Monday, October 31, 2011

Announcing My New Blog!

About three months ago, I had an idea for a blog, one where others would write articles along with me and where we could build a community together of people who are searching, seeking, and learning on their life's journey. Truthfully, I'd gotten tired of my own words on the screen. I felt like my blog had become stagnant. I wanted more vibrancy, more connection, and more of a sense that there were other people out there, writing, commenting, responding. Writing can be lonely. I wanted to see if I could create a space where writing could connect me with others.

For a month or so, I felt creatively on fire, thinking about and designing the blog. I had to learn how to use Wordpress. I bought a domain name. I started reading about keywords and SEO and monetization. I wanted this thing to be real, serious, and alive, not like most blogs that sit in darkened corners of the internet, visited only by accident.

Then, the momentum died. I went away for vacation and came back and had a hard time getting that fire burning again. The absence of that momentum made me a little depressed, and made me question what I had long thought was my life's mission: to celebrate and communicate life in all of its mystery, even the hard stuff, even the dark stuff. For over a month I felt like the new blog was going to become yet another project that I've started and never finished. Another reason to get down on myself.

But I refused to let that happen. Even though, at the time, I didn't feel the passion anymore, I decided that I'd spend a couple of hours a week working on the blog. I decided I'd launch it no matter what. At the very least I will have fulfilled one of my creative goals.

Then, as I worked on it, I felt the momentum building again. I felt excited about it again. And in no time, it was ready to go! And so now I'm announcing it here, my new blog, Joy at the Heart of Things. The idea is that, though I've written all the posts so far, I would like YOU to write some. And to comment on posts. And to participate in the dialogue. And to give me ideas for issues you would like to see covered on the blog, or for other blogs, books, and resources that you think more people should know about.

As for Mellifluence, it will be fading away as I devote my energy to this new project. I may post my more personal writing here, but most likely I'll post most of my new writing to JATHT. Please come visit. You can like us on Facebook, and join our Twitter and RSS feeds. It's easy!

And if you like what you read there, please consider writing something, and forwarding the link to people you know who might like it, as well. I want to build a vibrant community of people, and I can only do that with your help. Thank you so much for your continued support of Mellifluence. I hope to see you over at Joy!

Monday, October 10, 2011

What Does it Mean to be Mentally Healthy?

Today is World Mental Health Day. As part of the psychology community (of a sort) both as a consumer and a professional in the psychology field, I walk a line between my own personal experience of what some might call 'mental illness' (depression and anxiety) and helping people who might be called or who consider themselves 'mentally ill.' As you can see, I have some ambivalence about the term 'mental illness'. I think the term carries a huge amount of stigma, and that most people who seek help for their mental health issues are not so much ill as out of balance. Obviously, mental illness is real and many people suffer incredibly with severe mental illness. But the average person who takes antidepressants, for instance, or prescription anti-anxiety medications, are not 'mentally ill', they're simply having trouble finding a healthy mental balance.

For me, mental health lies on a continuum. There is no place where we will be perfectly mentally sane - as in, never having a low mood or acting in an unhealthy way, never having negative self-talk, never needing an escape from reality in the form of compulsive behavior -  but there are degrees of imbalance, from occasionally feeling melancholy on grey days to full-blown delusional psychosis. Clearly, on the severe side of the spectrum, people need professional medical assistance. But most of us who struggle lie closer to the other side. We get sad and can't shake it,  get anxious in certain situations, do to much of something (shopping, watching TV, gambling, drinking, eating) sometimes, or make unhealthy decisions rooted in psychological issues we've developed over the course of our lives.  

In my personal mental healthy journey, I've found two things to be of utmost importance in living well with my brain's particular tendencies: Compassionate self-awareness and acceptance. I've learned that to cope well with the cards I've been dealt in terms of genetic disposition, inherent temperament, and the wounds that life has given me, I have to become gently aware of them in the first place. This doesn't mean seeing them as flaws or weaknesses, but as part of me the way my hair, eyes, and nose are part of me. We all know people who hate their hair, eyes, nose, or other body part, and even sometimes go to drastic (and expensive) lengths to fix those things. Generally, even when someone has a full plastic surgery makeover, they're still unhappy, because the unhappiness always went deeper than the particular thing they were obsessed about. For me, becoming compassionately self-aware of the underlying psychological needs that drive me (for better or for worse) means that I can explore those needs in a kind way rather than hunt them down in some kind of search-and-destroy mission that will make me feel broken and weak. I don't believe my psychological issues will ever 'go away'. All that I can do is get to know them and learn to cope better with them. Tools for this, for me, include meditation, mindfulness, getting more exercise and time in nature, getting enough sleep, eating well, learning to connect better with others, seeing a therapist regularly, and yes, occasionally taking prescription anti-anxiety medications.

Similarly, acceptance doesn't mean just lying down in a wailing heap and waiting for my brain to do me in, as I've sometimes felt it wants to; acceptance means understanding who I am and not fighting against that knowledge. I am a person - as we all are - with particular tendencies, both healthy and unhealthy. It would be a waste of time, not to mention spectacularly disrespectful of myself, to want to be different than I am at my core: a good, kind, caring, and light-filled being. When we can accept who we are, we can go about making changes that make us more of who we already are inside underneath all of the psychological defenses and other gunk that drive us to escape the pain around us. This also makes it easier to accept others for who they really are, and not for who we want them to be.  

So on World Mental Health day, I encourage all of us to take some time to congratulate ourselves for having made it this far with the good things that we do have - the love of friends and family, our health (however it may be. As someone once said :"If you're still breathing, you're doing fine"), the lives we've been able to build, and our brains and bodies that have kept us alive. Even though I know being alive sometimes hurts, it's important to take the time to be grateful for what we do have, and to gently acknowledge the places where we could seek more balance. Also, on this day, let's look at those around us - those wonderful, loving, sometimes confusing and spectacularly irritating other beings - and send them some compassion and acceptance as well. Like us, they're doing their best, and like us, they could probably make some changes. Life is hard. But we can live it well, even with mental illness or whatever term you want to use, by cultivating a gentle compassion towards ourselves and others.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Sailing the Seas of the Heart 

For the first time in a very long time, I felt happy. Content, calm, centered, creative, and engaged. After finally getting free of a painfully drawn-out, crazy-making relationship that went on far longer than it needed to, I was finally, possibly for the first time in my life, happy to be single. I felt good, looked good, and was having the time of my life connecting with friends, writing, rediscovering yoga, developing creative projects, exploring my new love of live music, meeting new people, and even becoming reenergized at work.

Happiness, I had discovered, wasn’t about who or what was in my life, but about my own inner light. It was about being so comfortable with myself -- including the dark stuff – that I could just accept all of who I was. What started out as an awful summer, with me being just this side of suicidal, ended up being quite possible my best summer ever, filled with love, light, learning, and, let’s see, what’s another ‘l’ word….Langour? Lust? Levity? They all work.

For the first time in years, possibly ever, I was firing on all cylinders. My engine clean, oiled, and functioning perfectly.

And then what do you think happened next?

That’s right: something unexpected. Isn’t that always the way? The details aren’t important, but it was a situation guaranteed to trigger all of my stuff again. The same situation that always triggers me: my insecurity, my deep need for attention and belonging, my desire to be someone’s one and only, my tendency to ruminate, my desperate discomfort with uncertainty of the heart. And, as it unfolded, I realized that this sort of situation is, and will always be, my meditation. As everyone has certain things in life that cause that deep, soul-level discomfort and uncertainty, this one is mine. It’s my edge. But the wonderful thing is that, this time, I found myself being able to stay in Wise Mind – that balanced place where both emotions and detachment are operating simultaneously – almost all of the time. I could feel discomfort, and not react in an unhealthy way. I could see myself ruminating, and choose to continue or stop, depending on how useful the thinking was. I could see what was happening, consider multiple explanations, and set them aside for another time when I have more information. I could revel in the joy and pleasure, notice the moments of disconnection, and yet not grasp for an answer, any answer, that would make me more comfortable. And I've even stumbled a few times, but I haven't let those times take me completely down the dark rabbit hole that has been my pitfall in the past.

Being in Wise Mind in this way is a strange sensation, sort of like being in a sailboat and trying to keep the keel even. It’s never a straight path, and the balance is never total or consistent. But it’s as if all of my senses are alert, the way sailors are alert to the wind and the currents simultaneously, in a complicated and beautiful dance with the sea. They say never to turn your back on the sea. I say I can never turn my back on my heart. I’ve nearly drowned before, and I won’t go there again. But it’s nice to know that I’ve learned, at least somewhat, to sail those waters in which I used to frantically flail and flop, waiting for someone or something to pull me to safety. Now I know that I’m the only who can pull me to safety if I need it. But I don’t need it right now. I’m sailing.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Welcome Home

My two friends and I were waiting in the hotel registration line at the Grand Sierra Resort in Reno, waiting to get our room key. It's a long drive, specially for my one friend who had driven his truck and camper up from southern California to pick  me up on our way to Burning Man. We had decided to stay over one night in Reno, then get up before dawn and head out to the playa, after a last night of a good dinner, drinks, and a real shower. As we waited in the shiny, loud, blinky, mirrored casino-slash-hotel lobby, we would have looked out of place except for the Burners who surrounded us. I had on a midriff-revealing tank top and desert pants, and the multiple bracelets, necklaces, and medallions that signify my Burner persona, and one of my companions had a shock of bright pink hair. As we waited, a young-looking, scruffy man with a long, unkempt beard walked by and said "Welcome Home."

"Welcome Home" has become a catchphrase for Burners. When you drive into the gates of Black Rock City, the greeters insist on you getting out of the car so they can hug you, say "Welcome Home", and make sure you know to keep hydrated and not to put baby wipes in the porta-potties. In the first days of Burning Man, people often say "Welcome Home" as a greeting where people in the "default world" say "How are you?"I've often considered why this is. In the beginning I even bridled a little bit at the phrase. "I'm not home," I'd think to myself, "This is an alien place."

But at my fourth Burning Man, I finally got it, and finally felt it. This was home. Not the flat, dusty moonscape with the surreal art sprouting from it like Dali-esque flowers, but the community of creative, inspired, lunatic people who spend months, if not the entire preceding year, getting ready for what is, in essence,  a pilgrimage.  A pilgrimage to the place where we
can fully be ourselves, from the professional men who gather flamboyant outfits to wear in the dust, parading like wonderful peacocks, finally comfortable in their own skin, to the women in the short-shorts and tall dusty boots who can finally give up worrying about makeup and body hair, or who can go all out with makeup, body paint, and jewelry in a way that would label them freaks in the real world. Burning Man is a place to let go of all expectations, all plans, all judgment, a place to be inspired, to experiment, to stay up all night marveling at the show that spreads out before us on 5 square miles of alkali plain. It's a place to create art, to have deep conversations with strangers as the stars, lasers, and LED-lit mile-long strings of balloons wheel and dance above us in the black sky. A place to dance, to wonder, to travel deep into the psyche or to fly high above it, in whatever fashion you choose to do so. It's the only place like it in the world. And because Burning Man is about coming back to oneself, it's home.

I've always noticed the phenomenon of the trip to the playa. As I get ready to leave, I start the process of shedding my "default" persona - the one that allows me to hold a job and to walk down a street without anyone looking at me askance. The one who is polite and professional. The one who cleans the house and worries about the mortgage. The day I leave, I put on the bracelets and necklaces that represent my pilgrimage. The clothes I wear on the trip to the playa are not my Burning Man clothes, but they approach those outfits. I anticipate the heat of the desert, and dress accordingly. As I and my companion drive northeast, the closer we get to Reno, the more Burners we see. People honk and wave on the freeway as we play "Spot the Burner" with each passing car. In Reno, every large store and hotel parking lot has sprouted RV's, campers, vans, and cars piled high with PVC pipe, tarps, bicycles, hula hoops, and other odds and ends. People with braids, dreadlocks, feathers in their hair, facepaint, bindis, and long, colorful outfits wander the aisles of Costco and WalMart, staring and shocked in the fluorescent lights, as the regular denizens of Reno watch with amusement.

Then we travel deep into the desert, joining a long line of cars, and the deeper we go the more of our "default" persona we shed, as someone who sees the ocean for the first time runs towards it, shedding clothes as he goes, longing to dive deeply in. Waiting in line, sometimes for hours, the dust coats us as we play, dance, and talk to the people around us. By the time we've entered the city, we're anointed with dust, baptized in it. Nothing will be truly clean or organized again until we've had time to do our laundry and clean up in a 7-10 days. Then we're in it, and the days rush by, with no alarm bells, no jobs to go to, no bills we can pay. We're in a land of surreality that becomes our reality, so deeply felt that when we leave, it can sometimes takes a couple of weeks to mentally come back to the world everyone else sees. Afterwards, the phrase "Welcome Home" takes on a new poignancy. We miss that parched desert place where we can truly bloom. Things in the "default world" don't shine as brightly, and just simply aren't as interesting. And no, it's not the drugs, since I didn't even drink that much on the playa. It's the spirit of what we, all of us, create there, that we miss when we leave it. And why the Burner community is so close-knit even off-playa. It's not the desert that's home, it's the people.

Welcome Home, fellow Burners, let's meet again soon.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Playa Bound. Again. 
It’s that time of the year again, when 50,000 freaks from across the globe start collecting camping gear, costumes, art pieces, and fetish objects and packing them up into cars, busses, RV’s, campers, and a motley assortment of vehicles of impossible description,  ready and eager to begin their trek into the high desert northeast of Reno, NV. Yes, it’s Burning Man season. The time of year when, for a little over a week, the San Francisco bay area seems devoid of its freakiest denizens. When certain areas of Facebook are eerily quiet.  When people who might ordinarily have gone but couldn’t make it can’t get in touch with 90% of their friends because there’s, generally speaking, no cell phone or internet service out on the playa.

This will be my fourth year going to Burning Man, but not in a row. The first year, I got sick and had other bad experiences that made me decide never to go again. Then, a little over three years ago (about eight years after that first trip), I met a man, fell in love, and let him convince me to go again. It had changed his life, he said. The relationship was troubled almost from the start, and the Burning Man experience, though astonishing and inspiring that year, was also difficult and emotionally wrenching. One Burning Man truism is that if you go with a boyfriend or girlfriend, you’ll either get married or break up on the playa. It’s an intense place for even the best of relationships. Our second year, the relationship had frayed even further, and our playa experience was downright traumatic. I came back stunned with pain and regret and wondered if I’d ever go back. But in January, the day that tickets went on sale, there I was, at 10 am, with thousands of others, buying tickets for myself and friends. 

Now, single again, I’m preparing to make the trek with an old friend who has never gone before. We have weekly phone calls and chat sessions deciding on the details, like who’s bringing the glowy bracelets (him) and who’s shopping for food (me).  I’ve got my outfits all sorted out, realizing that I have too many by now to bring them all. How did I collect all of this stuff?? 

Along with the excitement comes the apprehension. Will it be a good year, finally? Will I finally be able to relax into the experience, without being caught up in conflict and bitterness, now that I’m attending as a free agent? What will happen when I run into my ex-, which I inevitably will, since he’ll be camping with my friends?

  I’m pretty sure that this will be the best year ever, the year I’m finally able to be my true self without apology and anxiety. But I remember the years past, the surprising panic attacks that came out of nowhere, the crippling disappointment in a relationship I simply could not make work, the tears, the shouting, the confusion, the sadness, the loneliness, even in the crowd. I wonder sometimes: was it the relationships that made Burning Man difficult, or was it me? Is it possible that it just isn’t the place for me, yet another place where I will never fully belong? I want to belong there. I enjoy the community. The most creative, fun, strong, inspiring people I know are Burners.

Burning Man is a crucible, almost literally. The vast expanse of alkali plain ringed with dark craggy mountains cooks you down, separates your essential self from all the crap that you bring with you. Or at least it does if you let it. It forces you to rely on yourself and others, forces you to let go of the stuff that won’t help you survive, forces you out of your linear mind and into the world of the surreal. It’s like a huge party, a gigantic camping trip, a Dali painting, a spiritual retreat, and a pilgrimage all rolled into one.  If you give yourself fully to the experience, you come back a different person. If you hold back, you wonder why everyone is so enthused about it.
I think the reason I keep going back is that I know I’ll face my True Self out there in the desert. It might not always be pleasant and wonderful, it might even sometimes be difficult and scary. But it will be interesting, at the very least, and cathartic at the most.
I’m looking forward to meeting the person who makes that return trip.  

Monday, August 01, 2011

What Blackberries Taught Me

As a homeowner, one of the things that I've always had a complex about is that I've never been the greatest or most ambitious gardener. I put California drought-tolerant natives in my front yard after a couple of years of pretending like I was going to have a nice lawn, and as many years coming home and wincing at the ugly, weedy, yellow thing that passed for a lawn. I had a lot of ambitions for my backyard, such as lush plants growing along the perimeter, and a vegetable patch up against the side of the garage, which got the most sun. Seven years after I bought the house, I have a few stubby plants growing around the fence, a tiny orange tree (or rather, shrub) that never really took, and the vegetable patch that I had going for a couple of years got totally swallowed up by crabgrass after one summer of not maintaining it. The compost bin I was trying to get started is literally lost within a huge overgrowth of bushes behind the garage. It will take a machete to get to it now.

My gardener friend would come over and shake his head, especially at the thick blackberry vines that were coming over from the neighbor's yard. "You'd better control those," he warned. I did, somewhat. I hacked them back when they got too overwhelming. But due the vagaries of my life, I had not had much of a chance to do yardwork in the last six months or so. And my friend was right: the blackberries had their eyes on my yard. They were subtle, sly. They came in inch by inch, as if hoping I wouldn't notice. And of course, for the most part, I didn't.  Most of the vines stayed politely along the fence, making bushy shapes, although one crept in among my butterfly bush and one snaked in at ground level. I did run that one over with my lawnmower the other day when I was doing basically the only yard task that I ever do anymore, aside from watering.

Last night, out in my yard for the first time in awhle, I noticed something: all of the blackberry bushes had blackberries on them! Ripe ones. Huge ones. I tasted one. They're good, too! I got a bowl, picked for about five minutes and got about a cup and a half of really nice, ripe, gorgeous, juicy blackberries, which I'll serve for dessert when my dad comes over for dinner tonight. As I picked them, I laughed at the found booty.

The lesson? First of all, our perceived weaknesses might also be the doorway to positive experiences. I'm not a disciplined gardener, which I always considered a flaw. But if I had been, I would not now have a stand of gorgeous blackberries literally ripe for the picking, right outside my back door.  Also, blackberry vines never give up. They just keep coming. If I were a good gardener, I'd probably hate them, and do things to keep them out. But blackberry vines are patient. They keep growing, regardless of what we do to them. We can dig them out, cut them up, run over them with our lawnmower, but they keep coming. Might we learn something from the wily blackberry vine about being steady, slow, and relentless in pursuit of our goals, whatever they may be?

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Danger of Letting Others Define You 

No person is your friend who demands your silence or denies your right to grow
--Alice Walker

For the longest time, I thought I was a depressive. Never mind that, actually, I was probably having more fun -- and was less scared -- than almost anyone else I knew. But because I felt intense sadness at times, and thought a lot about deep things, and wrote about those things, including about the dark stuff as well as the light, I never felt like I was "happy" enough. People told me I was depressed. I even pigeonholed myself, to an extent, becoming someone who writes about depression. And yes, I have been depressed, even been on antidepressants twice. But does that make me a person with depression? Or does that make me someone who is sensitive, thinks deeply, seeks help when things get bad, and isn't afraid of talking about the darkness? 

Recently, as I've begun to understand more about what happiness is, I realized that in some ways I'm probably one of the happiest people I know. If happiness is, as a friend and I were discussing today, the fact of living a life in keeping with one's values,  of feeling like you're living the life that you're meant to live, than I'm doing really well. Even despite - or possibly because of - the fact that I listen deeply to what my soul and psyche are telling me, and I talk about it.

For a long time I've thought of myself as a dour, dark person who feels sad all the time, and I've even considered stopping writing the blog because I've felt like it's depressing. But I feel compelled to continue to share my deepest feelings and thoughts about life. Does that make me dour and depressing? It's when I realized that the posts with the most emotion in them are the ones that generate the most feedback that I realized that the people I'm writing to aren't the ones who think we should only reflect the "happy" parts of life, but the ones who appreciate the true complexity of life. The ones who define me as a depressive are not my audience. The ones who don't bother to define me at all, but appreciate the way I mirror life in my writing, that's not only my audience, but the people I want to have around me. As friends. As lovers. As colleagues. The people who can't see the complexity that I weave with my life and my art are just, put simply, not my people.

I think this is true of all of us. The people who insist on putting us in a box are not our people. The people who accept us  -- or even if they have trouble accepting us, are at least interested in hearing about us -- in all of our depth and complexity, those are the people who will come along for the ride with us, who will be there to mirror our true experience and won't tell us what we're feeling or tell us we shouldn't be feeling it.

It's important that we take the time to define ourselves, and that we see clearly when others are trying to define us in their own terms or in relation to what they want us to be.  In researching verbal abuse for my last post, I found one writer who considered "attempting to define you" as behavior that could be a part of verbal abuse.

We all try to categorize the people in our lives to a certain degree, but it's when we need to define someone, to put them into a category such as "crazy," "slut," "asshole," "flake,"  or even "housewife," "businessman,"  or "straight A student", and refuse to acknowledge or even see the times when they don't conform to that definition, that it becomes a problem.

Someone who used to insist that I was always depressed (whom I no longer consider a friend) used to use my blog as evidence of this, despite all the times that we spent enjoyable, happy, laughing times together, and even the times that I wrote about more neutral or even happy subjects. She needed to think of me as a depressed, desperate person for her own reasons that had nothing to do with me. But for a long time, I thought she was right. Now I know that that sad, depressed, desperate person that she saw, though still a part of me, is not the whole me. And now I will only give my time to people who don't need to put me in a box like that.

How about you? How do you define yourself? How do others define you? And what are the parts of you that don't fit into any definition?

Monday, July 18, 2011

 It's Not Okay, Part 2:  
Speaking out about Verbal Abuse

I was lying in bed, wondering if it was finally time to tell my loved ones the truth about what happened in a significant intimate relationship. About the verbal abuse and the reason I stopped speaking to my ex: that he had hit me one evening during an insane tirade that had lasted hours. I was thinking about whether I should write about it publically, or if I did, if I would be motivated by revenge or self-righteousness rather than the purer motive of wanting to tell others out there that they're not alone in dealing with abusive partners. I was wondering if I was right in calling it abuse, or if, as my dad told me when I was 25 and confronted him about his abusive behavior, I was just being a victim, just feeling sorry for myself. I'd never told anyone about this behavior, would telling it for the first time on a blog be wrong, be sick? Or would it be more wrong, more sick, to keep silent?

I got up and turned on the computer, meaning to write down some of what was coursing through my mind. As I checked my e-mail, I literally gasped. A friend had written me letting me know something devastating about his relationship. This is a relationship I'd always admired from afar. They had seemed so happy, so perfectly matched. I had envied them. And now this. I was floored. After writing him to show my support, I wondered it if was a sign that I needed to speak out about my own story. I remembered how, over drinks with a friend once, she told about the ex-husband who used to get violently angry and hit her. I almost told my story then, but I was too ashamed. But knowing that she had experienced this and gotten out, moved on, made me feel a little better about my situation. It's silence that hurts, that keeps us from knowing the others around us who might help up, that keeps us from getting out. Why keep silent anymore?

I'm still ashamed. But recently I've become slowly more and more conscious that a big part of my healing is understanding that this behavior was wrong, that it was abusive. More and more, I'm awakening to what really happened, and how traumatizing it was for me. The emotional and psychological manipulation, the sexual withholding, the lies and half-truths,  the triangulation with other women, meant to keep me off balance, the passive-aggressive control maneuvers, meant to slice my heart open. And the verbal abuse: the horrid name-calling, the strings of expletives thrown at me, sometimes in public. The e-mails and verbal rants about what a horrible person I am. And then the last straw, the blood on my lip after he hit me as I grappled with him to save the laptop he'd grabbed from me in a rage. Anger and conflict happen in couple relationships, and fighting is normal. But this? This was not normal, nor healthy.

I used to think it was my fault, which is what I was told repeatedly. But I'm starting to wake up from that, as if from a dream. No. It was not my fault. Yes, I did things I regret in that relationship, yes, I did things that were unhealthy. But nothing I did justified that treatment. Nothing justified the horrible torrent of words that shamed me, cowed, me left me cold, left me wanting to kill myself because I was so obviously a useless waste of breath. In a camping trailer, rocked by the wind, the horrible black river of words triggered by a stupid catty accusation I'd spit out while I was upset - his bizarre, unreal counter-accusations, said with such conviction that I almost believed them - pouring onto me for an hour, so that I literally curled up into a fetal position and wanted to die. He was right, I was absolutely useless and fucked up. I didn't deserve to live. He told me that once: that I was so fucked up I should just throw myself out the window of my third-story apartment.

And then, afterwards, the feeling I had, not of rage, not of anger, not making plans to leave him, but feelings of GRATITUDE that he still wanted me! Walking with him, meek and numbed, pretending to smile and be happy because I knew that's what he wanted, knew he wanted to pretend nothing had ever happened. The hope that if I acted like nothing had happened, then perhaps nothing had.

We don't talk about behavior like this in this culture, unless the abuse is horrific and the story ends up in in the pages of a newspaper. Unless someone is bleeding, in the hospital. There's no hotline for psychological or emotional violence. But it can be just as harmful as physical violence. And it's not okay, the mean teasing, the belittling, the cutting comments, the name-calling, the rage attacks behind closed doors. It's not okay, in any universe.

It's embarrassing, isn't it, to let others know what we've endured? That we stayed in a situation that was so bad? We feel ashamed. I know that's how I've felt for years, ever since I stopped talking about that relationship with my friends and family because I didn't want them to know how bad it had gotten. 

I guess I'm writing this here because I want to finally not be ashamed anymore. I want others who experience this kind of treatment to know they're not alone and that it's not okay. I started this blog because I wanted to help others by exploring my own journey. My story, as all our stories, is universal. We all struggle to learn and grow through our lives, and I want to help people by showing my own explorations, struggles, and triumphs. And this episode in my life, one of the worst times of my life and also, sometimes, the best, how can I not write about it? This is part of my experience. A part I'm still healing from and coming to terms with.

Once, in a group therapy session where I was talking about my dad's physical abuse of me as a young child, the women in the group became enraged on my behalf. "Why aren't you mad??," they yelled at me, after I talked about what happened in a very matter-of-fact voice. "Why are you so reasonable about this? Why aren't you upset??" I said I didn't know. I just didn't feel mad anymore. I had forgiven him. 

I am angry - furious - and sad, so sad. I still miss the good things. Still sometimes miss him. Why did I let this happen? I still blame myself, and he blamed me, too. My rage comes and goes, dancing with self-doubt. I don't know if it's right to go public with this, but I do know that it's not something to be ashamed of.  I did nothing wrong, or the things that I did wrong did not justify the hateful treatment.

Today, I start telling people. Today it's no longer a dark secret hidden under a rug. I'm here to say: This type of behavior is not right, no matter who is doing it; it can never be justified.  Nobody has the right to treat anyone that way. And no, it was absolutely not my fault. My only fault was staying when I should have walked away. But maybe that was also part of not wanting to admit what was happening. 

How about you? do you have a dark secret you've been hiding, out of shame or embarrassment? What do you think it would take to start talking about it?

Photo: This is part of an ad campaign sponsored by the Aware Helpline in Singapore, informing the public about verbal abuse and offering help and support for victims.

There is no hotline specifically for people being subjected to verbal or emotional abuse, but in the US, the Domestic Violence Hotline is (800) 799-SAFE (800-799-7233)

if you suspect you're in an abusive relationship of any sort, here's an informative website.

Friday, July 15, 2011

No More Ms. Nice Girl Or:
It's not Okay to Treat People like Crap. Please Stop Doing It.

I've made quite the career out of being reasonable, measured, empathetic, and compassionate. I'm the one friends turn to when they're troubled, no matter what happened, because they know I won't judge them. I'm the one who's quick to take responsibility for my own actions and issues that contributed to a conflict. I'm the one who feels bad when I feel I've been short with or dismissive of someone else, even if that person didn't notice anything amiss. I'm the one who, when a friend is quick to judge someone, says something reasonable in a reasonable tone, about what might have been going on in that situation. More than one person has rolled their eyes at me when I've pointed out that they may be seeing things in a one-sided way. I'm the one who rarely uses shaming or judgmental words or calls people names, even when I'm upset at them. I'm the one who, on a recent first date, thought seriously about whether to see the guy again because he was so quick to say how much he hated whole classes of people. I can almost always see more than one side - if not several sides - to any situation. Yes, I'm one of THOSE people.

But you know what? There's one thing that's been making me angry lately, and I don't feel like being polite and understanding about it. This is it: It is NOT okay to treat other people like crap. It's not acceptable to make nasty comments in blog posts that you disagree with, simply because you're basically anonymous. It's not okay to string people along who are in love with you so they'll do stuff for you. It's not okay to cheat on your wife, no matter how unhappy you are. No. It's not okay, and there are no rationalizations that will make it okay. 

It's not okay to denigrate people, to call them insulting names, to push them around, to manipulate their emotions, or to hit them. It's just not. It's not okay to stand people up on dates, it's not okay to lie, it's not okay to pretend you're something that you're not in order to get your way. It's not okay to blame everyone else for your problems. It's not okay to have come into adulthood without any understanding of or concern with how your actions affect other people. It's not okay to use people for your own ends. It's not okay to tease someone in a hurtful way because it makes you feel better about yourself. It's not okay to refuse to pay child support when your ex-wife is raising your kids. It's not okay to insult a woman because you're mad that she won't sleep with you.  It's not okay to neglect your kids in any way. It's just simply not okay to be a jerk. Is that clear? 

I'm so tired of people being mean, pushy, manipulative, insensitive, selfish, and cruel. Not everyone is like this by any means, but I'm tired of being so understanding and reasonable about the ones who are, tired of taking sole responsibility for my responses to behaviors that I find hurtful. Because you know what? They feel hurtful because they ARE hurtful. If you are an adult person who cannot act in a way that's even basically sensitive, considerate, self-aware, and compassionate, if you are an adult who doesn't care about the effect your actions have on others, then you are failing as a human being, and you need to do some serious work on yourself.   

I understand why it happens: the cruel or insensitive parents, the media that trains men and women in the art of acting like walking cliches, the stress, the deep insecurities, the psychological issues. I get it. But here's something else: we are all human beings and we have very big brains. We have big brains because each and every one of us who is a normally-developed adult has the capacity to reflect on our own actions. If we choose to not reflect, than we are a jerk. Plain and simple. You can call it anything you want, you can give it a name that ends in "disorder." But the truth is that if you treat people like crap without taking any responsibility for it and reflecting on (and subsequently changing) your pattern of behavior, and apologizing with sincerity when you mess up, you're a jerk and that's the long and short of it. 

I'm not going to appeal for politeness by calling on our innate shared humanness. Screw that. I'm going to call on our innate aversion to be called a jerk and say: if you are a jerk, please change. Stop acting like a selfish, cruel, insensitive (insert favorite name for male or female genitalia here). You can do it. I have faith in you. I'm tired of being polite and understanding about it. Just simply cut it out. Seek therapy, change jobs, move to another town, do whatever you have to do to become a decent human being. Because this world has enough jerks in it, and we certainly don't need any more. Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

We Let What Arises, Arise.

Every time I get to about the 45-minute point in my 1 1/2-hour yoga class, I start to get cranky. I want to go home. I'm tired. I want to eat something, or crash on my couch and watch whatever movie I have waiting for me. I can think of all these chores and tasks I want/need to do. My mind starts to wander. My yoga teacher always talks about "letting what arises arise." At this point in yoga, I could get up and walk out. Nobody's stopping me. Or I could slack off and just not do the harder poses. That's what the class is like. You do what you want to do and no more. I could let my mind wander and just not focus on what she's saying. But what's interesting is, if I relax and just let it happen, the discomfort at being in the middle of yoga class isn't quite as bothersome as it might have been if I had tightened up about it and let the cranky, tired story take over.

When I start to watch the clock in yoga class, I play with it. Sometimes I want to sneak a peak, during downward dog, at the clock, and sometimes I don't let myself. How does that feel? Then, sometimes, I do let myself. How does that feel? It's a good lesson in letting it all arise, no matter what, and in not judging it. Sometimes, I'm shocked at how slowly time moves. Then, when I get into a sequence, I peek at the clock and 15 minutes has gone by. Poof. And what's different each time? Not much, just what I'm choosing to focus on.

I stopped doing yoga for about six months, because each day that I had a class, I'd spend the entire day feeling bad about it, making excuses not to go, feeling tired and out of sorts. I finally decided that if it was that painful, there was no reason to do it. But since I've come back from New Orleans, my life has changed to the extent that I can, for some reason, let things just be. I can notice the discomfort at the prospect of doing weird poses in a hot room for 1 1/2 hours, and not feel strongly one way or the other. I can decide to go or not go, and not make up a story about it. Or I can come home and goof around on the internet and not feel guilty. I can go on dates and not feel nervous, and not feel upset if things don't seem to go well. I can get an e-mail from my ex- and feel vaguely amused but not caught up in the old drama. Or I can start to get caught up in the old drama and watch myself not get truly hooked by it. I can have plans for Saturday or not. I can not sleep well on a particular night and not be upset by that fact the next day. I can just let what arises, arise.

How odd. 

When we let things just come up and be, they don't have power over us. In yoga class, when I wish the class was over, I can just experience the feeling of wanting the class to be over. I don't have to have a story about why the class is so long or how I'm too weak to do a 1 1/2 hour class, or how the woman next to me is better than I am and she doesn't seem to be tired. It's the same with everything else. Play with it. When you're hungry, can you just be hungry? When you're sad, can you just be sad? When you're confused, can you just be confused? How long can you let it just be? Then when you start to make up a story, can you just watch that process without jumping into it, wholeheartedly? "Oh, there's that story again." Can you let what arises, arise? 

Here's a concept: What if everything is perfect the way it is? This can be an easy or impossible concept to grasp, depending on what your circumstances are. But no matter how difficult things are, is it possible to relax around it and, even if just for .3 seconds, let it be what it is? I don't want to be on this mat, hot and sweaty. Oh well. I don't want it to be this cold outside. Oh well. I don't want what happened in my last relationship to have happened. Oh well. Maybe you don't want to be unemployed, to hate your boss, to be in the situation in your relationship that you're in, to be sick, for your mother to have just passed away. But can you let what arises, arise? And if you can't, can you let that arise and be OK? 

Yoga teaches us many things: to pay attention to how we hold our bodies, to breathe, to stay committed to something that's often hard, to be patient, to be self-compassionate, to not judge ourselves or others. One thing it teaches is that discomfort is not inherently negative. It just is. It can be borne. Also: usually, discomfort means that we're not allowing ourselves to relax into an experience, and sometimes that we're literally not breathing. When I practice not giving up at the 45-minute point in yoga class, I also practice not giving up, lashing out, tensing up, or getting swept up in story outside of yoga class. Emotional pain, like yoga class, will end. And, like yoga class, it makes us stronger and can make us more flexible if we can choose not to harden against it, not to stiffen, not to get up and walk out. And, as my yoga teacher says in the middle of difficult poses: "Remember to breathe! Breathing is good!"

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Shame on You!
How We Use Shame to Control Others

I just started reading  Brene Brown's book I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn't): Telling the Truth About Perfectionism, Inadequacy, and Power. Brene is a "shame researcher", and the book is about how people - particularly women - experience shame. Within two pages I started to remember shaming incidents that happened when I was a child. This post isn't mean to be about blaming daddy and mommy, but to point out how most of us use shame to some extent or other as an attempt to control other people.

One incident that is very mild but for some reason has always stuck with me was this one: I was about 12 or 13, and I was sitting at our kitchen table with my dad, eating a slice of apple pie that my mom had made. She makes really good apple pie, and before I knew it, I had inhaled it, wolfed it down, snarfed it. It was like there had never been any pie there. My dad, still eating his piece, said something shaming about how quickly I had eaten the pie. I can't remember what he said, exactly, but I remember feeling a hot wave of shame course through me, which I can still feel when I think back on it. Even now, when I'm eating with others, I time my consumption to the people around me, so as not to finish faster than they do. When I do clean my plate faster, I feel slightly ashamed again.  And when I see other people eat quickly, or take the last piece of a shared plate of food, I sometimes feel arrogant towards them, like they should be ashamed of themselves. I don't usually say anything, but I still feel it. That incident with my dad taught me that people who eat too quickly are pigs and are shameful.

I only recount this scene to show how effective shame can be in teaching others the lessons we think they should learn. Shaming works.  Unless the person we're trying to shame really could care less what we think of her, almost everyone will respond to shaming in some way, although it will almost never be in  way that nourishes the relationship between the shamer and the shamee.  Shame makes us feel terrible, like we're horrible people, broken, worthless, and disgusting. And when someone shames us, we lose respect for that person. Shaming, like sarcasm, is easy but damaging.

Brene defines shame as "the intense painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging."We are probably wired to feel shame because it keeps us in line with the rules of our society. When we break or flaunt the rules, we may be ostracized, which could mean death or at the very least, disconnection, which can feel worse than death. So the reason that shame works so well is because we're wired to connect to and to seek acceptance from others, and shame effectively withdraws that acceptance and connection. But, as the apple pie incident shows us, shame can embed itself in us deeply. Shaming words may never be forgotten, and shaming others, though it may be effective for behavior change, damages them and lowers us in their esteem. Who wants to be around someone who tries to make them feel ashamed?

I started to think about how shame has worked in my life, incidents where I felt shamed and where I attempted to shame. I can still remember trying to shame an old boyfriend into wearing slacks instead of jeans to a friend's wedding. I remember how another old boyfriend, during an e-mail exchange in which he was angry with me, ended one e-mail with an out-of-context PS that read "Oh, by the way, you should consider brushing your teeth more often. Your breath stinks."   Though I knew he had meant it to shame me, and I checked with friends who said they hadn't noticed that I consistently had bad breath, I'm still hyper-conscious of my breath to this day and notice that I sometimes cover my mouth or turn my head away when speaking to others. The shaming worked.

There are many different ways we shame others: Sarcasm, name-calling, expressing disgust, and eye-rolling are all ways we communicate that someone else is not worthy of our respect. Shaming behaviors make us feel superior to that other person, as well as communicate to them that we wish they'd be or act differently, without us having to actually talk to them in an adult way and taking responsibility for our own feelings. The same way teasing is so often rooted in hostility, shame takes its energy from judgment and self-righteousness.  Shame, in whatever form it takes, is a way to control the other person by using their deeply ingrained need for connection to threaten them with disconnection. It's genius. And nefarious.

The best weapon against shame is empathy. If we tune in to our empathy, our ability to understand how it might feel to be in someone else's shoes, we can understand how painful it is to hear shaming words. If we've resolved not to cause harm to others, we can use this empathy as a way to turn off the instinct to shame others, and as a reminder to choose kinder words when we need to communicate. We can practice the art of checking our words before speaking them, especially when we feel disgust, anger, or hurt. Are the words we are about to say necessary, helpful, and true? If not, then we can choose not to say them.

I'm sure all of us can remember at least one incident where we felt shamed, and where we've shamed others. As part of building a kinder, gentler world, can we all resolve to refrain from shaming others and to discuss their shaming behaviors with those who are important to us who use shame as an attempt to control us? Sure, we probably can't eliminate shaming behaviors, but we can become aware of them and of how damaging they can be.


Monday, June 20, 2011

Coming Unstuck
Painting by Mark Zillman (see below)
We hear a lot about the pain of samsara, and we also hear about liberation. But we don't hear much about how painful it is to go from being completely stuck to becoming unstuck. The process of becoming unstuck requires tremendous bravery, because basically we are completely changing our way of perceiving reality, like changing our DNA.
--Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart

 Sometimes I really envy people who don't seem to think too much about their experience, who they are, what they've done, where they're going, and why they're here. Even though I know an unexamined life means that people tend to make the same mistakes over and over, and that true growth means paying attention and thinking about these things, sometimes it just gets tiring. When I get tired of all the turmoil and change (one and the same thing?), I envy the people who don't seem to care too much, who slough off the past pains and disappointments and move on, seemingly without a backwards glance. 

I know that in the above quote, Pema is talking about stuckness and unstuckness in relation to enlightenment, but for me, the quote really rings true when applied to 'normal' stuckness, too.

Right now, I'm in the midst of great change. After 3 years of struggling to make a situation work, I've finally realized (much later than many people in my life) that it will never work, and that I have to move on. I feel like I shouldn't be writing about this anymore, which probably means I should be. I started this blog to record my actual experiences, not the experiences that I'm 'supposed' to have, and self-censorship doesn't serve that purpose. The truth is that I still struggle everyday with a combination of relief that I'm not longer in the situation and intense longing to be back there. Anger and sadness dance in my head. Self-righteousness and self-doubt. Acceptance and a childlike refusal to accept the inevitable. This morning at 5:30, I woke up and missed my old life - my old lover - immensely. The strange thing is that I hadn't wanted to go to sleep the night before, because I think I knew this was going to come up. Things have been going fairly well for me, I haven't been missing things so much, and then it hit me hard again, at 5:30, the way the cravings for something we're addicted to will hit without warning and all we can do is cling on to something and take deep breaths until the craving leaves us.

The pain of coming unstuck from this situation is what I think of when I opened When Things Fall Apart the other day and read Pema's quote. Becoming unstuck, for me, means feeling the pain, the discomfort, the longing, the confusion, and the regret, and not doing anything about it. Not trying to solve the problem, not trying to fix anything. This is in stark contrast to what I've done up to this point, always trying to rationalize, discuss, fix everything. Hoping that something would finally work, would somehow make the situation something it could never be. Becoming unstuck means facing mistakes I've made, means wondering if it's all my fault, means gently reminding myself to come back to the moment when my mind wanders off, telling stories about who did what and whose fault it was.

Coming unstuck means finally, fully realizing my own patterns and reactions and how they contributed to things, means finally, fully committing to changing those patterns in the future, and it also means grieving those patterns, those old ways of being.  

Coming unstuck means sitting in a sort of limbo-land, means not knowing anymore what I used to think I knew: exactly what I wanted out of a relationship, exactly what I wanted my life to be. It means being uncertain, not knowing if I'm doing the right thing, but trusting what my gut tells me. I means knowing that the mornings will be hard for me, and going to sleep anyway. It means waking up every day and accepting what arises, then doing the things I need to do despite the discomfort. It means appreciating the small joys and triumphs, knowing that they don't give the same pleasure as the addictive thing, but that their pleasure is healthier, for being more subtle. It means training myself to enjoy these subtle wonders in the same way I enjoyed the intense and dramatic joys of my old life, the way we train ourselves to eat carrot sticks instead of potato chips.  

But it's true what Pema says: we don't often hear about this aspect of things. Grief is supposed to last for a certain amount of time. Then we're supposed to adjust, recover, buck up, move on, and don't look back. This limbo place of putting one foot in front of the other and of letting our emotions come up and out of us, all of them, no matter what, day after day, hour after hour, not knowing when things will shift or if they ever will, this is what it takes to become unstuck. This feeling the painful ambivalence and looking forward, doing things that will take us into our future, even when so much of us cries out for things to be the way they were. This hearing people tell us we should be over things by now, and knowing that it's not so simple, and, most importantly, being okay with where we are in the process. That's what it takes to get there.

I'm impatient, I want to get on with things. But things will not be gotten on with on anyone else's time but their own. In fact, the impatience probably makes the process take longer. Coming unstuck means being patient, even when every fiber in our being screams to be away from all this muddy smelly confusion, angst, and doubt, when our internal critic echoes what all the self-help books (and the ex-) say: it's taking too long! Get over it already!

Have you ever dropped jam on yourself and discovered it hours later, but by then it's gotten all over the place? That's how it is to come unstuck. The stuckness shows up in places I would never have guessed. How on earth did it get there? I wonder. But I patiently (well, sometimes patiently) clean that spot as best I can, remove the stickiness, and hope that each time I find a stuck place, it's one of the last.


The painting above is my Mark Zillman (

Friday, June 17, 2011

Why I Can't Help But Feel Compassion

This morning, for some reason, I was thinking about a community of people with whom I never seemed to fit in, and with whom I'm no longer involved. There were several people in this community who had taken a disliking to me for various reasons, and it was extraordinarily difficult for me to accept that. I can't stand it when people don't like me, especially when they don't bother to try and mend the wounds, or even communicate about why they have a problem with me. I hate not knowing why. Even now, and maybe especially now, that I'm no longer involved with them, I still find myself thinking back and wondering: what did I do wrong? I think about whether they're glad I'm gone, and about whether they still gossip about me in the kitchen the way they used to do when I was around, whether they roll their eyes when my name comes up.  Thinking about this curdles my blood, makes me tense, makes me angry and sad.

At the same time, I'm conscious of my own judgments about certain people in this community. The lady who thinks I jammed a screw into her tire is obviously a total nutjob. The ones who gossiped about me and were talking about me in other groups are clearly disturbed. It was so obvious that she was jealous of my relationship with X.

This line of thought always brings me, eventually, to thinking about all the mistakes I made in that time of my life, all the stumbles. As I usually do when I find myself erupting in judgment of others, I came back to: Well, I've done that, too. I've made accusations, gossiped, been jealous. 

So after awhile of this merry-go-round of dysfunction, I came back to one thought: Ugh. We're all messed up. 

I wonder sometimes if people who aren't intimately familiar with their own difficult natures can actually feel true compassion for others. Compassion is the act of forgiving someone for not being perfect, but we can only feel compassion from a place of knowing that we, ourselves, are not perfect. We understand our own struggles with mood, with anger, with inattention, with procrastination, with jealousy, and we look at others who display their struggles, and we say "Oh, I know how that feels." That's compassion.  If we believed that we had never made a mistake or acted in a less-than-perfect way, would we still be able to feel compassion?

I can't help but feel compassion because I'm so familiar with my own struggles that judging someone else for theirs,  just seems unjust. Oh, I'll be judgmental just as much as the next person, but usually, eventually, I catch myself with the thought: "Oh, I've done that." When I can drop my own story about it, I can feel the heat of anger, jealousy, unkindness, hatred, loneliness, pain, despair, and my soul says "Yes. I've been there."

The challenge for me is to be compassionate towards myself. I can be compassionate towards the gossipers, the jealous ones, and the delusional ones, even if their treatment of me still hurts. It's forgiving myself for being the target of their gossip or misguided accusations that's hard. And the funny thing is that I get judgmental about others who don't exhibit compassion and forgiveness towards me ("Right, like you've never had a bad day or acted in a way you regret!" I'd like to say to them), but when I don't exhibit compassion towards myself, that's perfectly fine. It's that same old cliche: we're our own worst critics. Although I've never accused myself of jamming a screw through my tire.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Hearts Made to Repair Themselves

When I saw the recent headline on BBC's website "Hearts made to repair themselves", I misunderstood the topic of the article and immediately clicked on it. It turned out to be an article about how a new drug can prompt the heart to repair itself after a heart attack. Even though it didn't say what I was hoping it would say, which is that hearts were already naturally designed to heal themselves, I still found myself thinking "Wow, if they could make a drug that did that for heartbreak, they'd make millions."

On thinking about it, though, I realized: hearts are designed to naturally, albeit perhaps slowly, heal themselves. Think about a heartbreak - whether romantic or otherwise - that happened to you in the past. Think about how painful it was in the beginning, and how it feels now, years later. Even if it's still somewhat tender, chances are that it's not nearly as painful as it once was, and that you've managed to move on in most ways in your life. You've found other partners or lovers, you've gotten a new job, you've developed a life in spite of a bad childhood, abusive parents, or other major traumas, you've been able to laugh again, enjoy yourself, and even to forget about the pain much of the time.

One thing we do know about heartbreak is that we can't feel it if we don't have a heart. And if we have a heart, it will be broken, often stunned, sometimes for years, with the pain of something that went wrong. But for most of us, slowly, determinedly, incrementally, the heart grows strong again, sometimes even against our will. There have been times after breakups when I started to feel a bit better, and actually didn't want to, because it meant that I was truly letting go of that old relationship. It almost seemed to indicate that that old relationship hadn't been important, if it could be gotten over. But the heart wants to feel whole again, and if we let it be, it will. We can inhibit this healing process by letting ourselves stew in grief, anger, self-pity, or stories about how wonderful things were back then, the way a wound will fester if we don't clean it out, remove the foreign bodies, and change the bandages regularly.

I just came back from New Orleans, where people are still traumatized from Katrina, still lose sleep, still experience panic and anxiety, incredible grief, anger, stress and heartbreak, are still facing the devastating effects of this national tragedy, such as the loss of loved ones, jobs, money, career, and family heirlooms,  not to mention a trust in the systems they thought would never fail them. But even with this incredible amount of loss, there is still music to be played and enjoyed, wonderful food to be cooked and eaten, weddings to be celebrated, art to create, and futures to mold. The people have survived an ordeal, but they still laugh, even if the laughter is slower to come now.

As with any physical wound, if we care for our hearts - both physically and emotionally - they will heal and become strong again, ready to take risks again, ready to see the beauty and the joy around us again.  I still think if drug manufacturers could make a drug that would do this for us, they'd make millions, but maybe something would be lost if we could immediately forget our pain, the way the characters in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind realized that they didn't want to give up their memories of their love even though things didn't work out. In order to feel the joy, we must open ourselves to the pain. But, luckily, hearts are meant to heal themselves, and they will, if we let them.

Friday, June 10, 2011
True Romance

My ex- and I used to butt heads over the fact that I need a partner to be honest and open and to tell me what he wants from me, while he feels it should be implied and not explicit, because that’s more romantic. I have never been good at playing the mating game, which is probably why I’m still single, and why I gravitate towards online dating. I hate trying to guess what someone’s motives are and then having to decide how to send the message I want to send without actually just saying it. This is doubly true because I’m really not good at reading or sending these subtle cues.

Recently, this came up with a new male friend, who I believe is interested in me. He put his arm around me as we sat by the river, touched my back, and wanted me to take his hand as we walked. And all of this made me uncomfortable. Not only because I’m not romantically interested in this man, but because I knew he knew I knew what he was doing, but I didn’t know how to respond. I moved away slightly, but this felt rude to me. Yet I didn’t feel like I could just say “Hey, I notice you’re touching me affectionately, but I don’t feel like that about you.” This seemed like it would just cut him down unnecessarily, and in the past when I've been that honest, the other people have expressed hurt. At the same time, I didn't just want to hold his hand and to respond to his caresses to be nice because I've also done that, and had people think I was interested when I wasn't. So I was stuck: there didn't seem to be any proper response. In the end, I just did nothing, and he seemed to get the hint. But the whole exchange seemed strange to me. Why can't two adults be honest with one another?

I was thinking about my male friends in considering what to write about this issue, and realize that the men I feel the safest with are men to whom I feel I can speak my truth. When we can speak honestly and truthfully (which also means respectfully: one can speak difficult truths gently and with compassion), then there’s no guesswork, no anxiety about what’s really going on, no discomfort or tension about what might be unspoken. To me, the idea of being able to be totally honest with a lover is supremely romantic: that myself and a lover or potential lover can feel free to express our love, emotions, and sensuality with openness, and not be worried about saying the wrong thing: how can that be anything but romantic?

I can see where the game-playing – the subtle cues and the dance of touch and glance – can be supremely exciting, and I’ve enjoyed those moments, too. But I don’t feel that they have to be mutually exclusive with honesty and openness, we just have to choose our times. Recently, I experience an intense evening of flirting and sexual energy with a man I had just met. I've never felt anything like it. It was magical, yet there were ethical issues that I felt we had to deal with before we could consummate our feelings for one another. Unfortunately it seems like that cooled the flames, and now I doubt we will see one another again. But if I had ignored those issues, I would have felt awful after the sex, and this would have poisoned anything that might have blossomed between us, not to mention my self-respect and my relationship with another friend. To me, the perfect dance is one of passion and honesty, subtle cues and openness, a dark, hot glance and the respect of full disclosure. As in everything in life, the balance is hard to strike, but I know it can happen. I regain hope when I think about the men in my life who are willing to go there. They are few, but they’re the brave ones.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Coming Home

Traveling is a study in movement. When we arrive at a place, we immediately get to work inhabiting it. We expand into it: we unpack, we take up residence. Whether it's a house, an apartment, a hotel room, or a campsite, we move out into it, we expand to the size of our space; with our things, with our presence. When we leave, we contract. Slowly, our things disappear from the space, and we're like a turtle going back into our shell. And when we look around and notice that it's as if we were never there, it's strangely comforting and disturbing all at the same time. We sit in that quiet empty space and wait until it's time to go. Our things are all packed and orderly. We may never come there again, may never look at those floors, those windows, those ugly prints on the wall, ever again. Others will come after us, will expand into the space and then contract, and then leave, and others after them. But we'll have no knowledge of that. We'll be somewhere else, in some other space, expanding to fit it.

I come home, and it's like I never left. The cats, who have had other company for a month, recognize me immediately and come to be stroked, as they didn't with their other caretakers. They demand that we return to our old routines. 

The place I left was 95 degrees every day, and here it's 60 and cloudy. In New Orleans, I kept having to explain to people that California wasn't all sun and beaches, that northern California was actually cool and foggy in the summer, and that it had been raining here for weeks. "Oh," they would inevitably say. It's so much quieter here: no garbage and delivery trucks going by at all hours, no partiers and workers walking through the narrow streets, their voices echoing off the buildings. No sounds of ship horns, no calliope (thank god!) I wonder if I'll remember how to drive my car, or how to get to work, but of course these things are all so ingrained in me that they can never be forgotten. Body memory will take over. I missed driving, and I look forward to once again getting behind the wheel. 

The one thing I don't look forward to is explaining my trip to people. "How was your trip?" They'll say. And I won't know how to answer. "It was great!" is what I'll probably say. And it was, of course. It was wondrous, fun, exciting, interesting. I got reenergized to write my novel at the same time that the book I went there to write has seemingly died on the vine. On the other hand, I didn't write as much as I wanted to and never really got into a writing groove. I ate wonderful food, (and got food poisoning on my last day), listened to fabulous music (and got sidetracked more than once and didn't make it to music I was intending to see), explored a town that I love (and realized how the people there are struggling emotionally), met interesting people (and remembered that people can sometimes be total shits), and, as always, rode the waves of emotion the way I always will (both the difficult and the wonderful).  But how do you explain that?

I think I expect that people will want to see that I've changed in some obvious way, even a temporary way like being suntanned. I am, a bit, but when you're in 95-degree weather, you don't hang out in the sun. Will I seem more relaxed? Or more stressed after traveling home while suffering from food poisoning?  

There is no succinct explanation available for a monthlong trip away from most things familiar, and I dread getting stuck in that cliche of saying "Oh, it was a wonderful trip!" when things are so much more complex than that. 

Friends and family who visited me have written e-mails to me despairing of the culture shock they experienced when they returned here, sad to be gone from New Orleans, worrying about how I will adjust. But I don't feel sad to be back. Leaving our world is exciting and interesting, but hopefully, it makes us appreciate our world a little. Now, my stuff sits in piles, waiting to be unpacked. The suitcase is on the floor, spilling over, clothes waiting to be sorted into clean, dirty, gifts. Friends need to be called, work needs to be done. Was I ever even gone? But the question: "How was your trip?" proves that I was gone, reminds me to keep my head out of the routine for just a little bit longer. And for that I'm grateful.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

2 am Thunderstorm Thoughts

Thunder woke me at 2 am. I had seen the sheet lightning in the distance earlier as I sat in a balcony bar overlooking St. Ann and Dauphine Streets, occasional bright blue flashes to the east that could have been from someone’s flash camera but were not. When the storm came, I had been sleeping lightly, anyway, tossing and turning amid twisted sheets. The thunder had overcome the noise of the air conditioner by my bed, rolling over the city like a tidal wave of sound. I clambered out of bed and padded out into the living room to shut the windows against any possible deluge. Returning to the bedroom, I opened the curtains to the window by the bed. In California, we don’t have thunder and lighting, and they’re fascinating to me. Back in bed, I heard people in the streets, walking and biking by, trying to get home before the rain.

I’m used to being alone, and had been alone in this apartment for several days, but for some reason, 2 am aloneness is different. Suddenly, the loneliness felt palpable, and along with it came a sort of unrelenting, generalized fear. The sky flashed, but no rain came. It was like the tension between two lovers when you know there’s going to be a fight, but it hasn’t happened yet. To calm myself, I counted the number of people in town that I knew and could call on if I needed help, and came up with the impressive number of six, four whose numbers I had in my phone and two where I knew where they hung out. That made me feel better. Counting your blessings is always a helpful exercise. The normal panic thoughts tried to come: “why am I alone here?” for one, but I ignored them. I knew them for 2 am thunderstorm thoughts, and not for the truth they tried to convince me they were.  

The next day, I had plans: to do yoga, to meet a friend for beignets, to visit the Katrina memorial, to write, and to go see some last music before I leave on Monday.  Not the life of a lonely woman. I rolled over, away from the window, closed my eyes as purple flashes played across the ceiling, and fell asleep.

And the rain never came.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Re-BirthDay in New Orleans

It's my birthday today. Apparently, the tradition here is to pin a dollar to your shirt on your birthday, so others can know its your day and, if they are so inclined, can pin another dollar there, to, as my friend eloquently put it, "make sure you stay drunk."

In the midst of a monthlong retreat, of sorts, I woke up to birthday wishes - electronic, postal, and face-to-face. My mom and friend are here to help me celebrate. The air is balmy, the birds fill the air with sound, as do the garbage trucks, workers, tourists, boats, and the cathedral. I'm sunburned from a day on the bayou listening to great music yesterday. And today I truly hit that next great decade of my life: the 40's.

I admit I came here in the hopes that I'd experience a rebirth. A rebirth of hope, of ownership of my own life, of joy. I didn't have many expectations coming here, but I think I did expect to somehow channel a different part of my personality, the one that's always the life of the party, always knows the right thing to say and do, and is never bored, cranky, sad, or drinks or eats too much. I wanted to rediscover self-care, wanted to recommit to getting physically active, eating well, and taking care of my body and psyche. It's a funny place to do that, New Orleans, the center of debauchery. But for me it's never been about the parties, but about the deeper, darker, more complex nature of this town. OK, and somewhat the parties.

I have been meditating regularly, doing yoga almost every day (well, until my visitors came, but now I'm still planning to do it three times this week) have been talking to people, have been writing and thinking, pondering and simply being. But, of course the mantra of "wherever you go there you are" is true. My personality, I have discovered from this trip, is what it is. My lesson is to be grateful, compassionate, and loving of who I actually am, in all my complexity, and not wish to be different than I am. 

I feel very lucky: to have family and friends who want to celebrate with me, to have people I barely know and have just met sending me birthday wishes (Thanks, Facebook!), to have a friend who sent me a real physical card to my New Orleans address, to have my physical health, my insight, and my childlike wonder. I even feel grateful, in a strange way, that my heart is still tangled and knotted so deeply into a situation back home that I recently came to the conclusion that I might as well just accept that I can never extricate myself, and to learn to live my life in spite of this. Being able to open my heart is a gift, even if the outcome is messy and frequently difficult.

Thank you to everyone who has (and will) make my birthday a special one. Be well, happy, and heartful. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Home is Where the Heart is

One of the reasons I wanted to live in New Orleans for several weeks rather than simply visit it for a week or so is that I don't think you can really know a place until you've experienced the actual rhythm of life there, including the things that might make you grumble. In New Orleans, in an apartment rather than a hotel room, on a residential street rather than in a tourist zone, I already feel at home.

Yesterday morning, the jackhammer at the construction site around the corner started up at 7:30 am as the workers tried to beat the coming heat. Sitting here today, writing in my apartment at noon, the sounds of construction just, blissfully, stopped for lunch. if I was in a hotel room, I might complain to someone, or changed rooms. But as a resident, even if just a transient one (is that an oxymoron?) it's just part of the scene. The hotel workers walk by at all hours of the day and night, their talk loud and often disgruntled, punctuated by loud laughter that bounces off the buildings. Someone was fighting on the street corner last night, late, as I sat,  exhausted and weirdly achy after taking the commuter ferry across the river to Algiers and back under a bloated, full red moon. My companions on the ferry were young black men transfixed by their iPhones, and middle-aged people of various ethnicities coming home from working in the city.

Until today, the days have been cooler than I've expected here, but they're warming up again. The wind of the last three or four days has died down. It's expected to get sultry here, every day warmer than the next. If I was only here for a week, I'd have been sorely disappointed in the sweater weather, but with a few more weeks to go, I'm enjoying experiencing the changes in the weather, the way the clouds are different every day, the way the thunderstorm swept through on Friday and was cleared out by the afternoon, and the air became sparkly and crystalline.

These days, I think about what to cook for myself rather than where to go and eat. I clean my own dishes and bathroom,  make my own bed, and if I want clean clothes, I go to a laundromat. I sometimes feel like connecting and sometimes don't, and I sometimes get bored, or sad, or tired, or too lethargic to go out. I walk familiar streets now, to cafes where I know I can get internet and good coffee. I waste too much time on Facebook and e-mail because I'm procrastinating on my job. Just like at home.

The day before yesterday, I felt depressed and tired the whole day, and spent it in my apartment, napping, canceling plans to meet up with people. I went to bed early and didn't sleep well. I listened to the street sounds and, as the sky lightened, to the sounds of the sparrows changing guard with the nighthawks. In the morning, I felt better - even happy -  and spent the day connecting with the people around me. Life is like that, isn't it? Nothing if not changeable.

When we live somewhere, we have these times when there is no escape from real life, and when distractions don't seem to work, times when we feel productive and energetic and times when we feel lethargic and down. Our lives have schedules, but they're not as full of exciting, new things as they are when we're tourists. Here, I make plans to go far afield, to go to places the locals go. The museum, neighborhood eateries and bars, art galleries. I explore the place the way someone would who had just moved here. I look for places to feel comfortable, rather than distracted, places to visit again or places that teach me something. I make note of the trolley routes, the bus schedules. I recognize people on the streets, even if they don't yet recognize me. I consider helping the tourist couple looking at their map, but then realize that I don't actually live here, and might very well not be able to help them. After all, I'm still not entirely sure of the order of the streets here. I laugh at myself for becoming so quickly acclimated to this place. I think about never going back, but I know that that's an impossibility.

A new friend yesterday suggested that I split my time between here and my other home. That would, perhaps be the perfect solution, for how can we get bored with the routines of home if we have two homes? I asked him how I was supposed to do that, and he, a native of Alexandria, Egypt, who came here sight unseen ten years ago and worked his way up from dishwasher to owning his own store, just shrugged, smiled and took a drag of his hookah. I suppose that means there's always a way.