welcome home… bienvenida a casa

IMG_9434My first glimpse of you was as a child of four or five. One day my great-grandmother took out a box and showed me its contents: two coiled braids of fiery-copper hair. “This is what they cut off when one day in the 1920s, my sister and I snuck out of the house and without our parents’ permission, bobbed our hair,” she said. My great-grandmother played piano at the grange hall dances where she also danced the Charleston in her youth. My mother taught me the Charleston when she and other adults were still giant-size to me.

La primera vez que te eché un vistazo, yo era una niña de cuatro o cinco años. Un día mi bisabuela sacó una caja del armario y me enseñó su contenido: dos bucles de trenzas de color cobre. “Esto es lo que nos cortaron a mí y a mi hermana en los años 20 cuando un día nos dio por cortarnos el pelo al estilo de la época sin el permiso de nuestros padres.” Mi bisabuela tocaba el piano en los bailes donde también bailaba el Charleston en su juventud. Mi madre me enseñó a bailar el Charleston aun cuando ella y los demás adultos me parecían gigantes.

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I next saw you at age eight, when a dance teacher moved to our small town in central Maine and started giving lessons. I started class a couple weeks late for some reason. At my first class we did ballet for a while and then all of the other little girls ran to change into their tap shoes. I didn’t have tap shoes yet, but I still remember the feeling of utter fascination, excitement, and longing I felt watching the other girls clack around in those shiny black shoes. I had seen Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire movies on Saturday afternoons with my mother and I had never imagined that I would have the opportunity to glide around a room looking fabulous and making beautiful noise with my shoes. I was incapable of thinking about anything else until I had my own pair. I don’t know if I have ever wanted something as much in my life as I wanted those tap shoes. I cried when the dance teacher moved away a year later.

La próxima vez que te vi, tenía ocho años. Una profe de baile se mudó a nuestro pueblo pequeño y empezó a dar clases. Yo empecé un par de clases más tarde. En mi primera clase, primero hicimos ballet y después todas las niñas fueron a ponerse los zapatos de claqué. Yo aún no había comprado los míos pero todavía recuerdo la sensación de fascinación, ilusión, y añoranza que sentí a ver a las otras niñas bailar con aquellos zapatos negros puestos. Ya había visto las películas de Ginger Rogers y Fred Astair los sábados por la tarde con mi madre y jamás me había imaginado que allí estaría yo,  deslizándome por la pista de baile viéndome fabulosa y haciendo ruido bello con mis zapatos. Me obsesioné. Fui incapaz de pensar en otra cosa hasta que tuve mis propios zapatos de claqué. No sé si he llegado a desear algo tanto en mi vida. Lloré y me deprimí un tiempo cuando la profe de baile se mudó un año después y mis clases se acabaron.

Later I saw you in brightly-colored dresses with impossibly long fringe in Singing in the Rain. When it came time for me to go to the prom, I designed a black dress covered completely in fringe and a friend’s mom made it. I was disappointed when I first tried it on and saw myself in the full-length mirror. The girls in Singing in the Rain were showing their beautiful shoulders and the material of their dresses was stretchy with room to dance in. My dress was a constricting black sheath with a fairly high neckline, as required for a Mormon girl. I felt encased and upholstered.

Después te vi en los vestidos de colores brillantes con fleco en la película Singing in the Rain. Cuando llegó prom (la fiesta formal de instituto de los EEUU), diseñé un vestido negro completamente cubierto de flecos que me confeccionó la madre de una amiga. Me sentí desilusionada cuando me lo probé y me vi en el espejo. Las chicas de Singing in the Rain se mostraban los hombros tan hermosos y la tela de sus vestidos tenía elástico que les permitía bailar a gusto. Mi vestido en cambio era una funda estrecha sin escote y con los hombros cubiertos, tal como requería mi religión estricta. Me sentí encerrada y tapizada.

I found you in a book about Hollywood stars of the 20s-40s. My favorite by far Annex - Brooks, Louise (Beggars of Life)_04was Louise Brooks. Louise Brooks looked on the outside how I felt on the inside. She had all of that range between boyish charm and sexy siren. I spent many of my days dressed like a boy and Louise-Brooks-31being mistaken for a boy on my father’s farm. But I didn’t always feel like a boy. When I went home to my bedroom and saw my Jean Harlow poster on the wall, which I had mostly hung there to scandalize my mother, I felt like Jean Harlow. I wanted to wear stiletto heels, silky dresses, furs, and feathers, all with a debouched and devil-may-care attitude.

Te encontré en un libro de estrellas de Hollywood de los años 20-40. Me preferida era Louise Brooks. Louise Brooks se veía por fuera como yo me sentía por dentro. Tenía todo el abanico entre sirena sexy y estilo masculino. Yo pasaba muchos días vestida como un niño en la granja de mi padre, pero no me sentía como un niño. Cuando llegaba a casa y veía en la pared de mi habitación el poster de Jean Harlow que había colgado allí para escandalizar a mi madre, me sentía como Jean Harlow. Quería ponerme los tacones de aguja, vestidos de seda, pieles, y plumas, y todo con un aire de chica disoluta y temeraria.

I found you in music, dance, film, books, and the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay, fellow high-spirited Maine girl. I found you driving at 100 mph in my car on a summer night. I found you in my Ecuador adventures at age sixteen. I found you in midnight escapades of high hilarity and daring with my high school friends. I found you in the mirror sometimes in a girl breezily self-confident, free of convention, original, spicy, and fun.

Te encontré en la música, el baile, las películas, los libros. Te encontré en la poesía de Edna St. Vincent Millay, una chica también de Maine y llena de vida. Te encontré conduciendo a 180 km en una noche de verano. Te encontré en mis aventuras en Ecuador cuando tenía dieciséis años. Te encontré en correrías de hilaridad y osadía con mis amigos del instituto. A veces te encontraba en la chica del espejo, una chica segura de sí misma, libre de la convención, original, y divertida.

I got married when I was still a child, and that’s when I lost you. I will tell you how it happened. There had always been this Victorian girl at my shoulder. Victorian-Ladiy-Image-Velvet-GraphicsFairyStern and self-important in her principles and morals, quiet and yet insistent. When I got married she stepped in, in all of her efficiency and righteousness, and took your place. She wagged her finger at you and made you feel judged and out of place. You went far away. I missed you, but the Victorian girl comforted me. She said you were a bad influence and not to be trusted, and that it was for the best. She was not a bad sort. She was a gentle and nurturing mother who loved the bonds of home and family. She felt safe and valued there. She was responsible, self-sacrificing, and dutiful. Her modest dress reflected her modest attitude toward her personal achievements beyond motherhood and wifehood.

Me casé cuando era una niña aún, y fue cuando te perdí. Te contaré como pasó. Siempre había una chica victoriana a mi lado. Seria, rígida, algo pretenciosa en sus principios y moralidad, callada pero insistente. Cuando me casé, ella con toda su eficacia y rectitud, se hizo cargo de mí. Te regañó, te juzgó, y te hizo sentir fuera de lugar. Y tú te fuiste. Te echaba de menos, pero la chica victoriana me consolaba. Me dijo que eras una mala influencia, que no eras de fiar, y que era mejor que te alejaras de mi. La chica victoriana no era una mala tipa. Era una madre tierna y cariñosa que amaba las ataduras de familia y hogar. Se sentía segura y valorada allí. Era responsable, abnegada, y diligente. Su forma de vestir tan modesta simbolizaba su actitud modesta hacia sus hazañas más allá de la maternidad y el hogar.

Things happened. I made choices that frightened and disgusted the Victorian girl. You, my childhood crush, came back into my life to dance with me in the kitchen. I started seeing you at jazz concerts. You re-taught me the Charleston and together we learned to swing. We are all about emphasizing the second and the fourth beat now, you and I. We are never in a hurry, no matter how intense and driving the music may be. That’s how we groove.

Pasaron cosas. Tomé decisiones que asustaron e indignaron a la chica victoriana. Tú volviste a mi vida para bailar conmigo en la cocina. Empecé a verte en los conciertos de jazz. Me volviste a enseñar como bailar el Charleston y juntas aprendimos el Lindy Hop. Para ti y para mí, se trata de acentuar el segundo y cuarto tiempo. No nos apuramos en nada, da igual la intensidad de lo que pase a nuestro alrededor. Así bailamos la vida tú y yo.

kay francis 2For a while Victorian girl hated that you were back. She felt threatened. She talked bad about you and tried to get me to fear you. She threatened to leave if you stayed around. I told her that I don’t want her to leave. We’ve had some good times together and I value her, but I made it clear to her that you are back to stay. She has to accept you.

Por un tiempo, la chica victoriana odiaba que estuvieras de vuelta. Hablaba mal de ti e intentó que yo te tuviera miedo. Me amenazó con irse ella si tú te quedabas. Le dije que no quería que se fuera. Hemos vivido cosas muy importantes juntas y la valoro, pero le dije claramente que tú ya estás para quedarte. Le dije que te tenía que aceptar.

She has to accept you because since you came back, I am whole. I am wild and exuberant and free. I am more in the moment. I’m more at ease. I’m more comfortable in my skin. My world has more color, taste, sound, smell. I’m stronger. Ironically, I’m a better Christian. I like myself better now that you are back, and if there is a God, I think He would like me better now, too.

Te tiene que aceptar porque desde que volviste, soy completa. Soy más salvaje, más llena de vitalidad, más libre. Estoy más en el momento. Estoy más a mis anchas. Mi mundo tiene más color, sabor, sonido, y olor. Soy más fuerte. Y hasta soy mejor cristiana. Me gusto más a mí misma y creo que si hay un dios, yo le gustaría más a él ahora también.

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religious trauma syndrome

Just because you are having an existential crisis doesn't mean you can't wear some kick-ass mascara.
Just because you are having an existential crisis doesn’t mean you can’t wear some kick-ass mascara.

I’m writing this post at the request of some friends and because I think talking about my experience may possibly help other people facing similar challenges.

In Leaving Mormonism, a post I wrote about eight months ago, I talk about how it was to begin distancing myself from my religion and what I felt at that time. In Stoicism for Passionate People, a guest post I wrote for Stoicism Today, I mention some other major life challenges I went through at the same time I was experiencing a crisis of faith. Within a couple years’ time, my father died young and unexpectedly, I divorced the man I had married at 19, I had a crisis of faith and became inactive in the Mormon church, and I experienced a business failure and large financial loss.

Any one of those events would have been very difficult, and facing them all together was devastating. I cried a lot, I couldn’t sleep, I frequently felt nauseous or exhausted, I had recurring nightmares, and I woke every morning at 4 am to a racing heart and paralyzing fear. I had difficulty focusing. For example, I had always been a voracious reader, and during this time I stopped reading because I couldn’t focus enough to remember anything I read. I had always been a prolific journaler/blogger and I stopped that, too. Now I recognize that what I had was Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. This lasted for a solid year at least, and then intermittently for a second year. As I explain in Stoicism for Passionate People, discovering ancient philosophy and Stoicism in particular helped me a great deal. It put me on the track toward healing.

After I got home in August from a wonderful vacation in Maine, I had some problems with friends and my reaction to the situation was extreme. For several weeks I felt like I had returned to the dark times of two years ago. All of the PTSD symptoms returned. Crying, insomnia, panic attacks, and even a fight or flight response. I fought with my friends for days and I decided I wanted to move away. I felt attacked.

Now that a little time has passed and I’ve calmed down and gained some perspective, I see that this particular situation triggered the same feelings that I had when I was leaving the church. I felt that my intimacy was betrayed and that my integrity was violated. I felt unfairly judged.

Of all the bad things that happened to me in those two years, the most difficult to deal with has been the trauma of leaving the Mormon church and how that has affected me mentally, physically, and emotionally . I have been reading more about it this past week. It even has a name: Religious Trauma Syndrome. It is with hesitance that I link to Journey Free: Resources for recovery from harmful religion, because I do not share all of this group’s views including their negative attitude toward religion. I do not make the claim that religion is universally damaging to all adherents. I only say that leaving religion has provoked in me an existential crisis and psychological trauma. I only speak from my own personal experience and if people can identify with it, great. If not, great. But maybe those who don’t will understand better those of us who do leave organized religion and develop the symptoms of this syndrome.

I imagine it might be difficult to understand what it’s like to have RTS unless you have it, especially if you haven’t been a faithful believer in a religion that informs totally and completely your self concept, your core beliefs, and every hour of every day of your life, what you eat, do, wear, say. This religion is the lens through which you see your past, present, and future. Actually, it IS your past, present, and future. It’s you. It’s your entire worldview. Now. Imagine what happens when that bubble bursts. Imagine how that is. You are no longer you. You have no core beliefs. You have no past, present, or future, at least not the one you had a month ago, or yesterday, or whenever it was when you were still a believer. That is gone. You find yourself in mourning because your former life is dead. Except you are poorly equipped to mourn, say nothing about moving on with a new life because you are nothing. You have no idea how to relate to yourself and other people and you don’t know who you are in the world or what your place is. You are faced with the task of completely reconstructing your reality from scratch.

As far as experiencing RTS goes, it doesn’t matter what brand of religion it is, what matters is how much that religion controls you though fear. In my religious activity I was not wholly motivated by fear of sinning and going to Hell, and maybe not even principally. I was also motivated by love. I loved my community and I loved helping other people. I loved spirituality and personal growth. I loved God. However, if when you begin to have doubts and you communicate those doubts to a believer friend, and the friend’s response is to tell you to be careful of your choices because some day you will be held accountable not only for your sins but the sins of your wayward children if they stray from the fold for having followed your bad example… Well. Obviously fear is being used to control you and there is little room for any real exploration within the bounds of that religion.

Fear and love are very powerful emotions. Though I have been able to distance myself from the Mormon church mentally, I feel secure in my conviction that it’s not where I belong right now, and I enjoy building my new reality, I am still emotionally attached to some of those ingrained beliefs. There are situations that automatically trigger those feelings of panic, fear, and insecurity that I had when I first stopped going to church. This past week has been about accepting that this is the case and that I have RTS.

I have felt immensely moved and inspired by the people who are going public about their addictions in an effort to remove the stigma of addiction and raise awareness and funds for treatment. Their example motivates me to write this post. I think there needs to be more awareness about RTS. I don’t think a lot of people know what it is, and yet it is very common. I don’t know very much about it myself and I’m curious to investigate. In upcoming posts I’ll be talking more about RTS and the different things I’ve discovered this past year that help me heal.

keeping it fake

montaigne-heykeli

I write to keep from going mad from the contradictions I find among mankind – and to work some of those contradictions out for myself. -Michel de Montaigne

I haven’t yet read “Keep it Fake: Inventing an Authentic Life” by Eric G. Wilson, but that will not keep me from commenting here on Clancy Martin’s NYT review of it.

Martin cites at the beginning of the review an anecdote Wilson relates about the time when he was trying to be a good father and also struggling with depression, overwork, and drinking too much. Wilson began referring to himself as “Crazy Dad” instead of “Super Dad.” Once he let go of the “Super Dad” ideal of being conscientious, responsible, and square, he discovered other fascinating possibilities for inspiring fatherhood within his reach. He was able to play to his strengths and saw improvement not only in his role as a father, but in other aspects of his life as well.

That reminded me of a time two years ago when I was going through a bad spell as a parent and in every other way. I found out one day that a mother at my daughter’s school wouldn’t let her daughter come to play at our house because this woman didn’t think I controlled my children. She was right. I have never seen the need to control my children. They appear to thrive, in fact, without my meddling. Even so, this woman called me an “irresponsible mother” and that hurt. There is nothing like someone criticizing your parenting skills to fill you with self doubt. Though I didn’t worry too much about what this lady thought of me, I wondered if maybe I was irresponsible and if my children needed more from me. I asked my 11-year-old daughter, “Do you think I’m an irresponsible mother?” She thought for a moment and replied, “You’re… an interesting mother.”

With these words, it was as if my daughter suddenly turned up my resolution. I wasn’t like her friend’s mothers. I wore stiletto heels and sometimes came home at 5 am. I had crazy friends. I ate and slept at odd hours. I danced in the kitchen alone or with my children and made them laugh until they cried. I had boy trouble. I was even invited by my daughter’s friends to slumber parties. I was interesting.

The fact that she didn’t outright deny that I was irresponsible did give me pause and I realized I needed to tighten up the ship a bit. However, she taught me that you don’t have to buy into a certain standard or ideal way of being in any given role. And that not only are there different ways of being a good mother, for example, there are different points of view on the same mother. Seeing myself as the “Interesting Mom” opened me up to “enjoying a more zany, capricious, playful, capacious, love-charged, creative existence,” as it did Wilson.

So all of this is great. What confuses me comes next in Milton’s review. He talks about how we “act our way through life” and that we are different people in different contexts. I’m different with my children than I am with my friends, than I am in my job, with strangers, with my sister… And then he says:

But there is an undeniable tension between that observation and the nagging feeling we all share that behind those masks there is a “real me,” a “genuine self,” some kind of master narrator who stands behind, informs, controls and even unifies these other selves. After all, if I am not one self but many selves, can I ever tell the truth about myself? […] That sounds like a threat to all kinds of things we hold dear. Self-knowledge, telling the truth about how we feel, sharing frightening aspects of ourselves with loved ones, developing intimacy, cultivating a coherent, reliable personhood: These virtues seem to be threatened by the idea that we are merely playing the game of being a person.

I know that this is a thing and that philosophers have been agonizing about it forever. One reason I love Montaigne is the absolute glee he takes in contradicting himself within the same essay. I love it because I identify with it and so do most people. People are infinitely complex and full of contradictions. The more people insist on defining themselves a certain way, the less I trust them, and the more I think they are repressing the part of themselves that is not “that way.” Shouldn’t self-knowledge, truth, and authenticity take our complexity into account?

For example, as far as developing intimacy goes, the closer you get to someone, the more a certain part of you wants to get the hell outta there. I love the Civil War’s “Poison & Wine” lyrics for this truth about all romantic relationships:

You only know what I want you to
I know everything you don’t want me to
Oh your mouth is poison, your mouth is wine
You think your dreams are the same as mine
Oh I don’t love you but I always will
Oh I don’t love you but I always will
Oh I don’t love you but I always will
I always will

I wish you’d hold me when I turn my back
The less I give the more I get back
Oh your hands can heal, your hands can bruise
I don’t have a choice but I’d still choose you

 

self-criticism and rumination

 

I don't know why I picked this particular painting for this post. Any excuse to look at Chagall, I guess.
I don’t know why I picked this particular painting for this post. There is a cow, and cows ruminate, right? Any excuse to look at Chagall, I guess.

I used to analyze myself down to the last thread, used to compare myself with others, recalled all the smallest glances, smiles and words of those to whom I’d tried to be frank, interpreted everything in a bad light, laughed viciously at my attempts ‘to be like the rest’―and suddenly, in the midst of my laughing, I’d give way to sadness, fall into ludicrous despondency and once again start the whole process all over again―in short, I went round and round like a squirrel on a wheel.

-Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment

This mind set that Dostoyevsky describes so accurately is indeed torturous. It’s self torture. I’ve been there, as have most people. Over-analysis of your faults, comparing yourself to others, social anxiety, self doubt, and self criticism are all symptoms of a personal identity crisis and/or feelings of low self worth. An identity crisis can come along at any point in your life and at any age. It’s when you doubt who you are, what you stand for, and where you fit in. Any life event that shakes up your status quo can trigger an identity crisis. If you are experiencing an identity crisis it means that you are growing out of your previous identity and it’s time to redefine and recreate who you are. It’s time for an upgrade! No matter what brought on the identity crisis, it’s an excellent opportunity for personal growth.

However, though ultimately a good thing, an identity crisis may initially bring on the sort of negative thought patters that Dostoyevsky so keenly describes in the above quote. Before you can proceed with the deeply rewarding work of redefining yourself and finding just where it is you fit in, you need to get off that wheel! Here’s how.

1. Eliminate or severely limit self-help books and anything else that has you focusing on your weaknesses. Avoid like the plague those articles entitled the likes of, “56 Toxic Things About You that are RUINING Your Life FOREVER.” Maybe in casting about for some way, any way, of digging yourself out of this identity crisis pit, you landed upon the idea that if you can only fix yourself you will fit in, people will like you, and everything will be ok again. But no, that’s not going to work and here’s why: This is not a good time to take on massive self-improvement projects because right now you are feeling so vulnerable, all of your weaknesses are going to seem magnified way out of proportion to what they really are.

2. Stop self-criticism and start self compassion NOW. Constant self-criticism is damaging to your self concept and even affects you physically. Attacks to yourself, even if you are the perpetrator, stimulate the body’s threat defense system causing it to release high levels of cortisol, which could eventually cause your body to shut down in a depressed state. Practicing self compassion has the opposite effect, lowering cortisol and releasing oxytocin and opiates. Self-compassion is accepting and loving yourself as the imperfect person you are. It’s treating yourself just as you would treat a good friend. You might find these guided meditations and self-compassion exercises helpful.

3. Stop ruminating. Rumination is obsessive analyzing and thinking about negative past events or current situations that you can’t change. For example, if you have just ended a relationship, it’s constantly replaying the events that led up to the break up and obsessing about what you might have done differently to save the relationship. Or fixating on what a terrible person your ex is and planning how to get revenge. The best revenge is a life beautifully lived, but you’re not going to get there with these kinds of thoughts.

What I personally found most helpful in halting rumination was learning to let go of the things I don’t control. I realized how fruitless it was to worry and stress about the past, people’s opinions of me, my health, and any myriad of things that could go wrong. I created mantras that I repeated to myself throughout the day any time I felt tempted to think about those things. In less than two weeks I saw a remarkable difference in my thought patters and after a month, I found that I didn’t need to repeat my mantras as often anymore because I was starting to believe in a deep down way that I have absolutely no business worrying about what I do not control

Other effective ways to stop rumination are:

  • Scheduling a set time to worry every day, maybe 20-30 minutes. That way every time you get a negative, worrying thought you can think to yourself, “Ok, I’ll save that to think about during my worry time.” Then it doesn’t become a permanent mind set, and yet you aren’t trying to suppress negative thoughts or feelings, which can cause other problems.
  • Write about it. I found that writing provided a more constructive and positive way to deal with my issues than keeping it all in my head. Writing helped me make more sense of everything that was happening to me. In many cases, I found that once I wrote about a problem I was experiencing, I no longer felt the need to keep thinking about it. I was ready to move on.
  • Focus on the here and now. Let me ask you something. If you had the option to either go about in the world freely or lock yourself in dank, smelly basement, which would you choose? When you are ruminating, you are not living in the moment. You are living in the equivalent of a dank, smelly basement. Get out of there! Practice mindfulness by giving your full attention to the lovely, simple pleasures of daily existence.

4. Surround yourself with the right friends. Avoid people who are constantly critical. Even if they are not directing the criticism at you, they could be infecting you with their negativity and even provoking rumination and self-criticism. If in social situations you start to feel like the above Dostoyevsky quote is describing you, here is a sure-fire quick fix. Stop talking, stop trying to impress people, and start listening. It will require a lot of attention and it won’t be easy at first, but it’s worth it. Listen to people. Repeat back to them what you think they are trying to say to make sure you understand. Try to put yourself in their shoes. Understand. Forget about yourself for a while and listen. You may be surprised at the results. I know I was.