Maya: Podcast Soulmates
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Life is random, nothing happens for a reason, and the universe does not have a plan. That’s at least what Maya Shankar believes. And so does Stephanie, our intrepid host. But both have figured out how to pivot in the face of life’s worst twists and turns. Maya and Stephanie bond hard and fast over their similarities, since there’s nothing quite like learning someone else is kinda sorta exactly like you.
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Maya, Stephanie Wittels Wachs
First let me say I really do think we’re podcast soulmates. We are our origin stories are so similar and I mean no shit I love LAST DAY.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 00:17
This is Maya Shankar aka my podcast soulmate. She hosts a podcast called a slight change of plans, which, for all intents and purposes, might as well be the name of this show, because, well, we are both obsessed with change.
I mean, my instinct is to reject change. That’s why I started a slight change of plans because I’m scared shitless of change. It came from a very personal place of not liking the system that we live in, which is a world of complete randomness, and senseless things that happen all the time that just completely knock our socks off.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 00:53
Maya, like many of us, has had plenty of moments that knocked her socks off. But rather than stand there barefoot, and exposed to the elements, she’s continued to reach into that metaphorical sock drawer, slip on a fresh pair, and keep moving. All the while committing herself to understanding the brain science behind these moments of change. Whether that’s as a PhD toting expert in cognitive psychology working in the Obama administration, that was a president in case you didn’t know that. Or at Google. That is a company that runs all of our lives in case you didn’t know that. Or is a podcast host trying to figure out her own shit.
They ended up needing a podcast to process my own grief that’s what ended up happening was in that direction.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 01:45
This is LAST DAY, a different show about the moments that change us. I’m Stephanie Wittels Wachs. And today, the story of probably the most successful and accomplished person I’ve ever interviewed, whose raw talent and Academic Prowess couldn’t save her from the randomness of the universe. And ultimately, it’s about a charismatic human being on this spinning planet and outerspace who has continually had to make a slight change of plans.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 02:39
Maya story begins in Connecticut, where she was born to two very accomplished parents both work at Yale University, her father’s a physics professor and her mother is an international scholar advisor. And as a young child, Maya quickly discovers a special connection to the violin. She has this raw and rare talent coupled with an actual dedication to practice day in and day out, which, I gotta be honest, my brain could not quite process. I have a nine year old she loves playing Roblox. If I asked her to practice for longer than 15 minutes, her piano, she’s like, how in the world? Do you become a child prodigy of the violin at nine? I need to start there because I’m just riveted and fascinated.
Very kind Stephanie, I wouldn’t call myself a child prodigy because I actually knew child prodigies. So I have that perspective. But your mind was to be honest, definitely, incredibly passionate about the violin as a kid. And it is really interesting thinking back because there were lots of things that my parents had to force me to do like any kid, but for whatever reason, practicing the violin was not one of them. And I think there’s probably two reasons why that was the case. One is that I was really, really close to my grandmother. So my mom’s mom who lived in India. And as kids, we would go there for whole summers. And I just adored her. I mean, we’d sleep side by side on the floor. She was very spiritual, very religious practice Hinduism. And I would, you know, sit cross legged next to her in her prayer room and try to emulate her motions and recite all of the mantras and she was my living idol, right. And my grandmother had played Indian classical violin as a little kid, very, very much a recreational thing, just a hobby. But my mom had brought her violin with her to the US when she immigrated here. And so it sat in the attic for a long time. My three older siblings were like, whatever, we don’t play the violin. They chose other instruments that I guess they deem to be cooler. And so when my mom when I turned six, and my mom went up to the attic and brought down, you know, this dusty violin case, I think I felt very emotion. only connected to it because of the relationship that I shared with my grandma. And that’s probably what helped fuel and attachment before I even knew what it really was. And then I think the other thing about music is that I was I was just one of those kids that was obsessed with other human beings from like, the earliest age. I mean, I love being around people I would like it was super, super affectionate. And music making gave me this ability to connect with other people, whether it’s my classmates, whether it was, you know, onstage performing, and, and connecting with an audience, and I just loved that emotional component to it. And so I think those are the two things that that really drove me.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 05:38
Yeah, that’s like the passion part. And then there’s a practice part and I understand that you literally, your mom walks you into Juilliard, and finds you a teacher. I mean, love your mom need her to write the parenting book. That’s incredible. How, how did it feel to be in this, you’re passionate about this thing, and you’re getting trained and you’re getting, you know, you’re becoming the best in the thing that you love to do? What is that experience? Like?
Yeah, the access to these kinds of opportunities was incredible and not inevitable. So, you know, you alluded to the fact that my mom just walked in to Juilliard that literally happens. So my mom could tell pretty early that my big dreams with the violin were surpassing her contacts. I mean, neither of my parents are steeped in Western classical music or had any connections. My dad’s a physics professor, my mom helps immigrants get green cards to study in this country, like neither of them had insight into how to make those dreams come true. And so my mom had heard about the Juilliard school’s prep program, you know, so for little kids, so pre-college, and we were in New York one day, I had my violin with me. And she just said, why don’t we go in to the building? And I was like, What are you talking about? She’s like, let’s just walk in. Let’s just see what happens. Like, what’s the worst thing that can happen? Of course, I was thinking, you know, security guards is like one of the things. But we walked up and my mom was like, I just want to show my daughter, you know what the school is like, because it’s their dream school. And she struck up a conversation with a student and her mom in the elevator, asked if I could play for that students teacher. They were kind enough to make an introduction, and literally Stephanie 30 minutes later, I was auditioning for a Juilliard teacher on the spot. And he gave me a spot in his summer program that year, which was essentially boot camp for me. And I trained super hard, and then I passed the audition in the fall and then started studying at Julliard. So, I think, you know, the violin opportunity was amazing. But I think the lesson I learned from my mom about creating silver platters, when they’re not given to you was even more empowering because I’ve used that approach so many times since, you know, sending a cold email just like picking up the phone and calling people. And that’s been that’s been so helpful as I’ve navigated the twists and turns of life.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 07:56
Shamelessly elbowing your way into new spaces and opportunities, was a really valuable lesson. Maya’s mom passed down to her at a very young and impressionable age. But Maya would also learn that even when you’ve done everything you can to set yourself up for success. It doesn’t always turn out the way you’d imagined.
I was on the up and up, and I was so excited about the idea that I could become a concert violinist when I was 13. Itzhak Perlman invited me to be his private violin student, which just knocked my socks off, because he’s my musical idol. And, you know, considered the best violinist in the world, arguably. And so I almost didn’t know what was happening to me, honestly, I was like, I can’t believe these big dreams are maybe coming true, and I might be able to become a pro. And, and then I had my slight change of plans. I remember I was at prom in summer music camp. It was a chilly July morning, and I woke up early, and I was in my practice room trying to tackle this very challenging technical piece. And I overstretched my finger on a single note, and I heard this really gross popping sound. And long story short, I permanently damaged tendons in my hand, and I was told I would never be able to play the violin again. And so in a moment, my life changed. And I think what was very hard and destabilizing about this experience, and I’m sure a lot of listeners of your show can relate to this, you know, just even given the core of this show. And what it’s about is that you realize in these moments that you’ve not just lost something, you’ve lost yourself, you feel like you’ve actually lost a core part of your identity, what makes you, you.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 09:44
I just need to pause quickly here because Maya is an energetic wizard, have a person and has a tendency to drop some pretty profound thoughts so quickly, that you might miss them altogether. And when I heard this line back in an early draft of this interview, I was like This is it. This is what the show is about both of our shows, in fact, okay, I just needed to stop and share that this was really impactful. And maybe it was for you too. And now your brain has caught up, and I will let her continue.
And it wasn’t until I lost the violin, that I realized how much it had defined me, you know how much I felt it was instrumental to my existence on this planet. And so my process of discovery after that had to be not just about trying to find something that I loved again, but trying to figure out who I was, and who I could be on this planet without it. And it took a long time to figure that out. I mean, ultimately, I will say, there is a through line. And it’s one that I hinted at earlier, which is, I’m a person obsessed with human connection. And that has been true of everything that I’ve done, since whether it’s understanding the neuroscience and the psychology of human connection, or hosting a slight change of plans where, I mean, you experienced this every time you get in front of the mic, you have these incredible moments of connection with the guests that you have on your show. And that’s intoxicating for me. I mean, that’s why I live is to have conversations like the one we’re having right now, where we pierce through all the platitudes and all the pleasantries, and we just get to the core of what matters to each of us. And so I do find that, even though again, I’ve had false starts and stops, there is a central, through line across everything I’ve done. And one thing I would urge people to do when they’re facing a big change is to figure out what that thru line might be for them. Because it took me a while to figure this out, right? It took me a while to figure out okay, well, if I can’t have the violin, what can I have that sits under the surface, like if you strip away the superficial features of the instrument, what still remains, and it was a love of human connection. And so that was something I could find elsewhere. And so what I’ve done since because I’ve now navigated many slight changes of land, is to learn to attach my identity, not to specific pursuits, like being a violinist, or being a podcast host or being a scientist, but instead to the underlying features of that pursuit that light me up.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 12:10
It’s fascinating because I, I heard you in one of your episodes, call yourself an optimist, right? And I gotta be totally honest with you. I am like such a glass half empty kind of gal. Like the glass is like going to tip over at any moment.
In certain domains, but yeah, I don’t want to be a blind. I’m not a blind optimist. I’ll tell you that.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 12:29
But the way you’re talking about it. I mean, one of my questions for you is like, I want to be more of an optimist. But I think what you’re saying is, if you can think about life as like, what is my personal thru line, what is the thing that’s like, lighting me up in the face of all the shit, that’s inevitably going to happen? Because the thing about last day, which your story exemplifies, is that it’s not just one, you don’t just have one moment of profound change, you have one after the other, after the other, sometimes in such close succession that you’re like, does the universe hate me? Did I do something in a past life that I’m being punished for at this moment? It’s not like they’re spread out evenly either. Right? So I think there’s a lot of things that happen, where you’re getting pummeled right by some torrential hurricane, and you’re thinking like, please, can you go give it to that person over there for a minute, you know?
100%. And, you know, it’s interesting that you say this, Stephanie, because I think this came from a place of being such a control freak, wanting control so much in my life, that I had no choice, but to figure out how to engage in these mental refrains, because otherwise, I just kept rejecting change. And so I think these are actually survival strategies for me, okay, these are tools that I’ve used, because my psychology wants to resist the world that we live in. And so I have had to find ways to learn to embrace. The change is a plan to learn to embrace some of the randomness by trying to figure out okay, well, I know the power of our own psychology, I know the power of storytelling, narrative storytelling in our own minds. How can I leverage that in this moment, to create a healthier psyche, so that I’m more prepared and more resilient in the future?
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 14:15
Well, and that actually, I was going to ask you, how does the cognitive behavioral science fit in? That’s exactly how it fits in because I agree with you. The randomness is tough to deal with. It’s tough to cope kills me.
It still does, you know, and, and that’s why when I was creating my podcast, a slight change of plans, I was very intentional about it marrying science and storytelling, because I actually think the science falls short a lot. And it doesn’t always satisfy us in the way that we need. And so we actually need to hear people’s personal testimonials. We need to extract wisdom from people’s actual life experiences. In order for us to understand how to navigate these curveballs. I’m just trying to stitch together through this show whatever wisdom I can from Finding what I understand about how the human mind works and then also people’s actual experiences
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 15:16
We are back, Maya shared something pretty profound how, as a survival instinct really, she’s learned to reframe these big moments of change that feel utterly random. It’s finding your narrative through line. As my nine year old would say, easy peasy lemon squeezy. So of course, as we’re chatting, I embark on a mental exercise to discover my own narrative through line. And it came to the surface pretty quickly. From my humble beginnings, studying theatre, to my years teaching acting, to directing to opening a theater or to writing a book after losing my brother, to my current role as a podcaster. Storytelling has always been at the heart of everything I’ve done. Of course, it is much easier to conceptualize this kind of thing in hindsight than to, you know, plot out your life through this lens while surviving a myriad of random and profound moments of change that fuck you up. But this phenomenon is at the center of the conversations Maya’s been having with the guests on her show, and even with herself. Let’s actually go to the slight change of plans. Let’s go to the podcast. So I’ve heard you describe it as something that came out of grief, which I have not heard you mention thus far. How does that layer on top of all the other stuff that you just told me and, and how did it all sort of work together to create the idea for the podcast,
I guess I’ll have to rewind the clock to 2020. So I had no plans of ever having a podcast hosting anything, I never conducted a formal interview with anyone. So I’d note none of the skills. And so I was very intimidated. And if it was ever mentioned to me, because it was like, oh my god, maybe you should have a podcast one day, I’d be like, I have nothing just share of interest to people. So in early 2020. So again, like to make a very, very long story short, I found out many years ago that I wouldn’t be able to healthily carry a baby on my own. And that I would likely need to use a gestational surrogate in order to have a child and after years and years of IVF treatments to freeze my husband and my embryos, and then also searching for a good surrogate match, we finally found this incredibly wonderful human being Haley, who lives in Arkansas and was, you know, willing to carry our baby and we just we bonded with immediately it was like a family connection right off the bat. And so in March of 2020, she was pregnant with our baby girl. And we saw the baby’s little heartbeat, and it was perfect heartbeat. And we were just over the moon. This is at like 1pm I remember on like a Tuesday. And it was just incredible high because it’s years and years and years of effort that you’re putting into a process that to our earlier point, you cannot control at all, you cannot hustle your way through fertility stuff. It’s one space where you just have to surrender. And we were just so excited that this big dream of ours is coming true. And then at 9pm, we get a message from our surrogate asking if we’re up and she miscarried. And we were just so grief stricken. I mean, that’s the only way to describe it to go from such a high to such a low in a matter of hours was so jarring for me. And I remember feeling like even though I had navigated a lot of change in my life up until this point, I mean, we talked about the violent pivot, you know, I’ve been through obviously a lot of other changes and loss and whatnot. I felt so unprepared for that particular kind of loss. And that particular moment, right, it was so unprecedented for me that I felt like I had none of the tools, none of the skills I needed to navigate this loss. And this, by the way is against the backdrop of an international pandemic, racial injustice, upheaval, like so much crap happening in the world around us. And I was my heart was just breaking over and over again, right as I processed the global losses and the personal losses, and I just I felt disoriented. And so what I did in that moment is I put on my cognitive science hat. And I tried to challenge my own thinking, right? So this is something I’ve done, as you can tell a few times now in my life, which is how can I change my perspective? How can I see things differently? How can I reframe what’s going on in my head so that I can be a little bit more constructive, a little bit more productive? And when I put on that hat, what I realized is, yes, the specifics of what 2020 is throwing your way They’re unprecedented. Right? Fair. Okay, there’s novelty here. But as humans, we are actually change experts. Because by virtue of living and existing, we have done this change rodeo so many times in our lives. And so we actually do have the skills to navigate novel change, we just have to look back on our past changes and figure out how it is that we’ve successfully or unsuccessfully navigated change in the past. And that led me to a bigger insight, which is, maybe the superficial qualities of each of our changes looks very different, right? You’ve lost a brother, we’ve lost this baby. They look different on their surface, but maybe the psychological strategies that we use, the way that we process our grief is actually much more similar than we think. And so maybe, we can learn from people’s stories that don’t look like our own. And there’s something very powerful about that, because that means that in the face of grief in the face of loss in the face of any given change, you don’t have to go to the bookstore and go to the section that’s about your specific kind of change. It turns out, there might be wisdom, three rows down from someone who went through a completely different change than you, but happens to share your psychology happens to think about the world in the same way, and found some relief, or some answers in the way that you navigated your experience. And so that was the genesis of a slight change of plans. And it has been the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done in my life. In a nutshell, like I have never loved anything more than this, because it allows me to bring my heart and my scientific mind to the table. And I feel like I’m a better wiser person as a result of all the people that I’ve gotten to interview.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 21:48
So Maya gets this podcast off the ground, and the initial conversation, she’s having begun to unlock some new pathways to healing. But even then, another change of plans was right around the corner.
And then we experienced the second miscarriage where we lost identical twins a year and a half later. And I actually felt like I needed a slight change of plans to process my own grief out loud. So I ended up turning the mics having my producer interview me two days after the second loss, and the episodes called Maya’s slight change of plans. And I never ever expected that I would share something that was so personal to me, with the world, but I ended up processing my own grief out loud through the show. And that was extremely therapeutic for me. It’s just been so special to me.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 22:35
I get it. You should. It’s phenomenal. That episode is beautiful. I was right there with you yesterday, listening to it immersing myself in it. And it’s interesting, too, because like, I feel like I only get personal. Like, I’ve always approached us as an artist, right? It’s always about, like, what is happening? And let me express that. Right. So it was so fascinating to hear how you did that on yourself? How did that feel to be so vulnerable, and just fucking let me just let me just put it out there. Let me just process my own stuff out loud with you in this messy place.
God, it was so hard. I’m the type of person who comes to interviews very prepared. So when I have a guest, who’s on I will read everything they’ve ever written, I will listen to everything they’ve ever said, I will get my PhD in them before the interview. That’s my approach. And what this did is it brought me completely outside of my comfort zone because I showed up to an interview where I was being interviewed and I had done zero preparation for this moment. Like I said, it was two days after we found out the news that we had lost these twins. And my brain was so disorganized. And I was so sad. And so confused. And I felt such helplessness in that moment. I was like in other areas of life, I’m able to work hard and like have good things happen. And in this case, I’m not able to do that. And I just felt defeated. That’s probably the best word to use to describe how he felt in the moment. He felt defeated. Like, I’ve tried so hard in this and it’s not working. But that actually led to an incredibly wonderful conversation, which is I came in without package thoughts I came in without a clear understanding of what was going to happen. And I found over the course of the conversation, I was learning important things about who I am and how I could process the grief and how he could see things differently. And it’s like in that moment, I understood why it is that we do what we do, why it is that we have these kinds of conversations with people, because I found it to be so healing for me. And I ventured into spaces I might not have ventured into otherwise as a result of the conversation. And then actually the greatest amount of healing happened when I put the episode out into the world because you know, we record these like you can see me right now I’m in my live Well, tiny closet, My poor husband no longer can keep closing here because it’s now my podcast studio. And we record these things. And in your head, it feels so intimate, right? And then all of a sudden, you put the episode out into the world. And now it’s the dialogue between you and other people. And I’m sure you’ve experienced this so many times on your gorgeous show. But I heard from so many people all over the world who found resonance in my sharing this experience. And what was so beautiful about it, Stephanie is I didn’t just hear from people who were navigating the loss of a pregnancy, I heard from people who had experienced all kinds of loss I heard from, ooh, this one’s going to hit close to home for you, Stephanie, but I heard from a mom who had lost her son to a drug overdose. And she told me and this heartfelt email that just made me sob that my episode unlocked healing for her. Like it changed the way that she saw her relationship with her son. And, God, I can’t tell you what those messages feel like. Because you can’t even imagine having that kind of impact on anyone. And for me to feel like in some small way, this woman who has been through one of the most traumatic experiences a human can experience, which is losing her son could find some solace in the episode just, I don’t know, it blew me away. It was like, okay, I’m good. Like, if that’s the impact I’ve had on this earth, like, I’m good forever. That’s how it felt. Yeah.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 26:39
Yeah. It’s interesting, because I wrote a book in the nine months, immediately after losing my brother. And when I say wrote a book, I did not write a book, I wrote a bunch of sprawling shit on my notes app, and then arrange that into some kind of thing. And it helped me to arrange that into some kind of thing, because I was like.
I heard that you even said, like, you don’t even remember writing a book, right?
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 27:03
I have no recollection. And I have not read it since. But the book actually didn’t come first. I wrote all these notes down. And my husband encouraged me to publish it as an essay. Because what’s fascinating when you talk about the slight change of plans is, that wasn’t my first loss or loss of the way that I had imagined things I had had my first child in 2014. And she was born with a hearing loss. So she was born with sensory neural, bilateral hearing loss, and it was genetic. And we have none of it in our family. And so the first like six months of her life were spent being poked and prodded and sending her to this doctor and that specialist and this and that, and I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a baby who’s six weeks old, get a blood draw, but it is terrific. Yeah, I mean, MRI signing away, like, yes, she could be rendered brain dead. I mean, it was awful. It was awful. It was no, it was nothing like I had, it was terrible. I had painted this picture of this beautiful postpartum time, and I literally was at the lowest point I’d ever been in my entire life. And then, what I did was, instead of, sort of, like having to explain to every single person in my life, how fucking horrible this was, I wrote this long essay, and I put it out on medium. And it was like, Oh, my God, it was the first time that I had written something so personal. And the response was so loving. And I got that kind of thing back that I said, Oh, okay, writing about my personal experience, and being brutally honest, is really healing. Okay, interesting when we put that in my little bucket and, and take that into the future. And then when my brother died, it was a similar thing. Like I couldn’t, I didn’t wanna be on social media, I hated everybody. I didn’t want to see anybody like having any degree of fun or joy, because I was so broken. And I started writing all this stuff again. And my husband once again was like, put it out there. Why don’t you put it out there. And that essay, turned into the thing where my literary agent found me. Like all the strangers the mom, you talked about who had lost their people. I could not talk to anyone in my life that I knew. But holy shit, could I hear from a random person in Idaho? I will I’m like, let’s get I would love to hear from you. It was so it’s the same thing. The strangers who are like I see you and I feel you and you get me was the most, the single most healing it makes me emotional to even say it, like, made me be able to put on pants again. Yeah, like
I’m crying too. So that makes to us. It is so overwhelming. And when I think back to what I was craving in 2020, it was connection because We were all in our homes. And in addition to dealing with the miscarriages, it was like I couldn’t even grieve with the very few people I told that this had happened. And what this experience does the one you’ve just described, the one that I’ve had the good fortune in my life of having experienced is, it makes the world feel smaller, and more intimate in the best way possible. It really does make you feel connected to human beings in this powerful way. That’s hard to feel in day to day life, it’s hard to feel in the more fractured society that we live in. And so what happened is, my world actually shrunk. But in a good way, it made me feel like I was closer to the fellow humans that I was living on this planet with.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 31:03
We’re back. When we left off, Maya and I were comparing notes on sharing your traumatic story with complete strangers, and how shockingly healing that experience can be. I remember saying once community is a life jacket, and now I will say it again. Community is a life jacket. And Maya has built a powerful one with her audience, in large part because she shared her own story. But if everything had gone, according to her original plan, the podcast might have stayed firmly planted in a much more sciency space, rather than what it has become. When you were pitching your podcast, I have to know this. Did you say this is a grief exercise for me?
I didn’t share any of that. Some of it was operating subconsciously. Truly, it took me a while to figure out, this is what was going on. I don’t think I fully knew what was happening, then I just remember thinking, I am so intrigued by change, I need to crack the nut on change for so many reasons. And this is a podcast about change. And it, it just took me a beat to figure out. Okay, a large part of this is just personal therapy. A large part of this is trying to understand change more broadly in my life in the context of having this formative childhood experience with change. It just took me a while to put the pieces together, I knew the fascination was there. I knew the passion was there. But a lot of this reflection has actually happened as a result of having the conversations on the show, which is kind of exciting, because I don’t think I would have fully understood the full motivation behind it. Yeah, it was not presented as a great thing.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 32:48
Despite the fact that it almost happened by accident, the show has become a place for much needed emotional support, which I can deeply relate to. So I wanted to dig a little deeper on how she was able to navigate this most recent devastating change of plans. You have been able to do so much and yet I’m like so curious, your worldview and who you are and what you’ve seen yourself be able to accomplish when you found out I can’t carry a child? I can’t do that. What? What did that like? How do you process that you Maya? And yeah, like processing that?
Well, I think what it made me realize is that the earliest identity I’d ever attached myself to was actually aspiring mom. And so I thought it was the violin. But actually, when you look back at home videos, and you hear testimonials from my parents, I mean, I was having phone calls with my fictitious neighbors talking about, you know, my little son being rambunctious and irritating. And I had these fantasies, my whole childhood of motherhood, and what that would look like, and I’d have this brood, and I was so excited about creating this big family around me. And what I’ve learned from a slight change of plans, and what I’ve learned from my own experience, navigating change is that the loss of identity is a huge part of the sadness. And Stephanie, you lost being a sister to your brother, in that moment, you know, and in addition to losing, you know, these potential babies, I lost my identity of mother in those moments. And I think that that part is, it’s really scary. Yeah. And I felt really scared. Because I felt like, well, this is what I wanted so much, and now, I just kind of have to accept in life that we don’t always get what we want. And that just has to be okay. Because there’s no other option.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 34:48
I think what’s so powerful about your story is that you love the violin. You were so passionate about it. It didn’t work out you were able to sort of go okay, but I love that connection part of it. So I’m gonna continue to do that in a different form. You’ve been able to shift and navigate and make sure you’re keeping that kind of through line, I haven’t. It seems like even when you were told, you know, your body is not able to carry the child, but I can have a gestational carrier, I can still have the identity of mother without actually, it’s a slight change of plans. It’s not the way I envisioned it, but I can still make it happen, right?
You know, there’s lots of ways to have children, right. You could adopt, you can foster, you can work with a gestational carrier. I don’t know what the future holds for my husband and me, but I do feel with some time and some distance, I am starting to see things a bit differently. I’m trying to ask myself these really big questions like, What was I craving, from motherhood? And can I find that elsewhere? Like, is it possible for me to loosen my grip at that on motherhood and see if those same features exist elsewhere, whether it’s in being an absolutely doting aunt to my three nieces and my three nephews or mentoring my friend’s children being an auntie to them, or mentoring, you know, young, aspiring behavioral scientists. I mean, it’s allowing me to release the pressure valve of bits to do this kind of mental experimentation, which is asking myself that same identity question that I asked with the violin all those years ago, you know, I lost the ability to play the violin, can I still find what I loved about it elsewhere? And so I’m doing that state and I this is a works in frickin progress. Stephanie. Okay, I have not figured any of this stuff out. I don’t know what’s going to happen from here on out. But it is a really helpful mental exercise.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 36:40
I mean, the chaos of that mental exercise, I’m sure is kind of exhausting, right? Like, I’m sure. You’re like, you’re like, yeah, totally, I can be an auntie. And then the next day, you’re like, I get I get out of bed. I mean, like, what is that? Because I hear what you’re saying. Yeah, it makes so much sense. And that is very hard to do. Yes. So
this is the constant tension I feel we all have in our lives, which is things make intellectual sense. They make rational sense, but they don’t always make emotional sense. Over time, I think what happens is, if you commit to a viewpoint rationally, over time, your emotional brain will just it will catch up a little bit, it won’t fully be on board. But it will at least become more comfortable with that idea. And maybe that’s what’s happening for me, which is, I wouldn’t even define it as being prescriptive, which is like, my, you must be as okay with being an art as you are a parent, I wouldn’t say it’s there, it’s more that I’m just expanding my understanding of what my life could look like. And just trying to entertain for the first time ever, alternative realities. Because I will tell you that up until this point, there was no world I saw where I was truly comfortable not being a mom emotionally. And for the first time ever, I’m flirting with maybe a world that doesn’t involve motherhood. So that already is a seismic shift for my brain. There’s a freeing quality to it.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 38:09
Yeah, even entertaining, it feels freeing. Even, I always joke with my husband, I’m like, expectations are the thing that will truly kill me. Like, that is actually the thing that will kill me. Ultimately, if I could just fucking stop having expectations of the way things should be, then perhaps I could be present in any fucking moment of my life.
100%, you know, I wanted the people I interviewed on a slight change of plans was Amanda Knox. And so she was wrongfully incarcerated in an Italian prison for four years. And she said, I think the greatest form of suffering is when people can’t let their expectations of how things ought to be, ought to have been, go. Yes, when they hold on to how things ought to have been for so long. That’s what suffering is. And I think she had a radical form of acceptance in that prison. So she’s like whether or not I deserve to be here. This is my reality. This is my life now, my identity is prisoner, whether I like it or not, whether I deserve it or not. I need to figure out a way to operate in this new reality in a stunning way, by the way, in a way that I would never even venture to try to have, but it did minimize her suffering, to free herself of what expectation she had in this way. And I don’t think I’d be able to get there and it wouldn’t get to Amanda’s level, but it was certainly a masterclass in what that can look like.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 39:39
I think I’d put Amanda Knox’s level of acceptance into the aspirational column as well. But hearing all the ways my as conversations have impacted and shaped her, made me stop and actually reflect on the hundreds of similarly impactful conversations I’ve been able to have over the past few years working on this show, do you think I won’t say it, but I will. #grateful. And yet, here’s the thing. When I am discussing the impact with others, for which I’ve said, I am deeply grateful. There is always one big caveat I need to throw out there. I get a lot of people who and I bet you do, too, who reach out and they’re like, Okay, I need to make meaning out of my loss like you have. And I’m like, oh, no, no, no, no. Like it like, disturbs and alarms me when I hear that. Yeah, like, I don’t. I don’t think that that was not ever my, that’s not a you don’t have to take your trauma and your tragedy and turn it into a book, or a podcast or a thing that can be monetized or a, like, I needed to, to do this to not die myself. Yeah, that’s exactly I needed to process it. But for me, it’s not like I’m like, how would I make meaning out of the worst fucking thing that’s ever happened? It’s like how literally, like, I don’t know how to live in the world anymore. And that redefining and that re identity exercise that we’ve been talking about, is I had to do that through all of these creative pursuits, because that’s how I translate the world.
Yeah, the meaning making stuff, it feels good. In the moment, it feels like you’re working towards something, but it’s a little bit like fool’s gold, because you might always be a bit unsatisfied with what you find on the other end, it will never be meaningful enough to make up for the loss of your brother. Like, that’s the reality. And so, I think it’s fine for people to try to find meaning and tragedy or to try to make other people’s lives better as a result, but don’t think it’s ever going to compensate, because that’s an unreasonable goal.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 41:56
Yep, yep. Yep. I mean, I think this goes without saying, but I would give anything to have my brother back, this podcast, this company, this endeavor, none of it fills that hole. And it never, ever, ever, ever will. And yet making stuff happens to be the way that I process my grief. And there are so many ways to try and make meaning out of the random nonsense in this world. A point Maya is also very clear on.
I happen to not have spiritual views. I don’t believe things happen for a reason. I don’t believe good things happen to good people. I don’t believe the universe has a plan. I don’t believe in reincarnation, I actually, I’m a full blown atheist. Okay. So what that means in my life, is that I don’t have something to fall back on. In moments of grief. I don’t have a soft landing that exists in this other realm. And so psychology is my soft landing. I think that’s what I’m realizing this moment. Like, yeah, I have to rely on my own mind to be the soft landing because I don’t have anything else to appeal to. And so it comes in the form of accepting that shitty things happen, accepting that the world is random and cruel. Trying to figure out ways forward given the acknowledgement that those things are true, right. Like that’s, yeah, I guess. Yeah, that’s my son living.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 43:24
Me too. Same. We are soulmates. Yeah, I don’t. I don’t have my mom. Like I remember in the aftermath of losing Harris. She’s always been everything happens for a reason. Like, that’s her mantra, you know, and I’m like, it is not through the fucking world is not designed that way. But then in the aftermath of his death, she would you know, like say stuff to me like she was she went to see mediums and the whole thing, but she would say to me, like, did you see all the white feathers on your lawn on your in your yard? Did you see that? Do you know that? That’s a message from him, you know? And I’d be like, Yes, mom. Okay. Sure. Yes. And I it’s so interesting, though, because I did end up to this day, he died eight years ago, if I find a white feather to this day. I don’t believe in it. But I’ll pick it up. And I’ll save it. Yeah, like I still I still, you know, it’s like, whatever works. I think it’s such bullshit. But I’m like, Yeah, I often constantly crave the comfort and security that religion seems to provide for other people. Oh, absolutely.
So I should say like, I have no judgment on those who do weddings. In fact, I envy you. I envy you. You are so lucky, lucky that you have the views that you have. I wish I had them. If I could wave a magic wand. I would have those views. For whatever reason my mental constitution is such that I don’t have those views, even though I’ve tried and so I just have to make do with what I’ve been given. There’s an acceptance around that too. I wish I thought everything happened for a reason. How much cozier would my life be? It would be so much cozier and it’s not.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 45:04
But that’s actually it’s providing me so much like, Aha right now around, like, Why do I keep doing this? Why do I like make my life’s work now for the last four years? You know, like digging into the worst moments of people’s lives? You know, why is this my job? Like I was joking with my team the other day, I’m like, why don’t we do data entry? We don’t know what to just do like data entry. Love that. But it makes sense what you’re saying. Because if you don’t have a spiritual practice, if I don’t, if I don’t think that I’m going to see my brother again in the afterlife, because I don’t know that there is one, I need to find a deeper purpose here, I’m not going to be able to put my feet on the floor. Right? It’s like, it’s that kind of. It’s the soul medicine that I think spirituality provides for a lot of other people is what we get out of our talking to people about terrible things. I don’t know totally right.
I think that’s right. I think that is our form of functional medicine or something. Yeah, that’s our treatment plan.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 46:15
Perhaps what’s so uncanny about this interview in the first place, was finding someone whose treatment plan was so similar to mine, which is kind of a rare and very specific treatment plan. Turn your grief into a podcast about the moments that change us. Like, I think we might be the only two people who are doing this. So naturally, I wanted to gauge how well it was working for her. Like, where are you on your journey of, of your own journey of acceptance? Yeah. Now?
That’s a great question. Gosh, so much more work to be done. But I feel like, I feel like the show has been mind expanding in a really powerful way, which is, I think, again, just constitutionally I had going into the show, I had a very, I had a pretty clear sense of how I saw the world. And I have had these conversations that have just blown my mind. And it made me see things completely differently. And I think when you’re, I think when your mind expands, it kind of forces you to loosen your grip on the steering wheel. There’s some relationship there that I haven’t quite figured out yet. But it just it allows you to see that there are alternative ways of looking at things. There are many different life philosophies one could have in theory, and I think that itself has been very edifying.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 47:52
This was such an unbelievably unbridled delight today.
I’m so glad. Yeah, I look, I think at the end of the day, we both tackle really tough topics on our show. And honestly, I remember in the beginning, being a bit worried when people have a stomach for the content of a slight change of plans, because like, we go dark, deep, we don’t hold back, we hear some hard truths. And I just didn’t know if there’d be an appetite for it. Because, you know, the world is already feeling pretty dark. But the reality is, and I think this is probably why our shows resonate with people is that is actually people’s reality. So we can pretend that that stuff doesn’t exist and just like, make a positive story that everything or we can lean into it and try to figure out if there are actually some hopeful angles. And I don’t say positive angles, hopeful angles, like aspects of people’s stories that can give us hope. And that’s all I’m hoping for with the show is that you leave with a slight perspective change with a small bit of hope.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 49:06
So many ideas that Maya and I talked about today have rattled around in my head over the last eight years of my own grief journey. And there were so many moments during this interview where I physically leaped out of my chair with an enthusiastic Yes, thanks to my engineer, Brian, who probably had to work extra hard on this episode to get rid of all the chair squeaks. But I mean, this was just such an exciting chat. Because like Maya pointed out, our losses are very different, but our experiences of grief are the same. We’ve both had to redefine our identities in the wake of change that no one fucking asked for. We’ve both found meaning and healing by connecting with others who’ve walked similar paths. We’ve both had to grapple with accepting a world a reality that doesn’t look anything like we fucking thought it would look. And yet, we both had so much fun talking about this big, heavy stuff. And listen, you’re not in my IG inbox or I don’t know, maybe you are and I haven’t responded. And if that is the case, I am so sorry. But Maya and I continued our conversation all weekend after our chat. So soulmate found and new friendship attained. I hope you got as much out of this conversation as I did. Perhaps it was exactly the soul medicine that you needed right now.
There’s even more LAST DAY with Lemonada Premium. Subscribers get exclusive access to bonus content like an AMA with yours truly. AMA stands for Ask Me Anything in case you didn’t know. So just FYI and FYI means for your information. So subscribe now in Apple podcasts. LAST DAY is a production of Lemonada Media. The show is produced by Kegan Zema, Aria Bracci, and Tiffany Bui. Our engineer is Brian Castillo. Music is by Hannis Brown. Steve Nelson is our Vice President of weekly content and production and Jackie Danziger is our Vice President of narrative content and production. Executive Producers are Jessica Cordova Kramer and me Stephanie Wittels Wachs. If you’d like what you heard today, we have three other seasons that you can check out. Have a story you’d like to share, head to bit.ly/lastdaystories, or click the link in the show notes to fill out our confidential Google Form. follow and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts or listen ad free on Amazon music with your Prime membership.