Shame Me Never

Once a man stopped my mother and me as we walked from a grocery store to her parking spot.  “What’s your disability?” He asked, pointing to the handicap accessible parking permit hanging from her minivan’s rearview. I don’t remember what my mother said back to him, but it was probably something like “Mind your business.” We both knew he was calling her a liar in an indirect way. His question was an attempt to shame her. This is how people who lack a sense of power exert control. They make a weapon out of shame.

She was 39 when the handicapped permit arrived in our lives, just three years older than I am now. She had no visible wrinkles, no grey hair. She never left the house without bright pink lipstick and Jackie-O sunglasses. She wore red nail polish on her toes. She did not look like a woman who was dying, at least if you think a dying person cannot be young or able bodied or capable of running an errand with her daughter.

But she was dying. Just a year before the parking lot encounter, my mother nearly died from a diabetic insulin reaction in front of me. She would have died had my sister and I not rubbed cake icing on her gums and dialed 9-1-1. We kept her alive while the paramedics made their eternally long drive to our house. We were nine at the time. This was not the first time we saved her life, but that’s another story.

***

When my mother was sick, when she was dying, I never used those words. Sick. Dying. This is not because I was afraid or in denial. It is because I was ashamed. Shame tunneled to the core of my being. Shame policed my language. Shame erased my self esteem. If I ignored shame, I thought I could make it go away. Instead of confronting my shame, I hid in my bedroom and read books about the Holocaust. I read every book about the Holocaust that our tiny library owned. I craved stories of other people’s suffering. I needed to know I was not alone. I needed to know suffering could happen to anyone.

Indiscriminate suffering became the theme of my writing. I wrote stories about girls whose mothers died or disappeared. I wrote these stories until a middle school teacher pulled me into the hallway one day and asked me if I was a masochist. She did not give me time to answer before she told me to stop writing these stories. They were freaking her out. I didn’t stop. I just stopped showing this teacher what I wrote.

Years later one of these stories won a national award that helped me get scholarships for college. My sister saved the story for me. She has always believed in my writing. A few months ago, she found the story and called me to tell me my life’s work is to write novels. But I can’t write fiction anymore. I don’t know why, or what happened to me, only that my inability to write fiction is directly connected to my mother’s death. I wrote one short story the year after she died. It was about a girl who tried to kill herself but survived.

I was the suicidal girl.

I was the girl who did not die.

***

No matter what my mother ate or how many times she tested her blood sugar, she would have an insulin reaction. She could not control her disease. Her disease would not be controlled.

She felt at fault for this dynamic, and she was made to feel this way inside a culture whose dominant narrative of illness employs words like “battle” and “fight” to erase the reality that control is usually the first thing to go when a person is sick. My mother did not battle her disease. She lived it for 35 years. She endured organ damage, organ loss, organ rejection, surgeries, hospitalizations, fractured bones, daily needle injections and blood draws, depression, and anxiety.

When she went to sleep at night, she never knew if she’d wake up in the morning. She wore an insulin pump. It did not save her.

The night after she died, I slept in the bed where she’d taken her last breaths. Her insulin pump beeped in the middle of the night. I threw it across the room. I wanted to break it open. After it hit a wall, the pump felt onto the carpet, completely intact.

­­My mother didn’t get to live in a time when women spoke openly about how shame silenced and policed us. The expression “body shame” was not part of her lexicon. She bought into the myth that her disease could be cured, and she believed her organ transplant was a cure. When her organs rejected seven years after the surgery, she gave up hope. She accepted her death. I do not know if she felt anger or if she blamed herself. During the last month of her life, she was the saddest I had ever seen her. She was sad to the core of her being.

Only a few close friends knew about my mother’s transplant or her organ rejection. Shame kept me silent. Shame kept me from reaching out. Shame kept me isolated. Shame fed my own depression.

***

I’ve had to speak up about my own illness this week. I’ve had to tell a friend and mentor –– and leader on my campus –– that I need to take breaks in order to protect my body from immune system attack. This need may mean that I miss out on opportunities. This need means I am not “leaning in.” This need means that I have to say the word “can’t” even though I’ve been taught never to say this word.

I am an overachiever. I am good at what I do. I am ashamed of myself when I say the word “can’t.”

I feel lazy. I feel like a quitter. I feel like a person who wants to squeak by doing the minimum. I am none of these things, but that’s the power of the word “can’t.” It evokes suspicion and disdain, especially when women use this word to set boundaries. You see, when a woman sets a boundary, there is often a professional cost. We are either shamed by others for setting the boundary, or we shame ourselves.

I’ve decided to stop giving a shit about shame. I’ve decided to take away shame’s power to control me. “Can’t” is not a bad word. Sometimes it’s the word I need to say, the only one that can save me.

After You Died

We cremated you. Without a will, or any written instructions, this was a difficult decision to make. I wasn’t sure of your desires, but I believed my sister, who said she recalled your final wishes were to be fully released from your captor body. So I signed my name on a piece of paper the day after you died. Your funeral would be the next day, as per Jewish custom. Your cremation horrified me, but not because it bucked tradition. I could not bear the image of your body burned to a cinder, your ashes mine alone to scatter. Still, you would have laughed at the funeral director. Instead of mom, he called you mother. Very Norman Bates. Had you been there, we would have giggled until our stomachs ached.

The other night I told my husband I felt like I have lived two lives, the one before you died and the one after. We were both falling asleep, and I can’t remember what he said back to me but I think it was, “You have lived two lives.” He has only known me in my second life. He never knew me in my first life, as a person with a mother. He never knew you. But he has carried the weight of your absence with me for the past thirteen years I have known him. He has never once told me to get over it. He has never told me to be a person other than who I am. We met on your birthday, by the way. You’d been dead two years by then.

Around that time, I took in my first stray. He was a black tomcat, like the one you used to have before I was born. He appeared near my apartment in the Louisiana delta. At first, I didn’t want him. But my sister, who was visiting, forced me to adopt the cat. She put her hands on her hips the way she did when we were kids and played “Business Women.” (You should remember she was always the boss and I was always the employee.) She convinced me I could take care of something else again, that I could stand to be needed. So I adopted him that very afternoon. He opened the heaviest door I shuttered after you died, the one marked LOVE.

It felt wrong at first, to love beyond you. But the moment I started, I couldn’t stop. I have four rescues now. No child. For a long time, I was afraid to become a mother, afraid to lose a child the same way I lost you. I was well past 30 when I realized losing you taught me I could bear anything. Losing you taught me not to withhold love. Fingers crossed, I’ll give you a grandchild in the next year or two. Maybe twins :-).

By the way, you are already a grandmother. I know: You look like you could be my sister! But your other daughter already has two sons and a daughter. The eldest looks exactly like you. He makes all your most hilarious facial expressions. Like you, he loves music, loves to sing. He’s particularly fond of The Beach Boys & Billy Joel. His sister has a thing for Taylor Swift. You should hear her sing “Firework.” It’s really something. The youngest isn’t talking yet, but he has the chubbiest thighs we’ve ever seen. If you ever had the chance to squeeze them, you’d never let go.

When I awoke this morning, I remembered the morning you died. I was the same age as many of my students are now. No wrinkles then. No grey hair. At first, I mourned the big things, such as how you would not be at my college graduation –– on Mother’s Day that year. Ugh. But I felt your absence in the small things, how there was no one to tell me to be home by 10 p.m. or to complain that I’d used all the hot water AGAIN. I missed you most in the mornings, that time when we used to sip coffee and read the newspaper. I still miss you in the mornings. This is when I resurrect write about you.

Today is an anniversary, but not the kind that requires flowers or chocolate. Today you are fifteen years dead. My sister will likely light a candle for you, say Kaddish. She has been so good about honoring you on the terms of your faith. I will go to my Spin class, grade papers, prep lessons, steal an ordinary day from the impossible shadow of your absence.

After you died, I didn’t think I could go on. I didn’t want to go on. But here I am, missing you as much as I did on my first day without you. Only now, I can balance the unbearable loss of you on my head, walk beneath it without sinking.

‘Beauty and the Beast’ & Other Tales We Tell

A savior complex is at the heart of most fairytales. Usually, it’s the woman who needs to be saved. But sometimes, it’s the woman who both needs to be saved and who has to do the saving. This is what happens in “Beauty and the Beast,” which in full confession I know only from film.

I saw the 1991 version when it opened in theaters. This was one of the first films I was allowed to see at the movie theater with friends, without my mother. I remember sitting in the theater with 10 of my closest friends, and watching the candlestick try to make out with the feather duster, and thinking, “This is weird.” But the songs were catchy. (Be our guest. BE OUR GUEST!) For better or worse, the lyrics and story have stayed with me.

I watched the 1991 film last Thursday in preparation to see Disney’s remake during opening weekend, which sold out in my city. I’d forgotten that the beast is a scary, shouty, beating-on-doors beast dude. I had also forgotten that the word “consent” is not part of Gaston’s limited vocabulary.

I found myself holding my breath during tense moments between Gaston and Belle, when he appeared close to assaulting her. Rape is the subtext of these scenes, and I certainly didn’t see that in 1991. Nor did anyone point it out to me. In our family, Disney was not questioned. Its myths were pure.

Still, I found the remake stunning. Emma Watson as Belle conveys a human, no bullshit, no fear female power that a cartoon Belle could never accomplish. When it comes time to save the beast from Gaston, Watson subverts the Prince Charming trope by riding a white horse into the castle. That is one cool detail, even if Belle is tasked with saving the beast. (He’s already saved her from wolves, so this makes them even.)

Their romance is complicated by the pursuer/pursued dynamic and caretaking, with Belle being the prime caretaker.

During one caretaking scene where Belle nurses the beast after the wolf attack, we learn that his rage stems from Mommy and Daddy issues. This backstory was left out of the 1991 film: After the beast’s mother died, there was no one to protect him from his wrathful father. So he became wrathful like his father, and only a woman’s love can change him back to his best self. This is a dangerous myth. Yet we all are meant to celebrate the myth. The film’s final dance scene gives us a sense of order restored, the tragic turned comic. We can all leave relieved. Everything works out in the end.

Except the few curses that can’t be reversed, or the dead who will not come back to life, no matter how fervently they are wished for or loved.

Belle’s dead mother is absent from the dance, from the whole story. Her absence is an unacknowledged detail in the 1991 film, but the remake delves into backstory. Thanks to a magic mirror and the beast being in a good mood, Belle learns her mother died from Plague. The loss has been her life’s unspeakable secret, a secretly actively cultivated by her father.

Maternal loss binds her to the beast. It is the bond that seals their fate, the first magic to erode the witch’s curse long before the last petal falls from the rose.

“Beauty and the Beast” is not unusual in this sense. Mothers are absent from many fairytales. But they are often present too, either working magic from beyond the grave or being invoked through the caretaking roles their daughters assume.

Fairytales testify to the influence mothers enact in children’s lives across time and history and culture. The dead mother has incredible power. Her death is the root of deep transformation. Her love defies death, propels magic.

I am still obsessed with these tales, even “Beauty and the Beast,” despite its flaws. Not because I believe in magic or Prince Charming or happily ever after, but because I believe in my mother’s love.

I need to believe her love survives her.

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My mother told me my first fairytales. Cinderella. Snow White. Sleeping Beauty. She read them over and over, rented their cartoon film adaptations from the library, took me to see them staged at a children’s theater near our apartment. If you’d asked me what I wanted to be at ages three, or four, or five, I would have said “princess,” even though I knew the stories were make believe. I wanted them to be true, as in factually true. I wanted to believe in magic.

In fairytales, everything works out in the end. The comatose princess awakens. The abused, neglected child finds true love. The hovel becomes a castle. The wicked are punished.

As a girl, I knew my mother was sick. I knew her health was imperiled. But we never said the word dying, despite our close calls. My sister and I never acknowledged how we lived our own bleak fairytale, saving our mother from death in the nick of time, year after year, day after day. Until the the day we couldn’t.

After our mother died, my sister and I faced the merciless task of placing her clothing and personal items in giant trash bags bound for Goodwill. But I saved one book from the trash bag heap –– her worn copy of Grimm’s Complete Fairytales published by Nelson Doubleday in 1960, when my mother was eight.

I’d taken this book for my own as a girl, coloring on its pages and then highlighting lines from my favorite story, “The Juniper Tree.”

“The Juniper Tree” has typical Grimm gore, but I read the story obsessively. The plot goes like this: a wicked stepmother beheads her stepson. She boils his body and feeds it to her husband, the boy’s father. The boy’s sister, who has been tricked into believing she killed her brother, buries the bones beneath an enchanted juniper tree. This act allows the boy to become a bird, who then flies around singing the truth of his murder. Ultimately, everyone but the stepmother lives happily ever after: the bird becomes a boy; the father never finds out that he ate his son; the stepmother dies when a millstone falls on her head; father, son, and sister return home to eat dinner, likely not human remains.

This morning, I reread the story and realized one root of my obsession. “The Juniper Tree” acknowledges grief –– the boy’s sister cries nonstop until the bird (her dead brother) gives her a pair of red shoes –– and the story makes death impermanent, if only in the case of the boy. Both his mother and stepmother remain dead through the last line, which actually includes the words “and they felt very happy and content, and went indoors, and sat at the table, and had their dinner.”

If only real life could work this way. If only we knew the spell to bring our dead back to life.

I will mark the fifteenth anniversary of my mother’s death in two weeks. Sometimes, I still wish she could come back. I still wish I knew the magic words to save her.

Conditions of Power

 She died a famous woman denying

her wounds

denying

her wounds came from the same source as her power – Adrienne Rich

 

A few years ago, I posted this selfie on Twitter.

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I was annoyed by a Vidal Sassoon ad campaign that connected “styled” hair to a good selfie. My tweet went something like this: @vidalsassoon behind every good #selfie is a woman who refuses to connect selfhood to her hair.

I took the photo after I’d finished 35 uphill minutes on an elliptical machine. My hair is unbrushed, unwashed, and full of sweat. I’m not wearing any makeup.

At the time, I thought my selfie was funny and a little bit brave. It meant I could be real. It meant I could present my face the same way men do every day –– without augmentation. It meant I didn’t care if people thought I was ugly. But the truth is there’s a part of me that still cringes each time I look at this photo. There’s a part of me that feels messy and ashamed of my mess. There’s a part of me who fears being ridiculed for my bare face, or for publically presenting an unadulterated version of who I am.

My mother wore makeup until the day she died. Even without makeup, she was a truly beautiful woman. But she tied her self worth to how others perceived her beauty, and she taught me to perceive myself the same way.

When I break these rules, I feel like I’m violating a fundamental code of womanhood. I feel like a failure because of all the beauty standards I inherited from my family and culture, and also because I lost my mother just a few weeks after I turned 21. She died at the moment my life as an adult woman began.

I had no one to shop with on the eve of my college graduation, no one to call to talk “outfits” with before my first job interview, no one to ask if my hair was too short or my lipstick was too dark or too bright.

I had to figure it all out on my own.

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This week, I facilitated a dialogue on my campus. A week before the event, my friends started asking me what I was going to wear. They offered to give outfit consults or to lend me professional clothes. But I hate suits, even pantsuits. I hate the word “blazer.” I feel like a fraud in clothing that’s designed to hide my female body. I prefer dresses, especially dresses with wild and colorful patterns.

In the end, I decided to wear a safe black dress Carl picked out for me and a jade necklace I bought during our last trip to New Orleans. I wanted to focus on the substance of the dialogue. I did not want to think about my clothes or how I appeared to others. I wanted to feel comfortable.

But an hour before the dialogue, I started getting nervous. Was my lipstick too bright? Was my dress too casual? Too low cut?

I found two female colleagues and asked them my questions. They relieved me of my doubt. One gave me a hug. Another let me use her office mirror to fix my hair, then she ran a lint roller down the back of my cardigan, which was covered in dog hair.

Even though my mother has been dead for almost 15 years, I still crave her approval. I still look for her in other women. One day, I hope I will look to myself first.

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My thinking about female selfhood and beauty is motivated by the amount of time I spend at the gym –– in mixed gender exercise classes where women are encouraged to become powerful in our bodies, and where we literally exercise our power.

For me, these spaces are one place where women are affirmed in resisting narrow beauty standards. At the gym, we sweat. We have bare faces and messy hair. We run. We climb. We lift. We bike. We get strong.

My mother was once strong, too. After her transplant, she began jogging on a treadmill her cousin bought her. She competed in two U.S. Transplant Olympic Games held in Columbus, Ohio and Salt Lake City, Utah.

These competitions were a way to publically reclaim power over her body in the wake of chronic illness. But in the last months of her life, she lost that power. She suffered stress fractures in her feet after walking barefoot on a beach. She needed a wheelchair to run errands.

Other mothers expressed panic when they saw my mother confined to a wheelchair. (Their daughters shared this panic with me.) My mother’s aging and diseased body could just as well be their own. I do not fault them for these fears. I often harbor the same ones.

Like my mother, I exercise to reclaim power over my body, and this is why I felt compelled to tweet my workout selfie to Vidal Sassoon, and why I still need to be in-your-face about my post-workout face.

When I exercise, I condition my body and break down my female conditioning. I become more fully myself, more fully alive. I become a woman who is a little less self conscious, a little less approval seeking, a little less afraid, a little less worried about her clothes, her makeup, her hair.

 

Not Everyone Will Like You

First grade was hard for me. We moved to a new neighborhood, and I started first grade at a new school.

I’d finished Kindergarten at a Jewish nursery school in Baltimore, and I read way above grade level. I also read on the bus, at the bus stop, and under my desk in class. When other kids played outside, I stayed inside to read.

Another girl started teasing me. She called me a bookworm and told other kids to do it too. Bookworm! Bookworm! They yelled. I cried about the whole thing to my mother.

Here’s what she told me:

“Not everyone will like you. There’s nothing you can do about it.”

She said these words simply, with no explanation. She did not tell me that these children were wrong not to like me. She did not tell me I was wrong for wanting to be liked. She simply spoke the truth as she understood it.

Not everyone will like you.

Of all the things my mother ever told me, these words are among the most important. She freed me to be myself. She freed me to not waste time winning over people who were never going to like me. She freed me from good girl conditioning that leads to the toxic trifecta of people pleasing, repression, and resentment.

Still, I didn’t learn the lesson immediately at 6. That day, I sat on her lap, while she ran her fingers through my hair. I breathed her Youth Dew. I sobbed into her dress with the floral collar.

I said, “Mommy, why won’t they like me?”

“They just won’t,” she replied.

I wanted everyone to like me. Sometimes I still do. But I also know that likeability is a trap for women. And I am coming to believe that my health depends on risking not being liked.

________

This has been a hard week for me. I had lab done work last Friday. My endocrinologist’s office left a vague voicemail message on Tuesday, asking if I could come in as soon as possible. (Don’t you love those messages?)

Short story: my TSH is increasing, even though my endo upped my dose of Levoxyl in December. My TSH has been increasing since I started Levoxyl in September. After six months, my TSH is still too high for me to safely sustain a pregnancy. My body is not responding to one of two medications I can take to treat this condition. My choices are limited because the widely prescribed meds contain ingredients like gluten and sugar that are not safe for me.

I turned 36 on February 16. My window of fertility is closing.

I received this news at work because that’s where I spend most of my time. I closed my office door. I texted some relatives and friends. A few wrote back. A few haven’t. It’s hard to hold other people’s bad news. It’s hard to face the truth that not everything works out in the end. Not every illness can be remedied.

Before class, a colleague asked me how I was doing. We were casually chatting in the bathroom. I told her the truth about the news I’d received. I said, “I know a lot of people say ‘fine’ when asked that question, but I’m not feeling ‘fine’ right now. I’m sad.”

I risked not being liked for being an oversharer. I risked her potentially saying, TMI and dismissing me. I risked her potential silence.

She said: “That’s what I love about you. You say what’s actually on your mind.”

I am so grateful to work with women who have the emotional capacity to be present to one another in times of distress. I am so grateful to work with women who do not hide who they are.

________

Last week I also spoke up about an ongoing issue at my gym.

Short story: I’ve fallen in love with Spin. (Spin is the best thing ever!), and I love my spin instructors. I am steadily increasing muscle mass while decreasing fat because they push me.

But something is happening to make me feel irritated, annoyed, and bitter in Spin. This something is this:

Class members are engaging in behaviors that gym policy doesn’t allow. They’re getting to class 15 to 20 minutes early, saving bikes with towels or other personal items, then leaving the room, sometimes entering late to mount a “claimed” bike. These behaviors appear entitled, even if that’s not their intention. These behaviors might not bother most people, but they bother me. I perceive them as unfair. I perceive them as degrading shared community space.

I needed to speak up about my feelings because repressing emotion negatively affects me. I’m also afraid it is affecting my thyroid health. This is not magical thinking. Countless studies support that stress adversely affects autoimmune conditions. My thyroid is located in my throat, the seat of my voice. I believe self-silencing damages me.

This morning, a person with the power to enforce gym policy told me that people would complain once the policy was enforced. They wouldn’t be happy. They might not like me. (Because I publically removed gym towels from a bike this morning, I will likely be known as the instigator of the policy’s enforcement.)

I said, I understand. I don’t care if people like me.          

 And I really meant it. I truly did not care. This doesn’t mean I’m not a compassionate or empathetic person. I care deeply about other people’s thoughts and feelings. But I can hold my own truths alongside those of others, even when our truths contradict. I know disagreement does not necessarily equate with delegitimization.

My mother’s words, spoken so long ago I barely remember them, came back to me this morning, as I left Spin. I thought of how her voice, which I can no longer remember, still instructs me, still shapes and forms me.

Not everyone will like you. There’s nothing you can do about it, I thought, as I walked to my car, buoyed by relief, feeling pressure in my chest dissolve. Feeling free.

A Little Bit Lost in Washington, D.C.

When my mother died, I lived two blocks from the Woodley Park/Adams Morgan metro stop. I turned 21 in that apartment, which I shared with two other women who were interning with me at Scripps Howard.

They did not like me. I didn’t know why. I learned not to care.

That winter, I had one real friend in my internship program, a Chilean student who had roommate troubles too. In our own ways, we were both “other,” and I think that sealed our bond.

At night we met for dinner at a Chipotle between our apartments. We hung out together on the weekends too. The Newseum had just opened, and we went there once. He took a funny photo of me outside the main entrance. My arms are outstretched, like I’m trying to hug the sky. I found the photo a few months ago, and it made me laugh because I remember the last few months of my mother’s life as deeply unhappy. I’d forgotten tiny moments of joy that seeped through my sadness.

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I threw my friend a birthday party when he turned 20. My mother met him that night. But it’s been so long, I can only remember what she wore, a red vest and blue jeans. I can’t remember if she liked him, or if even he liked her.

In retrospect, it seems odd that this boy and I did not date. We spent so much time together. But I was on the verge of losing my mother. I had no capacity to date. I froze him out when he got too close, which I regret to this day. I couldn’t handle another person needing me. I couldn’t be available to his need.

Still, he met me on the stairs when I went back to the apartment a week after my mother died. He held a box full of my notebooks and the last Jimi Hendrix CD I’d listened to at work.

He’d cleaned out my desk for me. He’d carefully packed my possessions. He did not know I’d soon throw the box away because I could not bear to look at its contents. He did not know I could not even stand to look at a newspaper. Grief turned me upside down, inside out, unraveled all the threads that had once tied me together.

He kissed my cheek, then turned away. I never saw him again.

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I’d only come to the apartment to retrieve a few things. I’d go back once more, and then never again. Then I’d leave for Scotland, then Syracuse, then Scotland again, then Mississippi, then Louisiana.

I had a few brief trips to D.C. in between all the years I lived away from Maryland, but I could never stay for more than a few days. I could never live there again.

When I walked the pavement or negotiated traffic, I’d feel like the person I’d been before my mother died. Dread tightened my chest, turned my skin to ice. I’d feel like I was grasping for something I desperately wanted, something just out of my reach. Yet, I also felt certain in my steps, like the person I was before she got sick.

Each time I came to D.C., these two selves collided. I was both the person I’d been when my mother was healthy, and the person I became when she got sick. The question of who’d I have been if she hadn’t died haunted me.

I fled from facing the person I became because she died, the person I am now.

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I’m in D.C. this week for the AWP Conference. Each night, I’ve walked the streets near my old internship office.

These are the streets I walked everyday when my mother was dying. These streets are the last places where I ever heard my mother’s voice. I used to walk them when I couldn’t concentrate in the small office space I shared with other interns.

The last time I walked these streets, I didn’t know it was the last time. I left my internship on a Friday afternoon. I went home for the weekend thinking I’d be back on Monday, ready to file a story I’d worked on all semester and was ready to publish in a national newspaper. But my mother died on a Sunday. So I never went back to that office. I never filed the story I’d worked on for three months.

The other night, as I walked, I realized I no longer recognized this place. All the buildings look different, more antiseptic and cold. I felt disoriented, the same way I felt after my mother died. Like I had no sense of forward or backward, no east or west.

I realized I needed to go back to the internship office. I needed to see it in the light of day.

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Today I walked in circles initially. I couldn’t orient myself. But as I neared the internship office, my right ear ached, and I knew I was getting close.

I thought I’d feel something when I stood in the doorway, peered into the sterile lobby. But the force of self protection is powerful. I just felt numb, like this building could have been any building, insignificant and anonymous.

Only when I reached McPherson Square Park did something break open. My knees wobbled. A wave of dizziness sailed over me. I had to sit down on a bench.

This park was where I most often talked to my mother. She spoke to me from her living room sofa, from hospital beds, from dialysis breaks. We talked about my articles, about my Chilean friend, about the interns who didn’t like me. We did not talk about her death. We never even said the word.

Against the clamor of cars on K Street, I strained to remember the sound of her voice. Was it nasal? Was it high pitched? Did she elongate her Os in the standard Baltimore fashion?

But I could barely remember the answers to these questions.

Now her voice is not even a whisper. It’s an echo at the edge of fading, the sound a leaf makes when it falls to the ground.

Two tears slid down my face at the exact same time. I cried for what it was to be barely 21 and motherless, and what it is to be almost 36 and unable to recall the most primal sound of my life, the voice that called me to this world, the one that assured me I was safe. I was loved.

On Living with Anxiety

My first semester in college, I came back from Thanksgiving break terrified that I would fail my developmental math class. No one called it developmental math back then. But I received no credit for this class, which met in an ivy covered Carnegie library.

I do not remember the value of X for any equation. I do not remember anything we did in that drafty classroom. I do not remember the students who sat around me.

I remember that my professor had a fang. I remember I rarely received a grade higher than a “C” on anything he marked. Sometimes I see and write numbers backward. I found it easier to skip my few required math classes than attend them. I was so afraid.

When I called my mother to tell her that I might get a D in math –– I was hoping for a D –– she told me I could come home if I wanted to. I could live with her and re-evaluate my goals.

I had so much anxiety I could only eat small salads with tofu in my dormitory’s dining hall. I did not sleep more than a few hours a night. I longed for the safety net of my mother’s house, a place where all the pressure I felt would collapse. But I knew going home was not the answer. I knew that if I left my dream school, I’d always regret it. I’d leave other places, jobs, or relationships, when they felt too hard.

I told her I’d stick it out. I studied fanatically for my final exam. I did extra credit. I hoped for a D.

Grades came in the mail back then. And my hands actually shook as I opened the envelope when it arrived. I screamed when I saw a B- next to the course.

I do not know how I earned that grade. My mother always thought it was because I was smart, but underestimated my abilities.

She was probably right.

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I still have performance anxiety. I work in academia, so everyone I know is super smart. But a good number of my colleagues have backgrounds like mine. We have parents who did not go to college, or parents who had associate degrees, or parents who attended state schools. But I still sometimes feel like I don’t belong. Like I’m not smart enough to be here.

This week, the first week of my teaching semester, I’ve had trouble sleeping. Each morning, I woke up wide awake somewhere around 3 a.m. I said the metta prayer. I counted my breaths. I took melatonin. But I couldn’t fall back to sleep.

I thought about my classrooms, about the students who are potentially as afraid as I once was. I worried about their worry, and whether I could get them through.

Like me, they might be the first people in their immediate families to go to college. I know how easy it can be to give up when you can’t see a model of what’s possible or when a family crisis erupts. My mother died toward the end of my junior year of college. To this day, I don’t know how I finished my degree on time. I do know it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

After my parent’s divorce, my mother attended community college. But she had a chronic illness and two babies at home. She failed two classes and didn’t try again for ten more years. She was so afraid.

Today, her associate degree hangs in my office, to the right of my desk. I have three degrees. But my mother’s is the only degree I’ve ever hung for anyone to see.

She never knew me as a college graduate, much less a professor. But I try to carry her sprit with me into all my classrooms. I try to be the person she was for me.

This does not mean I mother my students –– because I don’t. But, if they need it, I want to be the one person who believes they are smarter than they think they are. I want to be the one person who does not underestimate their abilities.

Still, I can’t erase the anxiety they carry. Just as I cannot erase my own.

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It saddens me that I cannot call my mother at the end of the day to tell her about everything that happened. If I’m worried, I cannot call her. In my entire professional life, I have never been able to call my mother.

My insomnia started the night she died. That was the first night of my life when I did not get a single second of sleep. I lost my safety net. I lost the belief that things would be okay. I’d seen the other side, the worst case scenario that came to fruition.

One of my friends who also struggles with anxiety told me he thinks anxious people have higher degrees of intelligence. We don’t fool ourselves about the world or probability. We look our fears in the face.

To a certain extent, I agree with him. But I also know other factors, such as hormones and genetics, play a large role in my anxiety.

I have accepted anxiety as part of my nature, and I work with it in my meditation practice. When I awaken at 3 a.m., I imagine my anxiety as a version of myself. I bow to her.

What are you here to teach me?  I ask.

I breathe. I remember I am capable and smart. I try to see myself the way my mother once saw me.