Monday Notes: Resisting Social Norms

The other day, I went for my biannual haircut. The difference is I’ve been growing my gray hair out since 2021. It’s blossomed a lot faster than I’d anticipated, adding about four inches of snowy white strands on either side of my head, and a salt-and-pepper effect from my crown to the nape of my neck. 

“I saw your pictures on Instagram,” my stylist said. “And I was like, ‘oh, she must done decided to let it all go.’” 

I laughed and assured her that was exactly what I’d decided. 

“It’s been harder than I thought,” I told her. “One time my husband looked over and asked, ‘are you just gonna have a big gray afro?’ But you know…I haven’t decided what I’m gonna do with it just yet.” Then, I confided, “I almost re-dyed it.” 

“Hmmmph,” she replied.

Usually, my stylist finishes my cut and dramatically swirls me around to face the full-length mirror. This time, though, she turned the chair slowly. “Yeah. It’s all just out there,” she said borderline dismayed. “You gotta do something: cut it, color it, braids.” 

“Do I?” 

“Yeah! You gotta give your husband something to look at, glrl. He don’t wanna see that!” she said, referring to my reflection.


People say a lot of things to me. I imagine it’s because I’m open to authentic conversations that lend themselves to a safe space for others’ internal thoughts. When these bursts of opinions occur, oftentimes I’m quiet. I don’t know what to say because so much is going through my head. That’s what happened the day my stylist told me I needed to give my husband something to look at.

I wanted to tell her that her perspective was based on society’s predisposition to bend toward the male gaze. Women are born into a system where we we’re taught to worry about wearing clothes to attract a man, but not wearing clothes where we appear like so-called sluts; female athletes adhere to dress codes that represent the 19th century, instead of the 21st, and still cater to wearing athletic clothing intended to appeal to men; as children, we’re taught to follow K-12 dress codes that teach girls their bodies are something to be policed because boys don’t know how to control their hormones; and we’re implicitly taught to dye our hair as we age, so that we can be more appealing…to men. 

But I was in a hair salon, not a lecture hall, so I said this, instead: “Luckily, I have high self-esteem.” Then, I paid my bill, shared a final laugh, and left. 

However, the thought that another woman, who is a licensed beautician, would suggest to me that the only way to be beautiful is to create an illusion with a cut, color, or braids weighed on me for a couple days. 

Here’s why.

Her comment implied that I’m less desirable, because I have gray hair. And that’s ridiculous. I have a whole-ass body attached to my hair. Since wearing my hair the way it naturally grows out of my head, I’ve also done the following with my body: straightened my teeth, embraced wearing high-waisted bikinis, and worn clothes that fit my personality. Also worth mentioning, my blood pressure, HDL, LDL, A1c, and weight are low. Lastly, I think I look pretty good.

Do I sometimes want my hair to be the reddish-brown color with which I was born? Sure. Gray hair does shift your appearance, but regardless, I’m me. Shouldn’t I love me—the way I look? Shouldn’t I appreciate how I look today, not long for the beauty of yesteryear? 

I don’t want to be too hard on my current stylist. I have nothing against her personally. She—like many of us—is a product of our society. Resisting social norms is hard work. Social constructs abound. Someone makes “the rules,” and we follow them. That’s why I started dying my hair in my thirties. Whether it was family, friends, or the media, I’d learned that gray hair was for a specific decade of life, even though the average age to begin going gray is in your 30s. So, when I found my first strand, I followed suit. I professionally dyed my hair so much one year, it fell out in clumps. You know who advised me to stop over-processing my hair? No one, not even the stylist I had at the time. Women, especially professional beauticians, condone covering up signs of aging, while simultaneously promoting the loss of ourselves and our own sense of beauty. It’s the norm. 

But I wish it would stop. 

I wish we could be happy just being our natural selves. I wish we would stop worrying about impressing men or other women. I wish we could look in the mirror and love what we see, no matter what. 


Monday Notes: Don’t Pop up on Me (Please)

March 2022, my stepmother, MJ reached out to me saying she’d be in Jacksonville sometime in August. 

“Okay,” I told her. “Just be sure to let me know ahead of time…when you know the date for sure.”

She agreed. 

The next time I heard from MJ was August 15, 2022 at 4:30 PM, when she texted me the following:

Hi Kathy

I am in Jacksonville at my friend’s house. I got here at 10:30

am this morning and I will be here until Friday. I would love to see 

you and the family.

Her daughter is going on vacation so I don’t have a ride. Give

me a call. 


August is the worst time to visit me, no matter what my relationship is with someone. I begin the semester in the third week, and to maintain a low stress level, I start revising syllabi and classes on August 1st. 

Also, I’ve learned to keep a very strict schedule, in general. Hosting or visiting with unexpected guests is not on the agenda. Hence, the reason you have to let me know if you’ll be in town, especially if you “would love to see me and my family.” 

In addition to planning for classes, the week I heard from MJ I also had an editing client scheduled, an unexpected trip to the car dealer, and a prior commitment to attend family game night at Dwight’s job

I couldn’t fathom how someone could plan a trip to a city, purchase a flight for a specific date, and not mention it to me. If nothing else, it seemed inconsiderate and rude. 

But I’ve been working on not freaking out when an unexpected non-emergency occurs, as a way to practice being calm when an actual emergency occurs. So, I meditated and gave her a call. 

“I thought you were going to let me know when you were coming?” I asked.

“Oh. I was, but something came up, so I didn’t.” 

Even though her flippancy set my belly on fire, I told her I’d pick her up on Thursday. I’d bring her by the house. We’d go to family game night. We’d take her to dinner with us.

“Okay,” she said.


Wednesday, MJ texted me, again:

Hi Kathy. What is your plan for tomorrow? What time are you coming

over here? 

I want to go to the beach while I’m here. My friend’s daughter knew this

but she is out of town working for the next two days. She is a traveling

nurse.

So she called a friend of hers to take us to the beach tomorrow. 

So please call me so I can change the time or day to go to the beach,

because I want to see you before I leave. My flight leaves at 5:45 PM on 

Friday.


My I’m not important trigger kicked in. 

“I deserve for people to visit me,” I said to Dwight. “I deserve for someone to plan ahead, with a date. I am not crazy for thinking this,” I continued. “And how does she plan a beach day on the day I agreed to come get her?” Then, I added, “Well, at least she came to Jacksonville, I guess.”

But I caught myself. I stopped myself from tying my worth to what other folks do or don’t do. 

And I didn’t get caught up in the “at least,” part of it, because that’s where we get ourselves into trouble. The phrase “at least” is not a positive way to frame something. It minimizes what you want or need in a situation. Sometimes, it represents the minimum action you think you deserve, which again, can cloud perception when tied to your self-worth. 

Even though I didn’t spiral, my stomach was so twisted in knots that I had to lie down. After resting, I realized I wasn’t responsible for how MJ decided to move in the world; her actions had nothing to do with me…at all. I called her back and told her to just go to the beach with her friend. We could take her to dinner afterwards.

At first, she agreed, but then she called back and said her “heart hurt,” with the idea of going to the beach, instead of seeing us; so she’d cancel her beach date.  

“Good,” I said. 


Thursday was pleasant. 

Friday, Dwight graciously drove MJ to the airport (because she also didn’t have a ride there), while I made my one hour and 45-minute trek to campus. I arrived at work by nine to attend a three-hour convocation, made finishing touches to courses, and returned home around six that evening. 

That night, I slept for nine hours. 

Saturday, my oldest daughter and I had lunch, and when I returned home, I slept for another three hours. Saturday night, I slept another nine hours. 

Stress exhausts me, more so because my parasympathetic nervous system is a little wonky. Whether obvious or not, beneath the surface, our bodies are always reacting to perceived stress. The kicker is that my body thinks a pop-up visit from my stepmother is the same as finding out my daughter was in a car accident, for example. Both feel exactly the same.  

So, as I re-learn, un-learn, and learn ways to function as a person with knowledge of my nervous system, one thing I know for sure is that I will not tolerate people popping up to visit, even if they are only 15 minutes away, like MJ was. 

It will not matter if the person understands or doesn’t understand. It will not matter if they think I should bend to their whims, expectations, and lack of social graces. 

Ultimately, I’m the one who has to deal with the fallout that occurs in my body, and being physically exhausted two days after is not worth it. 

And even though I know my self-worth is not tied to how people interact with me, I also know I am better than to be treated as an afterthought, and I will not be responding to that type of behavior, either, as I move forward.


Writer’s Workshop: Improve FLOW by Removing 3 Words

I love writing that flows. When I read a book, I like to feel as if I’m riding a wave or listening to a smooth melody where the notes come together in concert to create beautiful harmony. When writing flows, you don’t want to abandon it. In fact, you may re-read sentences just to appreciate the beauty.

How do writers combine words to create flow? One way is to follow a specific rule. Now, I know in the last Writer’s Workshop I told you to dismiss rules, but I should’ve added the word sometimes.

So, here’s the advice: Remove these three words as much as possible: that, adverbs ending in -ly, and the.


THAT is considered a filler word, meaning it just adds space on the page. As much as possible go through your writing and try to delete “that.” It will make your writing and message much cleaner. Here’s an example:

She had made Daddy promise that he would come straight home.

*She had made Daddy promise he would come straight home.

Do you see what I mean? The word “that” doesn’t add more meaning to this sentence. It just increases your word count. This isn’t to say you never need “that” in writing. Sometimes there’s no way around it. But if you can do without “that,” remove it.


ADVERBS ending in -ly can also be cumbersome. The rule here is to replace -ly words (i.e., quickly, smoothly, etc.) with actual descriptions of what you’re talking about. Here’s an example of replacing adverbs.

“Well, I guess I’ll sit out here and keep you company. You sure look pretty.” He smiled sheepishly and nodded approvingly.

*“Well, I guess I’ll sit out here and keep you company. You sure look pretty.” He smiled and nodded at approval of my dress.

Sheepishly and approvingly drag the sentence along. Here you have two choices: remove the adverb altogether or remove the -ly and add descriptions instead as this author did.


THE is a little trickier, which is why I’ve left it for the end. Although it is natural to use “the” when speaking, a lot of times this small word can bog down your writing. “The” is not always necessary. Don’t believe me? Go check out your favorite piece of writing. I bet “the” is used sparingly. Here’s an example of what I mean:

            We cut out the clothing we thought would look good on me.

            **We cut out clothing we thought would look good on me.

Here, “the” isn’t needed. If you can understand the sentence without using “the,” then ditch it.

I hope these three tips help to improve your writing, but I suggest trying one rule out at a time and only after you’ve written a draft. Editing and writing at the same time can oftentimes destroy your flow.


*The first two examples come from Mbinguni’s Looking for Hope, which I also recommend reading.

**The third example is from Sister Souljah’s A Deeper Love Inside.

Both were written perfectly in their books. I added the fake, bold first draft example.


If you’re interested in hearing more about my personal writing process and flow, then my talk with the Pasadena City College English Department may interest you: PCC Visiting Writer K. E. Garland.

Monday Notes: How to Release People and Experiences

<Woo-woo alert> 

Everything is energy. Science tells us that much. It’s the reason you lose weight when you exercise and gain weight when you eat too much: it’s an energy exchange. 

You know what else is related to energy? Frequency. Science teaches us that waves carry energy. The amount of energy they carry is related to their frequency and their amplitude. The higher the frequency, the more the energy, and the higher the amplitude, the more energy

Throughout my life, I’ve come to know two things: one, we’re all composed of energy; therefore, it’s possible to be connected energetically, and two, because we are composed of energy, we can also function on different frequencies. Have you ever received a phone call from someone you were thinking about? Ever walked in a room and felt a little off? For me, the concept of energy and frequencies explains these happenings. 

Still with me? Cool. 


I’ve written before about the importance of releasing people, situations, and experiences, but I don’t think I’ve ever explained how I do this. What follows is my own process based on a compilation of suggestions from books and podcasts. Here are three basic ways I release people and experiences: journaling, cutting energetic cords, and purging

JOURNALING

Recently, a person I befriended in the late nineties commented on this blog about something I did that bothered her. I responded and told her to reach out. She never did. Instead, nine months later, she contacted Dwight, asking if we could both meet her for coffee. My husband told her we could meet, but only after she and I had a conversation, to which she replied, “no thanks.” 

I was angry for a few reasons, which I won’t get into here; however, I knew I needed to release this former friend because we no longer vibed in a way I valued. To release this connection, I journaled something like this: Dear XXX, thank you for being my friend. Thank you for being there when I needed you. I release our connection and am grateful for any and all lessons that came with it. 

I’ve completed this process with a few others in the past, and miraculously, I’ve not heard from them anymore. Our journey together has ended.

CUTTING ENERGETIC CORDS

I completed a doctoral process from 2004-2010. Those six years were the most stressful of my academic and professional life; the experience shifted my perception of universities and myself. I didn’t realize how much grad school changed me until last year, when I had to face my digestive issues. 

This release required phases. First, I began by journaling about my doctoral chair in detail; I included everything I perceived that she’d done as my alleged mentor. I wrote about each year of grad school—things I’d not shared with anyone. Next, I envisioned my doctoral chair’s face and image. Then, I wrote a letter to her, which is a type of journaling. I always begin with gratitude for the person and experience. Next, I wrote an in-depth description of what I wanted to release. In this case, it was my perception of what I thought was supposed to happen in grad school, judgment about my doctoral chair, and judgment about myself as a doctoral student and candidate. 

The final part of this was actually cutting the energetic cord. Here is where I meditated on what I’d written and physically saw myself severing ties/cutting the cord with my chair and the process. 

Prior to this, I couldn’t discuss being a grad student without spiraling into anger. Since cutting the energetic cord, I’ve felt more at peace about attaining a doctorate and what it has meant for me, overall. 

PURGING

Sometimes, a person has been in your life so long that simply journaling is not sufficient enough to release them. Other times, an event may have had such a huge impact in developing who you are as a person that you need to do more than cut an energetic cord. When this is the case, then purging is an option. 

When I found my biological father and his family in 2018, I’d already accepted the circumstances of my biological mother and subsequent adoption in a healthy way. Acquiring new information from my father landed me back in a rumination of what-ifs and a narrative of poor me. Journaling and cutting energetic ties weren’t enough to move me through. 

So, in December 2021, I gathered up pages of my journal and set them on fire in a barbeque grill at a local park. This is called a fire purging ritual

Immediately, I felt free from the burden of my biological father, his wife, and my younger sister. It was magical. I understood that they entered my life for a reason, and I had the power to release them back to wherever they came from…with love.


A COUPLE MORE THOUGHTS

  • Releasing people is not about cutting people off; it’s about moving on. Prior to releasing, I always attempt to hold a conversation to express concerns, so we can move forward together. When that doesn’t occur, then I have to move on independently. 
  • Always release people and experiences with love and gratitude, because in my opinion, there’s a reason why you engaged with those people or had specific experiences. We all help each other in one way or another.
  • Everyone doesn’t need to complete these processes. Some of us have the ability to go with the flow, move on, or accept an it-is-what-it-is mindset. What I’ve described here is helpful for those of us who don’t function in that way.

Monday Notes: The Power of Story

Shortly after the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, I received several notifications from writing platforms. These publications had an urgent interest in “personal abortion stories.” Suddenly, hearing about women’s lived experiences was integral. I understand why. 

Stories are important. 

It’s one thing to be marching around in your knit, pink pussy hat; it’s quite another to share why you feel the need to. 

Sometimes, marching is easier than telling the person who disagrees with you that, you too, had an abortion at one point in your life. However, I’d argue that the narrative you share is what will actually create empathy, and eventually, a nuanced understanding of an issue.

Personal story is why the #MeToo movement was partly successful. For the first time that I know of, not only women, but also men were discussing definitions of sexual harassment. Is giving someone a compliment okay? Can I ask my coworker out on a date? If someone says, “yes” to sex, and then “no,” what should happen? I believe the only reason we were able to openly have conversation is because your favorite celebrity, your mother, or your friend shared a #MeToo story, and you offered a compassionate ear.

But personal stories are hard to share. 

I don’t want to speak for everyone, but it seems we’ve collectively bought into a similar message: life should be lived in shame. Sometimes, we do it to one another. For example, anytime you suggest for someone not to openly share what happened to them, you’re encouraging them to live a secret life of shame. And so we keep things from one another, but to what end?

I guarantee you know at least one woman who has had an abortion, and I’d bet money that at least one person explicitly or implicitly told her to hide her story. Subsequently, women who’ve chosen abortion live with the following: shame for getting pregnant, shame for getting an abortion, shame for not choosing motherhood, or D: All of the above. 

Even those of us who lived in homes supportive of our choices still navigated a bickering country that saw women who had abortions as another type of human being, separate from society and meant to be shamed, shunned, and lectured. We were seen as people who committed shameful acts. We were called murderers. In our own ways, each of us wore handcrafted scarlet letters, even if the only one who saw that red “A” was us when we looked in the mirror. 

So I get it. Choices can create isolation, and sharing about them can feel as if you’ll be further ostracized from society. 

But stories are important. Shared narratives make something less of an anomaly. 

So, I was thinking…What if instead of scaring and shaming women, we actually provided them with our own sex stories: stories about contraception, stories about sexually transmitted infections, stories about sex without love, stories about sex with love, stories about pregnancy, stories about birth, stories about miscarriages, and stories about abortion. The stories about abortion would be encompassed in stories about sex, not as fear tactics or moral instruction, but as an option for what could occur, should you need it.

Personal abortion stories should’ve been a part of our sex conversations since 1973. Now, it seems major publications are seeking narratives as a reactive form of storytelling. The conservative, Republican Supreme Court has “gone rogue,” so we need abortion stories—NOW! 

Sheesh! Reactivity to issues seems like an immature and exhausting way to be in the world. 

Personal abortion stories should have been part of our lives over the past fifty years. Perhaps, if more women discussed the commonality of our experiences, then we’d be less likely to allow a court, men, or anyone else to take away our rights. But as long as we’re tucking our lives away in the crevices of our closets and acting as if we know not of what those other heathens speak of, well…we get where we are now. 

Please don’t mistake this for victim shaming. It just seems that at some point, we have to stop living in shame for fear of what others, especially those who look like us and may have had similar experiences may say. Maybe if we would’ve shared “personal abortion stories” sooner, we would have a different national narrative. 

Or maybe I’m living in la-la land, we’re all powerless, and Roe v. Wade was always going to be overturned. I’d like to think otherwise, though. I’m a writer, after all, and believing in the power of story is what gives me hope.


Writer’s Workshop: Voice

My first blog post was “Why I Refuse to Judge Any Mother.” In it, I describe my observations of a friend’s mother, juxtapose her mother with how I felt about my own mother, and then explain how I hope my own daughters will see me as a mother—when they eventually begin to reflect.

Out of all the texts I received, I appreciated my journalist friend’s the most.

“Kathy, this is good,” she said. “You have what they call voice. In grad school, they used to always talk about how you should have voice in writing. You have it.”

In literature, “voice” refers to the rhetorical mixture of vocabulary, tone, point of view, and syntax that makes phrases, sentences, and paragraphs flow in a particular manner.

https://www.masterclass.com/articles/how-to-find-your-writing-voice

Whenever I write, I want the reader to experience exactly what I was thinking or feeling.

But how do I do this?

Brace yourself.

I may tell you something that goes against what you’ve been told before:

I pretty much write how I talk and think. Even that last sentence is an example. I promise you a grammar program will tell you to remove “pretty much” because it’s unnecessary, but I left it in because that’s how I talk and think. If we were together, and you asked me how do I write? I’d say I pretty much write how I talk and think.

What is also helpful is my brain’s duality. I was raised in a family that valued so-called standard English, so I grew up learning the syntax appropriate for news personalities and job interviews. However, I was also raised on the west side of Chicago, which by all accounts is the hood. I quickly learned how to switch the verb “to be” around or to insert a cuss word so as not to be accused of talking like a White girl. I’m not special. Many Black people know how to codeswitch in this way.

What this means for my writing is I can create a sentence that appeals to White folks and Black people…or should I say Black folks and White people. You see how just interchanging those two words—folks and people—shifts meaning and tone?

I also want my writing to be accessible. I want to have a conversation with you. In order to do that, I have to write how I would talk if we were together having a latte, green tea, or Caipirinha. So, sometimes I stop, and address you directly. Maybe I’ll add a question, like what do ya’ll think to invite you into this conversation we’re having, while also throwing in the Southern dialect I’ve acquired from living in Florida for over two decades.

Most of my in-real-life friends who read my blog say, “Girl, I could hear you saying…” And that’s what I want.

To reiterate, if you’re concerned with developing voice in writing, then you have to determine what “vocabulary, tone, point of view, and syntax” you want to use and why. Only you know what that is.

And remember, voice, kind of like personality, cannot be imitated because it’s something only you possess. (Full disclosure: I sat here for five minutes flip-flopping between the word possess and own).


Do you worry about voice in writing? Does it matter?

Monday Notes: About Europe

Disclaimer: I realize all European countries are not alike. The entire continent is not a monolith. However, I have visited six European countries over my lifetime, and there seem to be a few commonalities.

TEENY-TINY THINGS

Europeans like things small. This ranges from coffee to living spaces. Our Zagreb Airbnb was 400 square feet; that’s the size of two dorm rooms or a garage. Maybe I’m set in my big-ass American ways, but even if I was alone, that wouldn’t be enough space. I’m a little over five-feet tall and around 135 pounds; the showers in both rentals were too small for me to wash my hair or shave my legs. I found this interesting, especially in the Netherlands, where the tallest people in the world live! How does the population function in capsule-like spaces? 

SOCIALLY CONSCIOUS

A Dutch Uber driver found out we were from the States and shouted, “Yay, Trump! Yee-haw!” in a facetious way. In our Rotterdam Airbnb, the owner asked us to use the heat sparingly, because “it’s not that cold outside, because of you know…climate change.” We met a thirty-year-old biracial woman from the UK who wants to visit the US, but is afraid because she “doesn’t want to get shot in the street, minding her own business.” And a Croatian Uber driver began a conversation with me about the “race” and “gun problem” we have. According to him, he wouldn’t even know how to obtain a gun in his country. He would have to “find someone in the underground, like the mafia, and even then, know exactly who to speak to to get a gun.” 

FRESH BREAD AND MEAT

If you like bread, then go to the Netherlands. The bread is freshly made, and it is evident. One time, we bought a loaf of bread on a Monday and by Wednesday or so, it was moldy. When we’re home, bread stays “good” foreva…and that’s probably not a good sign. If you like meat, then go to Croatia. That’s all we found in the grocery store: red meat and chicken. I had fish when we went to Hvar, which is off the coast; otherwise, meat is what’s for dinner there. But be careful of fillers. We bought some ground beef, and you could literally see and taste the filler. Well, that’s what we think it was.

SALADS

Both countries offer salad, whether it is breakfast, lunch, or dinner. The Dutch seem to really enjoy arugula, in particular. I don’t mean a spring mix with arugula, I mean…that’s the salad—arugula. In Croatia, the salads are a mix of shredded varieties, like iceberg, romaine, and arugula. Croatians also have a fresh, light vinegar and oil dressing. However, if you want something other than salad, then you will probably have to buy it at the grocery store or market, and even then, especially in Croatia, it is hard to find other types of green veggies. 

HANGING CLOTHES ON THE LINE

I know I’ve spoken ad nauseum about this, but hear me out one more time. Hanging clothes on the line seems to be cultural. When we were in the Netherlands, everyone in the apartment hung their clothes out. They even had special contraptions that allowed the clothes to hang out further and be brought back into the house. When we toured ruins and other places, I noticed surrounding areas where residents hung their clothes on the line. And when we got to Croatia, that again, was the expectation. If any of my European friends want to enlighten me about this, then please feel free in the comments. The only place I saw a dryer was at the laundromat.

WASHING WITHOUT A WASHCLOTH

Years ago, when I visited Spain and England, I learned that washcloths weren’t a thing. But I totally forgot about this on our trip. The owner of the Holland Airbnb had hand towels, but they were really too big to use as washcloths. When we visited Belgium, it was the same; there were hand towels but no washcloths. By the time we flew to Croatia, I was prepared and had purchased some smaller towels (but they weren’t washcloths). I looked this up to find out why some people, not necessarily Europeans, don’t use washcloths, and the answer is because it’s seen as unsanitary to repeatedly use a washcloth due to bacteria buildup. Who knew?

SMOKING

The Dutch and Croatians smoke…a lot. I legit thought I was going to get an illness from second-hand smoke. Whether it was when we were at home, relaxing or out and about, eating, cigarette smoke wafted through the air and into our nostrils. Europeans smoked so much I thought maybe no one had told them that it was bad, until I saw an empty pack on a table that said, “Smoking kills.

UNITED STATES IS A MICROCOSM OF EUROPE

If you’re familiar with any United States’ history, then this should be a no-brainer, but sometimes you have to see something to fully understand. When I visited parts of London, Manhattan’s setup made sense. New Orleans reminds me of parts of Spain. On this trip, I learned more about where specific cities, ideas, and people originated. For example, do these cities sound familiar: Breuckelen, Haarlem? Yeah. They originated in the Netherlands, so did the stock exchange. Neckties came from Zagreb, Croatia (as well as Nikola Tesla), and lace was invented in Bruges. Finally the Belgian waffle, which we (or I) love so much, is not Belgian due to its shape; it is Belgian because of the ingredients, which by the way, is not pancake flour.


Overall, this trip has broadened my perspective of the world and myself. I think it’s important to see how other people live, and traveling, whether it’s for a short or extended period of time, provides that. I’m grateful we were able to take this trip, and I’m looking forward to the next one.

Mental Health Matters: Avoiding Stress vs Managing Stress

  1. yoga
  2. work with a therapist
  3. self-therapy
  4. daily meditation
  5. find meaning and purpose
  6. connect with nature and natural light
  7. correct your nutrition and supplement
  8. correct your nutrition and supplement for detoxification and anti-inflammation
  9. heal your gut
  10. exercise
  11. practice “radical acceptance”
  12. use mantras
  13. practice gratitude
  14. keep a journal
  15. manage your technology and social media use
  16. balance your hormones
  17. sleep better
  18. change your lifestyle habits 

I do a combination of these eighteen things a minimum of four times a week. On the weekends, I rest, and call it balance. 

You may be wondering the following: if these eighteen habits are already a part of my daily life, then how did Stressed in the Netherlands occur, and why was there some residual when I was De-Stressed in Croatia?  

Well, apparently, there’s a difference between avoiding stress and managing stress

AVOIDING STRESS

Dr. Linear Passaler (the person with the dysregulated nervous system quiz) said that a lot of the narrative around sensitivity is built on the idea that in order to honor it, we need to reduce stressors

Exactly, Dr. Passaler, exactly, I thought as I listened to her. 

In addition to the eighteen above practices, my husband and I have designed a peaceful home. 

Our walls are creamy white. Our gray, wraparound couch is soft to the touch, and easy to fall asleep on. When we open the blinds to our Florida room, otherwise known as an enclosed patio, the sun lights up the entire kitchen, dining, and living room. It is spacious and light. Each of these was an intentional choice to create calm.

Aside from the eighteen habits and a peaceful home, I block stress with a tight schedule. I have two agendas: written and electronic, so I will never be caught off-guard. Lunch with friends, editing clients’ books and dissertations, and posting to social media are logged onto both to maintain a sense of control in my life. There is no room for a surprise-something-or-another. Unless it is a death situation, I do not and probably will not make time for your “emergency.” People who know me accept this.

I’ve spent the last thirty-three years developing and perfecting a system to avoid stress, which works in the States when I adhere to it. But when I’m somewhere else and don’t? Stressed in the Netherlands creeps up.

It’s easy for me to become dysregulated, because I’ve never really learned to be regulated in the moment. However, learning to manage stress is important because stressful events will always occur, and for someone like me, whose set point is stressed, events will always appear more stressful than they may actually be. 

REBALANCING THE NERVOUS SYSTEM AND MANAGING STRESS

Instead of eliminating stressors, Dr. Passaler says, deliberate stress exposure trains us to expand our capacity. It teaches our nervous system that we have some control over external circumstances. This is one way to learn how to rebalance your nervous system. She also says moderate stressors can help us be more resilient, adaptable, and successful.

I haven’t found more information about deliberate stress exposure; however, I do know one thing I can practice to include moderate stressors—not having an airtight agenda. 

One example is before Dwight and I left, he asked me if I could drop him off to get an oil change. This wasn’t on either of my to-do lists, so the answer, without blinking, was no. Moving forward, I plan to take baby steps toward saying yes to some unscheduled requests…not all, but some.

I developed the above list from MindHealth360, a site that describes how complex this issue is and lists ways to rebalance your nervous system, depending on your specific issue (e.g., hormonal or cognitive).

As it turns out, I’ve already been working on rebalancing my nervous system. However, when I’m out of the country again, I have to not only prioritize things like finding fresh fruits and vegetables and exercising, but also making time to meditate and using pranayama breath when unexpected stressors appear. 

WHEREVER YOU GO, THERE YOU ARE

That’s the lesson. Wherever I am, there I will be—sensitive nervous system and all. In addition to my hair care supplies and jacket, I must pack my eighteen strategies for avoiding or managing stress, especially if I am planning to live somewhere with unknown stressors for eight weeks. On some trips, like Central America, I may only need five. On others, like Europe, I may need more. Either way, next time I’ll be prepared.

Thanks, as always, for reading and commenting.


RESOURCES

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Mental Health Matters: De-Stressed in Croatia

I want to show you how easy it was to de-stress and regulate my nervous system while I was in Zagreb, Croatia. I mean, that’s the social media way, right? But that’s not my way. I want you to understand this was a process. 

So, here we go. 

Day 1

I am angry with my husband because he doesn’t take the day off from work when we fly from Amsterdam to Zagreb. Instead of talking with him about it, I use a familiar coping mechanism: suppression. Consequently, I am overwhelmed with the thought of finding lunch for both of us and grocery shopping in a new country by myself. However, I must do these things; otherwise, I will not eat, so I use another familiar coping mechanism: hyper independence

Day 2

I am still angry from yesterday, but I say nothing. My husband found a food delivery service: it’s called Bolt, like Uber Eats or DoorDash. Due to miscommunication between us, he orders food only for himself. This causes meltdown number one. In this case, crying serves as a purifier for the stress I’ve suppressed. Our conversation yields resolutions: (1) he will grocery shop in the morning because he wakes up much earlier than I do; (2) I will take clothes to the laundromat; (3) he will wash white clothes and hang them on the line; (4) he will be more attentive; (5) I will ask for help. 

Days 3-5

It’s my birthday weekend, and stress won’t ruin it, this is my silent declaration. Dwight rents a car and drives us to Split, Croatia, where he’s planned birthday events in Hvar, an island you can only reach by ferry. We miss the ferry. But I don’t feel stressed. Maybe it’s because I declared victory over anxiety at the onset. Probably not. That’s not how anxiety works. We tour Split and arrive at Hvar late Friday night. It is too dark to see the water, but even in the dark, I hear the Adriatic crashing against the shore a few feet from our balcony. I’m able to engage in another coping mechanism: soaking up the sounds of the sea. The next day, the Adriatic helps to regulate my mood. Everything is okay. The resort allows me to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner with ease. My body re-sets. 

I’m glad Dwight planned this.

Day 7

I’m overly excited about going to the laundromat. I head to the bank with a two-hundred kuna bill (the equivalent of twenty-eight dollars). I need change so I can use the machine, which only takes one hundred kuna. 

“I cannot do that,” the bank teller says when I request two one hundred kuna. 

Her reply sends me over, and I start crying—mini meltdown number two. I didn’t anticipate the bank would be a place where I couldn’t change money. Tears fall. The teller looks surprised. She tells me where to go. I can do hard things, I tell myself, while dragging a suitcase full of dirty clothes through downtown. I scan the corner store and choose a Sprite.

“Do you have anything smaller?” the cashier asks as I hand her the two hundred kuna bill, now wet and crumpled.

“No,” I lie.

I successfully wash clothes in two hours. This seemingly small feat makes me proud. 

Day 8

I’ve been eating oatmeal for breakfast. Its thick sliminess helps to move my bowels. I practice virtual yoga, amused that I can join the six AM class, because in Zagreb, it is noon. In a couple of hours, I Zoom into a work meeting. They’re still not taking my suggestions, but I do not feel the urge to cry. 

Week 1

I have a schedule. Three FitOn workouts one day. Virtual yoga the next day. Rely on the eighteen thousand steps we accumulate during our walking tours for added exercise. Eat thick slime for breakfast and ramen for lunch four times a week; these are easy meals that do not require thinking. Make dinner four times a week. Laundromat on Thursdays. Write everyday, even if it’s gibberish no one will read. This regimen isn’t perfect, but it is predictable, and that’s what I need…predictability. 

My bowel movements are regular, and sleep has returned—all signs that my nervous system has returned to “regular.” 

Laundry day number two, a German man put too many kuna in the machine and doesn’t need them. He gives me his tokens, enough to last two weeks. It’s the kind of event that makes you believe someone beyond the veil has your back. 

Week 2

All is well. An Uber driver tells me there’s an electronic music festival beginning on Friday. I grew up on house music, so I’m ecstatic. 

“Are you going to be able to wake up?” Dwight asks because we’re scheduled to ride the Flixbus to Venice the next day and also because he’s showing attentiveness. 

“I will,” I say. “I have a plan.” 

Drinking and dancing for three hours in a park releases toxins from my body, and I feel free.

When we return late that night, I follow my plan: shower and pack clothes and the popcorn Dwight bought me for the trip.

I don’t lose it when we almost miss the bus to Venice because neither of us knows the exact departure location. I don’t lose it when I find out there are no Ubers in Venice, only taxis that cost fifty euro. I don’t lose it when we get lost in the 150-canal maze that is Venice. I…am…calm. I almost lose it when my husband implies he could have found closer accommodations than I did—almost—but I don’t. 

Week 3

“I feel good today,” I write in my iPhone notes. I’ve been keeping track of my moods and activities, so I know what to continue and what to discard. It’s working. I’m sailing. Even though Dwight works from one to nine at night, I realize that is his schedule. I am not bound to the apartment. This is a revelation. I plan a “me” day: Zagreb Zoo and Evergreen Sushi. A conversation with my goddaughter, someone who simply listens, without offering judgement or advice, is appreciated. 

Week 4

The past few weeks have been steady, but I am ready to go home. Dwight has listened: he makes dinner that lasts two days and finds breakfast for us. This is important. The food is nourishing and so is his attention to my wellbeing. The morning we go to breakfast is perfect, except…I’ve left my phone in the Uber. I’ll spare the details of how it was recovered, but Dwight’s help was imperative. The important part is now, I am really ready to go home.

We drive to Pula, Croatia on our last Saturday. Once again, I pay my respects to the Adriatic Sea, which in my mind is a perfect ending to an imperfectly perfect extended vacation.

Now that there’s some context, I can share what I actually learned on this trip.