Musings: Back to School

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I’ve learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way he/she handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights. –Maya Angelou

I would favor an addition to the list: the first day of school.

You can tell a lot about a person by the way (s)he handles that rite of passage. Parents are in mourning, children are celebrating…or is it vice versa? Teachers are bracing, ready to relive the Cold War and bunker under desks. Okay, maybe not all of them. Some teachers like the first day of school, much to the parents’ confusion.

Yes, you can tell a lot by that first day. So much of our cultural cadence fixes on the rhythms of the school year. And, I must say, so do our emotions. Those emotions, representing the collective cultural psyche, ebb and flow with the learning calendar. During the school year, routines re-emerge and the pace accelerates. We’re mostly all hurrying at the same times and slowing at the same times, with anxiety and impatience or boredom to match.

School year boredom is conquered by leaping from one awesome event to another. We’re perched precariously on the edges of our calendars to avoid landing on the unspecial days. And when there’s been too much family time or too much school time without the proper balance, there’s a palpable tension in the air, everywhere. We’re all a bit more impatient for things to reset, whether it’s for Christmas break to finally end, or for Spring break to hurry up and get here.

When we spend our time leaping from one event to another, time accelerates. And when time accelerates too quickly, we lose our bearings. We end up destabilized and anxious about lost time. We can also end up disillusioned by the special moments we’ve been living for that have failed our lofty expectations.

As we begin another school year and face the possibility of being swept up in the cultural tide, I hope we’ll each consider this. The first day of school can be a rite of passage into another year of life on fast forward, or, an opportunity to hit pause, observe, and decide: Will I show up for every single day of my life, poised and ready? Or will I discard the in-between moments and live for the highlight reel?

You can tell a lot about a person by how she handles the first day of school. But you can tell a lot more by how she handles the second day, the twelfth day, and the ninety-seventh.

Sound the Barbaric YAWP

Oh Captain My CaptainI sound my barbaric YAWP over the roofs of the world.

–Walt Whitman

As an English and Psychology major, one of my favorite Robin Williams’ movies is Dead Poets Society.   I remember watching it for the first time and being smitten by the idea of “sucking the marrow out of life”.  Carpe Diem was incarnated in the passion for adventure and for existential questions.  And one of the most universally stirring scenes began with sounding “the barbaric YAWP”.  For those who haven’t seen it, in short summary, Ethan Hawke is the shy, repressed high school student eager to learn from Robin Williams, the avant-garde English professor serving up Walt Whitman’s poetry with a side dish of radical ideas on free thinking.  These ideas are met with tremendous resistance from the powers-that-be at their college prep school.  And the decision to agree with the intriguing, radical professor comes at great peril.

In the storyline, the English professor (Williams) asks the introverted student (Hawke) to utter his own barbaric yawp—a guttural cry, an incantation, giving voice to deep-seated and long repressed emotions.  The barbaric yawp is primal, poignant, and cathartic.  This scene is climactic in the story line as Ethan Hawke’s character begins with barely audible stuttering and slowly gains courage until he finds his voice for the first time in that guttural scream.  His barbaric yawp is met with the applause of his fellow classmates as they recognize how that cry resonates with their own desire to unshackle what has long been chained, and their own hope of discovering their audible voices.


On the day that Robin Williams died, this champion of the barbaric yawp, our culture uttered its own, collective guttural cry.

I’ve read and skimmed countless articles about Robin Williams’ death over the past week and a half.  In the two days following his death, reactions poured in regarding his depression, his struggles with addiction, his suicide, his contribution to the world, how the media handled the news, and how everyone on social media did or did not handle the news.  Seemingly every angle was covered and the overwhelming theme was championing greater awareness of mental illness and suicide prevention.

Then, two days later, more news came.  Robin Williams had Parkinson’s disease.  The landscape of the conversation changed a bit, and the blogs and newsfeeds quieted.  Maybe this was because they had already exhausted that guttural incantation, or maybe it was because the diagnosis of Parkinson’s really did change their view of the events surrounding his death, and maybe it changed their grief response to follow.

Whatever the case may be, the content of the posts and the trends toward conversation or silence were all important diviners of human nature—the nature of those responding to his very unfortunate death.

Those bird’s-eye eulogies, the responses to depression, the responses to addiction, the responses to impressions made:  “I met him once…” or “My favorite memory of him is…”; the created platforms to champion psycho-education about depression, or provide numbers for suicide hotlines, or criticize other media responses to the news; the many and varied reactions told me so much more about each author’s own grief than about Robin Williams’ life and death.

Grief tumbles out of us in a barbaric yawp.  In the instance we hear the grief-inducing news, all of these emotions course through our bodies in various states of consciousness until we’re left screaming on blogs, or crying out through articles, or Facebook posts to friends, or stream-of-consciousness ramblings into leather journals.  Grief leaves us searching for an outlet for all of the conflicting emotions—a welcome release.

Like the barbaric yawp, grief is also one way we find our own voice.  It brings out the primal fear, anger, sadness, despair, and the other, sweeter raw emotions surface as well: compassion, love, respect, and the ever beautiful–hope.

I saw every one of these emotions cutting through these bird’s-eye eulogies in articles–dissecting sentences into distinct emotional categories.  Here’s one of my favorites, a quote from author Anne Lamott (who grew up with Robin Williams) to her friends on Facebook:

“Here is what is true: a third of the people you adore and admire in the world and in your families have severe mental illness and/or addiction. I sure do. I have both. And you still love me. You help hold me up. I try to help hold you up. Half of the people I love most have both; and so do most of the artists who have changed and redeemed me, given me life. Most of us are still here, healing slowly and imperfectly. Some days are way too long… Gravity yanks us down, even a man as stunning in every way as Robin. We need a lot of help getting back up. And even with our battered banged up tool boxes and aching backs, we can help others get up, even when for them to do so seems impossible or at least beyond imagining. Or if it can’t be done, we can sit with them on the ground, in the abyss, in solidarity. You know how I always say that laughter is carbonated holiness? Well, Robin was the ultimate proof of that, and bubbles are spirit made visible.”

Unexpected moments of grief are not to be taken lightly.  They are tremendously emotional because they reflect the gravity of the situation at hand.  And yet, if they’re vessels for carbonation, they demonstrate how levity can come while standing on holy ground.  Our instinct to sound the barbaric yawp should come with the knowledge of what we’re sounding.  The death of a celebrity often comes with collective cultural stirrings.  Add the tragic circumstance of suicide to that, and the cultural response is amplified tenfold.

For those who didn’t feel that strongly about Robin Williams, you may still have been impacted by the nature of his death, or his experiences with depression, or addictions, or Parkinson’s.  And, simultaneously, you may have been impacted by his effervescence.  There’s so much to be impacted by in his story.  When we experience grief and sound the barbaric yawp, we are searching for meaning, and for some way to make sense of the painful tragedy we’re experiencing.  We’re looking for hope.

Is there hope for you?  Is there meaning behind the carbonated holiness, shaken and stirred?

(Spoiler Alert)

At the end of Dead Poets Society, the boys rally around their beloved Professor.  In a display of solidarity led by the once-shy boy turned man, they stand on their desks defying the powers-that-be, and call out to him one last time: “Oh Captain, my Captain”.

They would follow him anywhere, risking the “abyss” because shaken and stirred, they have hope.

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On Birth Order and National Vinyl Record Day (The latter is way cooler, the former is more apropos to counseling)

SO, today is my birthday.

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Here’s me celebrating in my second favorite hat.

That’s not what this is really about, though. It’s about the amazing holiday (or holidays) that just happens to coincide with my birthday: National Middle Child Day.

Not sure when the unilateral decision came to add a plethora of arbitrary holidays to an already over-populated American calendar, but here are a few of my favorites: Vinyl Record Day

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(ALSO my birthday, but less related to counseling, equally awesome, though, check it out); Croissant Day; Do A Grouch A Favor Day; Tell A Story Day; Scavenger Hunt Day; Flip Flop Day; and, of course, Talk Like A Pirate Day.

National Middle Child Day affords me the opportunity for a quick conversation on birth order. Birth order is both accurately predictive and keenly misinterpreted as an algorithm for individual responses.

Most people tend to hold their judgments about birth order predictions too tightly rather than viewing them as both accurate and inaccurate. Birth order both shapes our responses and doesn’t, simultaneously. We would do better to view a person’s birth order as predictive along a dynamic spectrum rather than as categorically definitive of fixed traits that have been crystallized since birth. Sometimes we will act out of these stereotypical traits–sometimes we will not.

There are a variety of factors (including but not limited to birth order) that increase the likelihood for our predisposition to specific traits. Take the middle child, for example. Middle children tend to be more go-with-the-flow, amicable types who get along well with most people…or so we like to think.

For those of you who are rebelling against my quick description of your siblings, this is where the “other factors” part comes into play. If there’s a large gap between first born and middle, or middle and youngest, this can skew the stereotypical application. Or if there are step siblings involved who were only part-time inhabitants of your home, that changes things. Or if there was significant trauma in the home, or boarding school, etc., the landscape varies.

This applies to any birth order individual. There are often characteristics that make it easy to spot birth order and others that skew the “one size fits all” research results.

Doesn’t this just reinforce the amazing mystery that is human nature? We are so simple in some ways and vastly complex in others. We can’t even understand ourselves, much less be reduced to quantifiable birth order statistics.

This complexity is often demoralizing to us. But it’s so important and useful. In light of today’s conversations that seem to reduce Robin Williams’ tragic and untimely death to a cluster of depressive attributes, remember that there was infinitely more to him than that, and there’s infinitely more to you than birth order, a DSM diagnosis, or your current situation.

I will come back to Robin Williams’ death another time, but please know I’m grateful for the positive attention these conversations bring to mental health awareness. Simultaneously, I know the heavy focus on these symptoms overshadows much of the other vibrancy offered. He can easily come across as a tortured and insecure soul in these bird’s-eye view eulogies. Just as you can come across as only tortured in your own worst moments of self-appraisal. It’s in those very moments that complexity is comforting.

With the recognition of our astonishing mystery comes the reassurance of knowing we can’t be confined to drab, brown boxes that have outlived their usefulness. So if you want to celebrate that mystery with me, slip on those headphones and pull out that circular record, the one that doesn’t fit a square box in any and every way.

Thumb and Forefinger

Picture 094Do you remember that game you played as a kid?  It went like this: you were having fun with a friend and all of a sudden they did something that really annoyed you.  As your irritation grew, you got a brilliant idea and leapt into action.  You started to shuffle away from them, watching them get smaller and smaller as you tilted your head and lined up thumb and index finger to make a frame.  This gave you just enough space to squint and see your friend’s head sandwiched in between, disconnected from neck and shoulders and waist and legs.   You would then proceed to push thumb and index finger together until you could no longer see them shouting, obnoxiously, “I just squished your head!”  Then your friend did the same to you, and you both laughed, annoyance long forgotten and obtuse to the idea that this was weird and pointless and kind of grotesque.  Because it didn’t feel pointless at the time; it felt strangely powerful.  At least, to me it did.

At age twelve we, kids, had matured beyond those childish games…or so I thought.  I remember walking past a group of kids teasing one of their friends.  The way they were positioned reminded me of that 6-year-old standoff.  They shuffled away from their friend, heads tilted while squinting a bit, as if she suddenly appeared unfamiliar from the safe and expanding distance, and then they began to tease.  From my vantage point, nearer the group who was making fun, the target of their bullying looked small and, maybe to them, less significant.  I knew then that the distance meant something, but I didn’t know what.

Fast forward to my intern days.  I remember a younger, greener version of me perched on the edge of my counselor’s chair across from teens, and young adults, and mid-lifers.  I remember those moments when their relationships got squished, and they were emotionally constricted, draped across my couch, flattened by the loss.  I began to notice a pattern in their stories.  They would talk at great length about the change that happened in their significant other around the time he or she ended things.  They would say: “He used to be so loving but now he seems so cold.” Or, “She’s not the same person, something changed in her, something shut down.” Or, “He’s so different than he was, even a few weeks ago.  I don’t understand what happened.”  The more I heard those stories, the more I came to understand what I couldn’t at age twelve.  What they were responding to was the distance.

Those people who squished their significant others between thumb and index finger were playing at a game we all play at in our darkest moments.  Yes, every single one of us plays this game–from those who are committing horrific acts of violence in the Middle East, to the boss mistreating his employees, to the 12-year-olds bullying their friend.  In order to treat another human with cruelty, we have to squish their humanity.  In order to squish their humanity, we have to create emotional distance.  We have to withhold our affections, both from them and from ourselves.

When we’re cruel to others, it’s because we’ve emotionally shuffled away from them and squinted, until they’re nothing more than disembodied heads, until their beings seem disconnected, small and insignificant at our distal range.  They no longer have flesh and bones and feelings and thoughts, they are inextricably dehumanized.  Once we’ve distanced ourselves from them, we can treat those disembodied heads with all the indifference of an object, an object we might carelessly crush between finger tips.  And once we’ve done that, we have experienced a seductive and twisted form of power.

This distance shows up at home and at work; in the war zone and the hospital; at the coffee shop and on the train.  This distance begins inside of us.  This ability to “squish” others comes from within.

When I mourn cruelty in the world, like violence in the Middle East, human trafficking in Baltimore, or oppression in North Korea, I have to simultaneously mourn the propensity for cruelty in that squinting, little blonde.  I have to remember my own capacity to hurt and dehumanize and my own ability to oppress.

I then have to remember something else.  There is beauty and light in the world as well.  On our own we’re not capable of such beauty and light.  But we can be transformed into those who love and transformed into those who respect.  We can become guardians who protect and honor flesh and bones humanity.

When that happens, instead of shuffling away from others with squinted eyes, we’ll run towards them with open arms.  Instead of constricting another’s humanity, we’ll eagerly become those who expand it, and that expansion will fill the cavities of our own hearts as well.

 

 

Musings: Waiting

Waiting

If you want to know what it means to wait, talk to an insomniac.  They’re experts on the subject.

They’ve mapped the trajectory of the sun creeping up the curtains.  They’ve watched it flood over that one crack in the wall, a timeless marker, signaling they’re free to get out of bed now.  They take comfort in the sun’s power to liberate them from the pretense of sleep.  It means they can finally get on with their day–a day that secretly started hours ago.

If you want to know the discomfort of waiting, talk to an insomniac.

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The discomfort of waiting hits our bodies with the utterance of one word: Helplessness.

Think, for a moment, about how you hate being stuck in the slow lane at the grocery store.  Why?  You can’t do anything about it.  You have no control over the pace.  You stand there all jittery with impatience, flipping through a magazine to distract yourself from what you can’t change, from the way your plans are being disrupted in real time by the treachery of an over-populated line.

Most of us are really bad at waiting, because most of us hate feeling helpless.  Okay, so “most of us” is an understatement.

Even when we’ve decided something’s worth waiting for, it’s still uncomfortable.  While we’re waiting we summon a million anxious thoughts.  We mull over the “what ifs” and play out a variety of catastrophic scenarios, often ending with death, or destruction, or man-eating alligators.

As if helplessness isn’t enough, we feel something else that’s equally dreadful: we feel unresolved.  Maybe you’re waiting for THE phone call, or to find out if your loved one made it home safely; maybe you’re anxious for those MRI results, or maybe you need your house to sell, yesterday.  What marks the capstone events that follow these waiting periods is resolution.  Our humanity is crazy in love with resolution.  Only we want good resolution, of course.

But if we live for resolution, we disrespect all the moments in between.

I’ve learned far more from waiting than doing.  But that was only when I chose to view waiting as a discipline.  A discipline is a process of cultivating self-control and focused attention around a particular theme.  A discipline has intrinsic value when it moves us towards a meaningful goal.

When we dig in, we discover a savory truth.  The truth is we’re always waiting.  We’re always anticipating and dreading something.  Embrace it.  Waiting is omnipresent.

Pregnancy is a laborious act of waiting.  But those nine months are as necessary for mom as they are for baby.  If a woman denies she’s pregnant for the first eight months, she’ll panic at the end.  Overwhelmed by the unfinished work of the pregnancy, she can’t appreciate the miraculous outcome.  And after her baby is born she’ll be confronted with a whole new and indescribably transcendent experience of waiting.  If she tries to avoid that, she’ll miss the miracles that continue to trail behind.

We dislike waiting because we feel helpless to change what’s unresolved and we’re crazy about resolution.  The answer is to embrace discipline rather than avoidance.  If we’re always waiting, we might as well honor what we’re waiting for by anticipating it with forethought and appreciation.  When we do that, we no longer feel so helpless.  When we honor the wait, resolution does eventually come and in delightfully unexpected ways.

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Even the whitewashed photograph waits.  The sun is relegated to the background, hugging a corner of the frame, poised to illuminate brick and mortar.  The bikes are idly resting on the post, an homage to the arrested development of their octagonal friend.  Evans’ sign waits to be either celebrated or torn down; the people will decide the fate of his slogan in hashtags.  Even the parking sign is waiting for a passerby to adjust it back to symmetry.

Nature waits.  Architecture waits.  People wait.