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In Which I Catch Up

Why, yes, I haven’t updated this blog since March.

I wish I could give you a fabulous reason as to why, or to relate some dramatic development in my life. But, no. What it really comes down to is that I continue to hesitate putting myself out there. I keep following the same old patterns that lead me toward “doing nothing” or “not bothering,” because “it will be a failure anyway.”

I could (and I have) gone on and on about how I have all of these “circumstances” that have prevented me from living my life, that because my living situation and my graduate school experiences haven’t been glitter and rainbows and money, somehow what I do doesn’t matter.

But there’s another voice in my head, that asks why after thirty-five years on this plane of existence do I want to stay unhappy?

Normally I’d then segue into something about how I’m so awful because I’ve been throwing a giant existential temper tantrum, etc. I am convinced lately, however, that all of my mental shenanigans are actually the first step toward Enlightenment.

I’ve spent a lot of time this year trying to fix all of the externals, thinking that would make me happy.

Ultimately, what it comes down to is that I need to stop trying to control everything. I just need to live my life.

So here I am updating. Here I am reading everything on neurasthenia so that I can get my next chapter draft done. Here I am listening to my self-help gurus (lately, Jennifer Hadley and Nick and Jessica Ortner). I am catching up on’s Star Trek rewatch. I just finished Margaret Truman’s 1980 mystery Murder in the White House, and was pleasantly surprised by how sophisticated it was. I am trying to get my head around the events of this summer, between protests near my house, Rachel Dolezal, and the Charleston shooting. I hope that the flag comes down and that everyone reads the books on the Charleston Syllabus (especially my professor Rhonda Y. Williams’ new book Concrete Demands). I am happy that Obamacare lives on.

I’m living in the present, as much as I can. It’s a good day.

Book Review, Lissa Rankin, The Fear Cure

I have followed Dr. Lissa Rankin’s career with interest for several years now, particularly as she inhabits the same corner of the self-help universe as other authors I admire, including Martha Beck and Tosha Silver (and what I refer to in my head as “The Hay House Cavalcade of Stars!”). Rankin also has one of the more honest email newsletters and blogs out there, and I’ve always appreciated her bravery in being so honest and open with her readers about what is going on in her personal life.

Rankin’s new book, The Fear Cure (released on February 24, 2015), takes on issues of fear and anxiety, and discusses how fear drives how we live our daily lives, even though many of us remain unconscious of this, as Western society in particular tends to treat fear as a taboo subject. The book is a highly useful guide to getting past fear, largely by teaching that the key to handling fear is to embrace it for the lessons it teaches, instead of doing what most of us do, which is to engage in avoidance behaviors.

Rankin points out that fear is actually a useful tool that warns us about the parts of our lives that we need to pay most attention to. Many of us, myself included, have spent years priding ourselves on being busy and stressed out, without admitting that these terms cover up the underlying reality, which is that we’re really scared of uncertainty. We spend most of our time dealing with what Rankin calls “false fear,” which is that sense of anxiety and paranoia that roams through our thoughts, leading us to feel small, to lash out at others, or to see the world as a terrible place. (“True fear,” by way of contrast, is the adrenaline rush that kicks in when we are in actual physical danger, for example.)

The key, Rankin says, is to understand that false fear causes us to awaken to the truth about ourselves. In other words, fear can help cure you. She provides many strategies for getting in touch with fear, being kind to ourselves, figuring out what is really going on in the subconscious, and learning to surrender to the Divine. By becoming more vulnerable and honest, we can find the path to wholeness and a brighter future.

The book contains much discussion of clinical data if you are into that sort of thing, but is far more spiritually-oriented than Rankin’s previous work, Mind Over Medicine. She also provides multiple exercises and activities to help to promote your journey toward learning fear’s lessons and moving forward with life.

I enjoyed this book very much, so much so that I ordered it from Amazon while I was about one-third of the way through my library’s copy.

Source: ARC from the publisher via NetGalley, copy from my local library

Harry Gene Levine: Joseph R. Gusfield and the Multiple Perspectives of Cubist Sociology

Elizabeth Salem:

I know I don’t always write about my dissertation research, but I can’t resist reblogging this: one giant of alcohol history talks about another giant of alcohol history.

Originally posted on Points: The Blog of the Alcohol & Drugs History Society:

Note from Ron:  Here is another tribute to the late Joe Gusfield, authored by Harry Gene Levine.  It circulated via email among some of us old-guard alcohol and drug history types a few days ago.  And, when I asked him, Harry was kind enough grant permission it be published at Points. The italicized first paragraph, below the Picasso image, offers Harry’s suggested introductory words for the piece.  I’m also going to take the liberty of adding, as a comment, below, my response to it when it was sent around by email.  I really like this piece.  Thank you, Harry!

Picasso's Guernica Picasso’s Guernica

In 2000 I was invited to join a panel at the meetings of the Law and Society Association devoted to Joe Gusfield and his book Symbolic Crusade.  I wrote a four page presentation, only slightly tongue-in-cheek.  Since hearing of his death I have been thinking about him a…

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In Which I Muse about Writing as it Snows

It’s been snowing heavily in Cleveland. My husband, a high school teacher, already has the day off from school tomorrow. I’m hoping for the same for my daughter and son, mostly as I’d love to have another day to work on my dissertation in (relative) peace.

It’s funny how it feels like I have to steal time in order to write. Like I feel like I’m not allowed to work unless I’m given permission by some outside force.

I’ve spent the last week or so watching all of the crazy stories I tell myself rise and fall inside of my head, crumbling into bits. Yet I’m not exactly sure how, as Martha Beck advises, to step away from the old and find new thoughts to replace them with. The old thoughts certainly keep making me plenty miserable. I’m also really starting to see how I keep myself from moving on. Every time I make real progress on my dissertation, for example, I somehow seem to find a reason to return to mulling over past regrets, mistakes, or worrying about the future. Or, I suddenly have a need to order ten books from the library, binge watch British television, and then it’s days later and I haven’t written anything new.

While I’ve been much better about this of late, I note the irony that I’m writing a dissertation about how Americans made up their own narratives about anxiety and the drugs they treated it with, even as I see my own narratives coming apart at the seams.

I’ve also been a bit flustered because I accepted an offer to return to a summer job, but in a slightly higher position. While I love this job and it’s short-term, and pays well…the idea of coming back to it and having to supervise others seems incredibly daunting. It brings up all of my anxieties over teaching and leadership…and makes me dredge up all of the times in which I’ve made mistakes in these areas, instead of seeing them as learning experiences.

In other news, I have truly been horrified about the recent revelation that the Egyptian Museum glued King Tut’s funerary mask back together with what looks like Gorilla Glue. (My favorite roundup so far is here at The History Blog.) I guess I’m flabbergasted that in 2015, this could happen to the one of the world’s most famous artifacts. Having read Jo Marchant’s book on Tut’s mummy, I know that the Boy King has had a rough time of it since the 1920s, but this really takes the cake. (And further brings home to me the fact that archeology and history both, in their own ways, aren’t nearly as professional as we like to think they are.)

I’ve also been watching “Grantchester” on Masterpiece Mystery. James Norton’s portrayal of Sidney Chambers is making the show watchable for me. I am about midway into the second book of the series that the show is based on, by James Runcie, but I have to say that the books make me somewhat uneasy. They are not British cozy mysteries, despite how they’ve been marketed. They are more meditations on the dark side of the British psyche during the 1950s, and, in my opinion, are too preoccupied with issues of sexuality. I also was truly appalled by the treatment of Amanda (as much as I dislike the character) during one of the stories in the first book, as it seemed completely unnecessary. The television scripts seem to be handling the subject matter better (though do we really need to harp on the curate’s sexual orientation constantly?), but the stories are faithful enough to the books that I’m not looking forward to what’s coming.

In Which I Stumble Around and am Afraid

Of course, it turns out that practicing what you preach is so much harder than I thought.

I did not sleep much again last night, and woke up with heartburn. (In Louise Hay You Can Heal Your Life terms, that would be “Fear. Fear. Fear. Clutching fear.”)

And it was the same old things…fear of how I perceive these family members, of how I think they will hurt me again in the future. Fear of what the world thinks of me because I can’t seem to do everything perfectly. Fear of the consequences of my next mistake.

I started the day well. Discovered a YouTube video via Mary Hayes Grieco’s Facebook page. It was an explanation of a short prayer that author Debra Engle uses to combat fear (the theory being that fear is at the heart of most of our issues).

This resonated with me. I plan on using it.

As the day went on though, I kept finding (or, my ego kept finding) new and exciting ways to lose hope. Constant reminders of the things I’m afraid of, and this nagging sense that there is no safe future for me, that bad things will continue to happen, that there is nothing I can do to make anything better. I searched the world around me for proof that things are terrible and are going to be terrible, and, because I was searching so diligently for it, I inevitably found it.

And I found myself retreating to my usual coping mechanism, which is a whole lot of anger. Which I took out on my husband and children, because anger seemed easier to cope with than “clutching fear.”

For some reason I think that I am owed guarantees of what the future will be like. That if I do all the right things, everything’s going to be fabulous and no one will ever, ever criticize me. (Never mind that I certainly haven’t kept the peace myself.)

Tosha Silver has a chapter in Outrageous Openness about how the world can seem a stark and hopeless place “without God.” She even attaches the phrase to sentences just to change the dynamic: “this is what my family/job/money situation looks like…without God.” The idea being that with the Divine, everything changes, if we just let go of how strongly we hold to these stories that we tell ourselves about how horrible the world is. If we really do believe in a Divinely-inspired universe—then it is imperative that we let the hell go of the lies.

So I guess I’m sitting here today trying to get past my own stories about my family, despite the big scary world out there that looks like it’s out to get me in the form of people who (I think) don’t understand me and actively dislike me.

Although I know that I am going to need to surrender this idea that I can fix all of this by myself. I’ve been “controlling” all of this for years, and it has made me miserable. The good news seems to be that the only thing that needs fixing are the perceptions inside of my head.

I wrote quite a bit of my dissertation today, but I can’t seem to get the old writing high I used to get. When was the last time that happened, actually? Again, this reliance upon the external things to make me happy.

In Which I Work on Acceptance

It was a rough Christmas. And not just because of my pneumonia, and my mother-in-law, who had already been through so much in 2014, ending up in the hospital yet again.

We had yet another holiday full of family drama, of assumptions and backbiting, and my realizing that I have family members who think very, very poorly of my husband and I. Who have assumed we have done things that we haven’t, that we are who we aren’t, and that we are unfeeling where we are intensely vulnerable.

And I don’t know what to do about this, actually, because I can’t fix it. I can’t change their minds. I can’t change the past. I certainly know how to analyze it, but this isn’t the War of 1812. This is my life. This is my heart.

I have let this stop me from living my life. I’ve spent a lot of time lately stewing over how hurt I am, how I should defend myself, or how I should hit back. But I’ve learned too much in the past few years about myself. I know that dwelling on “my pain” is the best way to freeze myself in space, and to not contribute to the building of a better world. And for all I go on and on about how our extended family seems to be doing its best to destroy itself most of the time, I know that part of this is because I’ve held onto my anger and pain. I’ve helped fight the war.

Given how many times I’ve seen “Frozen” now, you’d think I’d be able to apply the basic lessons. Let it go, and love melts a frozen heart.

I didn’t sleep much last night, and I kept my husband up for hours talking about my pain. He lovingly pointed out that every sentence I uttered started with the word “I.” Every sentence contained excuses for why I’ve stopped living, and all of the excuses were rooted in the external world. They did this, and this happened and we don’t have this and we have no money that.

Have I learned nothing from all of the self-help books I’ve combed through in the last four years? Change starts from the internal. Change comes from the inside—change comes from the heart.

Forgiveness is the most essential thing in the entire universe. Forgiveness of others, forgiveness of myself, forgiveness from others for the things I’ve done.

I’m trying to start over on this semi-sunny Tuesday morning, because I want to live this life I’ve been given. I don’t want to be angry with my family anymore. I’m tired of assuming I know what happened, or what they think, or that I’m the victim. I’m tired of hiding in my house all day and doing nothing because I feel afraid of how I might be hurt again, and that only terrible things are in my future.

I aspire to acceptance. In The Book of Forgiving, Desmond and Mpho Tutu talk about Kübler-Ross’ stages of grief, and say this: “Acceptance is the recognition that things have changed and will never be what they were before. This is how we can find the strength to journey on. We accept the truth of what happened. We accept our hurt, our anguish, our sadness, our anger, our shame, and in doing so we accept our own vulnerability.” (104)

And I can’t heal alone. I’ve been trying to do that for years, by cutting myself off from other people, but all that’s gotten me are new wounds, mostly self-inflicted.

So here I am, world. Here I am.

In Which I am Sick and Tired of Being a Perfectionist

I’ve just about had it with my perfectionism, lately.

I’ve been dancing around these issues all semester—this worrying over my self-image and my lack of creative production.

I’m at the end of a semester in which I was supposed to have finished the first draft of my dissertation, only to find myself with two half-chapters still to finish, as well as an introduction and a conclusion. My house, a mess under the best of circumstances, continues to plague me with crumbling walls, filthy carpets, leaky pipes and clutter. I try to help a family member who is dealing with loss and several medical issues, but often find myself treating her sadness as somehow attributable to something I did. When I’m not micromanaging, I isolate myself from my family and I avoid going to campus. Because the fear of failure has been so strong lately. Because I believe a long list of lies that I’ve been telling myself since childhood, most of which center on my having to be perfect at something or it’s not worth doing.

Since my disastrous oral exam three years ago (note that even though I passed it, I keep treating it as a serious failure), which happened to coincide with a major crisis in my marriage and with my faith, I dove headfirst into reading damned near everything I could get my hands on regarding spirituality, mysticism, self-help, and Buddhist meditation. I’ve been far more passionate about this than I’ve been about my dissertation.

The great problem with taking spirituality seriously, however, is that you do in fact get forced to look at all of the things that you don’t want to see. Learning how to meditate isn’t about stress relief, or looking peaceful on a carpet as you listen to Deepak Chopra. Meditation ends up uncorking the genie, my friends. You stop being able to lie to yourself about what’s going on in your life.

In my case, it’s that there isn’t actually anything wrong with me—it’s that I somehow need for there to be.

Martha Beck, one of my favorite gurus, has an article that she wrote for O Magazine in which she praises author Anne Lamott’s idea of the “shitty first draft,”  in her writing, and also reminds us that perfectionism can really hold us back. In fact, we keep “getting perfectionistic about our attempts to stop being perfectionists.”

Martha also describes what she calls the “Pefectionist Credo”: “If I try hard enough and I’m very careful and I follow all the rules, everything will go right and everyone will love me and I’ll feel good all the time.”

This sounds familiar…

In one of those coincidences that, in retrospect, aren’t coincidences, this week I picked up a copy of Elizabeth Lombardo’s Better Than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love off of the “New Releases” shelf at my local library. One of the most helpful ideas Lombardo provides was the concept of the “rulebook,” where we subconsciously have created very long lists of rules that we live by and hold others to. Our issues with perfectionism, and our strong emotional reactions to ourselves and others come when we feel these rules have been “broken.”

My personal rulebook, I’ve realized, includes such gems as:

  • You must be perfect or no one will like you.
  • Outside opinion determines your success and/or personal safety.
  • There is only one right way to do things or to present yourself.
  • Academic success will lead to a perfect career, enough money, and respect from the outside world.
  • It is possible to achieve perfection and to do all of the right things, and you are allowed to judge the people that don’t.
  • If you don’t “look right,” have the right class status, act “correctly,” or have a clean house, you are a bad person.
  • You must protect your children from all harm at all times.
  • You cannot show undue emotion. Tears and temper tantrums will not be tolerated, and embarrass yourself and others.
  • You must placate all of the difficult people in your life at all times so that you will be safe. You are not allowed to say “no.”
  • There is no safety until you eliminate, neutralize, or get around/run away from all outside threats.
  • You can control everything if you try hard enough.

Because I can’t live up to this internal rulebook, (and frankly, it’s miserable trying to), I end up being fiercely judgmental of myself and others. I spend entire days stewing over the past or imagining a future where everything will go wrong. I believe the stories that I tell myself about the past and future—usually, that everything is either my fault, or, I find ways to blame others for how difficult I think my life is. (I wonder now just how many times I’ve used things like being a child of divorce, being poor, being “shy,” “overweight,” or “awkward,” being married, being a mother, being a caregiver, or being somehow wronged by another person, as an excuse?)

I’m a cultural historian. I really should know better than anyone just how narratives play out, but it turns out to be an entirely different story when those narratives are in your own head. (Frankly, isn’t history just a collective story that we tell ourselves? The dream we all dream together?)

I run the same tales through my head daily, about my inadequacies, and how very hard I think my life is, or how this family member or that restricted me, or how my academic dreams haven’t turned out the way I had hoped…and this leaves me feeling like I shouldn’t bother. Usually, there goes another day when I don’t write anything.

Not that writing my dissertation should be the litmus test of my self-worth. But I think it’s indicative of the larger problem. My perfectionism is preventing me from seeing my dissertation as the academic exercise that it is. It’s just an extended argument about gender and nineteenth-century concepts of anatomy and addiction. It’s not my future, it’s not my life, and it’s certainly not anything like this evil Dissertation Monster that I’ve created and that scares me so much.

Because my life didn’t follow my rulebook—in fact, my life and my family have been great gifts, I think, sent to gloriously blow my rulebook to itty bitty burnt shreds—I’ve been pretty paralyzed these past few years. The more I read and the more I meditate and the more I come to terms with what is going on inside of me…the more I think it is time to be brave. (Brené Brown would call this “digging deep,” or “daring greatly.”)

I think it is time to finish my dissertation, even if it is completely shitty, doesn’t remotely follow my ambitious original timeline, and doesn’t ensure me any sort of secure academic career.

I think it is time to accept my family and my in-laws and my family of origin exactly as they are, and to thank them for knocking my preconceptions out of me on a daily basis.

I think it is time to stop hiding in my house and to find myself again.

One of Martha Beck’s solutions to perfectionism is to revel in doing something badly. So I’m endeavoring to blog badly. To write badly. To actually finish things instead of deciding that they are worthless before they are done. To know that I am the best mother I can be, and that I don’t need to be a Pinterest Mom or She Who Ensures that Her Children Are Perfect at All Times. To know that despite not choosing the caregiving path, I have tried my best to be as compassionate and helpful as I can be. To know that despite the fact that I feel like I let everyone down on a daily basis, the one whom I should never let down is myself.

So why can’t I blog badly right here? Why should this be just another sanitized blog where all I show you are my book reviews and my academic pretensions? What is the point of a “platform” if it’s not an honest one?

As human beings, we have the great privilege of being present. Of being able to start over again moment by moment and day by day.

So I’m starting again. Right now. As gloriously imperfectly as I can.


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