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Navel gazing, self-hatred, and Whole Foods: Or, Work, Bitches!

Yesterday I found myself in Carmel IN with some spare time. Living in a small city means a living with a dearth of retail options, especially in the all-important edibles category, so I decided to waste some time and cash at Whole Foods. As soon as I got within a block of the place, I realized I’d triggered my own rage response. The whole parking lot and most traffic heading in that general direction represented one my least favorite demographics: the very privileged sub/urban stay at home mom; she of the Lulumon yoga wear, the Mercedes or BMW SUV, the bleached teeth, the perfect skin, the size 2/4/6 post-baby body, the no-job.

While pushing my sleek black mini-cart around the immaculate store, I muttered to myself about the herd of wealthy, idle, indulged women shopping around me. What I actually said is both irrelevant and was quite vulgar. Suffice to say that when a blond, tan, toned thirty-ish woman in tight black spandex spent a little too long picking through the Honey Crisp apples while I waited for her to move, words rhyming with “hunt” and “twitch face” occurred to me in some fascinating variants. Around that time, a Whole Foods worker bee dropped a very large box of cava on the floor, sending glass, fizzy wine, and noise all across the floor of the store. My ranty concentration broken, I slunk over to frozen foods, and while searching out sprouted dinner rolls, the thought struck me that hating on the burbish baby mommies is probably pretty damn close to an act of self-hatred. I am all of those things, except idle (and blond, and lately, toned).

This triggered a second pass through the wine section.

I’ve always resented the idle rich, possibly due in part to my very work-heavy Scottish/Southern protestant/Calvinist upbringing. How can anyone justify their continued absorption of water and sunlight when not producing anything of value? I mean, really, work IS the whole point, right? Add some wasted youthful years listening to hardcore punk rock, and a definite pique can be raised by overt consumerism very easily.

So I came home, ate some very tasty organic produce, had a lovely glass of viognier, watched a few episodes of Orange is the New Black and went to bed, mostly recovered from my earlier rage party.

This morning, trolling around the vacuum tubes of all human knowledge, I came across a short essay by a young writer on the primal need for creative work(read it here: http://mashable.com/2015/06/09/post-hipster-yuccie/).

Apparently, while I was busy hating on yoga moms, the kids have created a new template for Work. It takes hipsterism a step further, denouncing the outer symbols of anti-establishment sentiment like tattoos and fedoras while embracing the inner hipster drive for self-propelled creative careers.This current trend and struggle is both a lot like, and completely new, compared to the generations of the recent past.

Gen X, once we got off of our collective asses and mom’s sofa, embraced a weird brew of “stick it to the man” and “I like having stuff”. The internet explosion put a good number of us to work in software start-ups, or at least, in decent-paying IT gigs that didn’t make us come home from work smelling like french fries. Looking around at my cohort from high school and college, I think most of us (who had enough social privilege to attend college and make a wide array of life-work choices) have managed to grab at least the brass monkey, if not the brass ring, financially.

What seems less clear is whether or not we’ve made any progress over our Boomer parents in creating work that makes us matter or feel fulfilled at some basic level. The Boomers, of course, struggled mightily against The Man, and then in their late 20’s or early 30’s, mostly caved in/sold out and moved into split level ranch houses to raise us. They started out rebelling against the consumerist and conservative mindset of their WWII winning parents, denounced materialism and corporations, and like us, later determined that having stuff makes life hella easier.

People who are free to choose their work may be a relatively new phenomenon, especially on the female side. Gen X is only really the first generation of women in the US raised from early life to believe that all careers are open to us. The “yuccies” then, are only the 2nd or 3rd generation of Americans with such a wide range of options on view. So, is the preference for creative and self-propelled work a natural evolution of chosen work, obviously made far easier by technology, or is there some other phenomenon at play? Will Gen X be remembered as the last generation of corporate tools in a future of micro industry? Will the wives of executives of the future still choose to be idle?

At the end of the beauty aisle, passing all sorts of hand-crafted, micro-brewed, super special non-toxic organic merchandise, I had to wonder how a person with endless choices could forego all of them and choose instead to consume rather than contribute, to buy rather than to do. Certainly Calvin would condemn the idle yoga mom to hell in a chai soy latte cup. Maybe it’s the choice to matter only in reflection, in servitude to others that pisses me off so violently. The inertia, the unmet challenge of DOING, the missed opportunity to make is something like refusing to accept lottery winnings, or maybe it’s my own frustration at still be “employed”, even in a relatively creative job, that grates.

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Self-regulation, toxic stress, and Baltimore.

On first sight, you might think that the title of this article leads to one of those four-part pictures from Sesame Street entreating you to decide “Which One of These Things Doesn’t Belong”. Actually, all three of the subjects in the title do go together, it’s just uncomfortable to confront that knowledge.

So, let’s break it down.

Self-regulation is a set of skills that stretch between the domains of cognition, emotion, and and behavior that allow adult humans to make good, prosocial, rational, decisions even under stressful conditions. This group of abilities is based on healthy brain development in the early years, which is fueled by good-enough parenting, and the meeting of the basic physical needs of food, water, and shelter (there is some debate about which is most damaging to forfeit, and the front runner may be the parenting). When things go right for a baby, s/he develops the capacity to regulate her own emotions, thoughts, and actions well enough to fit in socially and survive to adulthood. When things don’t go well, self-regulation may be delayed or halted in one or more domains. A kid or adult with crap self-regulation abilities might appear hostile, aggressive, violent, smart-mouthed, withdrawn, anti-social, hyperactive, lethargic, or unfocused. Other things can cause those behaviors, but quite often, self-regulation is the real culprit, especially when kid is exposed to what’s called toxic stress. Here is a recent research brief about this little combo, read it if you want more depth that a blog post can provide: http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/opre/resource/self-regulation-and-toxic-stress-foundations-for-understanding-self-regulation-from-an-applied-developmental-perspective. It’s fascinating.

Toxic stress is different from everyday stress in terms of frequency, intensity, and duration. Most people have some aggravations, annoyances, and frustrations every day. Folks with toxic stress have catastrophic, life-threatening, chaotic, terrifying stress every day, all day. Toxic stress is a nightmare for anyone trying to develop or maintain mental and physical health. There’s a mountain of evidence about ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) and the nasty things too many of those can do to a person over time. Check out the ACE home page for the numbers: http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/

Lastly, Baltimore (and Ferguson, and North Charleston, etc. etc.).

The (White) police have been shooting up Black folks again. That this happens isn’t news to most people. That it is continuing to happen so often and that so many local jurisdictions haven’t done anything to assess or change the systems that set up the circumstances that foster these murders is shocking. For Black and brown people living in places with a high load of toxic stress, that’s the last straw. Toxic stress is literally poisonous. Chronically elevated levels of cortisol and other stress hormones cause the kidneys, heart, and lungs to overwork. Soft tissues like veins and arteries wear out early. In childhood, people exposed to too many ACEs face an uphill battle towards mastering self-regulation in all three domains. Regardless of gender or race, a person growing up amidst toxic stressors develops self-regulation later and less broadly than the same person would in a more safe and stable place. When an adult with a high toxic stress load and low levels of self-regulation is attacked, threatened, or in a hostile-seeming situation, he or she is more likely to react with violence and aggression than a person who lives somewhere safe.

This is not to say that adults shouldn’t be held responsible for damage they do while enraged. However, in places with high levels of toxic stress, no one should be surprised when the proverbial shit hits the fan when yet another citizen is murdered by the police. One of many reasons that the death of Walter Scott in South Carolina and Freddie Grey in Maryland provoked such extremely different reactions from the public was the response of the people who were perceived to be in charge. Although both cities have high levels of toxic stress, the officer who killed Scott was immediately arrested and fired from the force. In Baltimore, no arrests have been made, no announcements from the authorities have been made about suspending the officers involved, and it seems to the citizens there that no one cares. Both cases are obviously tragic and have provoked anger and grief in their respective communities.

In Baltimore, people who are already tired of not mattering have been reassured that they don’t. In North Charleston, it seems that the police force has found a way to communicate to its people that they do matter. When you’re already up against a wall, the last thing you need is someone to shove you up to it harder. That’s when people, many of whom are already short on patience, break. The limbic system essentially stops asking the upper levels of the rational brain for input, and action takes over from reason.

I wish I could close this little rant with some smiley sentence about things getting better. I am glad that Science has now empirically validated how important early environments are to healthy adult development. I am grateful that interventions for schools and clinics are in the works to help stressed out kids learn to self-regulate earlier and better. I’m left wondering if any of it matters.

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Thump thump thump….here come the helicopters (parents)!

One of the great joys of being a professor in a graduate program is watching as young adults grow into creative professionals from being ex-college-students. Every fall, we welcome a group of twelve or so young people, most of whom graduated from their undergraduate programs mere months prior, to campus. Over the next two years, we do the sometimes difficult work of molding them into capable, responsible, and confident beginning therapists. When they leave after graduation, most of them go on to lead rewarding, full, and pro-social lives.

The two years between the arrival of newly-minted B.A. holders and the departure of newly-minted M.S. holders can be tough on everyone involved. Learning to be a competent therapist isn’t easy. The content material; diagnostic categories, pharmacology, neuroscience, counseling skills, theories, and techniques can be overwhelming. Learning to make meaningful connections with total strangers who have lives very different from your own can be exhausting. Developing an identity as both an adult and a professional can be the most difficult aspect of the entire process, especially for 23 year old students whose parents don’t identify as professionals.

The notion of professional identity has been belabored for years in the counseling literature. How do you “be” a counselor? How, if at all, is that person different from who you are at home or with friends? How do you put on this new identity without loosing sight of your former self? Students can struggle mightily with all of these issues, and as much as faculty and supervisors want to help them, it’s a battle each person must face on his or her own.

An interesting cultural turn has recently made this struggle more difficult and less likely to resolve by the time the students leave us. Their parents are now jumping into the graduate program, sometimes at the invitation of the student, but just as often not. Comedians and pundits have talked for years about the silliness of millennial parents over parenting their children to the point of the absurd. Children are no longer left alone to explore the outdoors, even in safe neighborhoods. Parents go to high school dances. They go on graduation trips. They heckle college professors who “give” their child a B or lower.

And now they’re coming to graduate school.

I’ve heard from colleagues around the U.S. that they’re now being contacted by the parents of students about a range of issues, from admissions to internship placement to graduation requirements. Last week, I had my first experience with a parent of a graduate student interfering in the student’s educational experience. I was stunned, to say the least.

And now I’m sad, mostly for the student. The early twenties aren’t easy for most people who are making big transitions from a late adolescent stage, which is drastically extended in modern culture by the university experience, and early adulthood. At the point in their lives when young people most need to wrestle with issues related to independence, freedom (and it’s twin, responsibility), and adult identity, parents are figuratively putting their feet in the doors of development, halting or delaying the process of maturation immeasurably.

I am glad this student’s parents love him/her and are supportive of the journey of higher education. I wonder if they realize that without allowing any struggle at all on the part of the student, they are effectively retarding his/her transition into adulthood. I’m hoping that the parents will learn to allow the child to work through the difficult passages of life with much less interference in the future; I can’t imagine mom or dad calling the boss about a workplace issue, but I guess it’s very possible in the current climate.

It’s my own generation of parents that are crippling their children by eliminating rehearsal for adulthood by removing all obstacles. And it’s us who will have to live with the way we’ve so poorly tended our duties. I’m left hoping not to have to talk to the parents of my doctor before s/he will give me my pills in the old lady’s home.

It’s our mess, X’ers. We need to fix it before it ruins us all.

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Ghosts

In the past week, my family lost two Grande Dames, the likes of whom we shall never see again. They were sisters. The elder died unexpectedly, the younger faded out after a long period of debilitating illnesses. Loosing one of them would have been tough, loosing them both almost simultaneously can only be described as shocking. Their relatives joked that the younger sister was always afraid of being upstaged by the elder. so she had to go out at the same time just to have a nicer funeral- that actually might be truthful in some way.

While I was travelling to and from and around the two funerals (both in a small town down south, where my people have lived for many generations) I was struck by the feeling of being watched, followed, seen by unseen eyes. It is quite likely that this feeling was a by-product of stress (the air journey was awful, delays and changes galore) and sadness. However, I think the core of it is more opaque and dense than simple stress.

I’ve made the choice to do as many Americans before me have done; I’ve gone west (and east, and north, and south at various times) to find my fortune. I’ve left home, answered what Joe Campbell referred to as the hero’s call, packed up my knapsack, and gone. Most of the time, this feels right and as it should be. I can’t imagine how restricted and confined I’d feel if I still lived in the town where I grew up. It’s a perfectly good town, but the world is huge, and I aim to see most of it.

It’s a good thing I have the wanderlust- it’s nearly impossible to be an academic and stay put. Higher education demands mobility, at least early on in an academic career. Most professors are not-from-around-here. The idea behind that is to inhibit intellectual inbreeding, which is important when designing universities. You really don’t want all of the professors at State U to be from that state.You’d have a very limited view of life that way.

On the other hand, having all these islands of outlanders sprinkled around the country makes from some odd conglomerations of folks. College towns, and colleges inside of other towns, are often communities of outsiders and rootless wanderers. Many have come with or created families and have stayed in one place quite some time, but they’re (we’re) still not OF the place. Many times, professors pile up together like rats on a raft to make their own little rootless floating communities of chance and location.

I don’t often think of the place where I live now as a raft and myself as a rat on it, but when I go home for real, it does strike me that although I’m not around much anymore, I do still have long sucker roots that go back into the soil of that little southern town.

I am very much aware that my situation is far from unique. Black folks left the south in their hundreds after the Civil War, and again after WWII to seek better jobs up north. White folks did, too. Refugees are everywhere around the globe. People move all the time just because.

However, since this is my one life, it does strike me as a big deal that I live in one place, but am bound to another. I do not believe I’d ever live there again, nor do I want to. I’m fine where I am, and I’ll probably move a few more times to places that interest me or offer opportunities.

I am mindful of the ghosts. There are ghosts that do a fair job of haunting me every time I return to that town. Ghosts of people and events that shaped my life in a million big and small ways. Most of them are friendly and welcome. Some, of course, strike up a chorus of ache and grief for the missing of the people and times that were then and aren’t now.

When I come back here, mostly the ghosts settle down. I don’t have the stinging feeling of acute loss and memory and separation much. Ghosts do fade a bit, but they don’t ever wholly disappear. If I’m quiet for a while, I begin to feel them at the edges of my consciousness, just hanging out, reminding me that things are different now. And although that’s expected in a life of any length at all, it does pull at me from time to time and I wonder how many more ghosts are ahead, how many more I can live alongside peacefully.

I’m not entirely sure how to manage all of them, some days. That is a work in progress, one I imagine everyone has to master at some point or another. For now, I’m just trying to keep them peaceable and placated so I can get on with the present. We’ll see how that goes.

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Journey-Making

As I struggled to stay up until 9:00 last night (thanks, jet lag), I caught an episode of a new series on PBS, Sacred Journeys. This episode was about Jerusalem, highlighting the choices of several very diverse American citizens who had gone there to find…something.

One of the statements made by the narrator that struck me as fascinating was about the “physicality of place”. His general point was that, even with all of our high-tech video and audio devices, there is no substitute for being present in a location to evoke the psyche. The whole series is about the topic of pilgrimage, a concept that isn’t yet dead, or even resting. Several religious traditions including Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism, require their followers to make a physical journey to sacred sites in order to fully grasp the messages they offer. Many of the people on the show were Jewish or Christian and were visiting Jerusalem in search of physical pieces of their faith traditions. However, such journeys are also popular among the un-churched masses, today’s “spiritual but not religious” group. This trend seems to point to an unmet need basic to humans not always adequately answered by Religion.

But, why in this time of easy (ish) travel and easy access to information from all over the planet, do people still find it so necessary to pack up a bag and hit the road to find their souls? Certainly, a thousand years ago, when life moved at a much slower paces and there were no video feeds from the Church of the Nativity on Christmas Eve, it made sense for people to journey to sacred places in order to see where important events went down- even if the travel was much more dangerous and difficult than it is today. What is it about “the physicality of place” that still attracts us to the idea of leaving our sofas and stocked fridges and heading out for the unknown?

These questions led to two possible answers, one courtesy of Carl Jung, the other from my Celtic ancestors.

Carl (and Joseph Campbell) liked to make an analogy of a person’s life to the journey of a hero in myths and legends. The idea here is that each person is the hero is his or her own little mythic tale, beginning with The Call and ending with The Return, with many adventures in between. Over the years, this concept has attracted a great deal of attention in the psychotherapy community, from James Hillman and Archetypal therapy, to Michael White and Narrative therapy. Seeing yourself as the hero in your own myth can create feelings of purpose and continuity where chaos existed previously.

The second consideration is related to the image for this essay- the labyrinth. Mazes and labyrinths have been used as tools for prayer and meditation for untold time. Currently, many churches (especially the Episcopal) have prayer gardens with labyrinths on the church grounds. Walking over the four quadrants and into the center (which also is the basic layout of a mandala) is supposed to assist the walker in his or her meditations by making a physical journey to match the cognitive one.

Although many churches have labyrinths, they aren’t exclusive to Christians. The idea is most probably more ancient than that, meaning it likely has pagan roots. Apparently, taking a short, symbolic journey to sort out your thoughts is equally as old and powerful as taking a longer more literal pilgrimage  to a place of some spiritual or historical importance. There seems to be something about the act of walking, making physical contact between the liminal world of ideas and emotions and the literal world of physical sensation, that humans crave at a very basic level.

All of which brings me to my point: no matter how hard Western civilization tries to sanitize and disembody the human experience, it will always be defeated by the basic wiring of the human animal. We, as a species, are not only our thoughts. We are not only our words. When we suffer, we must have motion, physical contact with people and places and all of our senses in order to process the thing that caused the suffering and to heal. No drug can ever replace tactile experience (although some medicines are very helpful to many people). No “talk therapy” alone can fully wrap around the totality of any human experience: for that, we invented art, dance, play, and journeys. We need to use all that we have in order to heal what’s broken and strengthen what’s healed.

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Pure Play

During our two-day art and play therapy conference in Mumbai, we talked about a lot of things: brains, trauma, diagnosis, cultural issues, techniques, and theories of arts and play therapies. We also played a good deal to break up the lectures. One of my standard methods of waking up an audience is to have a couple of people come up on stage and teach us all some hand-slap games from childhood.

Hand-slap games are great for a few reasons: they make you stand up and move, they make you engage with a partner, they provide opportunities for both vertical and horizontal neural integration, and they’re fun. It’s most fun when there are people in the audience from different cultures who can teach us games in a variety of languages. I’ve taught and learned these games in many countries now, and I think the Asians may have won.

I’ve seen American and European audience members struggle with some fairly basic hand games, but I’ve never seen an Indian or Thai or Cambodian not be able to completely master a complex hand slap game in English in a few minutes. This phenomena makes me wonder why those of us in the West seem to struggle some with learning new pattern/language games when our friends in SE Asia don’t. I have two hypotheses, and no way to test them, so for now they’re only guesses:

1. Our overuse of tech tools has deteriorated our abilities to learn new physical pattern games and songs. We spend a huge proportion of our play time now engaged with screens and keyboards (like I am right now). I wonder if one of the costs of this new form of engagement is the quickness with which we pick up new physical patterns. Even though a lot of these new gadgets are made in SE Asia, very few people have access to the internet at home, and fewer have x-boxes or other video games at home (except in S Korea and Japan, which I’m not including here). Most college students in India still write papers out by hand, even for computer science classes. Note: the audience was of mixed ages from 18-75, and I didn’t see a difference that way. The men were generally a little slower to learn the games than the women, but I expect that’s because boys play fewer hand slap games than girls and therefore have less practice.

2. There may be different neural pathways and/or structures in our brains depending on whether we are in a collectivist or individualist culture. Although little girls in the West also play hand slap games, we don’t  generally spend as much time with peers as children in the east do. Families in SE Asia are often larger than ours, meaning there are more likely to be sisters around to play with than in the West, and people here tend to live in close-knit multi-family communities (even in high rise apartment buildings). They also think differently about connections than we do in the West. Like I mentioned in my post about manners, people in SE Asia tend to think far more often in terms of “we” than “me”.

I’m not attempting to make a value judgement here, I’m just pointing out anecdotal evidence that there may be a hidden cost in terms of our cognitive abilities attached to our typical Western lifestyle. Certainly, being a little slow on the uptake for learning  a new hand slap game isn’t likely to cost anyone a raise or a Nobel Prize, but what other mental capacities may we be unknowingly sacrificing for tech and personal space? Now that we have the tech (ironically) to look inside our own heads and examine the workings, maybe it’s time to look at how our choices of lifestyle and mindset impact our abilities to learn and connect, preferably before we loose something important that we never knew we had.

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Graciousness

When I was growing up, manners were a Big Deal. Table manners, party manners, school and church and friend’s house manners were all bundled up together in what my mother sometimes called “home training”. Essentially, manners give us cultural reference points for how to behave appropriately for our class, age, gender, position, and culture. Because of my rather intense “home training”, I am able to write a damn fine thank-you note, host a cocktail party successfully, attend a wedding without causing a ruckus, and otherwise generally behave in a way that befits an adult White woman in the U.S. (especially the South, where manners remain a Big Deal).

While I’ve been roaming around India, I’ve had occasion to reflect on the role of manners in a global village. India is a very diverse and ancient place- the manners of the people here are traced back millennia, and can be quite complex and formal. For example, on the first day of our conference, the Chief Guest (a high-ranking bureaucrat from the University) was over an hour late. The opening of the conference was delayed until he arrived, at which time he gave a rambling, off-topic talk for another hour. No one left or began to talk to friends, or checked texts. Every single one of the 200+ audience members waited quietly and respectfully until he finally quit talking and left.

I cannot even imagine the depths of arrogance involved in being a person who thinks nothing of keeping 200 people waiting for an hour (he did not apologize) and proceed to ramble for another hour. My fellow Americans would’ve walked out, possibly after setting him ablaze.

Which brings me back to manners.

In my small experience, Indian people are intensely mannerly, to the point that I’ve begun to wonder if they might all be psychic. I think inside my head, “I’d love another cup of tea”, and it appears. Seriously. As a guest in an Indian home, you are not allowed to lift a finger to help your own self, no matter how stubbornly American-ly self- sufficient you may feel.

Really, manners generally boil down to displays of graciousness. In the West, this generally means helping guests, elders, and friends feel at ease. In India, graciousness seems to extend past helping others feel at ease to helping others feel a sense of being respected and valued, sometimes at the cost of the ease of the host. For example, if you say to your Indian host, “Wow, it’s hot in here”, you may find the whole family being organized into teams to fan you, or to fix the AC, or to otherwise insure that you experience no discomfort whatsoever.

The Indian sense of graciousness involves a level of self-sacrifice I’m not sure I can really grasp as a Westerner. An Indian person would far rather be hot, tired, out of cash, and foot sore than to have a guest do the smallest thing that might require effort. It’s a complete reversal of the usual power balance we see in the U.S.- here, the guest is not just made comfortable, he or she is made to be entirely without any cares of any sort for the duration of the visit regardless of what else the host may need or want to be doing. This appears to be true in homes of Hindus, Jains, Muslims, Sikhs, and any other religious or cultural group on the subcontinent.

Interestingly, this concept of complete graciousness to guests seems to extend to clients in the psychotherapy setting. I’m only beginning to put together the whole picture for myself, but it feels as if therapy here may be practiced with a natural sense of attunement and empathy that we work hard to cultivate in therapists in the West. I wonder if we all began to treat our clients as guests in our home rather than as paying customers involved in a business transaction if there might be a shift in the depth and effectiveness of our work?