Monthly Archives: May 2012

The Care and Feeding of Self-Esteem

During the workshop I teach in prison on Fridays there is always one woman who says something so astute or so revealing that it momentarily catches my breath.  When it happens, I will approach their social worker after class and ask if I could possibly continue my involvement with them, one-on-one.  The feeling is generally always mutual although it appears that they are stunned that anyone would have enough interest in them to want to sit down and get to know them better.

In most cases, the women have a fleeting and unpredictable stay, either awaiting sentencing, about to be released or transferred to another facility so it is difficult to follow-up.  Now I know to ask how long a woman is guaranteed to be there so as not to gain their trust only to have the relationship end just at that moment in time.

I have recently based my workshop on the concept of labels and judgement.  I start by asking the women, after they’ve only seen me standing in front of them for about a minute or two, how they see me.  I instruct them to throw out adjectives based on first impressions.  I tell them that they can say anything, that it won’t hurt my feelings, as long as they don’t call me fat.  Usually I get a chorus of “You’re not fat, you’re gorgeous,” or something like that. Some of the answers have been incredibly funny and most of them are very flattering.  They tell me I’m pretty, have great style, they will call me hardworking and happy.

A few weeks ago, a woman who didn’t appear to be paying much attention said, “I think you have low self-esteem.”  I latched onto the comment and said, “Tell me what you mean.”

“It seems likes you need to fish for compliments.”

Wow.  She was totally onto me.  We held each other’s gaze for a few seconds and she knew that she had hit the nail right on (my) head.

I have written about the self-loathing I have for my body, how when I do my daily body scan I’m pretty disgusted.  When I see my underarm jiggle I want to cry.  I’ve recently noticed in pictures that my elbows are getting wrinkly and my knees are looking very aged.  When I recently weighed myself for the first time in about two years, I wanted to cry.  The truth is is that like most of us, I only have about 10-15 pounds to lose to be within my “healthy range,” but still the disappointment in myself overwhelmed me.  That number stuck in my head until I lost 7 pounds.  Now that number is stuck in my head.

The flipside is that I possess and project great self-confidence.  I don’t need my ego fed because I believe in myself and the face I put in front of the world.  If someone doesn’t like me or appreciate me I don’t waste my time on them.

After class, I approached the woman and told her how astute her comment was.  She just shrugged her shoulders.  Afterwards I went immediately to find out her name and her circumstances, and how long she would be there.  I’m not allowed to know why a woman has been incarcerated but often she will volunteer the information during class.   I was told that she would be there for a while and received permission to go onto her unit and talk to her.

When the officer told her that someone wanted to see her the other women got all excited and ran to her cell and told her to come out.  She seemed surprised and happy to see me.  We held what will be the first of many conversations, uncovering the many things we have in common including our love of books and writing.  She was very flattered that I asked if I could see some of her writing the next time we met.

This time will be about her, and not about me.  I’m thinking that my interest in her might feed her self-esteem a bit, help her feel less alone in a situation where she has completely isolated herself from the other women.  Anyone who “got” me so quickly is someone I want to know a bit better.  Will I stop the exercise I do, stop the fishing for compliments?  Probably not because we do indeed need a little confidence boost now and then no matter how superficial it might be.

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Is Intellect A Safety Net?

This past weekend I was part of a 2-day training on how to speak publicly about suicide. I was in a room with six people, two other trainees and three facilitators, two of whom were also part of the unique group of “suicide survivors.”  All five of us have very different stories to tell, different relationships to the people we have lost but the circumstances of why we were in that room together is what we have in common.  It instantly created an intimate bond that is hard to explain.

I have written and spoken ad nauseam about my mother’s suicide including several previous posts in this blog.  I’ve got it down to a science.  As I’ve said before, my mother’s life has become a series of ten or so bullet points about her trajectory in my retelling.  The more I have been forced and encouraged to delve a little deeper, the more I’ve realized that I’m doing her a terrible disservice.

After the first day in which we shared and cried a bit for each other, we were tasked with writing a 15-minute presentation that we would share with the group the following day, for feedback and constructive criticism.  We were given 6 guidelines and told to limit what our point was, based on the audience we thought would best suit us, to about 2 or 3 main themes.  The facilitators who I had interviewed with prior knew that my story was very complex and touched on topics including Holocaust survival, double-suicides, painful dreams, mental illness throughout the generations, the differences in how siblings grieve and so on.  As the day progressed I focused on some common themes and went with those.  Later that night when I finished writing,  I read it to my husband who said it was perfect and that my thoughts hung together in a way that made sense.

The next day, we plunged right in with our presentations.  The first was given by a woman, a statuesque and stylish 50-ish year old mother who lost one of her sons.  I had already spent the first day crying over her utterly devastating loss, but hearing it all in the context of a 15-minute synopsis was almost too much to bear.  She powered through and when she was finished, we gave her, and her son, the silence they deserved.

I volunteered to go next.  I had my words typed out in a 14-pt font but tried to avoid reading them verbatim.  I covered the basic themes and focused on disclosure, secrets, and knowing too much about this very complicated situation that has now pervaded 4 generations.  There were a couple of times when people jotted something down which I would learn in the critique.  No one was sobbing and I was surprised that I hadn’t struggled with certain pieces of my story.  Not until I pulled out the below picture did I get a visible reaction from my small audience:

Obviously the person in the middle is me.  I am flanked by my stunning mother around the time she came to the United States and my daughter, whose eyes are the blue of my mothers.  That’s an old picture of my daughter but we are all there, in each other, 3 generations of mothers and daughters.

The first thing people did was compliment my writing.

“I feel like I was just in a bookstore hearing you read from your memoir.”  For me, it doesn’t get any better than that, but, I sensed that for the two lead facilitators, both FANTASTIC and experienced women in the field, I had missed the mark.

They wanted to know where was the feeling, the “me” in the story?  And then, the mother who had lost her son, completely without judgement, said this:

“I think you use your intellect as a safety net.”

Whoa.  Wow.  Holy shit.

I am under NO illusion that I’m any sort of “intellect.”  Yes, I have a fairly decent vocabulary and I’m a pretty good wordsmith, but intellect?  I tend to forget the content of every book and every New Yorker article I’ve ever read.  I get the facts wrong in the re-telling.  Am I a deep thinker, searching for the meaning of life?  Do I sit in a wood paneled library, smoking a pipe, digging deeply into the language of Socrates or Stephen Hawking?  Hell no.

When I got home, I looked up the definition of intellect.  Here’s the first in the list:

The power or faculty of the mind by which one knows or understands, as distinguished from that by which one feels and that by which one wills.

I feel deeply about almost everything in my life.  I wear my heart on my sleeve, am demonstrative with almost everyone I know, I cry at every perceived confrontation, and live my life with great passion.  For this one subject however, probably the defining topic of my life, I feel it in my head and not in my heart.  There are pieces of it that happen in my dreams that are devastating and I find that those are the toughest to write about and share, but other than that, it’s the outline, the Cliff’s Notes version of my mother’s life that I can recite on demand.

There is absolutely no right or wrong in how we grieve.  I envy those who can feel the impact immediately and those who see signs that their loved ones are always present.  Perhaps one of the most important things I learned (and there were MANY) is that we need to honor the LIVES of the people we have lost, and not just focus on the nature of their deaths.  The one man in the group who I found to be extraordinarily soothing and, due to his own personal loss, is now a bereavement specialist, assures me that I’m not somehow broken, that I will get to the core of this eventually, in my own time.

Three Reunions

That’s me on my first day of boarding school, a highly unusual place for a Jewish girl from Long Island to have ended up.  It was 1980 and I was 16, clearly with absolutely no interest in impressing anyone with the way I dressed.  None of my former classmates can remember what that number means but clearly I look very happy to be holding it.  And see that mole above my nose?  In my college yearbook picture the photographer found it so distracting that it was airbrushed out.  I guess that was a not-so-subtle hint that it was kind of ugly.  It has since been removed.

This coming weekend is my 30th reunion at the magnificent Berkshire School in Sheffield, Massachusetts.  I’ve written about the circuitous route that plunked me there in my size 16, purple Gloria Vanderbilt corduroys and floor-length purple down coat, landing in a world where people looked like this:

Our school didn’t have wicker with pillows and it didn’t look like a plantation, but it is still one of the most beautiful places I have ever spent two years.

Clusters of us have been there for other reunions, the last being our 25th, and every single time, every five years of catch-up, have left me beaming and in awe of what these people have become.  “Boys” in khakis with ducks on them have grown into bankers, realtors and hedge fund managers.  “Girls” in pink chinos are women with equally impressive careers living in fabulous homes, wearing, well, not wearing pink chinos.  The men who are holding down corporate jobs still get together to see concerts of the splintered Grateful Dead, and the women, those of us who didn’t really know each other all that well while there, have developed adult relationships through visits, phone calls and facebook.

15 years ago I remember ducking behind a dorm to smoke pot out of a Coke can.  This year, without any pot smoking (for me anyway), I’ll be singing Crosby, Stills and Nash Songs with a former classmate who gets more handsome by the second.  A year ago he was in town and while driving in his large and impressive SUV, we put on our old favorites and still sang in flawless harmony that gave me goosebumps.  My daughter and husband will hear me sing with someone for the first time and he’s already told me how nervous he is.  If I look good that night, perhaps I’ll use my phone to videotape it.

Those of us who have them will be bringing our spouses and children and I have this fantasy that my daughter will fall in love with the son of the first boy I every truly loved (he loved me back, “as a friend.”)  I’ve already told her about him and how he’s a little younger, but she said, “Well, he’s not THAT much younger,” and was totally open to the concept.  She’s 10 and I think he’s 8.  The kids will have an awesome time together, staying up extra late for a party on Friday night and then roaming around the school the next day, seeing the teeny rooms we shared with roommates we loved (well, I loved mine and I’m devastated that she can’t be there this year).  I’ll show my husband the town we used to go to, what has become very fancy-pants and as I say, used to consist of  a laundromat, Planned Parenthood and a Rite-Aid.  Now, there are sushi restaurants and boutiques that get mention in the New York Times.  Outsiders have discovered “God’s Country.”

In 3 weeks I’ll be going to the 4th “Jews Gone Wild” weekend at the site of my old summer camp.  If you haven’t had the pleasure, read this:  http://mylifeinthemiddleages.blogspot.com/2010/06/jews-gone-wild-phase-1.html 

In September, there’s a third, yet ANOTHER 30th high school reunion of where I spent the first year and half of high school.  That’s a different story for another time, but in so many ways, that is bound to be the most remarkable of them all.