On Ninth Grade Biology

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Golgi Apparatus

 

What do you remember learning in ninth grade biology? I have a vague inkling of taking a few notes on what is now crucial information for my life’s work: the functions of the parasympathetic vs. the sympathetic nervous system.  

But at the time, I had a delightful learning obstacle. My ninth grade lab partners were Aaron, a brilliant eccentric friend who went on to make the documentary King Corn, and  quirky talented Trey, who grew up to be the lead singer of Phish.  (In preschool with Trey, where we sledded on treys, I got mixed up and thought his name was “Sled”.)  Let’s just say that Aaron and “Sled” and their inspired antics (think: unorthodox dissection of a piglet embalmed in formaldehyde) were far more compelling to me than what our gentle methodical teacher explained to us about how the hypothalamic-dictated autonomic nervous system is comprised of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.  What I remember most from ninth grade biology are the two words “golgi apparatus,” riffed on by Aaron and “Sled” and two other witty guys at another lab table, which eventually evolved into lyrics of the Phish song.

Now, as an adult, I have come to appreciate what our soft-spoken, bearded biology teacher was trying to teach us. It is in fact really cool that our autonomic nervous system has two divisions, the parasympathetic, which is known as relax-and-respond, and the sympathetic, referred to frequently as fight-or-flight. A key component of the sympathetic often gets dropped in common parlance, which is freeze. As in: fight-flight-or-freeze. Modern day Americans, speeding around with our double hits of Starbucks and our road rage, feeling obligated to be in touch with anyone and everyone 24/7 on our devices, spend far, far too much time in our sympathetic nervous systems. Pumping out adrenaline and cortisol. Freezing when it’s all too much, and we shut down. This sympathetic system is extremely useful to tap into if you are about to be stabbed, or if you need to protect someone from an oncoming car or meteor. But for the average daily life events, we really would do much, much better operating from our parasympathetic nervous systems. Secreting endorphins, oxytocin, dopamine. In other words: marinating in wellbeing.  

So how do we do this? How do we exit the code red reactive freakshow of our sympathetic nervous system and inhabit the calming state of relax-and-respond?  One easy method, available to all of us at all times, and 100% free of charge, is breathing. Not just breathing the bare minimum amount of oxygen it takes to stay alive. But really breathing. Taking in air, this abundant manna, way past the shallow upper chest into the deep drum of the belly. Try it. Try breathing in through your nostrils, and letting delicious air travel down through your torso into your belly. Actually let your belly fill with air, so that it visibly and palpably expands. Try that again, counting the beats of your inhale through your nostrils. And when you exhale, do it so slowly that you double the count, exhaling for twice as long as you inhaled. Set your timer on one of your devices for one minute, repeating this 1:2 breathing. Next time, set it for three minutes, then five. You will experience for yourself the switch from the reactive fight-flight-or-freeze mode into the wellbeing of the parasympathetic nervous system. If you set your timer to do this 1:2 breathing a few times a day, you will notice yourself more frequently able to respond to life, versus reacting. Keep it up, and you will find yourself much more comfortable in your very own skin.

On Self-Absorption

 

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Confession: I get self-absorbed when I am anxious. Consumed by whatever it is I am worried about. My body contracts, and my mind goes around and around in my own little swirly moon shell. It sucks.

I understand that this is the nature of anxiety. It pulls us into its swirl, limiting our scope to whatever it is that troubles us. Whether over the quotidian worry du jour, or something very legitimate and scary that is actually happening, anxiety consumes. So I am not beating myself up about what I am confessing, but nonetheless, I find it embarrassing.  

When I was a little girl, I was so anxious about potential calamities befalling my family members on any given day, that I held us all up every morning begging for reassurance. “Dad, you promise you won’t fall in front of a subway?” “Mom, you promise you won’t get in a head-on collision?” etc.. etc.. ad nauseam. Finally one morning, in an act of brilliance born of running extremely late, my mother preemptively said, “You Are Reassured.” Which over time then got shortened to “YAR.” That one syllable became all I needed to hop out of our VW bus with its Flower Power stickers and go join my friends in school. But the point I’m making here is: I was asking my family to reassure me. I had no idea how to self-soothe. Again, I don’t blame myself.  I was a kid. And, to be fair, the anxiety was actually a byproduct of our family system, all the chaos and unresolved dysfunction that had come down the multi-generational pike and now lived in my house. (Hence in my body. And my mind.)

But still.

In my twenties, when I was a newlywed and (luckily for my brand new husband) in therapy, my wise wonderful therapist Leigh told me I was no longer allowed to wake up Pierre in the middle of the night when I felt anxious. “It’s not his job,” she said, “it’s yours.” What? My anxiety was my job? To manage and handle? Til death do I part? Cold turkey, I stopped waking up my husband. And found I had quite a big job on my hands. Working the night shift.  

What I ended up discovering recently, through writing my memoir, is not only how self-absorbing the state of anxiety can be, but also, how the state of gratitude is its antithesis, or antidote. I spontaneously entered a state of over-the-top gratitude when my twelve-year-old daughter Téa miraculously recovered from a life-threatening accident. Organically, I experienced how the state of gratitude precludes anxiety, as well as the reverse: the state of anxiety obviates gratitude. Not that you can’t toggle back and forth between the two states, because I certainly did.  And do. But the biochemistry of the two states are very different: anxiety fuels and floods the brain with adrenaline and cortisol, whereas gratitude creates the feel-good hormones like dopamine, endorphins, and oxytocin. I am currently revising my memoir to make this point more explicit, and include the brain science behind it. But in the meantime what I want to share is: anxiety isolates us, keeping us in our negative swirl of what could go wrong.  Gratitude connects us, opening our hearts and physical postures to all of life, all that’s right, and to each other. 

On Curiosity

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All of us have something to give others that is exactly what they need. It doesn’t cost a thing, it’s an ever-replenishing resource, and it’s one of the most healing agents we can offer another human being. It’s our curiosity.

Okay, maybe sometimes, it does cost something. When we aren’t feeling curious at all in a charged relationship, it may cost us our ego pride to let go of needing to be right and become curious instead. In those instances, it also costs us some effort, because we might have to do a little work to get there. But when we hold the intention to get curious, curiosity is always available to us. And always worth the effort.  

Curiosity is a marker of emotional neutrality. If you’re genuinely curious about another person, you’re de facto not judgmental. De facto, not reactive. You’re neutral. And while curiosity is a symptom of emotional neutrality, it’s also the avenue for getting there. Which (provided your goal is to be psychologically and emotionally healthy in a given relationship) is where you want to be. Cultivating emotional neutrality does not mean becoming a lobotomized robot. It means existing in present time, in the now, with another person. Versus being sucked into reactions based on your history, your habitual stories, dynamics that control you versus you having choice or any say over who and how you want to be.  

If you can’t muster curiosity about the other person in a particular moment, get curious about yourself. What is going on in here? Inside this whirling reactive hurt or angry cyclone that at the moment is me? Inside this shut down closed off fortress I have built? Getting curious about the body can be a great place to start. It’s an effective way to get out of the repetitive cycles that tend to go on in the mind. What is happening in my body? Where do I feel intensity, or numb? Can I focus on my breath for a moment here, and breathe a little more deeply? Calming the body can lead us into the ability to get curious about what is going on in our mind. The stories we tell ourselves, and believe without question: that’s precisely where we need to bring on the questions! Is there another way to see this situation instead of the way I always do? Is it possible that the way I am experiencing this might be optional? Could I shift just a little bit and open up to a new perspective?

Getting curious about yourself is bestowing that healing agent upon the human being you happen to hang out with 24/7. For that reason alone, it’s highly recommended. But also, getting curious about self in a charged relational moment can shift the dynamic with the other person, precisely because it takes you out of the dynamic. And hopefully, through managing self, you can calm down enough to get curious about the other. And maybe even start to ask them some questions. About how they’re doing. About what is going on for them.

Not just any question will do. I think we can all agree that “What the hell is wrong with you?” doesn’t exactly convey curiosity. But, “Tell me more about why you think that?” “What do you need right now?”, “What can I do for you?”, these are the kinds of questions which transmit the curiosity that melts armor. That opens hearts. That heals.

On Divinity

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Spirit Strands, by Alexandra Sheldon

 

I believe in God.

Uh oh.  

A statement like that can trigger a whole host of reactions. Our relationship, or lack thereof, with the Divine is so personal. So particular to each of us. Yet the way the word God gets used can cause everything from your basic quiet acrimony to divorce, to violent discrimination, to full-on war.  

So let me tell you what I mean by God, starting with what I don’t mean. I don’t mean an imaginary man in the sky.  I don’t mean a God affiliated with any religion. I don’t mean Jesus, Yahweh, Allah, nor Vishnu, Krishna, Lakshmi nor any of the other Hindu gods or goddesses—although I respect the teachings of all of them. At their essence, all religions have beautiful wisdom and guidance to offer us, should we choose to explore their doctrines. What I mean by believing in God is sensing a benevolent force surrounding us. Some refer to this as Spirit. The Light. The Divine. Source.   

I have friends and clients who have sworn off believing in a benevolent force when something unthinkably horrific happens to someone they love. How can I believe in a caring God when this heinous murder happened? This brutal act of terrorism? These are real and painful questions, impossible to answer for anyone else. Some people find a deeper comforting relationship with the Divine in the aftermath of trauma and loss, some move decisively to atheism. To each his or her own. We all need to make sense of our lives in our own way.    

At times in my life, I have lost my connection with the sense of a benevolent force, and found myself wondering if I made the whole thing up. Other times, I have felt it dimly, and pined for more, not knowing quite how to turn up the dial. And then there are the phases I love most, when I feel my body humming with some energy that is more than just me and my skeleton and organs and cell tissue. I feel held, guided. Connected. That’s what I mean when I say God, the connection to what feels like Source Energy.  

As I age, I notice for myself what enhances this connection, and try to do more of it. For me, it is as simple as having space and time. Space and time to reflect. To meditate or walk in the woods. To do yoga. To go hear live music. To laugh my head off—with friends, or while watching hilarious comedy. Something about this Divine Energy has a real levity to it. A sense of humor, born of perspective, scope, that prevents me from taking myself and my life so damn seriously. Check out the Dalai Lama next time you get the chance. He sometimes laughs so hard he has to take off his glasses and wipe his eyes. The next moment he is in deep reverent meditation. And a few minutes later, talking about the pain of exile. Then something strikes his funny bone again and on come the giggles.  

How does connection to the Divine allow for the whole range of human emotion, the acceptance of all of human experience? What does that have to do with spirituality? For me, it has something to do with the sense of being held, which loosens me up. I get uptight when I think I’m running this whole show on my own. My shoulders rise, my neck tightens. Sometimes my hands even start to grip, as if I am holding reins, or the imaginary steering wheel. When I remember—or even better, deeply sense—that there is something way more than little ole me in charge here, I soften. And when I soften, I allow. Allow for the tears, the giggles, and everything in between. That’s what I mean by believing in God. I mean tapping into the grace that allows me to surrender to all that is.

On Grieving

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The hands of my father’s grandchildren on top of his, as he lay dying.

 

Grief took me down.    

I know I am not alone in this, it’s what grief does.  

But the experience of being leveled, and the amount of time (three years) that it took me to metabolize the loss and climb out of the abyss caught me off guard. This was when my father died, a death that was in fact a blessing, anticipated, even prayed for. He had been suffering from two aggressive strains of brain disease, Alzheimer’s and Lewy Body’s Dementia, both of which were kicked into high gear from an insult to his brain that occurred at age 68. By 73, he was in and out of psychosis, besieged by hallucinations and agnosia. He told us he wanted to take “an early exit,” and in spite of all his confusion and the mayhem of his mind, he managed intentionally not to eat or drink for the ten days it took his strong body to die. We wanted this for him. We his children, his children-in-law, his grandchildren and his wife, surrounding him in hospice, wanted him to succeed, to find peace by departing the ravaged chaos that had become his life. His terrier Davis was in bed with him the entire time, a comforting sentinel.  For many weeks after my father gracefully passed, I felt a strange elation. Like I could feel his soul, and the peace he’d found, which reassured me deeply.  

But then I realized he’d died. He was dead. You’d think I would have known that, considering the fact I was holding his hand, kissing his face and cheering him on, there for his final breaths, there when the nurse pronounced, “Kit no longer has a heartbeat.” I saw his body in the bed, while his dog Davis ritualistically licked every inch of my father’s arm right after he died. But as dim as this may sound, I still did not get that he was gone.  

And when it finally hit me, a few weeks later, it was a body blow. A sucker punch that came daily for years, leaving me hollowed out, yearning, wobbly, curled in on myself. I would never hear my father laugh, ever again, or feel the gruff yet tender love of his hugs. I remember one evening about six months after my father’s death, lying in the fetal position in front of my fireplace and wondering if I would ever get up again. This death was prepared for, a tragic sort of blessing: how about all the brutal untimely deaths, the suicides? Parents who lose children, kids who lose a sibling or a mommy or daddy at a young age? The empathetic inkling of their grief made me wonder how anyone does this. Loves and loses, then gets up again.  

All of us will experience grief in our lives, and most likely already have. Maybe many times. Loving is a risky business, if you think about it.  

My friend Annie once did an exercise at LAMDA (London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art), which was to walk around the city acting as if each and every person had just experienced the death of their parents. She and her classmates who carried out this assignment all entered a state of profound compassion. They were blown away by the level of eye contact, the heart-opening love wordlessly given and received amongst strangers. Maybe we should all try this. Every single day for the rest of our lives.

On Apologizing

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I once apologized to an empty chair.

“I am so sorry,” I said with pathos, after accidentally hip-checking the armrest of a seat while exiting a plane. When I noticed no one was sitting in it, that’s when I thought: Okay Hilary, time to get a grip.

I was in my mid-twenties at the time, and a card-carrying Compulsive Apologizer. I said “Sorry” to friends as a way of saying “Hello” on the phone. “Sorry, hi, sorry,” as if what? I should have called them earlier? Or shouldn’t be calling them at all? What was I apologizing for? I apologized for showing up at office hours of my grad school professors, said “Sorry” for needing their help, taking up their time. I said “Sorry” when I reached for something in the grocery store freezer that someone’s grocery cart blocked me from accessing. “Sorry,” I said, before and after expressing a point of view that opposed. “Sorry, but I see it differently.  Sorry, sorry.” I was apologizing for my existence.

Apologizing to that empty seat was a wake-up call.  I decided to experiment. I started replacing “I’m sorry,” with “Thank you.” And in the vast majority of cases, it worked. “Thank you,” I now said, reaching past grocery cart to ice cream, as if I were thanking someone for allowing me to get by—which in effect, I was.  I started saying, “Thanks for taking my call,” “Thank you for your time, “Thanks for listening,” instead of apologizing, and it seemed to infuse a sense of bonhomie into interactions. People got to say, “you’re welcome,” they got to be beneficent as opposed to put out. When we apologize, we’re setting it up that we did something wrong, and those prone to feeling miffed can take us up on our offering, descending into their own toxic sense of umbrage. If I say “I’m sorry” to you for something incidental, and not in fact worthy of an apology, what dynamic did I just create between us? Do you have to absolve me? Forgive me? Have I placed the burden of my own self-esteem in your unwitting hands? You were just standing there staring into the grocery store freezer and now you have to forgive me for wanting a carton of Ben and Jerry’s?

“Thank you” thrilled me, for the most part, as a replacement for “I’m sorry,” although there were times it didn’t quite fit. Flash forward five years from the moment I apologized to an empty seat to another scene of exiting a plane. This time, I have four young children in tow, nursing twins affixed to my breasts inside a fabric double-sling, with their ungainly car seats hanging from my shoulders like I was some kind of pack mule. My preschooler and kindergartner trotted ahead of me down the aisle, both swinging knapsacks filled with coloring books, stuffed animals, juice boxes and snacks. We were a clunky, bumpy, inconvenient entourage making our way off the plane, and I thanked people for letting us get by. “Thank you, thanks,” I said to the gentleman accidentally bopped in the elbow by my daughter’s Little Mermaid knapsack. But when I said “Thank you” to the woman I whacked in the shoulder with the hard plastic of a car seat, well, that should have been an apology. And a real one.  Sometimes when we self-correct, we over-rotate. And in that moment, I realized I had.

There is a considerable difference between a sincere humble apology and a compulsive SorrySorrySorry.  The words “I’m sorry” can go a long way in terms of repairing breaks in relationship.  When said sincerely, preferably with eye contact, “I apologize,” can bridge worlds of pain.  Even over the phone, “I’m sorry,” can provide deep repair, if said with enough of a pause to let the penny drop.  The ownership of “I’m sorry,” the accountability of “I apologize” over email or text can even offer balm.

There’s an interesting caveat here that I notice in my work coaching couples—that I also happen to notice as a member of a longterm couple, not to mention in my relationships with my young adult children. But before I go on listing all the places in my life where I notice this certain phenomenon, let me tell you what it is: it’s including with the apology the reasons for having done the action for which one is apologizing.  I tend to include my positive intention (that got misconstrued, or that I bungled) by way of emphasizing the fact I did not mean harm. So while I am apologizing for my actions or words that did damage, owning that I handled something unskillfully, I am also providing what was going on for me when I did that, and how I did not intend for it to come out the negative way it did.

But guess what? That explanation, offered so close on the heels of the actual apology, seems to work as a giant eraser, wiping away the words “I am sorry” as well as their healing impact.

What I am learning is: a true apology has to have space around it.  The penny has to drop, the import of the essential message has to land.

“I am sorry.”

“I apologize.”

There is a simple dignity to those words, a medicinal humility.  Explanation of the honorable intention can come later.

On Privilege

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At nineteen years old, I volunteered with CAPP, Child Assault Prevention Program. A troupe of us would enter elementary school classrooms and perform role plays. About kidnappers luring children into their cars with a purported litter of puppies or slew of free candy. About “Uncle Harry” (truly, the character’s name) inviting a niece or nephew to sit on his licentious lap.  During the role plays, we taught the kids techniques for self-defense. It only takes thirty pounds of full force, such as a child stamping onto an adult foot, for example, to break the many fine tarsal and metatarsal bones, causing the perpetrator to wince in pain, giving the child a chance to run for help.

Part of the training to participate in CAPP involved anti-bias work, examining racism and privilege. Our group of trainees was comprised of mostly women and a few men, ranging in age and ethnicity. I was one of the youngest, whitest, blondest. And in spite of my parents having sent my younger brother and me to YMCA day camps for a few summers where we were some of the only white kids—their intention being for us to understand what it felt like to be the minority—I still had a lot of blind spots about my white privilege. One particular CAPP training day exposed a biggie. During a facilitated discussion, I described feeling a sense of freedom to go hang out in spaces that appealed to me to go curl up and read books or write in my journal – sneaking into hotel lobbies, airport lounges, even country clubs. The facilitator asked me why I thought that was. And I answered (cringing now at the memory), “Because I’m friendly.”  It took her less than five minutes – let’s say three, max—to get through to me.  What I experienced as a sense of freedom was in fact entitlement. I had heard that word thrown around but never really ingested it as pertaining to me. The reason I was entitled, the facilitator explained with effective neutrality, was because I was white. And not just white, but a certain kind of white.  In those days, I was neither well dressed nor regularly showered (photos of me at nineteen reveal I often had bedhead), but even so, I looked privileged.

Because I was. And am.

Not over-the-top-mansion, own-our-own-plane, donate-libraries-to-universities privileged. But well-educated, medically-provided-for, consistently-and-nutritiously fed, having-had-all-kinds-of-lessons-as-a- kid privileged.  I grew up in a rural area on the outskirts of Princeton, NJ where we didn’t have to lock our doors. Our family, in fact, didn’t even own a housekey.

I have heard there is a website called White Whine, and I am sure if I checked it out, I might find many of my quotidian issues echoed there. I am not proud of this, any more than I stand behind my naïve belief that the reason I could get away with trespassing into random country clubs was because I was friendly.    

I do not want to take my good fortune for granted, or be careless with it. I am living a very lucky, very blessed life. Next time around, I could come back as a dung beetle.  In a former lifetime, maybe I was a servant to an abusive tyrant. Or maybe there are neither past lives nor future ones. Maybe there is only this. Either way, I am incredibly thankful for my this.

My this is also something that can send a message, one I often don’t intend. A message that can alienate. My goal – as both a writer and a human – is to connect, soul to soul, with my fellow earthlings. And I am humbly aware that the unintended impact of my good fortune can get in the way.  My deepest hope is that it won’t. And if it does, my commitment is to have the emotional stamina to listen to what gets reflected back to me. “Because I”m friendly.”