Monday, June 23, 2014

Look for ways we are one, not how foreign I seem to you

Do you know why labels like "dumbass" and racist remarks are factually wrong? It's because they put a wedge between human beings that doesn't exist. It's a prefab wall, imagined by ignorant thought and spoken by a mindless mouth.

In the visible realm, the spoken word is only a spray of saliva droplets. Yet for all its misty constitution, it has the power to damage. Think of Agent Orange, the herbicidal weapon blamed for half a million Vietnamese children with birth defects. Careless words can be toxic.

Case study: Last night, getting off the dance floor, I heard a stranger call after me, "Sayonara."

Sounds innocent. Well intentioned, even. I considered the source: a young man, early 20s, among a group of exuberant 20-somethings who are a rare sight at the nightspot in town that caters to the mature crowd. (It even proclaims it on the outside wall.)

I can understand why he might have chosen to say it. I'm mistaken by the Japanese as one of them, so imagine how much more convincing my seeming Japaneseness looks to a white guy—the phrase "you all look alike" comes to mind.

Maybe he was seeking a connection. Maybe he meant something like, "Hey, I speak your language. I know one word, but at least I'm trying." Clumsy, but not uncommon in the younger set.

I pretended I hadn't heard. Because how it struck me in that moment wasn't kind.

I felt like while I had been enjoying myself among friends, someone had been sizing me up and putting me in a box with a label that looks different from those of the rest of the crowd. A big fat yellow label.

It was the first time I registered that I was among only three Asians there that night—literally a minority. And that's never a comfortable feeling when it's externally imposed. Not to mention it was the wrong label! I'm not Japanese, I'm Filipino. If you're gonna stick a label on me, at least get it right. If you don't want to make the effort to verify, shut up. If you don't know that Asia is a big continent with many, many different cultures, stay 100 feet away from me, because I'm just here to dance, and I'm not your f*cking high school geography teacher or cultural exchange student.

OK, rant over. Peaceful mind resumes.

What's that you say?
"To a hammer, everything looks like a nail." (attributed to everyone from Abraham Maslow to Mark Twain.)
To which I retort,
"Like a hammer, ethnicity can be used to build a solid structure, or whack somebody to death on the skull."
And I attribute this pithy quote to someone called vox_rowan, who left a comment on A Complete Guide to Hipster Racism.

As you can tell by now there's lots of baggage weighing me down about this. Immigrants like me often live through "start-up pain," as a friend of mine calls a new experience. Our lives in the United States are marked with episodes like the time my husband's side of the family had a houseguest from Arkansas who, on the ride to the house, categorically stated, "Like should stick with like." Then he met me, and was on the bus home the next day.

But I'd like to think that after living more than half my life here—nearly three decades now—the "otherness" of me is a non-issue. It is to me. It only becomes an issue when someone decides that the person I am is based solely on my ethnic (to them) appearance. I am not "ethnic" among "my people"—hello, I'm just another woman. Some people really ought to travel more often, and not just because cruise food is excellent. There is poetic justice in the fact that Americans in the Philippines will always be referred to as "the foreigners" no matter how long they've been expats. I recommend traveling to those people who use that term, too.

I don't mean we should all ignore the obvious details—that this person is tall, this one Asian, this one has two left feet. But do we have to open our mouths and make it the very first thing we say to someone? Could we maybe take two breaths, in and out, and refocus? Find something we have in common, even if it's just, "I'm here with my friends, too. We like to dance." Then we're not inadvertently putting distance between us even as we attempt to make small talk.

What makes this little case study a bit more nuanced is this: In the lead-up to last night's thought-provoking non-incident, I had been grappling with the yogic philosophy that we are all one. How can that be, I thought, when everything in my Christian upbringing had pounded in the exhortation to be "set apart" from the world, to keep my spirit sacred. The world, per my worldview, was just itching to soil my heavenly robe.

I get the oneness with God idea. My spirit is a shard of the divine, and when the container that is my body breaks, it will flow back to the Creator (Consciousness, in yogispeak). I asked my friend and meditation teacher, Dennis, about this failure of mine to understand the concept of oneness with all created beings.

To his credit, Dennis didn't launch into a sermon. He simply suggested that when I look at a person, I seek my Self in that person's eyes. That resonated with me. I get the Self with a capital "S" bit. I know there is a core in me that remains unsullied by circumstances, poor choices, and lapses into selfishness. Being reminded that if I have that core, other people do, too, set me at least on the outskirts of the town called Everyone is One.

Not long after I posed the question, I received a quite unexpected key to the city straight from the mayor. Coming out of a 15-minute meditation session about two months ago, I had opened my eyes halfway when a blanket of knowing wrapped itself around me.

I could see myself the way God sees me. That is the simplest way to put it. It was just a glimpse. Over in a nanosecond. But what a life-changing instant.

When I am being the person God sees me as, beloved beyond measure, fearless, radiating the very love I receive from the source of love, that's how I see other beings, too. There is no room in this perfect being for less than perfect relationship with all.

Too bad most of us who have had such a moment cannot extend it automatically for the rest of our lives. We have to do a little work called meditation to clear out the blinders, and that work must be done regularly. I hear some people are born knowing, having done the work in previous lifetimes, and some have practiced meditation so faithfully that going into a deep state has become a skill. 

But that's why labels and racist dismissals are factually wrong. Because they are so surface-based.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Why you should never wait for an apology

I lived most of my life telling myself the same story. It began with "I was wronged." Then "They didn't appreciate me," it went on. And it wrapped up with "No matter how hard I try, how much I give, I always get taken for granted and never seem to get full credit."

It didn't matter whether I was referring to my personal or professional experience. Same story. The employers who milked me for all they could then shunted me aside to hire and promote fresh blood. The friends and relatives who dismissed me with callous remarks and thoughtless behavior. On and on it went.

One day my massage therapist asked me, "What do you get out of telling yourself that story?" (She became my business coach—shout-out to Carolina Lopez!)

That ended the story-telling right then and there.

I saw that it was a sick pattern. It's the opposite of empowering when you keep projecting the past onto the present and future. It might have felt comforting at the start to have a place to lay the blame for disappointments and a reason for festering resentment. But then the comforting turns into self-coddling. You nurse your boo-boo too long and before you know it you're stunted. An emotional gnome.

The breakthrough was realizing that it was a story. That's all it was. I could change it. I could reframe it. I could start from scratch if I wanted. And it doesn't depend on whether the people I've cast as oppressors ever own up to bad behavior and apologize. They likely won't.

I can tell that I've moved on, from re-reading this post I wrote on my List of Unjust Utterances back in 2010. It's a short compilation of the mindless things people have said to me that raised the fur on my back. They don't have an effect on me now. Maybe enough time has passed, maybe very few of those people are still in my orbit. 

Or maybe I truly don't care what people think of me. Those people, in particular.

Just for sport, I tried to imagine what it would be like to meet each one again and be offered apologies. Here's where it gets ugly.

Not because I wouldn't accept the apologies—I would, without hesitation. But what I realized was that just to be able to imagine them apologizing, I would have to set aside my long-held judgment of them as nasty people. Whoa! 

Me: good. Them: bad. If I can't tell myself that story anymore, I'd have to...give it up and um, grow!

Easier to just carry around a memory file of them as villains.
Easier to imagine myself taking the high road and forgive them without being asked.

So let's consider this quote from Robert Brault: "Life becomes easier when you learn to accept the apology you never got."

Yes, it allows you to move on. Don't wait for an apology; act as if you already accepted it. BUT: don't paint yourself as the big-hearted hero and the other person as evil incarnate. Leave room for the possibility, if not the probability, that they might wake up and evolve at some point.

We don't hold the patent on sainthood.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

When you ask, "Am I enough?"

 A young, brilliant woman I know via the blogging world posted a question that prompted me to comment. She asked, "Am I enough?" Halfway through, I realized I was writing a blog post myself. This is the unabridged version of it:

I think what you're really asking, Joy, isn't "I wonder if I'm enough to my son?" but "Am I enough to myself?" It's a healthy question to ask. You're in a great position, knowing without a doubt that you are fulfilling to the maximum your roles as mom and wife. Therefore you can come from a place of abundance, not lack, and proceed with grace toward growth, not scratch for survival. Your son will of course express his preference for having unlimited access to you indefinitely. But we know children turn into teenagers, and the preference for having his privacy and his own path takes over. You don't want to wait until then to answer your question.

"We have known all our lives that being evaluated objectively by the outside world shapes our identities, gives us affirmation and boosts our self-confidence and sense of worth." What I've learned (and wish I'd known in my early 20s of SAHMothering) is while the outside world does boost our sense of worth, the true source of that worth is within—the inner world. The tricky part is that no amount of positive talk, e.g. repeating "I am enough" can substitute for experiencing that this is true.

How does one attain that experience? I'm sure there are other ways for other people, but I can only speak from my own experience. I found it in meditation. I was coming out of a regular 15-minute practice one Saturday morning in March. I was just starting to open my eyes, when an inexplicable flash of KNOWING came upon me. I saw myself for the first time as God actually sees me. Nothing about my past (accomplishments, failures) factored into it. Nothing about my future (goals, desires, mistakes) entered the equation. Just me in the present, a sneak preview of the glorious, unseparate Self we are told we revert to when we die in grace.

I hear what my younger self, and possibly you, would be thinking right now: All this is fine and good for someone older, like me, who has already built and walked away from several careers. We have the luxury of having proven ourselves to ourselves and to the world. Yesterday I was talking to a fellow yoga teacher trainee, who is 19. She was wishing me luck as I waited to hear back from a magazine editor on a paid internship. I realized that I was fine with whatever her decision might be. If I get it, great. If not, on to the next challenge. A delicious state of detachment from results while maintaining optimism and confidence.

It is a gift to have experienced my Self so early in my meditative path. It would be utopia if every single person did, because we would conduct our lives and relate to every other created being so differently from the way we habitually do. Instead of competing and comparing, we would collaborate and encourage. But in the meantime, what is a gal to do when she asks herself, "Am I enough?"

I suspect the answer will be "Yes!" when you identify, pursue, draw boundaries around, and nurture your passion(s) in life. These will be apart from your husband and son. There is a great chance that in finding your passion you will realize your purpose in life. Again, apart from being a mother and wife.

"It doesn't interest me what you do for a living. I want to know what you ache for, and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart's longing."
~ Oriah Mountain Dreamer

You can read Joy Page Manuel's post on her blog here.

Friday, January 31, 2014

The tipsy post: What if something you believe about yourself isn't a hard fact?

A quarter of a glass of Riesling is slinking down my throat as I type this. Until recently, I would've snorted if you had forecast that I'd be swilling wine. It won't be long before I'll be too sleepy to spell straight. Yup, I'm a lightweight. Lucky I'm not in the demographic of drunk texters.

One of the definites about me had always been "I don't drink." But that, along with a number of things I used to believe about myself, is no longer true. You ever have something hit you like that? At midlife, no less.

I used to believe I could think my way out of anything rash. We moved when Dad retired, so I attended two high schools, both all-girls. At one school, girls were getting pregnant and dropping out. At the other, they were dating each other, breaking up, and attempting to off themselves. I was running for student government. I was directing the one-act play for the annual competition. I was volunteering as a catechism teacher for first graders at a nearby school.

People were alienated by my lack of humor. At 14, I was seized with an urgent desire to fit in, so I cheated—once!—on a Biology exam. Of course I got caught; I hadn't had time to perfect my technique. When they summoned my Mom to the office I told her it was probably for some missing silverware from a campus event I had staffed. The principal had to set her straight about her high-achieving daughter. Mom asked why someone like me would need to cheat. Ms. Principal said some girls are never content with the high grades we already have. Oh, that principal thought she had my number.

Mom never gave me grief for broadsiding her like that. I wonder why. My Dad dictated my letter of apology to the principal, and I wasn't expelled. I don't think the cheating episode created enough notoriety for me to fit in. I hardly recognized my impulsive self.

Attending a Catholic university by age 15, I became aware, just barely, that some of my classmates smoked pot. I tried it once at 17 and flunked a P.E. exam. This was the same year I broke up with my first boyfriend and took up smoking for exactly seven days.

The night I turned 21, I asked a co-worker to join me for pizza. We got into a little necking outside the pizza joint. Hmm. Why hadn't I been self-conscious about my garlic breath? His proposition was rather banal. I still recall exactly what we said:

"We can do this any way you want. I'll do whatever you want," said the guy, whose girlfriend was pregnant with his child. I instantly reverted to my sensible self, the one who wouldn't have invited any guy in a relationship to anything outside of work.

"I just wanted to have pizza on my birthday," I reasoned with him. You think the French kissing might've sent a mixed message? 

His ego bruised, he started a rumor that I'd been trysting with him for several months. I actually got called in to Human Resources. The HR director had her jaw open, about to address the situation, when someone walked in. She dropped the matter altogether. I put an end to the gossip by sending the guy a fake telegram of his own obituary. Remember telegrams?

I thought I'd put my good girl-gone-bad episodes behind me. One year and one move across the Pacific Ocean later, I started dating a man hovered over by three forceful females: his domineering mother, his wacko-off-her-meds ex-wife (I know, it's a cliché to call the ex- names), and their strong-willed 3-year-old daughter. They also had a one-year-old daughter who was a people pleaser even at that age. Technically the ex- wasn't an ex- yet, as they had only been separated for three months. The divorce wasn't final until nine months after we met and began dating. 

Throughout the 12 months we dated, I lugged around a mental picture of Catholic finger-wagging. I was ashamed to be dating a married man. I had saved myself for someone who hadn't wasted any time getting in bed with someone before me. Yes, I did think like that in those days. I probably should've given him a pass considering he had a 10-year headstart on life.

Part of the reason I agreed to marry him was that I was so convinced I would make a much more stable mother figure for the girls than their own mother and grandma. Call me Ernestina With a Mission. That's what I used to believe about myself.

As a parent, I was stable, sure, but also very strict and impatient. I'd been raised in a military family. There was no talking back, no sir. To the two daughters, we added a third daughter, and all three had to put up with my ramrod straight mindset.

The experience of full-custody stepparenting through the teen years merits its own blog post, one I may not ever write. Suffice it to say the conflicts over parenting styles strained at the seams of our marriage. I once wailed at my husband, "I hate what you've turned me into—a stepmom!"

Once, we were camped out on the living room floor watching "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." It was the episode in which Buffy wants to go to bed with Angel even though she's been warned all hell would break loose.

Famous line by Buffy: "What if I never feel this way again about anybody?"
Cue loud snort and guffaw from the stepmom. Teen daughters pretend not to know I exist.

I moved out on year 14. By then I was OVER feeling guilty and being blamed for everything. The gulf between us yawned wide and unbridgeable. I lost my appetite. I cried every night the first week at my spare little apartment. I'm sure everyone else in the family was suffering, but I was too walled up to empathize. We mourned the death of the future we thought we'd been assured.

Being suddenly single at 38 was hard to wrap my head around. Especially being single in the U.S.! I would be expected to put out when I dated...w-w-what?!? I vowed to not date for at least two years. Then I heard myself on the phone with a longtime friend, toying with the idea of being promiscuous. If not now, when?

It stayed hypothetical. A puny part of it was my choice, but more of it was God rearranging circumstances. It was the biggest revelation about myself thus far. Left to my own devices long enough, devoid of the hedge of marriage and family, I could see that I might spin myself into a series of poor choices until I couldn't find my way back to me.

A marriage revived is like coming back from the dead. At least I think it is, but don't quote me, I've never been dead. I moved back home five years after we separated.

Sounds like a happy ending, right? Is that why I'm swilling wine? Am I toasting my cushy life?

Well, let me tell you. A week after my 50th birthday last Thanksgiving, the universe gifted me with a surprise: my first anxiety attack, from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. I didn't know what it was when it was happening. Google filled me in. The most bewildering aspect of my anxiety attack is how my mind has finally betrayed me. It has no control over the physical symptoms. I'd love to say that this is life's final blow to debunk my belief that I can reason my way out of anything. But I've gained a bit of humility about that.

I've had around five or six more attacks since then, none quite as wild. I've debriefed women my age, including my yoga mates, my dance mates, and the knowledgeable staff at the local Sprouts grocery. I've stocked up on chamomile tea, linden tea, lemon-flavored magnesium powder to fizz in the tea, mineral bath salt, evening primrose oil, chewable stress relief gummies, and, for the worst of the worst insomnia-plus-anxiety, non-addictive sleep aid tablets. My husband's Christmas gift to me this year was aromatherapy for anxiety.

"Mom, you should drink a little Riesling, it doesn't have a lot of sugar," advised my best friend/youngest daughter, 26. She took in the information, processed it with the fact that the tannins in red wine devastate my head, and came up with her solution.

I'm taking her advice.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Whimsy isn't fatal—but your killjoy attitude is

Do I have to wear a costume?
Well, in a word, no.

But a curious thing happens when grown-ups do. We begin to see better.

We might see tiaras in a strip of lace and fairy wings in a pair of windshield shades. We see hazy sketches of possibility between dreaming and waking—muted colors and tattered textures, and in the distance, a rabbit to chase.

We see a date on the calendar that candy stores, card companies and flower shops have commandeered. We resolve to shape that date into an occasion that means something to us again.

We see the same familiar faces we see all year, but now we notice Tinkerbell's flit in their gait, the shadow of Pan, the glint of Hook's grin.

When new friends-to-be join us in costume, what do they see? Not accountants and attorneys, dentists and drivers, not teachers or therapists or clerics or clerks. They see who we are, how alike we are. We all sprouted from children.

So while wearing a costume is never required, I highly recommend playing along. It can be simple. If it's a woodland theme, wear a leaf pin or a sprig of fern and moss. Poodle or paisley for the sock hop and seventies dance, respectively. Paw prints and a long string of beads for the safari and the roaring 20s dances.
"But I'm just not interested in going ballroom dancing with people dressed as hobbits, leprechauns, gnomes, trees, hobos or other crazy stuff."

Stay home, then. Get well. We love you, but we don't want to catch what you have.

It sounds serious.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

If you want me to feel old, say this

Everyone in professional positions seems to be younger now. That's supposed to signal to me that I've gotten older. I'm not giving up the fight just yet.

It's satisfying to declare, "I have two grandsons, so I'm done with all that" when my fellow yoga teacher trainees trade stories about the difficult age their children are. The universe gets me back, though.

The other day I requested an introduction on LinkedIn from a friend. If I have to explain to you what LinkedIn're even older than I am. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

My friend responded right away with, "I know him IRL and everything."

IRL? I messaged back. "In real life." So I filed that away in case I ever capitulate and get texting unblocked on my unsmart phone. Not likely.

She copied me on her introductory message to the colleague I wanted to connect with on LinkedIn. Here's the part I choked over:

"She was the campus president's speechwriter extraordinaire, back in the day, and she mentored me early in my career."

OMG. I counted how many years it was...let's see, it's 2014, and I ghostwrote for that particular campus head from 2000 to 2005. Yup. It WAS back in the day. Shoot.

You know what would've made a great illustration for this post? A picture of my child-size antique spinning wheel. How's that for "back in the day." It would still be in our garage except that my husband secretly carted it off to the thrift store who knows how long ago—probably back in the day. I only recently realized it was missing because I've started emptying out the garage and closets in earnest.

That's what older people do, they downsize. Yuck.

There's no escaping it. Whether I'm at home unearthing knickknacks I haven't used in a decade, or hustling for freelance writing gigs from kids who were undergrads when I peaked in my career, I am reminded that so much of what I know is about the past, and I know little to nothing about the future.

You could say that's exciting. And depending on the kind of day I'm having, I might agree with you.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have more downsizing to do this evening. On my bathroom counter are five or six novelty wristwatches I bought when we went on one of our cruises—you guessed it—back in the day. Who even wears wristwatches any more?

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Radical career change: My story