November 2015

Thankfulness does not negate

[Note: These words were swimming inside of me and wanted to come out so I just wrote it super quickly, and I tried to edit it, but there’s pretty much no way to coherently express these thoughts, so I’m just going to go with it and press publish, and leave it upon you to try and figure out what I’m trying to say.]

Thanksgiving is a time to be grateful and thankful for what we have. And that’s a great thing – too often, in our busy lives, we go day-to-day without acknowledging the little (or big) things that we are fortunate to have. And many studies point to gratitude as a mood booster, as a way to make us happier.



While gratitude and thankfulness absolutely provide a source of comfort, they don’t negate. They can help, and ease, and calm, but they don’t have the power to completely eliminate those things that evoke sadness, depression, anxiety, fear, doubt.

Thankfulness doesn’t erase or change the pain, the trauma, the grief, the fear – but we are often led to believe that. During dark times, we often hear advice like, “Focus on the good” and “Count your blessings” and “Be thankful for your health”. And so we try. And we do. And yet our mood, our outlook, our behaviors, don’t necessarily change. Which leaves us feeling even worse.

It invites in thoughts like,

If I have so much to be grateful for, I shouldn’t deal with anxiety as often as I do.

If there’s so many other things to be thankful for, I shouldn’t feel so sad about losing my beloved grandpa.

If I made a long list of all of the great things in my life, maybe I have no right to feel as _______ as I do.

What I’ve learned, and am always re-learning, is that it’s an and, not a but.

I’m thankful for my health, and I struggle with anxiety.

I’m thankful for my family, and I am still heartbroken and devastated after losing my grandpa.

I have so many wonderful things in my life, and I have a hard time sometimes.

Please understand – talk of gratitude is real, it’s researched-based, it’s well-meaning, and it’s important. So on this Thanksgiving, yes, absolutely, count your blessings. Hold them close and focus on what you have to be thankful about. Yes.

And. If you are having a hard time, if there’s something causing you grief, or anguish, or sadness, or fear, acknowledge it. As a separate entity. Knowing it can co-exist with gratitude and thankfulness. Knowing they don’t negate one another.

Rid yourself of the pressure to feel bright and happy and colorful, if you’re just not there. Your thankfulness might lighten you, might make you smile, might help. I hope it does. But if it doesn’t fix, if it doesn’t cure, if it doesn’t eliminate?

It was never supposed to.

And for me – that realization is a deep breath, a sigh of relief.

The elf and her protector

One day, when the elf was a very young girl, she was out in the garden with the toads. Other creatures strolled about, including a garden nymph, watering a moonbeam lily nearby. The elf didn’t seem to want to play the usual games, and one of the toads asked her why.  The nymph watched the little elf pause, think, and open her mouth.

But just as soon as she had opened her mouth, she closed it.

For a protector had appeared and stopped them from going any further.

“Whoa, don’t do that!” it exclaimed. “If you let those words out, you can’t get them back. If you talk about it and say it, then you’ll worry people. And then they’ll feel sad about the words you spoke. And then you’ll feel even worse. So – let me hold onto your words. I’ll keep them safe right here, in this safe little nook between your chest and your throat. And then you won’t worry anyone, you won’t burden anyone, and you won’t have to worry either.”

Well, the little elf thought this was a great idea. She appreciated this protector looking out for her best interests, for watching out for her.

“Okay,” she happily agreed, and skipped away.

From then on, she had a solution. Any time those silly words wanted to escape out her mouth, words that would cause her friends and family sadness and anguish, her protector caught them and held them for her.

It was perfect.

Years later, the elf had constant tightness in her throat, pressure and heaviness in her chest. No herbs or elixer seemed to make it go away, and she feared that she was very, very ill.

One day out in the garden, that same nymph from years ago was tending to plants, fertilizing the mintberry plants. She noticed the elf laying in the hammock, and went up to her, asking her how she was doing.

When the elf replied, “I’m afraid I am not well,” the nymph knew it was time to speak the suspicion she had carried for so many years.

“Dear elf,” the nymph began. “I wonder – does that protector still live in that space between your chest and your throat?”

“Why yes, of course,” the elf replied, surprised.

“I find it curious,” the nymph continued, cautiously, “that this illness which has befallen you is occurring in the same spot as where your protector has held all of your many, many words, over the years.”

The elf listened, curious.

“You see, dear elf, I can’t help but wonder if there is simply not enough space for all of your words anymore. If maybe your pain is the words trying to get out, because they are crowded and in pain.” the nymph added.

“I just don’t see how that could be,” the elf said. “My protector assured me that this would protect me from the things I fear the most. The protector would never had lied.”

“Oh, of that I have no doubt,” the nymph reassured. “Protectors never lie, though I must tell you that over time they become very stubborn. Of course, sweet elf, it’s all out of love and care. But I do believe that now, your protector needs to be told that its services are no longer needed. That you will continue to become more and more ill if it does not begin to let the words through.”

“I’m afraid,” the elf told the nymph. “If the words come out, people will hear them. I will never get them back. And isn’t it safer to keep them hidden in their spot?”

“What’s the price of safer?” the nymph questioned. “I watch you day after day from my spot with the plants in our garden, and the price of ‘safer’ seems to be your health. I believe it’s worth a risk to save your life. And your friends, the toads and the nymphs and the fairies – they’ve been waiting, for years, to hear the words that your protector has hidden.”

The elf heard what the nymph was telling her. She knew that the nymph was right. She spoke to her protector that very night. “Oh, dear protector, I need to thank you,” she told it. “You did what you thought was right – and maybe when I was just a little girl, it was right. But it’s no longer working, for it’s making me very, very ill. Dear protector, I am not upset with you. I am grateful to how you’ve looked over me all of these years. But it’s time for you to go. And I will be brave. And I will know that all of my words – even the loud and hard and scary and deep ones – they will all be greeted warmly by the fairies and toads and nymphs. So, my dear protector – goodbye.”

And it left.

And that next morning, out in the garden, while drinking lilac-melon tea with a water fairy, the elf opened her mouth, and the words came out, and they rode right into the fairy’s heart, who welcomed them, hugged them, loved them.

Moments later, the elf felt better than she had in years. Her chest had opened. Her throat had relaxed.

She was no longer ill.

She was going to be just fine.

Paris and Plants (guest post)

This morning I woke up to a message from an old friend, asking if she could send me something she wrote, something that she didn’t feel ready to publish with any identifying information, but something that she would love to have “held” for her, in this space. I told her to send it along, meaning it completely when I said that I would be happy to read anything she wrote. I will let her words speak for themselves, but I just need to tell you how much my heart warmed when I read her reflections. Because, despite themes of sadness and grief, it was just so real and relatable, and that’s the goal, right? To say the things that are hard to say, because we are not the only ones who feel them.

Paris and Plants (by Andie Kates)

I’ve been spinning my wheels this week. I’ve been trying to hold in one hand current events and the necessity of being an informed citizen—while in the other hand clinging tenaciously to the personal need to keep myself grounded. Interestingly, a main source of hope this month has been my much-adored spider plant. I haven’t been able to put this sentiment into words, though, especially against the backdrop of recent global politics. I want to try and translate the connection that only seems clear in my head. Not sure how this will work, but figure I may as well try.


I was buried in work on Friday, November 13th; when I first heard people talking about the attacks in Paris that evening, I had no idea what had happened. In all honesty, I felt no shock with the news. I felt no outrage. I felt a tired sense of, “Oh, again. Oh, this again.” It didn’t sound like cynicism inside, but a desensitized self-protection. Oh, this again—in Paris, so we notice more than when this happens in Beirut. Oh, this again—a sense of safety shattered in a second.

I have resistance to follow the news these days. My desire to be an active, compassionate citizen is no match for the heaviness of loss that seems too familiar. I hear the echoes from last year when Michael Brown was murdered and Ferguson, Missouri erupted in pain. The calls for justice and change spiraled across the country, aftershocks of outrage and solidarity permeating conversation and consciousness. Black lives matter. Syrian refugee lives matter. All tragedy seems connected in emotional memory. Another example: while the Western world holds Paris in its heart this week, I find myself back at the Boston Marathon. That afternoon, we used Facebook to tell our loved ones we were safe and alive because reception for phone calls was impossible in the immediate aftermath of the explosions.

And Paris also brings me back to years prior— when the phone call came on a sunny Saturday morning in January saying a close friend was dead. And I laughed because I had just talked to him yesterday, and seriously, this isn’t a funny joke. And it wasn’t. An icy blue morning, a phone call, and then nothing seemed clear despite the sky.

Unexpected loss and a struggle to understand the why –it may be November 2015, yet I circle back to that May afternoon. That May afternoon I came home and found his body on my bedroom floor. A logical part of me knew immediately he was dead; my body went into shock. Other parts of me could not comprehend the split second in which life divided into a before and after. It has taken the better part of eighteen months to understand that his death wasn’t my fault.  

This week, too, a teenager drowned in the local river and a family friend died from complications of alcoholism.

I want to say to France, and to the world—these are moments when feeling connected hurts too much to stay with it for too long. These are days when every moment, every loss, seems connected and I find myself unable to let another tragedy into my heart. Paris—I know you’re hurting, the whole world is hurting. Our human capacity for cruelty is too real. And in raw honesty, I’m trying to stay grounded this week. That’s pretty much it. I’m also trying to figure out what my role is as a white woman laden with privilege in a world where it’s only too easy to ignore others’ pain. How do we reconcile privilege and responsibility with raw humanity? –and know it is a privilege to step back and say I can’t feel another tragedy today.

In my dreams this past week, I had the opportunity to say goodbye to him. In this dream I was not too late; though I still couldn’t save him, I could hold him as he died and he was not alone. It was the first non-nightmare I’ve had of him since that May afternoon. Twelve hours later I’m riding the train with a coworker when the real memories come without warning. His body—lifeless, still as stone. That intestinal fear and urge to flee.

Paris, to be honest, feels far away and impersonal.

Paris, is it arrogant and selfish to say that I am not a stranger to our quotidian human pain? I find myself unable to be present for yours. I avoid the news with compunction. I find myself unwilling to talk about it with coworkers and friends. Despite the reality of Syrian refugees, I find myself unable to separate loss from loss, memory from memory.

I hate acknowledging this. I know it is selfish and arrogant, albeit self-protective. I do not enjoy recognizing that I cannot disentangle myself this week. I know that on other days, other weeks, it feels easier, and I can more strongly turn outwards to embrace the rest of the world. I do not enjoy admitting that I feel too scared to do that today. Or, that I do not want to try.

In the same breath, gigantic loss can begin to heal in the smallest of moments.

My spider plant has had an offshoot for months. In the past week, small root buds have started to poke their heads out of the baby. In my morning plant-watering autopilot, I almost walked past it without pause. But I did a double take on Thursday, turned around, and cradled the tiny green leaves in my hand. This is life. This is life growing in my living room. Can you believe how incredible it is? In the face of destruction, exhaustion, and fear, this little spider plant is ready to take root and grow. It’s thriving.

I don’t consider myself a gardener, and while I love the outdoors I wouldn’t say I have a green thumb. The animals and plants I’ve loved have so often died suddenly, unexpectedly. I don’t always trust myself to care for others.  But this morning, a few days after spying the roots, I went to the hardware store. I bought more potting soil, came home, repotted the larger plant, snipped the baby from its offshoot, and buried its rootbuds in new soil. I put both pots near the window and am now watching the sun shine down on them. I’m waiting for growth, eager as a child. I also notice a fearful part of me hiding in the back of my heart waiting for it to just shrivel and die.

The story I hear in the back of my heart is that those I care for and love most deeply all die. Such is life—it does tend to end in death. Younger, hurting parts, however, believe that those friends and loved ones died because of me. I was the poisonous common denominator, the notorious cause of death. The trepidation I feel watching the plants this morning is real—but Adult Me knows that as elegant –and negligible—as my own existence may be, I’m just not omnipotent. And certainly not responsible for the entire universe, or capable of innocuously causing such destruction. Our loved ones die no matter what we pray; tragedy happens sometimes and we don’t know why. Today I know that my spider plant—my spider plants—are green and strong, watered and soiled, soaking in the November sun. This single moment feels like a miracle and the rest is not mine to know.

I wish there were a clear cut way to close out this reflection. It’s safe to say that I can find no resolution, no summary, no epilogue. Life goes on. Spider plants give me hope when humanity doesn’t. I have a newborn plant growing in the living room: small solace to global grief, but simultaneously hopeful. Will the plants thrive? I have no idea. Maybe they’ll shrivel up in the next week and I’ll be left with pots of dirt and regret. Maybe the spider plants will continue to propagate and I’ll give them away as Valentine’s Day gifts because our apartment simply can’t hold that many babies. I have no way of knowing.

What I do know: the sun continues to rise each day. The temperature continues to drop. The leaves are all but gone and December arrives in nine days. There’s no backing up or starting over—there’s just here and now. I can, and do, ride waves of helplessness at times and on heavier days, nihilism. I alone can do nothing to heal Paris, the world—not one person alone can do this work. Yet I also know that on a sunny morning in November, I can dig my hands into potting soil, water the plants, watch the sun, and see what comes next.

Andie Kates is 25 and currently living in Boston. She is grateful to Jen for the opportunity to share her writing!


Acknowledging it

You know how some days you feel down and blah, and sometimes you’re okay with that, but sometimes it makes you panic, Ohmygod what if this feeling doesn’t pass, what if I never feel happy again, what if this is my new normal, I don’t know why I feel this way, the walls are closing in, I’m drowning, I’m regressing, all my hard work is undone…..and you go from 0 to 100 in about three milliseconds? (Or maybe you don’t know….but humor me).

Anyway, in processing that idea the other day, I was saying how cognitively I KNOW it always passes, I know that even months of a hard time don’t last forever, and therefore one day of feeling down doesn’t automatically equal a lifetime of it, but that it’s hard to remember in the moment. So one thing I said (half jokingly but also half totally serious) is that maybe I need a note on my phone that’s called “When I feel Crappy or Low”. Under that super creative title (…..) would be a few to-do items.

First is acknowledge what is contributing. Because as humans we can feel blah and we can feel down and we can feel upset for no reason, but as I am learning, there’s almost always one contributing factor. So first up is to figure out what the factors are. For me, there’s a list of “high-flyers” – events, people, thought patterns, or memories, that, more often than others, contribute. So first would be a checklist of those items (which would be more specific than this): Is it the weather? Is it a family member? Is it that grief? Is it that memory? Is it that anticipation of a change that’s coming?

I’ve found that almost always acknowledging it makes a difference. It instantly helps me feel back in control. It’s the flipped switch from Ohmygod I’m drowning, I’m out of control, everything is pressing on me, I’m infused with tidal waves of chaos to Oh. I’m in control. It’s just x, y, and z, and it’s not everything, and it’s not an internal malfunction, it’s an external rainshower that’s getting me a little wet but I’m fine, we’re fine, I’m fine.

Do you know that feeling I’m talking about? Kind of like in grad school when there was a huge paper to write or test to study for – it initially feels so big and so impossible to ever figure out. But as soon as a to-do list is made and it’s broken down, it’s manageable and you return to I can do this, this is doable.

The next thing to do, after acknowledging to myself what it is, is to focus on it more. This is so damn counter-intuitive. When something is upsetting, we want to ignore it, want to push it away, we don’t want to spend extra time and energy thinking about and talking about it. But – it works.

With the disclaimer that it often initially feels worse.

When you choose to focus in on it, whether it’s to write about it or talk about it or draw about it, or whatever it is for you, you might feel that tightness in your chest get tighter. The tears that you’ve held back might come. You might end up gasping for air, or you might feel the pain even stronger. Hold on. Because if you continue talking, continue writing, continue letting it out – you will then feel the release. You’ll feel your chest relax, you’ll notice the tears stop, you’ll notice you feel lighter, you’ll notice you feel better.

In the moment? So hard to do.

But maybe that’s what the reminder is for, that’s what the list is for.

Because it’s worked before. It’s been true before.

It applies now.

The brain and the heart

[Written last week]

Today I was doing a lesson with one of my speech and language groups about nonverbal communication. We were identifying the “clues” that can help you figure out what a person might be thinking or feeling. We talked about what eyes can do (look up, look sideways, be open, squint), nose, mouth, and eyebrows. We talked about how hands can point and make gestures, how shoulders can shrug.

Then a student suggested, “What about your heart?” (In the Social Thinking curriculum that we use, we often talk about how we listen with our whole bodies – including our hearts).

I smiled, and told her, “Our hearts help us know how WE are feeling. But can we look at someone’s heart and know how they’re feeling?”

She shook her head and said she understood what I was saying.

A boy in the group, who had been fiddling with the ipad he was using, tapping his pencil, and seemingly not paying attention at all, turned to us and said, “Wait a minute. Your heart doesn’t tell you how you’re feeling. Your brain does.”

“No,” the girl replied. “Your heart feels the feelings.”

“Not for me,” the boy said. “Technically your brain tells you everything, it’s the only part of your body that can think.”

The third student in the class chimed in, with, “For me, they work as a team. My brain thinks and my brain feels and they work together.”

“Yeah, that makes sense,” the boy responded. “But for me it’s usually my brain. My brain tells me what I’m feeling and what I’m thinking.”

“I think it’s both for me, too,” the first girl added. “Like, I know that my brain thinks, but sometimes I do more thinking and sometimes I do more feeling.”

They all looked at me.

I was (obviously) trying not to tear up.

“I think that you are all so smart and insightful and have such good thoughts and ideas,” I unhelpfully said, as they wanted an answer.

“There isn’t a right or wrong answer. We have a heart and we have a brain, and for some people one works more often than the other, and for some people they’re an equal team. For me, they take turns. Sometimes I listen to one more than the other, sometimes I need to remind them to work together.” I told them.

And as kids do?

They nodded, satisfied, and moved right on.

Because it’s that complicated – but it’s that easy, all the same.

It’s Hard to be Human

After my last post, urging you to write, hoping you would, an old and dear friend sent me a message, essentially saying, “I’ve never put myself out there, but after your last post, I was inspired to write.” And so she did. I don’t think there’s a single person out there who will have trouble relating to what she wrote. Her writing is proof that we don’t have to consider ourselves “writers” to be a writer. The way in which she conveys her experiences is so uniquely beautiful.

And so, I give you her heartfelt words.

It’s Hard to be Human (posted anonymously)

I was a psychology major in college. I read the textbooks. I listened to the lectures. I know that humans are incredibly complex and that our cognitions often can’t be explained. We’re controlled by an electrical grid of neural connections that fire this way and that, sending us into overdrive. The same systems that allow us to run, laugh, love, causes us to freeze, cry, hate. I know to avoid catastrophizing and all or nothing thinking, and to calm my anxiety by trying to release the things I can’t change and focus on what I can. I have a loving family who talks openly about our genetic history of anxiety and depression and shares tactics for coping. I have a therapist who listens. So I must be doing well…right? Not quite. Having all the tools doesn’t mean I successfully use them. Having all the tools doesn’t equal relief. Having all the tools doesn’t stop the day to day moments of intense panic, sadness, or inadequacy. The hardest part is that I do consider myself a smart, successful person who is so blessed. Sometimes I remind myself that I am doing my best. I am human. But sometimes I decide that I’m therefore not allowed to be depressed, or feel helpless, or struggle, and that’s not fair. Ups and downs, highs and lows. Frustration turns to anger because any glimpse of a silver lining can become dark in an instant. Happiness can become loneliness. Pride can become self-consciousness. Innocent thoughts can become obsessive thinking. I’m trapped, trying to make sense of it, but the harder I try the more out of control I feel. It’s hard to be human.

How can one person experience different extremes so close together? I don’t understand it, I don’t like it and I resist it. It’s an out of body experience, as if I’m watching helplessly from the sidelines. I’m standing on the set watching a scene. I am the actress and she is me, but I can only watch, not do or say. But I feel her emotions. All of them. The director sets the scene and yells, “action!” and I watch her recite her lines. One with ease, then one with anguish. A back and forth between the positive and the negative, the confidence and the uncertainty. Both equally as strong and equally as real. And I can’t look away. It’s hard to be human.

[Scene] Morning mirror
First: “I love my eyes, I love my hair, I look happy. I look healthy.”
Then: “I hate my body. I am fat. I feel sluggish. I’m not good enough. And I never will be.”

[Scene] Breakfast
First: “I’m so lucky to be able to afford food. This tastes good. Nourishing my body is important.”
Then: “I have to be more restrictive. Less carbs. More nutrients. I’ve been eating too much. I’m going to start binging again. I won’t be able to stop. I have no self control.”

[Scene] Office
First: “That event was amazing because of me. I’m good at my job. I’m reliable. I’m valued. I learned something new today. My company is better because I’m a part of it.”
Then: “I messed up. I failed. I should be doing more. I should be making more money. I’m wasting my time and theirs. I’ll never find my passion.”

[Scene] Gym
First: “I’m so strong. I’m impressed with what my body can do. I feel empowered. I can do anything I set my mind too.”
Then: “I can’t do this. I’m too weak. Everyone else can go farther. I’ll never get my body to where I want it to be.”

[Scene] Cuddling with him
First: “This makes the hard times worth it. I love him. I’m safe in his arms.”
Then: “This only feels good because it’s rare. It won’t last. A fight is coming. I’m unsure. Why can’t this be simple? Maybe it’s my fault.”

[Scene] Phone
First: “I’m glad my best friend is happy. She’s finally found someone who treats her right. Maybe I deserve that too.”
Then: “She has it so much better than me. Why can’t he be that way with me? It’s not fair. She judges me because I’m not as happy. Will I ever have what she has?”

[Scene] Bedtime
First: “I had a good day. My family and friends are happy and healthy. I am grateful.”
Then: “I am not okay. This is too hard. Why am I the one struggling? When will it get better?”

Getting this out may do nothing. Admitting how trapped I feel might not make a difference. But all those psychology textbooks say acknowledgement is a necessary step. So maybe, just maybe, sharing these scenes will allow me to eventually accept the actress as she is, even if I can’t intervene yet. Sometimes she is troubled and sometimes she is content. Sometimes she is soaring and sometimes she is sinking. But she is human, and it’s hard to be human.

Will you write for me?

I’ve posed this question casually on Twitter on on the blog’s Facebook page. But I haven’t put it out, as its own post.

In keeping with the spirit of my last post, I’m thinking about how many people out there have stories that they’re not telling. Out of shame, out of fear, out of embarrassment. Or maybe out of having never been asked. Maybe out of not having the space to do it.

Here is your space.

My space is your space.

Let me hold space for you.

Do you have a story to tell? Do you have something you’d like to say? A sentence, a paragraph, a poem? Do you have an experience that you’ve kept to yourself, because you think you’re the only one living it?

Would you be brave? Would you write something for me? I want to share your stories. I want to share your thoughts. A word, a sentence, a paragraph. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t have to be “good”. It doesn’t have to be anything. Whatever it is, is what I want to share.

The idea being – that we all have stories. And we all think we’re the only one with our story. And so it’s time to share them. Because we aren’t alone and it’s enough of thinking we are. It’s enough of feeling shame. It’s enough of feeling constrained.

Nobody has to know it’s you, if you’re not ready.

Share anonymously. Share under a pen name. [If this helps encourage you – there’s a website on which I publish articles under a pen name. Sometimes it helps. Makes it easier to share. If it helps you, do it.] I don’t care. Just share. Write a comment here. Write a comment on Facebook. Tweet at me. Or email me and tell me, Yes, I want to share my thoughts. Post my story. Post my words. Post my experiences. 

It doesn’t matter if I know you now. It doesn’t matter if I knew you then. It doesn’t matter if we talk daily or if we haven’t spoken in years. If you are reading this, and you are thinking, Maybe I have one thing to say – I want to hear it.

There’s no judging, opinion-forming, telling, gossiping.

Just listening. Holding space. Caring. Compassion. Admiration.

The idea being empowerment. The idea being strength. Bravery. Community.

I hope – I really, really, really hope – that following this, I’ll get even one person who shares, even one thing.

Will it be you?

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