Reaching for Paschal Joy

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Yesterday was Pascha (Easter) for Orthodox Christians. The Crown Jewel of the Church year, it’s a truly joyous experience that gives the soul a foretaste of heavenly banquet. Pascha is a night full of ancient, elaborate rites followed by a decadent meal that kicks off  luxurious week of feasting.

In some ways, this year was like others have been: a challenging Lent, an introspective Holy Week, and a Pascha surrounded by friends and family.

There was one important difference.

Last night, while out celebrating, I had one of my first anxiety attacks in months.

In a matter of minutes, I went from pleasant chatter to crippling fear, hyperventilating, shaking, and uncontrollable sobs. . . in public. Luckily I was with my husband and one of my best friends, who faces similar challenges. They both talked me down, and I ended the evening with peace of mind and gratitude for my amazing support system.

But I couldn’t shake my sense of shame and embarrassment, not to mention how isolating and joy-sucking a very public anxiety attack can be. All throughout today, I had a rough battle with sadness and despondence. But then I remembered Thomas.

The first Pascha ever, Christ appeared to the disciples, but Thomas ran late. He had to have felt despondent and isolated. He had to have been frustrated beyond belief.  But a week later, he has an amazing experience.

Now Thomas, called the Twin, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said to him, “We have seen the Lord.” So he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.”

And after eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, “Peace to you!” Then He said to Thomas, “Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing.”

And Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!” – John 20:24-29

Below: My nephew Parker watches his Auntie Beth sing a Paschal hymn.

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No one is without struggle and weakness, especially not the Saints of the Church. The thing I take from Thomas is not that he doubts, but that he presses on. And of course, the true beauty of the story is that he got to reach out and touch Love Incarnate in the hour of his greatest need.

I’m still feeling drained, sad,  and vulnerable after last night’s episode.  It’s a constant struggle against worry and guilt when depression and anxiety are at the reins. But that’s okay. I had a really imperfect Lent, but that’s okay. Even Pascha was challenging in some ways, but that’s okay. The Apostle Thomas reminds me that Paschal joy lasts a LOT longer than one night. And no matter what, Christ can meet me where I am: His Love is always within my reach.

One Thing is Needed: Thoughts on Mary & Martha

Now it happened as they went that He entered a certain village; and a certain woman named Martha welcomed Him into her house.  And she had a sister called Mary, who also sat at Jesus’s feet and heard His word. But Martha was distracted with much serving, and she approached Him and said, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Therefore tell her to help me.”

And Jesus answered and said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her.”- Luke 10:38-41

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Sometimes, if we only glance at it, Jesus seems to be picking on Martha in this Gospel reading. So it is good to remember that, along with their brother Lazarus, Mary and Martha are both saints. Each was a servant to Christ and remained devoted to him throughout their lives. No doubt, he loved everyone in their family dearly and equally. Like any sisters, Mary and Martha probably had a little bit of a rivalry. But the variety in their personalities meant that each brought different strengths to the way they related to and interacted with the Lord.

Notice that Martha welcomed Jesus into their home, and was dedicated to serving him and making everything the best it could be for him as their friend and guest, as their Lord and teacher. In addition to her gift for showing hospitality, she is clearly a woman of action. Action and diligence are certainly keys to a faithful life. With all these things considered, there is much to imitate in Martha’s example.

Martha was right to want to use her talents to prepare for Jesus and his visit. Her issue was never her service. It was that she became distracted and troubled with the many things on her plate. It was that she fell into the trap of comparison. And in the midst of the blessing she had been anticipating so greatly, she had not paused to enjoy and be thankful for the present moment. And who can’t relate to Martha? I compare myself to others constantly, often miss out on the [very apparent] gifts in my life, and can hardly be awake without being anxious and troubled about many things.

So Jesus was not so much making an example of Martha as helping her gain perspective. One thing is needed. I have often puzzled over this. Mary was doing several things. She was present with Jesus. She was focused. She was listening to his words. What is the one necessary thing she was doing?

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Rather than falling into the traps of distraction, comparison, and worry, Mary had chosen friendship with Jesus. Martha certainly loved him, and no doubt she was motivated by at least in great part by her love to make the house ready for his visit. But somewhere along the way, she seemed to forget the material point: he was already there, in their midst, waiting to spend time with her and her family.

I was once  lamenting my difficult grasping a teaching of the Church related to Mary, the mother of Jesus- and I was going round and round with my priest about the hows and whys and what-ifs when he looked at me and said in his typical, matter of fact way, “She is a person, not a theological concept. Get to know her as you would a person.”

The same, of course, is true for Jesus. It’s very easy to throw around the phrase “relationship with God” or “relationship with Jesus” without actually cultivating one. Like Martha, I become so focused on my checklist, on getting to a place where I am “good enough” or “ready enough” to pray or go to Church that I forget it is possible to pray at any moment. I treat Jesus like a theological concept for me to understand the ins and outs of, without contemplating what he is like, what makes him happy, what hurts him, or the unique gifts with which he fills my life on a daily basis.

We have the friends we do not because of fear, obligation, or because we have reasoned our way to an understanding that the friendship is the correct choice. We are friends because of the bond we share with them. The love that we experience with our friends is what keeps us coming back to one another. We want to get to know them, we ask them questions, we tell them thank you, we give them the gifts of our time and attention. We are not quick to doubt them, and we are certainly not afraid that at any moment they will leave or abandon us. We trust them. And when we are having trouble with that trust, we talk through it. We don’t walk away at the first misunderstanding. And the more loyal and loving a friendship is, the more we are willing to do to grow and nurture it.

Mary had the one thing that was needed, a desire to be friends with Jesus that she put into action. Her contribution was a small one, but Jesus recognized the beauty in it. And he held it out to Martha, not to chide her, but as a gentle reminder that her company was wanted and valuable.

I’m Not Dead! and Other Small Victories in Managing Mental Illness

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Hey, guys and dolls. I’ve been gone a while. I’m sorry. It’s been rough in patches, but I’m ready to talk about it. I think it’ll help me to do so, and maybe it’ll help somebody else.

Many of you know that writing regular blogs is not my strong suit. I cringe every time my news feed refreshes and I see that people with far busier schedules and far more demanding routines than mine are cultivating a thriving blog and stirring the social media pot with a deft hand. @#$%, I think. I can’t even remember to eat lunch every day.

Don’t worry, I’m not anti-lunch. It’s just part of how my depression and anxiety manifest themselves. Other parts of it include exhaustion or being quick to fatigue, sleeplessness, hypersensitivity and propensity to sadness, fear, or dread, and over-personalizing/taking on responsibility for problems that are beyond my reach and control. Because the depression and anxiety are clinical, it is an ongoing physical and emotional reality. But it ebbs and flows, and in an environment where anyone would be anxious, afraid or depressed, it gets turned up to eleven.

The long and short of it is that I don’t blog when I’m in a depressive low, or when I have been having a lot of panic attacks, and both of those things have been happening on what feels like a continuous loop for the past several months. Here’s part of the reason why.

When the hours at my previous  job started to decline near the beginning of this year, I began searching for something else. But being faced with  ongoing rejection and uncertainty, coupled with the stubborn reality that the hours I did have were not enough to fulfill or sustain me, the job-hunting-while-working was really taking a toll on my physical and mental well-being.

For reasons that are unclear to me, my mental health issues manifest themselves strongest after dark. So, night after night I would feel like the walls were closing in on me. I would get short of breath. I would be nauseated and curl up into the fetal position, weeping and hyperventilating and asking the Virgin Mary to comfort me. I would rage at myself, filled with hateful thoughts about how weak I was, how I was a fraud: I was not the strong, confident, happy self-advocate that so many of my friends and family were proud of. Everything seemed impossible as I lay there in the dark. I would think of job descriptions my friends and coworkers sent me, and I would feel my stomach drop and then say to myself, “I can’t do that job. I’ve forgotten what I’ve learned. The stress would be too much,” and on and on.

So, when I was finally offered something new, at a time when we were really struggling financially- I accepted, thinking I could adapt and thrive in the new environment. What I got instead was a constant spike in anxiety and panic attacks that was so debilitating I couldn’t eat or sleep, and would have to take frequent breaks from my work to avoid coming apart emotionally. So I had gone from having a job, to being under-employed, to resigning to accept a job, to quitting a job, in a relatively short time. Ever since then, it has been a constant- and I do mean constant- battle to remind myself that there is something better out there. I have been rebuilding my confidence, and taking care to measure progress in whatever metric I can.

You’re probably wondering when I’m gonna get to the progress part, because, let’s face it, I am kind of bumming you out and stuff. Don’t worry. Here it comes.

If you have never done so, please read Hyperbole and a Half (at hyperboleandahalf.com). Always hilarious, she does an amazing series of webcomics on what her depression is like and how she copes with it.

First, I had to take responsibility for where I was and who I was. I had to acknowledge that- while I can’t cure my mental illness, and while not every negative thing in the universe is my doing or my responsibility, there are things about my life that I can change, and things about my mental illness that I exacerbate when I don’t take action. There are things that I do and say- and that I neglect to do and say- when I am wallowing in my depression and anxiety, that I can easily change by acknowledging that these out of control emotions aren’t who I am, and that they don’t define me. Yes, they help explain things about me. No, they are not the sum total of all things about me.

Another major step in the right direction was the decision to go back to counseling. I have always been a big believer in getting help when you need it. I just seem to forget I need it every now and then. I was doing “okay” for quite a while there. But when it got to the point where my life was being halted and my relationships affected, I had to do something. I am still early on in my relationship with this therapist, but she has an expectation of change and growth, so I am holding myself to that standard, and have been thankful for the results so far.

I had to get spiritual direction. Therapy is great. But when religion, faith and spirituality are a part of your worldview, a qualified spiritual guide such as a priest, rabbi, etc. can give teachings and coping strategies that can bring a whole new level of peace and clarity, and my conversation with my priest was no exception.

He helped me to understand that  I had to make priorities and set boundaries regarding what I exposed myself to mentally/emotionally, and what parts of my thoughts and emotions I exposed. This meant stepping back when I really wanted to bare all on an issue or event on this site or via social media. I plan to go into greater detail on this in a future post, but the crux was that the things we feel strongly about are often things that make us feel vulnerable to share, and doing so on a public forum rarely if ever guarantees a kind response.

So all that work means I’ve been away for a while. And the fact that the work is constant, and the foe unpredictable,  means I have no idea how things will be a month or two or three or six from now, but I’m still here. And so are you. You’re worth fighting for, and I’m in your corner.

Til next time. Which will hopefully be soon.

Edit: The steps discussed are intended to provide ideas and strategies only. They are not meant to replace or usurp any treatment that has been recommended by your doctor, psychologist, therapist, or psychiatrist. Please keep all helping professionals in the loop of any changes to your routine.

Also, it is possible that they may be helpful guidelines for people who are experiencing short-term sadness, stress or melancholy, and I hope that’s true. Sharing my experiences is not meant to serve as any kind of diagnosis or comprehensive list of symptoms. Mental illness, stress, depression and anxiety are different for everyone, though there is some common ground. If your systems or struggles are consistent, chronic, and long term [beyond a difficult or stressful circumstance], please seek the opinion of a qualified professional to figure out what’s best for you.

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P.S. For those reading this post who face mental illness, I encourage you to read/bookmark a Self-Care Checklist such as the one linked here [if you want a more language-neutral one, there are plenty out there, but this one is simple and straightforward]. It might also help to show it to a friend who can hold you accountable and make sure you’re okay.

A Letter to Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls

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Dear Amy and the Smart Girls:

I just visited your website where I read- with the same disappointment one might read the phrase “Sorry, we’re all out of pizza”- that Smart Girls has no contributor/intern/job openings at this time, but to check back later. I can assure you I will check back later, but in the meantime, I hope you will take a few minutes to read this letter due to your general awesomeness, your interest in story-sharing, and my bone-deep conviction that I am your long-awaited best friend. I have been trying to be more courageous lately, and this is borderline crazy, so I thought I’d go for it and see what happens.

I am a 29 year old woman (or Girl, to stick with the vernacular) from Nashville, TN. I have grown up here, and- apart from an internship for the Federal Government in DC and about 15 months of graduate school in Athens, GA- I have lived here all my life. Doing the best I could in school was a good decision; I was able to go to both undergrad and graduate school with several scholarships in tow, and to receive honors over the course of my education. Because I have always loved learning and put a great deal of pressure on myself to succeed, I started college at 17, finished my bachelor’s shortly before 21, and completed my Master’s within a few days of turning 23. [I realize that not enough people get an opportunity for an education, so I am profoundly grateful to have had it]. It is uncomfortable for me to write this part of the letter, because I was raised to be modest, which I kinda took to an extreme by never talking any of about my accomplishments with my friends. I am also leaving some stuff out because I am terrified that someone reading this will think I’m- gasp!- kinda braggy, or even worse: that I’m no fun at parties. Anyway, bear with me, I promise that not only do I have a point, it’s on it’s way. Also, I’m super fun at parties. Ask anyone.

My bachelor’s in Sociology [“Oh, wow. This world is kinda messed up for all these reasons that seem to be cemented in the social and economic fabric, and here are a bunch of depressing books and papers about just how bad it is.”] paved the way for my Master’s in Nonprofit Organizations [“Maybe it’s more like peanut butter than cement: it’s sticky and messy and gross when it gets on you, but malleable. We can change it, we will change it, as soon as we get enough grant money.”], and I have been working in the nonprofit field as a volunteer, intern board member or staff member, for about 10 years now.

But a traditional education and list of 9 to 5 jobs do not necessarily a Smart Girl make. We have all met plenty of people who have the appearances of success that are really just Mean Girls [“One time, she punched me in the face. It was awesome.”]. And of course there are plenty of Smart Girls who are so because they have found joy, success, and contentment and human connection by their own unique and innovative means. There is so much room in this world for Smart Girls, and so many Smart Girls looking for voices. I know this not just because I have met those girls, but because I am one.

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I was born with Cerebral Palsy, a disability with onset at birth that affects everyone who has it in ways unique to them. Most commonly, mobility, motor skills and speech are affected first, with other secondary effects. However, just like with any other experience of disability, the challenges faced when living out that experience are not merely physical. Beyond my own story, I know that many people experience intellectual disability, and many have a disability that is not visible but still plays a great part in the challenges they face [such as Autism Spectrum Disorders or Traumatic Brain Injuries, among many]. And while a life with a disability is certainly just as full of joy, blessing, talent and strength as anyone else’s, there are also many other factors at play that too often silence the voices of so many Smart People out there. People with disabilities face far more hurdles to employment, education, and acceptance in community life than their typically developing peers. People with disabilities are almost entirely absent from popular culture and media, with the few exceptions still placing all the focus on their “otherness”. And the rate of depression, anxiety, and similar emotional challenges amongst people with disabilities is extremely high.

Here I’ve spent a decade working for people with disabilities, with many of my peers working twice as long as I have, and it is still remarkable to people that I have an education, a job and a partner. While I am not in any way downplaying the very real work myself and so many people I know have done to reach such milestones, I dream for a world where stories like mine are no longer the exception, but the rule. And I am at a point in my life where I am realizing that sometimes in order to do big work, you have to think big. You have to try something new; you have to leap and see where you might land.

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Why Smart Girls, you ask? Why not one of those spiffy nonprofits I alluded to like a hundred paragraphs ago? Well, because the Smart Girls are all about acceptance, celebration, and inclusion. They’re all about having a voice that gets heard, not by shaming and negativity, but by affirming, by celebrating and building connections. Yes, nonprofits serving people with disabilities crusade for all these things, but the whole point of doing so is for our story to be heard, and not just by people who already know it. To make lasting change, I have to tell the story of disability experience in a way that causes someone to snap out of their comfort and familiarity zones and realize, “This is not just a cute, inspirational article. This is my story. These are my neighbors and friends. This is my family member or partner.”

Working in the disability services field the power of connection is apparent. We work hard to cultivate a spirit of empathy, and an attitude of saying “you can do anything you set your mind to, and I’m here if you need any help or support in making it happen”. I was very fortunate to have a community, a support system, a means of finding my voice. But in this age of information overload and lack of true connection, I have often wondered: are there other people out there needing that community, that sense of voice? I believe the answer is yes, and I believe that need will always be present. I also believe that Smart Girls can be one of those voices

Recently, I re-entered the job market. My husband suggested I contact you guys (because he’s smart, too), and I considered that suggestion a huge vote of confidence. Of course I realize sending this letter provides no guarantees of a response, or of any action on your part. I am just reaching out in hopes that perhaps somewhere in my story, you will see an opportunity, or that when one arises, you will remember this letter. If you want to think of ways to make your curriculum more accessible to people with disabilities, if you need help finding great stories of people with disabilities to tell, if you ever want to make sure that eliminating ableism is a clear part of your values, or if you just want to eat some nachos, you know where to find me.

Thank you for all you do, you beautiful unicorns of the sea.
Beth H. Thielman

Aspiring Smart Girl

Nashville, TN

Don’t Let the Bastards Get You Down

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A few weeks ago, I found out that myself and 11 other coworkers will be losing our jobs after December 31 [Happy New Year!] The agency that we subcontract with is backing out of the contract 3 months early for their “convenience” and as a direct result of our constant advocacy for systems change in a program hampered by bureaucracy and disconnect. The way our organization has been treated makes it harder and harder to get up to go to work as the end of the year draws near. It was, and is, an infuriating example of callousness. 

Around the same time, there were people very dear to me [including my Someone] whose friends weren’t acting like friends. Multiple stories of unkindness, judgmental attitudes, and impatience were in the air. With all that, a busy schedule of work and teaching, and the constant ache of Transatlantic lovesickness, morale on Team Beth has been at an all-time low lately.

But through it all, I have found solace in some advice my stepdad gave me several years ago, during my 3-year-long struggle to find a job, after yet another rejection letter had left me angry and in tears at the kitchen table.

Illegitimi non carborundum,” he said cryptically.

“Huh?”

“Don’t let the bastards get you down.”

People can, in fact, be mean just for the sake of it. People hurt each other, even when given the benefit of the doubt. People are unkind, even when they have been shown kindness. It is normal to let it frustrate me. But I can’t let it get me down. Because when I stop at anger and begin to carry only anger around, no one wins. When I let it get me down and believe the things their words or actions are saying about who I am, they win. 

When I choose to be kind: I win.

Before you call me a Pollyanna: I can tell you right now that I am not always kind as I should be [or kind at all] in the moment of offense, and it is not always possible to go back and be kind to the same person who was unkind to me.  I also can’t [and shouldn’t] pretend like nothing is wrong when I’ve been hurt or mistreated.

So, when confronted with outright meanness, what’s a girl to do? Here are three things I will try my hardest to do going forward to help get myself through the end of the year [or at least through tomorrow]:

 

  • Shut my mouth. It is entirely possible I won’t have anything nice to say, and shouldn’t say it at all.
  • Pray for that person [or more accurately my lava-hot anger towards that person], and for something or someone else to focus my attention and energy on. After all the Good Book tells me that “Love Your Neighbor” does, in fact, include my enemy.
  • Be kind to someone else, the next chance I get. 

The truth is, no matter how mean someone is to me, no matter how small that the behavior of a Jerky-Jerkface makes me feel, being mean back does nothing but mirror their behavior and make me angrier.

And as soon as I let unkindness keep me from being kind, the Bad Guys win.

So don’t let them win.

Be kind, as best you can.

Don’t let the bastards get you down.

Let them make you kind of person the world needs: a better one.

 

blogging the life fantastic

I don’t do nearly as much reading as I used to. In order for me to read something all the way through nowadays, I have to be transfixed. Captivate me. Make me think. Challenge me. Throw me into the fray right alongside the hero. When I write, it is no different. Whether you love it or hate it, I want you to feel something when you read it. I want to share what I see with you, whether it’s pretty or ugly.

So, why haven’t you heard from me lately? Is it because Moonrise Kingdom just came out on DVD, and I’ve been holed up watching it on constant loop? No [although that is an excellent guess if you know me well at all]. Is it because I’ve been working on a masterpiece to rival all previous blogs? As a matter of fact. . . no.

Moonrise Kingdom, original fan art by Adam Juresko

I haven’t written lately for the precise reason I should have: my life has been challenging and exciting, exhilarating and heartbreaking, romantic and infuriating. There has been so much fodder for creativity in this emotional tour de force that I should be crowding your inboxes. But I have been painfully silent.

For that, I apologize.  I am careful to avoid details on these posts that may make others uncomfortable, and the situations themselves are nothing unique to human beings. But the honest truth, nonetheless, is that my life has hurt lately. It has made me angry, and it has confused me to no end. I have been knocked off my feet, cried many an ugly-cry, eaten too many things that weren’t good for me, and listened to the saddest folk music imaginable. But, amidst the maelstrom, I noticed something.

I was still waking up each day, still going to a job and coming home to an apartment, and still surrounded by the love of God, and the people he has given me to talk to, buy me beer, and bake me cookies. My life has managed to keep going, despite my complete uncertainty of how it will do so, or where it will take me along the way.

I recently watched an incredible film, two days in a row, that came onto my radar at the right time. In Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (for the Elderly and Beautiful), the owner of the hotel says, “In India, we have a saying: everything will be alright in the end. So if it is not alright, it is not yet the end.” Thanks for the knowledge bomb, Focus Features. I sat there on the couch, ruminating. Curses, I thought, I have officially been indie-schooled.

Even crazier was the thought that, not only would things eventually change for the better, but that there were already so many things in my life that had. When I stopped and began to think about it, I realized it very clearly. I slightly amended Joe’s little prayer in Joe vs. the Volcano tonight as I was winding down for the evening: “Dear God . . . thank you for my life.”

This doesn’t mean I’m loving every minute. There are still things I regret, and things I would change in a second if I could. There are moments when I wish I was a different person, and entire days where I want to be in a different place. My insides are still a whirlwind. I’m lucky if I can utter a clear “Lord, have mercy” some days. But it’s my life, I’m glad I have one, and I’m doing the best I can with it.

To everyone who has loved and supported me this past month, near and far, I say thanks. To everyone who has taught me with their silence, I  say thanks. And to all of you who have allowed me to be myself, even at its most frazzled, I owe you big time.

Thank you all for listening. Next time I won’t wait so long to tell you more.

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Sometimes life is hard. Sometimes things are overwhelming. Sometimes you are feeling a hundred million ways at once. Sometimes people you care about are struggling through something difficult, and there’s no way you can really fix it. [And sometimes, if you remove the word “sometimes” from the beginning of my Astute General Observations, you realize they apply wholly and completely to my circumstances.]

When things get crazy, I become a bit of a different animal. No longer my normal, keenly aware, over-emotive self, I unplug. I numb out. It’s like I give my sensibilities a giant shot of Novocain.

I don’t like this feeling. And I don’t feel like myself when this happens. But I think it comes from the innate desire humanoids have-in the face of difficulty-to want to stop; to want to stop hurtling through space and time at light speed. to want to find the off-switch: for our happenings, our hearts, what have you.

So, it’s a Catch-22: it sometimes is possible to “turn off” feelings, to unplug, or maybe even to suddenly change circumstances.  But then-here’s the kicker- you don’t feel any of it.

So, this past week or two, I may have been able to remove myself from some of the sad, some of the frustrating, some of the irritating. But that also means I have missed out on a lot of the happy. In honor of the Avett Brothers, and how attuned they are to human beings, I hereby dub this phenomenon the Tin Man Syndrome.

Of course, just because I know I’ve unplugged doesn’t mean I’ve got the rest of it figured out. But at least I can recognize that I do it. And I can let you guys know. Consider this time in my life a bit of a short circuit.

I love you all for your patience. I’ll be back online eventually. In the meantime. . . anyone have an oil can?