Reflecting on What’s Unsettled, Uncomfortable, Unfocused, and Uncertain – Thoughts for the Jewish New Year

During the Jewish month of Elul, the month preceding the Jewish New Year, we’re asked to welcome introspection. We’re invited to identify what unfinished business, what distractions, are keeping us from living in the moment. This practice compels us to have conversations with our self, grappling with feelings which are unsettled, uncomfortable, unfocused, and uncertain. So, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and reflecting!

This reflective practice, prepares us for teshuvah. The practice of teshuvah, literally translated to mean “return”, and conventionally translated as “repentance”, helps shape how we experience the challenging truths of ourselves and our lives. After Elul, after identifying our missteps, and realizing where there is room for improvement, the practice of teshuvah compels us to turn outward. We look toward our community, our friends, and our family for their forgiveness and insight about how they experience us. Only then can we come full circle, return to ourselves, and identify how to put our best selves forward in the next year. By doing teshuvah, we make a choice to focus on our flaws, and find the strength, direction, energy, and support from those who are most important to us so we can grow and improve – so we can reunite out body, mind, and soul.

Rabbi Alan Lew, in his book “This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared”, reminds us that “everything we do is an expression of the entire truth of our lives.” He goes on to say that, “The present moment is the only place we experience ourselves as being alive, the only place we experience our lives at all”. In a very literal interpretation, I take this to mean that we must be present without any competing distractions to fully experience ourselves – our constantly, continuously becoming selves. Glennon Doyle Melton describes it this way; she says, “to be human is to be incomplete and constantly yearning for reunion.” I understand this concept to imply that we’re always yearning for reunification with ourselves, and that very often the representation of ourselves that we share with others is not our true, flawed, and imperfect selves.

And so this return, this reunification of body, mind, and soul, is incredibly difficult to achieve especially when I find myself battling so many unsettled, unfinished thoughts. The type of thoughts that creep up on me when I least expect it, and that push into my consciousness no matter what I do to avoid them. It’s much more comfortable to maintain some distance from myself. In fact, Rabbi Lew explains that, “we spend a great deal of time and energy… living at some distance from ourselves” typically because of fear of what we may learn, or perhaps because then the hard work of improvement and self-realization will be looming right in front of us – and that’s daunting. We maintain stories that are no longer relevant because we are terrified of acknowledging the truth of our lives – of our existence. Brene Brown also explains this idea in her work. She says, “There is a narrative that all of us hold on to that we have to retire at some point because it no longer serves our lives or our stories.” This choice, the challenge to either move forward and grow, or remain trapped in the fears and narratives that have limited us in the past, is the cornerstone of the Jewish High Holidays.

And so,  I’ve spent the month of Elul, a Jewish month of introspection considering, yet again, the importance of stories. I’ve asked myself “which stories are holding me back?”, “which stories, which truths, have impacted me in ways that, maybe, haven’t even fully revealed themselves yet?” I’ve considered, “what unfinished business is tearing [my] focus away from the present tense reality of our experience? From the present moment, the only place where we can really live our lives?” And, I’ve participated in Do You 10Q to help me discover more about myself, and make this gigantic task a bit more manageable.


Here are my answers to all 10 questions, in 3 sentences or less:

  1. Describe a significant experience that has happened in the past year. How did it affect you?

A year ago, I would have told you that I had to exclusively find and sustain strength inside myself, and be strong for my friends – even if it meant pretending (also see this).  Then, I experienced the incredible power of friendship when I was struggling and needed help. Now, I’d tell you I can’t be my best without the support my friends and family; they’re the ones who give me strength and energy – especially in the areas where I still have room to grow.

  1. Is there something that you wish you had done differently this past year?

I wish I didn’t think I needed to go through all of life’s challenges on my own. I wish I understood the power in admitting I needed help earlier. I wish I didn’t waste so much energy pretending things were fine, and instead I put energy into doing everything I could to find strength, safety, and calm.

  1. Think about a major milestone that happened with your family this past year. How has this affected you?

This year, I earned my Master’s degree in Urban Education Policy. My education, passion, and experiences prepared me to step into my role as a Research Coordinator at the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. I learned an incredible amount this year, and now I have a job that I absolutely love!

  1. Describe an event in the world that has impacted you this year. How? Why?

One world: Orlando. Earlier this year I started writing about asexuality (among other things) on Ravishly. However, it wasn’t until Orlando that my identity within the queer community felt both salient and threatened; this event made me simultaneously want to be out, and reject any and all queer identities at the same time. [Side note: interestingly this year Yom Kippur coincides with National Coming Out Day!]

  1. Have you had any particularly spiritual experiences this past year?

Read here. And here. I’m constantly craving spaces where the energy is contagious, and where I can be so present, confident, and welcomed that everything else fades away – for me this is often Shabbat.

  1. Describe one thing you’d like to achieve by this time next year. Why is this important to you?

I want to be less fixated on food, and weight by this time next year. I realized this is really just a way to feign control when other things feel too hectic. It’s easy to let this line of thinking become an obsession, and get out of control.

  1. How would you like to improve yourself, your life, next year? Any advice you received that could help?

I want to work on being more emotionally intelligent, and giving more attention to how things make me feel. I’ve discovered that if I can identify how I’m feeling in a situation, and allow myself to authentically feel the entirety of my emotions in their context, right when they’re happening, I can be in charge of deciding how to react, and what steps I should take to alleviate the feeling or perpetuate it. My friends have reminded me that my feelings don’t have to feel out of control, and that other things will fall into place when I allow myself to feel whatever emotions are associated with anything I’m experiencing.

  1. Is there something (a person, a cause, an idea) that you want to investigate more fully next year?

Since I’m a huge research nerd, I want to learn more about research methods, and what approaches resonate with me so I can make an informed choice when I pursue a PhD in a few years. I also want to learn multilevel modeling and longitudinal analysis techniques!

  1. What is a fear that you have & how has it limited you? How do you plan on overcoming it this year?

I am inexplicably afraid of stopping because I’m afraid of what I’ll learn about myself, and I’m afraid that the flooding will be too intense. This “go, go, go”,  do all the things mentality has been both an adaptive coping strategy, and has stifled my personal growth. As overwhelming as it may seem, I’m working to create space to learn more about myself, and let myself know it’s okay to stop.

  1. When you get your answers to your 10Q questions next year, what do you hope will be different about you?

I hope I am able to be more honest with myself both about my strengths, and the areas where I can improve. I hope I’m still relentlessly passionate and aggressive in my pursuit of my goals, but that I’m able to supplement my professional life with a healthy balance of socializing and other activities that bring me joy.

Those are my answers! What are yours?


גמר חתימה טובה – May you be sealed (in the book of life) for good.

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Things I Say to Children

Two cliche, not new assertions and three scenarios are the motivation for this post:

The assertions:

  1. Sometimes hindsight is 20/20.
  2. Most things are easier said than done.

The scenarios:

  1. I’m standing in the kitchen debating with a nine year old what’s worse: having ice cream for dinner or having no dinner at all.
  2. Later that week, I’m fighting with a six year old because his throat hurts and he is refusing to eat breakfast. This time, I’m standing in the kitchen refusing to send him to school without breakfast. He had to eat something!
  3. Most recently, I’m picking a fight with a nine year old about why a Chewy granola bar isn’t the best choice for breakfast. 

Here we go!

In the midst of these disputes I calmly and directly present common knowledge about nutrition and bodies in stylized child-friendly language as the foundation for my perspective. I say things like:

  1. Your body needs calories. So, if you’re choosing not to have dinner or to eat ice cream for dinner, pick ice cream. Calories are energy and after a hard day working and learning you need to refuel your body to get ready for the next day. I also share that some types of energy are more sustaining to your body. I explain that while ice cream has dairy it also has a lot of sugar. It could give you energy in the short run but make you hungry or needing more energy in a few hours. 
  2. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. You can’t go to school without breakfast because your brain won’t be ready to learn. You need to eat a healthy breakfast to tell your brain and body it’s time to start the day. [I then go on to encourage some healthy breakfast options such as eggs, cereal, fruit, etc. Which, brings me to the granola bar argument…]
  3. Chewy granola bars are processed foods, I say. Your body can process foods all on its own, but it prefers whole and natural foods. You can tell if something you’re eating has natural ingredients by looking at its label. If there are words/foods you can’t recognize on the label it’s likely your body can’t recognize them either, and it’s going to be difficult for you to digest. Which means, your body cannot get the nutrition as quickly or completely.  [And then, we’re back to them importance of eating breakfast…]

I say these things and I believe them wholeheartedly – just apparently they don’t apply to me! My perception of my body and what my body needs is so distorted right now. I know my brain and body need nutrients and energy. I realize some foods are easier to digest than others, and protein gives you more sustained energy than sugar. I contend 100% that breakfast is important. Yet, I’m struggling to eat at least 700 calories a day, and it’s shockingly, incredibly easy for me to justify and rationalize this! These morning spats have become my daily reality check – my conscience is screaming “listen! just listen and take notes.” I’m standing there insisting they eat a healthy, hearty breakfast yet I finished my second run of the day at 10 PM the night before (only 9 hours after my first run) and didn’t eat anything before I got to their house. I’m firmly convinced that coffee is food, and it’s the only type of energy I need.

Sill, I firmly persist on my pursuit of serving a nutritional breakfast each day.

I know I should take my own advice!

Here’s the thing, the brain is wickedly deceptive. Most days, I truly think I’m absolutely fine. There are even moments (ex. when I’m researching or running) where I feel absolutely unstoppable – invincible even. I feel purposeful, diligent, excited – I feel alive! In those fleeting moments, I can’t believe the other frenetic days/feelings were real. I can’t believe I felt/was/am that out of control. And in hindsight, I realize those are the moments I’m MOST out of control. I’d like to be able to discern between real control and what’s so terrifyingly out of control it feels good – maybe even calm.

I realized how hard it is for me to practice what I preach, when I acknowledged how crippling it feels to do things that are “good for my body”*. Hence, most things are easier said than done.


 

*this is meant in the most literal sense. I’m not food shaming, dispelling bouts of “fitspo”, or claiming to understand nutritional science. Also, all bodies and all bodies’ needs are different.

“I Used to Wear Clothes That Were Too Big For Me Too”

“I used to wear clothes that were too big for me too” – someone said that to me this week! They also said, “Your pants are too big” and “you’re so skinny; are you losing weight?”

My responses: “Okay”, “I know”, “Depends on the day” respectively. I wanted to scream “WHY ARE YOU FIXATING ON MY BODY?!?!”

Writers find their inspiration from anything; it could be a conversation, an observation, a “thing”, a book. You name it! So, I heard those words and instead of calling out their fixation with my body, DAYS later I’m still fixating on them. Since I’ve lost weight, people aren’t as impressed with ME. They’re impressed by my body. They ask me how I did it. They compliment my looks rather than my accomplishments and my incredibly determined, quality-driven work ethic.

Until now, the only time I can remember people commenting on my body was to tell me to I was too big. As a teen, I was a 4’11”, size 16 gymnast. I was also a person living with a chronic physical illness – go figure! So, needless to say, my relationship with body was anything but “typical”. Thanks to BMI, I had doctors telling me, at 16 years old and 182 pounds, that I was morbidly obese. I hated shopping (still do). Buying clothes felt like being pushed on the ground every time I finally stood up – nothing ever fit (still true). I didn’t even want to go to prom because I couldn’t stand the thought of having to find a dress!

My mom thought if I found a dress I felt confident and beautiful in that I’d change my mind (she thought I’d find that same confidence and beauty after my second breast reduction too). She routinely told me, “You’re beautiful no matter what.” Her words, although I knew they were sincere, felt empty. What I recall of those experiences are shopping trips that felt interminable. I tried on dress after dress (or every colorful, lace bra in the “regular” stores I could finally fit into) with increasing disappointment. There were so many tears.

So far, I’ve hated my body at every size – and not just because of my size.

Now, I’m trying to practice body positivity – which is something I support and encourage for everyone. For me, it’s really difficult to embody that line of thinking. I’m working on body neutrality instead which Melissa Fabello describes as “the acceptance of our bodies as-are, for the understanding that we are already enough”. When you call me “skinny” what I’m really hearing you say  is “I’m more interested with how you look than who you are” or even “I’m grounding my perceptions of your worth in your looks”. Those comments – what you think are compliments- don’t make me feel any happier or proud of myself than the relentless notions of necessary change I was pressured to pursue as a teen made me feel disappointed or imperfect. I hate when people call me “skinny”!

Regardless of my turbulent relationship with my body, one thing has remained constant: I am an athlete. I started drastically losing weight when I began searching for sanity in exercise. I felt lost. I felt out of control. The adjectives I used to describe myself – evidence of my perceptions of my self-worth – felt so far away. My focus, motivation, support, was gone. Running saved me – it still does- from hitting absolute rock bottom (I’ve been close!). Eliana Osborn shares “[she] felt purposeful and strong… While [she’d] been running, [she’d] been alive. Not [her] best self, but [herself]. Without it, [she] struggled to exist.” I can so relate! When I’m running, I feel unstoppable. I feel invincible. I’m inspired to explore how fierce my body can be. For minutes, moments, the world stops spinning and there’s clarity. I feel so in charge. It’s a feeling I’ve missed. It’s like I’m winning the never ending race to find myself. The faster and harder I push myself, the closer I get to the finish line. I’m picking up clues along the way. I know I’ll get back there soon. And so, I feel like I need to keep up my athleticism – so I can find control. Which means, I may lose more weight.

Being an athlete is my hidden weapon. It’s what I pull out in moments of self-doubt to prove to myself (and others) that I can do it – that I’m good enough! It’s not about being “skinny” or looking “fit”. My body is amazingly resilient and strong. It’s also been fat, skinny, deprived of nutrition, greedy, exhausted, caffeinated, and a whole host of other things.

When you call me “skinny” you’re indelicately weaving together my ideas about my strength and resilience and your pervasive, hierarchical, and restricting beliefs about “what is “normal,” “real,” or “correct.”  Please stop!

What is Control?

I’m writing tonight because something great is happening here – people “get it”. Right now, that’s so necessary and meaningful. I’m inspired. Thank you!


 

I don’t cry. That was one of the first conversations I had with my new friend Sam. Today, Sam’s piece made me cry TWICE!  This piece got to me. BIG TIME.

twitter picWhere to start? Where to start? This is hard.

Okay, “What is control?”

When I Googled “control” I found about 3,020,000,000 results in 0.67 seconds. Control means to have power over something. It is when you restrain or direct influence over something/someone; regulate. It implies regulating to keep order (merriam-webster.com).

To me, control is ANYTHING that can make the chaos feel like it’s my fault. Control is what I can call on to mitigate the feeling that I can’t keep up with the chaos anymore. Control is making myself miserable because then at least I’d be responsible. I’d be in charge. Control is cultivating order at all costs. It’s doing whatever it takes to rescue the person I used to recognize as unstoppable. It’s the opposite of spinning – as in spiraling out of control.

Too often these days, there’s no clarity. It’s like everything is in a fog and I’m just barely present ever. It’s so loud and fast in my head most of the time I’m not even able to hear or focus in conversations or meetings – like I can’t listen. I can’t think! The truth is, I’m overwhelmed all the time (and angry too!). This type of persistent whirlwind is distracting and dangerous. It’s frightening and lonely. It’s my reality. I think the feeling that I can’t make it stop even if I wanted to and the fact that I’m getting used to it rather than trying to change it is what’s freaking me out.

Sam NAILED IT when he said, “I start to hate myself a little when I think about how restricting [and other forms of self-harm] like this can feel good – can feel really, really good – because it gives me this illusion that my feet are on the ground.” That’s what it is. It’s an illusion. It’s another attempt to keep up appearances and be “fine”. If I feel like I’m in control and I’m choosing it, then, to me, that makes it okay.

I’m no longer in control. That’s not okay. I’ve moved from portioning meals (let’s be real. apples, trail mix, and hard boiled eggs are snacks) so that I have enough to eat, to portioning food so I won’t over indulge. I need to control EVERYTHING that my body endures. Most days, my ENTIRE caloric intake for the day equates to less than a single meal or has, imperatively, been dissipated by an intensive cardio workout – a workout which eases my mind, boosts my mood, and puts ME back in control . That’s not control. For now, I’ll call it organized chaos.

The appearance of control is deceptive. It makes me SO feel good. It’s when I experience the kind of fast, logical, coherent, intentional thinking I crave – the mentality I miss. The good days mess with me! They make me think “it isn’t really that bad”.  I can justify this; I can make it rational. If it’s rational, it’s alright. If the fury can be tamed it’s fine. I’m fine.

I’m fine. I’m fine.

DAMN!

Have I convinced anyone besides myself?

Wonderful Terrors

I have writer’s block. I can’t find the words or space or time to write about what I want. I’ve been journaling though because despite the craziness of finals and grad school, I can’t shut my mind off even if I try. What follows is an attempt to relieve and relinquish the swarming thoughts in my mind and reconcile some of the words I’ve been scribbling down over the past two weeks.


 

It feels like my words are shouting what I can’t say aloud:

I want to stop!

I want to feel less crazed.

I want to feel like everything is not urgent.

I want to be okay with doing nothing.

When will it/I be/do enough?

Is this sustainable?

WHY!?

Sometimes people ask me what would happen if I just stopped (stopped rereading/repeating, stopped planning and attempting to ward of unpredictability, stopped surrendering to my watch). Usually, they ask, “what’s the worst that would happen?”  I can’t answer them. I wouldn’t know. I don’t want to know. Instead, I prefer to go through the motions. 

For me, there’s solace in each predictable, planned moment of my day. Knowing each minute will be attended to assuages any concern that my thoughts will distract me.  It’s true that in life there are no counterfactuals but, that hasn’t stopped me from trying to anticipate each situation (and to some extent the various outcomes). It makes things easier to manage.  I need order, structure, and routines. That’s safe. That’s comfortable. It’s incredibly easy for me to rationalize and justify many of these behaviors because I crave that control.

An important, and incredibly influential, role model once said to me, “What wonderful terrors await you 😀 hehe!”. In response to her I said, “So, basically what I derived is that it’s okay to be scared. I hope that this fear will actually fuel me to make the most of this opportunity rather than cripple me. ” I hoped that the concoction of terror, excitement, opportunity, and the unknown that I was about to swallow down by choosing (and eventually coming to) this program would propel me and ignite something in me. 

I wish that I could give in to this terrifying and exciting time but instead I find myself consistently searching for a way out. Instead of embracing this fear I find myself tirelessly attempting to ascertain control wherever I can in an environment that too often feels unsupportive and makes me feel small (apparently that’s how you know you’re doing grad school “right”). So I need to fill my time. I need to over commit. I’ve written about this before but, it’s still relevant. I know it’s still relevant because I can confidently say to myself and others I’ve been “fine” for the past few weeks. But that’s not honest. 

Fine means I haven’t let myself experience any of what’s been challenging me. Fine means I’ve successfully occupied my mind with distractions. Fine means I’ve exerted sufficient effort trying to keep up appearances and be “productive”. Fine means I’m operating more like a machine than a person; I’m operating with the same level of energy and proficiency each day. The never satisfied need (more honestly the compulsion) to make to-do lists and accomplish everything (regardless of the consequences for my body or my mind) is keeping me grounded. But, it’s keeping me grounded. I cannot thrive. In the midst of crossing off each item and feigning fine I’m losing myself by simply, compulsively, chronically going through the motions just to make it through the day, week, month, year, etc. I think I’m trying to say, as soothing as this is, I’m not letting myself encounter any “wonderful terrors”.