what the world can take

in between
moments of feeling
like I am not enough
and worrying
that I am too much
for this world

I am astounded by
my presumption
to know anything
about what the world can take
or what I can

On Clutter

Last Tuesday, I put the endless stacks of sheets into the closet. Finally. I’m resisting editing that sentence, even though I know it’s a bad beginning. It’s really a bad sentence in general. But I’m resisting. I want to try writing this piece all at once, badly, just to get something out.

In November I did my one-blog-post-a-day challenge, and it was so fucking hard but it was so fruitful! By the end of the month, there were thirty pieces, all about different things, all written at varying levels of honesty. Almost all of them had something good hidden in them, a little gem, that I will use later. So that challenge was a success. But the problem with challenges is that when they’re over, you can let yourself off the hook. You can say “alright cool beans. I’m tired now. I’m gonna watch Netflix at night instead of forcing myself to pump out yet another blog post. Yay! Celebration! Sigh of relief!” And then you can lie to yourself and say “I’ll write one blog post a week, instead of once a day…but after I take a little break.”

So five months later, here I am! Back at it. Not doing a daily challenge this time, just writing regularly and putting stuff out there.

Just for the record – and fyi, “the record” is pretty much just my overactive need for approval and recognition, things that I mostly need from myself, that I almost never give myself, yay for therapy – I have been writing almost daily in my journal. The first evidence of journaling I have is from 2001 (I was six). My family went to visit my 20-something aunt in California. I remember feeling a strong urge to write in this sparkly purple journal she gifted me. It was so beautiful, so empty. It was waiting. At least I felt like it was. I wrote about seeing the elephant seals sunning themselves on the rocks by the ocean, my handwriting was big and loopy, and I felt this weird satisfaction from being able to write something down in a little book all my own. I liked that nobody but me would ever see it, so I could write whatever I wanted.

I wrote a year later in that journal that I thought my best friend’s father, Les, was “brainwashing my dad.” I think I had never seen my dad agree with anyone before, and the fact that he was nodding along to what Les was saying was shocking to me. I was genuinely angry and afraid for my dad, and I wrote about those feelings in my journal. A “boiling hot feeling” spread through my body. I thought my dad would lose himself completely if he acknowledged any more of Les’ opinions. It wasn’t that Les’ opinions were scary or wrong. It was that I was terrified seeing my dad accept anyone else’s perspective as valid. It wasn’t normal.

To be fair, I had also just watched the Scooby Doo live action movie where everyone gets possessed and lose control of their bodies, so the fear of being brainwashed was pretty present in my mind.

Then there was my fourth grade teacher. Mr. Baker saw the writer in me immediately, and made it his mission to nurture that identity. He was a writer, and actually encouraged all of his fourth grade students to keep their own journals, and read pieces to the class. Pretty much all I remember of fourth grade was writing writing writing. Every single day, my best friend Sophia and I would be the last to leave the classroom. We were either the most disorganized, or the least concerned about getting out, or the most chatty, or a combination of all three, and Mr. Baker would ALWAYS send us off with a hearty “don’t forget to write!” Every singled afternoon. It stuck. I’ve kept a consistent journal since fourth grade, without fail. So. Much. Material. So. Many. Ridiculous. Stories. So. Much. Processing. I fucking love it.

And since this was originally supposed to be about clutter, I’ll just quickly describe the clutter around me in my office. I did finally put the linens away in my closet. About 8 months ago, I took them out of the closet to organize them into piles – this piles is the towels, this pile is the winter sheets, this pile is the summer sheets, etc. Very exciting. The problem was, once I organized them, I didn’t have shelves to put them on. There are not shelves in the closet, because my partner and I just haven’t had time yet to build them. So I just put the individual piles on this big white IKEA chair that we got from my parents, and left it at that. It was easy to find each thing, at least, but it was terrible because my office was basically one big linen closet all winter.

Last week I decided enough was enough. I was putting the linens back in the closet, organized, shelves or no shelves.

There’s still clutter, though. In the right corner I have all of our house documents, including our deed and other important things, in a folder waiting to be filed, along with piles of music books, a broom for cleaning the upstairs bathroom, CDs that Chris and I have no intention of listening to, paintbrushes, paints, empty photo albums, empty binders, empty journals, and a collection of old calendars from my middle school years.

In the left corner of my office sits a desk that I found on the side of the road in Vermont and toted back to Rochester. Chris and I painted it this awesome eggplant color, and now it’s covered with art magazines that are “weighing down” a collage I made a couple years ago that got a bit curled from our move. There’s also a huge prickly pear cactus that we repotted recently, thinking it would do it some good to have space, only to find that repotting it was a huge mistake. So now it’s in rehab on the purple desk. Then there’s my little blue paper organizer that holds folders of receipts and checks. It’s kind of teetering on a pile of art magazines, just barely staying up. Then there’s piles of envelopes and stamps, also perched on top of the art magazines, that I use to send poetry to my patrons. Then there’s a pile of paper of various thicknesses and colors that I use for art and poetry. And to top it all off, I have a pile of piano teaching materials sitting on top of the art paper pile.

It’s all very overwhelming once I start writing it down. But the thing is, I’m doing the best I can. I actually keep our house pretty well organized. I actually look around me with a fond amusement. I think it’s delightful how messy and in-use my office is. Eventually I’ll create zones and more shelves and blah blah blah. But for now, this is what it is. This is where I’m at. And that’s okay.

The most important shelf in my office is my journal shelf. I have all of my journals, from 2001 to the present, lined up on that shelf. My history, my healing, my process, my trauma, my experiences, my family, my friends, my pain and joys, my core and my wanderings, everything is in those journals. Most of them look different. Most of them I received as gifts. All of them I love and cherish.

On Secrets

I want to give you the full picture I promised.

You have to understand that the full picture isn’t pretty, and does not seem conducive with making money, or receiving more support from the general public. But, I think it’s important to tell the truth somewhere. And since I can’t tell it on social media (I lose followers, shed likes, and lose engagement if my posts are not sunny and hopeful and perfect), I will share it with you here.

Let me back up and set the scene. I’m lying on an ugly couch in my beautiful home, cozy in a big, hooded sweatshirt from the University of Rochester, with a hot water bottle and my cat curled up at my feet. I am safe. I am panicking. There are too many people I have not called back, too many emails I have ignored and let slip into the dank muck of internet memory, too many songs I have not yet recorded, and too many opportunities I have been unable to pay attention to. I am panicking because I am not enough. Or rather, I believe I am not enough.

Two competing ideals vie for attention in my mind:

  1. The artistic freedom I possess in my life makes the “suffering” worthwhile.
  2. I am supposed to be living the dream.

Here it is in a nutshell: my innate musical talent is a gift, and thus I am encouraged to work hard to share it with other people. I practice piano and voice, create arrangements in rehearsals with my band, promote my shows online, haul my keyboard and gear to small bars, give all of my raw energy and passion to performing with my band, collect a couple hundred bucks at the end of the night, distribute the money between band members, and finally drive home, depleted, to start over the next day. I also record my songs, collaborate with audio engineers, book future shows, and maintain a Patreon community.

This is fine. It works for someone who has more tolerance than me and who gets energy from being out. I am very sensitive to noise, though, as well as socializing and being out late at night. Being out depletes my energy.

Then there’s the “making a living” part, which tends to be important for staying alive. I spend 20-30 hours a week making my music career work, not including the hours I spend teaching. Due to my sensitive nervous system, I can play about 3 live shows a month, and leave with $50-$100 bucks in my pocket. I make about $160 a month from my patrons on Patreon. With this income, at the current New York minimum wage of $13.20 per hour, I get paid for only 8 hours of work each week.

Eight. Out of thirty. At minimum wage.

So. It’s becoming clear to me that I’m doing community service when I’m working on my music. Okay. That’s fine. Community service is wonderful. The question is, is it strengthening me or slowly killing me? Is it my fault? The eternal question for everything challenging in our lives.

I don’t have an answer, and don’t think the answer is truly important, but I can at least start to think it through.

Mostly, I just want to be alone and quiet. That desire makes me feel unloveable and broken, and it also makes me feel like a failure of a musician. What musician wants to be alone and quiet most of the time? Living the life of a musician, I am almost never alone, and quiet is not the goal, to say the least. I am rehearsing with my band, or creating relationships online with my fans, or performing for a crowd at a bar who is half listening, half talking, and half numbing the stress of daily life.

These necessary, day-to-day tasks push me far past my limit. I’m so far past my limit that I can’t bring myself to call the people I love back, respond to supportive messages from friends, clean my office properly, or consider new opportunities. I’m at a standstill, trapped in the commitments I’ve already made, but unable to function properly. This is all obvious to me. I can write it out and nod my head and go “yes, I am burnt out.” But it also seems absolutely ludicrous. It’s ridiculous to me that I have such a low tolerance for stimulation, for other people’s experiences, for being out in the world. It seems impossible. I must be capable of more. I just have to bully myself into being capable of more. At least that’s what I tell myself.

We always have to answer to someone, right? I answer to my audience. And until recently, I loved doing it. I reveled in their joy, their excitement. I absorbed their energy and called it mine. But now, when I go onstage, I notice a huge disconnect between how I’m feeling on the inside and how I present to my audience on the outside. I can never go onstage and use my audience for comfort. I can’t go on and say “today has been really fucking difficult and I need some love.” They use me for comfort, not the other way around; that’s how the agreement works. The person onstage provides a respite for the people offstage. I am vulnerable, soft, exhausted in front of my audience. I try to be myself. I try to be open. I hold so much space for them. I bleed myself dry in front of a crowd of people for a couple of hours. The problem is, I cannot hold the same space for myself. At least not at the dizzying rate it would take to counteract the depletion of resources caused by performing. If I can’t love myself, or give myself the space I need to thrive, then the rest means absolutely nothing.

My life force, or energy, or whatever you want to call it, is at an all-time low, and still I push myself to play one more show, to make one more Instagram post, to keep expanding my business. That’s where I’m at, in this precious moment on my ugly couch. That’s the truth. Is this what I’m working for?

I thought I was doing all of this to build a sustainable music career. Simple. If I could gain enough financial and physical support from my fans, then I could relax a little bit and my days would be like a well-oiled machine, rather than the scrabbling rat parade they are now. I work super hard in the present so that I can relax a bit in the future. Tour the world, play big stages, make steady money, hire a team of people to book my shows, run my social media accounts, and market my music. Focus only on the music, not on all the stuff surrounding it.

But.

It turns out I want to be cozy at home with my cats instead of touring the world with my band. So why am I really doing all of this?

Because I am terrified of failing. I’m terrified of not being enough. I’m terrified of letting go.

I have so many questions. As usual.

Why do I try to expand when I can’t yet handle the work I’m currently doing? Why am I trying to build this ‘strong foundation’ when I don’t want, or don’t think I can handle, the life of a touring musician? Is not wanting the same thing as not being able to? Is there a way to do this without martyring myself? Is there a way to do ANYTHING without martyring myself? My therapist tells me there is. She says I need to stop doing third grade work when I’m still in second grade (a clever reference to me skipping second grade as a kid) so that I can succeed instead of drown.

It’s true that I am drowning. In my own ambition. I am trapped in my own skewed sense of self and responsibility.

I’m not supposed to be telling anybody this. I’m supposed to keep up a rehearsed front, in which I am always excited and grateful to be doing what I’m doing, in which I’m always proud of my work, where I consistently advocate for myself with a smile on my face and a spring in my step. I’m exhausted from all the springing and the stepping. I don’t want to advocate for myself anymore. I don’t have the capacity to do it. I just don’t.

I’m actually sick right now, came down with a bad cold. I’ve been sick for days, but I refused to let myself rest until today. I had too many things to do, too many tasks to complete, too many people to answer to.

Why?

Because I can’t fail. But I can’t keep going like this, either.

On Creativity

So. I just finished this podcast episode. Like I literally just closed GarageBand (that I used to edit the audio) and send the file link to Ben Albert (who is using his marketing platform to promote my podcast). AND I AM REALIZING THAT I HAVEN’T BEEN TRULY PROUD OF SOMETHING I HAVE PUT OUT FOR A COUPLE OF YEARS!! UNTIL THIS VERY MOMENT. This is it. This is the one. This is The Project. If you want to listen to it, here it is.

My first conversation with @zahyiamusic was absolutely life-changing, and felt immensely nurturing and healing. We talked about letting go of perfection, appreciating the small stuff, and adjusting the “grind” to make life more joyful. I know we both came out of it feeling less alone, more understood, and more in touch with ourselves. The podcast episode is jam-packed with valuable reminders of our humanity. I have a new epiphany every time I re-listen to it, and think about her wisdom at least once a day now. For awhile now, I’ve sensed that my role as a teacher and “understander” of music/creativity fits my soul better than being in the spotlight myself. Of course I love performing for its catharsis & joy, but there’s something about the attentive silence of listening that makes my body feel right at home.

This is why I’m so excited about this new project, The Process Podcast. Not only does it align with my values and artistic journey (aka career), but it will help me explore Big Questions. It’s an incredible opportunity to listen to artists who are figuring Life out right along with me. Plus, I love that this is something I can give you that doesn’t cost anything and doesn’t demand anything from you except your open heart & ears.

With music, I always have a qualm about something when I release it – my vocals in this one spot weren’t perfect. The mixing cost too much and now I need to make that money back. But with this….. it feels perfectly imperfect. I feel genuinely excited to share it with the world on Wednesday. I have such a good humming feeling in my body about it. I know it’s true to me. I know it will resonate with people. And now I get to share it with you, my patrons! That makes me feel happy.

The podcast has been months in the making. Ben Albert posted on Facebook awhile back asking if anybody was interested in starting a podcast to take over for his long-standing Rochester Groovecast podcast. I read the post, and kept scrolling, thinking “I probably don’t have time for another project.”

But… I kept coming back to the post in my mind. I turned it over and over in my mind. I felt the excitement at the prospect of creating a podcast. I thought about how, in the past year or so, I listen to podcasts much more (by a long shot) than I do music. I thought about how much value I get from the podcasts I listen to regularly. And I just could not resist. It felt right. I sent Ben a message. 

Months, many meetings, an amazing interview with my first podcast guest, and lots of hours editing later, here we are.

You all know me. I’m a creative human – a musician, writer, artist, and teacher. I have Big Questions. How do we build a creative life? What keeps us going? What does our daily process tell us about ourselves? I genuinely just want to talk to other artists about how they do life. I’m working with Rochester Groovecast (by artistic community pillar @realbenalbert) to make this podcast the most valuable, most genuine project I’ve worked on in a long time.

Every month, I’ll have honest conversations with various artists that reveal the strength, challenges, purpose, vulnerability and joy of living a creative life. This is a place for people to feel less alone, and to gather inspiration for our own lives.

The podcast is complete. If you want to listen, here it is. Please enjoy. I am definitely enjoying myself making it. 🙂

On Beauty and Strangeness

Beauty and Strangeness
drop to the sand

come, get the ropes
(who are, after all, not mild
but militant)

I don’t think I am old yet,
half asleep,
not
all at once
but steadily

I know I have already lived



Words found in Mary Oliver’s book of essays Upstream and rearranged to my heart’s content. I found the words, but was careful not to copy any phrases or pairs of words. Each word is its own island set in the fabric of this poem.

On Banana Bread

My grandma can only eat unripe bananas because of this special diet she’s on. So, when the bananas got too ripe for her to eat, I made banana bread. Yesterday was tough for me because, the night before, I had a PTSD-related panic attack. The next afternoon, I was still dealing with the residual effects of my nervous system getting completely overwhelmed. Baking is often the only thing that keeps my body regulated on days like these.

I used Ruth Reichl’s recipe for Devil’s Food Cake, and totally revamped it to create an incredible baked treat with no added sugar. The sweetness comes just from the milk, butter and bananas. The whole thing is almost gone – my grandma and I have devoured it over the past 24 hours. I will admit that this banana bread was pretty much what we ate for dinner last night.

Here’s the recipe:

1 cup milk
2 tbsp almond flour
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp nutmeg
½ tsp cloves
2-3 overripe bananas
½ cup butter (1 stick) – softened or at room temp
3 eggs
1 ¾ cup flour
1 tsp almond extract
2 tsp vanilla
1 ½ tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
Optional: replace half of the butter with ½ cup apple sauce

Preheat oen to 350 F.

Heat milk in a small pan until bubbles begin to appear around the edges. Remove from heat.

Put almond flour and all three spices into a small bowl. Feel free to go overboard on the spices. I always do. Slowly beat in warm milk (I just used a fork). Let cool.

Partly mash the bananas with a fork. Then cream the butter into the banana mash mixture using the same fork. Beat in the eggs, almond extract, vanilla, and apple sauce if you’re using it (again, all you need is a fork). Add milk mixture.

Mix remaining dry ingredients together and gently blend into butter mixture. Do not overbeat.

Turn into a well-greased 8×8 square pan, and bake 20-30 minutes, depending on how gooey you want it. 25 minutes creates a perfect, moist bake, but you could underbake even more for more gooeyness.

Eat it with your grandma!

Also, yes, I understand the irony of my grandma not eating overripe bananas but then eating them in a banana bread. Who cares. YOLO.

On Shrek

We all watched Shrek and fell in love with the characters, humor, and revolutionary animation style. I saw it for the first time in the theater with my grandfather. I was entranced. It was the first time I’d seen such realistic animation, and I was completely enamored with the fart jokes, hilarious donkey, and tale of fairytale romance. Shrek even introduced me to one of my favorite songs: Hallelujah, by Leonard Cohen.

I’ve rewatched Shrek many times since then. At first, it was just a nostalgic activity. But recently, it’s turned into an anthropological study for me. What cultural values was the movie pushing? What had I unknowingly absorbed as a kid watching Shrek?

The answer? Shrek was one of the many movies I watched as a kid that normalized, and made light of, abuse.

On the surface, the movie does seem to subvert the misogyny that exists in most classic Western fairytales. Fiona is a strong, badass woman who can take care of herself. She fights for herself, saves Shrek and Donkey from thieves on the road, and finds her own dwellings at night. That’s how I saw it at first too. But, the deeper messaging of Shrek does NOT support that surface-level story. Here are a few examples, taken from throughout the film, that proves the movie doesn’t actually subvert the original misogyny/patriarchal system at all, but supports it throughout.

1) In this scene, Fiona says “who could love a hideous, ugly beast” when speaking with Donkey towards the end of the movie. She truly believes that she is unloveable as an ogre (which is to say, she believes that she is unloveable as she is). It is not until the very end, when Shrek (a male character) tells her that she is beautiful, and that he wants her in whatever form she takes, that she seems to accept herself as she is, in her ogre form.

Fiona does not even have the confidence to assert herself in the conversation with Shrek following her secret discussion with Donkey about her being an ogre. Because of her true belief that she is unloveable and ugly, she assumes he’s talking about her when he repeats her words back to her: “who could love a hideous, ugly beast.” She doesn’t dig deeper into the issue. Shrek confirmed her greatest fear – that she won’t get what she wants (love) because she is not enough. She doesn’t deserve love. She doesn’t deserve desire. She doesn’t deserve a self.

Fiona was NOT, prior to the scene where Shrek interrupts the wedding and confesses his love, confident in herself. She hid this terrible secret, that she was UGLY, from all the other characters, every single night. The fact that she was ugly was shameful to her. The movie depicts a woman who does not have a strong sense of self, and cannot validate her own existence. She only validates herself when a man tells her that she is valid.

2) Fiona DOES have to be saved at the end of the film. When she perceives that Shrek has rejected her, she leaves to go marry Lord Farquad. Because that is what a man told her she has to do. The movie gives her two choices: be with one man who despises you (as she thinks Shrek does) or be with another man who you despise (Lord Farquad). There’s no third option, and it’s very important to realize that the movie does not depict her creating a third option for herself.

At the end, Shrek has to save her from being with Lord Farquad by interrupting the wedding. She made no decisions, except to accept Shrek’s offer. This is key: before Shrek assured her that he thought she was beautiful, she was unwilling to put herself out there to be with the one she loved. She was so insecure that she was resigned to be with a mean, ugly man, rather than get what she wanted: to be with Shrek. She needed a man’s validation to feel she deserved what she desired. In this way, Shrek did actually save her at the end. Fiona did not have agency in their romantic relationship. Shrek did.

3) Who were the other female characters in the movie? There are only three. Princess Fiona, the Dragon, and the Old Woman who sells the talking Donkey. Snow White and Cinderella are not characters in movie 1, since they’re just depicted on a screen for a couple seconds. Princess Fiona is not shown in a community of other women who are equally strong and able to take care of themselves. If she was, I would accept the claim that the movie depicts a badass woman, and therefore subverts the fairytale image of femaleness. However, Princess Fiona is an outlier. She’s shocking. Based on the movie’s depiction of female characters, she could be the only woman of her kind in the history of the universe, and the only woman of her kind in the foreseeable future.

None of the other female characters do anything besides display the regular tropes of weak, untrustworthy, and helpless femaleness. The Old Woman who sells Donkey is not taken seriously by the guards. They don’t believe her that Donkey talks. She is manhandled by the guards and never gets rewarded for the Donkey because he (the male character) saves himself. We never see this woman getting what she wants – money to support herself. She has no agency. Instead, we follow the male character, the Donkey, on his subsequent adventure.

The Dragon is a promising female character, because she can breath fire and goes right for what she wants: a romantic relationship with Donkey. However, she has no agency in her own world, either. She is extremely unhappy, forced to remain chained in the castle all on her own. She is incredibly lonely, and after Shrek, Donkey and Fiona escape her clutches, we don’t see an angry, aggressive female character. Instead, we see a sad one that longs for a life outside of her chains. She is a slave until Donkey comes to rescue her.

In contrast to the lack of female characters, there are MANY male characters, with a variety of personalities and storylines. “Maleness” is very fleshed out in this movie. There’s Shrek, Donkey, Lord Farquad, The Three Blind Mice… the list goes on and on and on.

There are literally no other female characters in the movie. So maybe on the surface, Fiona seems all badass and capable because she can fight and take care of herself, but that’s not the messaging we’re really receiving. The messaging we’re receiving is that she is an unusual case – not the norm. The movie doesn’t normalize her supposedly strong female nature.

4) Take a look at this scene from the movie, in which the Magic Mirror presents three eligible bachelorettes for Lord Farquad to marry. The Mirror makes a blatant joke about abuse, describing Cinderella as a “mentally-abused shut-in from a kingdom far, far away,” as if being mentally abused is not something to be concerned about. Then, we hear that Snow White lives with seven other men, but “she’s not easy.” The Mirror’s casual judgement of Snow White’s sexuality normalizes diminishing a women’s worth to her sexual tendencies and sexuality.

Diminishing women to sexual beings makes it much easier to abuse us.

But that’s not all. The Mirror continues, inviting Lord Farquad to “kiss her dead, frozen lips and find out what a live wire she is! Come on!” Then you hear a drum set go “ba dum smash,” which officially turns this image of treating a dead woman like a sex toy into a joke. This image should be disturbing, but the movie turns it into something funny. Once again, Shrek normalizes powerless women without agency: easy targets for abuse.

Disguised in jokes, it’s easy to miss how dangerous this normalization is. Boys and girls watching this absorb the following messages:
1) abused women are funny
2) women are just sexual playthings
3) a woman who cannot consent is fair game for sexual activities

5) In another scene, Donkey and Shrek finally arrive at the castle Fiona is trapped in. Donkey asks, “So where is this fire-breathing, pain-in-the-neck anyway?” Shrek responds, saying, “Inside, waiting for us to rescue her.” I know it’s been discussed a lot, but I have to talk about the problematic message this sends. Shrek’s response assumes that there is a helpless woman inside the castle waiting for a man to rescue her. It takes away agency from women in our culture, showing us that we are not capable of taking care of ourselves. This is dangerous because it gives men permission to control our lives – if women don’t have any agency, we don’t have any right to say no or argue with a man’s opinion/action in our lives. It might be “rescuing” one day, but it could be something much less desirable the next. And what if we don’t need to be saved?

Yes, “rescuing the princess” is a classic fairytale trope. I don’t care. it needs to change. Luckily, movies like Tangled and Brave have JUST STARTED to unravel this dangerous message.

Then, as if that’s not enough negative messaging, Donkey delivers the punchline. After he asks “where is this fire-breathing, pain-in-the-neck anyway?” and Shrek responds “waiting for us to rescue her,” Donkey retorts, “I was talking about the dragon, Shrek.” This joke, laughing at a woman’s needs and display of anger, is so overused and so damaging. It’s the Eve story. Eve gives in to temptation and eats the fruit she’s not supposed to eat. This woman’s desire is the downfall of man. Women are evil. Women are a “pain in the ass,” in the words of Shrek. It’s not difficult to make the leap to “we should hate women” and “we don’t need to take any woman’s needs seriously.” Again, Shrek writers manage to turn “stripping women of their power” into a joke, as if it’s suddenly okay because they’re joking about it.

Shrek paints a truly disturbing image of what a woman is in our society. She is powerless, hated, needs others to validate her experience, and doesn’t need to consent to be touched by you. She is, in other words, extremely susceptible to abuse. This is a MOVIE FOR KIDS. And it’s contributing to abuse culture by NORMALIZING WOMEN WITH NO AGENCY.

I am not, by any means, discounting Shrek as a movie. I don’t believe in cancel culture – I think things are always so much more nuanced than that. The movie really does bring me so much joy, even watching it this new perspective, even after the abuse I’ve experienced at the hands of multiple men.

But. I think it’s important to recognize this dangerous, deeper messaging. Why is it important? Because I know for a fact that it’s watching innocuous movies like this, that hide true misogyny behind a surface-level strong female character story arch, that led to me thinking it was OKAY TO BE ABUSED. Abuse culture is serious and needs to be examined from every angle. Even a movie we all know and love so much. I’ve been rewatching a lot of the movies I watched when I was a kid, and noticing similar messaging popping up in almost every movie. Abuse culture was very prevalent in the media I consumed as a kid, and there was nothing my parents or school could do to reverse that. It was just…there. I just absorbed it.

And I haven’t even started discussing the way “Blackness,” as well as the complete lack of female Blackness, is portrayed in this movie. That’s a whole other conversation and blog post.

On Empathy & Secondary Traumatic Stress

Empathy is all at once a loaded word and a cliched idea in 2021. I want to explore the shadow side of this omnipresent buzzword. What is empathy, really? The Berkeley definition is “the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.” This seems doable. Imagining what someone else is feeling could be as simple as procuring an image of a raincloud in your head when someone says they’re feeling gloomy.

However, Google Dictionary’s definition of empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” The ability to share the feelings of another. This is all well and good when you’re empathetic towards someone because they’re feeling grief or joy: these sentiments are breeding grounds for connection and vulnerability.

But what happens when the other person’s feelings consist of self-hate, suicidal urges, and severe disdain for other people? Where does that leave you, after you’ve employed consistent empathy for that person? Filled with a desire to not be alive anymore, and an acute loathing of basic humanity? Is that helpful to anyone? Is that good?

These questions are important to me because empathy used to be one of my strengths. I had an uncanny ability to feel into what others were feeling, so much so that when I watched TV with my best friend, she would catch me mirroring the exact facial expressions of the actors on the screen. She’d call me out on it, and I would be startled, not even realizing I was contorting my face to match the ones on the screen. I’d come back into consciousness to find my mouth had formed a deep frown, or my eyebrows knit together in an angry face. I was doing it completely subconsciously. I wasn’t able to control my empathy.

And then, it wasn’t a strength anymore. It was a window, a soft gap where other people’s brutal feelings could infiltrate and settle into my body.

Brené Brown asserts that “empathy is a choice, and it’s a vulnerable choice. In order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.” But what if empathy isn’t a choice at all? What if you’ve been in a state of empathy for so long that it’s a simple habit, a continuous way of being? Then it could be very dangerous.

At what point does empathy become stupidity? And are there people who are carrying too much pain inside of them, trauma that they are unwilling to face, who pose a real threat to the people who care about them?

I know this is a controversial thing to suggest, because the “good” thing to do would be to empathize with somebody who is in pain. Right? Someone who is in pain needs outside help. Pain is not meant to be dealt with alone. And I know the word “threat” is extremely charged. I don’t mean that the person in pain intentionally hurts others. But unchecked pain is catching.

When I was 18, I met a sociopath. I disliked him when I met him. My gut reaction was to crinkle my nose and ignore his impish quips. I could see that he was terrified and small, underneath his contempt for others and boyish bravado. But something about his quick, bird-like movements and strange, old-fashioned speech intrigued me. He was attractive, in a disconcerting, “I want to put you under my wing and keep you there” sort of way. He was carrying immense trauma; he had been regularly beaten as a child, and only knew how to give and receive love through violence. He made me uncomfortable, and I thought that was an indication that he would challenge me: that I was about to learn a lot about myself and the world. I was a free-spirited, confident young woman, ready to take on anything.

Flash forward 2 years. All that time, I’d been engaging with this person, being fully empathetic to his experience, seeing things through his eyes, reveling in the entirely different way he saw the world (as a cold, loveless place where one had to be aggressive and hateful to exist as an individual). I had surrendered to empathy, because that was how I knew how to love and attend to someone. By the end of those two years, I was suicidal, had developed debilitating anxiety, woke up nightly with sheets drenched in sweat, no longer felt desire for anything, was insecure to the point of hating myself constantly, and felt shock/surprise if someone touched me in a loving way. The joy had vacated my body – all that was left was over-arousal, despair, and a torturous memory of the person I’d been before.

Years later, partially healed, I started teaching music at a charter school, a job I was extremely ill-prepared for. The principal had me read up on Secondary Traumatic Stress. The National Education Association writes that “educators can begin exhibiting symptoms similar to those of their students – withdrawal, anxiety, depression, and chronic fatigue” even if they haven’t experienced trauma themselves. This is a well-researched, fully-fledged fact: that educators develop what’s called “compassion fatigue” when faced with their students’ trauma every day in the classroom.

I personally experienced Secondary Traumatic Stress after only a couple of months of working with about 100 kids as their music teacher. Kids accused me of physically harming them when I didn’t. They touched me inappropriately and called me names. They were constantly terrified that everyone, including me, was out to get them. Most of them didn’t feel safe anywhere. Some told me that they were worried every second of every day that their parents would be killed.

I, still carrying my own traumas inside of me while trying to take care of these traumatized kids, crumpled. I started having panic attacks almost daily: loud, urgent affairs where I screamed and screamed, desperate for some relief or catharsis that wouldn’t come. I couldn’t greet my partner upon arriving home after the work day, because even the slightest touch or word directed at me felt explosive. Loud noises made me feel like I was being beaten over the head with a baseball bat. I was a shell of a human.

Could I empathize with these kids (share these kids’ terror) without wasting away into this fragile humanoid creature? No. Could I genuinely teach them without being empathetic to their experiences? No. So I left the job.

I think it’s interesting that, as the use of the word “empathy” has increased over the years since the 1940s, so has the use of the words “anxiety,” “trauma,” and “relationship.” There seems to be a correlation between the prevalence of “empathy” and “anxiety” in the English language. I don’t think this is a coincidence. I think, based on my experience, this parallel upwards trajectory of anxiety and empathy in our culture makes a lot of sense.

Is empathy inherently dangerous? No. Does trauma always breed trauma? No. But I think it’s important to talk about how empathy isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. If we sacrifice our own experience of the world in favor of being empathetic, we risk being worn down. In that state, we can’t help anyone at all. Empathy should never be all-encompassing, as tempting as it may be to surrender to someone else’s experience. It has to be done with regard for the Self, and the Self’s desires. This might be obvious to most people, but for most of my life, it wasn’t obvious to me. So I’m writing about it.

On Decisions

I woke up this morning and shuffled to the bedroom door. What followed was a mess of decisions, routine, habit, emotion, and, like it or not, just plain humanness. What followed was a mess. A beautiful, powerful, ordinary, exhausting, comical mess. A regular day. A regular day where I made so many tiny decisions, each one influencing the next, and influencing the people around me. What a complex web we weave around ourselves!

MORNING
walked out of the bedroom door
thought about boiling water for coffee, but didn’t
thought about picking up my phone
gratitude for coffee
more gratitude for coffee
dragged my feet to the bathroom
while peeing, considered not working out
tried to justify not working out (“I’m sore from yesterday, I didn’t get enough sleep,” etc)
realized that was bullshit
brushed my teeth while dreading working out
realized I could drink coffee right before my work out
got considerably more excited to be alive
turned on the shower accidentally (that was my habit before I started working out in the mornings)
turned off the shower
felt sheepish
walked to the stove to put on the water to boil
went back to the bedroom to pull on my workout clothes
walked out of my bedroom, forgot why I walked out, then walked back in
thought about picking up my phone
resisted the phone addiction (I have a rule – no phone in the first hour of waking up)
grabbed my yoga mat and brought it outside to the deck
chose the YouTube workout I wanted to do
went back inside to pour the water over the coffee grounds
picked up my phone to text someone before I forgot
felt a bit guilty for breaking my “no phone in first waking hour” rule
breathed an audible sigh of relief as the coffee percolated (and my phone addiction was appeased)
poured milk into my mug like I always do
took the first, heavenly sip
walked outside to start the workout
thought about how terrible this feels
thought about how strong I’m becoming
gulped coffee like it was water and I was on a desert island
thought about how I still don’t have a “perfect body”
thought about how I definitely don’t want to do these fucking bridges
drank the last dregs of coffee
was amazed when the workout suddenly was over (I didn’t think I’d actually finish it)
stood up shakily
rolled up my yoga mat
thought about breakfast
thought about all the things I wanted to get done today
realized that the workout actually made me feel super energized
gratitude for my body
gratitude for a full day with “no plans”
almost immediately decided to go into town with my grandma to keep her company at the bank
thought “so much for a day with no plans”
thought “look at me, being helpful”
thought “oh shit, now I’m not gonna get as much done”
thought “fuck it”
tried wheat germ for the first time
discovered that wheat germ is pretty much a much blander nutritional yeast
got really excited about wheat germ
gratitude for wheat germ
had a fantastic conversation with my grandma about nothing and everything
gratitude for my grandma
showered and chose an outfit
decided I didn’t feel attractive enough in the first outfit
changed my shirt
got into the car to drive into town
realized I forgot my chapstick
went back inside
grabbed the shitty chapstick because I couldn’t find my good one
headed back to the car

AFTERNOON
called Chris while I waited for my grandma to finish at the bank
learned a lot from talking with him
decided I love being with him (I usually decide this 1-7 times a day, as if it’s a new revelation)
thought that I really want to trust him more
gratitude for Chris
thought about how I really really have to pee
talked about Christmas plans
felt stressed about buying Christmas gifts
received a text from my grandma which read “I’m going to scream soon”
felt panic rising in me, that old, familiar “I’ve been at the bank for almost an hour” panic
thought about how much I have to pee
went over to sit by my grandma, trying to be comforting
decided to go find a bathroom
wandered around the neighborhood for a few minutes, desperately searching
felt weird about going into any of the fancy hotel lobbies nearby, so just went back to the bank

EVENING
hid in bed watching Monk
felt incapable and anxious
forced myself to venture out of the bedroom for a family video call
thought about how far away we all were from each other
gratitude for family
tried to time things so our dinner would be delivered before we both got way too hungry
decided what I wanted for dinner from the Cuban restaurant
called to order
thought about how luxurious it was that we didn’t have to leave to pick up the food
shared a beer with my grandma – Blue Moon – her favorite kind
finally read a text sent that afternoon, from the parent of a piano student (S)
realized she’s asking if I could teach S this evening, instead of tomorrow evening
weighed all the factors: my crippling anxiety, my love for this student, my deep exhaustion, her dedication to the instrument, and her recital coming up in December
decided to let go of my “free night” and teach her an online piano lesson at 7:45pm
ate dinner with my grandma
thought about what I wanted to teach S
thought about how proud I was of her
thought about how I wasn’t making any sense
wondered why the hell I was talking so much
thought about how inadequate I was as a teacher
thought about how much awesome wisdom I was imparting
wondered if anything I’m saying is actually getting through
ended the lesson on a strong note

NIGHT
felt proud of myself
gratitude for my student
gratitude for teaching
dreaded writing this blog post
said goodnight to my grandma
begrudgingly sat down to write this blog post
had zero clue what to write about
lay down and snuggled into my blankets, trying to feel more at peace
then decided what the topic would be: decisions


On Decay

Today I wandered into a cemetery filled with palm trees and cracked stone. I felt lighter than I had in weeks. Everywhere I turned, there was life demanding to be acknowledged. A baby palm tree pushing up from the grass. An iguana sunning itself on a grave. A bird alighting on a post. It didn’t seem like a place of death at all, especially not in the sunshine, with the grass shining greenly underfoot. I was reminded of Whitman, who wrote in Song of Myself that there is no death (I’ve included the full excerpt below). Later, I opened Rumi, searching for a response. I found it in this poem:

Dissolver of sugar, dissolve me,
if this is the time.

Do it gently with a touch of a hand, or a look.
Every morning I wait at dawn. That’s when
it’s happened before. Or do it suddenly
like an execution. How else
can I get ready for death?

You breathe without a body like a spark.
You grieve, and I begin to feel lighter.
You keep me away with your arm,
but the keeping away is pulling me in.


While Whitman asserts that death doesn’t exist, Rumi speaks of waiting at dawn for an execution. Both reflect the feeling I had today: that death is never permanent. Something will always disintegrate and decay, and something else will always grow from the nutrients/energy of the decayed thing. The graves today were filled with life. Grieving really does make us feel lighter, like Rumi writes in this near-perfect poem. Giving space to the darkness in us, being vulnerable and letting parts of ourselves die, can allow light to come in.

Full excerpt from Song of Myself (Leaves of Grass) by Whitman:
Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the
vegetation.
Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means,
Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff,
I give them the same, I receive them the same.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.


Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them,
It may be you are from old people, or from offspring taken soon
out of their mothers’ laps,
And here you are the mothers’ laps.


This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers,
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.
O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues,
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths for
nothing.

I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and
women,

And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken
soon out of their laps.

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the
end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,

And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.