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

Do You Ever Think.jpg

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.

Spreading Love

May we all live in this world happily, peacefully, joyfully, and with ease. This is what I dream for, and this is why I resist. Happy birthday and thank you, Martin Luther King Jr!

MLK Quote.jpg


Stop This Tax Scam RIGHT NOW! Call, Email, and Tweet Your Senators!

unnamed.pngMany of you have been following the progress of this horrible tax bill. The vote is nearing, and we absolutely must put the pressure on Republican senators to not let this travesty pass. It’s not only a back-door ACA repeal but also a total scam, giving the uber rich a break while the working and middle class pay more. How long are we going to allow this corporatocracy to continue, at our expense no less??

Take five minutes right now, call 202-335-5529, and beg these Senators to VOTE NO on this tax bill! When your first call ends, press * to advance to the next call automatically.

I don’t agree with all of her views, but Senator Susan Collins has been a hero on the health care front so far. She has not confirmed her vote either way, but says she is hesitant because of the ACA repeal. Her vote is crucial, so CALL, EMAIL, TWEET HER RIGHT NOW! She knows what’s right, but her party is coming down hard on her. She needs our support. Thank her for supporting the ACA so far, and beg her to VOTE NO.

Senator Susan Collins
 – (207) 622-8414email contact form – Twitter: @SenatorCollins

Having trouble finding the energy to keep it up? From Senator Kamala Harris’s Twitter feed last night (Thurs, Nov 30): The Republicans had to delay votes on this tax bill until tomorrow. They’re rewriting it right now and we don’t even know what’s in it. This is no way to govern. We need you to keep up the pressure & keep up the calls.

Click here to tell your legislators, “Stop this devastating tax bill!”

Call 202-335-5529 and give your own explanation or use this sample script:

“Hello, my name is ____. This tax bill would repeal the ACA individual mandate and increase pressure to gut safety net programs like Ryan White in future budgets. I demand that you VOTE NO on this tax bill!”

It is on us to defend our country, and our work is paying off. Stay strong and pick up that phone RIGHT NOW! Resist!!

(Action alert courtesy of HIV Prevention Justice Alliance and AIDS Foundation of Chicago).

Brain-Picking Becky #12: On Daughterhood

As I drove my compact rental car from CVG to my hometown, I counted the ins and outs of my breath – a mostly useless effort to calm my anxiety. In just a few days, a surgeon I didn’t know would cut into my dad’s chest, splay open his breastbone, attach a new valve to his heart and then sew him back up. There was a small chance Dad wouldn’t wake up from it. I doubted my ability to fully support him, to give him what he needed from me, to stay patient enough to manage both his and my anxieties without exploding and yelling at him. I worried about seeing him knocked out on drugs, hooked up to tubes. I’d taken this trip by myself (because of logistical reasons, my husband and son weren’t able to come along), and I felt deeply alone. Legs shaking, heart racing, I sped down I-75 and lamented the reality of growing older, of how responsibilities seem to add up while carefreeness seems to vanish. And then, a momentous thought popped into my brain: Becky, be grateful. You GET to do this for your dad. You didn’t get to do this for your mom.

This thought not only dulled my anxiety but also allowed me to reframe the entire experience. Sure, Dad’s surgery was yet another difficult thing my family had to navigate, another obligation added to my already full plate, another anxious-making strain on my mind and body, but it was also an opportunity to demonstrate my love for him, to give back some of the support he’s given me throughout the years, to show him how strong and capable I’ve become. I didn’t have this opportunity with my mother, I didn’t get to share in her old age and all the struggles that come along with that. You get to do this for him.

And really, shouldn’t we frame every experience like this? We get to do this life, all of it, the challenging parts, sad parts, light parts, confusing parts. It’s beautiful that we get to grow older. It’s beautiful that we get to take on responsibilities like being there for our parents as they age. It’s beautiful that we get to be alive.

These realizations enabled me to let go of the expectations I tend to bring to family visits (a problem I wrote about back in Brain-Picking #4) and enter a place of peace and relaxation, a place that was absolutely necessary for achieving the Herculean task of keeping my cartoon character of a father from overtaxing his heart before surgery. And when I say cartoon character, I mean it; my dad is unique in the way unreal, animated people are unique. For example, the surgery was actually delayed by ten days because, even though he was blacking out from lack of oxygen, he still continued his part-time yard work jobs in the hot Kentucky summer, decided to show a friend what a patch of poison ivy looks like, and ended up with the worst infection of his life. He went to a doctor who put him on steroids, and then the very next day, he climbed up a ladder to fix someone’s gutter and FELL OFF. So yeah, heart surgery was delayed.

This behavior isn’t unusual; my dad is absolutely the busiest person I’ve ever met. He also talks literally nonstop, even if the other person is vacuuming or on the phone or behind a closed door. While this level of vigor and chattiness can be fun and entertaining, it can also be draining. Add anxiety about open-heart surgery to the mix, and that shit got bonkers. We spent three days before the surgery together and by night one, I’d given up on telling him to sit down and let me take care of things and instead tried to preemptively guess what task he might set about completing and then beat him to it (this was fairly effective except for outliers like his scrubbing the inside of the oven at 9pm one night). I also definitely texted my friend on day three about how I was looking forward to his being on anesthesia. But still, we had fun; we haven’t had that much one-on-one time since at least a decade ago when I first started bringing Dave around, and while it was intense, it was truly wonderful. Reframing the visit through the perspective of just being grateful for the time I had with him, no matter what that time ended up being like, was a game-changer, and it actually brought a new sense of calmness that affected both of us. This perspective also created a necessary emotional distance for me; I didn’t take things as personally this visit, I didn’t get as bothered or upset as in the past. And it was absolutely fascinating to observe my dad from this space as opposed to the more sensitive spaces of before. Really, he and I are so similar. Through watching and listening to him without feeling so affected by everything, I gained such an interesting insight into myself and also into my son – we are all such Firesheets! Genetics is a strange and magical thing.

heart.pngAnyway, my brother came down for the surgery, and after nine hours of lying around the hospital in a weird, glazed-eyed, time/space warp, we got the news that everything had gone as smoothly as it possibly could have. That night, my brother and I ate pizza and drank beer and told stories, also the first time we’d been one-on-one in at least a decade, and I was reminded of all the lovely little things about him that I’ve adored since our childhood. The very next day, Dad was up and walking down the halls, to be released only four days later – his strength and motivation have been utterly impressive. I left Kentucky feeling proud of the three of us as a unit, happy to have come together like that, to have tackled this huge thing while also still genuinely enjoying each other. I also left with a lot of pride in myself; I think I’ve finally figured out how to be my dad’s daughter.

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

Writer’s Note: I edited some typos hours after publishing this piece. Otherwise, I stuck to the rules.

“We Can Find the Way” – New Song from The BPRS!

I’m so pissed that our Representatives voted to screw us all over, to take away our access to affordable maternity care, mental health services, prescription drugs and oh so much more, all so that they and their rich friends can get a tax break. These are the people who turned their backs on us – make sure you remember their names in 2018.

Yes, I understand that the AHCA bill has many steps and changes to go through before it takes effect, I get that the Senate is “going to fix it,” but none of this changes the fact that these assholes let it pass through the House. The greed and selfishness is SO SICKENING.

But more and more of us are paying attention now. More and more of us are fed up. And more and more of us are taking action. I actually wrote the words to this new BPRS song during the Obama years and sadly, the angry parts about our capitalist society run amuck are even truer than ever. But you know what? So are the hopeful parts. We’ve got this, ya’ll. Don’t let your anger/sadness/fear negatively affect your day-to-day. Smile at people. Hold doors for them. Tell your friends and family you love them. Remind yourself of all the things you’re grateful for. Spreading love and building community are two powerful ways to resist. Stay strong.

Check out The Brooklyn Players Reading Society’s Bandcamp page to hear more of our music.

solidarity“International Women’s Day, Solidarity” by Giulia Forsythe / Creative Commons

Brain-Picking Guest Spot: You Can’t Handle the Truth by M.M. De Voe


You Can’t Handle the Truth
 M.M. De Voe

So I’m curious what will emerge in one hour of barely-edited thought process. Becky offered a guest-spot here, and I was intrigued. She told me that the blog idea came from her opinion that there isn’t enough truth in the world.

I agree.

Everyone seems to be lying, from memoirists (eye-roll, James Frey – but WTF? Go Ask Alice was also fake?? Horrible!) to politicians (insert any name). And from fake news (love the new huge disclaimer on the Borowitz Report) to real news (“It’s not fake! It’s just biased!”) –so where to do we turn when we really want the truth?

Or do we really want the truth at all?

I remember being a kid and telling my mother exactly what I thought she wanted to hear. I got very good at this. I didn’t lie, exactly, but I definitely omitted all the details that would upset her and focused only on those that would lead to a more peaceful existence for both of us. It was a decision born of a lot of strife – at first I naturally told her the exact truth with no filters – but it would lead to her telling me what to do, and then we would argue, and usually someone would cry. The next time a similar event rolled around, I would tell her a more modified truth, until finally the omissions outnumbered the facts. But here’s what’s remarkable: at this point, our relationship smoothed out entirely. She was able to accept me as the person I was presenting to her. I was able to live my life without feeling constantly criticized by the one person whose opinion (ridiculously) still mattered to me more than any other. I didn’t want to disappoint her. And she really didn’t want the truth – we both wanted reality to match our expectations of what reality should be: a decent mother/daughter relationship without too much arguing.

My mom’s name is Veronika – here’s a photo of her and me. Okay not really. But St. Veronica is a lot like how she always seemed to me.

A mother myself, I hope my kids find a more open mind in me than I did in my parents (though to be fair, I’m sure those opinions bent from whatever their initial standpoints were!) —but I am not sure anyone is ever cured of the desire to own a reality that matches their hopes and dreams. It is crushing to hear that someone you once idolized has done terrible things (thanks Bill Cosby).

But is it better not to know?

I don’t know. We want the pretty picture. We really do. We crave it. It hurts us to watch all our heroes get dragged through mud, either because someone else exposed them or because they themselves simply became too much of a mess to contain their own flaws.

The truth is that all humans are flawed. We mess up. We make ridiculous, horrible decisions. We have skeletons in our closets. We sometimes LIKE the skeletons we have in our closets. But all of us ultimately want to be good people, don’t we? No matter our flaws, we try to balance things out. We try to atone for our weakness in one area by being strong in another. Isn’t this what humans do instinctively? We discover that the nasty cashier has forgotten to charge us for the milk and instead of telling her, we give a dollar to the next homeless guy we see? We are constantly readjusting our karma.

skeletonBut this post is supposed to be about telling the truth, not behaving in an honest way. (This hour-long limit is madness! You try it!) We want the truth while at the same time, we want the world to be a better place than it is.

So how can we get there without lying all the time?

Curated news feeds are not the answer. Deleting every Facebook friend or Tweep who ever disagreed with you politically isn’t a better answer than sticking your fingers in your ears and shouting La La La. We have to be better than that. But also: they have to behave like adults.

We have lost the skill of argument without attack. At a recent party, many of my friends were in a discussion about compromise and how instead of celebrating a hard-fought compromise, everyone from parents to politicians to corporate watchdogs denigrate the very idea of it. For some reason, instead of evolving as thoughtful adults, we are spiraling back into dichotomous thinkers, where there is no cooperation, there is only a winner and a loser, and heaven help you if you are perceived to be the loser.

We need to reestablish the value of negotiation, to raise the value of compromise.

How? Is there a solution? I don’t know. I just read all seven of the Laura Ingalls Wilder stories to my kids and I was struck again and again by how stoic the parents are in those books. Nothing causes drama. Not when their daughter goes blind. Not when they lose the farm to locusts. Never. They face things practically and they don’t get hyper about it. They marry as early as in their teens, they move without transition into adulthood and responsibility, and then they deal with nature for the rest of their lives. They never indulge, but they also do not judge others. They live simply and are content with what they have. They celebrate success as humbly as they accept failure. I am smitten by this unflappable adulthood. Faced with images of one red-faced talking head after another, one screeching angry parent after another, I ache for a real adult. Someone who is a rock, that waves can crash upon and who will still be standing there. A Margaret Thatcher. Someone solid.

Is it our constant American ambitious dream to “have more” that fosters the dissatisfaction that leads to the constant lying? I am reading Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down and in it, he says that the downfall of our generation (and this was written decades ago and about Great Britain not America) is that it is no longer enough to make something or do something—we have to also BE someone. How do you “be someone” without gently reinventing yourself, the way I used to do for my mother? For generations, all of our celebrities were inventions. None of them was real. Natalie Wood? Marilyn Monroe? Elvis? Our graveyards are littered with people who tried to be perfect for the sake of society.

elvis's grave

The grave of the King – Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee.

Didn’t work.

Humans are flawed. But humans also need heroes. A panicky thought: we as a culture have begun to celebrate flaws and horrifying actions and villainy, because there is no other way to find authentic heroes–? Is this possible?

Not only possible, but likely.

The truth is, we are all flawed and unless we celebrate the honest overcoming of those flaws, we will be duped into thinking that simply admitting those flaws is enough. I don’t think it is. Let’s look at children again. I want my children to trust me enough to tell me if they mess up, but I also then want them to be strong enough to try again, not just to wallow in their mess. I am there to support them in their attempts, and there for them when they fail. I would like our politicians to be equally honest: not to laugh off or celebrate their own wrongs, but to quietly face them and to actually try to be better next time. Carrie Fisher whose recent death hit so hard was a real hero: she never said overcoming her weaknesses was easy, but she did it anyway. And once done, she lived honestly both in and out of the spotlight.

At least as far as we know.


mmdevoeAbout the Author: M. M. De Voe’s short fiction has won or been shortlisted for more than 20 literary prizes including three Pushcart nominations and she has won multiple grants including the Manhattan Community Arts Fund, Fund for Creative Communities, Columbia Writing Fellowship, and an Arch and Bruce Brown Foundation Grant for Historical Fiction with Gay Positive Characters. Founder and Executive Director of Pen Parentis, she holds a Columbia University MFA, and is the Lithuanian voice of OnStar.


Click here to learn more about this column and to read previous entries.

Brain-Picking Becky #4: Home Again, Home Again, Jiggity Jig Part 2

I’ve always believed that people can change. Actually, it’s not really a belief; we can count on the fact that people will change. Studying Buddhism has allowed me to more deeply understand this concept and to see how we create so much unnecessary pain for ourselves by holding onto a past version of something that has already changed. What’s interesting to me though is that I’ve always been on the opposite end of this spectrum. I like change. In fact, I find comfort in change.

However, I’m feeling stuck when it comes to relating to my family, like no matter how much I don’t want to hold onto a past version of us, I just can’t seem to get rid of it. Yes, obviously, my relationship with my dad and brother has changed dramatically over time, especially since my mom died. But I feel frustrated because I wanted to see more change after her death, and instead, this last visit felt an awful lot like how it used to be, just now without Mom. I find myself wondering if there’s something so deeply rooted in each of us and in the family group itself that no matter how many other changes take place, when we get together, we’ll always go back to what it was like when my brother and I were kids. I know there’s a ton of research out there about the psychology of families, and one day when I’m not mothering, teaching, writing and music-ing, I’ll look it up and be fascinated. But even if I did have that time right now, I feel like I need to make more sense out of my own family before diving into applying psychological theory to it.

Let me explain. I wrote the bulk of Home Again, Home Again, Jiggity Jig Part 1 back in July on the third day of our summer visit. My husband, baby, dogs and I stayed in Kentucky for four more days after that, totaling a week of us living with my dad in his two-bedroom apartment. I love my dad – he’s so funny, we have a lot of simpatico, and we truly, deeply enjoy one another – but a week is far too long for any adult to stay in her hometown with her dad, especially when they both have anxiety disorders. Despite my solid attempts at staying present, shit from my past kept boiling up and I kept missing my mom and worrying about a future full of dead people (I actually don’t fear my own death that much but completely dread being left alive after all of my people have died). With my dad’s cancer appointment looming on the last day of the visit, Dad and I were both operating at record-breaking anxiety highs and got into a heated debate over gun control, of all things. It is no secret that I share the exact opposite views of my father on many issues, but I’m really good at censoring myself and avoiding key topics during visits. But between the anxiety and the ghosts of my past and the cancer appointment and the exhaustion of being a mom and a daughter at the same time, I let my guard down and it got ugly.

We recovered. There were sincere apologies and hugs before bed. But I still had a lot of emotions churning through me and cleaning is my favorite compulsion, so I attacked that sink of dirty dishes like only the OCD can do. About halfway through, as I was angrily scrubbing a plate, heart racing, stomach clenching, annoyed at my father for not hearing me, annoyed at myself for getting so emotional, annoyed at my brother for not being there, I burst out laughing. This exact moment of anxiously washing dishes and feeling these particular emotions was so, so familiar. I just hadn’t experienced it in the three years since Mom had died.

In some ways, it was comforting. Yes, this is what my relationship with my family feels like, and things were so thrown off by my mother’s death that we’d forgotten how to be mad at one other. Those three years after her death allowed my father and I to become more honest and much closer with one another, and my brother and I to grow more into our own people and respect one another in a deeper way. The three of us broke down barriers and became more openly loving and just more open in general. But we were also delicate with one another and perhaps too lax about this newfound openness. Most adult children do not tell their adult parents and siblings everything about their lives. In fact, many families function well because of the boundaries they’ve established. The gun control blowout was a reminder of this very important lesson.

But in other ways, this moment felt bad. Like, mom’s death bought us three years and now we’re back to how it used to be where despite how much we love each other, we also make each other anxious. So as my car full of creatures rolled closer and closer to Kentucky for our Christmas visit, I kept wondering, What is my relationship with my dad and brother going to be like this time?


I won’t keep you in suspense – it was quite enjoyable but also anxious-making. We had some delicious meals and fun conversations and silly jokes, and yes, I also found myself angrily scrubbing dishes, heart-racing, stomach-clenching, annoyed at my dad for not hearing me, annoyed at myself for being so emotional, annoyed at my brother for not responding to my texts. But this is how it is, you know? A lot of things have changed and a lot of things haven’t. And that’s okay. It’s more than okay. We love and enjoy each other and it is truly special to see my dad with my son, to see my son with my brother’s sons. The future of our family feels promising. This is all good stuff. Perhaps the real issue here isn’t that we aren’t completely open with one another or that we make each other anxious, but that I wanted to see more of a change or a different kind of change than what actually occurred.

I started this piece by writing about how people create unnecessary pain for themselves through holding onto a past version of something, but here I am creating unnecessary pain for myself by holding onto an imagined version of something. It can be difficult to accept life as is, but in those lovely moments when I actually am able to do that, things suddenly feel a lot easier.


Writer’s Note: It took me 100 minutes to write and edit this one. The 60 minute challenge is really hard.

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