Strangers

February traditionally feels like a frustrating month (maybe it’s just me). We made it through the depths of January, and the daylight extends just a little more every day. We aren’t quite there. Now in my own academic storm, I remember my students feeling particularly exhausted this month. The quarter takes a serious turn toward “the second half” and finals week actually comes into view. Not to mention how many blizzards we all trudged through only to have a big event cancelled.

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Photo by Dev Benjamin on Unsplash

Congress frustrates me. The patriarchy REALLY frustrates me. For the past week or so my frustration has actually turned to anger. I admit- I feel pissed off. At least, I did. Last night I was talking to a friend who sent me a story about a mom who broke down at an airport because her toddler was literally being a terrible two. She couldn’t pick him up, couldn’t get him to sit down, couldn’t do anything so her exhausted, over-worked and underappreciated self just plopped down. And cried.

You might imagine this story could take several turns. As my mom likes to say, “someone is always filming! You can’t do anything wrong anymore!” I imagined people making fun of this woman on social media. Maybe even with a nickname. There would be video. But that’s not what happened, at least in this story.

In this story, strange women saw what was happening and got to work. They didn’t hesitate or ask questions. You can read the details here. The important part is, they showed up. My friend who sent me this story said, “I hope I would be like those women” (she is). Imagine, strangers at your aide.

This quarter I am CDAing (kind of a fancy word for TAing, with a few caveats) a course on empathy and medicine. Five pre-med students come to class with fascinating and often heartbreaking stories and questions about empathy. Many relate to their field. I am no stranger to the comparisons between medicine and care. With a sister completing her first year of surgical residency, I could point to many examples. What we find in the class is how difficult empathy is to define. It’s different than sympathy, or compassion, or care. This week we even read a book against the concept of empathy. The most meaningful literature for me was the biblical story of the Good Samaritan because it calls out “religious” people for failing to use empathy as a source for action. Is religion supposed to teach empathy?

I think what really lifts me in this story of strange women is the unspoken shared experience. They know motherhood. I imagine it’s beautiful, but also exhausting and sometimes downright horrible. Especially at an airport, where you wait to be smashed into a metal box. One of my questions about empathy is whether our own suffering makes us more or less likely to alleviate someone else’s from the same source (in this case, the toddler is the source). The answer is most certainly it depends, but when joy can come from suffering, I believe perhaps we seek to help others find it. This week I’m working to let go of my anger so I can seek joy with others, maybe even strangers.

 

 

 

I am a Writer

A token from Jennifer Louden, our retreat leader

I am a writer, and I am writing.

I come from a strong line of female writers. My grandmother liked to write historical fiction and romance novels. My mom is writing a memoir about being the parent of a medical school student. We are writers, and we write.

I spent the last week on retreat in Taos, New Mexico with 22 brilliant women writers. Every day we listened and shared, wrote and read, moved and found stillness. Every day the rain came and brought with it the scent of fresh lavender and mountain air. As our time together went on, I heard an echo from several of the women at lunch, in our small groups, even after morning dance: You are brave. You are so brave.

Every time I heard this my gut reaction was to correct. “Oh no, I am not brave. I may hide it well but inside I am terrified, nervous, anxious, and completely unsure. My mother is brave- a cancer survivor. My grandmother was brave, she was a mother of six. But I am not like them.” In one of the afternoon sessions, our assignment was not only to name our inner critic but to personify them. These are the people or experiences we internalize that tell us we can’t write because we’re not creative, or edgy, or we might offend someone. What if they could help us, we mused.

My inner critic turned out to be an old man sitting at an antique wooden desk, looking sternly at me over his glasses. In his hand he holds a rejection letter. All it says is, “no.” The man couldn’t be expected to waste his time telling me why or what I might do better, he just laughs and shakes his head. “You really thought your story belongs in our prestigious publication? HA!” He shoos me out with a lazy wave. This critic comes from something I wrote about last week, which is an obsession with perfection and a deep hesitance to show anyone my work unless it’s absolutely stunning. I can write all day, never stopping for a minute to consider how scary it is, until it comes time to share. I can practically feel my face fall when the email comes in, something about dear writer, we regret…it’s hard to read past that part. Sometimes you don’t even get an email, just silence. Ghosting, as the dating world calls it.

I read a few books this week, really living in to the question “What do you want in this moment?” Reading is always one answer. In the book The Spirituality of Imperfection, the authors tell us that admitting our imperfection is quite a profound step as humans, but one that ultimately leads us to healing. In one chapter, they consider the woes of perfectionists by considering a particular point: “We may not be able to do anything completely perfectly. But what that means is that we cannot do anything entirely imperfectly. Consider a bad day: we wake up late, spill our coffee, give a terrible presentation at work. But we complete a few tasks and commiserate with our spouse in the evening, and not everything has gone wrong.”

I thought about all the writing I have ever read. What a spectrum from mind-blowing to absolutely horrifying. Yet, the mind-blowing could always be tweaked just a little more. The absolutely horrifying still has one tiny piece of merit. My work will never be perfect, and never completely useless. Bravery is knowing this and not letting it stop you.

I am a writer and I am writing. I come from a strong line of female writers- my grandmother, my mom, and now 22 new sisters. None of us perfect, all of us alive with stories. We are writers and we write. We are brave- fear exists within us, but we do not entertain the possibility that this fear would stop us from doing what we love and what is right. And what is right, is to write.

 

 

An Almost Accident

My mom picked me up for the millionth time at LAX a few months ago. It was dusk, and I lugged over-sized bag and greasy hair into the car amidst honking and traffic jams. We know this route well- darting around buses to get on the 105, carpool lane to 110, Pasadena Freeway to Orange Grove, and finally on to the 210. Home.

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My mom (Liz) and friend Liz’s mom (Louise)
The Pasadena Freeway is the oldest in California. Three lanes wide, it winds around Highland Park and South Pasadena until it ends right on Arroyo Boulevard. What was once an easy Sunday drive in the 1940s is now a treacherous road. It’s hard to see around the twists, and because the lanes are so narrow, easy to hit the center divider or another vehicle. When accidents happen, often they cause domino crashes because of the visibility issue. In addition to all of this, in order to get on the freeway, cars must wait at stop signs to merge into the furthest lane while vehicles fly by at 65+ MPH (the speed limit is 55, but who are we kidding, Angelinos).

Each member of my family boasts their own strategy for driving this freeway to avoid an accident. My mom says to drive in the middle lane, so as to have options if you need to swerve quickly. My sister, on the other hand, likes the lane closest to the center divider because people can only drift into one side of that lane, unlike the center. My dad likes the outside lane. I’m not sure why, but perhaps neither is he. I avoid the freeway altogether- for me, it’s all about the 5 to the 134.

On this particular evening, Dodger fans caused twice the congestion at the start of the Pasadena Freeway. We inched forward and stopped every five seconds. Finally after forty minutes, we started to move. Because of the traffic my mom had managed to move into the right lane, she kept a watchful eye on the right side as cars pulled to stop signs, waiting to merge. As we rounded a curve, a mini van pulled right in front of us- we were less than a second from rear ending it that would surely have ended in totaled cars and perhaps fatal injury.

My mom did something miraculous. Just before she rear-ended the minivan, she swerved left, avoiding the van just enough to sneak by without collision. She didn’t have time to check on her side to see if another car was in the middle lane- but her instinct told her to save me before herself. Thankfully, there was enough space for her to avoid accident entirely. “What the FUCK was that guy doing!?” she exclaimed. I took a few breaths. A vision of the car accident I experienced came right at me, causing my forehead to sweat instantly. My mom didn’t mention the incident for the rest of the car ride, as if it happened to her every day. I know it doesn’t.

For the next few days I wondered if my instinct would have caused me to swerve left. Would I have saved myself, or my passenger? Perhaps I would have frozen like the last time, and totaled my car. I’m not a mother, but in that moment I knew my mom had made a commitment to sacrifice for us even in the most rapid moments.

I was remembering one of my teachers in elementary school the other day because she, also a mother, did something remarkable for our family. When my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer and chose to remove her breast because she wanted no uncertainty that she would live (“she had a family to take care of”), this teacher would take my sister and me to breakfast at IHOP before school. It was a great day when we got to go to IHOP. Only in the past few years have I realized how much more this woman has been to me than a teacher.

Happy Mother’s Day to all those who sacrifice their time and comfort for others. Motherhood may be beautiful, but it is just as much no-frills, unsung work that keeps us all alive.