Why I Won’t Watch the Debates: Everyday Magic, Day 1018

Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotten in Gaslight

Gaslighting. What a useful word that, when I first heard it, snapped a whole lot of abuse and shaming I suffered into a new and true reality. That’s because gaslighting is manipulating someone into questioning her take on the world, and at its most extreme, her sanity.

The term for this systematic psychological manipulation originated in Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 stage play Gas Light and was popularized in the 1944 film of the same title (starring Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotten). In Gaslight, a husband convinces his wife that she’s insane, mostly by incremental changes in their home, such as slowly dimming their gas lights while acting as if nothing has changed.

Having grown up with a father who constantly beat into me (by word and by hand) that reality was a land that didn’t include me or I obviously couldn’t even grasp, I grew up sensitized to many manner of experiences that reinforced gaslighting. Being a woman in a patriarchal culture with the added layer of working in academia for 33 years (which, even among spectacular educators and student-centered learning, has plenty of tiny gaslight villages) provided me with lots of grist for the mill.

I’ve been a teenager told her calling to be a poet was a pipe dream. I’ve been a young reporter, activist, non-profit employee, and faculty member told that her ideas were “interesting” with a patronizing chuckle or told I didn’t understand how things are because I was too young, female, naive, sensitive, intense, or other terms was used to put me on the shelf. As I developed new things that did mirror Reality with a capital R — such as Transformative Language Arts, which focuses on learning who we and our communities are through arts-based inquiry and experiential learning — I faced years of academic edition gaslighting, often manifested in men telling me what was and wasn’t real scholarship or the purpose of an education.

How many times have I and so many of us (especially if you’re female, LGTBQ, living with serious illness or disability, a person of color, or low income) sat in rooms where someone *calmly* and *logically* mansplained to us why what we asked or said was irrational, unrealistic, impossible, or just crazy-wrong? How many times have we heard “Let’s not let our emotions run away with us” by someone who was backhoeing in made-up rationale actually based on their emotions and on burying our spirits? How many times have we heard we’re too much or not enough?

Even writing this post, I realize my hands are shaking and my heart is racing because I — like so many of us — have had to endure people in power trying to turn down the gas lights of my own and so many others’ innate power to create, speak our truths, and live authentically. Make no mistake about this: gaslighting is all about power. It’s designed to take away, diminish, or otherwise obliterate our power to believe in ourselves, to speak and act for change, and to feel the full weight of our voices and visions.

Which brings me to why I won’t watch the debates.

The two specimens from the party in office exemplify two sides of the gaslighting coin. One screams, belittles, sabotages, name-calls, changes course in a split-second, and yells some more. The other talks steadily wearing a mask of calm logic completely impenetrable to all reality except for a fly landing on his head. Both divert, obstruct, talk over others, and are obviously convinced that any agreed-upon rules or norms don’t apply to them. They also both use the formula of lie, deny, and repeat multiplied exponentially until they and their followers believe what they say is as solid as bedrock.

I’m not saying the challenging party is perfect, but they are talking some undeniable reality: Yes, climate change is real. Yes, Covid-19 is far more deadly than the flu, and hey, America has 4% of the world population, and over 20% of the cases of this lethal and, if you survive, potentially life-long disease. Yes, people of color are systematically targeted by many police departments, and they die and suffer at much higher rate due to racism, the pandemic, and economic disparities.

I believe that the debates are important in showing us more of what this next election is truly about, and they can be helpful in both mobilizing the base (for both candidates) as well as helping undecided voters decide. But as someone who is a recovering gaslight survivor, I have left and will leave the room each time they’re on, taking long, slow deep breaths, reminding myself that I’m not in any danger at this moment, and opening my heart to all of us who have been told there’s something deeply wrong with who we are and what we know. And I will tell us now and again: you are enough.

Listening to History, Looking Out for the Herd: Everyday Magic, Day 1000

Denise & Judy Back When We Could Go to Pastry Shops

It only took a few seconds of looking at the NYTimes map of the pandemic Saturday night for me to start hyper-ventilating and crying. At that moment, I didn’t yet realize I needed perspective, big-picture, deep-time, and wide-angle views to not just calm myself at the moment, but forge a more informed path forward. After taking a Lorazepam, drinking some water, vowing to self-isolate from regular bouts of Coronavirus news, and breathing slowly, I called my friends Judy and Denise. Both poets with miles of life experience winding through great wisdom, they gave me the gift of such perspective.

“I think of us as part of the herd, and now we have to do what keeps the herd healthy,” Judy said. Although we’re socially distancing, we’re actually coming together to support our collective health and life, giving each other a wide berth to ensure our safety as we roam the sometimes narrow trails of our homes and yards. I think of a Washington Post article I saw last week about staying home and apart not primarily to protect ourselves (although of course that’s essential) but to protect others who might be far more vulnerable that we are to Corvid-19.

“Think of what our parents and grandparents went through with World War II and the 1918 flu pandemic, which started in Kansas” Denise reminded me. We talked about the very long arm of what we know of human history — all the wars, pandemics, and natural disasters that patchwork a large story of perseverance. “Humans are wired and evolved for resilience,” Denise added.

Since then, I’ve been pondering the histories of my ancestors — the pogroms and the Holocaust that killed many but not all, the wars that turned daily existence into insecurities of scarcity, danger, and loss — as well as the generational stories of others I know. What was it like for one of my German friends who was born in early 1945, just in time to be piled in a wagon with many household items, because her family’s home was now destroyed? How was it for my grandparents to live through WWII, even though they were safe in Brooklyn, not knowing if Hitler would take over the world or if their relatives back in Poland, Russia, and Romania would survive (they largely wouldn’t)? During the 1918 pandemic — one the most deadly pandemic in human history — was it so much like living in a war zone that many were enveloped in fight/flight mode for months?

Denise and Judy reminded me that most generations have to deal with something overwhelmingly threatening; this is ours. Yes, it has its distinctions just like any disaster, but there’s a lot in common with past threats. We don’t know when it will end, who it will sicken or kill, what our economy will look like, how the herd will change, and then there are dozens of ifs that can wake up a person at 5 a.m. We don’t have control over ending this quickly, although we can do our part to hasten that ending. We don’t know a thousand and one things about the time ahead or the time we’re in right now.

I don’t mean to minimize suffering, death, mourning, and terror around the world. At the same time, despite this age of collective anxiety and fear (surely bred into our bones from past generational traumas, and reinforced by viral wolves at real doors), we go on like so many other species still vital. Just like the herd of shy deer edging the woods where I live, the squirrel families racing across the roof, the crows landing in the field to find something tasty or shiny.

We have history on our side and the herd to tend, so tend it we will, extending care and affection (without touching), attention and intention toward those we love and those we don’t even know, guided by what’s imprinted in our DNA about the herd and history. I leave you with this call to courage and love from Valerie Kaur of The Revolutionary Love Project: “This pandemic will test who we are, as a people. Will we succumb to fear and self interest? Or will be double down on love? Will we let social distancing isolate us? Or will we find new ways to reach out, deepen our connections, step up community care, and tend to the most vulnerable in our communities? I believe this is is a time to love without limit.”

Scans For Life: Everyday Magic, Day 956

With my oncologist, Dr. Sharon Soule

Years ago when I was in the oncology center waiting room for an appointment following my bout of breast cancer, two women made me cry. One was in her 70s, and the other was her middle-aged daughter, both clinging to each other and having a hard time answering questions because of their sobbing while they checked in to hear test results. I was soon called back to see my oncologist, and so were they, but I saw them again on my way out, both of them laughing and crying at once, still clinging to each other. A nurse who escorted them out hugged them and said, “I’m so happy for you.” They arrived in terror and left in joy.

I know those feelings pretty well. Since those dreaded “you-have-cancer” words first entered my orbit in 2002, I’ve been on the scan bus, making more stops than I would have expected because I was also diagnosed with BRCA 1, one of the breast cancer mutations. Add to this that my father and uncle died young from pancreatic cancer, and MRIs entered the mix. Then there was the ocular melanoma last summer, and now, post-treatment for that, I’m a regular in our hospital’s radiology department.

Last Friday, I had my second seasonal (every three months for many years) scan to make sure what was in my eye didn’t travel. Because this type of cancer, when it has legs (and I pray it doesn’t), usually shows up in the liver and sometimes in the lungs, I had an abdominal and chest CT scan (used to be called a CAT scan, although there’s little purring, involved), and some blood work. I was scared beforehand but not as scared as the first one last fall, and far less scared than the parade of of scans last spring. In the week before the scan, I had a few seconds here and there of full-body terror that makes me feel like I’m both thoroughly embodied in terror and also on the outside looking in. But I’ve learned fear storms are just another kind of weather that moves through: keep breathing, drink some water, tell yourself it’s just a strong emotion that will ebb, and eventually, the sky clears.

With Melissa, the wonderful CT scan technician

Getting scans to see what’s happening under the hood is something many of us endure. I know so many people living with and recovering from many health challenges, all of which require showing up on time, sometimes drinking strange fluids or having dye injected into us, and then being ferried in and out of large, sometimes (in the case of MRIs) outrageously loudly-clanging machines. There’s also other tests of trepidation many of us go through that show whether we’re in the money or up shit’s creek. My scans and health history aren’t more challenging than what many others go through, and I have a lot of “there but for the grace go I” moments when I hear of friends who are facing degenerative diseases, chronic pain, and terminal diagnoses (although life is such a diagnosis). Then again, comparison of our learning edges and life challenges is a futile activity.

I’ve learned and am continually learning to stay calmer, working through my phobia of being restricted in the grips of a machine. Last summer, my wonderful oncologist Sherri Soule gave me a prescription for a lot of Lorazepam, a low dose anti-anxiety drug. I wondered why she prescribed so many, but now that I’ve had that refilled twice, I know sometimes we need a little pharmaceutical help. I also have a GABA spray I highly recommend for moments that activate our fight or flight response. Like many of us, I practice slow, deep breathing, listen to music (especially during scans, and I’m sure Enya was invented for MRIs), and bring along Ken and sometimes other support people.

For this last scan, I found extra support in the technician, a lovely woman named Melissa who remembered me from last time, talked over the singers I was listening to my iPhone during the scan (Brandi Carlile and Carrie Newcomer), and treated me with such energetic tenderness that she put me at ease. Then there was the wait for results, best spent not speculating — we distracted ourselves by getting brunch at Wheatfields, reveling in the glory of bread. I’m so grateful that my oncologist doesn’t play the phone game (a call if all is fine or a “you need to come in right away” if it’s not) and meets with me a few hours after the scans. As she came in smiling, telling me all was well, to my surprise I started crying, but that’s pretty common with scans.

Each scan is another tumble with seeing how mortal we are. Recently, my therapist and I realized that it wasn’t the scanning machines — CT scans, MRIs, and Pet scans — that freaked me out as much as what the scans might read. At the same time, the whole process makes me fall more in love with this life, enough to spend a long and healthy lifetime grappling with what I keep discovering here.

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Panic Attacks, Anyone?: Everyday Magic, Day 985

Remember the sky

It’s 5:47 a.m. when I wake, trying to figure out how to fit my laptop into an antique desk that’s falling apart. My worry about the dream desk starts galloping into many manner of other worry, from the sublime (climate change) to the ridiculous (having to wake early for a gig next February, and what if I didn’t sleep well the night beforehand?). I steer my mind as best I can away from the tar pits of habitual anxieties (“don’t think about the kids, don’t think about the kids, don’t think….”) and thoughts catalyzed by the shock of cancer and trauma of treatment. But still.

Lately, this human has been easily tipped into tiny or not-so-tiny panic attacks, usually in the middle of the night (their breeding time) and sometimes, out of the blue, mid-morning for no apparent reason. Realizing who the little man is behind the curtain is — the after effects of the cancer diagnosis most likely, come out to roost in prime time now that I’m through so much of the recovery — doesn’t help all that much except to remind me that this is a common kind of thing. I work enough with people living with serious illness to recognize how, months after being spit out on the beach from the whale of chemo, surgeries or radiation, the terror catches up with us.

At the same time, as a person prone to anxiety (I come by it honestly given my family and ancestral history), I’m not unfamiliar with my friend, the panic attack. I say “my friend” purposely here because I’ve learned it’s best not to run and hide, call the panic names or otherwise diss it, but get present enough to breathe, name what’s happening, and remind myself of some logic (hey, there’s nothing I can do to reform Mitch McConnell, so let it go). It’s helpful to tell myself that  it’s just anxiety talking, and all will be sunnier in the morning. Yes, I have meds to take proactively or as needed, plus this great Gaba (an amino acid that helps calm the brain) supplement to spray into my mouth, and a lot of breathing and relaxation practices. I also know that in the middle of that panic gripping the center of my belly, it’s likely I’ll forget everything I just named here, so I lie in the dark, and aim my thoughts toward remembering how to breathe and what to think.

Remember the river too

I’m also far from alone. Friends and family often reply, “me, too!” when I tell them of a recent running of the bulls in my body and mind. Maybe it has something to do with a particularly energetic full moon lately, the reality that we are in the sixth age of extinction (200 species vanishing a day, Greta Thunberg recently said, and yes, she’s right), and so many people and other species experiencing so much avoidable suffering born of oppression, greed, arrogance, and ignorance.

Perhaps it’s also a natural response at times to the reality of being human. When I was talking with Neela Sandal, my integrative physician, last week, he told me an old story from India that included the question, “What is the most amazing thing in the world?” and the answer, “That everyone is dying and no one believes it.” Mortality is a kick in the ass, and it makes sense that given how much we live in a death-denying (and at times defying) culture, that sometimes the space between a sense of control and the reality of life’s fragility and mystery fills with adrenalin.

So for all of us who occasionally experience any size panic attack in any nook and cranny of our lives, it’s good to know that we’re in good and honest company. Sometimes there’s a quick fix, and often there’s not, but there’s always time, turning us from the temporary into the next moment, then the next. Like now when I write this to you on the porch, breathing easy and appreciating the wind, the first leaves falling, and the occasionally monarchs migrating through on their way to somewhere else. I tell myself now and also in the middle of panic to  embrace some measure of gratitude: remember all those I love and who love me, remember the sky, remember the river, remember the wind and how it’s always moving and changing.

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Counting on the Other Side of Cancer: Everyday Magic, Day 984

When life feels out of control, I start counting. I first noticed this habit/neurosis/coping mechanism when I was in labor for my oldest child. I was in too much pain to count the seconds of each contraction, but between them, I couldn’t stop counting. My mind was immersed in a world of ascending numbers, which made me realize I had been counting seconds in quiet moments throughout the pregnancy, maybe as my way to prepare for the Olympic event of birth.

It’s no wonder that many days, especially closest to the eye cancer diagnosis and surgical/radiological treatments and long recovery period, I’ve been counting. I counted (first days and eventually in hours) out how much time passed and would need to pass during those five long days between when the tiny gold bowl of radiation was implanted under my eyeball and when it would come out. Since there, it’s been how many days since the diagnosis, first surgery, and second surgery — a way to measure the immeasurable thunderbolt of initial fear, then the stretch of road unfurling around surprise bends and drops toward healing.

Today it’s 133 days since I heard those dreaded you-have-cancer words. It’s 87 days since the first surgery to initiate Operation Tumor Melt and 82 days since the second surgery to remove the bolster rockers (radiation implant). But just this morning, I found myself counting forward, not backwards: it’s only six days to the three month anniversary of beginning treatment, and by December 14, it will be six months past, by which time I see myself (so to speak) even more healed and healing, especially since the medical treatment takes a while to resolve and dissolve that tumor down to just a wispy scar of itself, inert and of no danger to me.

What I believe in is beyond the reach of numbers, but healing is like that. Eventually the physical reminders and tiny irritations, the prednisone eye drops and dilating eye drops (to blast scar tissue off the lens of my eye) will be as distant as any visceral memory of the pain of contractions. The lessons of all this will come into view over months and years in ways that name or don’t name themselves to me: what it means to be mortal, the power of love, the mystery of healing, and how vast and uncontrollable time is. What I mean by the latter is how much we all get to learn (unless we die quickly and unexpectedly) about how the future is not what it’s cracked up to be or what we get to map out in numbers or letters, although intention, prayer, and contemplation help.

As I move toward seeing myself as generally okay, out of pain and danger, and healthy, I notice I’m not counting as much. Instead, I’m sitting here watching the last few raindrop slough off the gutters and into the flower beds, so overgrown from three months of no weeding that it’s not worth even beginning to find the ground beneath it all. I’m listening to the soft  and whirling waves of the crickets as well as to a jazzy version of “Jet Song” from West Side Story. I feeling the subtly moving air on my arms. I’m counting on such arrivals to where I actually am, breath by breath instead of number by number.

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