Friday, January 28, 2011

Soul Mates
People think a soul mate is your perfect fit, and that's what everyone wants. But a true soul mate is a mirror, the person who shows you everything that is holding you back, the person who brings you to your own attention so you can change your life.

A true soul mate is probably the most important person you'll ever meet, because they tear down your walls and smack you awake. But to live with a soul mate forever? Nah. Too painful. Soul mates, they come into your life just to reveal another layer of yourself to you, and then leave.

A soul mate's purpose is to shake you up, tear apart your ego a little bit, show you your obstacles and addictions, break your heart open so new light can get in, make you so desperate and out of control that you have to transform your life...
- Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love
 Ahhhh. Well, in that case, I have had so many soul mates I can hardly count them. Is that very lucky, or terribly unlucky? I suppose that I have the privilege of living a life of being smacked down so many times and bouncing back as many times, at least in love. Love is the one place in my life that is like the ocean. Where almost everything else in my life is disgustingly stable - great family, wonderful job, fabulous friends, intelligence, creativity, soul, self-awareness, and hey, sometimes even good looks - love, for me, is rocking, stormy, tempestuous, almost inconceivably deep and ever-changing, always surprising, changing colors in an instant, never to be taken for granted. Like the ocean, love, for me, can kill without warning, or it can buoy me up. Sometimes both simultaneously. Like the sailor says: Never turn your back on the ocean. For me it's "never turn your back on love." I've learned to have great respect for this torrent of emotion, but still I insist on wading in deeply, beyond the breakers, and letting the waves do to me what they will.

In Cancun last year with my soul mate, I once tried to follow him into the surf. He's a sailor and grew up swimming in the ocean off of Florida. He knows how to get beyond the breakers and float on the salty water. It doesn't scare him.  I got out there, but the sense that I was drifting, anchor-less, terrified me. The waves rose above my head and I'd panic, trying to regain my footing, which was impossible. I was tense and the water attacked me because I wouldn't give in to it. Meanwhile, my love floated effortlessly several feet away, like a sea otter. Finally, I paddled back to shore, anxious and afraid. When I got to the beach, I consoled myself by looking for sea shells. On a sea cliff not far from where we'd put our towels and clothes, someone had carved, in 2-foot-tall letters, "Te Amo." I Love You. When my love came back to the beach, I showed it to him. "You didn't write that?" he asked. "No," I said. It seemed to be a sign of some kind.

In the breakup of this relationship and in the preceding  years of stormy seas interspersed with waters of a placid, mirror-like calm, I've seen myself clinging like a drowning woman to the broken timbers of my ego, my expectations, my assumptions, and my fantasies, while the waves, in the form of my love for this man, tried to strip me from those comforts, tried to hurl me into the depthless water, tried to force me to swim on my own. Again this has happened. He tells me that I need to let go of all that, that even the pain is comfortable to me because I'm used to it. He tells me that he understands my fear of the unknown, but that I don't have a choice; this ship of ego is going down. To cling to it would be suicide. But the thought of letting go, of letting the waves take me - to either drown me or support me, I don't know -  is utterly, mind-splinteringly horrifying. I know that if I relax into them, they will support me, but their fluidity panics me. And in my panic,  I tense up and cling, and my body gets heavy and I start to sink, which panics me even more.

Was I lucky to meet this soul mate, or terribly unlucky? I suppose, from a perspective of awakening, I was very lucky. He did to me exactly what Elizabeth Gilbert wrote in the passage above about soul mates. And he made me go hunting for my Water Wings. Now where did I put those?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

By the way, this is not my tattoo!
Tattoos and the Art of Accepting the Choices We've Made

At dinner last week with my sister, we were talking about her marriage, and about how she'd recently come to a place of acceptance of both the bad and the good things about her husband, her family, and her life in general. She reflected that though things weren't perfect, things were the way they were, and she was much happier and more relaxed having come to that conclusion than when she had been consumed with anxiety about all the flaws in her life and relationships.

I'm in the process of getting a new tattoo. I approved the design the artist drew for me, and in a matter of less than a week, my body will be permanently altered. It's the largest tattoo I've ever gotten. When I got my first tattoo ( a small and innocuous one) at age 30, I only had one very brief moment of regret. I don't know why, maybe I was depressed in general at the time, but for a brief minute I wondered what the hell I had done to myself. It didn't take me long to realize that, first of all, it was too late to waste time with regrets, and, second of all, I had chosen that path. I never regretted the tattoo again. Later, I compared my tattoos to the scars on my face and body from 30 years of chronic acne. I reasoned that, at least with tattoos, I get to choose them, as I never had been able to do with my acne scars. Now, a tattoo for me is not about gaining perfection or avoiding regret. It's about showing my soul on my skin. A tattoo shows us something about the person we were when we made that choice; I may be a different person now than I was when I got my first tattoo, but I that tattoo is a reminder of who I was then, and what I wanted my life to mean.

I've been reflected recently on how tattoos are very much like most of the decisions we make. They're permanent, they mark us, and they reflect who we were at the time, though not necessarily who we become. The jobs we have, the relationships we're in, the cars we buy and the places we live are all based on choices we make. Even if we leave the job, the relationship, get rid of the car, and move, those decisions have affected our entire lives; in this sense, they are permanent. At the very least, they live on in memory.

A lot of us spend a lot of time regretting the decisions we've made. "Why did I marry that jerk?" we ask, "Why did I ever accept this crap job?" "I should never have moved across the country, spent my money on this stupid car, said what I said to my kid/partner/friend/dog" We spend a lot of time trying to fix decisions we now regret. But regret, though a normal and natural human emotion, is almost never helpful in the long run. 

 That one moment of regret for my tattoo taught me a lot. It taught me that after we've made a decision, regret is useless. It taught me what my sister has also learned: that things are the way they are. It taught me that the best way not to be tortured with regret is to try to make a wise decision in the first place, but that there is no such thing as a perfect decision, or even a right one. Each decision takes us down a fork in the road; each decision has ten million other decisions attached to it. Agonizing over each decision eventually is just a waste of time, as is regretting them once we've made them. I've always had the rule of thumb that if you want a tattoo, sit on it for at least 6 months to a year before actually getting it done. If you still want it later, then get it. The same is true - though maybe not literally - for each decision we make. Study your options, get outside opinions if they would help, and listen to your gut. But when you've made the decision, let go. Things will be what they will be.

On the other hand....

Friday, January 14, 2011

When Words Confuse Rather than Clarify

Who tells a finer tale than any of us? Silence does. - Isak Dinesen

I'm a writer and an editor. Words are my drug, my wine, my meat and potatoes, my oxygen, my muscles and at the heart of my understanding of things. Sometimes I have nightmares about what would happen if I could no longer read or type. I live by words. They console me when I'm sad and spill from me when I'm happy (and sometimes vice versa). Words pay my mortgage, put me to sleep at night, and are the reason I get up in the morning. Words are essential tools for the vast majority of humans, but they are more important to me than they are to most.

I've always thoughts of words as the final arbiters of understanding. When confusion arose, I've always felt like if I could just explain myself, or understand another, that everything would resolve itself. I've always believed in honest words, in saying how I really felt, and always tried my best to listen to other peoples' truths, even when they were painful. I suppose, like most of us, I'm better at the former than the latter. I've always had a habit of writing letters - or, nowadays, e-mails -  in difficult situations, because I've always believed that more understanding could only create goodwill. I never understood why sometimes my words, so carefully crafted, so honest and emotionally resonant (at least in my eyes), sometimes put people off, sometimes created anger or resentment in people. I always figured it was because they just didn't understand my words, and that more words would fix it. If I could only explain, I would think. Everything would be okay.

Recently, though, I realized that a relationship with an important person in my life has been marred - for years - with such a tumble and overabundance of words, that it has actually damaged our understanding of each other. For years we've gone 'round and 'round, over and under, with words, trying to explain each others' position, trying to clarify, trying to express what was happening internally. We've argued, we've written love letters, we've written books worth of e-mails. And all that's left is a big mess of confusion, pain,  misunderstanding and mixed messages. It struck me today that emotional words - words written in an emotional state - are a permanent representation of a temporary feeling. We feel something, and we write it down, and the other person reads it, and it sticks. In ten minutes, we may feel differently. But that other person will still remember the words. That temporary feeling permanently informs that other person's understanding of us and of who we are, and I dare say that this is especially true of hurtful words. They can't be erased. Even spoken words can burn themselves into someone's brain and cause pain or confusion.

As well, words are easily misunderstood. I stumbled on a blog post on Psychology Today where the blogger pointed out that arguments between intimate partners can often hang up on the most simple of misunderstandings: what each partner means by the words 'intimacy' or 'love', for example. I've had words I've written thrown back at me in a way that made it clear that what I had meant to say did not come across to the other person. What I thought was so clearly expressed came across as something completely different than what I had intended.

I've finally figured out that sometimes, more words are not the answer. Sometimes, more words are just confusing. Especially when emotions are high, words can do damage that we don't intend, that we may not even notice until the misunderstandings have blossomed, like a cancer, and there's no way to take them back.

Perhaps there are times when it's best to just shut our mouths and experience what's happening without more words. Maybe it's time to use touch - a hug, a handhold - a gesture, or an action to say what we mean when  more words won't increase anyone's understanding of what's happening. Sometimes, when tensions are high, perhaps it may even be best to leave the situation entirely and just accept one another's differences of opinion and experience. In my situation, if I had trusted my own intuition and experience and made my own choices rather than expecting my friend to say the right things to make me feel better, perhaps we wouldn't have felt the need to continue explaining and explaining, and maybe we would have avoided digging ourselves into this deep, dark hole of misunderstandings and wounded feelings.

It's been said that words are responsible for only about 7% of our communication, which is probably why e-mails and written language can be so fraught with peril. How many of us have written e-mails or letters that have been woefully misunderstood? Body language, facial expressions, probably even scent, communicate more than mere words do. I feel like I need to learn when to stop talking, to stop writing, to stop this eternal processing that I continually hope will bring myself and other people into a perfect clarity of understanding. Maybe, sometimes, the best understanding is to understand that there will be no understanding. And maybe that's okay.

The image above was generated at

Monday, January 10, 2011

Letting New Beings into My Life

I'm hoping that this will be my only blog post about my cats. I absolutely refuse to let this blog de-evolve into a blog about the single life with cats. I refuse! Anyway, but an interesting thing happened when I chose to open my life to two new young beings, two 7-month old cats who were born not far from here, from a feral mother.

I grew up with cats. The only times I haven't had a cat or cats was during the time I was in college, and then for the last 2 or 3 years, after my cat, Merlin, died suddenly after living with me for 13 years. I've always missed having cats, but after Merlin died, I was so involved in other things, including an all-encompassing relationship with a man who was allergic to cats, that I just didn't have room in my life for them. I didn't spend very much time at home, my man was allergic, and my life felt full. Also, my life had dogs in it. My boyfriend had a dog, who died after I had known him about a year, but then his roommate brought another dog into our lives, and I enjoyed getting to know these creatures who were so different from the cats I'd always been surrounded by. I once remarked to a cat-loving co-worker that I felt like my life was entering a dog phase.

When the relationship started going downhill, I often thought about getting cats again. My house, where I was now spending more time, felt empty without other mammals in it. But the relationship wasn't over yet, and I still clung to it.  If I got cats, that walled off a portion of my life from the man I loved, because he could no longer spend time at my house. Getting cats felt scary to me, like letting go of something I didn't want to let go of. It didn't feel like the time was right.

After the breakup, it took me about 3 months to be ready to get cats. For years I had been asking the universe to send me my next animal companions. My cats who died felt like my familiars, not like pets to me, as did my ex-boyfriend's dog, Paco, and I wanted any relationship I developed with future furry creatures to be as special. Animals aren't just accessories, they're sentient beings, creatures who have their own lives, personalities, and neuroses, just like people. I wasn't just going to go grab some random cats from the pound and be done with it.

I was looking online at pet adoptions, when I saw pictures of two older kitten called Callie and Zorro. On a whim, I e-mailed the woman who ran the organization. I assumed those kitties had been adopted already, since the photos were from two months before. After I sent the e-mail I was nervous. Did I really want cats? Was it time?

When she e-mailed me back, she had a lot of requests of me in regards to caring for any cats I adopted. She was a holistic practitioner, so I was to feed only raw organic food, have the cats be indoor/outdoor, and not have them vaccinated. I balked at all the rules - as well as the high adoption fee - and when I explained that those weren't going to work for me, I felt relief. The situation seemed settled. I would not adopt cats. But then she, and the women who were fostering the cats, both wrote back basically begging me to look at the kitties and telling me the could be flexible on the rules. "These cats need love!" they all said.

I thought about it. Was this the universe giving me what I had asked for: a sign that these were my new animal companions? I decided it was, and went to visit the cats, and later decided to bring them home. They're both sitting near me right now as I type this.

Deciding to bring them home was a process. I had to let go of the life I had had over the last 3 years, of staying away from home for days on end, and of dating a man who was allergic. Even now, when I miss my old life, I wonder if getting cats was the wisest thing to do. In my darkest moments recently, I've looked at the cats, who I've re-named Sita and Shiva, and wondered if I was going to end up a middle-aged cat lady, alone in my house with my expanding menagerie. This even though I've always had cats and had many a relationship where my partner loved my cats.

But there's some ease that isn't there anymore, the way it used to be when I had my other cats. I have to stop myself from seeing these kitties as an obstacle to a free life, and I never felt that way about my other cats. I wonder if it's because of who I am now, the experiences I've had since the last time I had cats, the recent breakup. I'm keeping open to my new housemates, letting them get used to this place and to me, letting them teach me who they are. We will develop a relationship, the three of us, and hopefully, someday a fourth two-legged male human animal will join us. But right now we're a funny family, one of whom is now chewing on my toe as I sit curled on my couch typing this. I never realized that getting kitties would be as intense a soul search as it has been, and continues to be. But, the adventure continues!