've done this life on Earth thing before), but I guess age is relative and, compared to people who are older than myself, I am young(er).
Members of churches are particularly bad about this young thing.  Not just my church, for sure -- all churches struggle with it.  It has the opportunity to be one of the few places where intergenerational interactions and friendships can take place; however, in reality, it seems that many people are just out of practice in how to talk to one another if the "other" is a person from a different age cohort.  That's the only thing I can figure.

And so, I present to you (with my young "thinks she knows it all" wisdom) an explanatory list, from my perspective.  Here is a list of "what not to say to a person you perceive to be young:"

(1).  "You're so young!"  When you hear this more than once, what is perhaps intended as a compliment (or merely a statement of fact) takes on another meaning.  Young does not just mean "not having as many years."  Young takes on the meaning of "inexperienced" or "not as knowledgeable" or "not as informed."  When the fact that I am "young" is the only thing you can comment on, our conversation stops.  What is there to say?  How do I move forward into connection with you, now that you have pointed out one of the differences between us?

Can you imagine if I did the opposite?  What if I started talking about something I was not sure you would understand, and I prefaced it with, "you're so old!" or "you're older, but..." or "you're old, so you probably won't get this..."  This wouldn't happen and, if it did, you probably wouldn't want to talk to me again, right?  It would be incredibly rude of me to make such a statement.  So why is it okay to include a statement about my age in our conversation?  (I understand, of course, that this is different, because there is deep-seated ageism in our society against people who are older and against elders.  I also understand that being young is [supposedly] valued, and that being young/looking young is good.  I challenge you to see how this is not always the case, and the ways that it can impact young people [or those who look young] negatively).

There is an implied condescension, that is likely entirely unintentional, but is there nonetheless.  "You're so young" comes with a look that's hard to explain.  It usually comes with a head tilt and a slight raising of the eyebrows, such as what one might do when looking at a particularly cute puppy, and really?  I've seen myself.  I'm not that cute.  For real.

(2) "We should talk.  I like to hear what young people are thinking."  Why yes!  I would love to talk to you.  I would love to tell you what I am thinking -- but I speak only for me.  If you want to know what I think about immigration reform or gun control, let's talk.  If you're expecting me to speak for all young people, or you want to hear my opinion only because I'm young, I'm not quite as interested.  Again, let's flip it: I'm not going to say "I would love to get coffee sometime and hear what old people are thinking about human trafficking" or "Let's be sure and talk sometime.  I find it so interesting to talk to middle-aged people about climate change."  Of course I wouldn't do that.  That would be weird.  So why do I feel the need to feel honored when you indicate you would like to know what people my age are thinking, rather than just being able to hear my personal thoughts?

(3) "Where are you in school?"  I generally try to speak only for myself and from my own experience, but I'm going to stray from that a little here.  This question just isn't good for anybody.  I understand that you're taking a leap and guessing, but you could be very, very wrong.  In my case, I just finished 150000 years of school, so I'm no longer in school -- which then shatters your image of who I am, and leads us in a very circular conversation.  It tends to go like this:

Older person: "Where are you in school?"
Me: "Actually, I'm not in school.  I graduated about 2 years ago and I'm working at XXX Organization."
Older person: "Oh, you graduated already?  Any thoughts about going back for a Masters?"
Me: "I actually graduated with my doctorate 2 years ago."
Older person: "No!  Oh my.  I had no idea.  You're so young!"
Me: "..." [See number 1 above]
Older person: "So you're really a doctor?"
Me: "Yep."
Older person: "I just can't believe that.  You're just so young."

My options here are limited.  I typically say something along the lines of, "I hear that a lot" and try to change the topic.  The rest of the conversation is typically riddled with more "you're so youngs" in conjunction with doctor jokes and Doogie Howser references. 

Alternatively, the younger person may not be in school -- for any number of reasons.  Financial difficulties.  Academic challenges.  Maybe they straight up aren't interested in going to college.  Maybe they aren't able to go.  Regardless, why bring it up?  Why make that assumption when you could be so very wrong and risk making someone feel shame, or embarrassment, or any number of emotions that could be so easily avoided by asking pretty much any other question?

Let's flip it here -- should I ask someone who I estimate to look around the age of retirement, "how is retirement going?" or "how long have you been retired?"  No.  They may not be retired.  They may want to be, but can't.  They may not want to retire.  Just because we look to be in a certain age cohort doesn't mean we are necessarily IN that age cohort, and doesn't necessarily mean we are following the socially sanctioned steps deemed to be appropriate within that cohort.  It's placing an additional strain and burden on the other that just doesn't need to be there.  Society does enough of the pushing on a daily basis.  Must we choose to reinforce it in our conversations?

(4) "If you don't mind me asking, how young ARE you?"  I do mind, actually.  And the reason I mind is this: people's reactions don't change.  When I was "so young" when I was 15, and I told people I was 15, the reaction was, "OH!  15.  *funny tongue sucking noise*  You're so young.  Enjoy it!  Enjoy it while you can."  The reaction now that I'm 28?  "28?  OH!  *funny tongue sucking noise*  I remember 28.  You're so young.  Enjoy it.  Enjoy it while you can." 

In actuality, what does the number give you?  It doesn't tell you my life experience.  It doesn't tell you what I know or what I've seen or what I believe.  It doesn't tell you about my maturity or lack thereof.  It tells you when I was born.  Ask me instead to tell you about myself.  I promise you, that story is much more interesting.

(5) "Where do your parents live" or "Do your parents go to this church?" or "How did you get here today?"  I have, honest to god, been asked all three of these questions (some of them more than once).  If there is a young person there by herself, just assume she's a responsible adult who can live on her own, form independent ideas about religion, and drive.  Let's start there.

(6) This last one isn't necessarily a specific phrase, but more of just a reminder: remember that young people have life experience and opinions and ideas that are valid.  Remember that we have wisdom and thoughts, too.  Remember that life as a young adult (whatever age that is) can be ROUGH.  I understand sharing wisdom and looking back on personal experience and encouraging us young'uns to enjoy our youth, but remember that this time can also be hard.  There are blessings, and there are difficult transitions.  There are life circumstances, and there are hard times...just as there are at every other stage of life.

Now let's go out and learn from one another, shall we?  I have much to offer -- and so very much to learn.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

How could anyone ever tell you?

I don't really have time to be writing tonight...but that's never stopped me before, so here goes anyway.

The sermon at church today was on being a body and loving our bodies, and being at home in our bodies.  This is something I struggle with a good deal in many complicated layers that need unraveling.  But that unraveling is for another day.

We sang one of my favorite hymns -- and I actually DIDN'T cry during it, which was super since I was standing with the choir, and that would have been awkward.  It's a simple hymn, really.  Just a couple lines:

"How could anyone ever tell you you were anything less than beautiful?
How could anyone ever tell you you were less than whole?
How could anyone fail to notice that your loving is a miracle?
How deeply you're connected to my soul."

The reason this hymn is so special to me is this: my friend, "Rollo," who I wrote about here, sent me an email with "How could anyone ever tell you?" as the subject line, and the rest of the hymn in the body of the email.  For those of you who don't remember/don't want to read the post, "Rollo" was a friend of mine who passed away in June 2012.  He was old enough to be my grandfather, but age just didn't matter.  There was a connection there and, as he was a writer too, we shared long emails and thoughts about writing and life.  He was deeply loving, and gentle, and honest, and so present when you talked to him, and just...special.  I can't even find the word.  He made you feel loved and seen, just by talking with him, and he also knew profound pain and struggle, and you could see that in him.  He was a Buddhist in every sense of the word, and he was courageous and intelligent and...there are few people like him, I think.  I know there are few people like him.  Few people with his story, few people with such love  

Anyway, we had a long, long, long, beautiful email exchange on the "how could anyone ever tell you?" thread, and so the hymn always makes me think of him.  This week, Facebook told me that it was his birthday, so he's been on my mind.  I like to think that us singing this hymn this week was his way of saying hello.  

It's hard to put into words, but he had this amazing ability to make you see yourself the way he saw you, even if only for a second.  It was like he showed me the best version of myself.  After sharing my poetry one week during a service, he wrote: "I felt as though I was looking directly into your soul.  As you walked up to the podium, I saw a woman showing a possible slight lack of confidence.  But, once you got there and began to share your writing, this amazingly beautiful woman stepped into your body and took over.  A woman of confidence -- a woman of strength -- a proud woman -- a brave woman who was fearlessly baring her soul -- a woman who had something she needed to share with the rest of us and was going to do it no matter what." 

I don't know if that's the woman I am, but that's certainly the woman I want to be.  His emails used to make me cry, because he would tell me what he saw in me in a completely honest manner that made me believe it was possible that I was whole, or beautiful, or talented, or whatever it was he was writing about.  

And isn't that how we should be when we're in community with one another?  Shouldn't we be living in such a way that we remind one another of our wholeness?  Of our beauty?  Of our loving nature and our connections?  How would the world be different if we lived that way?  How can we all work to live that into reality?

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The 5 year old philosopher and draw-er of Sugarfree the fish

I had a bit of time this afternoon between lunch with a friend, running errands, and going to yoga.  The bookstore is down the road from Target, so I decided to go and sit and work on an artsy project I'm trying to finish.  I found a table in the cafe, pulled out my paper, and started working.

A little girl and her mother were sitting at the table in front of me, and mom was trying to go through some magazines and books, clearly looking for information.  The little girl was alternately in her lap, in the chair, in the other chair, running to get a new magazine, or just wandering around the cafe.

I was deeply engaged in my work and had tuned out everything around me when a little voice said, "Wow, you sure are a good draw-er."

I looked up, and the little girl from the table in front of me was standing by my table, looking at my work.  "Well thank you," I said.

"I like art," she said.  "Even though I'm only 5.  Do you think you could sell that?"

"I don't know," I said.  "What do you think?"

"Yeah," she said.  "I think people would buy that.  Like, with money and stuff."

"Well thanks," I said.  "Do you like drawing?"

"Mmmhmmm.  Like at school we do art.  But when you do art at school, you still have to listen to the teacher."

"I guess you do," I said.

"You always have to listen to the teacher," she said.

"That's true," I acknowledged.  "I bet you're a good listener," I said, going back to my drawing.

"Yeah.  Pretty good," she said.  "I'll be back."

She left for a bit to go look at magazines, and came back with a fishing magazine with a big fish dangling by a hook, its mouth gaping open, with a smiling fisherman holding it proudly.  "Do you think you could draw this fish?" she asked.

"Oh wow," I shook my head.  "I don't know if I could draw that fish.  He's HUGE!  Do you think you could draw him?"

"Yeah," she said.  "It's easy."

I looked over at her mother, who was still busy flipping through books.  "Well hey," I said.  "Do you want to draw that fish?"  She said yes, pulled out the chair across from me, and sat down.  I gave her a piece of paper and free access to my sharpies.  "This is going to be a really good fish," she told me.

"I'm sure it is," I smiled.  "I can't wait to see what you do."

We sat for a long time drawing.  She didn't say a word, just sat there working very quietly.  At one point she looked up and said, "can you help me draw his tongue?"

"His tongue?" I asked.  "The fish's tongue?"

"Yeah," she said, pointing to the fish's gaping mouth on the magazine cover.  "The big fish has his tongue sticking out."

"Oh I see that," I said.  " know what, I think since this is YOUR fish, it's probably best for you to draw the tongue, too.  What do you think?"  She nodded, and set to work.

"How about the tail?" she asked moments later.  "Could you draw the tail?"

I looked at the magazine cover.  "Oh, that is tricky, isn't it?  You can't see the tail in the picture."  She shook her head.  "Can you imagine what the fish's tail might look like?"  She closed her eyes, and then flicked her fingers in a backwards attempt at a snap.

"I've got it.  I saw a big fish when I went to Virginia Beach when I was only 4.   And Mommy went, too.  And Sarah went, too, but she didn't see the fish, only I saw'd it."

"Ooooh, so I bet you know just what that fish's tail looks like," I said.  She bent back over her drawing.

Several minutes later, she looked up.  "Those people," she said, referencing the baristas at the cafe, "need to be quiet.  They're being rude.  People are working here, and the bookstore is supposed to be a quiet place."

"Their loud talking is bugging you, huh?"

"Yeah.  I think they're grown-ups, so they should know better.  But sometimes grown-ups don't know better."

"That's true," I said, thoughtfully, stopping to consider the thoughtful little philosopher in front of me.  "Sometimes grown-ups just don't know better."

We kept drawing in silence for a bit, and then she looked at the mess I had made on the table with my eraser.

"They should really clean these tables," she said.  "Look at all that mess."

"Well," I said, "I think it's actually my mess.  Those are all the pieces of eraser from me erasing my pencil lines.  So I guess I should be the one to clean it up, shouldn't I?"

"That's what my Mommy and my teacher always says.  They say 'clean up your mess.'  Like how I always have to clean up my toys before dinner.  But I always keep my room clean.  Cleaner than my sister's room, too.  My mom says my room is the cleanest one, and that's because I don't want to be embarrassed when my friends come over.  Like, if my best friend comes over, I don't want to be embarrassed."

"It sounds like you really like things to be clean," I said.

"Yes.  And now I need a name for my fish."  She glanced around the cafe.  "Oh, I've got it!  This will be easy."  She began busily writing letters, and then said, "there!  I'm done."

I couldn't quite make out the writing, so I asked, "what is the fish's name?"

"I don't know," she said.  "I just copied the word from over there."  She pointed, and I looked behind me at a sign advertising a sugar-free caramel latte.  I looked back at her fish and, sure enough, she had written some version of Sugarfree, plus or minus a few letters.

"Sugarfree!" I said.  "I think that's a good name for a fish."

She looked at me for a moment, as though that were a really silly thing to say, and then seemed to realize that she had just named her fish Sugarfree.  "Yeah..." she said, kind of uncertain.

"Sugarfree is a very unique name, especially for a fish.  You really used your good eyes and your imagination to write his name."

"Yeah!" she said.  "I think it's a nice name."

She ran to show her mother, came back a couple times to add a few minor details to her masterpiece, and then packed up with her mother to leave.  I said goodbye and talked to her mother briefly as they left, and they walked away.

A few minutes later, I was again deeply focused on my work when a familiar little voice said, "when will I see you here again?"

I looked up, and her mother was standing by the door with an amused expression on her face and her purchaces in her hands.  "You know, I don't know," I said.  "Maybe I'll run into you here again sometime.  I'd like that."

"I'm coming back on Tuesday," she said.

"I probably won't be here Tuesday," I said.  "But maybe on a Saturday sometime.  Maybe I'll see you again on a Saturday."

She stood looking at me for a moment, clearly dissatisfied with my answer.  "I would really like to draw with you again," I said.

"Yeah," she said.  "See ya next time," and off she ran to join her mother.