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The Evolution of an Identity

27 Jun

When I was in high school, I met the first person I’d ever date. And I didn’t know it when I met her, but we would weave in and out of one another’s lives for the next three years. I would feel simultaneous joy and pain for every moment we were friends.

The first time I told a friend that I liked this girl (but still liked boys too), she frowned and said, “Bisexual? That’s not a thing. You’re gay or straight.” But I wasn’t, and even though I knew it deep down, I remember that I just smiled and moved on to a different topic.

I understood very little about sexuality, and all of the opinions that dominated my life came clouded with religious overtones. It was a time when “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the Defense of Marriage Act were heavy parts of the national conversation, and many of the people I went to school with were devout Catholics. My parents were faithful, but never evangelical, teaching me that above anything really to just treat others as you wished to be treated. “Love one another, for God is love.” They thought that the environment that gave my brother and I the best opportunity at getting into good colleges were the local Catholic schools. I attended those schools for 12 years. On the academic side, they were probably correct in their assumption. But there was a high price to pay for this education (beyond the tuition.)

Because of where I went to school, I got into trouble for holding my girlfriend’s hand or saying anything in our morality classes that implied that I didn’t consider homosexuality a sin. When we were “dating” (and I put it in quotations simply because it was such a gray area), I could tell very few of my friends, and never, EVER show so much as an iota of affection in front of the girl’s mother. If she ever knew, she’d have thrown her out of the house. I was well aware of where and when we could get away with letting it show that we cared about one another.

I still cringe sometimes when I consider how I treated this young woman, constantly vacillating between loving her and running away from her. At a time in my life when I wish I felt free to tell someone, “I don’t understand. There is no difference between my attraction to boys and my attraction to girls,” I felt that if I told anyone of authority, the only thing that could follow was anger, disappointment, or shame. Once a priest told me I’d be better off leading a life of celibacy than ever experimenting with homosexual relationships. I fled dating my girlfriend numerous times, often seeking easier or more “normal” relationships with guys. I figured that even if I was bisexual, life would just be easier if I presented and acted like a straight woman. I wanted more than anything to make my faith and my sexuality work together, but the mental gymnastics required were more than I could tolerate.

At one point though, I was tired of pretending all the time. I told my two of my best friends on summer swim team that I was bisexual, and they were revolted. That was a dagger in my heart. I will never, ever forget the loss I felt sitting between them that day, and I never told either of them how badly it wounded me. I’d not felt that sting of hatred since eighth grade, when I first read about young Matthew Shepard being beaten and left for dead tied to a fence in Laramie, Wyoming for the crime of flirting with a couple of heterosexual men.

When I moved to Boston for college, I met people of all backgrounds and found allies through campus GLBTQ organizations, PFLAG, clubs, and online support to understand that I identified most sincerely as pansexual. Some people really don’t like labels on their sexuality, and that’s fine, but for me it gave me a sense of ownership of my sexual identity. I didn’t have a preference of how a person presented, or what reproductive organs he or she had. I just knew I felt attracted and drawn to all kinds of different people.

And then one day I decided to just out myself casually. I was watching TV with a bunch of friends in my freshman year dormitory and we were talking about high school. At a point, I mentioned an ex-girlfriend and one of my friends said, “I didn’t know you were gay.”

“I’m not, I’m bisexual. Well, I guess pansexual is more accurate.”

“You just like everyone?”

I laughed at the remark, but suddenly I realized that this identity I’d felt ashamed of my whole life was actually an enormous gift. I couldn’t remember a time where I’d ever felt a preference toward men, women, or any other gender identity. I just felt drawn and attracted to certain people. It was revelatory—I kept trying to think back to a time when I felt differently, and I realized that this person always existed. There were never any barriers around gender. I felt lucky.

I was born this way.

The friends watching football with me that Sunday afternoon continued to watch the game with me as we moved on to complaining about finals together. Absolutely nothing changed. Nothing. No one treated me differently, and no one told me “I’ll pray for you,” or “God will help you find your way.”

I was free. Free of all of it. Even though I realized that there would always be people who didn’t like me because of my identity, I realized also how many MORE people didn’t care at all.

I could love anyone I wanted to love. And finally I really felt like I knew myself.

Many years later, I happily returned to a sense of spirituality through yoga and meditation, and am joyfully married to a man who has known and loved me for everything I am from day one. He is proud of me every single day, and has never asked me to hide my feelings or thoughts. He knew what yesterday’s Supreme Court decision meant to me, my family and friends in gay relationships and marriages, and all of those who have ever felt like their relationships were somehow second-class. After I taught my morning class yesterday, I received his text message that the United States of America had taken this massive step toward stripping this country of institutionalized discrimination. I fell to my knees and cried the moment the last student left the studio.

I thought of my littlest cousin, who is only one year old. She will grow up in a country where it has always been legal to marry the person you love, regardless of sex or gender. She will grow up in a country where, yes, there is still a great deal of work to be done toward equality, but her generation will have this foothold of marriage. She will know that in the eyes of the law, these relationships are every bit as beautiful, valid, and special as the marriages of heterosexual partners.

She will not go through high school with words like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” being commonplace or rallying cries for a “Defense of Marriage Act.” She’ll have all the confusion, angst, and elation that every teenager goes through without that one added pressure. Her generation will have its own challenges to face, and the road to equality for all is a long and winding one, but for now I embrace this moment.

“I celebrate myself and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to YOU.”

–Walt Whitman

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Neen’s Notes is BACK (with cookies)!

16 Jan

Almost a year after quietly fading away, here I am. So what happened?

Life.

Yoga Teacher Training Graduation, March 2014.

Yoga Teacher Training Graduation, March 2014.

Okay, you want details. After I finished yoga teacher training at the end of March 2014, there was a void. It was a steady, dull ache that huddled in my heart and reminded me constantly of how much I missed the long weekends learning about yoga with kind souls. I grasped at every opportunity I could to take classes from my friends (now amazing yoga teachers!), but I couldn’t get grounded. Things at work were really challenging. The organization where I worked had gone through huge transitions in procedures and leadership, and the growing pains got more palpable with time. Every time one fire started to die out, another blazed in its place. There was sadness within me that I couldn’t shake, but I did my best to keep grinding forward.

As we do each spring, Joe and I made our grand return to Boston for PAX East in April and that was when everything started to change. While we were away, two local studios emailed me and offered me yoga teaching jobs, and one of them offered to hire me to do some writing work for their website and blog. That night I was sitting at a panel event hosted by the team from Giant Bomb. All of the panelists and their guests were having fun—they’d found a way to take their joy and make a living doing it. I decided that night to leave my office job.

In Boston for PAX 2014, the weekend it all began!

In Boston for PAX 2014, the weekend it all began!

The next few months were an insane experiment. At the beginning, I only had one or two classes a week that were permanent, so I took substitute teaching positions as often as possible. I spent the rest of my time writing about yoga for a studio blog, and studying therapeutic yoga as a way to expand and continue my training. I wrote class plans, built a website, found a graphic designer to create a logo, started developing a social media presence on Instagram and YouTube, and began to teach myself the ways of Adobe Premiere Pro for video editing (oh we have a ways to go together). And I read. I devoured yoga books, always looking for things to share with my students.

It was not and is not a linear experience. In July, the studio that hired me to write for their blog decided to take their student outreach in a different direction, and at the same time another studio cancelled two of my classes because of low attendance. I was crushed. Maybe I’m not actually cut out for this. I was having some health issues too, and felt frustrated and overwhelmed by everything.

I started to really question myself and did some serious svadhyaya (self-reflection in yoga practice). They say comparison is the thief of joy, but it is also the creator of doubt. I saw my friends in crazy arm balances and strength poses that I didn’t have in my practice and thought, “I can’t offer that to my students. How can I possibly be a good yoga teacher?”

The answer came quietly: You do you.

Instead of focusing on what wasn’t there, I remembered my friends during teacher training telling me that they wished they could just lay in savasana and listen to my voice. It is round, rich, and warm. It is probably my favorite quality about my physical self. So I started using that—sharing a soft chant while students were in a restorative pose or reading a poem during our break between standing and seated poses. People smiled. They thanked me for an experience.

I reminded myself of the importance of maintaining a beginner’s mindset. I was intimidated when I came to yoga by all of the strength and flexibility around me. The teachers I returned to were those who took that away, the ones who offered variations so everyone could try something, and who encouraged students to own their practice. Those are the people I thought, and still think of, when I stand at the front of the room. I decided (rather radically for me) to love myself unconditionally. I looked in the mirror and said aloud, “I love you.” Nothing else needed to be said.

When I let go of trying to be what I thought I needed to be, my confidence grew. I was me when I stood up, and not anyone else. Sure, teachers beg, borrow, and steal cues from one another all the time. That’s the amazing thing about yoga—there is always, always, always something more to learn. Part of the reason I love social media is because the Instagram community is chock full of talented, smart yogis who share their journeys. It makes me feel so connected and whole knowing that we are all in this together, all working together.

And here it is, 2015. I finished my graduate certificate in nutrition in the fall, I’m teaching yoga seven days a week, and have learned to just ride this wave. Classes will ebb and flow, but there is always more to learn and there is always an outlet to share it with others. I’m making my own way and living life on my own terms. It is not always easy and I do still feel twinges of doubt or the urge to control, but more and more I am learning to breathe through it. Life happens one moment at a time.

The universe has put me exactly where I need to be, and I trust that. I have faith. I am welcoming it in, and I hope you’ll join me.

And because this is, after all, Neen’s Notes, I also have cookies!

Over 6 years of Notes, and I never shared my favorite cookie recipe with you: Shortbread. Shame on me.

How lame is that? The truth is that it’s such a simple recipe that I never thought to share it. And then I was making a batch last week and thought that of all the things I make, it is pretty much the embodiment of those words: You do you. (Well, me doing me, but that sounds strange.)

Why? A few reasons. First of all, it’s pretty much pie dough with a slightly different method. And if you know anything about this blog, you know my love for pastry dough runs deep. Secondly, it’s four ingredients that I always have in the house. That’s it. And third of all, in encapsulates my loves of recipe manipulation and kitchen science, because I tried a whooooooole lot of shortbread recipes (tough job), and then made up my own based on knowing exactly what I was trying to achieve in terms of texture and flavor. For me, the perfect shortbread is crisp, but flaky on the inside.

Let’s do it.

Crisp Shortbread Cookies

Ingredients:

  • 4.5 oz. (9 tbsp.) unsalted butter, cut into cubes
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • ½ cup granulated sugar
  • Heavy ½ tsp. kosher salt
  • *Optional: 2 tbsp. corn starch. Adding cornstarch to your flour will make these ultra-snappy and crispy. Especially ideal if you want to use these as sandwich cookies or plan to ice them. It gives them sturdiness without making them tough.
  • *Optional: Sprinkles!
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Team Shortbread

Method:

Preheat an oven to 325 degrees F.

Combine the flour and salt (and cornstarch if using it) in a bowl and set aside.

In a mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar together until fluffy and smooth.

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Nice and fluffy, buy you can taste to be “sure”.

Slowly add the flour mixture to the creamed butter and sugar, mixing slowly and just until pieces of dough start to adhere together. Pour this on to a clean surface.

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Bring the dough together with your hands and knead just until smooth. Wrap in plastic wrap and rest the dough in the refrigerator for 20 minutes.

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Smooth and ready to wrap/roll.

Lightly flour a counter and roll the dough out until it’s about a 1/4 in. thick, and cut out shapes as desired. I used a fluted 1 ½ in. biscuit cutter and got 2 dozen cookies.

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Any shape will work, but if there are a lot of fine edges, roll the dough a bit thicker.

Put the cookies on a baking sheet with about ½ in. of space between them. They won’t spread very much. Here you can add sprinkles if you like.

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Ready to bake.

Bake the cookies on a rack in the middle of the oven for about 17 minutes, or until the edges are lightly golden.

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Ta-da!

Enjoy!

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Sparkling shortbread, yum.

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Mmm, so flaky inside.

 And that is the delicious, and dare I say very happy, return of Neen’s Notes. It’s good to be back.

Ciao for now,

Neen

Ask Why

15 Oct

October 10th was World Mental Health Day, a time to raise awareness about the stigma surrounding mental health issues, the serious challenges and problems with mental healthcare affordability and accessibility, and why we can—and should—do better for individuals suffering from conditions than can be debilitating.

The vast majority of the people I have known who suffer from mental illness are afraid to tell those around them. The reasons vary, but it generally boils down to judgment. Will others suddenly begin to treat you with kid gloves? Will they shy away from you? Will they fear that you could blow up or break down at any moment?

Of course, these questions are judgments in their own way. Immediately they judge the individual being told about the problem as someone who does not have the capacity for compassion or understanding. That is just as unfair as being judged over a disease.

About a month and a half ago, I began training to teach yoga. The first weekend was literally life-changing. I’ve honestly been kind of embarrassed at the zealousness I feel when I talk about it outside of the studio. There I am surrounded by a community where my self-consciousness all but disappears. Perhaps it was our teacher’s remark the very first night that our studio classroom was a safe space where there would be no gossip. We began that very evening to put our trust in one another along this journey.

Many people think that yoga is just about the asana practice, but it is so much more. Asana is a component of this science that helps us bridge the gap between what we know and what we understand. On an individual level, each time a breath is taken mindfully, we connect the intellectual and primitive centers of the brain. Yoga is a toolbox that we fill with knowledge of history, philosophy, anatomy, physiology, and ethics, and then take out into the world, hoping that we might share with others. Hoping that by bringing it off of the mat, we will break down the walls that prevent us from acting as witnesses and understanding the true Self. Understanding the commonality that exists between all things, and allowing that to yoke us to everything else that is.

The week after we began our journey together at teacher training, a depressive episode slapped me in the face. It’s always frustrating when it comes out of nowhere. When there’s no specific problem to point to and you’re just depressed, it’s laaaaaaame. There’s not a problem to solve that will achieve the desired result: contentment. I was gritting my teeth thinking of the sheer amount of money I’ve spent on pharmaceutical treatments for depression over the years, how many times I’ve accepted side effects as “tolerable,” and how many times I’ve settled for “okay.” Because okay is better than depressed or manic, right?

My depression. My anger. My frustration.

Then it hit me. Practice aparigraha. The yamas and niyamas are sort of like yoga’s ethical code. I have one of them tattooed on my ankle, the word ahimsa (non-harming). Aparigraha is another of these concepts, and translates to “not grasping,” which is interpreted many ways. Generally I’ve perceived it as not being greedy, not taking from others (or yourself), and not grasping for what is not yours. After all, you already have everything you need when you really think about it.

So why was I so intent on this being mine? My depression. My anger. My frustration. I don’t even want it, so why claim it? Why be greedy and hoard negative thoughts and feelings that do not serve my purpose on this earth. Why let my ego control the game?

A depression. An anger. A frustration.

At that moment, I was looking at these things through a window. We were no longer connected. It was not mine, and it never has been. By changing one tiny possessive pronoun, my whole perspective shifted. Although I felt the lingering of sadness, the ache to hold onto that dark place for comfort and familiarity, it was not mine. That place would not serve me in my quest to love myself and others.

Not a cure per se, but wasn’t this treatment every bit as valuable as the different kinds of medications I’ve been willing to pop into my mouth for the last fifteen years? Why did I consider pharmaceutical treatment the only option for treating a disease of the brain? I truly believe that every doctor who has treated me has been good-hearted. Doctors want to do something to help you. But at the end of the day, my diagnosis was always an educated guess at best. There’s no lab work that shows a quantitative improvement, just a series of vague symptoms entirely told from my own perspective. There are patterns if you look long and hard enough. But there’s no hard and fast way to label it. This isn’t me being all, “Down with medication!!!” because it’s a genuinely valuable tool. There are times in my life that it probably saved me from going down a dangerous path.

But it is just that—a tool. It is not a cure.

I simply realized that it wasn’t the right tool for me anymore. It was right a few years ago, but I am not the same and neither is the condition.

And so, standing in the MOMs getting brown rice from the bulk bin, I froze. My head understood something that my heart had been repeating over and over again:

This is not yours. You do not have to keep it. You do not need to keep it.

I did not flush my medication down the drain, but waited for my regular quarterly check-up with the doctor and told her how I felt. I expected resistance; after all, she has guided my medical treatment for five years. But she embraced my perspective and gave me the confidence and a reasonable pathway to slowly taper away from pharmaceutical treatment. We made our plan to follow up in four months and I left her office feeling a sense of independence. I had advocated for myself as a patient, and felt like I was on a path that’s right for where I am today, and not where I was four, eight, or fifteen years ago when I was first diagnosed with depression.

Again, I want to make it really clear that I’m not anti-medication in any sense. My point is this: Ask why. If you’re doing something and it’s not working, ask why you’re settling for that. Maybe it’s because a thousand other things are crowding your schedule / life and you don’t have time or energy to deal with that one dissatisfaction (for now), maybe you’re afraid because change could be worse than something that works half-way, or maybe you think that you haven’t given it a fair shot and want to see where it can take you long-term. Whatever it is, it’s worth a few moments of meditation, a few pages of journaling, and asking yourself honest questions. The answer might not be an “a-ha” moment, and it probably won’t come right away. That’s OKAY. Just observe it, and let yourself be where you are.

You are smarter, more resilient, and stronger than you believe.

You already have all of the best parts of yourself.

The littlest perspective changes can make a huge difference: “I can’t” becomes “I am currently unable to…,” or “I’m not there…yet.” There is always the capacity for positive change. As much as the source is silly (an old Nike ad), they got it right:

“All your life you are told the things you cannot do. All your life they will say you’re not good enough or strong enough or talented enough; they will say you’re the wrong height or the wrong weight or the wrong type to play this or be this or achieve this. THEY WILL TELL YOU NO, a thousand times no, until all the no’s become meaningless. All your life they will tell you no, quite firmly and very quickly. AND YOU WILL TELL THEM YES.”

Open your heart to possibility, realizing that change is available, it is not linear (ups and downs are a fact), and overcoming the fear is probably the most difficult part. Don’t stop asking questions. Don’t stop learning.

Ask why.

And then listen…really listen for what comes up.

Ciao for now,

Neen

Without Explanation

10 May

I have been writing since my stubby hands figured out how to form words out of letters. Because of this, nearly my entire life is documented in worn notebooks stuffed into a series of plastic Rubbermaid containers (in both Pittsburgh and Arlington). Sometimes this is very uncomfortable. I look back on things I wrote and remember quite vividly what life was like at that exact moment.

…Writing under the dogwood tree outside of Sacred Heart, wishing I could reach one of the flowers during spring-time. I always hoped that one would fall still intact, and that I could press it inside of my notebook…

…Writing on the ledge above the parking lot at Central Catholic, half-watching lacrosse practice. Looking for a specific smile among the team and feeling warm when it was found…

…Writing at the picnic table next to the snack bar at the Forest Hills pool. A water-stained notebook scrawled with synchronized swimming choreography between poems and letters to friends that would never be sent…

…Writing at my desk in school, hoping that the teachers would think I was just taking notes. Wondering what would happen if I was ever caught, and feeling sheepish the only time it ever happened (in eighth grade)…

…Writing to friends and other loves trying to explain things that I simply didn’t know how to verbalize audibly…

…Writing outside of the theater at Northeastern during callback auditions, staying just distracted enough to keep anxiety at bay. Waiting to see my friends walk out from their own attempts and hoping to see them smile…

Always in pen, never in pencil. Almost always in script, but sometimes lazily dawdling into half-script / half-print when my wrist cramped. Entirely left-handed, save for some messy right-handed attempts when I had surgery on my left shoulder.

More a compulsion than anything else, I am to this day almost never without a notebook. Most bags that I choose are based on how well journal-sized notebooks will fit inside of them. It is the one thing I have always done, and what I cannot imagine ever quitting. It precedes even my love of cooking.

And I know exactly where it began. I used to sneak into my brother’s room to “borrow” books from the shelf (his fault for keeping them low enough for me to reach!) just to get at one or two very specific titles. I fell in love with my first writer there and never let go.

When I read his words, the overwhelming theme of living life on one’s own terms and without the need for explanation struck my soul. It was as though the world lit up and suddenly I had purpose. He did not limit himself to genre, nor yield to conventional formulas. Instead he lived with imagination, constantly exploring the universe before him. He was the essence of free-spiritedness.

There is not a day that goes by that I do not think of his words in one context or another. His chuckling, gravelly voice sings through my headphones, or I remember that “anything can happen, anything can be.”

I wish I could thank him for everything he has been: An inspiration, a companion, and a constant reminder that there are no limits to the fantastic. He is the friend I never knew, and yet I will always be grateful for having a part of him in my life.

He will always be the light in my attic.

Thank you, Shel.

Remembering Shel Silverstein, September 25, 1930 – May 10, 1999.

Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month: “Grateful”

24 Feb

I am grateful.

Particularly on Saturday mornings. My four year old sheltie bounds immediately to the back door and barks excitedly, running joyfully around the patio, stopping to eat patches of snow as he goes. I boil a pot of water and grind enough beans to brew a French press full of rich, fragrant coffee. The dog comes back inside and immediately sits (his way of asking politely for a cookie). I smear a carrot stick with a little bit of peanut butter, put it down between his front paws, and he gleefully wanders off to devour his prize.

I assemble the ingredients to bake muffins to go with the morning coffee. Soon, the tantalizing smells will convince Joe to get up. In no time at all, my best friend and partner of six years will be chatting with me about the news and enjoying a lazy, work-free day while the dog snoozes between us. Maybe we’ll watch a movie, or take Dioji for a walk. In any case, I will be completely, utterly content and at ease.

And so, so grateful.

Almost a decade ago (in high school), I left an abusive relationship. As crazy as it sounds, it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. My partner at the time was manipulative and threatening to the point where I was afraid to go out with other friends. He told me that none of them could possibly love me as much as he did and that it was a waste of my time to maintain relationships with them. By the time I realized what was happening, what had begun as verbal put-downs spiraled into the ugly realm of physical and sexual abuse.

Following the break up, I tried for several months to endure his presence in the class and activities we shared at school. I thought that by doing this I was being strong and not causing trouble. But it couldn’t last. Every time I saw him, I relived the horrors over and over again. He wondered why I didn’t want to be friends. Finally, I filed for a protection from abuse order and won the motion. He was no longer allowed to be present at classes or events where I chose to be. What should have been liberating became a nightmare. My peers were afraid that I would do the same thing to other boys, and were aghast at the notion that my ex had done what I claimed. Most of those I considered friends turned away from me, insisting that it was just too hard to believe. Instead, degrading notes appeared in my locker, drinks were thrown on me at school sporting events, and classmates started petitions to have me removed from classes that my ex had been kicked out of, remarking that it was “only fair.” The school administration ignored those requests, but did nothing to correct the students’ misconceptions and assumptions.

To this day, I wish my acquaintances had believed me. Sometimes, albeit infrequently, there are days that feel compelled write to them and ask why they didn’t.

Why did you kick me while I was down? Why didn’t you love me?

My hope is that maturity has changed their attitudes toward victims of dating violence.

In my case, there is a positive epilogue. Over the last nine years, I’ve met people who’ve taught me what it really means to be a friend, and met a partner who has shown me that real love *is* respect. My friends, family, and partner gave me the strength and determination that has brought me to where I am now: I’ve graduated from university with honors, completed a master’s degree, lived in multiple cities both domestic and abroad, found a job that brings me happiness, and re-discovered that the world is full of wonderful people and experiences to soak in. I have a deep appreciation for the value of self-confidence and self-worth.

Nearly 1.5 million high school students nationwide experience physical abuse from a dating partner in a single year, and many have not been as lucky as myself. If someone comes forward to you and tells you that he or she is afraid in their relationship and needs help, it has already taken more courage than I can possibly describe to even come that far. Don’t stand for those who would blame the victim.

Don’t wait to be a true friend. I know that am forever grateful for each and every one that has been in my life.

Especially on Saturdays.

February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. Please take the time to talk to the teens in your life about cultivating healthy relationships, and how to recognize the signs of abuse. To learn more, visit http://www.teendvmonth.org. If you think someone you know may be in an abusive relationship, don’t wait to speak up. Visit http://www.loveisrespect.org to learn how you can support victims and be a voice for real love. Love *is* respect…

www.teendvmonth.org

www.breakthecycle.org

www.loveisrespect.org

www.pcar.org

www.nsvrc.org