Permission to be human

As I wrote in my earlier blog post, I’ve been struggling with depression for the past two years. It’s been a difficult time not only because of daily physical and emotional exhaustion but also because of a loss of identity. I always prided myself on being a die-hard optimist. For years, I overcame my temporary blues with “Come on, you can do it!” or “Put your big-girl pants on!” or “If this doesn’t work, try something else and it will!” Whatever worked but feeling sad, lost, drained was not an option in my vocabulary. And while I felt compassion toward people who suffered from depression, I couldn’t fully relate to or understand them. So my advice was generally the same I gave to myself: “Be (or pretend you’re) a superhuman and you shall move the world. You just have to try a little harder, ok?”

That “a little bit harder” didn’t work this time around. For months I felt that I was chasing a tornado that held the key to my puzzle. The twirling thoughts created by my overheated mind sucked me inside, then spitted me out empty-handed. What a deadly, hopeless hobby! But here I was again asking for another round. At last, I got what I was looking for, though not what I expected. I dreamed of a bird:

I was walking in a garden on a beautiful early summer day when I saw a large cage that hung on a branch of a tree. The sunrays streamed through the Victorian-style cage made out of brass wire. I admired the intricate, artful design of the cage walls woven by a skilled hand. At first, I even missed a bright yellow canary inside. I walked around the cage to see the bird up-close. The little canary sat motionlessly on the perch staring into the space. I realized two things: First, there was no door in that cage, or a chain that kept the bird in. And second, I was that bird.

To my horror, I also realized that the bird stayed inside because it forgot how to fly—it forgot what makes the bird bird. Tears streamed down my cheeks. I sobbed hard feeling pity for both of us. My first reaction was to reach inside, take the bird out, lift my hand up to the blue sky and say, “Here, birdy, fly away, nothing holds you there.” Instead, I stepped aside and said with as much compassion and kindness that I could muster in my shaky voice, “It’s ok, little bird. You don’t have to go anywhere. You’re safe where you are. Sit here for a while, watch the sunrise and the sunset. Eat a seed. Drink some water. Take the time you need.” 

Moments have passed. At last, the bird twitched and blinked for the first time. She took a long deep breath inhaling the promise of a summer day: the scent of wild flowers, the buzz of insects, the warmth of the gentle breeze. I expected no lurching forward or happy chirping to follow. And they haven’t happen. Yet I felt the peace that eluded me for a long time.

As the dream was fading away, the bird was still inside, but I knew that one day she’ll remember who she is. As to me, I no longer needed to be a super-me. I have finally given myself permission to be human.

Thank you for reading my story and please tell me if my experiences resonated with you in some way.

 

Photo credit: Roberto Composto.

A journey from lackluster to luscious: The beginning

It’s been almost two years since I published my book Spiritual Hottie’s Diary. It’s been almost as long since I felt fully myself: A young woman who grabs her life by its tail, feels creative juices coursing through her veins, has a sly sparkle in her eyes, and boasts a can-do attitude. And did I mention boundless, almost child-like energy? That’s how I remembered myself. So imagine my surprise when the only description that fit was an image of a Soul EKG that was nearly flat. Yes, the patient was still alive, highly functional in fact, but that’s about it.

Since March 2015, the woman who came up with a motto “Be Inspired, Lighthearted, and Hot—No Matter What,” and who lived it, has been lost in the dark maze with neither compass nor flashlight. There were many reasons for that—life didn’t spare me of my share of losses, disappointments, tears, for sure—but this knowledge gave me no self-starting power.

What’s next? What’s next? What’s next? I kept asking myself, “Is there a defibrillator to my soul’s lackluster existence?”

I felt angry, fury at myself and others.

I felt dejected, lost.

I felt hopeless, aimless.

The books I turned to for answers taught me that these were as valid and indeed human emotions as happiness and joy. And while I grew to accept this wisdom, oh my, how badly I wanted to feel the butterflies in my stomach again!

“Self-pity,” as Tim Parks wrote in Teach Us Sit Still, “is a great teller of boring tales.” I was a fabulous storyteller of tales I didn’t want to hear. Yet action seemed to take a one-way ticket away from me.

I kinda knew what might work, but kinda didn’t want to do the work. The feeble seedlings of my awesome plans got squashed by the weight of too many ideas. Frustrated, I told a friend once, “The funny thing is if someone were to ask me for advice in this very same situation, I’d easily come up with a plan to save them. I’d even become this person’s emotional re-charge buddy for crying out loud!” To which she said, “Play a trick with your mind. Look at yourself from aside and write down the steps as if you were to give advice to that person.” And you know what? It actually worked! I, or rather my imaginary friend, now has a plan!

So what is it, you may ask? Stay tuned for the next blog post! I do have a favor to ask though: Please keep me accountable on my journey from Lackluster to Luscious. I have a self-imposed deadline: The first day of Spring, or March 20, 2017. Drop me a line if you have ideas of what I can add, or not do for this matter.

Until next time, “Be Inspired, Lighthearted, and Hot—No Matter What.” Ciao!

Is classical music HOT? Yes, get turned on!

A few months ago my friends invited me to a piano concert: “The Last Sonatas of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert” played by a world-renown pianist Sir András Schiff. I enjoy classical music, but I’m far from being a connoisseur. Deep down I was afraid I’d be stuck for three hours listing to some depressing, end-of-one’s-life music written often at the time of sickness and destitution. But I went along. As we sat down in our seats, I began feeling guilty for wanting to leave, or to take a nap, or at least to eat that dark chocolate cookie that I sneaked in. As the lights dimmed, my inner peace was taking a vacation elsewhere.

Sir Schiff—clad in all black that accentuated his Albert Einstein inspired silver hairdo—walked to the middle of the stage, bowed to the anticipating audience, and sat down at the grand piano. He gently placed his fingers on the keys and paused. The concert hall fell silent: no hushed sounds, no wiggling in the seats, no rustling of the program’s pages. There were only two of them. The master and his instrument. Two figures in black. Two partners about to begin an intimate rendezvous. And us, the audience, with eyes glued to the scene.

And then Sir Schiff stroke the first keys. I forgot promptly about my guilt (of wanting to doze off) and my guilty pleasures (the cookie). I thought about the undeniable talent of the composers and the pianist and how privileged I was to experience it. I laughed at myself for fearing the unknown only to truly enjoying it. I also thought that each of them must have studied, practiced, and performed 7-10 hours a day, maybe more, probably with no days off.

“When you knock on the door of success, it’s work that opens it,” someone said. Isn’t that true? Listening to the flow of notes created and performed by people who responded to the calls of their souls despite all difficulties and excuses (and the melting chocolate cookies) inspired me to get back to my own craft—creative writing. I’ll write a story when I get back home! My inner peace came back.

But the experience at the concert wasn’t only inspirational. As I watched in an almost hypnotic state the pianist’s long fingers caressing gently, stroking urgently, pressing hard, and gliding along the smooth and shiny ivory and black keys, I got turned on. Really on. Oh-oh, what if Sir Schiff, who was rocking back and forth rhythmically, was making delicious love right in front of our eyes? A mischievous smile danced on my lips:

I should go to classical music concerts for both spiritual and erotic experiences more often. And next time I’ll bring a vibrator instead of a cookie!

 

Photo credit: Maurice.

 

Only the skinny girls can wear these pants. Says who?

My friends and I went at a Robyn & Royksopp concert last August. The concert venue’s outdoor grassy area was perfect for listening and dancing to a popular Norwegian electronic band on a warm evening. Since comfort and style go hand-in-hand in my fashion book, I wore denim harem pants, a poppy-red top, and black ballet flats. I even received a compliment from a woman in her early 20s. As she danced to ambient electronic beats, she turned to me and said: “I love your pants! They are so cool!”

Ok, compliments have a special page in my book too. So I gave her a big smile and turned around to show off my pants. However, when I opened my mouth to thank her, she said something that stopped me in my tracks: “Only skinny girls can wear them. The fat ones can’t.” Come again? Was it also a compliment? Or was it a voiced perception of herself? She looked fine to me just as she was dancing there under the stars. I even remember thinking: “Why would this be a concern for her?” But sadly it was.

Our exchange reminded me of a recent incident from the world of beauty pageants: Ms. May Myat Noe, a 16 year old native of Myanmar, won the title of Miss Asia Pacific earlier this year. Beautiful enough as she was to win the title, she was not beautiful enough to keep it. The organizers dethroned her for refusing to do a nose job and get breast implants. But that’s so obvious, right? How could she wear the crown with her own nose and boobs? After all, what will all other girls in Asia, and of the world for that matter, think of her and themselves!

To that I say, “Good for you, Miss Asia, for passing the ‘enhancements’ even though they were fully-paid and for refusing to return the $100,000 jewel-encrusted crown.” The organizers don’t deserve the right bestow it anyway.

I wish I could send the young woman from the concert the link to The Goddess Project – a series of documentaries made by two women with a camera in their hands and a self-discovery purpose in their minds. One film features ten women who took off their clothes as a way to let go of their poisonous beliefs about their own beauty. A powerful must-see video for many of us.

As to me, my mantra now goes like this:

I am beautiful. Period.

I am enough just as I am. Period.

And I am going to wear the pants I darn choose! Exclamation point! Make it three!!!

What’s your mantra?

 

Photo credit: Charles Rodstrom.

Compassion is more important than being right

About five years ago I attended a lecture by the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama was wise and funny. The audience burst in both laughter and tears throughout his two-hour talk as we connected heart-to-heart with this extraordinary human being. And even though I don’t recall all of his insightful messages or lighthearted stories, I do remember and carried through all these years one piece of advice: Compassion is more important than being right.

Last Saturday I didn’t live up to it. Here’s the situation: My very dear friend asked me to give her a ride to Dullas International Airport. We agreed to meet at 2pm. Around 10 in the morning, I decided to go to a local farm to get fresh tomatoes and other summer goodies. My friend was concerned that I wouldn’t make it back in time. In contrast, I felt that I had a plenty of time and told her that I would keep her posted on my time progress, which I did. When I was at the farm ready to head home, she texted me saying that she arranged a ride with someone else and that I didn’t have to rush. I was taken aback. From my point of view, I had nearly 1.5 hours to get back from a farm that was 45 minutes away. Earlier I wrote to my friend saying that if something happens I’d turn around no matter how close I was to the farm, and at worst, I’d pay for her taxi ride to the airport. My reaction at that moment was: “Why doesn’t she trust my word? Is she expecting me to fail?”  My feelings got hurt. So I texted her back saying that I understood her choice and I wished her a safe flight. (Yes, I did. Sigh…). Neither of us called each other to communicate in person.

Now that she is on the other side of the Atlantic and I had more time to reflect, I see that I overreacted. I was more righteous in how I felt about this situation than being compassionate. I hid behind my “She doesn’t trust my word” shield and didn’t communicate what was on my mind.

People deal with upcoming international trips differently and they need different level of support. We all know that — in principle. But I didn’t get in her shoes at the right time, and I didn’t think of trying to see her point until later. It was a good reminder that there are a lot of lessons for me to learn on my journey. I wrote to her to apologize for if my words and actions – or lack of such – hurt her feelings. This was not intentional. I trust that she knows it. I also trust that she and my friends allow me not to be always right or compassionate.


 

Photo credit: Alice Popkorn

Lessons 6-10 from the journey to bodacious enlightenment

Spiritual Hottie turned 1 this May – yay!!! – and SHe turned 1 year and 1 month this June – yay + 1/12 yay!!! I deeply appreciate that you’ve shared my journey with me. Without you, I would’ve not written 45 blog posts. Without you, I would’ve not had the pleasure to read and reply to more than 90 comments. Many-many thanks!!!

My very first blog post was about the five lessons I learned on my journey to bodacious enlightenment. I got lots of great comments on the blog and on FB, so here are another five insights from the past year:

#6. Forgive before being asked for forgiveness. (*** Watch a video blog ***)

I could write pages and pages on what others have said or done to me that wasn’t fair. Or haven’t said or done for me even if I deserved it. Can you relate?

For a long time I held a grudge against a girl whose name was also Janna. She transferred into my high school in our junior year. Not only did she mess up my one-of-a-kind-name-status in my class by becoming the “other Janna,” she also became the “other woman” in the life of my school sweetheart, who eventually married her. A double blow for a teenager’s fragile heart and even more fragile self-esteem.

Years later I figured that I’d better forgive her along with another woman who had an affair with my now ex-husband even before these women – or my exes for that matter – asked me for forgiveness. Seriously, we may never cross each other’s paths. We may not be able to find the right words even if we do. Now what? Shall I be caught forever between yesterday and tomorrow waiting for an apology? Shall I be stuck in a neutral position not being able to reverse or drive forward? Who’s the driver of my life after all?

Let’s be clear, I am not doing this for their benefit or on their behalf. I have my own life to live. But now looking at these two relationships, I’m immensely grateful for where I am, where I am not, and for what they taught me, including forgiving before being asked for forgiveness.

#7. Strengthen your happiness muscle. 

When I feel like the color deep blue, my now looks hopeless, my future promises nothing but more of the same, and my past, well, my past is the “new and improved” version of a torture chamber delivered just in time for this special occasion. Why is it that I can’t think of any happy moments exactly when they need them the most? That’s because my brain is preoccupied with other thoughts. But if I have a chance to read about my happy moments, I can remind myself that I have had them, and that I can experience them again. To help myself, I started keeping a special notebook just for happy, fun, and funny memories. The more powerful, vivid, and remarkable, the better. You know, the bad-mood-buster types that make us smile every time we re-read them.

One of my most favorite memories of the past year was my Mom’s face showing both surprise and happiness when she saw me among the audience at her amateur theater play. The play was about Purim, and why it’s considered to be the time of miracles for Jewish people. I showed up unannounced with a huge bouquet of spring flowers. My Mom’s precious reaction “This is my daughter from America! She came for my performance!” and her sweet tears were totally worth the long journey.

Recording, writing, and reading our happy memories are like hitting the mental gym to build up our happiness muscles. The muscles that we can engage to catch ourselves from falling down into deep mental holes.

#8. Regrets will come unless…

Some time ago I read a wonderful article written by a nurse who worked in a nursing home with dying people. As you can imagine, the life’s top regrets shared by the people facing own imminent mortality were not about buying a new car, working extra hours, or having more and hotter sex. They were about not living a meaningful, happy, and courageous life according to one’s own dreams.

What prevents us from doing exactly that today? At the bottom, I think, it’s the fear of failure in own or others’ eyes. Do I need to wait until my deathbed to discover this? Certainly not! So I say, feel the fear and do it anyway. Find people who will support you and take that small step toward your dream. Now.

#9. Connect with the vulnerable self within and with those of others.

In a recent writing workshop our instructor asked us to explore the concept of conflict. Our task was to find within and act out a wide range of emotions stirred by a conflict. Working in pairs, we shouted, cried, begged, stomped our feet, kept indignant silence, and silenced our partners. I paid close attention to how others played out their emotions. I also found something about myself.

Conflict. Avoiding, creating, participating, reproducing it million times. It came as a surprise how comfortable it was to play the roles, how intimately I knew the lines. In fact, the word “surprise” was an understatement because I always thought of myself as a peacemaker, a diplomat, female incarnation of the Dalai Lama himself… okay, that may be a stretch. 😉

During one exercise, I was looking in my partner’s eyes when I saw two large mirrors in which every single detail of me was shown and remembered. I thought then, “People with whom we have close, intimate, day-to-day interactions are our mirrors not only in the physical sense. Conflicts are the reflections within ourselves.”  Was I trying to over-intellectualize this? Perhaps. Perhaps, it was my unconscious reaction when I didn’t know how to react.

Why to fake? Is it to hide my vulnerability, that soft, tender, sensitive part of self? But looking at Vicky’s expressive eyes I saw that she also had the vulnerable self. And I wanted to connect with it. To drop the pretense, to leave behind the words that couldn’t convey everything anyway, to let go of the need to be in control.

#10. Dance with yourself. 

I remember my first dance. Do you?

The dim lights. The slow music. The words that exist only for the two of us: “I hold you in my arms, and you’re beautiful.”

The first touch of your fingers on my bare skin that sent to a flock of butterflies all over. I rise on my toes to be and to feel closer to you.

“How can you be so intimate, so gentle, so loving?” I ask. We turn slowly around.

My head tilts to the right shoulder. Your lips touch my hand. I realize that I am in your power. But so are you in mine.

“I hold you in my arms, and you’re beautiful.” I hold my breath to prolong the moment. I don’t want the air filled with you to be let out.

“Talk to me, talk to me in your breaths,” you tell me in the most kind voice I’ve ever heard. We swirl more.

“How can I be so loved? I thought… I thought…,” my voice breaks, “I don’t deserve so much love from anyone, not even from you.” You don’t reply. You just hold me closer. Your hands are on me, and mine on you. 

We gently rock to the right and to the left, to the right and to the left in the space that belongs just to the two of us. The music fades. But we still stand in each other’s loving embrace.

As one.

Do you remember your first dance? I do. Because I had it with my own soul.

Dance with yourself. You’ll be surprised what comes up.

Namaste!

 

 

From the savior complex to a silent mirror

Have you had a memorable travelling experience lately? Mine was very special because it came with a personal breakthrough. I was on a train to a research conference in Princeton. When I boarded the train in DC, there were only a handful of passengers in the car so I had two seats to myself. Perfect! The three-hour trip was my last opportunity to prepare my presentation notes about immigrants in the U.S. military.

In a get-it-done mode, I worked fast and efficient crafting my speech. An hour into the trip, our train made a stop in Baltimore. I got up to stretch. Through the window I saw a guy in military uniform walking on the platform. “He might be an immigrant or child of immigrants serving in the military, the folks I plan to talk about,” I thought. I returned to my chair and went back to reviewing my research notes.

“Is this seat taken?” I heard next.

I looked up and saw the soldier from the platform. His name tag read Michael Dulan.

“Doesn’t sound too foreign to my foreign ear,” a thought crossed my mind. I took my purse off the seat next to me and said, “Not taken. I was saving it for you.” We both smiled.

One phrase led to another, and soon Mike and I chatted like two friends who ran into each other after not being in touch for ages. Our conversation flowed easily with jokes and stories of faux pas made during faraway trips. So when a train wheel broke down and we had to wait for two hours for its replacement, Mike and I welcomed this extra time together. We flirted, we laughed, we shared trail mix and fruits. It felt that we were in a time cocoon oblivious to the rest of the world.

At some point, Mike asked me, “How can we be so comfortable with each other so fast?”

I thought for a moment and said, “I think it’s a traveling effect. We’re in a different state of mind where thoughts are uninhibited and everything seems possible.”

“An uninhibited, uncensored, unafraid state of mind. I can’t recall the last time I experienced it,” Mike said as if thinking about something much more personal that we’ve shared so far. He looked down, then he massaged his temples. I sensed the shift in his mood. Something bothered him. I remained quiet giving him space to think and share if he chose to do so.

He finally said, “I think I have PTSD”
“What’s PTSD?”
“Post-traumatic stress disorder.”

I took his hand into mine. Then he talked more, and I listened.

After some time he stopped and asked me sharply, “Why are you here?”
“I don’t know. Maybe to give you space to say what you had to say and to give you the chance to hear what you had to tell yourself.”

He considered my reply.

“I hate you for making me say what I haven’t told a single soul.”
“It’s ok. I can live with this.” I smiled at him.

Mike smiled in return but his eyes streamed sadness.

“I’m not a wimp, you know. I can handle everything.”
“I know. I have no doubt that you are a tough guy.” I smiled again and squeezed his hand. “But even Army-Strong guys sometimes need a break.”

“Yes, we do,” he said after a pause. “And you probably think that you should run away from this crazy guy next to you. Coo-coo crazy.”

I could practically hear him asking me to say “Oh, no, I don’t think you are crazy. What you feel is normal, etc.” I could practically see myself rushing in to give him advice on how to fix this or what to do next. But I was not willing to sugarcoat his negative self-talk or to let the Savior Complex be my guide again.

I would have won the battle but lost the war for both of us. Instead, I looked into his eyes and I asked him softly, “Is it what you keep telling yourself? Is it what your self-talk all about?”

He was quiet for a few moments. Then he replied, “You just showed me the mirror I had to see but avoided at all cost. I still hate you. And I thank you.”

“And I thank you for allowing me to just listen.”

Mike faced his fears. I broke the habit of rushing to save others because I think I figured it all out. Perhaps, what l have to offer instead is to be their mirrors, and trust that others can solve their issues on their own.

What are your habits that you may want to let go?

From dominance to self-worth

*** Watch a video blog ***

This morning I saw a brawny guy leaving an LA Fitness club. His smug grin said it all: “I worked my butt out hard and I look pretty good.” But it was the sign on his t-shirt that caught my attention. It read: “Prepare To Dominate.”

Dominate who, what, and, most importantly, why? I don’t know what the designers of his t-shirt had in mind, but I all I could think of was numerous social relationships and interactions that I participated in or observed, in which people tried to assert their self-worth by putting others down. I have to admit that at some points I was the guilty party too. In retrospect, my attempts to present a better picture of myself at the expense of others had mostly to do with my own insecurities, my own fears about my role in the relationships or interactions that went south. Busted!

But it feels good to know that by now I developed  – by trial and error, of course – enough self-confidence and self-love that I don’t need to climb on someone’s back to appear “taller,” to feel valued.

What truly uplifts me today is to see people around me who respect others while maintaining a high regard for themselves. I also dig helping those who need my hand in discovering their true selves and gaining self-confidence.

What lifts you up?

High heels and push-up bras do not count!

How does the rain sound to you?

I got rained on tonight on my way home…

As the first droplets smoothly slid down my cheek, a question materialized from the mist: “How does the rain sound?”

The answer depends on the interpreter, her urgency (or lack of it) to get indoors, her connection (if it’s only for that moment) with Mother Nature, and her mood.

My rain sounded like a lover who has all the time in the world, who whispers my name teasingly, and who knows he makes me wet. I walked home slowly ….