Posts Tagged ‘love’

It is difficult to describe how much I love “Orange Is the New Black,” the new Netflix original series based on Piper Kerman’s memoir about her time in a women’s prison. I binge-watched the 13-episode series over the course of several days, such that when I was forced to leave my apartment, I had the vague feeling that I needed to watch my back and carry a shiv made from a Gillette Venus.

In the series, Piper Chapman (played by Taylor Schilling), a WASP-y Smith College alumna who 10 years earlier sewed her rebellious oats by dating international drug cartel employee Alex (played by Laura Prepon), is serving a 15-month sentence for having one time transported a suitcase full of drug money. New to prison, Piper, who recently became engaged to conventional Larry (Jason Biggs) and was working with her best friend on a line of high-end bath products to be sold at Barneys, feels understandably like a fish out of water, a debutante in the ghetto. Initially, she can only see the differences between her fellow inmates and herself, but soon their similarities begin to emerge.

What drew me into the series were the no-holds-barred belly laughs – picture Piper avoiding shower-floor foot fungus by crafting slippers out of maxipads because she can’t yet purchase flip flops from the commissary. But what hooked me were the flashbacks depicting the stories of Piper’s fellow inmates. Between the lovably crass punch lines (a used tampon sandwich, for example, or the ‘tit punch’), the series highlights the story behind each character, her humanity and suffering. Like the character of Janae Watson, who had a promising track career but whose ability to outrun the boys meant that none of them ever caught up to her; when a guy finally did show her some interest, he turned out to be a criminal, and she landed in prison after the two of them robbed a store and only she was caught (waiting for him to catch up).

The juxtaposition of my assumptions and stereotypes about women in prison (or anyone from whom I might feel “different”) and the very familiar emotions and traumas each character experiences set me back on my heels. In the series (as in real life), though it can be easier to put a person in a little box with a label on it, something usually happens – a revealing word, a moment of vulnerability – to signal that there is a vastness, a range of emotions and experiences, that I don’t know about. These glimpses into the individual back-stories reminded me of this Cleveland Clinic video that poses the question:

If you could stand in someone’s shoes, hear what they hear, see what they see, feel what they feel, would you treat them differently?

Many of us have the tendency to see ourselves as the protagonist, the hero or heroine, in our own story, while everyone else plays a range of supporting roles. Stepping back even a little allows us to see how flawed this approach is, to see our interconnectedness, our interdependence, or as Thich Nhat Han says, our inter-being. Since we can’t know for sure the back-story of every stranger we encounter, what if we were to imagine him or her as having experienced similar joys, losses, and traumas as ourselves; and from that place, perhaps extend him or her a little more kindness.

In Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change, Pema Chodron writes:

It’s said that when we make this commitment [to care for all beings everywhere], it sows a seed deep in our unconscious, deep in our mind and heart, that never goes away. This seed is a catalyst that jump-starts our inherent capacity for love and compassion, for empathy, for seeing the sameness of us all. So we make the commitment, we sow the seed, and then do our best to never harden our heart or close our mind to anyone.


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I have almost always had a complicated relationship with my sister. Whether this is due to sibling rivalry, our closeness in age (she is 18 months my junior), or because we are the same sex, I am not sure. What I do know is that our relationship often feels tense and restrained. There is no doubt that we love each other fiercely, but when it comes to showing one another that love, we fall short. To the outside observer, we may appear a couple of compatible 30-somethings, but each of us feels the divide between us, like an invisible brick wall.

We have tried to explain away this separation – we’re just too different, we don’t look at things the same way. Much like I’ve tried to live as if my job doesn’t need to be personally rewarding and based on passion, I’ve tried to live as if I don’t need to have a close relationship with my sister. But this has never been satisfying for me. And, I suspect, for her. As much as we try to make it appear otherwise, we both yearn for a more fulfilling sisterly bond.

When the tension peaks between us, it’s usually because of something supremely silly. The source of our latest conflict was a jeans jacket. She liked mine, I ordered it for her in what I deduced was the right size, and she ended up returning it for a different size. Not a big deal, right? But when she told me she was returning it, I felt as though she was rejecting me and my love! I took offense and told her it was “annoying.” In response, she “stepped back” from the situation, and didn’t respond to my text messages or emails. This went on for a couple of weeks until I wrote her a long email explaining that underneath my snippy response were hurt feelings. What’s more, I told her that I felt rejected, unseen, and unappreciated.

The day after I sent the email, I was at my parents’ house on Long Island, getting ready for a baby shower for my cousin’s wife. While changing clothes in my childhood bedroom, I noticed a picture sitting on my chest of drawers for the one-thousandth time: A 3×3 inch square photo of my sister and me smiling at the camera. She is about 3 years old and I’m about 5. We are standing near the front door of our grandparents’ house in upstate New York; we are in our bathing suits, probably getting ready to go swimming in the old watering hole. My sister has on some kind of cape, and I’m tying it in a bow at her neck. The picture is in a small plastic frame that my sister decorated with our names and the words “Sisters are forever.” She gave it to me as a gift years ago; I don’t remember the occasion but she probably does. In the picture, we both look so carefree and happy (and are approximately the current age of her two daughters). There isn’t a trace of our current conflict on either of our faces. Looking at it again, I realized how we were wasting time being so unkind to one another. That in addition to feeling love for one another, we needed to practice showing it.

When my sister read my email, it hit her like a ton of bricks. There is no one that I know who tries harder to be a good person, friend, neighbor, wife, and mother. No one who thinks of others more, or spends more time caring for others instead of herself. The suggestion that she had hurt me flew in the face of everything she tries to be and do. When she called me to talk, it was with guns blazing because she felt as if she needed to defend herself.

At first our conversation was adversarial. She was fixated on the fact that there wasn’t anything else she could have done about the jeans jacket to make me not feel rejected. I insisted her “stepping back” made matters worse. She reminded me how different we are, that we have different lives and different priorities, and that we’ve had this type of conversation before and yet here we were again. I suggested that we could try to put the past behind us and focus on what we wanted from our relationship now.

And then something shifted. The bottom fell out of whatever short-term satisfaction we got from pointing out how we had been hurt or wronged more than the other. Suddenly we were able to hear one another. I asked her “Would you like our relationship to be different?” She responded “Yes.” I asked her “How would that look and feel?” She responded “I would call you to talk about my day or to discuss something I’m going through.”

I asked her if she ever felt the same things I wrote about in my email – hurt, unappreciated, unseen. She said she did. We talked about how we love one another differently than we love anyone else in the world and how, given this fact and the knowledge of our respective sensitivities, wishes, and needs, we are in a unique position to give one another exactly what we yearn for – to recognize one another, to cherish one another, to make the other feel special and loved.

Since our conversation, my relationship with my sister has changed; the confusion and hardness we felt before has softened. The brick wall has come down a bit and with it the barriers to reach out to one another via phone, email, or text. We seem to reveal ourselves more fearlessly, show one another our vulnerabilities and to invite the other in. It feels as if we are appreciating each other more, and in doing so, we are appreciating the moment more, giving it the respect and gratitude it’s due. By dropping our stories about how we have been wronged, we are able to touch that soft spot we both have in spades. And (at the risk of sounding like Nat King Cole’s Nature Boy) to recognize that we deserve to love and to be loved in return.

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Did you ever ride the go-karts at Disney World? Each car is situated on individual, parallel tracks that prevent crossover and collisions, so that everyone basically drives around without incident. At the starting line, the track beneath the car is wide, encompassing the full width between the tires, and as a result the drive is quite smooth; but soon the track narrows to a thin rail and the driver must find the proper steering wheel position that will prevent the car from zig zagging the entire way, slamming into the track on the inside of the right tires, then the left, over and over again. I could never do this. Every time I tried to drive the Disney go-karts, I gave myself whiplash (physical and emotional) because I could not find the middle ground.

This is not unlike other parts of my life. If I were to whittle down my life’s narrative to a single story line, it might be about my search for the middle ground. My natural tendency, however, seems to be vacillating between extremes. At a recent weekend meditation retreat, I spent the entire first day on the cushion ping-ponging between sleepy and speedy. Although I was a little tired, my sleepiness was about more than that. It was an avoidance technique, a way to literally shut down my body so that I didn’t have to deal with the difficult emotions that arose. When not doing the old college head-bob, I was feeling speedy, zooming through mental to-do lists, and wishing away the minutes on the clock so that we could get to the next thing, and then the next, and the next. And when we did get to the next thing, I wanted to just get through that. Sleepy, speedy, sleepy, speedy. That was my Saturday.

Another area where I vacillate between extremes is in expressing myself. As I have mentioned before, I have a tendency to bottle up my emotions and then explode. This feels like a balloon taking on air, little by little. Because I’m elastic, adaptable, I rationalize that it’s easier for me to take on whatever it is than to verbalize my true emotions. But eventually I lose my elasticity. I get to a point where I can’t take on any more, even though I still wish I could. And then Pop Boom Bang! One of the many problems with this approach is that no one on the outside can see it coming. Another is that I might explode at something relatively innocuous, or at least something that would be considered incongruent with the level of my reaction.

But nowhere do I vacillate between extremes more than in romantic relationships. While I feel like a fairly effective communicator in other parts of my life, all of that seems to go out the window when love is involved and I switch between extremes of hope and fear suddenly and often without warning. Being so vulnerable with someone – placing my heart in his hands and trusting that he won’t squish it – sends my rational brain on an extended vacation. When things are going smoothly, I am full of hope, struck by how easily it flows, and wonder why all the fuss about how difficult relationships can be. And then, all of a sudden, it stops being easy. When this happens, I feel disoriented, unable to express myself. And I quickly switch from a sense of hopeful beginnings to one of fearful endings. I automatically go to that extreme. When trying to communicate, I run out of skills and feel utterly hope-less.

Eventually I do reach a point of exhaustion with these extremes. On the second day of my meditation program, for example, my practice was very different from the sleepy-speedy day before. It was as if I had worn down my avoidance of the present moment, fatigued my muscles of resistance, and could finally rest in awareness. So too has this happened with expressing difficult emotions with others. Rather than always filling the balloon to bursting and then exploding, I release tension gradually, mindfully, by trying to take a gentle approach, by giving myself permission to risk disappointing the other person. Sometimes it’s successful and sometimes not. And in my relationship, often directly following the point at which I reach utter despair, I find myself softening and opening and developing curiosity about what is going on in the moment, less so about the outcome – good or bad.

On the topic of hope and fear, Chogyam Trungpa writes in Ocean of Dharma:

The experience of our day-to-day living situation consists of dissatisfaction, questioning, pain, depression, aggression, passion. All these are real, and we have to relate with them. Having a relationship with this may be extremely difficult. It’s an organic operation without any anesthetics. If we really want to get into it, we should be completely prepared to take a chance and get nothing back but tremendous disappointment, tremendous hopelessness.

Hope is the source of pain, and hope operates on the level of something other than what there is. We hope, dwelling in the future, that things might turn out right. We do not experience the present, do not face the pain or neurosis as it is. So the only way that is feasible is developing an attitude of hopelessness, something other than future orientation. The present is worth looking at.

Faith is a more realistic attitude than hope is. Hope is a sense of lacking something in the present situation. We are hopeful about getting better as we go along. Faith is that it’s okay in the present situation, and we have some sense of trust in that.

I have no reason to believe I would be any better at driving one of the go-karts at Disney but I am working on finding the middle ground in other (arguably more important) parts of my life. My faith in the process of meditation has only grown since I began practicing three years ago. I don’t think it would be extreme to say that sitting with myself, allowing thoughts and feelings to come and go, practicing letting go of hope and fear, and cultivating space, acceptance, and kindness is the most important thing I can do with my life.


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When I was younger, so much younger than today

I never needed anybody’s help in any way

But now these days are gone, I’m not so self-assured

Now I find I’ve changed my mind and opened up the doors

~”Help” by The Beatles

Have you ever noticed something, seemingly for the first time, and then you hear or see it everywhere? You finally learn the definition of “the canary in the coal mine,” and then three friends use it in separate conversations.

Lately, I’ve been hearing and reading the suggestion to allow people to help me:

  • In David Whyte’s “Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity”:

Sooner or later we admit that we cannot do it all, that whatever our contribution, the story is much larger and longer than our own, and we are all in the gift of older stories that we are only now joining. Whatever our success at work, in the financial markets, or in the virtual worlds now being born, we are all in the gift of much older work, we are all looked after by other eyes, and we are only preparing ourselves for an invitation to join something larger.

  • In “A.P.E. [Author Publisher Entrepreneur] How to Publish a Book,” Guy Kawasaki repeatedly writes about the importance of asking for help, often in untraditional ways, from the initial writing stage through to the publishing and marketing stages.
  • In “Intuitive Eating,” the authors write about the common tendency to eat when what we really need is support and/or nurturing, something that we can often easily receive if we only ask for it:

When you find yourself reaching for food when there is no biological hunger, take a time-out to find out what you are feeling…Call a friend and talk about the feelings…Talk to a counselor or a psychotherapist.

  • In my Kaufman FastTrac NYC small business course, we discuss establishing a personal network of individuals who can broaden our perspectives, provide information and feedback, and be objective.

The ubiquity of the advice to ask for help caught me by surprise. (Sort of like that ‘w’ in the word answer. Really? Was that always there?) Why does asking for help seem counterintuitive? Why is it so difficult? I can only surmise that my resistance stems from my fear of appearing foolish, a wish to have my proverbial shit together (or at least seem to), and my striving for perfection.

When the shoe is on the other foot, however, and I am asked for help, I am more than happy to oblige. I feel a sense of purpose and connection with that person, as if I’m growing and nurturing not only that relationship but contributing to a bigger picture in which we are all interdependent. Why not extend such an opportunity to others by allowing them to help me?

In “Ocean of Dharma,” Chogyam Trungpa writes:

We can afford to open ourselves and join the rest of the world with a sense of tremendous generosity, tremendous goodness, and tremendous richness. The more we give, the more we gain – although what we gain should not particularly be our reason for giving. Rather, the more we give, the more we are inspired to give constantly. And the gaining process happens naturally, automatically, always.

I spent this past weekend with my parents, my sister, and her family, including my 4.5- and 2.5-year old nieces. The girls reminded me of that instinctive drive to “do it myself,” and how that seems to be the very definition of growing up and becoming independent. At the same time I found myself asking my mother for help: I always find it difficult to maintain my meditation practice whenever I am away from home, but by asking my mom to sit and practice with me, we both benefited. This simple act of asking for help strengthened our connection and broadened our perspective.

Perhaps the definition of growing up is not the ability to be completely self-reliant but rather knowing when, how, and who to ask for help. Allow me to be your canary in the coal mine: Have you been helped yet?

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A couple of weeks ago, I read an article about why everyone hates Anne Hathaway. I always thought she was an intelligent, beautiful, uber-talented young woman, but apparently she is utterly detested by many. The author posited that perhaps her too-perfect-ness was at fault for her abysmal approval rates. Ironic, I thought: since most of us wish we were perfect, do we also wish to draw such ire?

One quote from the article made me choke on my own saliva: “’We love authenticity, that’s why we have a billion reality shows,’ said Neal Gabler, an author of several best-selling books on Hollywood culture and history.”

Oh, right! OUR LOVE OF AUTHENTICITY is the reason for the out-of-control reality TV show phenomenon!

With all of the staged, alcohol-soaked drama and creative editing, there is nothing real or authentic about reality television. Rather, I think we want to see one another’s frailties, neuroses, warts, and cellulite. We want to see Bethany Frankel peeing in a bucket in her wedding dress or Kim Richards drunkenly making moo-moo faces in the mirror as she plummets toward her alcoholic bottom. “Sure, she’s rich and skinny, but she’s a narcissistic mess.” “At least I’m not as bad as her.” Ironically, rather than uniting us, all of the imperfections immortalized on reality television serve to separate us from one another.

It’s clearly not limited to reality TV. We extrapolate the innumerable messages we receive to our own lives. We take on the artificial deficiencies created by advertising agencies and seek to fill the void. We imagine our neighbors, friends, and well-put-together strangers having perfect lives. We try to retrofit the story of our lives into some narrative arc, a hijinx-y Rom-Com starring Katherine Heigl. But secretly we suffer.

In my own efforts to practice imperfection, I’ve started to ask myself about my idea of perfection. What does it look and feel like? Where does it come from? What does it cost me? How does it keep me in line and, in so doing, how does it affect my authentic experience?

As part of this, I’ve taken a mini inventory of my own behaviors and beliefs. The following is only a partial list of the things I believe I have done as a result of comparing my life to some “perfect” ideal:

  • Pretended I was asleep when my painfully shy high school sweetheart finally kissed me because I couldn’t take responsibility for my own raging teenage hormones
  • Sat in college courses and obsessed over how I could ask the most brilliant, astounding question to gain the admiration of the professor and my fellow students (thereby missing the dialog that would have made my question even remotely relevant)
  • Spent unknown amounts of money (and time) on cosmetics, skin care products, and laser procedures to “improve” the appearance of my skin
  • Showered, got dressed, and even applied makeup in the dark because I couldn’t bear to see my face and body in the mirror (I still do this one)
  • Compared myself with every woman I have ever met since the age of about 10 on a complex scale involving measures of age, beauty, physical fitness, intelligence, interestingness, sexiness, and desirability
  • Spent many hours tipsy at home alone after work because I felt paralyzed, unsure of how to move my life in a direction that would be more satisfying and bring me more happiness
  • Wasted more than a year working on a book proposal because I was afraid to just write the book
  • Bottled up my feelings (and sometimes later exploded) because I was afraid of losing someone’s love
  • Perseverated on small tasks like cleaning and organizing because they gave me the illusion of control
  • Failed to give my full attention to any number of work or writing projects because of a fear that I would not do them perfectly (this is a big one for me)

At first glance, these may not seem related to perfection but upon closer examination, I see that I think and do things as if someone else is watching and judging. As if there is a master scorecard hidden somewhere, and I clearly do not have home-court advantage. But the watcher and judger is ME.

The problem with dismantling my allegiance to perfection is that the information that sculpts my perfection ideas is everywhere. It came from my childhood, from my family, my friends, friend’s families, television, advertising, dating, relationships, job interviews, and interactions on the job itself. When one is exquisitely sensitive to external information, as I tend to be, it can become very confusing to assimilate it all into a life and a system of beliefs.

The inability to see myself for who I really am – to accept and make myself known, to communicate authentically, to ask questions and talk about what makes me uncomfortable, fearful, and ashamed – has deep repercussions. I keep it in. Bottle it up.

What if we all realized that, as pointed out to me by a wise friend several years ago, the consequences of being ourselves were not so dire? That would mean there is no reason to keep our true, imperfect selves hidden. No reason to react hurtfully rather than dealing with what is really happening. No reason to kill yourself, hurt someone else, or suffer in silence.

Where does one begin though? At what point during a conversation between two friends does one of them say, My partner and I haven’t had sex in 6 months. When does a woman admit, Sometimes my kids are out of control and it makes me feel like failure as a mother. Or, when asked, How are you?, someone admits, I’m sort of sad, actually, unsatisfied with life and not sure what to do. Or, Sometimes I think it would be better if I didn’t exist (in all the permutations and combinations of significance that one has).

Since I started writing Drinking to Distraction, people have come out of the woodwork with words of love and support, as well as their own stories. I believe this is because I openly revealed my weaknesses, or at least the things that tend to be viewed as weakness by current societal standards. Quitting drinking and learning to deal with my life as it is, it’s about as real (and imperfect) as I can get. It has created a space for me to become curious about myself and the world, and perhaps a little space for others to do the same.

How will you begin?

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