Brain-Picking Becky #15: The Best, the Worst, Here.

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I’ve always held myself to impossibly high standards, standards that I don’t expect from other people. In fact, if someone else makes a mistake, I’m often the first to empathize and offer my support. But when it comes to me, well, I’m supposed to be perfect. Don’t my family, my friends, my students, the world, deserve the best from me?

In the first few months after my mom left her body, when I was so consumed by grief that everything else ceased to matter, I had a major revelation that “the best” doesn’t exist, that it’s just a construct we’ve created that keeps us disconnected from our present reality. During this period of intense grief, I would sometimes think the best choice was to go out with my friends, but then the moment I arrived at the bar, it felt all wrong. Other times it seemed best to stay at home and read, but then I’d cry and feel lonely and wish I’d gone out. Then there were times when whatever I’d chosen, whether it had felt right or wrong in the moment of choosing it, was exactly what I’d needed.

Because “the best” had become so nebulous and easily changeable in my mind, it started to seem not only unreal but also silly. Besides, the grief I was constantly grappling with overpowered everything else and made the process of analyzing if I should have gone out or stayed home feel unimportant, a waste of time.

Humans, or Americans at least, seem to despise discomfort. Even a little bit of it. We’re constantly complaining about how cold or hot the air is, how hungry or full our bellies are. We can’t seem to find that perfect situation. But instead of seeing that it doesn’t exist, we get lost in searching for it and then feel angry or sad that we continually can’t find it.

Now, four and a half years after my mother’s passing, I feel stronger, tougher, and wiser, but I’ve also fallen back into old habits of expecting “the best” then feeling guilty when I don’t achieve it. In a weird way, I miss those few months right after she died. I don’t miss the pain, but I miss the clarity it gave me, how it temporarily freed me from these constructs that I – we – have created.

But I don’t need all-encompassing grief in order to free myself again from these thought patterns. All I have to do is breathe.


Amazing comic by Gemma Correll.

Living / Screaming / Trying

Love wins, we say, and I believe it. But hate is powerful, too.

When my anger over the sexism I’ve simply swallowed in the past week, past month, past year, past lifetime, bubbles up and makes me want to scream, I look at pictures of my dogs until it passes. Often, animals exhibit more humanity than we humans do.

But now I’m thinking I should be screaming more often.


I am raising a son. My God, I have a son. There are so many things he must know and do. There is so much work ahead of us.

I wish it were a better world.

Is it enough that I am trying?

This Fine Life

“She started shakin’ to that fine fine music,” I sing along to the record as Lew and I dance hand-in-hand around our living room. He’s smiling brilliantly, hopping back and forth on his tiny toddler feet, throwing our arms up and down in an arrhythmic expression of joy. I’ve always loved to dance but never before motherhood did I just burst forth like this.

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His ecstasy is contagious and in spite of all the freedom motherhood took away, being a mother has also freed me. We lose ourselves and I feel so full of love, love for this song and this kid and this life, and I don’t understand how my breastbone and thin skin manage to hold
the hugeness of my heart.

Human Waves

On this fourth anniversary of my mother’s death, I am struck by how often I find her in my day-to-day, by how alive she still is in so many ways. Yet I am also struck by how badly I wish she could have met my son. He has met her, through photographs, recipes, lullabies, records, but she never got to see his face, much less hold his precious little body, and this is the one big thing I still grieve.

But when we lose someone we love, there will always be that one big thing. As I meditate by this glorious ocean, two waves crash into one another directly in front of me, their waters flowing through each other until it’s impossible to tell where either one begins or ends. Seconds later they reverse direction and glide away, disappearing into the vastness of the great water behind them. I think of how my mom and my son are like two waves splashing together inside of me, their waters flowing through each other through me, how really all of us are like waves in the same great glorious human ocean, crashing and gliding and flowing through one another.

Remembering Rain


I am six-years-old in the backseat of my family’s blue Oldsmobile. My father is driving through a patch of heavy rain and my mother is nervous, she bites her nails and spins the radio knob in search of a local weather report. My older brother, however, is fascinated, he presses his fingers to his window and traces streaks of water as they race down the glass.

The rain somehow beats harder against our car. My heart beats faster along with it. I am worried this much rain means a tornado is coming and I know a car is the worst place to be during a tornado. There is so much I don’t understand yet – the nature of storms, of my mother’s phobias, of my own mind – and I am too young to find the words to form the right questions, much less accept that they don’t have answers. I am confused and I want to cry but everyone tells me I cry too much and I don’t want to prove them right. My brother can sense my disquiet, he turns to me and reaches one hand across the middle seat, pats his lap with the other. I lie down on him and am instantly soothed. He drapes his arm over me and tells me that he likes the rain, I shouldn’t be scared, rain is fun. I love him and the soft way he speaks and also how safe it feels to lie in his arms. My body relaxes and I think that if my very smart big brother likes the rain, then perhaps it isn’t such a bad thing after all.

— ◊ —

The rain stops right as my husband pulls into a hotel parking lot. I release our boy from his seat and he is thrilled to be free after all those hours of driving, he skips across the sidewalk through the front doors and into the lobby, climbs onto the couch and bounces three times before jumping down and dashing off again. I check in with the receptionist and then corral him back out through the doors to our car. My husband, laden with bags, comments on how beautiful the lightening is. He hands me the stroller then slams our trunk right as a loud crack of thunder rattles the sky, cracks open the dark heavy cloud hanging above us, and releases an onslaught of rain. We squeal and run into the hotel, our hair and clothes drenched from mere seconds of downpour. The boy is beaming, he dances in circles around the lobby, delighted he is wet enough to leave puddles of water behind him. “Watch me!” he shouts at the receptionist who obediently walks around her desk and watches his clumsy rendition of a frog. She asks him if he likes the rain and he nods enthusiastically. She then asks if he is scared of thunder and he pauses, cocking his head in thought. After a moment, he leaps up to his feet, sticks his arms out behind his back and runs to the couch, shouting “Nooooooo!” as he throws his wet body against a cushion and bounces off of it, laughing hysterically.

Photo Credit: Downpour by Vaidehi Shah

Gratitude, A Photo Journal: Brain-Picking Becky #14

I just can’t with the news this week – so much violence, anger, fear, greed. I decided that rather than focusing on how awful our world leaders are, I needed to take a break from current events and focus my energy on the little things in my day-to-day life that make me grateful. In the past, avoiding the news felt like I was being irresponsible, neglecting my duties as a citizen, but now, taking the space I need to focus on gratitude seems like the best way to resist the hatred and negativity that’s spreading through our country, our world, like a disease. It’s a lot easier for me to be kind to others and treat them with respect and compassion when I’m feeling full of gratitude, and kindness, respect, and compassion are exactly what this world needs more of right now. So whether you continue to tune into the news or not, I strongly encourage you to also tune into the grateful wavelength. It might take some reminding at first, but we are all capable of making this choice and sticking with it. Here are some photos and thoughts to hopefully get you started.

IMG_1027I very much appreciate green things growing out of rocks. I also appreciate the sound of lapping water and my silly/awesome star tattoos and the way sunshine feels on my
bare feet.

IMG_1019There is beauty everywhere if we allow ourselves to see it, even in steel and machines and concrete. I also love the fact that five different countries were represented on this single subway car; NYC is proof that people from all of the world can live together in harmony.

IMG_1024From the subway to the bay to the ocean. My commute is special. When I look out at this body of water that goes on and on until it reaches another continent where someone of a different race and a different language is, like me, staring into its depths, I feel grateful that I am so small yet also connected to something so tremendous.

IMG_1016Not everyday can be sunny. And that’s okay; I appreciate a gray sky and the smell of rain and the sound it makes as it falls against my umbrella.

Okay, I confess it’s perhaps ridiculous to have this many animals in a Brooklyn apartment, yet at the same time, it’s magical. I love my little menagerie and I love being loved by them. I greatly appreciate that we all make it work.

IMG_1059And, of course, this boy. Every day I am grateful for him; becoming a mom is the most incredible and rewarding thing I have ever done.

BeckyLewCryingAlso, the craziest. But I’m grateful for the imperfect moments, too, for the screams and the exhaustion and the ink stains on towels. I’m glad that life is complicated.

IMG_1077And I’m glad that in the midst of these complications, we find opportunities to relax and reflect. As a child I dreamed of something different than the cow farms and cul-de-sacs I grew up with, and now here I am thriving in New York City. May all people have a dream and the gumption to go for it.

IMG_1084And may all people also have the luxury of a summer afternoon with Prosecco, good friends, and a beautiful view.

Click here to learn more about the ongoing column Brain-Picking Becky.

Brain-Picking Becky #13: How We Tell (and Edit) Our Stories


I’ve been thinking a lot about the micro memoir. I’m a wordy writer (and person in general), and I typically fall victim to over-explaining my ideas in an effort to be extra sure that what I’m trying to say is understood. This often results in clunky sentences and unnecessary repetition, not to mention how time-consuming it is. When I edit both my fiction and nonfiction, I try hard to channel my inner Hemingway and delete, delete, delete. Focus on the power of what is left unsaid. Except I’m bad at leaving things unsaid.

I’ve also been thinking a lot lately about the way we tell our stories, the choices we make when it comes to mood and tone, the language we use silently in our minds versus the language we share with our mouths and our fingers. So much of how we see the world, our place in it, ourselves in general, is our own choice, and this is so deeply affected by the way we frame our own stories. Yet how much of this framing really is our choice? How much of our personal narrative comes from our parents, their parents, and their parents? How much comes from early childhood memories we don’t remember but feel like we remember because our family has remembered them for us? From our genetic makeup, from the makeup of our neighborhoods, from the makeup we put on before we go out into the world?


Last year, Lew loved the ocean water. He would run into it and shout with glee, jump, splash, run away, run back. This summer, he is two-years-old and has developed the capacity to fear. Now when he goes close to the water, he freezes and screams, partly playful, mostly afraid. He loves it when I carry him in, he’ll beg me to go deep enough that the waves splash against his delicious round belly, yet he clings to me so tightly that I can let go of him and he doesn’t even slip down my torso. The other day, as he and I were digging holes in the sand and filling them up again, my friend asked me if Lew liked the water and I said, “Oh he loves it but he’s also scared of it. It’s a new development this year, I hope it doesn’t last long.” Later that afternoon, Lew and I walked to the shore hand-in-hand and then right when we approached the ocean’s edge, he stopped, scrunched his nose and eyes together, reached his arms to me and cried, “Mommy, up, up, I scared of ocean water!” He had never used the word scared before.

In thinking about my story, Lew’s story, the story of my family and the tiny pieces that come together to make up these stories, I am deeply grateful for all the things I get to experience. Yet at the same time, I am deeply exhausted. An editor might say that my story is going in too many directions and needs to be pared down.

Leave more unsaid.

I’m reminded of Rivka Galchen’s book Little Labors, a beautiful, unique collection of short essays about new motherhood. I feel like these snippets, these micro memoirs, capture the reality of our existence so well. In the end, isn’t life really just little pieces of memory put together and called a whole?


Click here to learn more about the ongoing column Brain-Picking Becky.