Experiencing My Heart’s Healing Through My Body

I’ve been having the most fascinating relationship with my body these last three months. (I assume, though I’ve never specifically surveyed my friends, that everyone has a mixed relationship with their body–mine does some things with great grace and a lovely capacity for enjoyment, and the ability to deeply drink in my environment, and it does some things really poorly, with difficulty and discomfort, like running half a block and experiencing Panda Asthma.)

I’ve started doing craniosacral massage (a little scientific backing) and having a very intense and healing response to the experiences. I’m so grateful to my healer for her ability to stay attuned, present, and give me support through a wide variety of physical and emotional reactions to our work. In some ways I feel I’ve been in rehearsal for this moment my entire life.

In their spiritual journeys, both my parents were ordained Zen Buddhist monks, and part of their training was in massage. As a family, we used massage to relax and take care of each other. I know this idea might be uncomfortable to body-shaming Americans, but it was one of the nicer aspects of my childhood–having my parents rub my shoulders and stomach when I was anxious. The adult mutation of this early conditioning is that I love bodywork–whenever I am in a new country, I sample the local version of a massage. I also use bodywork to improve the quality of my life and manage stress: massage, reflexology, body scrubs, acupuncture, restorative and yin yoga. I’m a friend to all body-based approaches. I’m also really attuned to the different types of touch, professional touch doesn’t feel erotic to me. (Intimate touch with my lover is what’s erotic to me.)

As I’ve been using mindfulness with my clients and myself, I’ve grown more and more comfortable using deep conscious breathing to help regulate my nervous system. I’ve also been experimenting with talking about feeling states and their places in the body with my clients and checking in with myself about this too throughout the day.

I didn’t have much of an understanding of what craniosacral therapy would feel like when I decided to give it a try. I understood the touch would be much lighter than regular massage therapies. I didn’t expect it to do much, but thought it was worth paying for one session and checking it out.

My first session was overwhelming. I found myself sobbing hysterically and hyperventilating about 45 minutes in. This was in response to having the back of my head very lightly touched. My healer took care of me very gently while I calmed down, which felt incredibly generous. Even though the experience was difficult–I hadn’t had such an extreme emotional and physical experience in years, as soon as I calmed down, I realized that I knew something beneficial had happened to me, despite the challenges of the experience. My impression is that my first sentence, as soon as I regained the power of speech, was: When can I do this again?

Every session has been extremely different. I’m learning more and more how I respond both emotionally and physically and what I can tolerate–what will challenge me within my acceptable zone of tolerance.

I’ve done four sessions so far. I’ve decided to titrate the pacing–I visit with Julia once every three weeks or so, just because I learn so much about myself each time, and it leads me to a lot of contemplation and integration of my life’s experiences. I feel more self-compassionate and self-aware overall.

Humble brag–apparently I’m really good at tolerating my own distress, remaining present through discomfort and relaxation, using my breath, and continually monitoring my ever shifting internal states.

Emotion is in the body. I knew it before, but it’s undeniable now. Memory is in the body too. Remaining attuned to my body sensations, both positive and negative, has helped me re-process some 30 year old memories I hadn’t given a thought to in decades. Of course, all this is also shaping my interests as a psychotherapist.

(As a therapist, I’m often aware of the limitations of language-based, brain-in therapy in offering healing. Human bodies and human brains need all kinds of healing experiences. I believe there are many paths to healing–some are found in speech and reflection, some are emotional, some are spiritual, and many are in our bodies.)

That Funny Moment

A couple of weeks ago, on my way to work to co-facilitate a group, while I was walking to the El and talking on the phone, a little fruit fly circumvented the shield provided by my glasses and flew straight into my eye. I was feeling a bit emotional before the fly thing happened. As I had left my home, I had noticed within myself my intention: I wanted to do a particularly good job of facilitating my group that night.

When the fly got suctioned into my eye by the swirling currents therein, I was on the phone, and holding bags, so I had to announce my predicament to the person on the phone who wanted me to note their phone number, and put the phone on speakerphone while I flipped the camera so I could see my face as I moved my eyeball around, hoping the fly would make its way back to the front of my eyeball where I could pluck it out. A few tears and long seconds later, the fly showed up under my eyelid, and eventually floated down to a snatchable location, like the worst biological contact lens breakaway piece.

I had never had a fly in my eye before, though I had written a short story based on that premise (foreshadowing?) years ago.

I got on the El, which promptly came to a screeching halt at Market and Fifth Street, the light were low and it seemed like the whole system had powered down. So I got off the train, went to the street, and got on a bus. At 9th and Market, there was the beginning of a terrible traffic logjam due to the NFL Draft road closures. I felt that my commute had already been hard enough so I toughed it out (kinda lazy) for another two blocks. I walked from 11th and Market to 13th and Sansom.

By the time I got to work, and at each slight mishap, I was wondering whether my troubled commute was some universe-driven warning sign. Or signs. I’m not superstitious, typically, but sometimes I start noticing that I’m getting the same message over and over again and I wonder if I’m ignoring the obvious. So I gave myself a brief talking to in my head. I decided that my commute did not have to impact my intent. That I could still summon my skills as a professional, and do my job the way I wanted to. That power to chose the theme of my life, is a kind of brilliant freedom. And I was glad that I had the inner power to be amused by my minor travails, but not overwhelmed by them, and still had the bandwidth to step into my professional mindset and do the work. That space to move through my thoughts and feelings, in a kind of mindfulness, is one of the big gifts of being a therapist, and perhaps that gift was born of the gift of being a writer first.

Balancing Identities: Writer and Therapist

Ferns unfurling

Ferns unfurling

I’m finally able to call myself a psychotherapist. I earned my License in Clinical Social Work, and I am starting a private practice. It’s an exciting, nerve-wracking time, full of potential and joy. But one of the pieces I’m still wrangling with in my mind is how to make a life as both a therapist and a writer. Which piece do I prioritize when, and why. How do I create balance? How do I set aside time for both pieces of my identity?

I don’t have any good answers right now, but I’m going to try to create a process that might lead to some answers. Because sometimes process must precede understanding in order to lead to knowledge. My goal is to get up every morning and write. Or at least make time in the evening to think and write. I always feel more grounded and purposeful when I actually think with my hands and type. I love the unfolding of my mind: the way I touch parts of my experience that have remained wordless within my body when I finally sit and write on a keyboard. I like that sense of mental chaos falling into place — words shaping the mind’s process, the mind’s processes clinging to language and settling down so I can contemplate my mind’s life, my heart’s life, my body’s experience.

I find myself writing this post in part to acknowledge that before I knew I wanted to be a therapist (age 12) I knew I wanted to be a writer (age 6?). That both bring great meaning and satisfaction and surges of joy and terror into my life, and both are worthwhile. If I knew how to draw, I might draw a picture of myself with a pen in one hand and a mandala in the other. (I was trying to pick which representation of the human experience I should hold in my hand, and of course I considered holding a brain, but then I wanted to hold a brain and a heart, and then I wanted to hold the thinker, and then it got abstract and complicated, so I thought perhaps an abstract symbol of unity and integration would be the best option.) It gets complicated. But maybe these layers of complication are the richness of life. The delight of the unknown.

How to Balance

Over our decades, my body and I have had many long conversations about our perceived shortcomings, and in particular about my resentment around my inability to balance on one foot. I’m the yoga practitioner who goes over to the wall and still manages to tip over whenever we try to hold a one-legged pose for a few seconds. Since this has been going on for four decades, I’m pretty convinced that I have no balance.

Here’s what happened at the gym last month. My trainer looked at me and said, “You always fall the same way.” I agreed. I already knew that my feet supinate–they roll outward at the edges–the insides of my soles don’t touch the earth much. He then said, “Why don’t you overcompensate by putting more weight on the inside of your foot?” I did. Voila! Balance. I can balance.

The Culprits

The Culprits

Four decades on these feet. For at least thirty years I knew that my feet leaned out. For thirty years I tipped outward and fell over exactly the same way, over and over again. One thirty-second conversation later and I could solve my own problem. It seems so obvious now, it’s totally infuriating.

It turns out, even when you are conscious of the solution, miracles are exceedingly demanding. If I want to stay balanced on one leg and do my warmup exercises, I systematically do the following every single step of the way:

1. Concentrate, but just enough. Too much concentration will doom me to failure.
2. Keep abs tight.
2. Bend knee slightly.
3. Think about my stance: Try to keep weight evenly distributed between inside and outside of my foot.
4. Have my planted leg more or less in the middle below me.
5. If balance is compromised, over-adjust toward the inner edge of foot, but not too much (because now I’m having the entirely novel experience of tipping the other way and falling inward).
6. Repeat.

Addendum: Keep trying despite typical start-of-exercise hopeless flailing. Get to the middle point of reps–from 1/8 done to 6/8 done and maintain good form. For 7/8 and 8/8 done, manage exhaustion and track form.

There are lithe and balanced gym ladies and men running around doing amazing tricks while jumping and twisting on one leg. I’m just beginning to understand the standing one leg part. I’m so proud (and so very tired of concentrating).

Art & Nourishment: Frank Lloyd Wright

It’s been an exquisite banquet of stress in graduate student land of late, as I wrap up the eighth and final consecutive semester of my part-time MSW program. (Starting in September 2011, I’ve had classes in Fall, Spring, Summer, Fall, Spring, Summer, Fall and now Spring. The experience, drawn out, exhausting, was chosen by me, and I am glad to reach the terminus of this particular leg and start off on new pursuits in new directions.) Enough with the whining.

And now, a refreshing serving of good news. I had a rather vivifying, soul-searing encounter with the work of Mr. Frank Lloyd Wright (FLW) two weekends ago.

FallingwaterVisiting FallingWater in Mill Run, PA, did great soothing and inspiring things for my soul, my mind and my heart. When those aspects of me are basking in the comforting presence of beauty and vision, my body tends to do rather well also.

Art! Great art. It’s practical magic (for me).

The snippets of stories about FLW reveal a complicated egomaniac with impeccable taste and a pretty amazing imagination and understanding of light, space, materials, human function, the need for beauty, functional design, community, and communion with nature. Neat.

I also visited Kentuck Knob, so I had two homes, designed two decades apart by my new friend FLW, to give me a sense of his trajectory as an architect and designer. There are bones to pick with some of his choices. He was a man’s man in a man’s world. His family rooms and incorporation of outdoor spaces are awesome, but he (seriously) neglected bedrooms as spaces (his are quite small), but more gravely, his bathrooms and kitchens are really tiny–my interpretation is that he did not take that aspect of the human experience into much consideration. In FallingWater, the whole house is oriented to the outdoors, and this is clear in his design, every room has a large terrace–you are constantly being ushered out and closer to the stream and cliffs.

I had wanted for years to see FallingWater. When I first learned of its existence, it sounded like an improbable miracle. How could a building be ushered into being out of my dream? Maybe wanting to live directly over a stream in the woods is a secret ancestral dream, a common hidden human notion? In any case, the concept resonated and I was terribly excited to go there in person and measure my immense hope to the physical space.

I knew I would respond to the experience, but I did not expect to be so moved. His intent is everywhere. His taste is pretty much flawless. I love his fabrics, his furniture. The whole world should live like this.

FallingWater is right out of the future and it was designed in the 1930s.

And then there’s the very homey Kentuck Knob, which had an interesting coziness and warm darkness to it. It has an understated front and a proud prow of a living room, jutting out into the hill below.

kentuckKnobThat was two weeks ago, a bit before Spring sprang into its fullness, and now, before the tender baby green leaves peek out, we are showered in an outrageous fullness of flowers. I thank thee Cherry Blossoms–cheerful hopefulness embodied.

SpringFlowers

My Pants and My Health

So I grew up, as I’ve probably mentioned before, in a house where physical activity was not a priority. As someone who loves to read, nap, eat food and drink wine, my lounging and eating were manageable for a while–I guess they were mostly manageable in my 20s because I also happen to love dancing and did so often. In my more studious and therefore less active 30s, my pants took several steps forward in amplitude, which I managed to rationalize with judicious not looking too much in mirrors at my butt, and a heaping serving of misapplied feminism (I’m too smart to care about what my body looks like.) I guess my notion of being healthy summarized into: fit into pants, ride a bicycle sometimes, and occasionally visit the gym. Do not let the media or the man, or those skinny yoga bitches get you down. Romantic partners who would “get me” would not be so focused on the size of my pants.

Fitness was not a quest, it was an obligation to maintain what I thought was a moderate (but now realize was a mediocre) status quo–equivalent to and slightly less enjoyable than flossing. Also, I was a more of an intellectual, the body was not my medium, it was an envelope for my appetites.

It’s interesting in retrospect to examine how I derived my beliefs and the perspective I gained on those beliefs over time. I am now earnestly in my forties. For better or worse. A few bits of new thought have penetrated my insulated cranium. There’s no aha moment here, just a slow turning around of a large ship, slowly over time into uncharted … (please to meld your own seafaring/fitness questing metaphor at this juncture.)

Bits and pieces that started influencing me: I went to see a shoulder doctor about my shoulder, and the nurse and doctor had an exchange in front of me about growing older… that the weight you gain is weight you carry when you are old and your bones are frail. (I’m also regularly treated to the spectacle of mobility limited elder folk tackling the SEPTA stairs and wheezing through their turtle-like progress–ghost of christmas future, here we go!) Then there’s my knees. My grandmother always guilts me about my knees when I visit. Which I scoffed at in my 20s, but I no longer scoff. Now my knees are arthritic and bitchy whiners. Apparently my knees care a lot about the size of my pants, but I did not read that memo promptly. I really don’t want a sucky old age–my genetics kind of guarantee an old age, and I guess I’m in future ache minimization mode.

I saw a woman wearing a t-shirt that said “Strong is the new skinny” and I liked that. The smarty pants feminist wants to be strong, not skinny. So that’s something I can aim for without feeling like I’m plunging into the vanity pool.

Then there’s my friend Kyle Cassidy who has transformed his understanding of mind and body, his socializing and his body by becoming a pretty avid runner over the last couple of years. I’ve linked his name to his awesome blog. He calls it the fat tax. He runs for hours each week so he can avoid becoming fat.  There’s also my friend Jess who has redoubled her running efforts and has gotten faster, and fitter, and (always pretty) better fits in her pants.

Then there’s Hugh Jackman, whose body I love. I saw a short clip of a slightly disturbing interview between Oprah and Hugh, where she asked to feel his abs and she asked what it took for him to get into Wolverine shape. (In the long version which I can’t find) Hugh said something I had never heard before–he said you are either improving or you are degrading and this applies to your body. There is no status quo–there is no maintenance program. This thought annoys me, because it implies constant vigilance. But I also find it convincing based on my own trajectory.

Then there’s the fact that I now I train with a trainer and with four random other people twice a week, which means that I get to see someone else’s progress over time, and it’s kind of amazing. I’ve witnessed my own progress over the last few months, and it’s definitely slow, and it’s less impressive, but still good news. There are new muscles. It’s honestly odd feeling new muscles beneath my skin. But watching more fit people work out with a trainer has been transformative–I finally get it–people who are Very Fit and look really good in clothes, work Really Hard to keep it that way. There’s no magic, no special gene.  Having a beautiful body takes amazing amounts of work. I have seen the sweating and the effort in person, and it is significant.

The problem with my progress is that it makes me more honest about where I am and how far I have to go. That’s mostly good, a bit painful, but highly informative. I now know so much about my blind spots, my ability to disconnect from my body and not really examine it, its functions or my assumptions about my future mobility.

There’s a bit about love in here too. I love my partner’s body and I want both of us to love mine as well.

I’m not sure how to summarize my current notions or goals about being healthy–they are a work in progress. My hope for the new year is that I will double down on my current progress, and accelerate it. Right now, I’m trying to do something healthy every day. I want to be more comfortably mobile (particularly on stairs), able to dance and move for long periods of time without being winded, I want to fit in all my clothes, I want to enjoy my body, feel stronger, feel more confident, and I no longer want to fear aging as a long and very uncomfortable decline. To achieve these goals, I am willing to sweat often.

Ironic Almost Fitness

I recently have bought a lot of gym gear, because I’m going to the gym and having my ass kicked regularly. And sweating more than I ever have. And having a huge case of red face that lasts a good hour after the workout ends. These developments feel not exactly good, but somehow meaningful and important to me. I’ve committed to going even when I would rather nap (most every time). Despite my ill will, and lack of motivation, I AM getting stronger, faster, and a bit more compact in circumference.

So while I’m basking in my incremental fitness improvements (the final test of which will be a humble return to the 1.5 hour Iyengar level 1 class that crushed me before I began my fitness regimen), I’m eating really terrible food, much of it fatty pork. I’m not sure what this particular combination of behaviors signifies. I mean, I’m much hungrier more often now that I’ve got a few more muscles occupying space below my fat. I’m craving protein. I’m tired a lot. These are pretty typical feelings (hunger, fatigue) for Fall. (When will decency require that I stop blaming Fall for my love of meat and fat?)

I question why I can’t espouse nutritional purity while making efforts at the gym. I have a notion that eventually I’ll wake up craving salad with protein and that this craving will last for the better part of four months. Alternatively, I am hoping that the recent gorging signifies the death throes of my bad habits. Alternatively, these are just my habits, and at least I’m shaking my tail more often, giving me more room to enjoy my habits without the typical guilt.

So yes, I’m more fit-like. But no, health in one arena does not mean that health in other arenas will follow. Sometimes this makes me feel bad. Sometimes I’m fine with it. The balance is tipping, ever so slightly, fit-ward. Sometimes this makes me feel like “come on, how many efforts can I possibly sustain in any given period?” And here we are. Impasse: Well-fed me, feeling good, tonight full of sushi and one pint of beer, last night full of pork and a bit of cognac. And that’s what my fitness looks like. I’m in touch with the ironies.

Sucky Workout

I got up late to go to the gym. Then I came home, had a quick lunch, showered and went and got a massage. Now I’m on my couch writing. I am treating myself. I’m living my fantasy day, but it started out as a bad day. I had a terrible night of sleep. I’m preoccupied and it stays with me no matter how many episodes of Louis CK I watch in a row.

At the gym, my body felt like a heap of disorganized bricks. There was no whole to my body. There were only grumpy parts, each with a specific broken rhythm. I haven’t been this weak since I started working out a month ago.

Everything hurt, everything felt too hard to do.

I was constantly out of breath.

All my joints with glitches were acting up. Knees, ankle, wrists, lower back–they were all on the edge of injury. My body had suddenly regressed. This offends me. Body must report for duty and behave as anticipated. My body went about being terrible and uncooperative despite my resentment.  I know about trending towards the mean–I was doing pretty good for a while there and now comes the backlash. I should resign myself, I’m probably going to suck for a bit, just so my average remains average.

It’s inevitable–the universe mandates occasional bad days. I have trouble accommodating bad days. I don’t have time for feeling crappy–I’m already dealing with mid semester schoolwork exhaustion–I don’t need other reminders of life’s inherent cruelty. I realize I am being a bit of a whiner here. Allow me to contemplate how far I’ve come, how far I still have to go, and my biggest struggle, my body’s default inertia.

At the same time, there is a recognizable pattern. I know that when I’m doing any exercise, I start off okay, then I have a terrible middle part where all I want to do is go home and never come back, and then if I manage to persist, something subtly changes and I am suddenly doing better, feeling stronger and more competent (unless I’m too exhausted, in which case my morale improves but my body can’t keep up and my form sucks).

It’s likely there’s some interesting metaphor for work, for progress, and for life somewhere in these paragraphs, but my insight, like my stamina, has been momentarily exhausted.

The Manuscript(s) in my Drawer

For kicks and giggles, I pulled together all my finished and unfinished (but promising) short stories into a manuscript back in 2011. (I included everything that wasn’t a fairy tale that I had written). I wanted to find out my total word count and whether I had enough for a book. This story collection currently clocks in at 50,000 words, which is a bit short, but not terrible.

After I found out I had a viable amount of material that needed a gentle spit shine and once over, what did I do?

Nothing.

Getting my writing act together has always been tantalizingly possible. But my inertia rules the day. Admittedly, I had solid excuses. I was working full time, in graduate school and completing an internship all last year. I worked 6 days a week.  But I have not touched these stories since November 2011. Months have swooshed by and I have done nothing.

(In fact, I have three short manuscripts that need revisiting. My other two are my fairy tale collection and my memoir project.)

It is July 30, 2013. I’m taking the Heinlein and Hemingway admonition that writers finish their work seriously. Dear internet, it’s time for a solemn vow. I’m going to polish/edit/finish at least one story in my manuscript each week. I have 13 more stories to go. If this works out, come mid-October, I should have one competed manuscript. Then starts the hard part, I will look for an agent. No more swooshing time. No more doing nothing. I have a simple plan to execute. (Execute sounds lethal alright.)

Sharing the morning with Hemingway, Heinlein

“When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write.” Hemingway in his Paris Review interview with George Plimpton.

There was a short period of time a few years ago when I woke up every morning an hour early to work on my memoir. There was another blessed period when I timed myself for 15 minutes daily and forced myself to write for at least that long (typically longer). The timed writing happened mostly in the evening. Both periods were very rewarding. I invariably feel better about my life and my future when I take the time to write. I like Hemingway’s notion of slowly warming to your work first thing in the morning. Proceeding from dream mind to creative mind to immersed mind with the new day. I might start slow and just wake up 15 minutes earlier than planned to work on new writing this week.

I’m also newly fascinated with Heinlein’s five rules for writing. There’s a lot of coverage of these rules, embracing or discrediting aspects of them. But the simplicity is alluring:

1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you write.
3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
4. You must put the work on the market.
5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

1-5: Each and every one of these steps is a huge leap, a major requirement, and has a ton of embedded assumptions.

1. Obviously, writing is a requirement of writing. It’s a verb, it requires action. I’m trying to be more deliberate about making time.

2. Action is nice. Completed action is better. Finishing. Finishing is one of many things I struggle with. I try to balance out Stephen King’s advice to let a completed work lie fallow for a period of time before you take it up again with another reported quote by Hemingway I keep around to keep me going: ““Write every day and finish what you start.”  Should I keep at it until I’m done, or give it time to rest? I have done both. Each approach has its frustrations.

3. Refrain from rewriting–that’s assuming my story works. That’s assuming I’ve found a satisfying tone, structure, plot, narrator and dialogue. That’s assuming my metaphors are doing good work. I think it’s a “refrain from tinkering once you have reached the end.” Reaching the end is another matter.

4. Put to market–this is great advice–but it’s totally insufficient to the reality. I’ve just started becoming a little bit better about sending stories out to editors. I have a lovely compilation of rejections, and a (very) small number of acceptances. But my rejections are getting perkier. They’re trickling in slowly, and slowly getting more positive. Editors are letting me know my work is making final editorial rounds, and I’m being encouraged to resubmit in the future. I must be maturing as an author. I’m just not quite ripe fruit yet. At least I have a notion of forward movement–reasons to keep at it. While very few publishers provide feedback, occasionally I get lucky and an editor provides interesting insights that help me with my rewrite.

5. Keep the work on the market until published/sold–I see each round of submissions/rejections as a new opportunity to edit.  My work does get better with each iteration.

Lessons percolating. I think Hemingway, besides being a brilliant (and sexist) author, had the leisure of writing in another age. There were probably fewer aspiring writers sending out their submissions, and there wasn’t Submittable to power instant gratification for those seeking to submit, or the New Yorker’s online submissions option. Mixed blessings, all. I feel for the editors wading through the oceans of random submissions by writers of all stripes and levels of proofreading, let alone writing, ability.

Even as I work to re-master disciplined daily writing, I’m going to remind myself that there is an end goal. I need not only to write, not only to finish, but to publish, and that specific quest has its own set of hazards and opportunities–more on that later.

Back to (Creative) Writing

I started writing this post last week, and then abandoned it as my doubt made it too hard to move forward with such a smug tone. I’m back at it again today, pondering life, writing, and, most important, finding good writing habits that lead to being published.

Last week’s beginning: I edited two stories today.  It came naturally. It felt really good. After months and months of guilty hiatus, using my creative writing brain was glorious.

So good in fact that I felt like I had special x-ray glasses on–I could see what bones were missing from my story’s skeleton. Looking at my story’s body, I could see what needed thinning down and what needed plumping up. I tend to repeat myself, so I cut a bunch of those redundancies out. I clarified. I threshed. I wove in a new layer. I reconnected beginning and end in more concrete ways.

This week’s conclusions: Last week, after having one beautifully productive day followed by a day of submitting one completed manuscript out, I’m back in my non-writing, non-editing slump. I am perpetually struggling with making time to write. I keep saying to myself, just 15 minutes a day will get you a book by the year’s end. It sounds plausible. Those 15 minutes don’t (yet) exist in my life. I’m just not that consistent. In search of motivation, determination, and a steely resolve, I go to other writers’ advice to try to find a model I can live with. The inspiration is useful for a good 10 minutes–Kurt Vonnegut had a great routine I can’t duplicate. Still, reading how others organized themselves, I feel invigorated and purposeful for a moment, and then the daily worries set in–I should spend my time trying to earn an income. I need to focus on this or that class project or reading. My drawers need reorganizing. I should call my grandma. The list is endless.

The other major battle raging is between writing new stories and finishing long lingering pieces that need to be edited and reworked. Part of me wants closure, part of me wants evasion into brand new skies, wants to see what’s under my creative hood–what will my mind seize upon today? And so here I am blogging instead of editing. Another momentary soother of my itch to write. Suggestions are welcome.

The Taj Mahal Quest

I have spent six weeks in India over two visits. I have never seen the Taj Mahal. In November 2011, I came to New Delhi and spent a week. The only day I had off from the conference I was running was a Friday. The only day of the week the Taj Mahal is closed is Friday. I spent my last day in India touring Delhi and saw many marvels.

No Taj Mahal, however. I came all the way to India and I did not see its most famous site (which was only a few hours away). Many of the attendees who came to my conference did see the Taj. I tried not to be bitter. I tried to tell myself this was fine. This was okay. I didn’t have to see the Taj Mahal just because I was in India. I’m sure lots of tourists who have been to Delhi haven’t seen the Taj Mahal. Right?

In the last two years, I have not met a single person who has seen the Taj Mahal who thinks it was anything less than amazing.  (I keep asking because I’m still trying to rationalize my prior failure.) I’m happy to say that my time has come.

I’m in India. In terms of Taj touring, I’m somewhat inconveniently situated in Kolkata. The monsoon is getting underway.  This weekend I will take a taxi to the airport at the pre-dawn crack, then take a plane, then a taxi to a train, then a taxi to the Taj or my hotel, depending. I will see the Taj Mahal. I hope to see it at sunset and again at sunrise.

When I went to buy my New Delhi to Agra train ticket at the Kokata Foreign Tourist Counter, I waited 1.5 hours on a sofa chair. I made friends with an Iranian scientist and has a speed round geopolitics chat. When number 43 was called out and I finally got to speak with the train booking gentlemen, they spent 20 minutes trying to convince me that I really wanted to take a bus (they did not sell bus tickets) instead of the train. I held firm. I wanted a ticket that said Agra. I wanted a ticket that guaranteed I would get to my target town on Saturday afternoon. I had to argue and plead. They disagreed with me repeatedly. I held firm. They finally gave in. I have a one way second-class train ticket! They would not sell me a ticket back to Delhi. They insisted I should take a bus–that buses were common and easy to find; that a bus would be more convenient. This remains to be sorted out. I don’t know if I can get back to Delhi and then Kolkata on Sunday (despite my plane ticket). But I do know I will see the Taj Mahal. Or at least I’m as moderately confident about it as I am about any other aspect of my life in India. Further updates to come. Wish me luck.

Acts of Communication

Ever since I got to Kolkata, I have been trying desperately to communicate with my fellow humans. It’s an attempt because it’s very hard to ascertain how much is truly understood in this environment–there’s a lot of nodding, engine starting, plunging forward, with uncertain results on the line. It’s also desperate, because I dearly wish to share information, or a common purpose, or an agreed upon destination. There is often the appearance of agreement, or a measure of understanding, but results will vary. And when results vary, there is the kindness of strangers, or at least my persistence in seeking out information in the dark, in the rain, in New Alipore, engaging one auto rickshaw driver and his clients in conversation at a time, trying to ascertain my distance from my destination.

In the last four weeks in my search for mutual comprehension, I have employed miming skills, the handing over of currency, body posture, hand gestures, eye movements, lots of wide smiles or concerned looks. I will show written text. I say the words haltingly. I repeat the words, hoping for a different answer or a different head nod. I pray. Once I’ve raised my voice to respond to volume with volume when I was being spoken to stridently in Bengali (and couldn’t understand) knowing that my English would also not be understood. I’ve ascertained that occasional volume is an acceptable form of communication. Conversations here are quite animated, with multiple people expressing their views simultaneously. I am in admiration of the translator who facilitates our research for her vocabulary, quickness of mind, and prodigious memory for long streaks of expression.

I know maybe five Bengali phrases. And most people here know a few English phrases, but it’s exceedingly subtle work trying to assess overall language comprehension on either side in any conversation. The most enthusiastic are the young children and teenagers in the street who will call out a phrase after my passing. Today it was “Nice umbrella!” which I gratefully registered.  Many are shy to reveal their English skills. Some will only start speaking English when I am befuddled by a situation and they are embarrassed on my behalf with my uselessness and general ignorance. Many understand more than they can speak. Some can read better than they can process spoken words (with my American accent), and others make a show of nodding, but it is eventually revealed that we have each failed to make the other understand. In turn I stumble over the rhythms, intonations and the phrasings, there are quite a few British-isms, and many other interesting uses of language: a man mentioned molestation last night, and I think he meant masturbation. I could be wrong. Many people speak to me in Bengali when they get frustrated with the situation, and I too find myself using more English to explain what I would so dearly like. Amidst the surprises, the challenges, there are many triumphs, big and small, all day long. I am getting where I want. I am traveling, purchasing, bartering, speaking, hugging, smiling back, all the time. It’s a miracle. Should I thank the British or curse them for the spread of English? Of course I feel guilty being the benefactor of imperialism, but post-colonialism bites back, humorously again and again.Sylviepond It is a great lesson in the many ways I can communicate, and the many ways I will fail to do so.

Faces of Eve

The experience of conducting collaborative community-based research in the red light Sonagachi district in Kolkata India is transforming me. It’s hard to say exactly what is happening to my mental and emotional frameworks (I think that insight will emerge over time), but I can maybe report on what I hope is happening.

DurbarOne of the great gifts of being in India is the freedom it gives me to be patient, and to be accepting, and to let conversations, halting moments, and imperfections occur without becoming frustrated. For example, today we conducted two of our interviews in a narrow alley, in the rain, with onlookers, dogs, and passers by. I was amazed at the interviewees’ generosity with their time and stories. (Sometimes, when I do get frustrated, I remind myself, I am in India, and this is not my terrain, and I need to let it all unfold as it chooses to. My will is not important: Holding this internal dialogue has been freeing in the utmost). I dearly hope that, when I return to the U.S., I can maintain this same dispassionate curiosity as to the unfolding of my practice, my agency’s work, and my client’s lives. I’m not meaning I will be un-invested, I’m meaning that I want to be clear about my objectives and my responsibilities, and to honor those without forcing a particular agenda. I want to retain my current spirit of exploration, generosity towards others and naivete.

What I really hope is happening is that any temptation to stereotype any population is totally dead within me.

I am meeting the women of Sonagachi in their homes, at their collective Durbar, and in the streets. I am meeting their children, their loves, their madams, and their elders. I am drinking their tea. I am sitting with them and listening for glimpses of their stories and choices. The experience is both profoundly moving and totally mundane. Their stories are my stories too (maybe not in every particular, but the threads of our concerns comes from the same cloth).  More than anything, my experience working with the women of Sonagachi highlights how interwoven our lives are with our families, how we all seek to make the most of our careers, and how we try to be good partners and nourish relationships around us. If I tell you about my life, I will tell you how it has been filled with the joys of love and relationships; the pride of doing my work well; and how maybe one day I will speak of my children and look forward to my offspring’s marriages and educational accomplishments. My setbacks have had to do with health concerns, financial worries, and family responsibilities. I’ve dreamt of owning a bit of land and building a home, or starting a new business. All this and more is echoed by the women of Sonagachi. They are my family. We share Eve’s face(s).

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Reality

Cups

Bhaads, the local tiny earthen tea cups for the strong Bengali tea.

I’ve been in Kolkata for two weeks. The amazement and excitement of first arrival has faded and I’m now faced with the day-to-day business of living in a crowded, busy city where I have some bearings, but am equally easily lost. The relentless scrutiny and the language barriers are no longer new, they are just two forms of ongoing pressure. We’re slowly learning a few Bengali phrases for greetings, trying to make halting connections with those around us. One thing I know is that I love the little red earthen cups, or bhaads, in which tea is served in Kolkata. I have never had such small cups of strong tea served so hot.

I am both homesick and totally committed to this trip/experience, which creates its own tensions. I miss my daily comforts; I miss my partner and friends; I miss salad, but I also love being opened up to new possibilities, watching a powerful collective women’s movement unfold (and the privilege of meeting its members), and trying to partner with the organization to assist it as best I can through research. So many different pressures, so many different wishes and desires–for example I’m balancing my research obligations, my homework obligations, my household and social obligations, my tourist inclinations, and my bodily and psychic requirements. It’s kind of unusual to be so torn and so engaged all the time. Maybe that’s what is so addictive about being abroad.

The Goodbye Season

I can tell by your tears that you will remember it all” is one peculiar quote I found online while making a half-hearted attempt to research how to say goodbye. I’m in the midst of closing chapter after chapter: The end of my first internship, the end of a yearlong class, the end of my four-year second stint at Wharton. Looking people in the eye, enunciating  my future, and facing myself as reflected in their eyes is weird stuff. It’s both a relief and a bit shocking how supportive my soon to be former coworkers have been. There’s a hearty dose of unreality matched by heaping bitter sweetness to the whole proceeding. After nearly 11 years, I’m opting out of the university administrator lifestyle. My decision makes sense, but my heart is catching up slowly to my will.

The thing about being bi-national, and having been bi-coastal, is that my life has been littered with goodbyes. It is impossible for me to have all the people I love in one place.

You’d think I’d have plenty of practice, but in fact, I’m not very good at saying goodbye. I prefer evasive maneuvers. Clean cuts. Leaving friends and acquaintances, people I like, behind squeezes my heart. This started with spending my summers in France during my teen years. Saying goodbye to all my friends and family after a two month stint just wrenched me and made me atypically wordless. I did better just staring at the road ahead, getting on the plane and keeping myself distracted.

(Might running off to India for seven weeks be considered an evasive maneuver?)

I’m actually spending more time with my discomfort than I ever have before. It’s been layering into me for months as I concocted my plans. This mixture of excitement and malaise is absorbing, refreshing, tastes odd in the mind. I’ll leave it at that, I’m atypically wordless in the face of these voluntary losses.

In Motion

I couldn’t write for  a while because everything I was concocting had to remain quiet until I informed my employers. Also, I’m not very good at being indirect or coy, so I felt a bit muffled. Then, once I was free to write, I felt like a giant container of mixed and turbulent feelings. The bosses have been informed. Two weeks before leaving my job, I’ve turned a corner. The feelings are starting to stack instead of rumbling. Hello blog. How I have missed thee. So here’s the plan, which is no longer a plan, but the shape of my new life for the next 12 months. I have set my future in motion.

In about two weeks, I leave for a Kolkata, India, where I will take a six-week class followed by one week of touring (will I finally get to see the Taj Mahal? Stay posted.). Expect lots of ruminations on life as a foreigner.

Once I come home, there will be a mad scramble for summer employment, and another summer class, and some internship projects.

Sometime in August, my three-day-a-week new internship starts, with all the corresponding excitement. (I’m really happy to be taking some time to focus on my development as a clinician, to finally be able to fully embrace my learning without juggling the demands of a full-time office job. There is the corresponding anxiety about whether or not I will find ways to make money while meeting these new obligations.)

I’ve decided I’m only allowed to fret over one thing at a time. So I’m now fretting over my seven-week trip to India. I have never been on a seven-week trip (besides my childhood summer commuting between France and the U.S. for family visits.) Now that my spring classes are finished, I can spend my leisure time trying to read up and prepare myself for this adventure. Here’s my conclusion: I cannot prepare myself. There’s no way.

Indiabrick

I can do some online research. I can look at pictures. I can open up the encyclopedic brick that is my guidebook. I can read other student blogs. I can pile up the supplies and necessities for my trip around the apartment. But I cannot prepare in the sense that I cannot become ready. I can only go.

And that’s my feeling about this entire coming year. I will do my due diligence, but I will not be ready. I can only move forward: Go with my full heart and mind, and hope for the best.

Minor Miracles

I don’t expect whatever spiritual energy there is (call it god or the force, or gumby, I’m not really sure and I’m unattached to the particulars) to act or intervene in my favor in practical ways. But my faith has been tested (perhaps strengthened) recently, with a series of minor, but delightful surprises. I’m feeling, let’s say, the presence of angels at work in my life, in silly, but nice ways. Makes me feel grateful and a bit ungracious for not praying/meditating more. At least I have the presence of mind to take note of these moments of beauty.  Here goes, my gentle thanks to the great unknown for my relentless luck of late. Some agents of fate, as a matter of fact all agents of fate, have kindly faces and are mere mortals.

1. Two today: 1. Right after I realized I had a headache, one of the wonderful Post-Docs dropped off a gift for me: special combs from China that are supposed to stimulate the scalp, improving cranial blood flow, and averting headaches. 2. I broke off a chunk of molar/filling in the UK and was walking around with a giant groovy cavern in my back tooth. I went to the dentist today, steeling myself for a gory Novocain plus drool and blood extravaganza, but no! Nothing.  A little white filling and some lights was all. No numbing at all. No drooling sips on water for hours afterwards. Just walk in, walk out, all smiles.

2. One yesterday: All trains to Heathrow from Green Park tube were stopped at Hammersmith. We were warned there were no trains to the airport. We stayed on the tube, feeling worried and hopeful that the kindly tube staff would concoct a solution for our dilemma at terminus. They had! Many staff members were on hand to inform the confused commuters and get them safely to their flights. There were even gracious staff porters for managing the steps. Walk to train to bus to train to airport, but still, it all worked out, slowly but methodically. And the security checkpoint at Heathrow was a breeze, even though I was randomly checked at boarding and my boyfriend laughed as he walked past, saying something like “you look like a menace.”

3. The New Year’s Eve Miracle. We bought, for better or worse, tickets to a Thames Fireworks River Cruise on New Year’s Eve (a three-hour cruise!). I have done NYE in many locales and been roundly disappointed by the evening about 90% of the time. I mean, NYE and Valentine’s day are inherently doomed, aren’t they? Anyhoo. When we set off for our cruise at 8:30pm for a boat departure of 10pm, we were not prepared for the rolling shutdown of the tube stops around the river. We were not prepared for the barricades shutting down whole streets to pedestrian traffic. We were not prepared for the near-violent intensity of the mob scene on the river banks. We were not prepared for boozed up British hostility –those who had decided to hold their ground in the heart of the mob. We were also not prepared for the lack of signage along the river banks. We knew roughly to go to Embankment Pier, but weren’t sure where the heck it was despite the google maps. I tried with most profuse and abject apologizing along the route to all the kindly folk we shoved aside, explaining over and over again that we were sorry but were trying to get to a boat, the crowd looking at me as if I had lost my mind. We held hands and pushed on to the last river barricade, and finally found the entrance to the pier.  We walked onto the gangway plank to the applause of the crowd that I had struggled past. We got to the boarding dock. We saw a boat. I kept expecting someone to tell me that I had gone to the wrong pier, that my reservation paper was for another boat, somewhere else. But no, we were in the right place in the nick of time (against all odds, it felt) and there was our boat. We asked, “Is this our boat?”And the friendly staff affirmed “yes, this is your boat” and we looked at the boat, trying to decipher the boarding spot, and the boat sailed away. We three on the pier cried out in unison frustration. And the kindly staff said, “please have a seat, we’ll see what we can do.” And twenty minutes later, the boat came back for us. And we got our second round of applause from total strangers as we boarded. That was a good night.  The crowd on the boat was dizzy with relief at having found the boat and very friendly. The bar was modest and the selection limited, but we were so pleased to be on the boat, everyone was in a good, playful mood. The Thames was beautiful, the lights glamorous, and the fireworks fun.

Thank you great unknown, and kindly strangers, for taking such good care of me in the first week of 2013. It might be a surprisingly lucky year.

RiverNYE

Happy Potato Chip

Two weeks ago, I was waiting for the trolley on the way to work when I saw a man walking on the tracks, holding a soiled roll of toilet paper. He had clearly thoughtfully placed a crap in the full privacy of the tracks. He was coming back, muttering to himself, and as soon as I saw him, my heart jumped. Heart in throat, I surveyed my fellow travelers on the platform switching for the trolley. No one seemed to mind the man walking on the tracks. I looked down the tracks to see if a trolley was coming and if he was in danger–so far, no incoming trolley. I was about a minute in to my time on the platform–I contemplated my options as the man continued walking down the tracks — he was still muttering to himself and the lights of the coming trolley were in the distance, now a few minutes away. I reviewed internally what I knew about crowd behavior, and the behavior of the man. I contemplated what I could do. He approached the edge of the tracks, stepped onto the platform, lost his balance, windmilled his arms, and then got himself back onto the platform. He came towards me, still walking close to the edge of the platform. I was rifling through my mind–how could I approach him kindly and invite him to safety? He was likely psychotic, and perhaps paranoid, muttering to himself constantly. I tried to approach him with kindness–in the most non threatening way I could–and I waved him toward me as he explained as he walked along the edge of the platform as the 34 trolley approached that he was not something (I can’t recall), he was a “happy potato chip”– and he took a step forward, and the trolley pulled into the station, and we both got on, and we were both safe, and I did not know what the day would hold, but my part was done.

Humbled by my Humanity

Now that my time is parsed, sectioned, subdivided, and carefully annotated to account for every one of my multiple (and seemingly endless) obligations–I have to confront the obvious, which I love to pretend doesn’t apply to me: I’m human.

If I can reconcile myself with what might seem like an obvious proposition, then, what does being human require of me? What are my human obligations, rights and responsibilities?

And importantly, why do I shy away from being human?

Also, if I think I’m not human. What Do I think I am?

1) Requirements (inherited in silence, sometimes found in science or faith): Humor, Love, Passion, a dose of patience, a notion of hope, a heaping ladle of curiosity, a kind center, a practical turn, a Glass (neither full nor empty- realism tempered with thoughtful optimism).

2) Rights/Responsibilities: ecstatic moments; a longing for intimacy-sometimes beautifully fulfilled by forest, friends or lovers; the quiet solitude of pain; the quiet peace of reflection; knowing moments of perfect sun or rain. Long dimness in fogs-bodily, intellectual, heart generated, or atmospheric.

3) The shying away–I shy away because the weight and wonder are troubling to encompass.

4) What do I think I am? I do not know, but I enjoy it.

Human–a term I sometimes equate with great failure, and yet a term that trembles with generous potential.

I don’t feel sufficient for my humanity.

And yet.

As another human helped me see: So it goes.

Final question: is this a poem?

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