Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Do You Expect Joy?

"In a culture of deep scarcity - of never feeling safe, certain, and sure enough - joy can feel like a setup."  Brene Brown in Daring Greatly

I lived those words for most of my life.  Every time I found myself knee-deep in joy I fantasized about when someone would come pull the plug and it would all drain away.  When the girls were two and four, Bubba was traveling more often than not, struggling with an undiagnosed illness that left him hospitalized every few months, and I was scared.  I was wracked with stomach cramps and sinking deeper and deeper into depression with every passing day and I somehow felt right at home.  While I couldn't accurately predict what any one day would bring, dealing with crisis after crisis kept me busy and feeling competent. I could put out fires all day long and, while I was exhausted at night, dealing with one fire meant that I didn't have to worry when or where the next one would flare up.  If a day passed without anything falling apart, my nerves were stretched taut as I waited, hypervigilant, scanning the landscape for the slightest new flame.  I expected danger. I anticipated fear. I did what most of Brene's research subjects talked about; I lived in fear so that when something awful happened, I was already in the trench and wouldn't have to feel the pain of falling or climbing back down. It was easier to stay in the dark than to suffer the loss of light.

Or so I thought.

These days I expect joy.  Despite a very challenging summer and early fall, struggling with a major construction project that is two months behind schedule, one pet's death and a cancer diagnosis for another, and a very close call with one of our daughters, I have somehow managed to stay positive.  Instead of waking up each morning in trepidation, worried about what this day may bring, I open my eyes and seek the light.

In Daring Greatly, Brown writes about gratitude being the antidote to fear of joy. She says that people who practice counting their blessings aren't afraid to feel joy like so many others.  I believe that wholeheartedly and credit my own daily gratitude practice with helping change my perspective on life, but I think there is another step beyond gratitude that is even more powerful. If the spectrum starts on the left at fear of joy (or, as Brown says it, "foreboding joy" - that feeling of waiting for the other shoe to drop the second you realize you are happy beyond measure), gratitude is nearing the other end, but I say that the far right end of the spectrum is expecting joy.

I wake up every day expecting joy. Knowing that no matter what challenge or sadness I may face today, there will also be joy. Something will happen today that will bring me pure happiness.  This is probably the single biggest thing ever to happen to me.

"Do we deserve our joy, given our inadequacies and imperfections? What about the starving children and the war-ravaged world? Who are we to be joyful?" Brene Brown, Daring Greatly

Indeed. Who am I? Why do I deserve to be joyful? I used to ask myself this question, and then, at one point, a friend pointed out to me that I certainly deserved it, given the struggles I have had in my life - from a difficult childhood to my husband's prolonged illness and beyond.  I calculated up the traumas I have faced and had to agree with her that I probably did 'deserve' joy on some level.  But this entire notion of deserving joy is something I am patently uncomfortable with.  For one thing, as a mother, I don't want my children to have to EARN their joy by enduring hardship, or worry that if they do live joyful lives, they will one day have to pay for it with trauma and unhappiness.

The fact is, there isn't some High Priestess of Joy doling out happiness according to a balance sheet she's been given about who deserves what.  Joy is out there in the world. We simply have to train ourselves to recognize it, acknowledge it, expect it.  Joy coexists with sadness, it doesn't cancel it out. When I look at my sweet puppy boy lying on his bed, feet twitching as he dreams, I feel a tenderness and an outpouring of love for him and the relationship we have and that love sits side-by-side with the knowledge that he has malignant melanoma and will die sooner than I want him to. The joy and gratitude I feel at having been so lucky to have him in my life are deepened and enhanced by the knowledge that one day soon he will not be here anymore.

We humans like things to even out. We love balance, but we also like to be ready for disaster.  The irony is, as we use our energy to prepare for calamity, we rarely prepare for joy.  We walk around searching for potholes to avoid, ready to duck if something comes flying, but very few of us spend any time practicing opening ourselves to receive or recognize opportunities for joy.  We are creating our own imbalance.  I have decided to turn that on its head and, instead, wake up every morning expecting joy, believing that, if nothing else, today I will discover at least one thing that will stop me in my tracks with wonder and awe.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Learning to Think Like Salmon

The house we lived in when Lola was born bordered a protected salmon-spawning creek. While I'm certain I had seen it on television or in a film at the science center somewhere, nothing quite prepared me for what it would be like to see spawning salmon in real time.

The creek itself was about twelve feet across and, in the summer and early fall, rarely more than five or six inches deep except for some hidden pockets.  Because this is the Pacific Northwest and we take our salmon seriously, there was a 150 foot setback on both sides of the creek that prevented anyone from altering the vegetation even slightly. Both banks were crowded with alder saplings and older maple trees, thick with Himalayan blackberry and stinging nettle and holly that choked out the Oregon grape and ferns.  Using his farmboy skills, Bubba whacked a deer path wider for us with a rusty machete handed down from his father so that we could walk out and stick our toes in the thick mud in the summer.

The first October we lived there, I smelled the creek fifty yards before I got there - the rich, sour smell of rotting fish hung in the air like fog.  Another ten yards and I could hear splashing but couldn't conjure a picture in my head of what was causing it.  Finally, I stood on a piece of plywood we had laid across two rocks on the bank to keep our shoes clean and gaped.

Hundreds and hundreds of salmon whipped their tails side to side, packed in next to each other so tightly I could have crossed the creek on their backs. The water was so shallow and these fish so large that fully two or more inches of their bodies protruded above the creek.  Water sprayed in wide arcs as they frantically pulsed their tail fins to push forward, upstream. Their heads were silvery-grey and their bodies flashed red-orange in the daylight.  When I scanned the sides of the creek I saw dozens that had given up the fight and lay dying or dead on the banks.  There were a few who had found refuge behind fallen branches, in pockets of deeper water, where they hung out resting before they forged ahead again and I nearly wept in recognition of their fatigue.

There have been times in my life when I was that fish - the one taking a quick breather before heading back into the fray, barely holding on to breath but knowing that there was no going back, if only because there were others behind me that were plowing ahead and I would get in their way.  And I have wished for the world to stop for a bit, for the flow of the creek to hit pause so that I could breathe without quickening my pulse, without watching the clock, without steeling myself for the rest of the journey.

In a dream the other night, I had a change of perspective.  Instead of being on the outside looking at that fish and empathizing, I was the fish. I was surprised to discover that, instead of dreading what was to come, hanging out in the cool, deep water, I was anxious to continue on.  Instead of focusing on the fatigue of swimming upstream against the current, I was excited for the journey towards something, and I felt the solidarity of all my fellow fish in the water. We were all swimming with purpose, certain of where we were going and why, clear in the knowledge that it was bigger than all of us.

The phrase "like a salmon swimming upstream" is forever changed in my mind.  And as long as I don't linger too long on the fact that the salmon all die shortly after completing this journey, when I begin to feel too tired to go on, I can remind myself that I am moving in the direction of something important and kindle the excitement instead of giving in to exhaustion.

Monday, October 14, 2013

There's More Than One Way to Skin a Law

Since Blogger won't let me edit the "My Other Work" part of the sidebar for some strange reason, I thought I'd post a link to my latest 'outside' work here for those who haven't already seen it. I am thrilled to have been featured on the top of the front page of The Feminist Wire this weekend.

Here it is!

Friday, October 11, 2013

Girls and Leadership: Are We Asking the Right Questions?

Over the last few years I have been lucky enough to be involved with an amazing organization called the Women's Funding Alliance. My first real awareness of them came at their annual fundraising breakfast and sparked a series of blog posts that started with this, which you may remember.

Last night they sponsored a Town Hall event that focused on the idea of what it means to be a girl in this day and age.  Four speakers with varied backgrounds and perspectives came to talk for eight minutes each about their notions of what it means to be a girl now and why it is so important that we acknowledge and address the challenges they face.  A robust Q&A session followed and I found myself nodding my head and taking deep breaths and, in a couple of instances, rubbing the goosebumps on my arms that arose in response to a particularly revelatory comment.

This event came hot on the heels of last week's screening of Raising Ms. President, a documentary about the dearth of female political leaders in this country.  Eve and Lola both attended the movie with me and we had an illuminating discussion about it on the car ride home.

There is a lot of talk in the "women and girls movement" about leadership and I wholeheartedly believe that for many girls, it is important to see someone who looks like them in influential roles, if only so that they can begin to imagine themselves there and give themselves permission to shoot for the stars without apology.  Eve and Lola attend a school whose mission, in part, is to create female leaders.

That said, perhaps the most dramatic moment of last night's event for me was when Erin Jones, a mother, teacher, and internationally recognized educational activist said (and I'm paraphrasing, I didn't write down her exact words, unfortunately),
We are all leaders in our own way. Leadership isn't connected to titles. We are all teachers. As long as we are all being our best selves, we are leaders and have the capacity to effect change.
Oh.
Yeah.
I don't have to have a Ph.D. in order to be a leader.
I don't have to have "CEO" in my job title to be a leader.
In order to make the world a better place, my daughters don't have to aspire to be President. Of anything.

We are all teachers because we are all learning, all the time.  We learn by watching the people around us, by listening to them, by observing how they make their way through the world.  So long as we are clear on our own values and are being our best selves, we are leaders. Even if it seems like nobody is following.

In that paradigm, we do not have to teach our girls to grab power, to "lean in" to the power structure that currently exists.  Power and influence are not external, finite resources. They exist within us all and it is merely a matter of reframing that allows us to begin to understand what our own unique power is. Often, it takes a little convincing to help another person recognize their gifts and honor them, to give themselves permission to use them.  Acknowledging that we are all allowed to be leaders, called to be leaders in our own right turns everything upside-down.

In that paradigm, the most important thing we can do for girls is to nurture them and give them the encouragement to protect and grow their own passions and ideas about the world.  One of the other speakers, Nan Stoops, the director of the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, gave us all an idea of how to do that.  She referenced a TED talk where the speaker, Adrian Penza, illustrates the idea of "exponential growth" by talking about folding a piece of paper in half over and over again.  After 42 folds, the paper is tall enough to reach from the surface of the Earth to the moon.  At 43, it is tall enough to reach to the moon and back.  What does this have to do with nurturing girls?  Simple. If we imagine each message of support to a girl as a 'fold,' think about the effect we could have by doing that 42 times or more.

I was lucky enough, during a difficult time in my adolescent life, to have someone who did that for me. My father's second wife was consistently in my corner. She was always available to listen and offer her perspective to me, to build me up when I was feeling unsure of myself, and to assure me that I was capable of doing the things I most wanted to do.  After a while, I started to believe her. She helped me excavate the passion and power I had buried under layers of conformity and cultural expectations so that I could begin to make my way through the world with pride and confidence.

While it is certainly important for our girls to feel as though they have the same opportunities and rights to be leaders in the boardroom and the capitol building, it is also vital that we teach them about other kinds of leadership. If we become a society who buys in to the notion that there are only a finite number of spots available for these traditional 'leaders,' we are denying the talents and gifts of everyone else. I think that we need to spend time on the message that we are all leaders whether we know it or not.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Why Gardasil Makes Me Nauseous

When I took the girls for their annual back-to-school physicals in August, it was to a new doctor. The pediatrician they grew up with had a few strikes against him including the fact that he is male and my girls are getting to an age where that feels weird.  He is also a professor at the local medical school which means his hours are limited in the clinic.  I did a little research, as much as is possible online, to find a new doctor who might be more open to my parenting methods (ie. not mocking me for keeping my kids gluten free despite the fact that neither of them has Celiac disease, not prescribing antibiotics for every single thing, not pressing me on the chickenpox or HPV vaccines).

The girls both really liked this new doctor, but at the end of Lola's visit, she still pulled out the state's printout of their current vaccinations and pointed out that they are both missing the chickenpox and HPV vaccines.  I told her I wasn't comfortable giving either of them those vaccines and she implored me to rethink it, telling me that she feels like they are both perfectly safe.  I didn't have the balls or the time to ask where she formed that opinion.

I have since read more and more about the HPV vaccine (namely, Gardasil) that scares the crap out of me.  In the interest of paraphrasing for those of you who don't wish to read the clinical studies or spend nearly an hour watching the YouTube video below, let me share what I've learned thus far.  And, in the interest of full disclosure, I am NOT a physician or a clinical researcher, but I did graduate college with a major in biology and a minor in chemistry and spent eight years as a medical/surgical assistant in various settings.  I feel pretty confident in my ability to dissect a medical study.  Here goes:


  • The HPV vaccine was created based on the premise that the human papilloma virus is responsible for some cervical cancers.  It is also touted as an effective way to prevent infection by HPV in the first place. However, fully 70% of HPV infections resolve themselves without ANY treatment in the first year. That number climbs to 90% after two years. As a good friend of mine says, there is nothing stronger than a human's own immune system.  So, of the 10% of HPV infections that persist after two years, less than half of them are present in cancer of the cervix.

  • There are 104 different strains of HPV. Some studies say that four of them are correlated with cervical cancer, others say three. The Gardasil vaccine is designed to guard against two of those strains.  It seems unlikely that the rate of prevention of cervical cancer is high enough in those two instances to warrant vaccinating everyone over the age of 9.

  • Pap smears are responsible for the vast majority of cervical cancer diagnoses in the world and cervical cancer is one of the least fatal cancers around, considering it's ease of treatment. In addition, HPV is not considered to be the sole cause of cervical cancer and it is unknown whether it works in concert with other factors.

  • The current death rate in the United States from cervical cancer is between 1.5 and 4 per 100,000. A physician who works for Merck (the company that created Gardasil) admitted that the rate of reported side effects from the vaccine is higher than the rate of cervical cancer. Please keep in mind that for a side effect to be considered "adverse" it has to result in significant illness or disability or death, generally after an ER visit. So those kinds of effects are MORE LIKELY to occur than the CANCER ITSELF.
  •  As if that isn't enough, here's another shocker: rates of adverse vaccine effects are based on a ratio of the number of reported adverse effects to the number of vaccines distributed from the manufacturer. Wait for it...that means that they are completely disregarding the number of vaccinations that are actually given. There are vast numbers of vaccines that are thrown out every day in this country thanks to expiration dates or power failures or damaged packaging. That means that the ratio of REPORTED adverse effects is actually much higher than reported by the drug companies because they are not counting those vaccines that are discarded. Even higher than that, because according to the American Journal of Public Health (and some common sense thinking), the vast majority of adverse effects are never even reported.


And speaking of 'adverse effects,' the YouTube video embedded here *(for some reason, the link doesn't show up in the post, despite showing up in my HTML version, so here is the URL in case you're interested) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CoWUSuGCo-I  details the lack of interest by Merck or regulating bodies in the effects Gardasil may be having on fertility rates in girls. There have been many reported incidences of girls receiving this vaccine and going into menopause. Yes, you read that correctly, their ovaries stop working.  And because this vaccine is being pushed to girls as young as 9 in the US, we don't even have information on their menstrual periods because most of them haven't started yet, and they may never reach menarche because of this vaccine.

I could go on, but I suspect your eyes are glazing over right about now.  There are two reports here and here that cite scientific studies and explain a great deal of what I find frightening about Gardasil. One caveat: I do not necessarily agree with all of the rhetoric accompanying the facts in these two sources.  One is adamantly 'pro-life' and goes at it from the viewpoint of the sanctity of life and abstinence teachings and the other one is very adamantly anti-vaccine. That said, both back up their arguments with solid, scientific fact and easily reproducible information.  If you have an extra 48 minutes and feel the need to investigate for yourself, I recommend the video as the doctor who presents it did a great deal of research and is very careful to show her process throughout. I have no reason to believe that she is anything but concerned about the safety of this vaccine. I know I am.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

It's the Ripples, Stupid!

I don't work for the federal government.
My husband doesn't work for the federal government.
We don't need federal assistance to help us feed ourselves and our children.
We don't need federal assistance to get medical care or housing.

And yet.

My mom, who has been a real estate agent for most of her adult life, told me last night that she is worried about the government shutdown and the effect it will have on her because most of her transactions in the past three years have been short sales. The paperwork is endless and labyrinthine and often refused for some small technicality and the banks who handle these sales rely on government workers to approve them.

I heard a story yesterday about a man who owns and runs a hot dog cart near the capitol building in Washington, DC where he expressed his fears about a long-term shutdown. He is a hard-working individual who relies on foot traffic to make his living and there is none these days. Tourists can't visit closed buildings and monuments. Government workers who walk past him daily aren't coming to the office right now.

These are the ripples. And the thing that occurs to me is the larger lesson here. You can't have ripples without connection. Without interdependence. Without commonality.

Very few of us in this country live Unabomber-style, off the grid, isolated, without any human contact. The rest of us rely on each other in ways big and small and, whether we like it or not, we are all connected. That is what I worry we are forgetting.

What is bad for one of us is bad for all of us. The good news is that the opposite is true as well. What is good for one of us is good for all of us. A rising tide lifts all boats. We all benefit when one of us benefits.

Of course, the truth of that hinges on the word 'us,' and our ability to embrace it.  It is hard for me to think about what is good for Ted Cruz being good for me, but the fact is, I don't think he is buying in to the notion of 'us' as a large collective, an entire, inclusive human race. I interpret his rhetoric to be inclusive of only those individuals he deems 'worthy' by his own standards (I won't attempt to say what I think those standards might be).

The basis for taxation is collective. Everyone buys in so everyone can benefit.
The basis of the new Affordable Care Act is collective. Everyone buys in so everyone can benefit. The healthier we are as a nation, the more we can help each other. It makes no sense to exclude entire swaths of our population from services and options that can help them because in the end we are hurting ourselves.

I don't know about you, but I have no interest in accounting for who gets what. I simply want to live in a world where collective humanity is a given, where we all support each others' endeavors (and right) to get what we need to thrive because that is how we all ultimately thrive.  There is no such thing as exclusion. If there were, there wouldn't be ripples. No matter how much anyone might want to deny it, we are all connected. We all feel the effects. We have to step outside of this artificial notion of Individuality. Yes, we are all unique individuals with strengths and talents and potential. But we are also possessed of desires and needs that we cannot fulfill alone and it is only through coming together with others, supporting everyone, that we can begin to thrive ourselves.
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