What’s in your genes? PART 1: ALS?

This blog post would be a lot sexier if it was the other kind of jeans. However, today we will be covering an issue that is as close to me as my own body, my own blood, my own genes.

Right off the bat, I am half adopted. Meaning, I didn’t know my father growing up, and was adopted by my dad/Mom’s husband when I was about six years old. He is your finest caliber hero man, I am a daddy’s girl, and that is a whole other blog post for a whole other time. Stay tuned.

Back to half adopted: there are a lot of things you don’t know about yourself when you don’t know your father, especially when you only know his name, haven’t seen his picture, don’t know anyone from his side of the family, nothing about your history, yada yada. But there was a specific set of practical and biological questions that took up considerable headspace growing up. Namely, are there any genetic illnesses, dispositions, or health concerns coming down the pipe line?

In those early getting to know you emails with my bio-dad, this is one of the first questions I brought up. When I asked the question, I didn’t have any signs of disability or illness. I was recovering from alcoholism, but had already survived the worst of that. Nature or nurture was moot in this instance. So I was really asking this question with the hope of reassurance. “Phew, I can finally put that to rest!” WRONG.

Not only did my biological grandmother die of a disease, it was a horrible progressive, neurodegenerative disease: amyotrophic laterals sclerosis, commonly known as ALS. Remember the ice bucket challenge? That’s the one. And I know it’s horrible because I watched ALS run through my Grandfather on my adopted side. It affected his speech first, we thought he was having strokes and it turned out the be ALS and it felt like a rapid decline after that.

Now you might be saying, wait-wait, don’t get so worked up, 90% of ALS cases or non-genetic. That’s what I told myself too! But there’s more: not only did my paternal grandma have ALS, but her mother had ALS too! And they tested her, she definitely had the gene. I asked my bio-father what kind of risk that meant for me personally and he said off hand, “Probably 50/50.” That was really upsetting. Luckily, it’s not accurate. Here is some science from the ALS Association [full article here]:

Someone with autosomal dominant FALS has one copy of the gene with a mutation and one copy of the gene without a mutation. A child born to someone with FALS has a 50% chance of inheriting the FALS gene mutation and a 50% chance of inheriting the gene without the mutation. This 1 in 2, or 50% chance, comes from the fact that a parent randomly passes on only one member of their gene pair. Even though parents often feel responsible for their children’s health, they have no control over which gene they pass on, just as their parent had no control which gene they passed onto their child. If a child does not inherit the gene mutation for FALS, they cannot pass it onto their children. Inheriting a gene for FALS does not guarantee a person will develop symptoms of ALS.

So my bio-father has a 50/50 chance. If he has it, then I have a 50/50 chance. If he doesn’t then I have a low chance of having that gene and I can’t hand it down to my daughter. It doesn’t eliminate risk completely, but it is a lot less worrisome. This is a good time to reflect: was it better to know or not know what was coming down the pipeline? Yes, not knowing was painful, but knowing is scary! I would say knowing I’m at risk of getting ALS is worse than having a vague sense of mystery genes that could hold anything. Then again at least I am getting the chance to reconcile it.

And how much more do I want to know? I asked my Zayde if I could take a genetic test and he said that he strongly discouraged it. In fact, he has strongly discouraged all of his children, including my father, from taking the test even though their risk is considerably higher. He said it would be one thing if there was anything to prevent it, but there isn’t. He said knowing would just be traumatic and unnecessary, because anyone of us could go at any moment for any other reason. It’s not like he is just turning a blind eye, he actually raises a lot of money toward researching ALS and is an organizer who is fights the cause passionately in my grandma’s name. It’s beautiful really. This is just his stance based on the current science.

He didn’t have me fully convinced, part of me feels like it could go two ways: a. I could find out that I don’t have the gene and not have to worry about this any more or b. I could find out I do have the gene and then get to make choices in my life that set me up for living the most awesome life possible with the time I have. I would also have time to make peace with it before it hit. Enter matrix metaphor.

red pill blue pill

Of course there are less sunny ways of looking at it: it could be devastating if I find out I have it, especially as it relates to my daughter, who would be at higher risk. How would I deal? Once I know, I cannot not know. That is a big risk: what if I take the test and then regret it. Maybe Zayde is right. And this thought line is a little left field for me, but what if test puts so much energy toward ALS that I actually activate a gene that triggers it. It’s like believing yourself to be sick makes you sick, I don’t know our minds are powerful. [There’s a whole segment about this phenomenon in This American Life episode #585, ACT I]. I don’t know if not knowing or knowing is better.

My mentor’s opinion was that coming to terms with this issue is not necessarily dependent on taking a test. She said if I do the work around that, it would benefit me around all issues of health and mortality. That is what this is ultimately: fear of my own mortality. The great human question has me to a certain extent. It is something we all most reconcile in our own ways, adoption issues or not, potential genetic diseases or not. Once it was framed for me like this, it was really freeing. I have since really worked on turning the question over in a spiritual sense: when fear or sadness or dread or anxiety around this issue comes up, I just turn it over again and again.

The result has been a shift in my attachment to the results. To me, it is totally normal to have to reconcile this, but how much do I really want to feed into this fear? There’s that old AA adage, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” Where I think a reminiscent theory is developed more fully is in Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. He said:

What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our question must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

This book is amazing by the way, the fact that this man survived the Holocaust is incredible. Then he goes on to develop his theory of logotherapy, which is also A. useful and B. beautiful. Sure puts my shit into perspective. Turns out, there are questions more important than making a educated prediction on whether or not I am going to get ALS. How do I live a life worth living? What is important to me? What are my values? How do I live with integrity so my values match my actions? And then Frankl takes it a step further and smacks you with, it doesn’t really matter what you think about life it matters what you do each day! Wow. Way to take it home.

My other shift, is all about  Tuesdays with Morrie. Couldn’t ask for a book that was more relevant for me and my situation. For one, Morrie had ALS. He was also Jewish and a Professor of Sociology, so talk about a man after my own heart. And in the book he is a sage of wisdom and all that is good in the world, during his time where he is dealing with the ravages of ALS. Maybe my dread with these cards is overstated. I could end up like Morrie, there are worse things. At least ALS is a disease where it gives you time to settle your affairs. There’s a silver lining for you.

Does this make me a blue pill? Did I already take the red pill? Who cares? I am going to go reread Tuesdays with Morrie. But let me tell you that it has taken me a lot of heart work and help to get to this point. I am going to celebrate these small victories.

And for an aside, though I may not have been directly talking about it, this does all have a connection to my multiple miscarriage. Potential genetic testing that may or may not be in my near future to access my chances for trying again. I know there is direct teachings from this lesson that can be applied to that area of life, and I haven’t fully done that work yet. I am just making a little space for it, here at the end. It’s all a process, but my resounding feeling is once again gratitude. I’m happy with my cards all around even if not everything is resolved, even if there is both pain and suffering. There is also work to do, and so much to live and enjoy in the meantime.

 

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on beautiful/messy identity

Just speaking for myself, identity is beautiful/messy when you come from generations of people who made babies with people from another cultural background. You ask: What’s your ethnic background? How much time do you have? In my most reductionist take of my own identity, I typically say I am white Jewish girl. If I’m getting fancy and/or authentic I cite my two Ashkenazi Jewish grandparents, one Latina grandma, and one white grandpa. For a rare treat, I will throw in the biological+ elaborative influence of my adopted British Canadian Dad, but usually at this point I’ve already lost people. This whole elevator speech intergenerational biography is even curtailed because 3/4 of my great grandparents were intermarried too.

But since this is my blog, I’ll delve. The white grandpa is half old south, decedent of confederates-white and half Irish. The Latina grandma had Spanish and Indigenous parents from the U.S./Mexican borderlands. And my Jewish grandmother, had a >gasp< Catholic Lithuanian mother meaning she had to secretly convert to Judaism to solidify her Jewish identity. My Zayde’s parents were both Ashkenazi Jews from Belarus and Lithuania, so that is just about as homogenous as it gets. Then I married a Native man who also has multicultural ancestry. Any way you look at it, I am the product of between 2-4+ generations of intermarriage. My ancestry is one of a great many people making a great many choices about who they are, how they live, and what they want to pass on to their children. I carry on this legacy. To me this feels like a very American story, but I guess that’s the beauty of America; there are so many stories. I guess this is one very American story, of ~326.5 million very American stories, and counting.

I could white wash nearly all of this away and pass as your most vanilla white American because I am pale pale/freckly, have a total West Coast accent, married into a french last name, and am a citizen. This isn’t my aim, but I still get all the first hand white privileges. I am sure I only understand a rough 23%* of how much privilege actually weighs on my entire life course and I most surely take all of this for granted on a daily basis. Working on it.

Since I carry being Jewish as my primary ethnic identity, it weighs heavily into my worldview, my interests, and the traditions with which I fill my home and my heart. My ancestors immigrated from the pale of Russia to the East Coast of the United States in the early 20th century under the enormous political strife of empires who had little regard and/or violent animosity on us shtetl people. That violence touched my family’s life. My Zayde is a first generation American, and this was the first country in our whole history where we had full citizenship rights [at least going back thousands of years, meh]. His cousins and aunts who stayed behind in Belarus were murdered in the Shoah. I didn’t have this awareness as a child, because I hadn’t met my father. I knew he was Jewish, but I didn’t know him, know our family, know where we came from. Yet, and I don’t even think my Jewish family gets this, this story was always there. I now work in a Native health collaborative where we talk about historical trauma and about blood memories, about this very type of remembering. I know it’s real.

Even the fact that my father is Jewish, not my Mom is an issue of contention in our community. It’s funny that if this same disconnection/abandonment/whatever happened on my mother’s side, there’d be no question: I’d be a Jew to all. I’ve had people from our community tell me “Your Dad’s Jewish? Then you’re not really Jewish” and let me just say, in case there is any confusion, it feels shitty to be told who you are and who you are not. But it’s gotten better since I jumped through the hoops to formalize my identity under conservative Jewish standards. I am glad to have cleared that up so my daughter doesn’t have to deal with that part of a multi-ethnic identity.

It makes me feel good that I made the same choice as my Jewish grandmother, even though it was under different circumstances, even though I didn’t get to meet her and talk about it. It’s not that I don’t value our traditions of maternal decent. You don’t have to rewind the tape long [or at all] to find a deep ancient patriarchy within our culture, and yet we have his beautiful tradition of our entire peoplehood behind passed through the mother. The power of this is not lost on me. I feel it in relationship to my own daughter. I just think we as a people would do better if we could recognize the diversity within our group more. I mean we do want this thing we’ve got on to go on for generation to generation, don’t we? Alienating our own, in such an alienating world, seems various shades of ridiculous/incredulous/petty. It’d mean a lot to me if the conservative movement could recognize paternal decent. I think that would be enough to tip the scale for the majority of Jews. It’s my belief that it’s only a matter of time. I mean if we can allow corn and peas over passover, then what are we waiting for? Parve/paternal decent, same thing.

And I don’t want to erase my Mom and especially our Valencia family. I grew up with this family; they formed me. My grandma on that side is basically one of my best friends. My little grandma [great grandma] was this beautiful-sassy-catholic-Spanish-speaking matriarch from Arizona with her hair often wrapped in blue and her fingers adorned with turquoise/silver rings. She lived until she was 94 and I got to have an adult relationship with her, how cool is that? That side of my family was also really pressured to assimilate into whiteness, and somehow it feels like letting white empire win in my interior life to not mention how much this family is me. Then again, I am really pale and so I have to check how I talk about this. I am not trying to say I have the lived experience of a Latina. Confusing: awk, glach, arg.

My life doesn’t look like a perfect balance of how I live, how I identify, and what my genetic makeup is. Is that even possible? Even though all my Jewish choices have lead to [at times] awkward holidays and other weird/hurt/misunderstanding, the identity work of all this is worth it and healing. It’s beautiful/messy, it’s true, it’s me and my journey. And I know my daughter is going to have her own next gen set of choices around her identity, and that it might not line up with whatever it is I’ve come up with, but this still feels like leg work for her benefit. I do this for me. I do this for her.

*This is a bullshit statistic, clearly brought. Consider it a figurative figure. I’ve recently learned that you can’t know how much you don’t know, and it’s people who don’t know who are overconfident in their abilities. Suffice it to say that I accept any scoffing at how much I may have lowballed this idea. #dunning-krugereffect #thisamericanlife. [Is that how you use a hashtag?]

I will show up for myself.

Tracy Clayton said something on Another Round that stuck. This is a rough quote, but it was something to the effect of: even if you feel like you are just screaming into a void, do it. I subscribe to that podcast, and man, am I in love with it. Hearing two awesome women speak their hearts and minds like that, ask good questions, just be hilarious and deep and honest–it’s powerful for me. And the medium fits me, I love to listen to people talk and storytelling. I love that feeling of intimacy. Even though I take toward writing, what I am always trying to achieve is a conversation. Podcasts open up something inside me. Corny, whatever. I don’t care. I need that.

I haven’t visited my blog for awhile, with motherhood, work and all the other life things I juggle. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing. Four or five months ago, I had a number of proverbial burners going. I made a good dent into that memoir I’ve always wanted to start, and I was taking some online, not-for-credit courses that were helping. Then I got pregnant again, which was such a relief and so beautiful. Especially after two miscarriages, especially as the question of my fertility really was taking up more and more space, especially as I began to question that dream: two babies before thirty, two siblings close in age. I wanted this pregnancy so bad, and I was so open to it being a new experience.

I dropped my projects. Not in a way of a woman compromising herself, just with the confidence that with turning my energy toward the physical task of growing a baby, I could come back to work later. I was really leveled with first trimester exhaustion again, just as I was with my daughter. This was encouraging. Every pregnancy symptom was encouraging. So to was all the positive results from the midwifes, the ultrasound where I saw my babies beating heart, all of it. There isn’t that much you “do” while your pregnant. During my first pregnancy I always felt like I was missing something, I was supposed to be doing tangible something to help this baby come into the world. It took the better part of nine months to realize all I could do was take care of myself and love the baby inside me.

During this pregnancy I had that confidence and satisfaction of knowing and trusting that process. Of course there were those fears of another miscarriage but I would tell myself, “I am not going to live in anxiety. I am going to be open to another experience.” I have a mentor, and she said that I should just try to be in the moment with my pregnancy, to be grateful for it, and to let go of the results–to try to mediate my attachment to any expected outcome. I respectfully resisted this and chose optimism, believing that all that positive energy would be felt in those early stages of development.

I loved that baby since before it’s conception. I invited them into my life. I invited them into my daughter’s life, into my whole families life. I adjusted my everything to make space for this new life going forward. We were almost at 12 weeks, all signs a go, when I started bleeding. Terror. Heartbreak. A long drawn out miscarriage. I lost my baby.

This was weeks ago. I am still in it, so to say. What I can say is that in spite of everything there is some gratitude. This is not me saying people should find gratitude after they have miscarried, I’m just saying this is what’s inside me.

#1 I am grateful for the baby. Having the baby in my life, for however short a time made me so happy. I loved my baby, having the baby inside me filled me with this sense of grace, this hope and this gratitude. Our family was growing and there was that buzz, in our house, in our lives, in my body. I didn’t just love the feeling of being pregnant, actually being pregnant in itself is uncomfortable, weird, alien, and sometimes painful. I loved the baby I lost, I really intentionally loved my baby, and no one can take that love away from me. Even if I lost my baby, I have that love forever.

My gratitude #2 is that I really surprised myself. It’s not like my whole miscarriage process was painless and glossy. There’s no other word for it than trauma, yet I’ve stumbled into some type of inner resource. I’ve been able to laugh. I’ve been able to ask for and receive help. I’ve been able to show up for myself. I am not one of those wipe the slate clean positive types who seeks to wash away trauma with quips of polly anna, “at least you know you can have babies”; “oh, you’ll get pregnant again” ; “everything happens for a reason”.  All that hurts me. It feels silencing. It feels like that much more is being taken away from me. Yet, I don’t know, I can just still see some beauty.

For one, I see my daughter and I am amazed: amazed at how much I took for granted during her pregnancy, how easy it was–how I had this superhuman sense of myself as this like mega fertile woman and had no real worriers or doubts that all would go according to plan. And then she was born and I am more amazed and more amazed at just who she is. Beauty. Light. She says the funniest, sweetest things. This loss just helps me wonder in the awe of how–even in this fragile world, where I feel so fragile and even broken to some extent–I get to have this person in my life. I love her with all of me. She is just shaping every day before my eyes. She says “be careful out there” when I lay her down to bed, even though I am just going to go watch netflix in the other room. I watch her imaginatively play. She named her stuffed dog, “moon puppy”, she stops and looks at every worm on our way to school, she pretends to be teachers, her favorite song is “I’m still standing” by Elton John, “One Love” by Bob Marley, and D.R.A.M’s “You are Special” on Chance the Rapper’s album. The last is our song. I watch her dance, I watch her mingle at community events, I watch her eat “lotsa matzoh”. She quotes me, like I always sing that inspirational song from that viral youtube video Jessica’s Daily Affirmation. Then days later I will randomly say, “I love you, I love your Dad, I love our dog.” and she will answer, “I like my whole house!” Something small will happen and I will say, “Oy vey.” And she will say, “You say oy vey, I say oh man.” She’s almost three and she is just very much her own person. I will ask her, “Was your day good, great, or awesome,” [taking a page from my boss’ family dinnertime question] and she will answer, “Not good, not great, not awesome. Leave me alone.” With total ear to ear smile like I figured out how to circumvent giving you the answer you wanted in this language transaction and found my own path! She gives me big hugs, she finds any reason to sit in my lap while we are eating, she holds my hand and we walk places together. All of this was always amazing, and more and more amazing as she got older. She is my number #3 gratitude: I lost a pregnancy. I am a mother. I am watching my beautiful baby girl grow up. All of this can be true and for that light I am grateful.

And so, I promise to show up for myself in whatever I way I can now. With healing, acupuncture, recovery, listen to podcasts, going on a date with my husband, whatever works. Writing has always been a part of what’s good for me and so I feel some hope in the fact that I am writing this, now, on this blog that is five years old and which I have only dabbled in here and there, where I am, indeed, screaming into a void. Nothing in this healing process (so far) has felt anything like a bounce back. Healing is slow this time, but I am feeling glimmers of inspiration that feels hopeful to me. And I’ll take it.

on living a life worth writing about.

We are sitting in lawn chairs, talking straight from our hearts as old friends do. I tell her my dream, the dream I’ve been telling everyone, and the conversation goes like this:

The dream, ” I was sitting in my apartment, only it wasn’t my apartment. I guess where we live now is technically an apartment, but it feels like a house. In the dream it was a studio. I am sitting at the desk working when in comes none other than President Obama. I show him the poem I am working on and he likes it so much that he folds it up and rolls it into a small scroll, tying a green ribbon around it and hangs it from the necklace he is wearing. He says, ‘This is the best poem I have ever read and I shall bring it with me every where I go from this day forth.’ He doesn’t say it with his typical charisma, more like a proud patriot ready to raise a flag. Yet he is still his own beautiful mix of regality and homegrown charm, so his commitment seems both personal and as if it is backed by the full firmament of empire. Satisfied with his approval, I move on, ‘Oh I am glad you said that because I am applying to this creative writing program and I was wondering if, after your term ends, would you write me a letter of recommendation?’ Bringing his fist to his chest to crack his heart open, as we Jews do on Yom Kippur-somewhere between a black power fist and a pledge of allegiance, he closes his eyes and responds, ‘I would like nothing more.’ It was very validating, self-important and grandiose, but validating.”

My friend, “So does that mean you want to go back to school for writing?”

My reply, “I don’t want to go back to school.”

And I don’t. Besides, I feel like I have done enough school and taken my own non-traditional course of refining my writing skills. Here marks my trajectory:

Early childhood: My dad brings me to his warehouse saturdays to catch up on the office. I work on monster stories in between roller skating in giant industrial freezer rooms and making mosaics from packaging stickers. Recesses are spent drafting comic books in the library. Passing notes to friends takes on Victorian magnitude. I pour myself into classroom assignments and share them proudly with my parents and grandparents. I am not the best student, but I work hard and teachers tell me that I have “a good voice.” My Grandma draws me close and whispers into my ear, “I am going to buy the first copy of your book.” After school, I follow the causal pursuits of screen play writing, acting, and creating alternative lyrics to dixie chicks songs.

Adolescence:  Journalism becomes an interest and the fantasy of attending Sarah Lawrence enters my consciousness–in honesty, very much influenced by Julia Stiles’ character in 10 Things I Hate About You (got to love those early exposures to feminist figures. They may have been a product capitalist media, but they still got in there and did something). I join newspaper, feminist club, and they gay/straight alliance. Journal writing and live journal pre-blogging begin to work on me.

>>>Girl, Interrupted: Drugs and alcohol rip me out of this life so fast my shoulder nearly dislocates. Have you seen the movie Kids? Like living on the island in Lord of the Flies. The predators are real, and children–especially sedated children–cannot be expected to take care of themselves, understand the consequences of their actions, or keep themselves safe. Writing during this time was a series of tragic lists and incoherent loaded musing.

Late Teens: I survived, no thanks to my own doing, and it was enough to give me an early start on recovery life. Writing becomes a self-care tool as I enter college. Little energy can go into the craft as I set to tending my wounds. Healing takes a long time.

Early Adulthood: I am at community college and my legs are standing more firmly, my brain is less noisy as trauma takes its rightful place among the many threads of the tapestry. My nerve endings settle. My attention span strengthens. I start remembering myself. Academics become more than professional development, they become nourishment. Poetry, philosophy, yoga, ceramics, women’s studies, sociology, sociology, sociology. My voice as a writer, the sapling somehow against the odds survived that late frost, and it’s growing again.

University Days: I transfer to the big state school, the big time and I am in good company. There amongst my peers, where the average age is 27 and the typical student is a little like me. Maybe not little Ms. Sarah Lawrence after all, but armed with both ambition and a sense of self that can only grow out of painful experience: a young girl given a second change. Esther at the end of The Belle Jar. I rise above and cultivate my passions. Thomas A. Edison’s words stick, “We often miss opportunities because it’s dressed in overalls and looks like work.” If only that had been the motto of my youth, I could have avoided 96 lessons in how to harm myself and ended my high school career with more than a stint in rehab, a diploma in limbo, and year book caption brimming with incoherent language where the first initials of each word came together as a giant “F.U.C.K. Y.O.U.” When you know better you do better. I push myself. I read, I write. I take electives with the lovely late Roslyn Farrington, a goddess dressed as an Assistant Professor advocating for living like belle hooks and memoir as the perfect medium for real life revolutions of love. Radical visionary feminism incarnate, she will be missed. I act in the Vagina Monologues. I write my own monologue. Nothing about me says weak. Only capable, only promising. I am unapologetic. I start a feminist writing group at the Women’s Resource Center. I collaborate on a series of Ecofeminist zines. A tattoo from this era sits with me. I’ve calmed down but that little light shines on from inside me.

As these days come into their inevitable close, I start looking into a series of graduate programs, seeking one that is equal parts (1) social justice oriented, (2) practical, (3) critically conscious. I choose sociology which requires writing a thesis–aka a book. I find myself telling an old high school friend of my hopes that my sociology training, my experience in research and academic writing could lead to a career in journalism.

Mid-twenties, graduate school: Lo, the era in which mental labor abounds. Somehow in the midst I take up my blog again in earnest: an outlet. After a year of toggling ambitions between motherhood and professorship, I abandon hopes for the later despite my success in school. Midway through the program, I submit some of my creative writing into a graduate memoir writing class. My work gets me in, despite the fact I am nowhere near the pursuit of an MFA. However, as a pregnant, mid-thesis master’s student, a teacher’s assistant, and a formal Jewish student on the side I cannot hack the class. I drop it and try to wrap up my time in school. I graduate with a 4.0, strong social justice networks, a completed thesis that won my departmental award of best thesis and a university award for community service. I have proven to myself that I can do that which I set my mind to and also that just because I have skill for something, does not mean that I have to pursue it. It’s hard to hearing your heart, when you spend so much time in your head.

Early Motherhood, Late 20’s, AKA now: My baby was born two weeks after graduation and immediately I move from work of the head to work of the body. All that is in me slows down and is rooted in the time and the movements of a beautiful baby girl. I read a little, I write a little, but meanwhile the whole pace of my life, the focus, the surroundings, the people, the perspective changes. I am a softer and stronger version of myself, and the real work, the heart work, opens doors for me. I find a new rhythm out of school and away from the city. I am immersed in another culture on the reservation where my husband and my daughter are from. Life begins to unfold in a way that is beautiful, stable, quite and true. The struggles change, the stressors change, and writing picks up. My blog reopens again, my job pushes me into academic writing, letter writing, journaling, dreaming, oral histories. I am starting to see myself outside of a syllabus. I have hopes for myself, for my family, for my career, for my writing, for a life that’s worth writing about, for work that sits on more than my own book shelves.

And what’s next? Ask President Obama.

On living in scary times and doing work in my small corner…

The situation: I am flying to Florida days after the Orlando shooting, feeling myself drawing nearer and nearer to a recent epicenter of violence, haunting violence. My checked baggage and my metaphorical baggage are all weighing on me. I feel the urge to ask my elders if the world has really gotten worse or if it just feels worse to me? Sandy Hook comes back to me and I feel real pain and dread that such horror can come upon the bodies of all these innocent in Connecticut, South Carolina, Kenya, Florida, Turkey and manymanymany more. And it isn’t just the mass shootings, its the everyday violence especially the police violence against Black people that really just take me back to that high school classroom in social studies: reading about civil rights, looking at the actions and inactions of white people and asking myself, “If I were living in that time, what would I be doing, as a white person?” Of course, my hope then was that I would have been someone who stood up against violence, interpersonal violence, systems violence, the whole gamut. What I have learned since then is that the struggle is not over, the violence is not over, and the question now is just the same, “What am I going to do, as a white person, in this present time?” Now this question can really weigh on me, even though it is a privileged question, meaning: since I am white I don’t have to ask myself this question all the time. I can switch in and out of it because for me in my situated perspective, I am often removed from the violence that exists in the world. I am most often safe.

My answer is refining and it is far from perfect. I have acted and inacted in ways  that are oppressive and I still have a lot to learn. I have let this question push me and drive me in my professional life. I have looked for an area where I have deep connection, a feeling of responsibility, and where I can make the most impact with my time and energy and I am learninglearninglearning about how best to be a positive person and give of myself to promote positivity and healing. I follow the news and challenge myself to keep educated and current on what’s happening, even when it is hard to stomach, even when it is challenging, even when it makes me feel guilt or uncomfortable or fear or stress. Then I talk about the news in my home and with some of my loved ones. Right now, I mostly talk about it people I feel safe with, people who help me to see multiple sides of an issue and I am blessed to have some beautiful, smart, critical thinkers in my life. And mostly I use this awareness to listen. I listen to how people talk about these issues. People I agree with, people I disagree with, and make an effort to seek the voices of people who are most affected by these events as they occur. As with my sociological training, I gauge the pulse from the subjective experiences of a few to the generalized experiences of gallup polls and pew studies.

I continue on learning and from time to time give funds as part of tikkun olam, my Jewish responsibility to perform acts of kindness to repair the world. Something I feel really proud about is our central Jewish tradition of tzedakah, that is somewhat comparable to the concept of charity and is often translated to charity in english. However and strikingly, what tzadakah really means is to do justice. Meaning, I don’t do tzedakah like charity where I give of myself so that I can feel like I am doing a good deed and I can sleep better at night. I do tzedakah because it is my responsibility as a Jew to give of myself to help make justice in the world. Giving some of what I have, that which has been given to me, helps to bring balance in a world where systems are corrupt, unfair, and prejudicial. It is my responsibility to give wherever my heart pulls me locally, nationally, and internationally.

Then I try to take care of myself and I try to nurture my own hope and resiliency. Whether it’s jumping in the river with my husband, spending time really focused and attentive to my daughter, writing a blog post, or walking my dog, it helps. I realize that I cannot give of myself when I am needed if I am not filling myself up when I can. I too have my own healing work to do and when I focus on this and cultivate it, I can show up in my small corner of the world and do good work. Sometimes, it takes real work to look up, rise above, and continue to hope even in these scary times when it feels like the world is getting worse. Then I look out the window at the coast range and smell that fresh air and feel gratitude. I see my daughter running with cousins and grandparents and friends in green grass with party hats and feel gratitude. And I know that the time I take to love and be loved is an essential ingredient in all this. It gives life and motion to empathy, it gives power and force behind growth, and it gives guidance and shelter to this small beating heart in that great starry expanse. This is what is to be one small drop in the lifeblood of humanity. I do have trust that more is at work than what meets the eye, I am not alone, and that love conquers all in the end.

on the qualities of a soul-friend.

I am a lucky gal because I have some awesome beautiful soul-friends. Right now my best friends and I are separated by massive geographical expanses. I feel close to them in heart yet I miss them both dearly. Thank god for the powers of technology that can bridge us all together on this round-blue planet.  I don’t feel like the media is smeared with examples of how edifying gal friends can be. I have collected a few treasures, starting with the notable 90’s classic Now and Then. Of course, there is also the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Aw the memories…

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I think I once did a whole blog post on the topic of BFF movies. You can search my archives if you need more to this end. When I was a kid “BFF” was not common vernacular but I am grateful for this tender abbreviation. However, the topic at hand is the qualities of a soul-friend.

Soul-friend. Noun. 

  1. The plutonic version of a soul mate.
  2. A person with whom one has a strong affinity for, shared values and tastes.
  3. A person who fits you and gets you.

Currently, I have two soul-friends by my own definition.I found my two soul friends in college. College was a good time to find soul-friends because in the (on-going) process of finding ourselves we found each other. I was afraid that I wasn’t going to make any friends, let alone soul-friends, at school because after attending community college for three years I yielded not-a-one-friend. However, upon transferring to university I summoned all of my courage and jumped into my two extracurricular areas of interest: environmentalism and feminism. The results: (a) I got a couple on-campus jobs and internships, (b) I squiggled out some lines for my resume that most certainly secured my graduate school position, and (c) I found my soul-friends!

Now these soul-friends are extra special, they are so good they deserve–at the very least–a blog post dedicated entirely to them (you know who you are, love you guys)! We make a good team and the three of us hang out all together in a loving friend-trio. Here are some of the qualities that elevate our friendships to the status of soul friends:

  1. We mutual adore each other. I can be myself with these friends and they love me for it. They laugh at my jokes, they listen to me, they go along with my silly ideas and fancies. I can be my goofiest self around them and let my hair down so to say. By the same token, I adore these girls and who they are and reciprocate this love through all the same actions.
  2. We have fun together. This may seem obvious, but in the past I have had close friends that really bring me down. However, my soul-friends and I can totally nerd out the same things. We all love tarot cards, flower crowns, social justice, women-focused media, eating picnics, writing, lord of the rings and harry potter… you know, the important things. So we can get together, have fun, and enjoy each other and enjoy our time together. This is where the memories are created. My favorites have been on our notorious self-care retreats and celebrating the sacred holiday of galentines day.
  3. We have matching values. As previously mentioned, I found these girls in the worlds of college activism so there was a good chance that some of our passions aligned. We may lead different lives and invest our energies in different ways. We may even have different ideas about some things, but we have a lot of heart in common. The fact that these girls are ardent feminists (like me) also really helps because we understand much of each other’s lived experiences, value these experiences, and can talk openly about matters of the mind and heart. Both of these girl friends also help me grow my ideas and passions and values too by introducing me to new thoughts, ideas, art, news. These girls inspire me all the time: major bonus.
  4. We show up for each other. Not all people are willing to invest time and energy into your friendships. This can make or break a quality friendship. We don’t live super close by right now and so we make up for it by committing ourselves to monthly get togethers, quarterly sleep overs, and letter writing/messaging while we are away from home. It’s grounding to know that you have people to show up for you when you need them because they show up for you other times too.
  5. When shit gets real, we can bear our souls to each other. And believe me, shit gets real. This is where the trust comes in and is really built upon showing up for one another. It’s difficult to maintain the intimacies of close friendship when you have little to no contact with each other and this is actually how I measure the number of actual friends in my life: do my friends know the major occurrences of the last year? Do I know the major occurrences of my friend’s last year? If both hold true then the person is likely a close friend and perhaps has the potential of becoming a soul-friend. I have to be able to let my guard down and be honest, even if I’m off track, even if it’s not cute or not entertaining. These friends are particularly good in the supportive role and I hope I can reciprocate. I often get into this really women socialized rut of feeling like I am taking up too much space and these girls recognize this as it pops up and kick it to the curb each time. They have bore witness to some of my major life traumas. They have facilitated major life growth by hearing me and loving me in vulnerable/difficult/ugly times. This is where real beauty comes in.

That’s all I can think of right now, but I hope this may be useful to any and all who are asking themselves about what they are looking for in their friendships. It took me a while to get me here but it’s a beautiful place to be. Happy friending to all.

On working shit out through dreams…

I consider myself an intuitive person and clumsy mystical-sort of Jew. I really got in touch with my spiritual self in recovery and as a product of a long awkward process that still gives me the heebie jeebies sometimes. I don’t want to call my current spiritual state  “woo-woo” but yes, I am a bit eclectic and open-minded. New-age is not part of my identity though, I don’t dress in flowy garments and recklessly appropriate other people’s cultures. I’m all about using pluralistic tools and building materials that I’ve pick up along the way to build a bridge back to the traditions of my ancestors. I say this on Shavout, our delicious day for eating cheese cake Jewishly. I so far have not done anything today along the lines of studying torah, staying up all night, eating dairy, or talking about Ruth. That’s okay: I’m still building. To repeat the beautiful wisdom of my seven-year-old cousin, “It’s not perfect but yay!”

Okay, that was context. To the subject matter at hand: please sample from this case study of how spontaneous subconscious dream work has actually created resolution to real-life issue for me***.

The case of the unsettling friend-boyfriend.

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Several years ago a dear old friend of mine was dating this guy, who was considerable older. She was just out high school and he was in his early thirties. Age difference aside, he was not a big catch by my estimation. That’s fine, except a few short months after dating him she leaves her school, moves in with the guy, and drops off the map. Now, I know in the heat of romance friends tend to fall off the radar sometimes, but this was getting scary. She wouldn’t give anyone in her family her address. That’s right, no one knew where she was living. I became so troubled by this scenario I ended up calling an abuse crisis line, describing her behavior and expressing my concerns. The folks on the crisis line were really validating and gave me some suggestions for reaching out to her.

Well, she ended up being with this guy for a long time, and bringing him around more so my fear settled. Still, I did not like the guy. I had a bad feeling about him and it wasn’t serving my friend, it wasn’t serving me, it wasn’t serving anybody. I simple couldn’t drop it. Then one night I had a dream worked it out for me. It wasn’t dramatic. I dreamt that I was sitting across from the guy and said, “Listen, I’ve had these issues with you. I was really scared of you, but I am ready to let it go now and just accept that you are who you are and you are in my friend’s life.” When I woke up in the morning it was gone: the resentment, the fear, the blame, all of it. I felt completely neutral toward the guy and every time I’ve seen him or thought about him after that I have no emotional response. He just is who he is. I just am who I am. Another positive bi-product was that my relationship with my friend improved. It wasn’t me in my cognizant self who got me there. It was something bigger or higher that shifted me just enough so that I could see past all my issues and rise above. Pretty cool, huh?

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I actually have two other case studies that I have decided to refrain from sharing. Both involve communication with people who have passed on. It doesn’t feel right to write about at the moment. Just know that I am a believer in life-altering resolution coming to us in our subconscious mind before it hits our conscious mind. Also, for brevity sake I am leaving out other mystical spontaneous life moments where I have sent a message to the universe and received an odd prompt response. Perhaps another blog post. Until then, happy dreaming. May your subconscious elevate you to the next level.