Do you ever delude yourself?  I, do, regularly.  My Delusion is insidious, as are her good friends, Denial and Rationalization.  So, this past week, I was thinking about my next blog topic, and how I had plenty of time to write it and still keep my weekly schedule, when Reality interjected: “Na ah!  It’s been two weeks, not one since your last post!  What time zone are you on?” Oops, I did it again.  When I was in academia, I believed, once, twice, three, and four times, that I had plenty of time to publish, only to find that five years had evaporated.  But, this is another story.  Today, I am writing about Scrabble.  Yes, I have been playing Scrabble instead of blogging, reading, studying for my clinical exam, or cleaning the house; but this is when Rationalization steps in, telling me that play enhances creativity, abstract thinking, mastery, and cognitive development, among other benefits.

As a child, play bored me, as did other children.  Instead, I wanted to be around adults to listen to their conversations.  Don’t ask me why, as the adults in my life were not particularly interesting.  As an adult, I found games a waste of time, until this summer, when my husband introduced me to electronic Scrabble, which I play with friends via facebook and my iphone.   Some of you may be double squirming right now, thinking that facebook is bad enough, but wasting time on electronic games?   I was once where you are, but I will tell you what I have learned from playing Scrabble.  Spiritual lessons are everywhere—other humans, animals, bed bugs, and even electronic games!

At first, I was afraid to play out of fear of losing—I played with my husband, and Mrs. D., an aquaintance who mirrors my fanaticism (we play three games at a time). But, true competitor that he is, he encouraged me to stick to it, and 356 games later, I am more engaged than ever, and I, for today, I am at the top of the list of my friends who play Scrabble.

Lesson 1: You have to play, to win.

Had I given up after my first game, I would not have not gained a new friend or connected with old ones.  And, I would have missed out on learning these lessons.

Lesson 2: If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again:

I have learned not to give when I am losing because the tiles can turn, and I only need one point to win.  The possibilities to form new words are there, but I need to look for them, once, twice, or three times.

Lesson 3: Don’t get cocky.

Although I may score a Bingo (letter points and a 50 point bonus), again, the tiles turn, and if I am dealt all consonants or all vowels, I may lose despite my skill.

Lesson 4:  You see it when you believe it.

I use to think that Bingos were rare, but this week I’ve seen differently.  If I believe they are rare, I won’t look for them, but if I do, I will find them.

Lesson 6:  Non-attachment

Because the tiles can change at any moment, I have learned not to become attached to winning or losing, though I strive to score.

I have also learned about myself.  I never saw as being competitive because I shied away from competition.  But today, I see that I was hiding my competitive nature in my shadow.  I am competitive, and if own that side of myself, I can manage it instead of it managing me.  And, surprise!  I have fear of success.  When I scored three Bingos last night, I found myself panicking that my Scrabble partners were going to quit on me.  Picture my inner child, alone on the playground, rejected by her playmates; it’s no wonder I have always been reluctant to shine my light out of fear that I would be left alone in the dark.  Practically, Scrabble helps me to manage my anxiety and my boredom.  A close game can be exhilarating after hours of tedious online grading, and it is cheaper than compulsive shopping, a coping strategy from when I had money to spare.  But, I also know that, Scrabble can be my accomplice in avoiding life.  Want to play?  I warn you, though, that I have made dictionary.com my homepage.


Benefits of Play

via Play = Learning – Benefits of Play.


When bed bugs bite!

Be careful of what you ask for!  Don’t say I haven’t warned you.  I asked for an open heart, and I got one, literally; I asked to feel, and I am itching!  To clarify, my teacher, Chetana,  taught me the heart chakra is associated with feeling, and when we are working on issues, we may experience them on the skin level, as the body holds our memories.  Having lived most of my life in my mind, I have often been oblivious that, as one body worker told me years ago, I have a body attached to my head.  I often need reminding of this fact, and the Universe provides me with reminders (e.g., open-heart surgery).   Thanks, Universe!  I must warn you, though, that this entry may trigger your Entomophobia (bug phobia), or may give you one, if you don’t already have one.

My story begins in Massachusetts, on October 28, when I accompanied my husband, his rowing partner and his wife to the Head of the Charles Regatta.  I was ambivalent about going, due to my separation anxiety, but I challenged myself venture out of my comfort zone.  We stayed at a Quality Inn that was clean and had the best breakfast I’d seen in similar establishments.  The weather was fall-like pleasant, and although my husband and his rowing partner did not do well, I enjoyed the company.  On the way home, stopping at a Subway to eat dinner, I start itching on my forearm.  Of course, I start scratching, thinking that I have become allergic to the tight, wool sweater I am wearing, and I wonder whether I will have to get rid of all my sweaters, if that is the case.  We ate and got back on the road.  But by the time I got home, my forearms were covered with bright crimson red, itchy welts.  Closer inspection revealed welts on my arms, and one on my neck.  Then the dizzying realization hit me.  I had been attacked by, yes, BED BUGS!  These miniature bloodsuckers had strategically bitten me wherever they found a prominent vein; my husband, of course, was untouched.  I say, of course, because this was the second time that I was attacked by these hideous creatures and he’d  been spared.   Why me?

Being chomped on by bed bugs is bad enough, but then there is the terrifying question about whether they ‘hitchhiked’ home with you.  PANIC!  If you have been living in this country, you may know that with a 5,000 percent increase in recent years, we are experiencing a bed bug epidemic.  Further, these pests are resilient, and difficult to eradicate.   More PANIC.  Okay, so what to do, except put all the clothes we took on the trip in the laundry, wrap the luggage in a plastic bag, and pull out the Belleruth Naperstek guided imagery to help me sleep, so that I won’t be up all night wondering if they are going to attack me again.  Although I fell asleep, I was a sharp sting on my leg awakened me.  I scratched, turned over, decided not to panic, and went back to sleep.  When I awoke the next morning, the side of my left hand and my left ankle had red, itchy, bites that were smaller and different from my previous bites.  Fleas!  More itching and no scratching to avoid infection.

Once again, I washed all the bedding in the house, my clothes, our dog’s bedding, vacuuming and more vacuuming, extensive internet searches about bed bug annihilation, and depression.  I began to take it personally.  Why were they only attacking me?  I envisioned being  completely isolated because no one would want to visit a bed bug infested house, marked by a giant red CONDEMNED sign.  Although Google is replete with resources and gadgets to decimate them—-steamers are supposed to work the best—I decided to call professional exterminators.  Add financial terror to the equation.  After going through all the options, and, of course, the only one they guaranteed for 90 days cost an estimated $3700 hundred dollars, my depression was morphing into despair.  I marveled that my fear and anxiety were greater than when I was diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm.  I felt trapped, forsaken, and forlorn, and I allowed myself to feel those feelings.  After all, I was getting what I asked for— to feel.  But in the midst of my suffering, I could hear the voice of Byron Katie whispering to me,

“Life is simple. Everything happens for you, not to you. Everything happens at exactly the right moment, neither too soon nor too late. You don’t have to like it… it’s just easier if you do.”

In retrospect, I was so anguished because I could not even escape to my bed for my refuge, my all time favorite escape.  I had absolutely no place to run because if I moved to another bed, the bed bugs would follow!  Seriously.  I felt physically and emotionally ambushed by bugs I could not see—in part, because they were not there.  (As I write this, I am scratching my head, and having flashbacks of head lice when I was in elementary school while my sister was spared.)  Memories of other times I’d felt in danger also flooded me—like when Sweet Money was abusing our dog and stealing my money and my car, and when I was a child in Cuba, and a gunfight ensued right outside our bedroom window.  My diagnosis was another stunning blow.  But the bed bugs were not my only triggers; at around the same, a woman I know who was diagnosed with a defective valve was preparing for surgery at the same hospital where I had my mine; the frozen grief melted once again, and I cried enough tears to wash away  colonies of bed bugs and flies.  I’d finally unleashed the tears I could not shed when I was diagnosed, out of fear that if I did, I would fall apart before the surgeons got to me.

Spiritually, I wondered what bed bugs and fleas had come to teach me. Between the washing and the crying, I cleansed my inner and outer spaces, and I began to feel relief.  Both the tears and the bites subsided, though the fading scars and phantom itching remains.  But, I admit that I am still afraid I will be bitten again when I least expect it.   At those times,  I remind myself of my friend Eric’s wise counsel when I cried to him that, I’ve always seen the world as unsafe, and even more so now.   “Although the world is unsafe, perhaps you can learn to feel safe in it,” he told me.  I am trying.  So what did the bed bugs teach me?  They taught me that fear can be so much more terrifying than reality, that I can handle whatever comes my way, and that it is time to stop hiding in my bed!

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions”

Rainer Maria Rilke

Wow, I have gone three weeks without posting; that is scary and so sad, I feel like crying.  As I write this, I want to escape by calling or emailing friends—-everything to avoid doing something I love, anAdd Audiod I finally understand why.  Since I last posted, I attended a four-and-a-half day Success is an Inside Job™ workshop (SIIJ) .  What an amazing gift!  Thank you Dr. Judith Chusid for having the vision, heart, and determination to embody your dream, thirty years after conducting your original research success blocks.  I feel turned a corner, and since re-entering my life last Monday evening, my insights have deepened and expanded.  Early in the workshop, I completed questionnaires about my blocks to success (perfectionism, self-doubt, low-self-esteem, and survivor guilt) and fear of success signals (I have 25, including fear, esteem issues, distractions—my personal favorite, and negative self-talk).

We were also assigned “success” and “spiritual” buddies upon arrival, with whom we discussed our answers giving each other feedback about what we heard each other say.  One of my buddies, I can’t remember which one, was struck by my saying that I avoid the things I love the most.   Her reflecting that back to me inspired me to send a question out to the Universe:  why would I resist the things that make me feel most alive?  Neither she nor I could make sense of it, then.  But one morning, the answer came to me via a phone call from a friend.  I awoke thinking I would journal and focus on myself, determined to write and not be distracted, but when the phone rang, I automatically answered it.  As soon as I got off the phone, I received a text from another friend, needing my input on a matter, and despite my resolve to write, I dropped everything, twice.  This is not surprising, given my childhood programming, and my love of distractions.  Let me explain.

During the workshop, we did a psychodrama of my family dynamics affecting my relationship to career, and it was powerful! The reenactment, including my father, mother, and three and six-year-old inner children, and Dr. Chusid’s astute questions and observations expanded my understanding of my career paralysis.   First, there is my chronic avoidance of responsibility.  As the eldest child, I became my family’s connection to the English-speaking world as soon as I learned English at age seven, filling out crucial immigration forms, school absence notes, and translating. The trauma of such early daunting responsibility burdens me to this day.  Throughout my adulthood, I have said “NO” for all the times I could not, then.

Second, there is the dream issue—whose dreams have I been or not been living?  Ever since I can remember, my father dreamed that I would become a medical doctor.  Mom, on the other hand, wanted me to become a cartoonist, because of my artistic talent in elementary school.  When Judith asked me what my dreams were, I was speechless.   Dreams?  Looking back, I became a social worker because I was not ready to face the world, I needed an excuse to go back to school, and my therapist in college was a social worker.  My goal was to become a psychoanalyst, just like he was, but research and policy classes in graduate school convinced me, otherwise.  Those classes challenged me intellectually and sparked in me a commitment to social justice and to creating knowledge about Latino/as in the US.  Unhappy with the low status and low pay of social workers,  before and after graduation, I entertained a doctorate in psychology and even medical school, but chose to get a doctorate in social work, instead—not because I wanted to teach, but because I wanted options.  I realize now, that my doctorate and finding my life partner were my last career/personal dreams.  After that, the dream well ran dry.  By the way, giving upon reaching a goal is a fear of success signal, and that is exactly what I did after graduation; I landed the highest academic job I could and I retired, so-to-speak, embarking, instead, on my spiritual quest.

When Judith asked what I wanted to do in my career, I blurted that I wanted to work with her doing the workshops.  “Are you sure?,” she asked.  “Do you really want to do this, or is it that you are use to being a helper?”  I am thinking.   .   .  She ended the session with a brilliant solution that honors the six-year-old that balks at responsibility.  “You will have success without responsibility,” she pronounced.  Feeling uncomfortably irresponsible, I protested, “But it’s not that I don’t want responsibility.”  And, she repeated, “You will have success without responsibility.”

Later, I asked her what she meant; success without responsibility means that I only do the things that I want to do, for now.  I am not to force the six-year-old, which if you think about it, would be abusive.  But then, there is the lingering issue of my being a disappointment.  Since I disappointed my father, despite my accomplishments, part of me feels, why even try when I will end up disappointing people, anyway?  But this is when I need to sing the refrain from the Ricky Nelson song—-remember him from the sixties?  “But it’s all right now, I’ve learned my lesson well. You see, you can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself.

Last Sunday was busy and exhausting, so I played facebook Scrabble instead of writing my Blog entry. The truth is that, I unconsciously surrendered to the relentless subliminal refrain of my Greek Chorus.  As an aside, it is interesting that, refrain means, both, a “ group of verses repeated at intervals throughout a song or poem,” and to hold back.  So, what are my refrains, of this song, called my life?

“Zulema, you are so self-indulgent—why should people care to know about your navel gazing?  Oh, your writing is slipping, at the beginning you were creative and engaged, now you are just writing to fill up the page.  People are tired of your whining.

Get the sound of the cacophony I live with?  The thing is that, these messages are so insidious that, I am not always aware of this background music.  But, the Universe, in its infinite compassion sent Angels to rescue me from my reverie.  One morning last week, I received an email that a random person stumbled onto my post on Tonglen, and liked it.; one of my friends called and left a message thanking and praising me and my writing; one my former students shared that she’d read my blog on face book , and enjoyed it; finally, my blogger friend subscribed to my blog.  As I write, I am reminded that, like Harry Potter, I can create a Patronus Charm to deflect my Dementors.  Throughout the week, whenever I start to feel discouraged, I hope I remember to conjure up my happy memory to give me the energy to continue composing my life.

But this is also a good time to revisit why I started this blog.  I write because I love playing with words, hundreds of Scrabble games, lost and won will attest; I write because I am a teacher, and I want to share what I learn; I write because it is an expression of healing, and, hopefully, sharing my struggles makes your struggles less lonely.  Finally, I write, because in the words of Dumbledore, the sage wizard from Harry Potter:

I sometimes find, and I am sure you know the feeling, that I simply have too many thoughts and memories crammed into my mind… At these times… I use the Pensieve. One simply siphons the excess thoughts from one’s mind, pours them into the basin, and examines them at one’s leisure.

via “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” Quotes.

If distress is the affect of suffering, shame is the affect of indignity, transgression and of alienation. Though terror speaks to life and death and distress makes of the world a vale of tears, yet shame strikes deepest into the heart…. shame is felt as inner torment, a sickness of the soul….the humiliated one feels himself naked, defeated, alienated, lacking in dignity and worth.

Silvan Thomkins

Pretend this is Sunday, though it is really Wednesday.  I was so busy this weekend that I never sat down to write my Blog.  Invariably, we sacrifice those things that are most meaningful to us; though that is not to say that working on my Cuba research, preparing for class, and Sunday Services are not important.  But we sacrifice those things that are of core relevance to our Self.  Enough with the sermon, especially since it isn’t Sunday!  In the past I have written about my feelings of dread, but have I explicitly explored my feelings of shame, embodied by my Inner Greek Chorus?   Perhaps I have and this is yet another level of realization.

This week shame came to me intellectually and affectively, so why not face it?  In class, we were trying to discern the difference between fear/dread and instinct, and shame.  Isn’t shame an instinct, too, one Korean female student asked?  After some discussion, we concluded that while fear is an instinct, or innate, shame is learned.  Although I am the last person qualified to be referencing the Bible, I noted the Adam and Eve, whom free of shame went around naked, until they disobeyed God.  After that, they began covering up, which is what we do when we feel ashamed, both physically and metaphorically, so much so, that according to Marc Miller, a California psychologist, this cover up is so strong that shame receives little attention in psychology practice, research, and training.

Shame, according to Helen Lewis, a psychoanalyst consists of a family of emotions—humiliation, embarrassment, feelings of low self-esteem, belittlement, and stigmatization. Throughout my life my shame has been so profound that, I could not see it as it was so all encompassing.  But where does shame, my shame come from?  Adam and Eve’s shame came from disobeying God and separating themselves from a sublime ideal; shame is inflicted by society (teachers, peers, religion, for example) and by our parents as a punishment for deviation.  In my case, I was born with an overdeveloped superego, which may or may not be related to having been born a Virgo, the perfectionist astrological sign.  Add to that mix, a demanding father with an insatiable appetite for achievement I could never satisfy.  My shame also comes from being different.  I was the girl who dared not to aspire to marriage and motherhood, and I whom was fascinated by ideas and people more so than by toys and play.  And, of course, we must not forget that, as a female immigrant who looked, acted, and related differently, I stood out from the wallpaper I tried to melt into.

Although my shame has become more compassionate in recent years, this week it came to meet me when I did not write my Blog on Sunday, when I feared not fulfilling a research deadline, and when I reconnected with my feelings of shame of my Cuban hillbilly working-class background.  Despite having a PhD from a world-class university, part of me feels daunted that I am interviewing people from the Cuban elite—people I never would have met had it not been for fate and history. Exposing or uncovering myself, here, is dizzying and nauseating, but it is also helping to liberate me, as I learn that I commit no sins for being myself.  What are you hiding that needs to be exposed so that its bind over you loosens?


Shame. The many faces of shame.

Tomkins, Silvan S.Nathanson, Donald L. (Ed), (1987). The many faces of shame, (pp. 133-161). New York, NY, US: Guilford Press, xvi, 370 pp

I have had a lifelong pattern of avoidance and procrastination, like waiting to write this blog post at the last minute, and not responding to comments immediately, though both soothe my heart.   It’s not surprising, then, that it has taken me almost fifty years to deal with my feelings about having left Cuba.  To be honest, I didn’t think I had any feelings about it.  Although I went into therapy when I was 19 to deal with my adolescent cross-cultural angst, I attributed all my woes to my father’s old world, chauvinistic attitude.  Everything was his fault.  Any interest I had in Cuba was purely intellectual, and, indeed, I went back for a doctorate to study Cubans.  Despite my best intentions, it became easier to write a different dissertation on an existing data set than to collect my own data.  Looking back, I may never have finished, since data collection is so costly and time-consuming.  Twenty-five years later, I am doing the research on Cubans I set out to do back then.  It seems that not only did I have to do spiritual work to get me to a place where I can explore my Cuba wounds, but I also had to wait for my friend Rocío to start and change careers so that she could do this research with me.   I am ready now, but it is not easy—especially since I feel like a part of my affective life has been dormant for a half-century.

On Wednesday, we conducted two interviews that further thawed my frozen grief.  We interviewed Dr. F., a recently retired 85-year-old Cuban internist, turned psychiatrist after migrating to the US, and his 81-year-old wife.  At first, their story was like all the other stories— they were politically oppressed in Cuba, came to this country without money, and were forced to start from scratch to rebuild their lives again.  But unlike the others, who may have lost or almost lost a grown child, this couple had lost two of four children.  Their only daughter was stricken with a brain tumor while she was a pre-med student at John Hopkins University, dying at the age of 20.  Her mother, who had always sewn her dresses, made the dress she was buried in.  I can’t even imagine what that must have been like for this mother.  They lost their second child almost three years ago, at the age of 47, again to cancer.   Yet, they go on, as they did after losing almost everything the first time.  I say almost, because they had each other and their two children even though they were torn away from their country and their extended family.

That afternoon, we interviewed a woman who was reluctant to talk with us because she had nothing important to say but gave us a textbook definition of ambiguous loss. Mrs. V. was embarrassed to tell us her story, claiming that her long-deceased husband would have so much more to tell us.  But she finally did talk to us, sharing that for the first ten years she spent in this country, she would physically celebrate holidays, like Christmas Eve with her family in NJ, but mentally, she was in Cuba.  She would not only recollect memories of years gone by, but she imagined how her parents and siblings were spending the holidays.  According to Pauline Boss, she was experiencing a Type One Ambiguous Loss , where she was physically absent from Cuba, but psychologically present.   When her parents died, she wore neutral colors for years as a symbol of her grief, following a cultural custom known as “luto”, and sixteen years later, her husband’s clothes remain untouched.

Their grief collided with mine, and I cried myself to sleep that night for my losses and theirs.  I cried for my father, who died six years ago October 2nd, and whose story I would never get, because it did not seem important at the time, and for the Cubans we’d met that day, who lost their motherland during their youth and spent a lifetime in exile, longing to return to the paradise they did not know they had until they lost it.

Carpe Diem

“Carpe diem! Rejoice while you are alive; enjoy the day; live life to the fullest; make the most of what you have. It is later than you think.”

via Living quotes.

I didn’t post last week and I have been on the verge of skipping this week as well. since I was and am exhausted, physically and emotionally.  Although I thought I was immune to the residual effects of 9/11, I wasn’t.  I found myself feeling frightened that I would die in a 10th year anniversary attack.  It didn’t help that someone I know, who was at the WTC during the attacks, was wrestling with her PTSD, or that I was volunteered to support American war Vets in Levittown, PA through Operation Stand Down.  Wouldn’t veterans be terrorist targets?   I knew my fears were irrational, but I could not help myself.  Ten years later, planes crashing against towers continue to haunt us, and, perhaps, always will.

Writing demons, like terrorists and Dementors in the Harry Potter series, can siphon your soul, leaving you lifeless; last week, I told myself I could not write, and I couldn’t.  But I have learned from Harry Potter that, a Patronus charm can help deflect negative forces by staying focused on something positive, like a happy memory, the happier the better.  I must have succeeded in conjuring one up, since I am writing tonight, even though I still have to prepare for class tomorrow, and my personal Greek chorus echoes in the background, telling me I can’t write.  But standing firm, I remembered my commitment to writing as a spiritual practice and how fulfilled I feel during and after writing a blog entry.  And, I remembered that, showing up is the beginning and the end.  I must show up in life, and writing makes me feel alive.

So, why am I so tired this week?  Because I have been seizing every opportunity that comes my way—-stretching myself way beyond my comfort zone.  Despite my tendency to barricade in my home fortress, I taught my first class at the Blanton-Peale Institute last week (more another time), I have started training to co-lead Success Is An Inside Job Retreats (SIIJ), and I volunteered at Operation Stand Down, while continuing my online teaching, and my research on Cubans.  Fighting off my Dementors, I am meeting the most extraordinary people, both personally and professionally, and reconnecting with old friends and acquaintances.  I feel so exuberant that, at times, I am afraid I will blow a gasket.  In the past I resisted both joy and pain, and, now, I am allowing both in.  Wow.  This is what being alive feels like—-to have integration and alignment between whom you are, what you do, and whom you spend your time with.  But living fully can be exhausting when you are first learning how.