Monday, October 31, 2016

Four Lighthouses (or Why You Matter)

Many thanks to Teresa Romain/Access Abundance for the inspiration.

Have you ever thought about what it's like to be a lighthouse? I have. Of course, I am a lighthouse, so I guess it's only natural. I'm nothing special. Wide and a little on the short side, I'm not even 100 feet tall, though I do sit on the bluffs overlooking a very large lake. The lake gets a lot of marine traffic, most of it well to my west. I'm on the eastern coast, where a few ships glide by and storms rarely hit. The main marine channel is along the west side of the lake, and that's where the bad weather tends to be the nastiest.

There are three lighthouses on that side of the lake. On the northernmost point is a famous lighthouse that people travel from all over the world to see. It's everything a lighthouse should be: tall (181 feet), strong, with a very bright light. It's survived every storm without appearing to age a day. In fact, on the rare occasions that tourists come to visit me, I hear things about this lighthouse. That it almost never needs repair. That it is one of the most picturesque lighthouses in the world, part of it painted in a sleek black paint that almost looks like leather. That if you had a lighthouse fetish, just looking at it would make you weak in the knees. It even has a foghorn, loud and low. If there was such as thing as a badass lighthouse, this one would be it.

The lighthouse just south of that is the tallest lighthouse on the lake, a whopping 204 feet tall. People love to visit it, and I hear that tourists can even climb the lighthouse, to see the view from so high up. It also is a picturesque lighthouse, a gorgeous tan color that never seems to fade or get dirty, topped with a brown cupola and gallery that make it look almost like it has long hair, which tourists say is adorable. But what I hear most about this lighthouse is that its light is so gentle and warm, nearly everyone who's ever seen it says it's like being smiled upon by the sun. This ginormous lighthouse has survived the strongest storms, including some straight-line winds that came through nearly ten years ago. The winds cracked part of the tower, but it never failed to light the way, and after only a little repair, it was even stronger than before.

To the south, the third lighthouse is an enigma. It's not especially tall, about 160 feet, but it attracts tourists from all over just because it's nearly everything one would never expect from a lighthouse. Instead of a bright white light shining over the lake, its light is a bright blue, almost glowing in its intensity. And it is painted the most bizarre of colors, multi-colored polka dots visible along one strip of its tower, contrasting zig-zags along another, some sort of random paint splotches on a third, and, from what people have said, another strip is always something different. No one ever sees anyone out there painting, yet whenever locals revisit the lighthouse, it's always new. Tourists love to take photos in front of this lighthouse, and often find themselves letting loose and having fun, taking goofy photos of themselves and each other, often making new friends in the process.

It's hard, quite honestly, to be a short, unremarkable lighthouse on the other side of the lake from these three other lighthouses. Most nights, I shine my unremarkable light onto water that is shipless. I wonder, more often than I'd like to admit, why I was even built here. It seems I'm never needed, while it's clear that the three lighthouses on the other side of the lake are both needed and wanted.

I begin to dream about what it would be like to be wanted and needed as they are. I'd have to be taller—much taller—and brighter, and somehow stronger or more beautiful or weirder. I'd have to be different, something that both ships and tourists alike would appreciate. This thought consumes me and sometimes my light sputters. But that's okay, because it's not like it's actually needed, anyway.

And so one night, I lose myself in a dream about having a lighthouse makeover. In the dream, I have moved to the western coast of the lake, grown nearly 100 feet, and am trying out different paint colors and patterns. I've tried changing my light color too, even experimenting with a rotating rainbow of colors. I'm so engrossed with exploring all the variations between stately and silly that I don't notice at first that the wind has picked up. It isn't until I hear the howling that I realize a storm has arrived, but that makes sense, because I'm on the west coast now. I wonder if it's possible to be beautiful and strong and courageous and fun.

I'm trying to figure out how to do that when a large branch hits my tower and I'm suddenly back in my place on the eastern coast, wind howling around me, trees bent almost to breaking. Hail arrives, making visibility almost nonexistent. I am so disappointed that I'm back to being unremarkable, not-beautiful, not-strong, not-courageous, and most definitely not-fun, and I let my light grow dim and hunker down to sit out the storm.

And then I sense it: a ship on the lake, very much in trouble. And it's headed my way. This is not good. The reason the western coast is the main marine channel is because the lake is deeper there. Where I am, it's much shallower. Ships know not to come this way. But this ship is being driven by the wind, unable to see through the hail and rain, and it will crash on the shoal if it's not warned away.

I put everything I have into my light, yelling as loud as I can through my rarely-used foghorn. I'm not used to the exertion and the effort tires me, but I know that I cannot allow this ship to sink. One of the bulbs in my light flickers and threatens to blow, but I can redirect some of the energy and keep it from overloading. I keep scanning the horizon, looking for some sign of the ship itself, but can barely see through the weather. I cannot tell if the ship is still coming closer or heading back toward the marine channel.

I keep my light shining and my horn blowing throughout the storm, unable to think beyond the next moment, keeping my focus solely on light/horn/light/horn/light/horn, until the storm finally abates near dawn. Finally I can rest, and I do, drained.

For weeks after that, there are no more storms on my side of the lake, and I am back to thinking about the three amazing lighthouses across the water from me. And then one day a bus pulls up and dozens of people get out, standing around me and taking photos. I am confused. Don't they know that the picturesque lighthouses are on the other side of the lake?

As I stand there, I catch pieces of their conversation.

"I thought for sure this lighthouse would be taller."

"Have you ever seen a light that bright come from a lighthouse?"

"I can't believe this little lighthouse out here all alone saved our lives."

And then I understand. This is the crew of that ship standing around. They are here and not dead or injured because of me.

The thought is stunning and I have a hard time believing it. I argue against it, listing again all the things I am not. How many lives have the other three lighthouses saved? It must be thousands, hundreds of thousands.

One of the ship's crew comes over to my tower and puts a hand against me. "You keep that light shining, you hear?" he says softly. "We've traveled this lake hundreds of times and never knew you were here. And then the one time we really needed you, you were there for us. I was able to make it home in time to be there when my wife gave birth. I may see those other three lighthouses more often, but you're the one I'm going to think about." With that, he pats his hand on the side of my tower and walks away, hands in his pockets.

And then, as I watch the bus pull away, I think that maybe, just maybe, it was kind of a badass thing that stormy night for me to keep going until dawn. Maybe, just maybe, I was stronger than I thought. There's no doubt in my mind now that knowing one of the crew got to be with his wife while she gave birth is a thing of beauty.

And maybe, just maybe I don't need to be an odd lighthouse. Maybe I just need to be me. Where I am. As I am.

Though a few new colors on my tower could be fun.

Shine on.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

To Fight or Not to Fight #AKF

Everyone goes through depression differently. There's no one cause, no one experience, and no one solution. But there are some commonalities.

Aside from the typical symptoms of depression (lack of interest in usual activities, sleep disturbances, feelings of hopelessness or that one has let others down, changes in appetite, thoughts of self-harm or worse, etc.), there are some other commonalities:

  • Worsening of self-esteem
  • Tendency to always see self in a negative way
  • Feeling at fault for everything
  • Belief that one deserves this depression as punishment for being at fault for everything
  • Certainty that one is a burden on friends and family
  • Belief that others will be happier if one is not there to drag them down 
  • Thinking that one is only ever taking from others and never giving
  • Feeling ugly, unloved, unwanted, alone
These are clearly untrue beliefs and thoughts, and I know that with every cell in my being. When I'm not depressed, that is.

Somehow, the depression shifts even "provable fact" and twists it to its own end, which seems to be solely to hurt the one afflicted. It's a kind of mental invasion. And what do we do with invaders?

We fight back. Of course we do.

Back in 2007, when I was blogging anonymously as Rivka through a severe depression, I likened the depression to my own personal, internal adversary (unlike the more hopeful metaphor of wing molt from earlier today).

In that adversary post, I wrote:
  • it breaks me down and consumes me and spits out what's left, and
  • I have this black cloud over my head or in my head and I can't see (both from here)
  • [it] takes that and twists it all around, that I don't deserve success, that my faults are too many, that I'm simply not good enough (from here)
  • I'm ... under the influence of my unstable emotions (from here)
  • It left me questioning my contribution to my marriage, my contribution to anyone, my value to the world (from here)
  • It's that I just feel less. Less everything that is meaningful to me, and
  • It diminishes everything important. It corrodes what makes my life meaningful and powerful and profound. It eats away at what makes me me (both from here)
And yeah, I want to fight that. Fight it and win. Fight it and hope it never comes back, and if it does, fight it again. And again.

There's an online campaign (initially launched as a t-shirt campaign for charity in 2015) started by Jared Padalecki, one of the stars of the long-running sci-fi show Supernatural, with the hashtag #AKF, standing for Always Keep Fighting. The t-shirt campaign raised money for three charities that all helped people dealing with mental illness (especially depression), self-harm, and suicide. Mr. Padalecki, who also shared his own bout with depression, stated the following on his personal interest in the cause:
"On New Years Eve, my dear friend lost his battle with depression. This, unfortunately, wasn’t the first time i lost a personal friend to suicide, and it hurt me deeply, in a way that only a personal experience with suicide can. Though he wasn't the first friend I’ve lost to suicide, I sure hope he’s the last. I wish i had the chance to go back and tell them what they meant to me. I wish I had the chance to beg them to seek help, to keep fighting. I wish they knew that they were surrounded by countless others who struggle on a daily basis.
I hope that this campaign, while raising money for a wonderful charity, can also raise awareness about issues that affect more people than we know. I hope it inspires people battling depression, addiction, mental illness and suicidal thoughts to be vocal about their struggles. I hope it helps people realize that they shouldn’t be ashamed of what they are going through, and I hope it helps people meet and find new friends that they can relate to. I hope it helps people take pride in the fight that they have been fighting, and gives them a push to never give up or give in. I hope it helps inspire people to keep fighting. no matter how hard it is.
For people who deal with mental illness, depression, addiction or suicidal thoughts, every day can bring about new struggles. Every hour and every minute can seem to bring insurmountable odds of happiness. I hope that the simple message of “always keep fighting” can help to bolster somebody through a tough time. I also hope this campaign can help alleviate some of the stigma that the terms “mental illness” and “depression” sometimes evokes.
Everybody has either dealt with these issues themselves, or had a loved one who deal with them. It’s time for us to put these issues front and center and not be ashamed of the path we are walking. If you’re out there and need help, please seek it. Be proud of your valiant day-to-day struggle. There is no shame in needing support. I hope this campaign will help you be vocal about your own struggles, or vocal in your support of those who might need a helping hand. Most of all, when life seems to want to beat you down, I hope you Always Keep Fighting."
 On the one hand, the warrior in me—the one who's been fighting for my life and identity since I was a child—loves this. Because it absolutely feels like a war, sometimes every minute.

And on the other hand, I don't want to fight anymore. Not that I want to give in—that's not where I'm going at all. But I've absolutely seen the effects of the adage, "What you focus on, you get more of" over the last 15 years, and I'd rather focus on hope and love and compassion and freedom and strength and beauty than on war and battles and being on the defensive and casualties and injuries and knowing that the next battle is just around the corner.

So I use the hashtag AKF because it connects me to others who find strength and hope in fighting their own personal demons, and at the same time, I look forward to a change in perspective when I can retire from fighting and wait for my feathers to grow in.


I took a shower today.

To most, that wouldn't seem like a big deal, but when in the depths of a depression it is a Very Big Deal indeed. If you're familiar with Spoon Theory, it took almost all of my allotted spoons for the day. If you're not, it means that it took just about all the energy—physical, emotional, spiritual—that I had.

Because taking a shower is not a single step. No, there's starting the water and undressing and getting used to the water (physical sensations on one's skin can be draining and painful during a depression) and selecting shampoo and the actual scrubbing (holding one's arms above one's head during a depression is tiring and can exacerbate feelings of vulnerability and weakness) and the rinsing and (for me) the same round with conditioner and then washing of the body (also sometimes emotionally problematic) and rinsing and turning the water off and adjusting to the room temperature and getting out of the shower/tub and drying (multiple steps here too) and dressing again, and it's SO MUCH. It's exhausting.

I tried to think of the depression as a thick, sticky goo that coated me, something I could wash off in the shower. Under the water spray, that visualization didn't seem to work. Some part of my brain went off in the direction of the thick, sticky goo (depression) being an oil slick and I was some sort of bird variant, covered in the stuff. And that kind of clicked. I was stuck here, at least temporarily, in the depression. I was grounded (not in a spiritual, good sort of way). I couldn't FLY.

But even then the oil slick seemed too easy to get out of, as if all I needed to do was find that magic anti-depression version of blue Dawn dish soap and I'd be all better. But depression doesn't work that way. Even with antidepressants. Or therapy. Or family and friends and loved ones.

In the dozens of depressions I've been through, most of them in the autumn, I've learned that it's a process. And I do usually come out the other side stronger and wiser, as if the depression brought with it a gift, buried under the self-loathing and overwhelming sadness and fatigue. And as I combed through my hair, and gathered up the loose strands, the visualization took a different turn.

I'm molting.

Joe Smith, in an article on bird molt, writes, "Bird owners know that the “mood” or “personality” of their bird — whether it be a chicken, parrot or darling starling — can change dramatically during molt. The birds often retreat to quiet spaces, reduce their activity and just want to be left alone."

Bald cardinal. Photo © John Benson/Flickr through a Creative Commons license
Since I was very young, I've always had some affinity with winged creatures. To me they represented freedom, beauty, compassion, strength. To fly was to have a kind of freedom I'd only dreamed of at that time: freedom of thought, of creativity, of expression. Freedom to love and be loved.

I was so enamored with flight that I bought and asked for books on flying airplanes and, at the age of 16 (the minimum age requirement), took and passed flight ground school. The next step was coming up with the $15,000 or so I needed at the time to start flying lessons. (My progress derailed from there.)

Something about this metaphor gave me hope. That maybe this was a natural process, and my responsibility is to make sure I have a safe "molt." That I eat enough to sustain my energy. That I rest as needed. That I take the time I need to be alone. That I accept I will be out of sorts and off my game. That I recognize that for this period of time, my freedom will be curtailed, my beauty in flux, my compassion needing to be more self-compassion, and my strength sorely tested. During this time, I'll feel unable to fly, helplessly grounded, but appreciating that freedom even more when I get it back.

And when my new metaphorical feathers grow in, they'll be even better than the old ones.

It's just a metaphor. But it gives me hope.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Healing Through Music

I wasn't going to post this at all, and then I realized that that flies in the face of what I've been trying to do for the past nine years -- break the silence and end the stigma around depression.

So here goes. My depression is back. Maybe only for a short stay. Maybe not. It's been here a week now. A devastating sadness -- "best friend died" sort of sadness. And nothing of the sort is going on in my life. My life is amazing right now, with more exciting things to come. And yet, my brain sometimes does its own thing.

I'm doing things that I find helpful and comforting in a depression, and I'm also limiting the things that lead to overwhelm. One of the things I've done is compiled a list -- in a specific order -- of music. My "Feel Better" playlist. And I thought I'd share an annotated version with you today, in case anyone else finds it helpful.

These songs are intentionally in this order, to be played straight through. I created it to form an arc, to start from where I often am, and gradually lead myself to a more powerful place.

1.      Crossroads” by Don MacLean
“Can you remember who I was/ can you feel it?/ Can you find my pain?/ Can you heal it?”

2.      Angel” by Sarah McLachlan
“There's always some reason/ To feel not good enough/ And it's hard, at the end of the day”

3.      Everybody Hurts” by R.E.M
“If you feel like letting go/ If you think you've had too much/ Of this life, well hang on”

4.      Try” by P!nk
“You gotta get up and try, and try, and try”

5.      Show Me the Way” by Styx
“Give me the strength and the courage/ To believe that I'll get there someday/ And please show me the way”

6.      Crawl” by Thisway
“Faces I remember, I'll still see/ And places in a memory, hold on to me/ I can't wait to crawl out of my shell”

7.      Making It Up As I Go Along” by Marie Wilson
“Don't want to be scared/ Don't want to be weak/ Don't want to be the last to speak/ I'm gonna be brave/ I'm gonna be strong/ I'm ready to take it all on/ Making it up as I go along”

8.      Brave” by Sara Bareilles
“Don't run, stop holding your tongue/ Maybe there's a way out of the cage where you live/ Maybe one of these days you can let the light in/ Show me how big your brave is/ Say what you wanna say/ And let the words fall out/ Honestly I wanna see you be brave”

9.      Come to Life” by Trent Dabbs
“Let it breathe/ It will be alright/ There's gold in the ground where we're walking tonight/ Just sit back/ And watch it come to life”

10.   Perfect” (Clean) by P!nk
“Pretty, pretty please/ if you ever, ever feel/ Like you're nothing/ you are perfect to me”

11.   With Your Face to the Wind” by Peter, Paul & Mary
“Sometimes it takes the dark to let us see the light/ You can't have that victory unless you've fought the fight/ Sometimes it takes a winding road to lead us home/ While you're windin' 'round my friend just don't go windin' 'round alone”

12.   Home” by Phillip Phillps
“Settle down, it'll all be clear/ Don't pay no mind to the demons/ They fill you with fear/ The trouble it might drag you down/ If you get lost, you can always be found/ Just know you're not alone/ 'Cause I'm gonna make this place your home”

13.   I’ve Gotta Be Me” by Sammy Davis, Jr. (Cover by Ryan Tedder & Contraband; Lyrics by Walter Marks) 
“I want to live, not merely survive/ And I won't give up this dream/ Of life that keeps me alive/ I gotta be me, I gotta be me/ The dream that I see makes me what I am”

14.   Just the Way You Are” by Bruno Mars
“And when you smile/ The whole world stops and stares for a while/ 'Cause girl, you're amazing/ Just the way you are”

15.   My Way” by Frank Sinatra
“To think I did all that/ And may I say - not in a shy way/ Oh no, oh no, not me/ I did it my way”

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Lessons From High School—30 Years Later

I went to my 30th high school reunion last weekend.

Aww... Thanks for saying that I look like I couldn't be more than 18 years out of high school. That's sweet.

Anyway, I had a pretty good idea who I was in high school. Or at least, I knew what I cared about (ethics, humanity's search for the divine, playing your best game with a badly-dealt hand, kindness to others, global respect, resilience of the spirit, the priceless value of life) and what I didn't care about (fashion, dating, gossip, makeup, social status, school politics).

Which made me kind of a nerd. And a social outcast—a role I embraced wholeheartedly.

My first three years of high school were spent with one especially good friend who had similar interests, exploring exactly those things that mattered to me, and by the end of my junior year, I had a pretty good idea of why I was on the planet. But then my best friend graduated a year before me and I had rarely felt so alone and adrift. Always the questioner, I wondered if there was actually an average number of french fries served with hot lunch, and began counting my french fries at lunchtime, to see how much disparity there was from day to day. I ate alone, people-watching in the quad, and simultaneously felt a longing to be accepted and a desire to get away from it all.

High school graduation photo, 1986
From exploring the mysteries of the universe to counting my french fries seemed to be a pretty long fall to me, and I filed my senior year away as "pathetic loser." When I graduated and went off to college, I didn't look back.

I kept in touch with a very few close friends, including that one special friend, but high school held nothing other than pain for me. And so I largely ignored the reunion invitations as they came and went.

A few years ago, I became aware that it wasn't that I didn't care about my high school years. It was that I was still running away from them. And I'd done enough work on myself that I knew it was time to put those ghosts of high school to rest, once and for all.

I won't lie. I was scared shitless in the days before the reunion. That 17-year-old high school senior was afraid I'd be walking into the middle of the kind of cruel judgment that only teenagers can dish out. I was convinced they'd see me now as I was sure they'd seen me then: ugly, weird, worthless. I weighed barely 100 lbs. in my senior photo, recovering from several years of anorexia. Nearly thirty years later, after long years of doing battle with my childhood demons (there might be one or two still skulking around), I wore my scars in the form of distrust, social anxiety, depression, and weight gain. So now I was sure my classmates, many of whom were still trim and athletic and gorgeous (or appeared so on Facebook) could add "fat" to their assessment of me.

And then a weird thing happened. A shift, both subtle and profound, as I prepared myself to walk back into the haunted memories of high school. I stopped caring. Really, honestly, stopped caring what they might think. Because I know the truth: I have come a long way in my healing, my growth, my embrace of my spirit. My body will follow; I trust that now. By fully embracing myself, self-care becomes a desire rather than an unwanted obligation. Change always has to come from within.

When I graduated from high school, I was a mere eighteen months past seriously wanting to end my life. Now, thirty years later, though those intervening years were punctuated by death and unemployment and housing crises and medical challenges, I am living the life I've always wanted. I have a strong, solid marriage (25 years as of July, 30 years together), children (now teens) who still love to hang out with me, a 98-year-old house that I love being in, close friends who share those same values I've long held, a career I've dreamed of since third grade, and a clear, strong sense of who I really am.

I walked into the first of three social events at the reunion willing to be open to whatever showed up, be it criticism or acceptance, or anything in between. And I learned that while I was right about how I see myself, I was wrong about how my classmates see me. Wrong about how they'd always seen me.

I was, in fact, really, really wrong.

Many classmates shared their memories of me, and those things I was so sure they'd thought about me didn't come up at all. I started keeping track of the adjectives they used, and other than "quiet" (definitely then, and mostly out of fear, but not at all now), I was amazed at the words that came up most often:

Kind. Caring. Compassionate. Fiercely independent. Quick-witted (especially with puns). Champion of the underdog. Deep thinking (really, really deep). Poet/great writer. Badass.


I'm humbled to say that they might have known me better than I knew myself thirty years ago. Because every one of those adjectives have been used to describe me lately, and I'd have to agree with them. ("Badass" took me a while to accept, but I'm down with it now.)

At the tree where I spent many hours
exploring the mysteries of the
universe. 2016.
I thought I'd changed so much since high school, that I barely resembled the girl I was. I think now it's less that I changed, and more that I grew into who I am, who I was meant to me. I was all those adjectives in high school, but you had to take the time to get to know me before you saw them. (The "quiet" part drowned the rest out unless you were willing to look deeper.) Now, they're big and obvious. "Quiet" is my default only when I'm under a lot of stress.

I went to my high school reunion, thinking that I'd show them—and myself—how much I'd changed for the better. And I did this weekend walk those familiar paths between classrooms with more confidence and contentment and clarity than I ever felt in that place. Already, I was no longer haunted by high school.

But the surprise for me was that my classmates showed me that they'd seen who I really was all along. And for that gift, I thank them.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Naked and Afraid

Despite the tragic and devastating news from Orlando, there are still good, kind people in the world. I know, because I met two of them yesterday in Chicago's Midway Airport during what was one of the most embarrassing experiences of my life.

Allow me to explain, and in some way, thank them.

I was in Chicago this past weekend for the Printer's Row LitFest, doing authorly things like chatting with readers, networking with other authors, speaking on a panel about my complicated path to publication, and signing books. Saturday was hot and muggy, but I've been in the Midwest for 23 years, so I'm used to it by now. Sunday—the day I did my panel and signing—was gorgeous.

I arrived at the airport at 3:00 p.m. Sunday for a 5:20 p.m. flight home, sailed through security (thank you TSA Pre√), and ordered a lovely tuna salad sandwich at Manny's at 3:30. And that's when everything went south. Kind of literally.

As I finished my sandwich, I had a sudden and extremely urgent need to use the restroom. I grabbed my backpack and CPAP bag and found a restroom right around the corner. And the moment I went through the restroom door, I knew I wasn't going to make it.

I've had IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) for over 23 years (one of my many diagnoses) and have been lucky that this had only happened to me once in public. Until now.

I had zero control over the muscles I most needed and every step let more out. Mortified, I ran for the nearest stall and slammed the door shut. I threw my bags on the floor and tried to lock the door, only to discover that the lock didn't work correctly and I had to angle it oddly and smash on it with the heel of my hand to get it to fasten.

I made it to the toilet but it was abundantly clear that some serious damage had already been done. Any of you who have had infants will likely remember diaper blowouts. This was an adult-sized version.

Despite the copious amount of material in my underwear and shorts, and on the floor in front of me, not to mention on me, my body had more to do on the toilet, complete with pain and cramping that left me in a cold sweat. The thoughts that went through my head included:

I should lose at least ten pounds with this.
What happens if I dial 911 from the restroom?
I wish I had paper on which to write "Do Not Use" and tape to stick the note to the door.

With my bowels finally empty, I took stock of the situation, trying to quell the growing panic. It was 4 o'clock and my flight boarded at 4:20. I had no change of clothes with me; all my clothes were in my checked luggage (that's going to change for my next flight). All I could think of was to wash my clothes as best I could. Fortunately, I had a source of clean water under my bum. Unfortunately, I had a lot to clean up.

I began to clean myself with toilet paper, grateful that there were two huge rolls in the dispenser. As I pulled the paper, the front panel of the dispenser fell down on me, so I had to pull paper with one hand and keep it on the dispenser roll with the other. Half a roll and a dozen flushes later, I was pretty sure I'd cleaned all of me that I could. Then I started on my underwear, trying to use the suction of the flushes to rinse them. It didn't work nearly as well as I imagined it might, and I filed that way. Do not use this trick in a book. Doesn't work.

I'd have to throw out the underwear. Next, I looked at my shorts, which were—of course, because nothing should be easy—denim. I couldn't do this in the toilet. I nearly broke down and cried then. A few people had commented to me over the past few months that I seemed to be living a charmed life. Doesn't look much like a charmed life now, does it?

I had only one recourse now: venturing out of my stall half-naked.

Just then I heard a woman exit a stall near me. I fought with and opened my stall door a crack and peeked out. "Excuse me," I said, near tears.

The woman turned around and the first thing I noticed was a stethoscope around her neck. A doctor? A nurse? Thank G-d!

"Yes?" she asked.

"I need help," I said. "I have a bowel disorder and I had a really bad accident. Can you call someone to help, or . . . I don't know what to do. My flight boards in—" I checked my watch, "—five minutes."

The woman winced. "You're going to miss your flight. Are you bleeding? Is it blood? Do you need me to call you an ambulance?"

"No." I shook my head. "Not blood. Poop." I saw a shift in her expression. She no longer wanted to be involved. "Maybe I can just wash them . . ."

She glanced around, then back to me. "There's a sink right around the corner here, next to a changing table. There's no one in here. You're safe. I'll start the water for you." She disappeared around the corner and I heard water turn on.

I grabbed my bags with one hand and my soiled shorts and underwear with the other, and sidled, bare-assed, over to the sink. The woman with the stethoscope was gone.

The underwear went into the trash, my bags went onto the floor away from the sink, and I started to rinse my shorts. I had miscalculated the amount of material I needed to rinse out of my shorts, and it turned into an extremely gross, messy job. As I rinsed, I started to cry. I kept checking my watch. 4:25 p.m.

I rinsed and scrubbed and tried not to panic. And I prayed. I wondered irrationally if my prayers from a Chicago airport restroom were voided because I was at a literary festival instead of in shul on Shavuot. My continued grieving over having to leave my former shul left me ambivalent, even a bit angry, this year at Shavuot, which used to be one of my most favorite holidays.

Nearly a dozen women came into the restroom as I scrubbed and rinsed and prayed. A few looked at me, standing sideways at the sink, my butt up against the wall and my now-soaked shirt mostly covering my front, and immediately averted their eyes. I could read their expressions: I don't want to get involved. The others walked past as if I wasn't there.

I started "shoulding" on myself as I washed. I should have brought a change of clothes. I should have gone to the bathroom before eating lunch. I should have never come to Chicago. I took a deep breath and tried to relax. No. I am here, now. Deal with the present moment.

Two women came into the restroom, chatting and laughing. I saw them in the mirror over the sink I was using. Pretty. Athletic. Nice clothes and makeup. One blond, one brunette. They saw me and immediately, as if one person, made a beeline for me. "Can we help you?" one of them asked.

"I don't know how," I said, my voice catching in my throat.

"There's a sportswear store around the corner," the other said. I remembered passing it on my way to Manny's. "How about we get you some new shorts?"

Gratitude and realism collided. "I don't know how much money I have," I said.

"No, don't even think about that," the first one said. "We'll be right back. We'll bring you a bag for your shorts too."

Again seeming to be one person, they turned in unison and left the way they came in. I had hope for the first time in an hour.

I kept washing, wanting desperately to trust these women, but knowing that I needed to be prepared to put on wet shorts and hope to catch my flight before it left. I checked my watch again. 4:40 p.m. Finally the water ran clear as I rinsed my shorts. I wrung them out as best I could, picked up my bags, and sidled, butt against the wall of sinks, toward the sole air dryer in the bathroom: a Dyson Airblade.

Dyson Airblades work awesomely on hands. The pressure of the blowing air even gets under watch and FitBit bands. They do not, however, work so well on denim. I dipped my shorts in and out of the Airblade until it automatically stopped, rested for a few seconds, and then went at it again. Several rounds into this, the blond woman returned with a pair of gray athletic shorts.

She looked concerned for a moment, gazing at my previous location at the sink, until she saw me at the air dryer. Smiling, she held the shorts out. "I hope they fit."

I left my shorts in the Airblade and took the shorts, held them up. "These will be perfect," I said, now nearly in tears of gratitude. "I can't thank you enough. Can I reimburse you? I can send you a check if I don't have enough cash."

"No, no." The blond woman waved my suggestion away. "This was our pleasure. I just hope they fit and you can have a better day."

I held up the shorts. "This guarantees a better day. You literally saved my ass."

She smiled. "I know. We all have to help each other out." Before I could say anything more, she left the restroom.

I put the shorts on. They fit perfectly. It felt good to finally have some protection on my lower half. Moments later, the brunette woman came in with a plastic trash bag. She noted that I had the shorts on.

"Oh, I'm so glad they fit!" she said, handing the plastic bag to me. "We weren't sure."

"Thank you so much," I said. "I told your friend, you literally saved my ass. I don't know how to thank you. I'd really like to reimburse you."

"No, definitely not," she said. "This happens to all of us at one point or another. It's happened to me. We've got to watch out for each other."

"Then I'll pay it forward," I said, stuffing my wet shorts into the bag.

She grinned. "Perfect. That's the best thanks of all." Then she also left the restroom.

I washed my water-logged hands, gathered up all of my stuff, and speed-walked to my gate. To my amazement, people were exiting from the Jetway door. I double-checked my information. Yes, I was at the right gate, which had been changed a mere ten minutes before my bathroom experience.

The gate attendant got on the microphone. "Ladies and gentlemen, I apologize for the delay. Our aircraft has been downgraded so we will need to reassign seat numbers for everyone in coach. We're also asking for two wonderful volunteers to give up their seats in exchange for a $400 flight voucher from Delta good for one year, and we'll get you onto the next flight into Minneapolis/St. Paul. We'll start our pre-boarding in about ten minutes."

I opened my Delta app and verified my seat number. I'd managed—for the second time—to get a first class seat for about the same cost as coach plus one checked bag, so my seat was unchanged. And I hadn't missed my flight.

I felt humbled. I didn't have to wear wet denim, thanks to the kind generosity of two strangers. Three, if you count the woman with the stethoscope who gave me the courage to head out to the sink. None of this could have happened if I'd stayed locked up in my stall. I glanced skyward and closed my eyes. Thank you.

It was only after I boarded the plane that one incongruity stuck out: the two women who bought me the shorts never actually used the restroom.

Monday, May 09, 2016

Bitter Herbs

I haven't written a blog post in over six months for a very good reason: I couldn't. I couldn't find the right words and when I thought I might have a few of them, I couldn't stop grieving. Yet somehow, once again Pesach (Passover) has given me tools with which to describe my leaving the most recent narrow place.

It's interesting to note that when I write books, they're always in response to some Big Question. Destined to Choose was an answer I could live with to the question "Why is there evil in the world?" Strength to Stand was an answer to "How much intolerance must we tolerate? And if the answer is 'none,' aren't we also being intolerant?" But I've never been able to write my way through traumatic experiences. My third novel, No One to Fear, due out in 2017, is the first post-9/11 book in the Rabbi David Cohen series. It's the first time I've been able to write about 9/11. I haven't yet been able to write about my parents' deaths, and it's been twelve years and seven years, respectively. Last December brought another kind of trauma and I'm only now able to write about it without bursting into tears.

September 2015 was filled with joy and book events. To my utter amazement, I found myself on TV, radio, in several newspapers, and around the Internet. For an introverted author, this was both exciting and terrifying. I flew to North Carolina (back when anyone could still use the bathroom most appropriate for them) for Bouchercon, the world's largest mystery/suspense/thriller convention for authors and fans. I met wonderful booksellers and readers and fellow authors through November.

In early December I had another book event, one that I'd dreamed about for years: being the December spotlight author for the local JCC's Jewish Book Series. It was, in many ways, a dream come true. And it was sponsored by my home synagogue. The rabbi seemed excited, and at one point said, "We have an opportunity to celebrate one of our own." Except it didn't turn out that way. At all.

I'm not going to go into details, because that isn't the point of this post. I'm also not going to name names, because that also isn't the point. (I ask that any commenters please not name names in the comments either. If you know me in person and want more details than this post gives, please contact me by email or through Facebook.)

What that event did do, however, was open my eyes to a problem that I'd been avoiding and choosing not to see for years: the shul had let members of my family (and me) down repeatedly over 20+ years. I'm not talking about the occasional human oversight. I'm talking about an ongoing failure of communication, of actions not matching words. Of talking the talk but not walking the walk.

My kids (now both teens) had no ties to the shul. No friends, no future there. My husband, save for a couple of individual friends, felt no sense of community. I was convinced that the problem was with me: if I just tried harder, I would be valued.

But December's event made me realize that all this time that I thought I was eating a savory, substantial brisket, I was really eating bitter herbs, washed down with the salt water of my own tears.

In an email I sent to the rabbi the day after that December event, I wrote, "The fastest way to drive someone away from Judaism is to make them feel like they have no value." I stand by that comment. We as human beings are hard-wired to belong. We need community (even us introverts).

Since joining that congregation some 20+ years ago, I had often wondered—and worried—what if I really, really needed my Jewish community, and they weren't there for me? While they sometimes were there for me, there were far more times when they weren't, including (but not limited to) my father's unexpected death, an extremely difficult pregnancy, and a life-threatening crisis involving my youngest son. During all of these times, I reached out for support. I didn't hide or expect anyone to read my mind. I heard the words I needed to hear ("We care very much") but no action followed. No minyan after my father's death. No support while I was under doctor's orders to remain in bed during pregnancy. No support or even resources during my son's crisis. I couldn't rely on their support. I couldn't trust that I actually had a community.

Thank G-d I didn't feel the need to leave Judaism as a result of this. I can't even imagine doing that. But with my family's input, I did come to the conclusion that this was not a healthy environment for me or my family. We had to leave our spiritual home and find a new one.

Psychology teaches about behavior change through rewards. Nearly everyone has heard about Pavlov's dog. That's an example of classical conditioning. Anyone who uses clicker training with a dog or cat is also using classical conditioning. But another type of behavior modification is called variable ratio. Slot machines work on a variable ratio reward system. You keep inserting a nickel or quarter or dollar into the machine and while you lose most of the time, you win just often enough to keep inserting those coins, ever hopeful that the big win is just around the corner.

Synagogues (and churches and mosques and other faith communities) should not work on a variable ratio reward system. For many people, these communities are their primary support network. It is true that no single group can meet all the needs of their members, or even all the needs of one member. But if it's actually practicing what it preaches, so to speak, it can do much better than 50%.

Since January, I've been going through a grieving process. While my kids and husband have been able to move on to the new synagogue without regrets, I feel like I've been through a divorce — or what I imagine a divorce would feel like. Thoughts like "I thought you cared," and "I thought we had something" and "Was it all a lie?" continually flit through my mind.

I emailed a handful of people from the congregation with whom I felt close, to let them know we were leaving, but outside of a few of those people, no one — including clergy — has reached out to us. There was no contact when we ended our membership. No contact when I gave an exit interview to a committee chair a few weeks later — and the committee chair only knew because she was one of the recipients of my email. It feels like the 20+ years we put into that community meant nothing, has no value. It's as if our family never mattered.

But I refuse to be defined by others' indifference. I've learned and grown enough to know that what we experienced in this congregation is not a reflection of us but rather a reflection of them. I didn't see the signs before December but I do now. I recognize now that leaving was an act of health, of taking care of myself and my family.

I'm still navigating the grief. It's too soon for me to go back to visit. Aside from a simcha next fall, I'm not sure it's appropriate to go back at all. My family sees no need to visit. In fact, my youngest, who was about to call it quits on Judaism all together, based on his experiences with our old congregation and the local Jewish school, has blossomed and begun to thrive at the new synagogue.

It is hard to let go. It's hard to give up on a relationship of more than 20 years, even when that relationship caused pain. It's hard to give up on what could have been, and that's what I'm really grieving. But it's also what I have to look forward to with the new synagogue: what can be.

Here's to life, and second chances, and the journey toward a new and fulfilling relationship.