Sunday, May 13, 2018

Six Year Anniversary

Today is May 13th, 2018 and that means that Jeremy and I have been married for 6 years.

That means that 2,190 days ago we gathered in a field of daisies in Nebraska with our closest family and friends and committed to be parters together "as long as we both shall live." 

The magnitude of that is still sacred to me. 

Because our wedding photos of that day include 
people who have died, 
people who have now married,
people who have had affairs,
people who have divorced, 
people who have had children, 
people that I haven't seen in years,
people I may never speak to again. 

That day was just a moment in time. 
A snap shot of the way we were. 
One particular day where we committed our lives to each other, but as The Weepies say, 
"the world spins madly on." 

And so the landscape and content of our lives has changed greatly and in this wild ride, 
we continue choosing to cling to each other. 

The last six years have taken us 
from Lincoln, Nebraska
to Cheongju, South Korea
to Denver, Colorado. 

From jobs as teachers assistants, lifeguards, assistant camp directors, English teachers, builders, baristas, retail assistants, wood workers, and students to soon-to-be social workers. 

From student loan debt 
to being debt-free!
to more student loan debt...

From the first of many of our friends to get married
to the last of many of our friends to do most other things, like
start careers
own homes
get dogs
have kids.

You might say, we are late bloomers. 
But we are really damn happy anyway.

Still Love
by Great Caesar

Fold up your flag
Your tattered battle shield
Lay down your arms
You don't have to fight with me

Show me your wounds
And I'll wrap your bandages
If you still bleed
I'll curb the damages

Let go of fear, trust in me dear
'Cause I'll keep you safe while you're still here
Through all the days of all my years
This I can promise you: I'll still love you dear

Let go of fear, trust in me dear
And I'll keep you safe while you're still here
Through all the days (I'll still love, I'll still love, I'll still love)
Of all my years (I'll still love, I'll still love)
This I can promise you (I'll still love, I'll still love, I'll still love)
I'll still love you dear (still love you dear)
I'll still love you dear

Monday, April 30, 2018

What is Therapy?

What is therapy?

It's the question I've been asking for the last year that I've served at my clinical internship.
It's the thing I always want to talk about and the thing I have yet to get a satisfactory answer for.
It's the question I've asked of therapists over a dozen times, and the answer I've received--often in unison--is: "When you find out, will you let me know?"

What is therapy?

It's this profound and meaningful thing that's difficult to pin down.
It's the experience of sitting with another person and talking about what matters.
The stuff of life.
What it means to be alive.
How to be alive.
It's this setting where two complete strangers often become close pretty quickly.
It's the process of alleviating some emotional struggles the client may be having.
It's the skill of just being with.
Sitting with.
Feeling with.
Holding space.

Usually, our family and friends really want to fix stuff. They want our problems to go away. These relationships carry weight and expectation. It's a give-and-take, as it should be. And we have opinions about how long it "should" take a person to "get over" their drinking problem or what is a "reasonable" amount of anxiety to have before we grow weary and struggle to be in relationship with a person who only wants to talk about their struggles. It's shitty, but it's true.

We have expectations of the people in our lives based on what we think they are or the role we assume they have committed to playing. I think people come to therapy for an objective perspective from someone who knows them without expectation. They don't know that people expect the client to be perfect or gender-conforming or religious-at-least-in-appearance or happy all the time. It can be liberating to sort out your thoughts and behaviors with someone who will repeatedly say,
"Yeah, that's hard" or
"Yeah, you're completely normal for feeling that way."

A therapist can be the one safe place that a person has.
Who can listen without the expectation of friendship or reciprocity.
Who doesn't need the client for any reason whatsoever.
Who doesn't use the client for friendship or as a way to meet their own emotional needs.
Who picks up on habit and tendency and idiosyncrasy.
And gets to bring them into the room and say, "You're doing that thing again.
What's that about?"
A therapist is someone who pays attention.

Patient supervisors--in response to my long-suffering quest for existential understanding--have asked me numerous times during this past year:
"Well, you yourself have benefitted from therapy. What did you find useful?"

And here's what I can tell you:
-I knew I had an hour a week with someone who was going to give me their
 undivided attention.
-I knew that person wouldn't go tell my friends and family that I was barely
 keeping it together.
-I knew that they'd had education in psychology and the human condition.
-I knew they'd be nice and respectful toward me even when I was a complete mess.

So, by my definition, therapy is:
1. careful listening,
2. objectivity,
3. psychological knowledge,
4. and kindness.

And still, it sounds simple, but I think my therapists set a high bar for good therapy. They never had magic words or "10 simple tips and tricks" that fixed a damn thing, but they taught me to have a tolerance for and a comfortability with not having all the answers and being kind and gentle with myself anyway.

That's life changing stuff. Those slow, steady, and incremental changes helped me understand myself just by being in relationship with them. And if slow/incremental isn't enough to count for just about everything, than I'm outta here. Because it's only small and gradual changes that have ever made a difference to me.

This past year, since September, I have had the pleasure of sitting with seven adult clients who, for an hour a week shared their stories, amounting to 128 hours of "sitting with" and that is such a tremendous honor. I feel like being a therapist is like getting a front row seat to the human experience. We encounter most people from behind a filter or a persona of their choosing. But in therapy, I get to witness some of our most frustrating habits and difficult conversations, but also heartwarming reconciliations and high-five-worthy victories. It's like getting the director's cut of the movie. It's like the behind-the-scenes play-by-play. It's getting to ask, "And then what happened?" and "What were you thinking in that moment?" And watching time and time again how humanity has an undeniable tendency toward growth and healing, even if we get sidetracked in dysfunction along the way.

Even still.
And it's a fascinating thing to watch.

I cannot explain to you what psychotherapy is or why it works.
But I know that it works.

I know this because my clients keep coming back.
They keep showing up and doing the hard work.
And so I've tried to be a little more like them.
I've tried to believe that somehow, someway our mutual showing-up matters.
And it makes a difference.
Because it has to.
Because--as Brene Brown says:
we are usually wounded in relationship and so we must be healed in relationship. 

Obviously, my "being with" is more important to them than my "knowing-it-all."
And thank goodness, because I know very little that would look good on paper.
I'm just really good at loving people.

These clients have been a gift that have grounded me week-to-week.
In my tumultuous, self-inflicted quest for an understanding that might not even exist, my clients reminded me to just sit with them and let that be enough.

In two weeks, I will say "goodbye" to people I have come to know well.
We will leave each other knowing that we are a little better just for having known the other.

And whatever that's called, it's quite beautiful.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

This Is What It Means to End

Sixty-eight days from now—assuming all goes well—I will be graduating with my masters in social work. That’s nine more weeks of course-work. Seven more weeks of therapy clients. And then, it’s done.
This season of graduate school.
This season of living below the poverty line.
This season of Jeremy working ridiculous hours to support us.
It will all be over.

And I’m overjoyed.
But I can’t say goodbye to the hard parts of this season without also parting ways with some of the good parts. That always catches me a bit off-guard. There's always grief associated with change. Even good change. It's a death of the way things used to be. Which is quite a paradox, isn't it?

Like, being a student. I’m going to miss being a student.

I love school. I love learning. I love showing up to a classroom (in which I am not expected to teach) and just soaking up the information. I love keeping my brain “on its toes.” Being challenged. Pushed. Stretched. Academia can have a certain thrill to it, especially when it’s a subject you care about. Or the content you’re learning about in class is playing out in real-time on the news. There’s always more to know and I think it's easy to get complacent where learning is not part of your job requirements. 

There are also perks to being a student. Like student discounts. Free bus and train passes. Free food on-campus. I’ve taken a dozen boxes of pizza home at a time, bagged up those portions into freezer bags, and eaten that stuff for weeks. There are perks like knowing you belong on campus at hockey games and the library and the fitness center. For a short moment in a school’s history, you are a student with full access to tenured professors and expensive journal articles.

I’m going to miss being an intern.

There’s this love-hate relationship between only being an intern and just being an intern. In one way, it’s a bummer that you’re not getting paid to do valuable work. In another way, if you make a mistake, you are—after all—“just an intern” and there’s someone to kindly get you back on-track. Interns get a certain level of license to misstep and “get it wrong.” Sitting with my “boss” and being encouraged to express insecurity and uncertainty is priceless. I can’t express how valuable that has been this past year.

I’m going to miss Christmas vacation and spring break and summer vacation. Yeah, that was nice while it lasted. In general, I just appreciate the variety and flexibility to my days. It's hard to get monotonous when your classes change each quarter.

Isn’t it interesting that as long as we may wish/long/thirst for one season to end, we still grieve for pieces of that same exact season?


There’s this song that always feels right at times like this. It’s by Sara Groves. She alludes to the story in the Bible about the Israelites. They were rescued from slavery under the rule of King Pharoah in Egypt, but they eventually found themselves complaining about freedom, because walking around in the dessert was also hard.

Life is rarely “either/or.”
It’s almost always “both/and.”

It’s easy to think things will be so much better “over there”
Because this thing is so hard.

But it’s all relative, isn’t it. We can complain about the weather in January and in July. It really doesn’t matter. We will usually always find something to whine about.

 I'm trying be here all here now.

Painting Pictures of Egypt
Sara Groves 

I don’t want to leave here
I don’t want to stay
It feels like pinching to me either way
And the places I long for the most
are the places where I’ve been
They’re calling out to me like a lost friend

It’s not about losing faith
It’s not about trust
It’s all about comfortable
When you move so much

And the place I was wasn’t perfect
But I had found a way to live
It wasn’t milk or honey
But then, neither it this

I’ve been painting pictures of Egypt
Leaving out what it lacks
The future feels so hard and I wanna go back
But the places that used to fit me
Cannot hold the things I’ve learned
Those roads were closed off to me while my back was turned

The past is so tangible
I know it by heart
A million things are never easy to discard
I was dying for some freedom
But now I hesitate to go
I am caught between the promise and the things I know

If it comes too quick
I may not appreciate it
Is that the reason behind all this time and sand?

If it comes too quick
I may not recognize it

Is that the reason behind all this time and sand?

Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Words on the Page

As soon as I learned how to write, I had things to say.

Thoughts that needed a page.
Feelings that needed some privacy.
Ideas that needed a home.

When I was six years-old, I remember our little private elementary school bribing us with a catalog of prizes if we would just pester every aunt, grandma, and church member to buy wrapping paper or donuts or some other school fundraising ponzi-scheme. I was an eager and willing participant.

I had my eye on the prize:

A pink and purple, heart-spotted diary 
that came in a pink and purple, heart-spotted cardboard box 
that came with a lock and a key
You know, to "lock" the cardboard box. 

I remember unwrapping the thing.
I remember gazing at the thing. 
I remember imagining all the cool and secretive things I would say. 

Things like entry #1:

(Levi was the first boy I "loved" in the first grade. A big secret, apparently: "So keep quwiyit!")

I just had so many things to say. 

My six year-old self would like to remind my thirty year-old self 
that I am grossly underutilizing the privileges of owning a car. 

I thought about all of this recently because last month, I started my 15th journal

In 30 years, that's about a journal every other year. 
To say that I find writing "helpful" would be an understatement. 
To say I find writing "life-giving" would be about right.

I've been a regular journaler throughout my life for various reasons:
I wrote to chronicle all the annoyances of being the youngest child
I wrote prayers to a type of God that I'm pretty sure I no longer believe in
I wrote to try to understand my own mental illness
I wrote lists of gratitude to get me through hard times
I wrote to flirt with the idea that God was more than just a religion
Now, I'd say I write mostly to remember
Who I am.
What I value.
And where I'm going.

Someday, a great-great-grandchild will be so bummed to find out that in all those journals I didn't really write about the events of my day or people I was really upset at or gossip. I mostly write--repeatedly and diligently--long lists of remembering

To me, journaling is how we re-align ourselves on a regular basis with what matters most to us.
About what we're doing.
About why it matters.
It's a way of checking in with ourselves and asking:
"Is this life I'm living, the life I want?"

Sometimes when I suggest journaling to a friend or a client, I hear something like:

"Yeah, I tried that. I never kept up with it."
To which I say: Well, try again.
Would you say the same about exercise? Or eating vegetables? 
"I tried it. It was hard to keep up with. So I quit"? 

There is no journaling "type." Just like there is no such thing as people who are creative and people who are not (thanks, Brene Brown). There are just people who flex that muscle and develop that skill and people who don't.

I think it can take some time before the benefits of writing are felt. I also think people imagine that if they don't do it every single day at 6am over a flickering candle and chamomile tea, then it's not worth it. Essentially, all-or-nothing. So I often recommend that people lower the bar. Start by writing once a month. Maybe. About whatever you want. Then, maybe increase. Or maybe not. Take a year off and then, start again because the point isn't perfection. The point is process. 

And we've all got stuff inside of us that is not always said out loud. And that stuff's gotta go somewhere. Why not on a page?

Another thing I hear people say about journaling is:

"But I don't know what to say."

Okay, fine. Not everyone is just bursting at the seams with words that need a home (like my 6 year-old self). That's fine. So I'm going to share some prompts and themes that I often refer to on mornings when nothing comes easily. 

I tend to think about journaling as a prescription that I'm writing for myself. 
I often check in and think,
"What do I need today?"
"What do I want more/less of?"

Here are 11 strategies that work for me.

When you need to feel grounded that you're making the right decision:
"What I know for sure is..." I stole this from Oprah, but I don't think she'd mind.

When you're stuck in a negative self-talk cycle:
start here "The story I'm telling myself is..."

This comes from Brene Brown's work on how we can be more authentic in our experience instead of just reacting to and blaming other people. This is an opportunity to say: "The story I'm telling myself is that I don't belong here. I'm not good enough. But what I know to be true is, I'm doing the best that I can."

When you need a quick, little confidence boost:
finish "I can..." with as many statements as you can. 

When I was in Cambodia in 2007, a kind friend sent the "I Can..." Can which was a can of cards and each card had an "I can..." statement written on it. If you ever underestimate the power of a declarative statement about what is true, think about how how we (usually women) make "statements" with a question mark at the end. This is something I'm working on. 

     I also really dig some "I am..." statements, too. So, I just go with whatever I need that day.

When you've got a lot of worries on your mind:
title the page: "List of things I don't need to worry about today" and put it all out there.

Except for the essentials of what must happen today. Not tomorrow. Because what you do need to worry about do today is usually, just like: brush teeth, finish project, pick up dinner. This is a way of re-focusing on what's right in front of you and nothing else.

When you're mind is buzzing with too much stuff 
and you don't know what to do with it all:
just do a Brain Dump of all the things. 

Artists and writers often use this trick as away of clearing out the surface-level stuff and sifting the important stuff that's usually just below the muck of daily thinking (this is based on Julia Cameron's "Morning Pages")

When you need some hope for the future:
write a list of manifestations or statements that are not currently true, but things you are hoping for.

But instead of writing, "I will graduate with my masters in social work" (future tense) write "I am a master of social work" (present tense). The repetition. The speaking into existence. There's real power there and that comes straight from The Law of Attraction.

When you need some good ol' fashion prayer:
I start with "God, please..." and make a list.
Then, "God, thank you..." and make a list. 
Simple as that.

When you need to hear from 
God/Spirit/Jesus Christ/The Universe/Life Force:
write a letter as you would imagine God writing it to you.

I find that in my letters God is a big fan of me and much kinder than I am to myself. I usually start these letters with "Dear Child..." and end with "Sincerely, Truth"

When you can't stop thinking about a troublesome person 
or thing:
write a letter to that person or thing. This is the idea of Unsent Letters. Just as a vehicle for putting things out there that probably will never be said directly. I rarely write unsent letters to people, but I've written letters to: my tummy, my thighs, my overstimulated brain, my own spirit. 

When you need grounding:
finish these sentences
-I'm proud of you for...
-I'm giving you grace for...
-I commit to...

This is an adaptation of Lisa Nichol's method and she recommends saying them out loud in the mirror, but that's never been as helpful for me. So I write them from the truest part of me that has no form or edges. Just my own being speaking to my physical self. 

When you need some framing or structure to your day:
#1. If I could live this day again, I would...
#2. Today, I get to enjoy...
#3. My life theme is...

These three questions are posed in Donald Miller's Life Plan format. The trick is to answer these questions at the beginning of the day to look ahead and ask if you could live it again what you would do differently, because most of us know our common pitfalls. We know that co-worker who tends to drive us mad. We know that we often get to the end of the day with a headache, because we don't drink enough water. So think about them ahead of time and commit to make different choices.

My identified life theme is: 

Basically, I don't have any journaling recommendations for people who are naturally calm.
I don't get that.

I journal for the same reason I go to therapy. I have lived with a fairly ruthless and critical inner-voice for as long as I can remember, and I need a lot of reassurance and reminders. Maybe you'll find different things that are more valuable for you. Cause when I look around me and wonder what would make our world a little better (and kinder), I think that more self-reflection would go a long way.
A little more self-awareness.
A little more time spent in contemplation.
A little more thoughtfulness.

Like, instead of re-perpetuating our own self-hatred, by way of self-harm, addiction, crime, road rage, racism, sexism (pick your poison), we could realize it's actually not about something out there, it's about something in here.

Am I right?
Or am I right?

Some days, my journaling practice is all flowy and meaningful, but most of the time, it's like:

Not perfect.
Not articulate.
Not publish-worthy.
But mine.
And true.
And everything I need to take responsibility for what I can and let go of the rest.
Every. Damn. Day.

Happy travels to you. 


Wednesday, January 31, 2018

To Remember

This morning in yoga class, this song came on during the shavasana (cool down) and it broke me.

I was mid-way through tears before I could even recognize why.
It's like my body knows that part of us is still in Cambodia.
And I wept for that.

Not over the sadness that I was ever there.
Not because I regret going.
But just because it was.
It happened.

January 2014 visit to Cambodia

And now it's in the past.
And a piece of my heart still lives with a pig farmer in kompungseu province.
And a new mother in Phnom Penh.
And an economics student who is engaged to his high school sweetheart.
And I can't get those pieces back.
And I don't want them back.
But I'm not completely whole without them.
And I feel that.

I lived in Cambodia from August 2007 to July 2008.
It was a tremendously painful and life-changing year.
My body knows we are in the thick of a ten-year anniversary.
Like beyond July of this year, maybe it will feel even more odd that I'm still talking about this.
That I'm still feeling this.
Like, perhaps, I've been given 10 years to reconcile this.
And I think I will always need more time.
I will always want more time.

January 2014 visit to Cambodia

Music is a powerful force.
Like that song in yoga class this morning.
It evokes feelings we didn't know we had.
There is this "Cambodia soundtrack" of songs that pop up in my world today via Pandora or iTunes or wherever, and I'm brought back to that time.

Time and time again.

Songs like, "Stranger Girl" by Peter Bradley Adams.
And "There is So Much More" by Brett Dennen.
And "Stay Alive" by Jose Gonzalez.
And "All I Need" by Mat Kearney.
And "Every Age" by Jose Gonzalez.

 September 2015 visit to Cambodia // riding moto with Kanya

These songs are in my bones and that's where they will stay.
Because beyond those songs, or the occasional Facebook memory popping up on my computer screen, that's about all I have to remind me that:
-it happened
-it was real
-I'll never be the same

 September 2015 visit to Angkor Wat

Sometimes, I wake up in the morning and the first thought that crosses my mind is Cambodia.
A memory.
A student.
The school.
That time.

Wherever you've been. Wherever life has taken you. These recollections demand to be known. To be remembered. It's like our subconscious is saying,
"Yup, here it is. Don't forget. This is worth remembering."

And so, on mornings such as this, I sit and I remember.
And I weep.
On a yoga mat.
Ten years later.
Because little parts of me will always be spread around the world.
Where they belong.
With people I love.

And maybe that's less about lacking wholeness,
and more about possessing great courage.

Because people who don't want to be known, find ways to play it safe. But as Brene Brown says, "Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen."And so fragmented hearts are the "price" we pay for having shown up in the world.

I may never be a person who jumps out of an airplane for fun.
Or makes a bold character for a reality TV show.
But I can tell you that what I lack in entertainment value, I make up for in heart.

Because showing up and letting myself be seen is the most courageous thing I've ever done.
And will continue to be the most heart-breaking and important thing I ever do.
And that makes it all worth it.