14 Lessons I’ve Learned in 2014

My fourth year of doing this list and I’m finding that I don’t necessarily learn anything new each year, rather expand on the lessons of the past. Regardless, it’s an interesting lesson.

14. Telling your truth may hurt other people. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t tell it. This is probably the biggest lesson for me in 2014 and has impacted me the most. We all have a story; our version of the truth. But that true is ultimately intertwined with the stories of the supporting characters in our lives. Often, those versions of the truth rarely match. We each bring our own perspectives, histories and feelings to the table when the story gets retold. So, my version can feel like a betrayal to others. But it doesn’t mean it isn’t still mine to tell. Every year, I get more comfortable living in my skin, accepting my story and trying to move on. And with that comes fall out. I have to live with that. So I’m deciding to do just that.

13. I suffer burnout multiple times a year. Burnout follows me where ever I go. I often wonder if somewhere, on some far away island, live a group of well rested, refreshed people. I’d like to meet them and figure out what the hell it is I’m doing wrong (P.S. I probably already know).

12. You can be a grown up and a child at the same time. In the closing and aftermath of tying up the loose ends of my mother’s estate, I found myself caught between two worlds. One as an adult, attempting to be rational as I went through a lifetime of memorabilia, and the other as a child, grieving the loss of all that was. Grief doesn’t end. It changes along the way. It doesn’t get easier. I’m still that little girl, living in that house.

11. Saying goodbye is hard. For the fifth year in a row, it feels like I’ve said goodbye to many, many things. At times, it felt like to much to bear. My life continues to change in ways I’m still trying to comprehend. But, with every ending comes a new beginning and I’m working that shit out.

10. Unorthodox families are born out of necessity. My family has changed so dramatically over the past few years, I can barely recognize it. I still love them as much as I ever did, but the dynamic isn’t the same and it has been redefined over time. I’ve taken on a new definition of family, one that includes placing values on things other than obligation and blood. Instead, I’ve added those who have shown me support, laughter, love and understanding with no expectation in return. But I give it back anyway.

9. I hate commuting. I wish I could embrace my 10 hour weekly commute. But I can’t. It’s old and it’s on my list of things that have to give.

8. My 40’s are more liberating the longer I am in them. My 40’s, while at times, angst filled, have been truly liberating. I care less and less about what people think and wish everyone felt that way. It’s a beautiful thing.

7. I’m disturbed by the fact that my students can’t relate to September 11th. I’ve got this problem. It doesn’t matter how old I get, my students never age. The longer I teach, the harder it is to connect with them on common ground. So much of what I teach about the human condition and experience can be explained by the unified emotions we all felt on September 11, 2001. And now I’m teaching students who were 4 and 5 years old on that day. They just don’t get it. And thankfully, they haven’t had a 9/11 of their own generation. But, it does make my job harder somedays.

6. A cell phone is a novelty, not a necessity. Believe it or not, you can live without your cell phone. I’ll admit to some addict-like behavior, but you will rarely see me bring one into a meeting (unless I know I’m going to need a fist emoji text to me) and I’ll never pull it out in class. Neither should you. It’s rude. It’s interfering with our ability to actually connect with people. It’s a cop out. None of us are that important. None of us.

5. Your dentist could ruin your life. Do yourself a favor and pick a good dentist. It will save you a lot of heartache and a possible lupus diagnosis.

4. There’s nothing a great date masseuse can’t fix. Do yourself another favor and find a great date masseuse. Not a shitty one who wastes a glorious hour of your life. Find one that will beat the shit out of you and make you feel like you got your money’s worth.

3. It’s easier for me to embrace my own successes than have you do it for me. As much as I’ll happily toot my own horn and have been accused of being full of myself, I’ll be embarrassed if you try to do it for me. Anyone who knows me, knows I don’t take compliments freely. I compete with one person in my life; me. And when I rock, I rock. But, I don’t need any of you to point it out.

2. Being an introvert is a good thing. I have learned after many years to embrace the introvert that I am. While I can stand in front of large groups of people and do my shtick, or crack jokes for my closest friends, those things require a huge amount of mental and physical energy and recovery. I like what I do for a living but there is a price I pay. It’s a deep need for solitude and I physically crave it after being around too many people. It doesn’t make me a freak or anti-social. It makes me, me.

1. While I have questioned it multiple times this year, I still love my life. After what feels like a pretty difficult year, I wasn’t sure I could end with my yearly “I love my life” lesson. But I can, and I will. Under the sarcasm and glass-half-empty persona is a girl who gets out of bed every fucking day and tries to be be happy. And figures it out everyday. Laughter is a must and is accomplished every day. Loving Max is another key….happens everyday. I thank God everyday for this less than perfect life. Because I’ve seen worse and I’ve had worse.

Here’s to another year of lessons and a happy 2015!

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What People Don’t Understand About Racism

I’m about to make some controversial, yet, hopefully, thought provoking statements. In light of all of recent accusations of police brutality, riots, police shootings, etc., I have seen a lot of strong opinions on the topics. I’ll be honest, I don’t watch the news very often anymore. My life has enough going on without me taking on other people’s stuff. I’ve been accused of being uninformed and if that’s the case, then, I can live with that. I may be uninformed on the particulars of media slanted coverage that paints African Americans as crazed lunatics stopping traffic, looting stores and killing cops. I’m also under informed on the particulars of innocent police officers being gunned down for no other reason than wearing a uniform. But I am not uninformed when it comes to the underpinnings of the racial divide and why it is so vast. It’s my business to know.

Not only do I teach psychology with an emphasis on the socio-historical roots of why we as human beings think and act the way we do, but I also work in the behavioral health field and provide clinical supervision in one of the poorest,  most violent communities in Pennsylvania. I see racism everyday. I see it from Whites. I see it from Blacks. I see in it systemically in the government systems. My opinion is very, very informed.

I am often in awe of white individuals who try to downplay racism. I mean, I understand the urge. Who wants to say they are part of the problem? Who wants to admit to feeling uncomfortable walking down the street and seeing a young, black man coming towards them? Who wants to admit to holding their purse a little closer? Who wants to admit that they assume someone is uneducated, angry and gunning to gun down cops based solely on the color of their skin? But, it happens. It happens everyday. In every city. In every town. And you are kidding yourself if you would like to argue to the contrary.

But, I’m more interested in the why. Why do Whites fear Blacks? Why do Blacks assume the worst of Whites?

Through both my work in behavioral health and as a teacher of psychology, I have come to two very compelling reasons. The first is based on the socio-economic and historical underpinnings of the Black/White experience and the second is based on the concept of behaviorism itself.

We cannot escape our collective past. All of us are a product of what history has taught us about race, authority, crime and safety. Our personal experiences may greatly differ but the collective nature of our past is what has brought us to where we are today.

Our past has largely taught us to segregate. This goes back to a concept called “in group bias” in which, from an evolutionary perspective, it only makes sense to cling to others who are like us. This is what kept tribes alive, fed, and safe (and still does in many parts of the world). The in group bias intuitively teaches us to fear the “out group”, aka people unlike us. So, whether we are talking about race, culture or socioeconomic groups, we all have a tendency to assume our group is better than another.

We live in a country that has bred prejudice and discrimination since its inception. We rolled up and took land away from Native Americans. We brought Africans over and made them our slaves. We sent the Japanese to “encampments” during WWII to limit further possible attacks to our freedom. We didn’t let women vote. We didn’t let people of color vote. We made Blacks drink from different water fountains, pee in different toilets, and sit in the back of the bus. We blocked little children from entering school buildings. We left the residents of New Orleans to die after Hurricane Katrina. Nope….no racism here. No reason to worry, minorities.

If you are a young black woman or man today, your grandparents experienced the overt racism of the 50’s and 60’s. We are not talking about hundreds of years ago. We are talking about their grandparents. And while overt racism isn’t as politically correct as it was 50 or 60 years ago, covert racism is alive and well in America. Again, don’t kid yourselves. Studies as recently as 2000 looked at traffic stops in Midwestern States, where African Americans are by far the minority of the population. They were stopped at much higher rates than their white counterparts. These are statistical facts, published in scholarly journals. The California Housing Study sent out over 1100 identical emails to various landlords with vacant apartments signed with three names; Tyrell Jackson, Said Al-Rahman and Patrick McDougall. Guess who got the most positive response? Yep….the Irish lad, Patrick. The least? Yep…..that Black guy, Tyrell. Same email, yet a very different response. Maybe there is something to this racism thing.

If this has been your experience, coupled with the experience of your parents, your grandparents, their parents and so on, this is your history. This is your world view. Things probably don’t feel very fair.

Before I get into the behavioral elements (because they are super important), I’m going to address the obvious counter argument. Namely, “So what? Why perpetuate history? We all have free will. We can all overcome.” My answer to that is this….look at your own life. How many of us have really escaped our past? How many of us don’t credit our families, good and bad, for where we are right now? Bad temper? That’s dad’s fault. Kind soul? Well, that’s mom, of course. Yes, some of us break the cycle but it is the exception, not the rule. It’s not even close to the rule. And the race rule will never be broke when both sides are so diametrically opposed to even acknowledging its existence.

Now, put on your scientist hat and look at people as nothing more than robots reacting to various stimuli in the environment. Remember Ivan Pavlov and his dogs? Pavlov accidentally discovered that he could condition dogs to salivate to the sound of a bell in anticipation of food that would arrive shortly afterwards. This is called classical conditioning and it happens everyday. Advertising loves to pair once neutral stimuli (their boring product) with unconditioned stimuli (super hot, sexy model) to create a conditioned response (I have to have your lame product because that super hot, sexy model looks super hot and sexy holding it!!!)

Classical conditioning is at the core of media coverage of racially charged events. If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times lately…..”What about when a black guy kills a white guy for no reason??? Nobody talks about that!” And you are right. They don’t, but not for reasons (from a conditioning perspective) that you might think. Here’s the deal. Historically, Blacks (at the core, a neutral stimuli) have been paired with unconditioned stimuli (crime, guns, violence) to create a conditioned fear response. Classical conditioning is subconscious. We don’t really recognize that it’s the super hot, sexy model that is drawing us to a product anymore than we recognize that selective media coverage of impoverished minorities are paired with crime. Both naturally become part of the collective unconscious.

African Americans as a group are disproportionately poorer than their white counterparts. They always have been. Crimes occur in these areas, not because people are Black but because they are poor. When people are poor, the rules that apply to people that have the basics covered (food, water, shelter) don’t mean as much. People will do things they wouldn’t do under other circumstances when they don’t have much. It doesn’t matter what color they are. Crimes occur in low income areas because of the socio-economic make-up of the area, not the race of the people living there.

I recently read a definition of empathy that goes something like this: If you can for one minute, stand in someone else’s shoes and understand why, then you have experienced empathy.

I empathize with the racial minorities in this country because I take the time to understand. I also empathize with the police because in my former life, I was a state trooper’s wife. I inherently know the difficulties of that profession. It changes people. No one is ever happy to see the cops show up. Think about every time you walk into a situation wearing that uniform, knowing that no one is particularly thrilled that you have arrived. It’s a hard life. And you have to empathize with them too. Because they do a job very few of us could ever do. Or would want to. No one deserves to die for putting on a uniform. For trying to protect. But no one deserves to be harassed or hurt or killed because of the color of their skin either. Regardless of the color.

One Last Chance

In response to The Daily Post’s weekly writing challenge: “Hindsight is 20-20.”

Every morning before I get out of bed, I roll over and look at my phone. I scroll through junk email and check out my friend’s Facebook posts. In the last year, I installed an app called Timehop that allows me to look back over the last 6 years I have been on Facebook to see what I have posted on this day in history. Since the past 6 years have been life altering, it’s always interesting to see where I’ve been and how far I’ve come.

This morning as I scrolled back, I found a post from 5 years ago today that stated, “Remembering Father Dave from the Episcopal Church of the Advent in Kennett Square, who passed away overnight. He baptized Max and I will truly miss his down to earth attitude, great sense of humor, and his ability to make a jaded Catholic find her way back inside a church.” Within minutes, I was crying for a man I barely knew and a missed opportunity that has haunted me for years.

Putting it all in perspective, please understand, on this day 5 years ago, I was approaching the 6 month anniversary of my brother’s death and my first Christmas without him. Approximately 10 days before, I had a confrontation with a “family member” regarding their lack of support in the 6 months prior. When I say lack of support, I mean I literally had not even received a sympathy card, phone call or email inquiring about my well-being, which was very far from well. I was peaking in my grief. The numbness had long worn off and I was in the throes of pain, anger and despair. I didn’t think I could go on.

After the confrontation, I walked into my mother’s house and cried as if I was kneeling at the base of the Wailing Wall, complete with the rocking back and forth. My mother and sister sat next to me, watching this spectacle and then told me I needed to stop. I need to stop crying, stop blaming, stop not living and learn to move on. I couldn’t believe that my mother; a woman who had buried her child could say that to me, but she did. I needed to find some peace.

I had contemplated before this “come to Jesus” moment that I needed to “go to Father Dave” (the most obvious, next choice) to look for answers. Therapy wasn’t enough in that moment. I needed my soul to heal, if I even had one left.

I hesitated in contacting Father Dave, not knowing if I could bear what little was left of my soul and tell him how broken I was. I’m guessing I would have needed to say very little at that point, since I felt like I looked like I was wearing a permanent body cast. I wore my grief, not just on my sleeve, but on every part of my body.

I allowed my deeply ingrained, perhaps misguided, understanding of religion, born from a Catholic upbringing to win out in the intellectual vs. emotional war that was raging inside me. As a Catholic, I believed that death was a silent part of life to be experienced by the survivors in a quiet, reserved manner. It didn’t help that I was harboring an enormous amount of resentment towards the Catholic priest that referred to my brother as an “80 year old man who had lived a long and full life”.  (Note to Catholic priests….it helps to read the background, at the very least, on the person you are burying.)

I knew Father Dave was not the Catholic church or a Catholic priest. In fact, his easy going, engaging, Catholic-lite Episcopalian approach drew me back into the church when Max was a toddler and the guilt of not having had him baptized was outweighing my disdain for organized religion. I found the rituals of my youth comforting when delivered by a man who truly understood how to make God relevant in my own life. And yet, I could not go see him after Ralph died.

I learned of Father Dave’s death in an email sent out by the church while I was at work. I remember sitting there and feeling the pit of my stomach drop. My mourning was tripled; my brother, Father Dave and a chance to find some peace with him as my conduit.

This is one of my greatest regrets. I regret letting my fear, anger and grief win out over peace and love. Maybe, I wasn’t ready. But I wasn’t ready to lose my opportunity with Father Dave either.

I’ve learned many, many lessons over the last 5 1/2 years. Showing gratitude is one. Being vulnerable is another. I wish I could have been vulnerable enough to go to Father Dave and have him offer me some comfort that I couldn’t find anywhere else at the time. I needed my soul to heal. I needed God. And at the time I needed Father Dave to hand God to me, tied up with a nice little bow. Maybe that is naive but I don’t care. It’s my story.

Today, I find gratitude in little things. I practice vulnerability more freely. I take risks. I thank people. I tell people when I’m disappointed. I own my shit. I work everyday to be a little more whole than the day before.

But I still miss Father Dave.

What I’ll Never Miss

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Kick the Bucket.”

Nearly all of us have a bucket list; things we hope to accomplish or see in our lifetimes but have you ever taken the time to say, “Yeah….not for me. Don’t care. I’ll pass.”? Yes, you have. But, have you taken the time to make a list, just in case you lose the ability to speak or nod your head no just as someone gets ready to cart you off on an adventure that is their’s alone? I’d like to make a permanent record of things I’ll never miss in the off chance I’m rendered speechless and you have some great idea that you are positive I’d love to partake in.

1. Travel to the North Pole: Please, please do not EVER think I’d love to join you on a trip to the North Pole. Yes, I love Santa and if Rudolph would like to come visit me at home, that would be fine. But I despise the cold. I would never willingly pay money and travel to a place where I am forced to wear 14 layers of clothes and fight the elements all in the name of adventure. I’m not that adventurous. (P.S. Please apply to the South Pole also)

2. Go Skiing: In the same vein of traveling to the North Pole, don’t ever invite me to go skiing. There is almost nothing less appealing than the idea of whipping down a mountain in the cold on 2 thin pieces of steel. I could fall and break a hip. I could look like an ass. I could get colder than I want to. No. I do not want to go skiing.

3. Get a tattoo: I have no interest in a tattoo. I realize people choose to have ink injected under their skin to permanently memorialize a variety of things. I’ll admit, I do think my feelings on this stem from a generational place, although many of my contemporaries disagree. I’m also a bit of a sexist on the topic. Males don’t bother me but I still appreciate the beauty of unmarked skin on a woman, At the end of the day, my decision was made many years ago in my twenties when I contemplated getting Grateful Dead Dancing Bears tattooed around my ankle. And then I had a premonition of sagging Dancing Bears hanging on stretched out, overweight ankles when I was 70 and it cured me quickly. So, no tattoos for me.

4. Interact with a bird: Short story…..birds of any kind freak me out. I can appreciate their beauty from afar but I do not want to be in a situation where a bird may possible sit on my shoulder or swoop past my head. In the off chance that you own a bird, bypass me on your invite list to any occasion that is held in the same area as aforementioned bird.

5. Watch baseball: This one is a controversial one because my son loves and plays the game. I, on the other hand, do not. I love that my son loves the game and feel this should be enough. I should be allowed to love it vicariously through him from the comfort of my home while he is out on the field, loving it. (Note: I do actually attend the games. I drop him off, go home, hang out, loving it from my couch, then return mid-game, yelling enthusiastically, “Go Max!!”). I’m not a monster.

6. See any Star Wars Movie: No. Just no. I shouldn’t have to explain myself.

7. Go to a party where I know no one: I am an introvert. Introverts are notoriously misunderstood and their aversion to interacting with large groups of people in social situations is often mistaken as arrogance, low self esteem or extreme neediness. We tend to cling to the one person we know because we hate small talk, not because we lack social skills. I’ve gotten much better at the small talk thing but would still probably score a 4 out of 10 if I was being tested. I’m okay not having a lot of ancillary relationships. I don’t need to feel like I know everyone. I need about 5 meaningful relationships in my life. And parties where I have to pretend to care what people are talking about are mentally and physically draining. I’d rather run a half marathon.

8. Being politically correct: Yeah….I pretty much suck at the politically correct thing. I will always choose honesty over a carefully worded response. Because, honestly, life is too short to waste your time worrying about how others will react to your words. People will respond however they choose and you have absolutely no control over this, NONE. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t bother me when I’m misunderstood because it bothers me greatly. But I don’t take back the things I say. Because I meant them.

9. Reading War and Peace: I can live my whole life without ever reading War and Peace and know that I lived a full life. Partially because, I don’t even know what it’s about, other than war and possibly, peace.

10. Dying my hair: I hope to never have to dye my hair. I hope that I have enough faith in myself that I never feel the need to alter the ever changing shades of red that I have been blessed with in my life. When I was about 14, my cousin’s husband told me that one day I would be thankful for that thick, wild mane of hair that I’d spent my entire life fighting. And, I’ll be honest, I thought he was possibly a pervert who was into young girls. When I turned 16, around the time Molly Ringwald hit the scene, it all came together and I realized I was truly given a gift. No hair color will ever do the nuances of my hair justice. So, as I watch the red slowly turn to a blondish grey, I hope I can embrace the time I had with my fiery locks and bow out gracefully.