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.

Resistance

Resistance, according to the Oxford English Dictionary: “The refusal to accept or comply with something; the attempt to prevent something by action or argument.”

(I wrote this draft several weeks ago, but it took until today to feel ready to post.)

I’ve been thinking about injustice a lot. About violence and fear. About grief and pain. How daily life is steeped in horror at times. How I get overwhelmed. How I can take care of myself. How I can take care of others. How change is made. How I can participate in that change: Money, votes, activism, professionalism. In times of trouble, I often reflect on my profession as social worker and psychotherapist. My roles, my skills, my contributions. As a therapist and social worker, I want to work with artists, entrepreneurs, and activists. I want to be an ally in the struggle. I want to work towards a more just world. I want to help sustain world changers.

I also want to engage in direct action, but I am still formulating what that will look like for me. I want to bring multiple pieces of myself to bear. I want art, and activism and community. One of the groups I am thinking of engaging with: The League of Creative Interventionists.

I’ve been thinking about the privilege that my grief and fear embody. How I have been aware of injustice, but more often than not, don’t worry about getting out the door and managing aggressions to my soul, heart and body. I lucked out in my society: a cis white woman married to a cis white man living in the US. I think about how friends and clients of mine are subject to multiple isms and sometimes live in fear and worry moment to moment, day after day.

I have been thinking about how to nourish myself so I can struggle for justice, weep, laugh, find community. How to remain an activist throughout my life. How not to become complacent. How not to be demolished by grief, fear, worry. I want to nourish my hope. The troubles we are going through are not new. The solution will not be tomorrow. Endurance and joy, as well as consciousness and accountability, must be nurtured within me.

One small step forward: Reading quotes about resistance. Here are a few that are resonating with me today.

“Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.”
― Steven Pressfield

“It is necessary to remember, as we think critically about domination, that we all have the capacity to act in ways that oppress, dominate, wound (whether or not that power is institutionalized). It is necessary to remember that it is first the potential oppressor within that we must resist – the potential victim within that we must rescue – otherwise we cannot hope for an end to domination, for liberation.”
― Bell Hooks, Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black

“We must learn that passively to accept an unjust system is to cooperate with that system, and thereby to become a participant in its evil.”
― Martin Luther King Jr.

“The likelihood that your acts of resistance cannot stop the injustice does not exempt you from acting in what you sincerely and reflectively hold to be the best interests of your community.”
― Susan Sontag, At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches

“The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions that I wish it to be always kept alive.”
―Thomas Jefferson

“When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”
―Audre Lorde

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
― James Baldwin

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.

Creative Energies

Sometimes I feel like a plant, or maybe a vampire. I find myself feeding off the vital energy around me. I used to love writing in bars–so much gregarious energy unleashed. Last Thursday night, September 12, I watched/listened to the Philly Song Shuffle at XPN. There were 55 acts in attendance, and they each got a four-minute set in which to play one song. I found myself filled with the sudden need to write. I’m going to blame the impulse on the 55 bands crossing the stage. Lone singer songwriters were interlaced with multiple-person acts, each with their voice and sound. Band members mixed between sets and there was some impromptu spillover, singers become dancers, rushing to others’ performances.

xpnIt’s been awhile since I’ve written, though the goal is on my to do list, staring back at me every single day.

During the Philly Song Shuffle, I wrote a first draft for a short essay where I declare myself to be a bonbon eater possessing a particular life esthetic. The essay felt terrific coming out. I was handwriting it on the back of the band set list. I rarely hand write, I tend to think as I type, but that night the pen in my fingers, the pen on the page, felt both natural and urgent.

I’ve noticed the importance of other people’s art for my personal productivity before. I feel rejuvenated and strangely full of thoughts and impressions (closer to my identity) when I visit paintings or photography, sit for theater, or watch a dance performance. Nature also has some of this effect on me. Movement, music, color–communing with someone else’s creative process, it all works to renew my own passions, my own sense of direction, purpose and drive.  Maybe it’s time to stop noticing the beneficial effects of art and start being more deliberate in my consumption/exposure.  I could take my laptop to see bands with me at The Fire, for instance. This will take some pondering and some conscious planning. To be continued.

India: Dream Continent. Kolkata: Dream City

Here’s one of my theories about travel: For every major city known around the world (think London, Hong Kong, New York, Cape Town, Kolkata), there is a dream version of the city which lives in our minds–a dream composed of impressions, movie clips, song lyrics, images, fleeting conversations and travel fantasies. Equally, certain (sub)continents are stamped with dreamed exoticism. For example India and the strange assortment of reactions news of my trip engendered in friends and family.

parkI do not know when I started wanting to visit India, but I remember telling a cab driver in Philadelphia that India would always be there for me–eventually my time would come. (This conversation took place 10 years ago.) But the feeling was stronger than that, I wanted to experience the India in my heart and mind. Was I really having a relationship with a country?

cowsNow that I am here, I feel close to Kolkata. I feel an affinity for the city’s abundant spirit, its in-your-face attitude, its generosity, its speed, it’s intensity. It’s a tropical New York. It is nothing like New York. I worry about my love for India. I wonder how self-serving this love is. Do I adore being “Other”? Being noticed? I think about how tourists use foreign spaces as fun-house mirrors for their egos.

greenburbsIs going to India a cliche? At least I’m not in an ashram. I am living in Kolkata, walking its sidewalks, taking its metro, eating its food, finding a tailor, navigating commercial interactions and human exchanges of all durations and intensities.

I think about the India stereotypes and how Kolkata does and does not fit my pre-arrival ideas. Yes, it’s abundantly dirty and polluted–water, streets, exhaust, the generic dusty grime that covers everything and gets in my ears. No, I haven’t been confronted by many beggars. Yes, it is an assault on the senses. No, the smells can be quite lovely. No, there are no wild monkeys. Yes, there are dogs everywhere, but mostly they nap. There are also a few cows. Yes, westerners stick out and are stared at. No, the people aren’t always friendly (but then I wouldn’t expect New Yorkers to be constantly friendly.) Is it safe? Yes, I think so. Do I feel comfortable walking alone? Sometimes, by daylight.

trashReal Kolkata is both more familiar, and less exotic than dream Kolkata, but it is also more mysterious beneath the commonplace surface. I am never sure what really happened, what was understood and what was not, after I have an exchange with a local. We meet on fields of stereotypes, each expecting the other to play a role, and then we try to become human to each other, to surprise, or control the interaction. As a privileged foreigner surrounded by real need, my “purpose” is to be ripped off, but to try to be reasonably ripped off. I don’t know enough yet to be able to bargain wisely, but I trust the knowledge will come in time.

busMy dream Kolkata has become my real Kolkata. It is more vibrant, more human, more complicated and more charming than I had hoped for.

The Terror of Dreams Come True

I’m in the process of changing careers. It’s a dramatic shift – from administrator to therapist. I suppose there’s an argument, or a joke, to be make about how the two professions overlap. I’m struggling with the speed of the changes both internal and external. My life is suddenly super exciting and terribly exhausting. Change makes me anxious–and it’s hard to know exactly why. This was a measured, deliberate, even handed venture. I weighed the pros and cons, the costs and time. I made spreadsheets. I conducted informational interviews. I prepared. And now I’m contending with the reality. I’m surging into the future. If I think about what I know so far, it’s quite good. My new work fascinates me. Demands all of me.

But despite the evidence, I cannot discard my weathered inner skeptic. My wish for this new career is too often counterbalanced by my glass half full mentality. I try to remember the hope that brought me to this juncture, the inner compass that envisioned this path forward. I wish the sense of certainty that got me into grad school still covered me like a cloak. Instead, I’m vulnerable–I’m starting something big and new. I haven’t started something big and new in quite a while. Often my vulnerability leaves me feeling raw and exposed–it’s very much how I remember falling in love in college–how I was so excited and full of dread. On good days, I can set aside my worry momentarily and just be.
I did not know dreams come true would be so demanding of me. I thought my age would protect me. Instead I have to find new ways of thinking. Here’s my new wish: that when I am past this moment, I will remember the beauty rather than the terror.

Argonauts/The Future

It’s been an intense period of “what next?” I’m trying to figure out what would be nice to see happen in 2013 and 2014. It’s requiring spreadsheets, some dreaming, some internal negotiations, conversations with multiple parties, overcoming fears, and letting some of my hopes run free (which tends to make me antsy).

Plus, this rummaging in my hope closet has been accompanied by a thick layer of mucus– three consecutive colds in a row, despite the constant hand washing.

Most days it feels like my heart is beating a zillion beats and my mind is a layer cake of different flavored thoughts, some pink, some grey, some sweet and fluffy, some grittier.

Often I’m just grateful I haven’t lost my hat or gloves in the course of the morning commute.

The good news is that I’m one of several Argonauts, all shipmates in the MSW program, pursuing our individual journeys, but sticking with each other, side by side. Our circumstances vary, but our targets vastly overlap: To become kinder and more thoughtful in our humanity. To connect with our selected communities. The skills we’re being taught are great. And the experience is, more often than not, surprising. Richer, simpler, more demanding, more generous, more layered than anything I could have anticipated. It’s nice to know that this is a place I want to be, both intellectually and emotionally.  My new professional community is pretty delightful. So I’m spoiled, I’m stretched thin and I’m in good company. 2013 Ahoy.

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

Dream Cities

I have been to London. But I have spent far more time in the London of my mind, which has been richly fed by many-faced narratives. That London was nourished by children’s tales where bears roam train stations, children fly out the window, and there are suburbs named Narnia and the Shire. I am simultaneously full of London at War–Churchill’s London, the unseen London of Downton Abbey, Virginia Woolf’s London. Not to mention Dr Who’s many Londons and Sherlock’s London, both old and new. There is of course, James Bond’s London, fierce and sexy.

London is one of my many dreamed cities (Hong Kong, New Delhi, Rio, Oslo are others), places that feel familiar through sheer force of cumulative narrative, photographic and cinematic record, a place known to all and a place unknown, full of potential.

So additively: London is charmed, London is posh, it reeks of danger and is stuffed with royalty. Also, it smells like tea. Or chimney sweeps. It tastes like curry, and fish and chips, but also of scones, berries or marmalade, and clotted cream. (There’s no lovelier word than marmalade–it’s a sweet grandmotherly jam with good intentions.) It sounds like double-decker buses screeching around tight turns and the pigeons of Picadilly circus. It has mist-fogged parks, and large black taxis, where I can sit backwards if I please.  This is a city of conquerors and immigrants. Many flavored, many tongued. It’s chic, it comes from the future, it has all the elements I most love in large cities: embracing both transience and permanence, beholden to a deep sense of place, a dark history, romance, statuary and old stones, layers of tragedy, funny words and funny habits, an excellent transportation system, a river, and good eats, and of course, the pursuit of the arts. Can’t wait! Ta ta for now.

The End of the World

I’m a day late. The world has ended, and inconveniently, but maybe joyfully, it seems to be going on for me. The end of the world looked pretty much like any holiday Friday in my experience, except for the amassed police and their brusk ways and the impossible traffic, impatient drivers honking. (That business, which threw my end of the world skepticism for a loop during my ten minute walk to the El, turned out to be a response to the overnight flooding–so some of my expectations were satisfied, the neighborhood had a bit of a watery calamity on its hands.)

I was glad it was the end of the world. After all, it was also my last work day for this calendar year and I was ready for a long break after a demanding semester in grad school. I couldn’t wait for the day (and the world) to end, because I was pretty sure that whatever came after would be really good for me. I was right.

I’m settling into a luxurious Saturday on my couch, listening to American Routes, drinking coffee out of the porcelain mug on the end table, instead of slurping out of a travel mug on the El. I haven’t been home on my couch on a Saturday in four months. It feels ridiculously good not to be rushing off to my internship. I have a long to do list, but none of the items have real consequence–my multiple bosses and teachers expect nothing from me right now, so that’s a lovely lightness. And now I’m listening to Elvis’s Blue Christmas, which is one of my favorite holiday songs, so after-the-end-of-the-world time feels decadent and sounds pretty groovy and Hawaiian.  Not too bad, this afterlife.

 

Open Spaces

I have four delicious days with no urgent deadlines or projects. I’d get this kind of satisfaction from traveling to Tahiti, receiving two daily massages for a week, or… being able to metabolize meals made of nothing but red wine, bacon and dark chocolate with no impact on my weight.

I honestly don’t know what to do with myself (well, besides the floors, I should be mopping the floors). I’m experiencing a rare breed of mental restlessness: somewhere between itch and cottony feeling.  I’m a bit dizzy with the temporary freedom. My dizziness will blog.

I’m valuing several kinds of space this week. Mental space for one.

The road is another. I love motion. I always feel full of potential when I’m covering vast distances. As we prepare to travel to this year’s thanksgiving destination, there will be asphalt space, wheels turning, speed, and the fast of the road will be overwritten by the fullness of a home.

There is also the space of identity, of personal reinvention. I’m enjoying my training in social work, though it certainly is daunting, the array of listening and speaking skills: the mastery of thoughtful, kind inward gaze and outward being. If I consider the array of choices I’ve made, few feel as momentous or as close to my heart’s desire as working toward this professional degree.

I can honestly say I want few things out of life. (I mean, I want vast experiences, and physical comfort, always.) My goals, however, are few: I want to adorn my life with friends; I want to commit to my partner; I want to write; and I want to become a therapist.

Everything else that is dear to me is pleasure and luxury. The right to determine what to do with my time, I’ll admit, is the ultimate luxury.

 

Softness

So one of the more surprising side effects of my current lifestyle is my need for a very specific brand of physical comfort: softness. As much as possible, I want to be encased in fuzziness. I have never so craved warm, pliable, downy, generous fabrics–and so find me here at 10:30 on a Saturday night, in polka dot heaven. Needless to say, lovely boyfriend isn’t totally thrilled with this new fad of mine, but at the end of daylight’s wanderings, if fabric makes the difference between peace of mind as I try to sleep and a harsh spirit as I go into dreams, I think it’s all right to give myself permission to embrace my fuchsia longing and go the distance in black polka dot apparel of exceptional softness. Tactile satisfaction. The fabric way. Yes this is me, in early middle age, in jammies. Amen.

(Recently, a fashion derelict of the highest order–my other crimes include fuzzy plush purple socks, assorted large wool wraps and velour jogging pants–if this is the worst manifestation of my needs, everything is going to be all right. )

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?

20121010-195006.jpg

Spiral Staircase & Puppies

When I was in my twenties, someone said to me that I would never truly be done examining any issue in my life, that it may lie dormant for a part of my journey but that it would reappear in other guises at different times, and take me off guard. The metaphor at hand was that I was climbing a spiral staircase. One simple way to picture this is to think of myself ascending the staircase very slowly, and as I turn and rise, I am next to a different part of the staircase wall at each step, on the north side of the staircase might be my family experiences, on the south side, my romantic relationships, on the east side my career, and on the west side my evolving attitudes towards and beliefs about the world. The point was that I would keep encountering the same themes and issues at different points in my journey. I might think that I have put away my resentment towards my parents forever, but no, it’s just a step away, as I climb my life’s staircase.

I try to be honest with myself about my shortcomings and character flaws–though my various weaknesses make me feel badly about myself. So today I went on a self-empathy project and dug around for a while for the right metaphor to put my weaknesses in perspective and be more patient with my own slow evolution as a sentient being of conscience. I’m visiting my grandparents in Florida and I am spending time with my mother who is here also. It’s actually a good time for me to be reminded of my family context, and how much what I am evolved against the pressures these related creatures placed on me. I am thinking about my personality and I am thinking about the people in my family and their personalities. Honestly, we’re a very peculiar bunch: maddening, impatient, enthusiastic, funny, intelligent, curious, particular, changeable, demanding, stubborn and desiring of recognition and affection. I understand this largely puts us in the human category. At any rate, it’s good to see my anxious energy manifest in my oddly angled forefathers and mothers. It’s a straight line from them to me. If I can find the goodwill to extend compassion to them, I can extend some compassion toward myself.

For example. My grandpa. He is punctilious to a fault. I wish he had never gone into the navy (or worked in a hospital) because he’s been annoyingly tedious and persistent with his love for being on time all my life. This exactitude about clocks extends to anyone who is standing within a mile of him–we must all be on time. Not on our time, but on his time. My boyfriend and I are battling colds, so we’re even slower to wake and move than usual. My grandfather called me four times over an hour to ask when we would be ready to be picked up. A classic bit of dialogue goes like this:

The phone rings (again).
Me: Hello.
Grandpa: Are your clothes on?
Me: Yes, but boyfriend is still in the shower.
Grandpa: I don’t understand. It’s been twenty minutes. When will you be ready?
Me: Yes it has. We’re moving slowly. We have colds.
Grandpa: I’m getting in the car in five minutes.
Me: I’m going to need you to calm down.
Grandpa: Can you please call when your clothes are on?
Me: Yes. Thank you.
Grandpa: Goodbye.

10 minutes later: The phone rings again.

I started laughing after my grandfather’s third phone call. He’s just impossible. I’ll skip the incident where he got furious with me for asking him if he has regular coffee.

By then I had come up with my grand metaphor. My family is like a bunch of unruly St. Bernard puppies. I am one too. I like us all a lot more now that I know what we are.

Sorting the Physical Self

Tonight I finally opened one of my two mystery “old file” boxes I’ve been lugging around from apartment to apartment since the mid 90s. Boy, I was organized back in the 90s. I found traces of my old New York life, one of my many partially discarded and partially digested selves. I uncovered my original birth certificate in a plastic sleeve surrendered to me by my mother many moons ago. It’s got that great 1970s type and is printed on a green piece of paper.

I always joke that I own nothing other than my own body.

Several boxes of books say different. Also, I had no idea I had so many knickknacks until I started the classifying process. Belongings: books, clothes, bathroom, kitchen, entertainment, appliances, files. a few odd bits of furniture. And a surprising number of borderline useability objects–they’re totally well intentioned, but kinda cluttery and worthless. I’m also surprised at how well sorted my random piles of papers are.  A light notion of a sketch of sense emerges gradually as I handle them again. I can tell I was really trying hard during prior organizational drives. Tonight’s drive will be more authoritative, I congratulate myself assertively.

Sorting is part delight, one third confusion, a smidgen of embarrassment and of course, there’s the back pain. I have to be really strategic in how I utilize my compromised muscular resources.

There’s also the dawning reality: my belongings are a sharp mirror: time, money, friends come and gone. Old address books. Former employers and former health plan details.  I’m finding long letters sent by college friends. All sorts of unsorted pictures. I’m trying to classify the modes, moods and feelings of my existence so they can be boxed up. It’s weird boxing your being up. You want to act all detached. These are things. I don’t believe in things.

I am sinking in things. At the same time, I’m emerging clearer as my self, oddly. I can’t fully explain the paradox, but rediscovering my long journey as I clear out from my longest lived home ever, ultimately fills me with pride in who I’m becoming (not that I’m puffed up about it, I’m just cozy glad).

 

Champagne/Lava

I haven’t written in months. My head is starting to feel like the cork in a champagne bottle. The pressure of unexpressed things is building steadily. First it manifests as a nagging need unmet–the perennial itch I can’t scratch, or at least won’t scratch yet. Then it becomes an annoying flood of ideas. Half-baked images, random notions, elusive dust of stories sometimes floating sometimes ramming into my mind; then the dust becomes a snowball, and gathers momentum: story potentials nag me, they poke at my consciousness, they try to get my attention. I tend to wait for this pressure to become near unbearable. If there is other stuff in my life, like an impending move, distracting me from my writing, the pressure becomes volcanic, painful to my psyche, and then in a moment of torment, I finally surrender.

Today, I am writing something new again. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s necessary.

Stabbed in the back by my back

Even Achilles had a problem heel. My dilemma is my lower back. My back is a cruel and whimsical component of my anatomy. It makes a mockery of my plans.

This week’s plan was to go swimming in a pool.

Instead, find me beached on my bed, lying down because sitting isn’t working out right now. My back pain literally makes me sweat. When I’m in one of my “episodes” my bent over stance and shuffling gait are so tortured that people on the street (including young and old ladies) will stop and ask me if I’m okay. Grandmas stride past me looking spry by comparison while I stop and hyperventilate from the pain every few feet. I try to avoid outings in this condition because I just can’t digest the pity and puzzlement aimed in my direction. Some outings, however, are necessary. On the way to the acupuncturist yesterday I ended up sitting on the sidewalk while waiting for the trolley because I couldn’t stand standing.  Last night, I gave up on standing altogether and crawled on my hands and knees from my living-room to my bed (about 7 feet).

Pain does not bring out the best in me: my patience and tolerance for any additional discomfort vanish. I find small wrongs, like rudeness, unbearable. Also, pain makes me try new things–I’m clutching at any and all solutions looking for vain hope. My applied and planned remedies include: stretches, alternating heating pads and ice packs, western medicine, medication, acupuncture, a visit to the chiropractor, complaining via social media, and physical therapy. I get points for being thorough.

The medication makes me feel a bit surreal–not exactly out-of-body, but not exactly in-body either.  It also makes my thoughts a bit disjointed. My best coping mechanism is the same it has always been: copious napping.

Time for my next icing. Let’s hope my next post will be about my miraculous recovery.

New Editing Eyes, Old Writing Sins

here’s a quick list of my writing sins (likely incomplete):

  • I say all cool things I think of twice, or more.
  • My narrative pacing requires tuning–I either rush or linger too long
  • My plots (do they exist?)
  • I underwrite certain key points, or bury them
  • I leave awkward phrasing lying around
  • I like ideas and have too many extraneous bits

and here’s a quick list of my fixes (still under development):

  • I have to pick my favorite image (sometimes, I just toss a coin)
  • I’m cutting down that which does not move the story forward
  • I focus on introducing conflict, or at least suspense, and unforeseen developments into the story
  • I try to make evident the central point(s) of the story
  • I read and reread and make others read out loud, each iteration, so I can figure out what language is confusing or awkward
  • By having a storyline, and focusing on momentum in the beginning and end, I can kill the extras

I’ve massively revised three stories in ten days. It’s been a luxurious stretch — I’ve been indulging in a slight, but growing feeling of mastery over my words and storytelling. Ladies and gentlemen, this is as exciting as writing gets.

Here’s a bonsai metaphor–as a writer, you keep trimming and guiding the growing thing and you hope you don’t end up with a horrifying shapeless garbled web of a bush, and you try not to trim down until you have a stick, but both are tempting avenues. The big trick is to somehow visualize the emerging shape before it’s actually there and then encourage its emergence — on paper. [You have to imagine a ghost of a story into being.] (You have to terrify the page into surrender.) I’ll stop my metaphors here, but you get the picture: Gardener, warrior, Voodoo priest, these are the components of authorship. Let’s throw in monastic novice as well, because although this post is lofty, my writing experience is one of extreme humility and short lived aha moments.

The turning point was watching a brilliant editor, in my case Ellen Parker of FRiGG Magazine, edit down my sleeping beauty story–she helped me increase the narrative speed, cleared the brush of unnecessary ideas, and unburied the ending. It was great observing someone else at work on my text. It liberated me to rework my other texts. Her approach to polishing my story gave me insight into my writing sins and how to move beyond them. I’ve been frantically practicing these skills, and now school starts again.