theorangeinkblot

Looking at life through orange colored glasses…

I am still a writer.

This I know for sure: I just can’t write the way I used to.

I have always been a cerebral person- my brain, on any given day, like Grand Central Station. But instead of trains racing down tracks and passengers rushing to make connections, it is my thoughts that race and ideas that connect, and whichever issue or emotion is at the forefront of my mind acts as train conductor. My brain is a loud, busy, curious place- one which doesn’t quiet easily. The world around me is also loud, busy, and curious and I have always made sense of it through writing. Pre-Covid, I could sit and write for hours. The narratives in my head would weave together into stories and all I had to do was sit at my computer and let my fingers do the talking. Only then, having done my best to make sense of a nonsensical world, would I be able to park each train at its depot and shut down the train station lights for the night.

Unfortunately, the fatigue of long Covid means that my brain is no longer the steam engine it used to be, replaced now by the much slower but stubbornly persistent, “little engine that could.” I think I can. I think I can. I think I can. Already, as I sit here writing this, only two paragraphs in, I can feel the pressure at the edges of my eyes bringing with it the promise of a near future  headache that will feel like someone is trying to juice my brain like a half grapefruit.

Lord knows there is much about the world right now that doesn’t make sense. So if I could, I would write at length, for example, about bodily autonomy. I have been thinking a lot about how when I found out my second child would need to be born via c-section because they were in breech position with the umbilical cord wrapped twice around their neck I decided that I was really done with pregnancies and since the doctors  were going to have their hands all up in there anyway, I wanted them to do a tubal ligation. Both the OB and the nurse midwife tried repeatedly to change my mind- “you’re only 33,” they said,”do you understand that this is a permanent procedure? What if you change your mind?” they asked, and even immediately after my baby was, thank God, born healthy they persisted, “what if God forbid your baby dies?” 

I insisted, and they acquiesced- sort of– they wouldn’t cut or cauterize my fallopian tubes- but they would clamp them- a procedure that could potentially be reversible- you know, just in case. I have never for a moment regretted this decision. And if I were writing about this at length, I would be sure not to leave out how other women I know were just told “no” when asking for this procedure even at 44 as if grown ass women are unable to make educated decisions about our own bodies. 

If the pressure in my head had not started creeping towards my ears;  If my muscles hadn’t started twitching and my head was not now shaking, I would also write at length about youth mental health. I would write about how kids are losing their ability to trust themselves and their own judgment about what they want or need because they have been fed by society, parents, schools, and the standardized testing companies a tremendously narrow definition of success- success which can only be reached by a very specific and expensive path. 

The kids, I think, are not alright.  We are conditioned as parents or teachers to play cheerleader- to tell our kids and students to never quit- to just keep going.  That if they just put their heads down and muscle through, keep pushing, work harder, always persist, that we will be so proud of them, perhaps they will even gain entrance to that elite college that holds the only key to a future in which they are “a somebody” that matters. We often forget as grown ups, that there are times that we should absolutely not continue down a path that is causing us physical, emotional, or psychological harm. We forget- or maybe never realized in the first place, that it is actually not our job to always play cheerleader or say, “yes you can, you must” but to help kids discern when a situation calls for resilience and when it calls for retreat.  That retreat is not giving up but strategically pausing, reflecting, and adjusting before continuing forward, sideways, or even retracing steps to figure out where they lost themselves in service to a false prophet. And if I didn’t have to keep having to put my head back on the pillow and close my eyes, I would write about how we are currently doing our young people a grave disservice by not sometimes telling them, “you can stop now. You have done enough. It is time to rest.”

If 30 minutes of writing didn’t then force a 90 minute nap and then a 3 day hiatus from working on this piece out of fear it would trigger a fatigue crash that could land me in bed for weeks, I would be writing at length about these and so many other things.

My brain is still like Grand Central Station, with thoughts and ideas scurrying to and fro, urgently trying to make their connections.  My writing process, however, feels less like the vast expanse of a meandering Amtrak trip through the Canadian Rockies, with its scenic vistas out the windows of a sleeper car.  Writing is now more like a subway commute, one with frequent single tracking delays. Write and then stop. Write and then stop. A little less graceful, leaving me questioning when I will see the light at the end of the tunnel, but still, when I can do it, gets me where I need to go.

I think I can. I think I can. I think I can. 

This I know for sure:  I am still a writer.

Dear Gentle Soul…

Dear Gentle Soul,

I know you must have questions- I can feel them burning in our heart. Are you wondering…

How did we go from being out in the world, deeply connected to community, so full of purpose, to napping twice a day, laying on the couch binge watching Netflix, too tired to even respond to an email?

Why did we have to quit our job, which we loved, which brought us so much fulfillment?

When will we again be able to take an hour long meandering walk on the trail that goes past the townhomes that overlook the lake, the golf course, the little bridge?

All I can say is I’m sorry.

I’m sorry I am so tired all of the time and that I must pace myself so carefully to just get through each day. I’m sorry that I have had to make the switch from always doing to merely being.

We are where we are.

And also—–

You’re welcome.

I understand you may be confused, or sad, or even a little bit angry at me- but you’re welcome. I did my job. I fought the virus. We are alive. Would it kill you to throw a little gratitude my way?

I am grieving with you– believe me, I feel your pain. Our pain. I am doing my best.

Can we call a truce? Maybe working together we can learn to love life again.

I still love you.

Signed,

Your worn and weary body

Room of Memory (6 minute writing prompt)

After all these years it’s the wallpaper that has stayed with me.  Moms in bell bottoms holding babies and pushing strollers.  Kids on swings and flying kites alongside mustached dads. Pattern after pattern of these white, heteronormative families playing outside were fascinating to me mainly because none of them had eyebrows. As a child, I would take a pencil and draw them in- climbing on my bed, my dresser, my chair to reach the far corners of the paper.

Later, as a teenager, that wallpaper would be covered with posters– 174 posters to be exact- of my celebrity crush, Kirk Cameron. How embarrassing.  I cringe when I tabulate the amount of allowance I spent on the silly magazines from which I would carefully pull those posters.

Before we moved from that house (by then I was 18) I taped a letter to the inside of the closet door addressed to the next occupant of that room.  A combination of confessions, memories, and a wish for them the same safe haven.

I Am Not A Robot

Note: I wrote this in April of 2021 but never posted it. Of all the things long Covid has taken from me, being able to write in a meaningful way, without succumbing to headaches, dizziness, & cognitive fatigue has been one of the hardest losses. I am posting this now as a first step to find a way to reclaim writing as my way of processing the world around me. I have spent the last two years really having to learn to embrace my human limitations as I navigate my long Covid journey. As I continue to put one foot in front of the other, this piece is a helpful reminder- I am not a robot.

I Am Not A Robot

By Meryl Orange Paskow

“A CAPTCHA is a type of challenge–response test used in computing to determine whether or not the user is human.”

Dear CAPTCHA,

I think you ask me strange questions to determine if I am human. 

You ask me to decipher wavy letters or click the boxes that contain crosswalks or traffic lights. Ask me to prove that I am not a robot.

I spend a lot of time thinking about what it means to be  human- and I think my questions would be different than yours.  No need for crosswalks or traffic lights or wavy letters.

If you really want to know if I am human, you might ask me the following:

Did you cry when you received the email invitation to sign up for your first Covid-19 vaccine shot? 

(I did.) 

What about when you read that your favorite childhood author, Beverly Cleary, had died at age 104? (Yup.)

Were you flooded with relief when your daughter passed her drivers test on her second attempt? (Absolutely.)

Do you try really hard to follow all of the therapist’s instructions about how to interact with your very depressed and otherwise troubled teenager- to never give them negative attention, always speak softly, be patient and gentle, let go of timelines, follow behavioral plans, etc.- but every once in a while, despite your best efforts, do you completely lose your shit anyway? 

(Yes.  That is a thing that occasionally happens.) 

That last one is interesting- I am human because despite my best intentions, I sometimes screw up. What is that old saying, “to err is human; to forgive is divine?” So I will go one step further.

I mess up sometimes because I am human; I can forgive (and be forgiven) because I was created in the image of God– how many robots can say that?

I do understand your confusion though.  Sometimes even I think I am a robot- pushing myself as if I have no limits – running down my battery to nothing; expecting myself to be perfect- and not so easily forgiving myself when I’m not. Maybe this is why you suspect that I may be a robot. 

I guess I have some work to do- embracing my humanness. And then you can stop with your silly questions about traffic lights and crosswalks. 

And when I stop now to rest or make a mistake instead of being frustrated or disappointed maybe I can just exclaim, “hey there- look at me not being a robot.”

Holding On/Letting Go

I have learned that so much of life is knowing when to hold on and when to let go.

And so it has been these past two years with Long Covid:

Letting go of ambition while holding on to intellectual curiosity.

Letting go of busy while holding on to self worth.

Holding on to hope for a full recovery while letting go of expectations of a full recovery.

I recently purchased a wheelchair so that I can more fully participate in life. I have decided to name her “Radical Acceptance” in the same way that people like to name boats. For short, I will just call her “Rad.” That way I can say “My wheelchair is rad!”  Holding on to my sense of humor.  Letting go of self consciousness and caring about what other people think.

Holding on to solid people with good hearts who love me unconditionally. 

Letting go (without judgment) of those folks who just can’t right now.

Letting go of fear and anger while holding on to joy and steely determination.

Breathing in- holding on to what nourishes and heals. 

Breathing out- letting go of what no longer serves me.

In The Wilderness

It used to be that the wilderness was an imagined place from a fever dream; a dense jungle, thick with vines. Hiding from wild beasts snarling from behind shadows. Waking up breathless in a cold sweat.

It used to be that the wilderness was a biblical reference; my people wandering through a vast desert, 40 years of hot sand between toes, waiting to be ready.

The wilderness used to be elsewhere, the subject of stories, a fictional location far from home. 

Presently, there is no need to imagine or travel to faraway lands to know the wilderness. I am the wilderness and it has left me bewildered. My reflection looks the same and yet nothing feels familiar.  My body has turned on itself, leaving nowhere to hide from the mysterious forces that lurk in my own shadows.  

I embody the wandering Jew, moving slowly in a circuitous route from the bed to the couch to the screened-in porch and back again. Exhausted, yes, but also restless and impatient. Am I also waiting to be ready?

Lost in the wilderness of the American HealthCare system, I wander from doctor to doctor seeking answers. They, too, are lost and try to find new locations using old maps. The health insurance company appears to be in a constant state of identity crisis. Will they help or hinder? Simplify or complicate? Play hero or villain? 

I remember cartoons I watched as a child: thirsty, weak characters crawling through deserts in search of an oasis, only to find a mirage where the water hole should have been. Without a map it is hard to know where to find respite. Then, I remind myself that even the Israelites were nourished with manna and the densest jungles contain delicate, complex ecosystems that sustain life at all levels.  Perhaps, everything I need at this moment is already within me.

I can be curious about, even find humor in the sounds of the MRI machines, a robot symphony of clunks, hums, and whirrs. If I listen in just the right way, I swear I can hear a slightly off version of my name being repeated rhythmically over and over again and I feel amused. Even amongst the cacophony I doze off and dream of chickens. I am grateful for my brain’s ability to entertain itself- even now.

I am curious enough about what is happening in my body to expend precious energy to follow the science, read the studies, watch the leading long-Covid experts give recorded talks at conferences, educating myself so that I can advocate for myself.  I am brave enough to ask my doctors if they have looked at any of the research as they insist repeatedly, what has already been debunked. Can I encourage my doctors to think beyond their borders? 

I feel grateful for the scientists and doctors who have been tirelessly seeking answers about long-Covid, who are educating their peers at conferences, and who selflessly give time to patient advocacy groups to do Q&A videos so I, along with 22 million (and growing) Americans can begin to get our questions answered even as the waitlists to get an appointment at a quality long-Covid clinic extend months to over a year. I am grateful for my long-Covid support group- the only ones who I think really understand what the past 28 months have been like.

Curiosity, Knowledge, Courage, Self Advocacy, Gratitude.

Perhaps it is true that not all who wander are lost. Perhaps it is truer still that those who wonder are guided by an internal compass. If I keep asking questions; reframe and stay curious; reflect and regroup; retreat and recharge; restore and REMEMBER who I am at my core, I can’t really be lost, can I? As long as I know who I am it doesn’t matter where I am.  I will always find my way, even in the wilderness. Maybe the wilderness isn’t where we lose ourselves but where we find ourselves.

When I think of the Book of Life..

Picture it, Long Island, 1990. I was 16 years old, wading in the ocean, flirting with some boy I had just met from a neighboring town. In my distraction, I did not notice that a large wave had gathered behind me. I managed to hold my breath before being swept under the water and sent tumbling toward the shore. 

Those underwater moments were disorienting- eyes squeezed shut, having no idea how much time had passed, if I was upside down, or right side up, or how much longer I was going to need to hold my breath. And then without fanfare, the ocean dumped me out onto the beach where I laid in a heap on the sand.

Back under my beach umbrella, I was then hit with a wave of emotions as I processed what had just happened. I was so embarrassed- how ridiculous must I have looked getting taken down by that wave? Then, stubborn and defensive- I am never going back in the ocean again; followed by gratitude for being physically no worse for the wear. Then as my breathing settled, I looked out at the vast body of water, and there was awe. Eventually, I got back up and made my way to the water’s edge. I dipped a toe in– but it took a few more trips to the beach before I was ready to swim again.

I am reminded every year at Yom Kippur, that this is what life is.  Things are going alright, and then seemingly out of nowhere a wave knocks us off balance. Eventually, we get up and start taking steps forward again. In doing so, we learn that we are much stronger and more resilient than we ever could have imagined.

When I think about being inscribed in the Book of Life, it is not only that I live but also how I choose to live that matters. When I am being especially mindful, I can see the waves coming; prepare; and ride them to shore. Currently, there is a giant, pandemic sized wave that in some moments has left me feeling disoriented, unsure of how much time has passed, if I am upside down or right side up, and wondering how long I am going to have to hold my breath. 

The best choice that I have made in the midst of trying to ride this particular wave is to ground myself in relationships and community. Over the past seven months there has been tremendous grief, sadness and loss. There has also been laughter and learning; growth, healing, and joy. Being inscribed for a good year does not necessarily mean being inscribed for an easy one. And even years that feel especially difficult can bring with them much good. 

Please stay safe and healthy- and may we all be inscribed in the book of life for a good year. 

Flush as you go…

One of my very first blog posts from six or so years ago was about advice I received from my mother as a child. As we approach Rosh Hashanah, I find myself thinking about this post- so I am editing and re-posting below…

I have come to really embrace Elul over the past few years– the Hebrew month that leads into Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Elul is intended to be a time of preparation- it is an opportunity to reflect on the past year, make adjustments, and set a spiritual curriculum for the new year to come. It is a time to ask for forgiveness and a time to forgive. And as much as I have come to lean in, it also seems like a lot of pressure to put on one month.

I will share a story to explain what I mean.

You may be surprised to learn about me that one of my guilty pleasures is watching beauty pageants (I’m sorry- Scholarship Competitions).  Let’s get the peanut gallery comments out of the way:

Peanut Gallery:  But Meryl, don’t these “scholarship competitions” support the notion that a woman’s value lies in her physical appearance,  thereby pressuring women to conform to conventional standards of beauty and essentially setting the women’s movement back by sixty years?

Meryl: Yes.  Yes, they do.  This blog post isn’t really about beauty pageants, so let’s move on.

When I was in high school, I used to watch the Miss Teen America pageant with my mom.  One year, we watched as the finalists answered the following interview question: What is the best advice you’ve gotten from your mother?  For the life of me, I can’t remember what their answers were but when they were done,  my own mother turned to me and asked me the same question- what was the best advice she had ever given me.  I thought about it for a minute – all the advice she had given me thus far- just say no, just be yourself, speak your mind, try your best- all good advice.  But I settled on this little tidbit of wisdom, which I still try to follow whenever possible.

Flush as you go.

The first time my mother offered up this suggestion, I’m sure she meant it in the “courtesy flush” sense of the phrase.  After all we lived in a small house and noses can be easily offended.  But even then, I saw that ‘flush as you go’ has relevance beyond the bathroom, and perhaps it is advice we can all benefit from.  Consider this:

Flush As You Go:  Clean up your messes as you make them- this includes both physical messes and metaphysical life messes.   Letting any kind of mess or conflict just sit will allow it to grow, fester, and morph into something that is much more difficult to resolve or clean up later.  So as unpleasant as it might be to take responsibility for the mistake that you made or to have that difficult conversation with someone, doing it sooner rather than later will likely limit any collateral damage and prevent you from having to deal with an even worse situation down the road (perhaps we should email this advice to Congress as they seem to have trouble with this concept).

Flush As You Go: Let it go and move on.  Face it, how often do you think about what you have just physically flushed once it is gone.  In my opinion, anger is only a productive emotion in the very short term.  Being mad can spur someone to take positive action to attempt to change a negative situation.   But when anger is allowed to fester, it can easily become bitterness, resentment, and even hopelessness and very little good ever comes of those emotions when left unchecked.  Did someone cut you off on the highway?  Let it go and move on.  Someone take your parking spot? Let it go and move on.  Mother in law criticized your cooking? Let it go and move on.  We have become a very angry country and seem to look for opportunities to make ourselves victims.   If we stop looking at every inconvenience as a personal affront maybe we can finally get our priorities in order and start moving forward again.

I appreciate Elul, I really do– and I also try to not save all of my reflecting and tweaking, and adjusting, and forgiving, and apologizing for this one time period– it’s a lot of work to do and maybe a lot to ask from just one month.

Flush as you go.  The best advice my mom ever gave me…and, maybe also a way to think about how to spend the rest of the months of the year doing the internal work we need to do to really be prepared to enter into Jewish High Holidays.

Pandemic Pendulum

I woke up this morning at 2:30 a.m. with this poem already inside me- or maybe it was a prayer. Either way, I got out of bed and wrote it down.

Pandemic Pendulum

by Meryl Paskow

I didn’t know it was possible to feel so many things in such a short amount of time.

So filled with gratitude one minute; so intensely sad the next. 

To be scared of what comes next but not stopping at my fear. 

To have so much clarity and sense of purpose only to be stopped dead in my tracks by self doubt.

I didn’t know that parts of me could be so calm while other parts felt so restless- simultaneously a gentle breeze and a tornado. Still as a pond while churning like class 4 whitewater rapids. 

I took a walk yesterday.  My neighbor was in her front yard and I stopped to chat from ten feet away. I was so happy to be talking in person to a human being that I don’t live with. And then she made a comment about being Indonesian and Dutch and having an accent that was hard to distinguish and that sometimes people think she is Chinese and she doesn’t like that and she pulled back the outside edges of her eyes and she laughed. And I said, yes, isn’t it a shame that people just love to label each other and put each other into little boxes without ever getting to know them. And I wasn’t so happy anymore to be talking to a human being that I don’t live with. 

It is hard to live in this in between place.

It is a place of both knowing and not knowing. 

Of trusting and not trusting. 

There is such a fine line between laughter and tears- I am reminded of this everyday as I move from one to the other and then back again. 

Gather. Offer. Awake. Fall apart. Turn away. Come back. 

Being present right now is hard but ultimately it feels better than sticking my head in the sand. 

Let It Go…

(Warning: this blog post contains a moderate dose of Disney cheesiness.)

My family just returned from seeing the newly released sequel to Disney’s ‘Frozen.’ In preparation, last night we watched the original film. It was the first time I had actually watched the whole movie from beginning to end with no interruptions. Even if you haven’t seen the film, you have probably heard it’s signature song, ‘Let It Go.’  I had heard the song countless times before last night, but a recent situation in my life has helped me to connect to the lyrics in a new way.

I recently made the difficult decision to separate myself from an organization that I have been deeply entrenched in as a volunteer for the past three years. My reasons for leaving are unimportant in the context of why I am writing this.  What is important is what I learned about leadership from the realization that it was time to leave and from the act of leaving, itself.

  • Lesson One: Sometimes you have to let things fall apart in order for them to have a chance at coming back together. I knew months ago that it was time for me to leave, but without an obvious leader to hand things off to, I was hesitant. Because I care so much about the work I was stepping out of, I didn’t want to leave my team in a bad position. But in hanging on and trying to fix everything I think I was actually holding them back. They may not know yet who will step in to that leadership role, but the space has now been created and the team can rebuild in a way that make sense moving forward.
  • Lesson Two: Even if you have created the initial energy that sparks a project, it is not necessarily your energy that is needed to bring that project to the next level.  I can recognize that I had the right skill set to bring the right group of people together and help them to build an initial foundation and vision of where they wanted to go together. It was a humbling moment to gain the clarity that they had outgrown my leadership and that it was somebody else’s energy that was going to be required to help this group reach their next milestone.  This was an important lesson in humility for me- recognizing what I had been able to accomplish while also acknowledging that I was no longer the right leader for the group.
  • Lesson Three: It was really important for me to step away from this experience while I could still look back and see all of it as a blessing. I could feel myself starting to focus on the things that weren’t working and the times my feelings had gotten hurt instead of focusing on the good I had done and how I was better because of it.  I thought that I was persevering. It turned out I was really just holding on too tightly to something I needed to be letting go of.  Now that I have let go, my overwhelming feeling is of gratitude for what I have learned and how I have grown. I can honestly say that I want only good things for this organization and the leaders who are still invested in the work they were doing. If I hadn’t stepped away when I did, I think I would have risked carrying those negative thoughts with me and letting them blind me to the many gifts I have received over the past three years.
  • Lesson Four:  Letting go of one thing creates space for the next thing.  Within two days of announcing my decision to close one chapter of my life, I was offered a completely different opportunity. I am now about to embark on a new adventure/challenge that is more in line with my current priorities, an opportunity that lends itself to my goals for my personal and spiritual growth while helping to protect and strengthen an institution that has become very important to me.

The decision itself to let go was wrought with emotion and stepping away was exceedingly difficult. Now that I have done so, I feel so much lighter and more energized, and like I am more available to the world. And I feel like I am in a place again where I can be giving of myself freely, without all of the conditions I was putting on my active leadership in an organization that was no longer a good fit for me.

The signature song in ‘Frozen 2’ is called, “Into the Unknown,” which feels like an appropriate transition to the next step in my own development as a leader in my community. But I go there willingly and openly with just the right balance, I think, of excitement and nervousness. And with deep gratitude and acknowledgement that the experience I have just left has helped to prepare me for what’s to come.  As one of the characters said in Frozen 2, just when you think you are on the right path, life plucks you up and puts you back down on a different one. And then, the only thing you can do, is the next right thing.

 

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