Beginnings

That time of year has come again, as it always does. The school year is ending and if you’re not graduating from high school, college, graduate school, or some other program, surely you know somebody who is. What an emotional time… nostalgia, fear, pride, anxiety, excitement and probably a thousand other words describe what we’re all feeling right now.

In light of this cornucopia of emotions, I’ve decided to take this opportunity to put into writing a famous Mama Leah pep talk. Here it is.

Endings are hard. They’re scary because we are so comfortable now and we fear the unknown. We realize how possible it is to be excited and terrified for the future at the same time. It’s a lot of emotions to juggle, and that’s not even to mention the emotions toward what we’re leaving behind.

What you’re leaving behind has defined you. It has informed you. It has illuminated your days for quite a while now, and you’re afraid for that light to disappear because you don’t know what the darkness looks like. Again, we fear the unknown. But think about this transition the way you’d think about the lights of a city. During the day, your surroundings are totally visible thanks to the sun. There’s no reason to be afraid because you know exactly what to expect, and that’s an awesome thing. And then the sky begins to change, whether you’re ready or not. Suddenly what was bright blue becomes navy, pink, purple sunset. With or without your permission, the sky has changed. The sun that has lit up your days for so long is going down. For a brief moment in time, it’s gone.

And that’s when you see the city lights.

These magical, multi-colored earthly stars have replaced your big and bright sun. You find that there’s still light; it just looks a little bit different now. Instead of one big shining ball of fire to show you the way, you can choose from a million tiny headlights, streetlights, or storefronts to lead you down an infinite number of paths. These smaller lights don’t show you everything at once, because that’s not what you need anymore. But they are so wonderfully beautiful.

Think of all of the most important things that will ever happen to you- whether that means having a family, getting your dream job, traveling the world… think of the things that you hope you’ll remember when you reach the end of life. What if most of those things haven’t even happened yet?

This is just the beginning. Leaving what you know, what has surely defined you and informed you and supported you for so long, is tough. But if you don’t leave now, how will you ever follow the city lights toward the great adventures life has in store for you?

After graduating college I was supremely stuck between two potential paths for my next year, and I spent hours upon hours trying to determine the right decision; after all, this could influence the path of the rest of my life. Finally, I came to a conclusion and I haven’t looked back since. But what that decision gave me, even more than my totally life-altering year in Boston, was a realization.

To quote myself: “I have one last thing to say. Life is awesome. Because no matter what’s happening right now… we get to have hope.”

Anything can happen. Today you may have to say goodbye, but maybe tomorrow will be the best day of your life. This is an ending, and it’s important to take the time you need to let go. But think of this as your sunset- your gorgeous, surreal, deeply beautiful sunset. And have hope, because you never know what might happen when you see those city lights.

 

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I Love You

Last year I loved my students like crazy. I imagine this was just a small slice of what parents feel- this experience in which your interactions with a person are so normal that you’re sure they have no idea how much you care for them and how much you would willingly do for them. Also, my students were 8th graders, so of course they didn’t get that. Nevertheless, my love for them was strong and real and unlike anything I had experienced before.

I was particularly proud of my kids on their middle school graduation day. One student, though- let’s call him Alex- did not graduate. Alex was a favorite of our team; he would always show up in our team room just to ask for a hug, and we all treasured the experience of watching him grow and learn to express himself throughout the year. Unfortunately, in addition to all of the great things that Alex did, another thing he did was skip class. A lot. At graduation our principal spoke of Alex and the thoughtful conversation they’d had about his not passing his classes in the end. According to our principal, Alex had fallen off the academic wagon because, in his words, “nobody cared about me.”

This was a shocking and painful thing to hear. We had all thought our love for Alex was common knowledge; hugs were plentiful, playful teasing was the norm, and I even chatted with him when I ran into him at our neighborhood grocery store. I had no idea how he could have thought that we didn’t love him. Now, I realize that maybe it’s because we didn’t tell him.

Think of how making our feelings known toward Alex might have changed his situation. Sure, there was work to be done on his part. But what if, instead of accompanying my hugs with “go to class,” I had accompanied them with “you’re amazing” or “I’m so proud of you?” I don’t take responsibility for the entirety of Alex’s situation, but I do take responsibility for not letting him know with total certainty that he was cared for.

It’s been almost a year, but I still think of Alex- and all my kids- often. Random moments in life will suddenly bring me right back to school in Boston, writing on the white board in class, playing kickball after school, or even having an abnormally good time making copies for book club. I wonder how my kids are doing and I think of all the things I wish I could say to them now.

Last night I dreamt that I was in a plane crash. We were on a test flight of some sort, and I was with people I knew from my time in Boston. Suddenly the plane turned upside down and went back up again. We all thought that was a little bit strange. Then it happened again. After a few more moments we all realized that we were going to crash.

I experienced a strange feeling at that point. On one hand, I was powerless. On the other, I was free. I was not scared or angry that this was going to be the end. I didn’t lament the tragedy of a young life lost. I squeezed the person’s hand next to me. I thought of my dad. I said the words that I like to think were his last before he died: “I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you…”

We survived the crash, stood up from the wreckage, and I asked my seat buddy to check my burns. “It stings right here,” I said, “over my heart.” And then I woke up.

I was afraid to go to sleep so I texted several friends to confide in them this harrowing experience. I turned on my music. I read Harry Potter. I did all of my things that I do to make it okay, and eventually it was. But this morning when I got to school and was asked to make copies, I found myself thinking about Alex and my dad and all the people to whom I would like to say “I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you.”

I don’t want the burn over my heart. I don’t want the regret of questioning whether my care and support could have changed things. I don’t want to wonder whether my loved ones know that I love them. I want that all-consuming feeling that there is no worth in fear or pain, only in expressing love. And then I want to do it.

So, to you. Yes, you. I love you. Know why? Because loving is what humans should do, and because you are alive, and that makes you worthy of love, even if nobody has told you so today. So here I am telling you because you deserve to know. You are special and you have gotten this far and you have something to offer the world, and I love you. Also, there’s probably someone in your life to whom you should say the same thing. So go for it. Heal the burn over your heart, let go of the regrets, and just say it; you never know what you might change.

I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you.

Midnight in Paris

Midnight in Paris (2011), is a Woody Allen film that, at its core, is about choosing between fantasy and reality. Super short synopsis: American writer Gil Pender has always fantasized about 1920s Paris. He dreams of living the way his writing idols did, rather than living his own life- that of a sold out Hollywood screenwriter engaged to a woman (Inez) who totally doesn’t share his values. On a trip with Inez to Paris, Gil stumbles into a time slip that allows him to visit the 1920s, where he meets his idols, comes alive as a writer, and even falls in love.

When Gil first meets Adriana, the woman with whom he falls in love, she mentions that her favorite time period is La Belle Epoch, in Paris at the turn of the century. Gil is astounded; how could anyone who lives in Paris in the ‘20s long for anything else? At the end of the movie, the two of them stumble into another time slip that brings them to Adriana’s golden age. Here we get the movie’s lesson: people are never satisfied. We fantasize and romanticize about other times because we don’t know their reality and, in Gil’s words, “the present is… a little unsatisfying, because life’s a little unsatisfying.” Gil learns that it would be nice to escape into a world whose representation has been shaped into something magical by the passage of time, but that even that world has its flaws.

I, however, am with Adriana: “That’s the problem with writers. You are so full of words.” Honestly, Gil’s epiphany is probably the one that I would have, because it’s the one that affirms imperfection and embracing real life as it is. But let’s not forget that we’re dealing with a movie in which characters legitimately have the option to time travel. They don’t have to live with real life as it is, which is why Adriana has every right to “stay and live in Paris’ most glorious time.” Gil, on the other hand, believes that he needs to be rid of his illusions in order to be a good writer. But which illusion is he really giving up?

Gil wants to live in Paris in the ‘20s. He gets the chance. Then he decides that this chance isn’t real, that he needs to muddle his way through real life instead, and I think that that’s cowardly. Think about Gil’s and Adriana’s first exchange: Adriana tells him that he should stay in Paris to finish his book. Gil replies, “I would like to, but it’s not that easy.”

How many times have we said this sentence about things that would make us so happy? What if everyone- gasp- actually did what they wanted? We’d overthrow this stupid system of burning out your best years on unfulfilling jobs, and instead the world would be so much more healthy, more connected, more artful, more fascinating. I truly believe this. But, according to Gil, it’s not that easy. What a shame that even those of us who have slaved away for 16 or more years to get an “education” are willing to dismiss something just because it’s not easy.

I propose a different perspective, one which meddles with fantasy and reality, which Woody Allen so loves to do. I believe that Gil, instead of honorably learning how to deal with his life (although I do support his breaking up with Inez), should subscribe to the versions of reality posed by his new friends, Hemingway and Dali.

“Love that’s true and real creates a respite from death. All cowardice comes from not loving or not loving well, which is the same thing, and when the man who is brave and true looks death squarely in the face… it is because they love with sufficient passion to push death out of their minds until it returns as it does to all men.”

That’s how Hemingway responds when he learns that Gil fears death. Death is real, Hemingway tells us, but if you live your truth and your dreams strongly enough- completely letting go of the realities and the “shoulds” and the “it’s not that easies”- then you can achieve this feeling of immortality, this feeling that reality does not apply to your life because your life has surpassed meaningless categories such as “real” and “unreal” and has instead reached a realm in which what matters is not what is real, but what is true. And what is true can only be defined by you.

As Gertrude Stein (casual) puts it after reading Gil’s manuscript, “we all fear death and question our place in the universe. The artist’s job is not to succumb to despair but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence.” Gil is so afraid for life to end because he has no idea what to do with it while he has it. Stein and Hemingway aim to show him that people who are secure with what they’re doing in their lives are not afraid of death because they know that, when the time comes, they will have no regrets.

Take Gil’s brief meeting with Salvador Dali (again, casual). Gil laments the struggle of his engagement to Inez in 2010 and how it conflicts with his love for Adriana in the ‘20s. The artists surrounding him see no problems, just inspiration for works of art- in Dali’s case, something having to do with a rhinoceros. These artists do what they want to do, say exactly what’s on their minds without fear of judgment, think about rhinoceroses when they want to think about rhinoceroses. This is why, to them, petty realistic problems such as time-traveling love triangles are simply fodder for a film or painting. These people are so committed to being true to themselves and to following their passions that they don’t have to worry about realities.

In fact, these artists show us that real life and fantasy are not even the right distinctions. The real distinction is between people who live their truth and people who don’t. If your truth is traveling back into the 20s every night, okay. If your truth is thinking about a rhinoceros, okay. There is no wrong truth. But if your truth is writing novels in Paris and instead you’re writing screenplays in Hollywood, that’s when life no longer matters. You have wasted a precious life, and that’s why you’re afraid of death.

Gil could have been legitimately happy staying in the ’20s. It would have been one thing if he was disappointed by the era after fantasizing about it for so long, but that’s not the case. He loves it. Of course, not everyone living in the ’20s feels the way that he does because, for them, it’s the present. But for Gil, the rough edges of the past have become blurrier over time.

Adriana loves La Belle Epoch because she knows what the ‘20s are like. Gil loves the ‘20s because he knows what the 2000s are like. What if the real lesson, here, is this: in order to be truly happy with life, you have to blur its edges. You have to see things with imagination in order for them to be worth seeing at all. Whether that means viewing life through the lens of a different era, a paintbrush, or a camera, it’s all the same idea. The real world is rough, and life is meaningless, so we have to mold it and give it meaning through stories and art and fantasies. That’s the only way to make life worth living.

To finish, a few quotes from awesome people. In the words of J.K. Rowling, “Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and, therefore, the foundation of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.” In the words of Albus Dumbledore, “Of course it is happening inside your head… but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

And, finally, Ernest Hemingway (by way of Woody Allen): “Think about it.”

Why We’re Not Monkeys

Normally I write a blog post when I experience something that inspires me, but today I thought I’d do something a little different. Today I wanted a challenge. I decided to find something random and come up with a way to make something meaningful out of it (honestly, isn’t that always what I’m doing anyway?). So I went to a random word generator, which offered six new words each time I clicked a button. I clicked the button three times, and among other things, I got “gorilla,” “giant,” and “banana.” Looks like somebody up there would really like me to write something about monkeys.

So, apparently the reason monkeys think we humans are so gosh darn unattractive is because we have these big ugly foreheads. (I would like to think the monkeys would leave us alone mating-wise no matter how our heads were shaped, but this is what my professor said the other day so I’m gonna go with it.) Why do our foreheads protrude, unlike those of our monkey friends? Well, it’s because we have prefrontal cortexes.

Which is really cool, because that’s the part of our brain that we use to make decisions. But which is really uncool because the prefrontal cortex actually doesn’t get fully developed until you’re at least 25 or so, and if you’re anything like me, you’ve had to make quite a few decisions when, frankly, your brain literally doesn’t know how to do it. If you didn’t know this fun fact before, you might feel alarmed right now- or you might finally feel justified. At least that’s how it was for me. Thank goodness it’s not going to be so tough to make decisions my whole life!

Now, here’s the part that seems weird to me. When you think about the trajectory of a person’s life, honestly, a ton of the really huge decisions get made before age 25. Many people are younger than 25 when they decide on a college, a career path, and sometimes even a life partner. We spend the great part of our adult lives building on the basics that we set up before we were even really capable of doing so. Does that feel scary for anyone else?

Think of it this way. Let’s say you have really poor vision like me. Your glasses are coming, but you’ve got to go to the store now because you can’t live without food, right? So you blurrily start shopping. You don’t know what your options are, you don’t really know what you’ve chosen, you’re not even sure if you’re prepared to pay for it. You end up leaving the store with something, for sure, but you definitely had a handicap in picking it. You get home, and finally, there are your glasses. You put them on, and now you’ve got to feed yourself. You’ve got to deal with whatever is in front of you and make the best of it now that you understand, or else risk losing time and money and wasting resources by going back to the store and starting all over again. Maybe you’ve even got someone depending on you, someone who needs food now, and going back means you have to keep them waiting.

This all feels like some kind of practical joke, right? What genius supreme or scientific being was like, “Hey, you know what would be fun? Making humans do a bunch of stuff they can’t do when they’re too undeveloped to understand that they can’t do it! Then I’ll make them live out the consequences.” I picture some evil laugh there. Why would you do this to us, oh great supreme/scientific being?

Because I have to come up with an answer for everything, here’s what I have decided. We are made this way because there is something infinitely important in the ability to leap, to feel, to trust. If we had fully functional decision-making skills as kids, we probably wouldn’t do the awesome things we love kids for: doing whatever they want just because it’s fun, making mistakes and getting over them, saying what they mean. Essentially, kids would be mini adults. That would be really sad, not to mention boring.

I think we are made this way so that we have a whole 25 years of practice following our hearts because our heads can’t quite do it. I think we were made this way so that we would know the feeling of acting on impulse, of taking risks, of choosing a path of passion and fulfillment over a path of steady security. I think our good old supreme/scientific being figured 25 years of practice should be enough, so that those feelings and behaviors of intense emotionality will fuel us when our heads are ready and we have other people to take care of.

So, for those of us who are still running around confused and blurry-eyed, let’s take advantage of it. Let’s make the risky choice. Let’s do what we feel rather than what we think. In short, let’s make our lives exciting and vibrant and so fulfilling that when we are finally trusted with the responsibility of making decisions, we can make them with fully practiced, completely understood hearts rather than timid, safe, logical heads.

Lo and behold, I have come to the conclusion that we were made this way for a reason, even though it’s hard. That’s life, right? Our brains aren’t wired to understand it all. The best we can do is to follow our hearts, because they get the world far more than our heads ever will.

How’s that for meta? Somebody up there wanted me to write about monkeys, and I started this blog months ago. At the time I couldn’t figure out the answer. It took me a while to get it. And what did I figure out? That somebody up there knows far more than I do about why we are the way we are, and that my only job is to trust.

Now that’s something I know how to do.

An Island of Inferi: Harry Potter and the Perfect Analogy for Depression

Dumbledore screamed; the noise echoed all around the vast chamber, across the dead black water…
“It’s all right, Professor, it’s all right!” said Harry loudly, his hands shaking so badly he could hardly scoop up the sixth gobletful of potion; the basin was now half empty. “Nothing’s happening to you, you’re safe, it isn’t real, I swear it isn’t real- take this, now, take this….”
“It’s all my fault, all my fault,” he sobbed. “Please make it stop, I know I did wrong, oh please make it stop and I’ll never, never again…”
“This will make it stop, Professor,” Harry said, his voice cracking as he tipped the seventh glass of potion into Dumbledore’s mouth.
Dumbledore began to cower as though invisible torturers surrounded him; his flailing hand almost knocked the refilled goblet from Harry’s trembling hands as he moaned…

-Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, p. 572

Sound familiar?

I don’t mean the passage- of course it sounds familiar if you’ve read the Harry Potter books. Here Dumbledore has finally given Harry the chance to prove himself, allowing him to embark upon a dangerous magical adventure with a teacher’s blessing for the first time in his life, but the adventure isn’t what Harry thought it would be. Dumbledore, Harry’s mentor and idol, must drink a potion that reduces him to the likes of a tortured child, and it’s Harry’s job to take care of him.

This is where things might start to look familiar, at least if you know a bit about J.K. Rowling’s life. Rowling has publicly discussed her personal battles with depression and suicidal thoughts, and to me that’s what this part of Book 6 is about.

Those of us who have read Book 7 know that Dumbledore has certainly had trauma in his past, but at this point Harry knows almost nothing about Dumbledore’s life outside of his duties as headmaster (and he doesn’t even really know those very well). In Harry’s mind, Dumbledore is the ultimate boss: he’s unnaturally perceptive, enormously well-learned in all branches of magic, and- as Kingsley Shacklebolt says- he’s got style. Imagine how utterly disconcerting it is for Harry to see his seemingly invincible hero suddenly fall apart.

When Dumbledore drinks the mystery potion, his past comes back to haunt him. The potion causes him to be vulnerable, to feel the full force of his mistakes and his losses. Although he has hid it from Harry and the rest of the world, Dumbledore’s pain is still there underneath the surface, constantly in danger of boiling over. The potion does not give Dumbledore pain; it simply opens the floodgates, enabling him to feel the tsunami of hurt that he has been holding back.

Here, Rowling offers a sensitive and totally illuminating way of understanding depression. Depression does not make a person sad; it alters one’s ability to feel sad feelings, either blowing them out of proportion or dulling them almost completely. This can mean that a person with depression has difficulty feeling much of anything, or that negative feelings overflow disproportionately in response to what should be events of minimal significance. A person with depression, just like a person without, has had painful experiences. The difference is in the ability to deal with that pain, and that’s what Dumbledore perfectly embodies here.

Think about how Harry responds. To paraphrase: “I’ll make it stop. It’s alright. It’s not real.” In other words? “I don’t understand what you’re feeling, so I’m telling you that it doesn’t exist, and I’m going to make it my responsibility to fix it.” That, in a nutshell, is the reaction that people experiencing depression often hear from loved ones. Loved ones cannot understand how depression feels without having experienced it, just as Harry cannot see what Dumbledore sees while drinking the potion. From Harry’s perspective, Dumbledore is fine one moment, and the next he’s on the ground moaning.

In the same way, people who experience depression often have difficulty explaining their experience to loved ones, and in turn, loved ones struggle to know how to respond when the depression takes its hold. Pretend you have depression; pretend you’re Dumbledore. People don’t understand. They try to help, but you’re practically impervious because you feel so alone. You’re reliving the worst bits of your life and it isn’t happening in real time but you’re completely powerless to stop it. You would rather die than feel this. Your facade disappears, your pain is exposed, and now it takes everything you have to cry out for help and hope that somebody around can hear it.

“Water,” croaked Dumbledore…
“Sir, I’m trying, I’m trying!” said Harry desperately, but he did not think that Dumbledore could hear him; he had rolled onto his side and was drawing great, rattling breaths that sounded agonizing…
He flung himself over to the edge of the rock and plunged the goblet into the lake, bringing it up full to the brim of icy water that did not vanish… A slimy white hand had gripped his wrist, and the creature to whom it belonged was pulling him, slowly, backward across the rock. The surface of the lake was no longer mirror-smooth; it was churning, and everywhere Harry looked, white heads and hands were emerging from the dark water, men and women and children with sunken, sightless eyes were moving toward the rock: an army of the dead rising from the black water.

Finally, you gather the strength to communicate what you need: water. You are too weak to get it for yourself, and the simple act of asking is almost too much. In fact, it takes more than strength. It takes trust, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this is one of Dumbledore’s greatest powers of all.

And the person you ask for help? That person doesn’t know what to do. They feel panicked, blind to your invisible but immense pain. They want to help, but they don’t know how. Possibly the worst part is that you both fear that your plea for help will drag them down with you, just as Harry sacrifices his own safety to get Dumbledore just one precious mouthful of water.

We all know what happens next. Harry never regrets helping Dumbledore. Instead he bravely fights off the inferi and gets himself and Dumbledore back to Hogwarts, where it all goes down on the astronomy tower. Here Rowling makes her last point in this beautifully crafted comparison: only after dealing with his pain, only after getting through it, not around it or over it, only after asking for and accepting help by giving total trust in somebody who cares about him, does Dumbledore become himself again. Dumbledore knows that his end approaches, but imagine the feeling of peace and relief that he must have to be able to say, “I’m not afraid, Harry. I’m with you.”

Dumbledore doesn’t get a happy ending, but he gets an ending in which he has full control over his fate and his legacy. After a life of hidden pain and guilt, an empowered sort of death would be, to Dumbledore, a personal victory. It is more powerful for him to die having accepted his story than to die feeling happy; in fact, Dumbledore’s selfless, regret-less acceptance of death may be one of his greatest accomplishments.

Rowling offers a piercingly true depiction of depression from inside and out and from before, during, and after. I think her most important lesson, though, is this: any hopelessness can be overcome if we take the leap, trust in somebody else, and forgive ourselves. Only then can we truly find peace.

 

dumbledore ability to love

Happiness

Right now I am so happy that I don’t know what to do.

Every day it is true that I have a loving family, that I went to a great school, that I have had all sorts of experiences and learned all sorts of things in this world. But every day I am not happy about these things. Often, our emotions are based solely on what’s happening at this very moment, and it is true that this very moment isn’t always the most exciting moment we’ve had.

Here’s a psychology tidbit: humans feel negative emotions seven times more strongly than we feel positive ones. It’s how we made it this far. In terms of survival, it’s a lot more important to be able to experience fear of dangerous things, and sadness in response to losing important things, than it is to feel any sort of positive emotion such as happiness.

In other words, evolutionarily speaking, feeling happy doesn’t get us anywhere. So how do I reconcile that fact with this feeling of gratitude and love that I have at this moment? I am so completely happy to have had wonderful relationships in my life full of self discovery, sleepovers, long walks, long talks, trips all over the world, trips to the grocery store, tears, hugs, hands held, running and jumping into someone’s arms because I know that they’ll catch me. I always know that they’ll catch me, even if we’re not together.

happiness collage

Some of the people who make me happy

I recently watched this movie called Like Sunday, Like Rain (2014), which follows an au pair and her 7th-grade charge, chronicling the development of their strong and uncanny friendship and making me miss my own 8th graders desperately. By the end, my emotions were so strong that I felt uncomfortable simply watching the movie without turning my feelings into some kind of revelation. But what could I do: call one of my kids? Become an au pair myself? I didn’t know how to deal with this feeling, because I treat feelings like potential energy that require some sort of action in order to count. How I feel doesn’t matter, because my emotions are insignificant unless they turn into a career path or a relationship or even a blog.

It’s like the episode of Full House when Uncle Jesse first proposes to Becky. The conversation starts as a breakup, but instead the two realize that they’re actually ready to say “I love you” for the first time. Of course, Jesse takes the most logical next step:

Jesse: Have mercy! We gotta get married right now.
Becky: Wait a minute. Right now?
Jesse: Yes, we declared our love. You said you’d marry me. We’re in Nevada. Let’s do it!

Jesse is so excited to realize that he and Becky are in love that he has to do something about it. Standing around and just being in love doesn’t feel possible. Instead, he has to follow this strong emotion with a concrete action so that it’s easier to understand. But, of course, Jesse isn’t thinking straight. A wedding is just a ceremony that represents love. It doesn’t guarantee love, it doesn’t solidify love, and it doesn’t have to go hand in hand with love either. What Jesse really needs to do, rather than booking a slot at the illustrious Ali Baba Hotel and Casino Wedding Chapel, is pause, look at Becky, and sit with the realization of how he’s feeling and how lucky he is.

Uncle Jesse and I have the same lesson to learn: feelings are allowed to matter because they are a part of us. I have so much to be thankful for, and today the world is sending me all the right vibes and messages and songs to make me think about the incredible relationships that I have had. I can’t act on those feelings by moving so that I live closer to all of my cross-country best friends. I can’t reach out to every single person I’ve known. All I can do is sit with this feeling of joy and gratefulness and remind myself that I have the right to be happy. Even if I can’t use my happiness for anything, that doesn’t mean that I don’t deserve to have it.

Right now I am so happy, and that’s all I have to do.

 

You Are Not Enough

I loved my reputation in college. People knew me as a kind and motivated person, someone who provided a thoughtful perspective and who was always willing and happy to listen. It helped that I went to a school where I was constantly surrounded by incredibly intelligent, spirited, and ambitious people. After graduation, all of my friends had big and exciting long-term plans. I wasn’t sure what I would do, but I knew that I had something to add to the world in some to-be-determined way.

Recently life gave me some personal and professional challenges and I returned home to recuperate. Although I stayed busy, I wasn’t doing all the things I thought I would be doing by this time in my life: exercising my creativity, changing lives, feeling fulfilled in my work, contributing positively to the world. The longer I stayed at home the worse I felt. I began to blame myself for my situation, wondering what had happened to my once-celebrated potential. Had I ever really embodied all of these positive qualities that people had supposedly seen in me? Where were these great personality traits now that I needed them?

This week I took a trip to my alma mater, where I dutifully made plans to catch up with all of my college friends. I dreaded the question that eventually came up at every coffee or brunch: “Enough about me… what have you been up to?” I felt like a fraud. These people were doing the wonderful and exciting things I had always known they could, and I wasn’t doing anything. People who had once admired me were now seemingly so far ahead of me in the game of life. Frankly, I felt ashamed.

“Here are these people who once looked up to me, who came to me for advice. I was supposed to be their role model. And now here they are with plans for world travel, scholarships to graduate school, moves to new cities for exciting jobs. And here I am living back at home,” I lamented to a friend over dinner.

I expected a reaction of “That’s tough, I’m sorry,” or “But it makes sense, you’ve been through a lot.” Instead I got something I couldn’t have predicted.

“You’re still that person to me.”

It felt like I was hit in the head with a brick (a brick of wisdom, that is). My friend was right- I had not stopped being this thoughtful, determined, deeply caring, perspective having, advice-giving individual. And on that note, putting my professional pursuits on pause to heal from life’s challenges did not make me unfit to play a positive role in other peoples’ lives. In fact, it made me appreciate those roles far more than I had before.

Lately I have struggled to feel “good enough.” Good enough to find a good job, good enough to give sound advice, good enough to make my alma mater proud. It’s often a revelation when some song or article promises that, no matter how you feel about yourself, you are enough. But now I think that feeling “enough” shouldn’t be the goal. The word “enough” implies that there is a set of requirements, standards, hoops to be jumped through. I don’t want to be “enough” to meet some other standard of success or of happiness. I think I would rather be complete.

I don’t want to feel beautiful enough to look good; I want to feel completely beautiful in a way that encompasses my personality as well as my appearance. I don’t want to feel smart enough to get by; I want to feel completely smart, knowing not just facts but also truths. I don’t want somebody to love me enough to get over my flaws; I want them to love me completely so that they stand with me in addressing them. And I don’t want to be happy enough to survive; I want to be completely happy and at peace with my whole life, even the parts that are hard.

Instead of striving to be enough, we should strive to feel complete. I know that it’s such a hard thing to do; think of how much easier it is to see the good in someone else than it is to see it in yourself. But your self is the person you’re stuck with 24/7, so it might be in your best interest to start really, really liking this “self” person. Your self should not just be enough for you, because you deserve more than enough. Your self should totally complete you.

And if your self is supposed to complete you, maybe you shouldn’t define it by your occupation or by your place in life. Maybe your self should be defined by your ability to find happiness in the best or worst of situations. I don’t care how great your job is or how much money you make, if you get easily upset over things like traffic or chores at home or petty drama at work, you’re not happy and I would never trade lives with you.

I’m way more likely to want the life of a person who finds ways to make life beautiful, who makes friends with strangers on the bus, who transforms banalities into adventures- regardless of that person’s job or living situation or other labels we use to judge success and happiness.

Lo and behold, the person I just described… that’s me. I thought that I wasn’t enough, but maybe I was wrong. I am flawed and stuck and frustrated and spirited and giving and surrounded by truly good people who pick me up when I need it. Because of that, I am not enough.

I am complete.

If You’re Too Lonely to Sleep

I can’t sleep.

It’s like I have this need, like I can’t rest until I feel connected. I’ve spent all day looking at words and pictures on screens. I have engaged with people. I’ve had conversations about birth control and drug addiction; I’ve considered love and how we know it’s right; I’ve seen and heard about my friends’ days. All of this has happened via screens. And at the end of it, here I am in bed, wide-eyed and staring into the dark wondering why I feel so alone.

I just listened to a Ted Talk that mentioned how we are living in some of the loneliest times in human history. It’s so true: we have so many specific ways to communicate- updates, messages, photos that disappear- but how often do we have real conversations? I’m sure I’m not the only person who has friends scattered across the state or the country, and it simply isn’t possible to keep up with all of them. So every couple of days I send somebody a picture or an article or sometimes just a message to ask how it’s going. But all of these fragmented moments of engagement do not add up to fulfilling relationships. Granted, with the lifestyle I live today, sometimes it’s the best I can do. But it isn’t enough.

My whole life, I’ve wanted to live in the 1960s. It started from music as a kid, but as I’ve grown I still feel the same way. What I yearn for is the idea of coming across a person and, without fear, forming a connection. Today most people will do anything we can to avoid in-person interpersonal connection (we’ve all looked at our phone or put in our headphones to avoid a conversation at some point). But there was a time when talking to strangers, or even un-strange new people like neighbors, happened. People couldn’t use a screen to stay connected with friends; they simply had to do it with their faces. Turns out, that restriction was their gain.

But we have so many ways to make “friends.” If I really want people to read my blog, I can open about a bagillion different social media accounts and connect with people not because I would ever want to talk to them in person but because I want them to see what I’m writing. We all push content out at each other and we get the occasional response via a “like” or a “favorite.” There’s nothing wrong with this, until it begins to replace in-person communication. My life right now is a lot of reading books, watching movies and TV shows, and writing for my blog. Tons of really interesting things to think about, plenty of ways to stay connected via the internet. And yet I am so lonely that I can’t sleep.

All I can come up with is that humans just need other humans. Not little notifications that another human thought of us for a moment, although that’s great. We actually need each other. We need to learn how to have real conversations again: how to sit with a person and forge a connection where once there was nothing. How to talk about ourselves or the world or whatever- it doesn’t matter, because talking about it gives us something to share with each other, and that’s what we desperately need. To share.

So what do we do? All this talk about how the world should be the way it was in the ’60s (minus racism and sexism, ideally), how we should share things and be face to face and not just communicate via the screen, it’s great. But it’s not all that realistic for a girl who lives in Texas and is using those screens in order to try to forget that fact. I’m sure a lot of us have had that feeling that our life is somewhere else. So what can we possibly do to bring it here, to actually experience a person-to-person relationship with another human being?

The positive part of me, the part that ends every blog post with hope, wants to say we just need to get out there and start walking the walk instead of just talking the talk. You know, create the life we envision for ourselves. But loneliness can be paralyzing. It can make us feel like we can’t walk that walk because our legs won’t move; we can’t start a conversation because our mouths won’t open; we don’t have the energy to try because we just can’t get to sleep. It’s a horrible cycle. Loneliness leads to more screen time leads to more loneliness, and at the moment I’m just not sure how that ends. Tonight there will be no solution for the loss of connection in a world of screens. For now all I can do is chalk this all up to food for thought and get on with my TV shows, because right now those characters are the only connection I have.

I guess I won’t be sleeping tonight.

The Truth About FOMO

There was this girl I knew in high school. She was great- bright, bubbly, friendly, and a leader on dance team. We weren’t close, but after we graduated I enjoyed seeing her posts on Facebook every once in a while; I knew that she had been pursuing a career as a dancer and a model, and I loved her photos because they made me proud to know someone who was actually going for what she wanted even though it was scary.

One day recently as I scrolled through my feed, I stopped at one of her photos, expecting an interesting update. But what I read was unsettling caption: “I never posted this on Facebook [almost a year ago] because I thought I wasn’t skinny enough.”

I was shocked. I had always admired this girl for seemingly feeling so at home in her body as she followed her dreams post-graduation. The thought had never dawned on me that she might feel like she wasn’t good enough.

And then I got to thinking… what do I look like to people who can’t see my insecurities?

It never occurred to me that perhaps some people couldn’t. I suppose things look good for me in the Facebook world: all of my pictures since high school have been of fun, adventure, friends, family. All of my blog posts- even the ones about really tough things- have been full of hope, causing people to leave remarks that confuse me: “you’re so strong,” “you’re so wise.” I didn’t realize that people think these things because what I present to the outer world is so different than the anxiety and insecurity often going on within.

Here’s the truth.

All any of us wants is to be happy. Everything in our lives is geared, some way or another, toward making us happy in the short run or the long run. But there is one thing that, if we want to be happy, we simply cannot live without: self-confidence. Actually liking yourself, what you can do, what you look like, who you are.

Often, so many of us think it would be easier to be someone else. Facebook is great for helping us to keep in touch, but it also leads to FOMO- fear of missing out.  You see somebody with the job you wanted but never went for on Facebook, and they seem to be having a great time at it. FOMO. You see an old friend who got engaged to the perfect guy, and you’re still single. FOMO. You see that one person who always posts pictures at the gym while you’re chilling in bed. FOMO. And we’re not just afraid of missing out here. We’re afraid that we’re not good enough (too shy, too lazy, too whatever) to have these experiences of our own.

But look at my high school friend. Look at me. Those pictures are not those whole people. For every gorgeous shot you see there are plenty of less glamorous moments behind it, moments of feelings like anxiety, indecision, inadequacy. I say this not because I know all of your friends or because I want to be a downer, but because we all have these feelings. They’re part of the human experience, and that’s okay. But FOMO is allowing us only to see the bright sides of other people, making it feel wrong to have any dark moments ourselves. Looking at all of these pictures and feeling like you’re missing out is a really great way to start feeling bad about yourself for a totally understandable but super unnecessary reason.

So how can we feel good and happy and bypass the FOMO? We have to get at whatever it is that bothers us and face it head on. Instead of FOMO, GOMO: go out more often. For all the FOMO you have when you see people’s awesome jobs, GOMO and learn about new talents that you have. For every FOMO of an adorable relationship, GOMO and meet people who make you realize that you are capable and deserving of companionship of your own. And for all of that FOMO about the gym, GOMO and do something fun with your body- hike, swim, dance, roller disco? If you’re a fan of lists, you could even start your own 101 Goals.

I’ll be the first to admit how easy it is to just hang out at home and watch movies or TV. I love it not just because it’s entertaining, but because it’s safe. I can watch my shows and write down my thoughts and then send them out into cyberspace with my eyes glued to the screen in order to gauge how many likes I can get before I’m allowed to feel good about my work. I can be comfortable with that. But you know what it’s so hard for me to do? Talk to strangers. Go out alone. Try new hobbies. But honestly, I’m a lot more likely to feel good about myself after I do those things than I am after a day as a character-analyzing vegetable.

So here’s what I’m thinking. Let’s be real, and realize that every person is a whole person experiencing both good and bad all the time; let’s not forget that if they only want to show us the happy parts. Let’s stop allowing FOMO- this illusion that everyone else has the secret to life and you’re missing out on it- to keep us from feeling good about ourselves. Instead, let’s GOMO. Let’s get out there to some event, or even create our own. Let’s get scared. Let’s get our hands dirty. Let’s feel really uncomfortable. And, along the way, maybe we’ll actually start to be happy.

He’s Her Lobster

As you, my devoted readers, know, I’ve been writing quite a bit about my current distaste for fairytale endings. But I wasn’t always like this; there was a time when I believed that the universe would eventually give us whatever we wanted if we asked nicely enough. I believed that people had soul mates and that everything turned out okay in the end. Reality was not a factor for me. Think of me as Ewan McGregor in the beginning of Moulin Rouge.

During this time, my very favorite on-screen couple was Ross and Rachel of Friends. To me, they represented the holy grail of “will they/won’t they” relationships. They were perfect for each other. They were each other’s lobster. No matter what the storyline, there was always something between them. And, without fail, my favorite episodes of Friends were the ones in which they were together, or even pining after each other, because for me their love just made sense.

This was all several years ago and I’ve grown up since then. I’ve learned a lot about people, romantic relationships, messy feelings, things that come to an end before you want them to, and even television and film writing. My opinions have shifted much more closely toward reality, and it made this time around watching the end of Friends very different.

Seasons 8 and 9 feature a lot of Joey and Rachel. First Joey falls in love with Rachel in a way that is so genuine and sweet, and then after a while Rachel returns his feelings. Everyone recognizes that Ross and Rachel haven’t actually dated in several years, and a lot of totally believable writing gets Rachel and Joey together. But as soon as we enter the last dozen episodes of the series Joey and Rachel suddenly can’t make it work. Why? Not because they’re just too great as friends. No. Because the writers needed her to get with Ross. Because, lobster.

Watching how the writers get Ross and Rachel together at the end, I was shocked at how little they actually had to do. Throw in a couple of remarks here and there, a reference to their first kiss, and suddenly they’re in love again. Truly, the buildup to this last leg of Ross and Rachel’s relationship is about as short as Rachel’s final miniskirt. Rachel was never jealous of Charlie (except for when she was dating Joey), and while Ross obviously was not “fine” with Rachel and Joey as a pair, he apparently wasn’t affected enough to explain what was bothering him or, in fact, to end things with Charlie. Nothing happened between Rachel and Ross, really, until Rachel’s dad had a heart attack and she was feeling vulnerable and lonely.

Rachel and Ross are each others’ weakness. The minute one of them is drunk or sad, or feeling much of anything really, they run into the other’s arms. And I am open to edits on this, but I can’t honestly think of why- other than that chemistry. With Joey and Rachel, or even Chandler and Monica, we see fun times that they share together as friends before they’re in a relationship. But, other than 1994’s laundromat adventure, Ross and Rachel seem to have either big romance or just nothing. They are each others’ default.

Here’s where old Leah and reformed Leah battle. Old Leah says that this is romantic: whenever Ross or Rachel feel something strong, they know with whom they want to share it. When their guard is down, they want each other. Isn’t that love? But realistic Leah fights back: why can’t love be about sharing the banal parts of life? Why don’t they want to be together when everything is normal? Why only when Rachel feels sorry for Ross or realizes he’s about to get married or is on a plane to Paris? Why not when Ross makes one tiny mistake while they’re actually together? Why don’t they want to work on it then?

That’s what makes the end so confusing. Rachel and Ross don’t spend any part of the last season figuring out their relationship except to say that it isn’t off the table. Rachel is genuinely excited about her new job and Ross has come to terms with her going. It doesn’t make sense that, when Ross tells Rachel that he loves her, she suddenly doesn’t care about her next career move or the adventure that she’s so ready to have. But, of course, she gets off the plane. Even less surprising: I still cried.

So many of us have experienced this on some level, where we realize that we have real feelings and that we have choices to make, and we have to pick one over the other. Feelings are messy and they don’t simply go away when a relationship ends. In fact, much like Rachel and Ross, we do not all have control over our feelings. Many of us have had relationships that have been on-again and off-again. What’s to say that Ross and Rachel aren’t the same?

I’ll tell you what… the fact that it’s not. It’s Ross and Rachel, and that’s how we know that it’s more. The crazy thing about love is that it’s the one thing that can turn even the greatest skeptics into the biggest believers; we simply don’t believe it can happen for us, until it does, and then we can’t imagine having a doubt. It doesn’t have to mean that fairytale endings exist for us to know that when something is right it’s right. And even though the twilight of Ross and Rachel’s story makes me so mad, I cried because, despite my venturing over to reality, I still believe. I believe that Ross and Rachel can happen in real life. I believe that two people can, in fact, be right for each other.

Maybe Ross and Rachel aren’t so unrealistic after all. Here’s what they’ve taught me: sometimes you’ll have feelings for someone and it just won’t work out. A whole bunch of times. And you will be able to walk away, because you are an individual, and there is no love that a person simply cannot leave. Ross and Rachel teach us that chemistry and friendship aren’t all it takes- that a relationship, even one between two lobsters, doesn’t work until you work for it. Ross and Rachel are actually pretty incredible because they understand their feelings, and they know that they are each strong enough to be okay on their own or just as friends, even despite them. There is no realization that they must end up together, because these two adults know that life won’t end if they don’t. But they make the choice that they want to be together, and that makes all the difference.

Ross and Rachel are not two lost souls who were destined to find each other. Like so many of us, they are two people who have had feelings for each other and then messed up. But what makes them special is that one day they decide to make it work no matter what. They take control of their decisions, no matter how crazy those decisions might be. They decide that they wanted to be together, that they are willing to work for this and that they will do anything. Even getting off the plane.

Life is not a one-way path to the magical ending. It is full of disorganized and unproductive feelings, decisions that need to be made, and people whose roles fluctuate constantly even though we can always care for them. Perhaps my transformation toward reality has allowed me not to reject happy endings but to realize that they can happen even if things are complicated. In fact, they are that much more powerful when we realize that people chose them: if Rachel can choose her lobster, so can I.

Here’s to airplanes and their left phalanges, to planetariums, to complicated and full and unplanned lives. But, most of all, here’s to lobsters.

rossandrachel