Make: neural pathways

Jill C sending me the perfect GIF, reader beware

I can be an intensely sad creature.

I don’t know if this is only an LA thing, but often when I am scrolling through online dating profiles I read the following instructions from potential suitors: “Good vibes only.” To which I promptly swipe left. My vibes are a veritable mixed bag.

I know the opposite is also true of me. I know that I can be more playful than many adults. That when something sparks my delight I can engage it with a public enthusiasm that most can only access with drugs or alcohol. That I have a loud laugh that others say brings them into laughter. But when I am hurting, there is no compartmentalizing or dismissing, it sets up a command center in my chest.

When Shannon Downey proposed the #makedontbreak challenge because she anticipated that January was going to hard–after everyone got over giving 2020 the middle finger and turned to 2021 and realized it looked exactly the same–I didn’t believe her. December was a hard month for me; I was saying goodbye to a lot of things. But I did believe that January was going to be different. I didn’t sign on to do the #makedontbreak challenge because I thought it would help me endure, I did it because I thought it was a way to engage the light of a brand new morning. It was going to help me step into the new year prioritizing my goal to bring creativity back into my daily life.

But the Prophet of Badass Cross Stitch knew better. January brought a slew of bad news, disappointments and closed doors. Somewhere in there sadness completely took over. I slipped fully into the well worn neural pathway that believes I am completely alone in the world. All my mental health tricks failed me and logic would not change the filter that colored my whole future blue. I tend to feel that being a good adult means that I should always be able to pop back up like Rocky after every hit, and laying on the mat exposes the truth of my pathetic nature, but once again, I could not get up.

Now I know this is how it works. I have a masters degree and a license to practice therapy. I have told many clients over the years about brain plasticity: how our brains develop neural pathways based on our experiences that create correlations which form belief systems that may cause patterns of depression or anxiety in our lives. For example, if money was never secure in your family as a child, your brain will create a neural pathway connecting money and fear. This pathway continues to exist into adulthood, even when you have a secure job and savings account that, logically, should stave off panic when you need to take a grand out of said savings to fix the car. But you do panic because your brain still connects these two things. The salvation is, we now know from brain scans that our brains never stop forming. No matter how old we are, we have the potential to experience new things that create new neural pathways that can be accessed as alternatives to the old ones. With some self awareness, positive relationships and possibly a good therapist, a neural pathway can be formed that connects money to a sense of agency and empowerment, so sometimes you can pay the mechanic a grand and actually feel okay about it. Which is the best. Experiencing moments where you see your psychological healing feels miraculous. BUT, and here is really the trickiest part, while our new neural pathways can grow and develop and become more of the default response, the old ones never go away. And sometimes something happens, something that may or may not feels like it justifies this response, and you’re back on the old path and money feels as scary as it ever did.

Often times this experience brings on a lot of additional fear and shame about having thought anything had ever healed in the first place. But, in the same way the old, painful neural pathway never goes away, the new empowered pathway never goes away either. As Jill’s therapist says, “You can’t unlearn what you have learned.” Money will never again only be scary and at some point you will feel that empowerment again.

All that to say, I have felt more depressed in the last month than I have in years. More than I thought was possible to feel again. But what is different this time is that I am holding out faith that those other neural pathways will eventually engage. In the meantime, I am surprised and glad to say that embroidery and soup making have been safe spaces for my sad little heart to rest. Pulling green thread through fabric and cutting up red tomatoes have been moments when I didn’t only see blue.

I’ve been reading studies about the mental health benefits of working with our hands. Some of the benefits are chemical–serotonin release and all that–but I think the more powerful effect was that this crafting was a place where my grownup self could show my inner kiddo a lot of patience and kindness. It helped me give myself permission to stay down, until it was healthy and safe to get back up–because how many boxers end up with crippling brain damage by the end of their victorious careers?!

It’s not that #makedontbreak meant that by making my heart won’t break, but that through making my broken heart won’t breakdown before we can get to the mechanic and get it the help it needs.

As I’ve stated before, it was also such a blessing to connect with my friends through making. It was a special window into their daily lives that I haven’t shared with most of them in many, many years. And a chance to bask in their talents again.

Make: magic

It’s one of those rare rainy days in Los Angeles. This morning I was reading a book that Jill sent me, Wintering by Katherine May; a book written before COVID 19, but speaking directly to the life we all now live. Due to a health problem, May was forced to take a leave of absence from work which emptied out bereft hours she slowly began to fill with little makings.

“I had no idea how much these quiet pleasures had retreated from life while I was rushing around, and now I’m inviting them back in: still, rhythmic work with the hands, the kind of light concentration that allows you to dream, and the sense of kindness done in the process. I make gingerbread men with [my son] and find myself taking excessive care over them, as if they are reverse voodoo dolls. I imagine each one of them as a small act of defiance against the life I’ve been living. It’s a kind of sympathetic magic to handle something so pointless with such reverence: I am tending to the dead, gently laying to rest a set of values for which I no longer have any use.”

Katherine may

Being domestic has both never come naturally to me and, I think deep down, been my natural state of being. Since I was a young adult I remember being drawn to passages like the one above: ones where the author is talking about making guacamole, or sitting under the backyard tree, or picking up flowers from the local market on their way home from work. Passages that indicate there is a communion found at home in basic acts of creativity. Meanwhile, my entire adult life I have lived in major cities, mostly on the go, committed to work and a social life. I don’t regret this, at all, but it informs my experiences making this month. When I move a needle with thread through fabric or peel a carrot or aliterate words it almost like a hospitality I am extending to myself. Maybe it is best described as “a sympathetic magic” that connects me to inherency. It hasn’t kept my moods from swinging through a 2021 that continues to be challenging, but I realized this morning that it has augmented something inside, something about being inside.

Make: Do

Right around the point where a few men decided to smash through a window of the Capitol building last week, something in me broke and the making sort of ceased for a few days. Lately, I feel like my inner child has colic and is impossible to soothe. Since #makedontbreak is a challenge to support my mental health, I let it be and tried to not pressure myself to pick up a color pencil just to post something on Instagram. Other friends also took this self-care approach to defy perfectionism: Jill made peace and Briana made progress. Hannah mailed out the last of her Christmas cards and Audrey converted her Christmas tree into a Winter tree. Katie made stuff with her kids and Christy watched with a moment’s relief as her kids danced with bubbles.

Making won’t always save us from breaking. Today I pulled out needle work I started a year ago and never finished. I want to finish it because maybe finishing a project will make the world feel less out of control. But today, trying to thread an impossible needle with my eyes that have decided to stop focusing close up was too much for my nervous system. I got in a few stitches and then put it down for another day. This is supposed to be fun. That is my measure. I enjoyed working on this embroidery last year, but today I didn’t. Maybe tomorrow will be different or maybe I’ll never finish it and the world will be the same amount of fine and difficult either way.

Make: Vision

Day 2 working on my vision board–I do this every year and it usually takes me a few days

Having friends sending me pictures and texts about their various makes has made me much happier than I even expected! Katie made a street art portrait of her daughter on a bike. Briana made a dreamy doodle. Jill made a delicious sandwich. Hannah made some room, by cleaning hers. And Audrey made a craft haven out of a closet! Even if you don’t want to do it for 31 days, if you do some making you want to share this month send them over–NO RULES ūüôā

Written in March 2016–Rediscovered–God only knows…

I just found a bunch of drafts I wrote years ago and never published. I probably didn’t publish the below piece because it felt too vulnerable at the time, but I just read it and my 2021-self wants to advocate for my 2016-self and say she was really working some shit out five years ago! Good for her!

I have heard it said, only by poets and preachers not doctors, that our skin cells completely regenerate over the course of seven years.  The idea being, I do not have the same skin I had seven years ago.  And I can feel that.  Also, I can see that, at least on my face.  But my point is that I feel really different these days in my own skin.

Seven years ago I had a very set idea about who I was. ¬†I was a wife. I was a wife and an actress and a Presbyterian. I don’t know exactly what I pictured my future to look like, but they involved all of those things. ¬†I know I had started thinking about becoming a mother within a few years. ¬†I periodically pictured a little boy with half the DNA of the boy I had grown up with. ¬†I imagined growing old in New York City with my charming husband and enjoying a freelance career of theater and film gigs. ¬†It wasn’t a clearly constructed picture but the sense was certain. ¬†My life was only going to get better and it completed me.

Then that ended and it was a fucking mess.

When my husband left I lost all ability to calibrate. ¬†Like, for years. ¬†Every choice I made was a reaction. ¬†It’s weird to remember the feeling, because I can feel it, in my body. ¬†In my chest, my soul was splintered out with fragments lodged throughout my rib cage instead of strongly wrapped together in my heart. ¬†I could feel the air blow through my torso. ¬†Hollow. ¬†My mind felt like a dense forest. ¬†I mean, I could see with my eyes, but I couldn’t see anything. ¬†My mind’s eye was blurred. ¬†And I wouldn’t have thought that existed until it cut out. ¬†That ability to see life and make meaning out of it. ¬†That had been disconnected. ¬†Which was terrifying.

For the first handful of years I thought I would meet someone who would fix all of this. ¬†Someone who would come in with a glue gun and a wrench and put my mind and heart back together. ¬†And really put my life back together exactly how it had been except the leading man had been recast. ¬†I put all my energy into waiting for him. ¬†Thankfully, I had to do something while I waited to kill the time. ¬†I took improv classes and read Henri Nouwen and traveled a few times to California. ¬†Then I got really sick. ¬†So sick that I finally admitted I couldn’t wait around for my old life anymore.

I moved to California. ¬†Mostly on a hunch. ¬†And it paid off. ¬†But the last few years have still been a web of confusion. ¬†Okay, to be perfectly honest, I thought Mr. Fix-it had moved to California and if I showed up there he would put together my New York life in Los Angeles–like Ikea furniture, same set of pieces for all city apartments. But when I arrived in Los Angeles and realized I was dealing with completely different pieces I equally didn’t know who I was. I was a single woman living with my sister and sleeping on mattress on the floor, working in corporate America, and going to a charismatic church. And it was SUNNY ALL THE TIME–who can read and be a moody artist when the weather is beautiful. ¬†There is a reason Madeleine L’Engle, Marina Abromovic or even Sarah Koenig do not live in Southern California.

In LA life got a lot more manageable and thus a lot more practical. ¬†For a while there my greatest priority was a good night’s sleep. ¬†I felt much less afraid and a lot more comfortable, but still had boughts of loneliness and depression. ¬†I’ve had writer’s block which is a central way I organize my thoughts and I’m constantly questioning what I think about God. And more years have past without meeting a husband while many of my peers struggle with infertility.

Jen and I have lived in our apartment in West Hollywood for three years. Slowly we have furnished and decorated the place. ¬† With our two pups, it is a full house of family. ¬†I moved to LA because I wanted to be closer to my sister–in all respects–but I had no idea what that would mean. ¬†She is my constant companion and biggest support. ¬†My friends Mary, Stephanie and Ronli live next door and each have a dog which makes my life feel like an episode of Friends if you cast Ross, Chandler and Joey as canines. ¬†I have never felt more at home in four walls.

Almost two years ago, I applied to a graduate program in Social Work on a whim and got in.  My graduate degree has been teaching me how pain-filled and unfair the world is, but it has also reminded me of my leadership skills and love of learning.  Every time I learn something new it raises more questions about what I want to do when I graduate, but the possibility is invigorating.  And I feel in control of my life in a way I never have before.

There are lots of questions, big questions, I am still asking. ¬†Meaning of life and sense of identity questions. ¬†But in the last couple months instead of feeling lost by the questions I feel a creative energy in the questions. ¬†When I look out my eyes I can see meaning again. As I move along my soul feels pulled together and centered again. ¬†But it has all been rearranged and formed into a new, more interesting shape. ¬†A shape that wasn’t purposely created to fit with another, but one that stands akimbo on its own. ¬†Like a starfish, it can still be moved by the tide but much more able to return to form.

Anyway, I’ve got new skin now. ¬†Things that I like about myself so much more: I’m funnier and confident to make a joke, I don’t just watch documentaries about injustice and cry–I am working with people to solve problems, I’m more honest with the people I love, I don’t need to please everyone all the time, I live more in the present, I like to stay home as much as going out, and I just like myself more. ¬†2016 feels very promising, a time as Mary Oliver says “to let the soft animal of [my] body love what it loves.”

God only knew what I would be without you.  As it turns out, I would be me.

I just wrote a lot about things that I usually speak of on this blog in abstraction, but that’s because I no longer feel like I would be saying these things to Him. ¬†I am saying them to You. ¬†You, my friend, who feels so lost right now. ¬†It probably won’t happen in a three act structure, but you will be made new. ¬†God only knows.

#MakeDontBreak

Here it is, that auspicious 2021 we have collectively longed for since, well since that moment last Spring when you realized that COVID-19 was not a temporary problem–a timeline that varies a bit for us all. Having gone through grief before in my life, I’m wary to put too much expectation on one tick of the clock. AND I’m simultaneously hoping in time’s ability to heal and government’s ability to disseminate lots of shots. The older I get the more I think the secret to life is being able to hold two opposing emotions at the same time. There is a reason we don’t tend to do this: It’s HARD.

All that to say, I was drawn to this “experiment” Badass Cross Stitch posted on Instagram a few weeks ago. The idea is to spend a little time each day in January “making” something. It can correspond with daily reflection prompts that are being emailed, or it can be a choose-your-own-adventure. I will probably define the word “making” very loosely at points throughout the month.

The first prompt asked “What is your #MakeDontBreak Why?”

1.) I HAVE TOO MUCH TIME ON MY HANDS RIGHT NOW

2.) December was lonely and when I tinker with things or words I feel like a better friend to myself

3.) I believe this is an encouraging thing to put out in the world–SO IF YOU WANT TO JOIN ME, SEND ME PICS OF WHAT YOU ARE DOING AND I WILL SHARE THEM HERE

Today is January 1, 2021 and I am Making: The Annual Vision Board (Day 1)

Yes, I really want to go to a cocktail party in the 70s‚ÄĒGod, do you think you can manage that?

Snowglobe

From the journal:

I feel jumbled. The snow globe has been shaken…It’s interesting to use that metaphor because, from the outside, the magical moment is right after the snow globe has been shaken–to see all those flecks swirling around amidst a set scene. The swirling is the thing that makes the picture dynamic, but when I feel emotionally shaken up I just want it all to settle quickly so I can see clearly again–and feel control in my static world.

Filtered Unfiltering

Over pizza last night, Jenelle and I talked about wanting to journal again. We met in undergrad and lived together a few years of college. Our friendship was formed on a few things, but one of the foundational elements was a love for the written word. We both journaled back then, but I always envied her journals. She would create elaborate systems indexing and organizing her entries, in part, I believe, to indulge her love for her own handwriting. But aesthetics aside, I sensed that through her journals she was able to feel loved by God with a confidence I desired.

A few years later I read¬†The Artist’s Way for the first time and I began to explore a journaling practice that was much less self conscious. Over ten years my journal became a place less about doing and more about being. As Julie Cameron puts it, I discovered how to “rest on the page.” At points in my life this has brought me great clarity and creativity. But it’s hard to find the time, and I have been very reluctant to consider setting my alarm clock earlier…

The other week I was seeking some spiritual guidance in the obvious place, the internet, and found this blog:

 Humans need to be known. We want to be known by God, and we want to be known by the people around us. When we are known by others it satisfies a deep need for intimacy and nourishes us in love. When we experience being known and loved, we then are able to know and love others.

¬† ¬† ¬†Some of the spiritual practices most familiar to us are those that help us to know God… On the flip side, I think we are typically less familiar with spiritual practices that allow us to experience being known. Prayer can sometimes be this place, but so often prayer turns into a list of requests rather than an expression of what is deep inside of us, let alone a conversation with God about those deeper places. Journaling can be a good way to explore what is inside of you, and to bring¬†those things up to God…

So, I did it. Set the alarm just a bit early and wrote a bunch of nonsense in a Moleskin before work. It made me feel so good. Then I did it the next day and it felt like a total chore. But I’m going to keep at it for a bit. And I think I’ll share some of it on this blog–NOT a whole journal post, nosy person–but a few lines that keep a digital record of me in this moment. Filtered unfiltering.

Sadness

It has been cold in Los Angeles for a few weeks now. Not by northeast standards but enough to make me wear woolen socks and want to stay inside most of the time. This has an alternating affect on me. Sometimes I feel the warmth and security of the hearth crackling into my home via a streaming platform. And sometimes I feel the melancholy of winters past.

Jill came to visit last week and we got to listening to favorite songs from the 90s. Seerrrioussly, those songs were depressing. The soundtrack of my teenage years was not the Can-Do spirit I hear on pop radio today. It was Adam Duritz and Eddie Veddar lamenting about dreams deferred and bad parenting. And last week, some twenty years later, it still felt so good to sing about feeling aimless and misunderstood. What does that say about me?

Like all emotions sadness is an indicator. It is trying to tell me something. At work my boss makes us practice mindfulness.

Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally. ~ Jon KabatZinn

Through mindfulness practice, I’ve noticed I want to fix myself most of the time. Being sad is a sign that there is something wrong with me and it is always just a matter of me finding the right solution to manifest salvation. That is the only way I believe I will get what I want in life–love and belonging–against the constantly ticking clock. The interesting thing is, I don’t believe this for you. I believe you have plenty of time and possibility. I believe love is found most beautifully when lost and imperfect. I believe you have so much access to grace and unexpected blessing. I don’t condemn sadness, I just condemn my sadness.

Which begs the question, what is sadness?

Sadness is a live emotion that can serve to remind us of what matters to us, what gives our life meaning. As psychologist and author¬†Robert Firestone, has pointed out, ‚ÄúWhen we feel sadness, it centers us.‚ÄĚ ~¬†Lisa Firestone Ph.D

That is probably why I often only write when I am sad. And writing about being sad makes me less sad. I wonder how often when I am sad the thing I am missing most is myself?

Alternatives

Most of the time I forget that I live an alternative life. 

Writing that sentence I realized it has alternative meanings.

My choices are not yours 

and

they were not always mine. 

 

 

 

Christmas this year was simply lovely. Jen and I stayed in California without much agenda other than snacking most of the day and watching our dogs open gifts. It all made me so happy. But, occasionally I noticed a look of concern, or maybe pity, when I shared these plans with others in the days leading up to Christmas. I get it. It’s hard to imagine the merriment two adult, single sisters without children can share together on a holiday. We don’t see many images in our society of that kind of celebration. And, honestly, when I was married, I would have pitied someone with my current life too. But what I learned by actually living my life is that it is the life I always wanted: a home with humor and ease, shared values, lots of history and a healthy appreciation for elastic waistbands.

Singletons and smug marrieds unite under the enduring Christmas wisdom of¬†Richard Curtis! “If you look for it, I‚Äôve got a sneaky feeling you‚Äôll find that love actually is all around.”