General Trauma and Get Over Yourself Books: An Annotated Biographical Bibliography

[I started writing this months ago- crap. Just clicked the link- November]

I was listening to CBC this morning. The Sunday Edition was airing the second part of an episode on the hundredth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Michael Enright was talking to Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen about her new book and the lasting effects of the Soviet Union. She said this, and I have not been able to get it out of my head all day:

“[In Nazi Germany], the way the terror was constructed, the people who had been killed had been “Other.” There was a clear distinction between victims and executioners and bystanders. In the Soviet Union, there were no bystanders. Everyone was either a victim or an executioner. But the worst part is that everybody was a victim and an executioner. Every family contained within itself both victims and executioners. People were victimized by becoming executioners, and then executioners were executed on trumped-up charges, becoming victims. We have never seen a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for that kind of thing, for the crime of having done this to ourselves, for generations. It may not be possible to atone for that kind of violence.” Masha Gessen

Wow. “We have never seen a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for that kind of thing, for the crime of having done this to ourselves, for generations. It may not be possible to atone for that kind of violence.”

She is talking about a whole society living through about 70 years of terror. About a generation who lived their whole lives never sure what moral morass they would need to wade through in order to survive.

So, yeah. The following comes with a huge “WITH ALL DUE RESPECT FOR PROPORTION” caveat.

It was that one phrase: “the crime of having done this to ourselves.” That has been a pebble skipping on the surface of my brain for the last few hours. I don’t know how to say this in the face of the bigness of the Soviet Union, except to say that patterns echo on a small scale as well as a big scale. It is foolish to think that what we manifest in our personal lives does not echo on a grander scale, and, of course, vice versa.

Because, in the end, all our stories are the same. The way we hurt each other stems from the same root: shame and a refusal to take a solid step into what it means to be a real grown up and truly be accountable for our actions and emotions.

I am convinced that in the end, if we become monsters, we do so in the same way: shame. Whether on the scale of a Trump or a Putin or Stalin, or a government employee like, say me, or my fellow civil servant made famous by history, the Nuremberg trials and the brilliant Hannah Arendt, Eichmann.

The crimes we have done to ourselves. These are the hardest to forgive. The way we shut ourselves down. Talk to ourselves. We build up our own self-liturgy throughout our lives, a comforting mantra of cannots and then believe our own lies. We end up in places we do not want to be and then, instead of  taking responsibility for the choices and beliefs that led us there, we blame the ones closest to us. We continue to do this for one simple reason: it is easier. It is easier than breaking down the wall we built and confronting the unknown on the other side.

It is not easy to face oneself. It is not easy to admit to your own agency. Here are some of the books that helped me…how can I put this? Not break myself on the shoals of my own pain.

They are in no particular order here, but I learned a valuable lesson from each one. Actually, now that I think about it, the overarching lesson, the hub of all these literary spokes is only one: self-compassion, but more on that in another post.

51IvVuCvuPL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead by Brené Brown

I want to start with Brené Brown, because her work on the power of vulnerability and shame has probably been the most influential for me. I know I am not the only one either. She’s like vulnerability’s celebrity advocate at this point. If you haven’t seen her TED talk, well then I will forgive you because you have obviously been living for a few of years in a cramped position under a rock.

She pretty much tells it like it is in the first couple of pages:

“Vulnerability is not weakness, and the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure we face every day are not optional. Our only choice is a question of engagement. Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines on the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection.

When we spend our lives waiting until we’re perfect or bulletproof before we walk into the arena, we ultimately sacrifice relationships and opportunities that many not be recoverable, we squander our precious time, and we turn our backs on our gifts, those unique contributions we can make.”

Trauma can strip you of your armour faster than it would take you to strip off bed-bug infested pants. Having your husband of twenty years suddenly tell you that he does not love you and does not want to be married to you anymore? Yeah. Trauma. Consider my armour stripped and my ass bit. In those first few months I felt like I was going about my life without any skin.

Interestingly, I didn’t care. I didn’t have the energy. I knew I wanted to survive this lighter, even if that meant amputating some old parts of me, I just didn’t know what parts were gangrenous or not. I had no idea what I was doing wrong. I really, really wanted someone to tell me.

Well, Brené Brown did her level best. I was going through my life so afraid of not being enough, of failing the people I love, of someone finding out that I was unlovable, that I had a part missing, that I was constantly going, planning, coordinating, cleaning, organizing, solution-finding, multi-tasking, and…phew. Give me a minute. That was exhausting just to write. And beating myself up when I failed to live up to this mythical standard I felt I was being judged by.

Here is what she says about shame:

“First, shame is the fear of disconnection. We are psychologically, emotionally, cognitively, and spiritually hard-wired for connection, love, and belonging. Connection, along with love and belonging (two expressions of connection), is why we are here, and it is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. Shame is the fear of disconnection—it’s the fear that something we’ve done or failed to, an ideal that we’ve not lived up to, or a goal that we’ve not accomplished makes us unworthy of connection. I’m not worthy or good enough for love, belonging or connection. I’m unlovable. I don’t belong. Here’s the definition of shame that emerged from my research:

Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” P.68-69

Ugh. Ok. I have to stop myself from quoting the whole book here. But just a few more things. Shame is different from guilt, according to Brown.

“We feel guilty when we hold up something we’ve done or failed to do against our values and find they don’t match up. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, but one that’s helpful. The psychological discomfort, something similar to cognitive dissonance, is what motivates meaningful change.”

Brown forced me to see that the way I have been going through life up to this point was a disservice to myself. Unlike guilt, shame has no grounding in reality. It is not a helpful, uncomfortable feeling that serves to guide our moral compass. It is a closeting belief, one where we are trapped by the fear that if we let our guard down, someone is going to find out our secret: that our very infrastructure is flawed and that we are not enough.

Reading these thoughts, expressed exactly as my own brain thought of them, was earth-shaking. I was not the only one who felt this way. I was not the only one going through life feeling like I had a piece missing. Who knew?

51HyjM-yjuL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_The Journey from Abandonment to Healing: Surviving through and recovering from the five stages that accompany the loss of love by Susan Anderson

Out of all the books I read, I think this might have been the single most helpful, and thus the most hard to write about. Why? Because from the first moment I opened this book I recognised myself. Not just the post-marriage me, but the me of my whole life. All my fears, my sense of self, my feeling that I am not enough and that I have to earn my space in the world, comes from a deep sense of abandonment I had in childhood.

This was hard for me to accept at first. After all, it wasn’t like my father chose to die in a plane crash. It wasn’t like my mother chose to be consumed by grief for a while. How could I feel abandoned by people who did not abandon me? Who loved me and would do anything for me? The idea that I was abandoned as a child seemed self-indulgent, the worst kind of psych 101 self-help.

That is, unless you understand what Susan Anderson means by the term:

“Abandonment is about loss of love itself, that crucial loss of connected-ness.”

Oh. Although the book touches on that kind of grief, Anderson mostly focuses on the loss and connectedness one experiences after the break-up of a marriage.

So much so that the first couple of pages seemed to be talking directly to me:

“Those of you who have been left to pick up the pieces may wonder about your lost partners, who have already replaced you with new lives and new relationships. You’ve been left to do the soul-searching…Anyone who feels this pain is in legitimate emotional crisis. Many feel as if they have been stabbed in the heart so many times that they don’t know which hole to plug first.”

I cried when I read those words, I so needed to hear them.

One of the worst parts of living this divorce story is that it is so common. Because it is so common, people (especially the ones leaving a relationship) tend to dismiss the terrible, emotional pain it causes. As my ex recently put it, “People leave all the time. You and the kids are resilient, you will get through it.”

These kind of comments make you feel even shittier for feeling shitty, for having such a hard time with the loss of love. People get cancer all the time. People die. They get raped, abused, assaulted. Bad things happen to people all the time, yes. Knowing that other people are going through this same pain is not much of a comfort.

If people leave all the time, that just means there are a whole lot of people that are in a lot of real pain. Anderson acknowledges this real pain, breaks it up into five stages (shattering, withdrawal, internalizing, rage, and lifting) and then gives some very useful tools to help you move on with your life. Having been left by her partner of twenty years as well, Anderson never once invalidates the pain you are going through, but helps you understand it and ultimately, use it as an opportunity for growth.

This would be the number one book I would recommend to anyone who’s partner has left them.

41SpZIk2RKL._SX385_BO1,204,203,200_Runaway Husbands: The Abandoned Wife’s Guide to Recovery and Renewal By Vikki Stark

Ha. This is one of the first books I bought. Just checked the helpful Amazon site: May 18, 2015.  The author also happens to be a marriage counsellor in Montreal and we ended up having a couple of sessions with her, which would have been very helpful if J’s heart was at all open to me and our marriage, which it was not. Anyways.

Here is what made me buy the book:

Hallmarks of Wife Abandonment Syndrome

Do you suspect that you’re a victim of Wife Abandonment Syndrome? Here are the ten defining characteristics that will let you know if you are. You don’t need to check off all ten to fit the definition.

  1. Prior to the separation, the husband had seemed to be an attentive, emotionally engaged spouse, looked upon by his wife as honest and trustworthy.
  2. The husband had never said that he was unhappy in the marriage or thinking of leaving, and the wife believed herself to be in a secure relationship.
  3. The husband typically blurts out the news that the marriage is over “out-of-the-blue” in the middle of a mundane domestic conversation.
  4. Reasons given for his decision are nonsensical, exaggerated, trivial or fraudulent.
  5. By the time the husband reveals his intentions to his wife, the end of the marriage is already a fait accompli and he often moves out quickly.
  6. The husband’s behavior changes radically, so much so that it seems to his wife that he has become a cruel and vindictive stranger.
  7. The husband shows no remorse; rather, he blames his wife and may describe himself as the victim.
  8. In almost all cases, the husband had been having an affair.
  9. The husband makes no attempt to help his wife, either financially or emotionally, as if all positive regard for her has been completely extinguished.
  10. Systematically devaluing the marriage, the husband denies what he had previously described as positive aspects of the couple’s joint history.

https://www.runawayhusbands.com/

9 out of 10!!! He didn’t do #3. Well, ok. He did half of it.  Instead he asked me to come to his studio and told me he was having an affair with the person whose two portraits were staring me in the face and that he wasn’t sure he wanted to be married anymore. So let’s say 9.5 out of 10 then.

It is simultaneously comforting and enraging to know that your story is not unique. Flipping through these pages even now, I still feel a sense of rage at how tightly my ex was sticking to this script without knowing it.

Here is how Stark differentiates Wife Abandonment Syndrome (WAS) to other faltering marriages:

“What makes Wife Abandonment Syndrome so devastating for a woman is not merely that her husband decided unilaterally to leave the marriage. Rather, it is the way in which he does it. The fact that his departure was so completely unanticipated, and that his wife believed herself to be in a good marriage, makes it so destructive. Although the woman being left certainly contributed to whatever problems existed in the marriage, the important fact is that she was blindsided and lied to by her spouse, who had a secret agenda. There are some things in the world that are black and white, right or wrong, and it’s just not fair for a man to walk out on his wife without having let her know that her marriage was on the rocks.”

I had to read this book twice. When I read it back in May 2015, I was not quite ready to believe my marriage was over. I combed through the pages trying to see how my ex differed from the other men portrayed in the book, how this was not and would never be our story. And indeed, the big difference was that though the announcement that he didn’t want to be married anymore and that “our marriage was in a ditch” was abrupt, he hedged for months before actually calling it. But even then I had to insist he actually tell me face to face and in no uncertain terms.

I think in his head he had already done so and I was just being obtuse.

The truth was I was not ready to believe my marriage was over though all evidence proved otherwise, hence the second reading a few months later.

51yHYvuBtFL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Irritable Male syndrome: Understanding and Managing the 4 Key Causes of Depression and Aggression by Jed Diamond

This book I did not purchase but borrowed from the library as I was following a quote I read in the previous book about men “flipping a switch” on their love for their wives. It seemed to fit exactly what J did to me as well as my suspicion that we were in the midst of a volcanic midlife crisis and I wanted to know more.

Sigh. He has always hated this hypothesis of mine. And ok. Fair enough. It is irritating to have people try to explain your behaviour or try to show you that maybe there are causes you are not aware of. I have mentioned this before, but I think it is akin to telling a woman she is moody because she is on her period, or because she is pregnant. It never goes well.

But still.

Here is how Diamond defines irritable male syndrome:

“A state of hypersensitivity, anxiety, frustration, and anger that occurs in males and is associated with biochemical changes, hormonal fluctuations, stress, and loss of male identity.”

He also goes on to explain how it impacts one’s family and especially one’s wife:

“The Irritable Male Syndrome explains why millions of men are becoming angry and depressed and why they so often vent their frustrations on the women they love the most.”

Yeah. There is a handy little quiz to see if you or your spouse fits the bill.

This book was enlightening and did lend credence to my theory of midlife crisis. It explained why my ex gave me such stupid reasons for wanting to leave the marriage, and why he was so deeply angry with me. However, it ultimately was trying to explain someone else’s behaviour and not shed any light on my own.

Yes, all of this might be true. But knowing this and having some evidence to back me up did me no good whatsoever. I had no voice with my ex. He did not hear me. I had no say. His heart was already closed to me and no matter what theories, what books I read that I thought he should read to gain some clarity into his own behaviour, no matter what I said or thought about the situation it would be taken as bossy, controlling and didactic.

Perhaps it was. I don’t know. We spend so much time trying to understand our own behaviour, trying to fit the irrational into some sort of rational pattern that nothing makes sense anymore.

Update

My own story at this stage has an uncanny valley feeling to it. I have no idea what has been real in my life and what I have simply convinced myself was real. From my 20 year past with this man, to my current beliefs of what the hell happened to my life, my marriage, my love, everything is shaky and shimmery, mirage-like.

I do not know anymore what love or trust or compassion means. What were once certain, solid concepts have become uncanny versions of themselves and I find myself walking through life with this perpetual vertigo feeling, as if I am on the deck of a boat on a windy day. Most of my energy these days is spent trying not to fall over as I desperately search for a glimpse of land.

And this is three years in. Pretty much every day around noon (I am not sure why at this time, but it seems to happen everyday) I will get this reminder like a punch in my chest that this person does not love me anymore, that he has no regard for me whatsoever. That I have  lost my husband, my love, the father of my children, my best friend, and I still don’t know why and I will probably never know, because why is probably the wrong question.

Or it is the right question and it is a simple answer that is just too painful to process: He simply didn’t love me enough to try. He got a better offer, one that did not come with having to untangle some 20 year old stories. Or the worst one, he didn’t really want to be a part of a family anymore.

Usually I will be at work and I will have to hide the tears in my eyes and figure out how to breathe so I don’t make a spectacle of myself. Everyday. The energy it takes to just keep functioning, let alone try to build a new life, is staggering.

I am so tired. Tired of this story. I am so tired of seeing it happen to other people. I am so tired of not knowing what is real or not real, of not having a past anymore, or at least one that I can trust is real. I am so tired of wondering how I could have been so certain this man loved me, that I had a good, strong marriage when he so clearly did not.

That is the thing with trauma. It doesn’t go away in a day, or even a year. There are times when I feel like I’m doing well, like I’m getting some perspective and understanding this story with compassion for both myself and him. I can pretend that I am not feeling the chronic nausea that comes with a perpetually rocking world. And sometimes I manage it. Most days though, I am still at sea, trying not to puke over the railings.

These books help. They do. I have learned how to begin breaking down certain stories about myself that were keeping me down. I have learned how to begin practising compassion towards myself and understanding what it means to be one’s own steward. I am moving forward and making plans and building a new life for myself and my children.

But they don’t take the pain away. They can give you tools on how to manage it, but they don’t take it away. The reality is that this pain is now part of my ecosystem. I have to accept that it will be there forever and figure out how to live with it.

 

 

Posted in A Day in the Life, Books, Personal blog | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

SEX:An Annotated Biographical Bibliography

FullSizeRenderThis might come as a shocker, but this post was very hard for me to write. I spent most of my life not even talking about sex, let alone writing about it publicly. So why? Why put myself out there like this? Why admit to all of these wrong-headed notions I lived with since puberty?

Because of shame. When I decided to write about the breakup of my marriage, it was to dispel the shame I felt at being left by my husband, by suddenly being unloved by the person I thought loved me the most. And, yes, it felt shameful. Like I failed to love him properly, like it was my fault he left. Like I had been judged and had been found wanting.

It was important for me to tell my story without sweeping any of the uglier bits under the carpet, to say out loud all those weird, toxic notions that had grown so big they were killing all my joy. I needed to speak out loud because I was in danger of forgetting how to speak at all.

As an aside, Monica Lewinski has an amazing Ted Talk about taking control of one’s voice. It is worth watching.

But that’s the thing. Once you start recognizing shame in one aspect of your life, you see how it has been leading you around by the nose in others. I felt shame about my body and my own sexuality long before I was married. It has made me waste many years worrying about things that if I had had the sense to talk to someone about,  would have been dispelled years ago.

I am on a crusade against shame. I want to talk about these things openly, because the more we do, the less space we give to these noxious weeds in the gardens of our mind. I want words like joy and confidence to be the words my daughters grow and nurture inside themselves, not shame, and ugly, and I am not enough which were the words that dominated the first 40 years of my life. I want to eradicate the notion that any of us could ever be seen as inadequate for simply being who we are.

So. Here goes.

Inadequacy. Inadequate. Not adequate. From the latin: ad= to and aequus= equal. Adequate= made equal to.

Inadequate=not equal to. Lacking. Insufficient.

Objectively speaking, I know that I am not a hideous looking woman. I am relatively fit. Have no caricature-like protrusions or troll-like deformation. In the eyes of society, I am a perfectly “adequate” looking woman. A little on the short, stubby side, but completely within the adequate range.

Until I turned 40 and my husband lost interest in me, I was okay with being perfectly adequate. I could go through the world not feeling too ashamed of the way I looked, in fact comforted by the invisibility “perfectly adequate” affords. Just another 30 to 40 something woman. Nothing to see here. Move along.

I could do that because the person I loved still loved me. Still thought I was more than adequate. I was noticeable to them and that was all that mattered. I could push to the back of my mind all those feelings about my body that have plagued me since I was a teenager- the unforgivable fact for this day and age that I have a belly instead of board-like flatness, that my thighs are tattooed with marks like dried river beds. All the weird little anomalies and flaws we see in our bodies that I suspect are much larger in our eyes than in the eyes of our loved ones.

When my marriage dissolved, the first stop on the desperate and heart-broken thought train was here:  I am no longer attractive; it’ s because I am bad in bed that he left me. I have not been assertive enough. Not adventurous enough. Not…enough. That my body disgusts him. That I am too naïve, too timid, too…too.

Now, I am ridiculously shy about these things. And I have come to realise that for most of my life I have been scared of my body. Of its needs, its desires. I am scared of my own ridiculous health and power. It makes me hide, makes me shy, makes me unassertive. In turn, it has made sex a passive thing for me, something that is done to me by others.

This was a cop out. I was not being the steward of my own body. I passed the buck onto other people, hoping my needs would be satisfied by default, but never taking ownership of them. An example of how much I internalized this passive attitude towards my own sexuality is that it did not even occur to me to masturbate until well after my husband left.

In the back of my mind I knew this had to change, that there was something fundamentally wrong with my relationship to my body and to sex. But it is easy to get complacent when you have been married for 20 years, when you have kids and jobs and you are busy. The sex thing just sort of didn’t seem important enough to really deal with.

That is until there was no sex. Until there was no touch.

For someone who was never really a touchy feely kind of person, whose personal space bubble I have been known to refer to as one guarded with barbed wire and machine gun turrets, not being touched for so long really fucked me up.

There is no other way to put it. The lack of physical contact after having it for so many years was the most bone-deep loneliness, the most forlorn I have ever felt in my life. Longing is an intensely physical sensation.

There was a study done in the sixties exploring attachment behaviour with puppies. They waited until the puppies formed an attachment to the researcher. Once they were attached, the researcher turned around and kicked the puppies. The puppies responded to this abuse by running to the researcher. (Got this from the wonderful Emily Nagoski’s blog, The Dirty Normal– see below)

Yeah. I know. Puppy kicking experiments. Bastards. But leaving aside the animal abuse for a moment, this reaction is a familiar one.

Apparently there are 4 stages of broken attachment:

  1. Proximity-seeking: This is what made the puppies run back to the experimenter even if he was abusive. You want to be near your object of attachment, because that is the person that has given you comfort in the past.
  2. Safe haven: You want your object of attachment to comfort you, even if it is that object that is hurting you. You have the counter-intuitive reaction of desperately seeking comfort from the person responsible for the hurt you need comfort for, a catch-22 if ever there was one.
  3. Separation distress: When the person you are attached to leaves, you feel a physical pain. Attachment is that strong. And when that person has been your object of attachment for over twenty years, the pain is in proportion to that.
  4. Secure base: They are your secure base. They are what allow you to go out in the world and be a citizen, do your projects. When that is gone, you are lost without compass or direction. It is hard to get anything done. Your brain won’t function. Everyday life becomes as hard as walking through a swamp wearing a snow suit.

When my ex left my first reaction was to think that if only we could keep the physical closeness, if only I could show him I could be better, more… more, things would be all right. The problem was, I had no idea how to do that. Hence, to the library (or, um, Amazon) I went.

51lnJJlDs8L._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_Mating in captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence by Esther Perel

I was reminded of this book a few days ago when a friend of mine shared an article of Perel’s from The Atlantic, “Why Happy People Cheat”.  When I went to Amazon to look up the link, I was helpfully reminded by the Amazonbots that I have already purchased this item and that I did so April 4, 2015. That was only a little over two months after J’s revelations. I bought it along with the book below, “What Women Want”.

The problem with reading this book at this time is that it could have been very helpful if I still had a marriage to help. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to me, my marriage was already over. When I think of reading this book, I think of me trying desperately to find some information that could keep us together, that would help me be a better, more seductive wife, more passionate and unpredictable and exciting.

Now that I think back on it, I was reading it to find a way to not be me anymore.

My success rate on that is about what you imagine.

In her book, Perel explores the modern marriage, and the issues and problems that arise from having one union that is supposed to be all things: a practical life partnership where you navigate the domestic drudgery together, a best friend who always has your back and with whom you can’t wait to sit down and watch the next Game of Thrones episode with, and a passionate, erotic lover who is always on hand to titillate you when the need for titillating arises.

She makes a fair point- we might just be putting unreasonable demands on this relationship.

I flipped through the book and found this telling passage that I underlined at the time, in my effort to decode what the hell went wrong with my own marriage:

“If uncertainty is a built-in feature of all relationships, so too is mystery. Many of the couples who come to therapy imagine that they know everything there is to know about their mate…I try to highlight for them how little they’ve seen, urging them to recover their curiosity and catch a glimpse behind the walls that barricade the other.

In truth, we never know our partner as well as we think we do. Mitchell reminds us that even in the dullest marriages, predictability is a mirage. Our need for constancy limits how much we are willing to know the person who’s next to us. We are invested in having him or her conform to an image that is often a creation of our own imagination, based on our own set of needs…We see what we want to see, what we can tolerate seeing, and our partner does the same. [next part is what I underlined at the time] Neutralizing each other’s complexity affords us a kind of manageable otherness. We narrow down our partner, ignoring or rejecting essential parts when they threaten the established order of our coupledom. We also reduce ourselves, jettisoning large chunks of our personality in the name of love.

            Yet when we peg ourselves and our partners as fixed entities, we needn’t be surprised that passion goes out the window. And I’m sorry to say the loss is on both sides. Not only have you squeezed out the passion, but you haven’t really gained safety, either.

            The fragility of this manufactured equilibrium becomes obvious when one partner breaks the rules of the contrivance and insists on bringing more authentic parts of himself into the relationship.” [marginalia: Shit. Is this what happened?]

It is an interesting look at marriage with a lot of thought-provoking passages about who we are as a society, about the tension between individuality and coupledom. She gives anecdotes culled from her experience as a therapist as well as some suggestions to either avoid or get out of certain obstacles.

The best kind of “self-help” books are those that make you confront uncomfortable truths about yourself. Perel’s book definitely brought me to some uncomfortable places, ones I am still exploring to this day. Perhaps just for this reason I would recommend it.

51f7WiECsYLWhat Do Women Want By David Bergner

This is the first book I read on the subject after having stumbled across yet another article in the Atlantic. I am pretty sure my thinking was that perhaps I can approach this problem scientifically. Look at it from a purely biological standpoint, so to speak. Engage in some rigorous research. In the words of The Martian, “science the shit out of it.”

It was going to be less scary that way.

To be honest, I don’t really remember this book and after scanning some pages I noticed that it was before my marginalia rebellion, so no passage was underlined.

I do remember it being an interesting read though. In a nutshell:

  • studies show that women like sex just as much if not more than men,
  • That we are able to be turned on by more things,
  • that our attitudes to sex are more malleable than those of men. And most importantly,
  • the notion that women’s libido is more suited to monogamy is pure hogwash.

Interesting stuff and glad to know it. But definitely did not help in my quest to be BETTER AT SEX NOW in order to hold on to my husband. I guess science can’t solve everything…

51rED9IapzL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Come as you are by Emily Nagoski

Sometimes, all of the infinite variables align in the world to deliver the right book at the right time. Emily Nagoski’s book was this for me. It shifted my perspective on this quest from trying hard to find ways to be what I thought someone else wanted me to be, to focusing on my own relationship with sexuality.

For the first time ever. At the age of 40. Yeah. So. Much. Time. Wasted.

The underlying message of the whole book, one Nagoski repeats in many helpful ways, is that whatever you look like, however you get aroused, whatever size of your genitals, chances are you are perfectly normal:

“The information in this book will show you that whatever you’re experiencing in your sexuality…is the result of your sexual response mechanism functioning appropriately…in an inappropriate world. You are normal; it is the world around you that’s broken.

That’s actually the bad news.

The good news is that when you understand how your sexual response mechanism works, you can begin to take control of your environment and your brain in order to maximize your sexual potential, even in a broken world. And when you change your environment and your brain, you can change—and heal—your sexual functioning.”

I really, really needed to hear that at the time. It sounds simple and silly and obvious, but I did not think I was normal. I did not think I was normal because I never talked about sex with anyone. Not with my girlfriends, not with my sisters, not even with my husband. My scientific knowledge of sex was pretty much limited to that grade eight class about the birds and the bees.

Sex was something that one did; one did not talk about. I know. How perfectly Victorian of me.

The result was a skewed idea of my body and the way it worked. I thought things that were perfectly normal were viewed as disgusting. Because of that, I felt a lot of shame.

And shame, I have come to believe, is the root of much of our emotional heaviness and consequent folly and bad behaviour, the brick in our biographical baggage, so to speak.

It is how we become monsters.

The impact of Nagoski’s book on me was not so much to do with sex per say. After all, sex was no longer a part of my life at that moment. In my mind, there was no reason for me to go through her helpful little worksheets, because I was alone. There was no one to explore this new world that had suddenly opened up to me.

I think I might have missed the point there. But you know. Baby steps.

It was about me and only me. About how I had been going through life getting in the way of my own pleasure. Of being so mortified by my own body I could not enjoy it.

Judging by how many times Nagoski repeats the “you are normal!” message in her book, I don’t think I am the only woman to feel this way. Her book explains the science of sex in simple, relatable terms. How gender and culture have come to distort women’s sexuality and how we can reclaim it.

Because Come as You Are is not just a decoding, but a celebration of women’s sexuality; because it lets us know that a lot of sex happens in our brains, and our brains are heavy with responsibility, and burdens and stress; because throughout the book there is a much needed giving of, and pleading for, self-compassion when it comes to our bodies, our sexuality, ourselves; because of all this, I think every woman I know should read this book. And if you read it, honour yourself more than I did and damn well do the exercises. I know I will.

I will leave you with her TED TALK on the subject.

Posted in A Day in the Life, Books, Personal blog | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Help

Right now I am sitting in the back of my mother’s garden beside my garden gnome shed where I have been living for just over a year. Inside the shed are a bunch of empty boxes, waiting to be filled with the little I brought with me to Victoria when I moved from Montreal last July.

I am preparing to move into my new house on Friday with my girls. My house!  It is small, but spacious. In a funky neighbourhood, close to everything: the ocean. The park. Downtown. Several fabulous coffee shops. Not to mention 30 seconds from my work. Most importantly, it is my own.

[Note- I have been in my new house for over a week now. It turns out that moving means no time to post things…]

Oh yeah. I also got a job. I work for the B.C. Government now. I have benefits. An amazing boss. A completely new career.

All this is scary. I am trusting a lot in my own abilities and that a lot of moving parts will come together to make this sustainable. But the main point is that I’m trusting again. That has been no easy feat.

A year ago I almost ceased to exist. I came to Victoria with a sense of self so shattered I had to carry it in a Ziploc bag. The end of my marriage had cratered me so bad, the only thing keeping me together was my new tattoo (a visceral reminder to keep my heart open), a determination to get through this dark age lighter and wiser as well as a fierce desire to build a good life for me and my daughters.

To do this, I was going to need some help.

First and foremost, I want to take a moment to send a whole Spanish Armada of gratitude to my mother and my sisters for pulling me out of the abyss in every possible way imaginable. For keeping me standing even when I was dead weight. For being my village when it comes to my children. To my friends (read Family) in Montreal for doing the same when my family was 6000 km away.

I have good people in my life, who made it possible for me to take the space I needed to help myself.

In keeping with the mantra “whatever will get me through this hell lighter and least broken”, I have tried a lot of things in the last couple of years. I went to an acupuncturist. Tried several different counsellors, some individually, some for our marriage. I went to career counselling, had massages (a new thing for me), tried gyrotonics (which I was so not ready for- something to do with holding my breath for my entire life) and attempted to make a regular practice out of yoga and meditation (only the meditation stuck).

And yes, I am even seeing a life coach at the moment. And, as useful and helpful as all the other interventions have been (and they were useful and necessary), my life coaching sessions have been by far the deepest, most intense and most necessary experience in terms of moving forward.

Before having embarked on this particularly intense voyage, it is difficult to say what I thought a life coach did. I think I had a version of a large, overbearing Tony Robbins’ like man acting like the drill sergeant for all aspects of my life where I did not SHOW UP! LIVE UP TO MY FULL POTENTIAL! Where I did not CARPE FUCKING DIEM!

Yeah. I think I thought that a life coach was for people who did not know how to live their life, obviously. People who needed to be told things like “you must take time off from work” or “why don’t you take up a soothing hobby like scrapbooking?”

I never in a million years thought I would have one myself. But then again, that is just one of the surprises of these last couples of years. It turns out that love and definitely marriage do not last forever. That self-help books can actually be helpful.

And that life coaches can actually help you sort the wheat from the chaff of your own internalized beliefs regarding your own capacity and launch you on a course for a new, better way of living your life.

Or maybe it is just my life coach. Her name is Michelle Aubrey and she has defied all of my preconceived notions of age and wisdom (she is 15 years younger than me, which was a major cause of hesitation for me before agreeing to this relationship and which has turned out to be simply ageist on my part), of what a life coach does, and why, contrary to my firmly-held belief, I actually really needed her.

That also has a lot to do with me too, though. I like action. I am goal oriented. I like to attack problems and solve them. Perhaps that is why the life coach has been working so well for me.

But mostly I think it is because of Michelle.

We build stories out of our own experience and then take them as gospel. “This is the way it is.” “I’m not good at math. Remembering birthdays. Taking the garbage out.” “That’s just who I am.” [Insert other categorical statement you make about yourself]. We view ourselves through the lens of these static stories.

The problem is we are not static. We are ever changing, even on a cellular level. And most of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves do not reflect our present reality but a version of our history. They are the root of the baggage we carry. We do this without knowing we are doing it; the luggage has become so familiar in our hands we forget it is there.

I am reminded of how it felt to go for a walk without a stroller in my hands when the kids were little. It felt awkward, as if I was missing a limb. Or if I was standing in line at the grocery store, for many years I would rock a phantom stroller. We have this miraculous capacity to normalize our experiences, to make them routine, to take what happens to be random circumstance and weave it in so thoroughly into our daily lives that we begin to think of it as inevitable, as having always been like that.

So I ended up at the age of 40 with certain beliefs and patterns that were not serving me. In fact quite the opposite.

 

Michelle is helping me unweave some of the more harmful stories I have been telling myself and weave them back in a way that actually serves me. She gets me talking, calls me on these patterns, makes me dig at them and then gives me concrete techniques and actions with which to deconstruct them. She has helped me delve into what I want to achieve with my writing and see ways I can both write what I want to write and still make money.

She is a no bullshit, compassionate hard-ass that will lovingly not take excuses or let you get away with anything other than you showing up in the world as your truest, brightest self.

Please don’t mistake me here: a life coach is not a counsellor or a therapist. Michelle is only concerned with my past in so much as it is limiting my present and my future. Our work focuses on moving forward. Building that good life I so desperately want to build and doing it on my own terms, aligned with what is true and important for me.

In short, Michelle calls me on my bullshit, makes me commit to projects that mean something to me and keeps me real.

Who doesn’t need that at some point in their life?

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Hell Years: Introduction to an Annotated Bibliography

IMG_2999Reading. Reading is my comfort, my addiction, my solace. For most of my life I have been able to get lost in a book.

Get lost in a book. I never really thought about that phrase before, what it means. But I think it is apt, in the sense that I used to read to forget myself, to get lost in a narrative that was not my own.

It was the way I hid from the world. Hiding behind a book. Nose in a book. Running into fire hydrants because I couldn’t stop reading even if when the need to pay attention to my surroundings was a matter of avoiding physical injury.

Always have a book with you, I would tell my daughters. But now I am not so sure. Having a book open, and being immersed in the story on the page also has the consequence of never looking up, of keeping the world at arm’s length and never really engaging.

A book can be an escape. I know that for most of my life that is how I regarded them. But maybe you should not need to escape all the time. Maybe, just maybe, the world merits your full attention sometimes.

When you are on a bus, for example. And you notice the Eastern European widows in their black garb, and their beautifully handcrafted bible open on their lap, but then notice another book peeking out of it, one that looks a lot like a Harlequin romance.

Or watching a young woman who, I don’t know. Perhaps thinks nobody can see her. Or perhaps she just truly does not care, which are both fascinating possibilities. She is using the bus as her own personal lavatory. Watching her clip her nails. Watching the clippings float down to the rubber mat under her platform, open-toed, red heels, where they will be stepped on by countless other bus riders. And then paint them an exquisite colour, the toxic fumes hovering like a fuchsia cloud over all the passengers’ heads. The exasperating but seductive brazenness of it. Her terrible, powerful beauty I sense she seldom used for good.

I would have missed these moments if I had listened to myself and always had a book on me.

Most of my life I’ve chain smoked literature. Greedily inhaled stories, filled my lungs with them and then exhaled them, mostly to forget them as soon as they are done because I had already moved on to the next one.

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My Books. I gave them all away.

The gap between stories, that moment when I was not sucking in someone else’s narrative, that liminal space with no distraction from my own life, scared the piss out of me.

I am talking panic, pure panic. One of the first and only fights I had with J (that is until the last couple of years, of course) was when I finished Don Quixote on this tiny Greek island and had no book to read. I wanted to go straight to the nearest tourist shop where I had seen some browning Agatha Christie paperbacks (the only English books available) for sale at an exorbitant price and pick one up. He wouldn’t let me. We were young, you see. On a budget. That money could be used for a cheap bottle of wine or three. Some bread. A ticket to the archeological museum.

I freaked out. I.Did.Not.Have.Anything.To.Read. I did not know what to do with myself without a book. I was not me. I was lost.

That is what I thought at the time, but looking back, I think the panic was not because I was not me without a book, but because without a book, there was only me. My narrative. My observations. My experience.

One’s own story is always the hardest to read.

As an aside, while I was lying face down on the lumpy pensione bed, so mad I was crying, J went downstairs to the lobby where there was a small book exchange. I heard him come in the door but I wouldn’t look up. He sat down on the bed, put his hand on my shoulder and said here, “I brought you something.”

I peeked out from the depth of my panicked despair to see what looked like a severed paperback, like some bad book magician had cut the book in two and forgot to put it back together.

I took it. Half of Doctor Zhivago.

The second half.

He eventually found the first half (there was only one page missing between the two) and all was right in the world. I had the crutch of someone else’s story to distract me from thinking about my own. (Double aside- it was an awesome book. Romance! Revolution! Siberia! Trains!)

But what does that mean my story? Our story? I think it means thinking about your trajectory through this world, how we perceive it, how we feel we fit in. It also means taking the time to observe the world we are in and figuring out how we can remain ourselves while engaging with it.

Our frantic need to fill up every space of the day, our worship at the feet of that false god, productivity, is in a large part to avoid contemplation. Because with contemplation comes introspection. With introspection comes an inquiry into our own behaviour in relation to the world. And inevitably, because we are human and flawed, introspective inquiry leads to uncomfortable realizations about ourselves.

These realizations, once realized, cannot be ignored. Like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, the observing of the particle changes the way the particle behaves. Observing ourselves inevitably leads to changing the way we behave.

And change is hard.

But I digress.

Reading. Reading is what I do when I don’t know what else to do. It is my default, my go to. When my world fell apart, I, of course, turned to books.

But not in the way I did before. Not to get lost. Not to hide from the world and perfect my invisibility cloak. What had happened was too big for me to forget. My world had exploded, my heart cratered. The sun was blocked by a thick layer of dust and I was choking on it. I hovered near extinction and needed books to help me figure out how to exist again.

The biggest change in my reading habits was that I could no longer read fiction very well. I just couldn’t concentrate. My heart was too broken, too full of its own story that wouldn’t be ignored. For someone who could polish off two novels in a week, that was a momentous, and deeply scary shift.

The reading I could do was the slow, thoughtful kind. Essays and dense text that were packed with ideas and afforded new perspectives as I stepped into a new reality. The kind of reading that could not be devoured. Its edges were too sharp, its flavour too powerful. It needed to be digested, processed.

It required marginalia. How I am in love with that word. I mean, seriously. There is a word that exists to describe the notes people make in books! How awesome is that! A moment of silent awe for the word marginalia, please.

It is important to note that marginalia has the same exotic, forbidden air about it for a librarian as say, an erotic depiction of the Virgin Mary for a priest. Librarians are not a big fan of the marginalia (Officially, of course. Unofficially I think we all kind of love it). It tends to cost them money and time. It is librarian blasphemy.

I couldn’t help it. I blasphemed and began writing marginalia in my books.

I read personal essays. And, because I needed all the help I could get, because I am the kind of person that needs to know what happened, needs to know the story and understand it the way a doctor understands the anatomy of her patients, I began to read self-help books for the first time in my life.

Seriously. I opened my first book about personal growth at the age of forty. Before that, I was arrogant and dismissive of them. Felt they were there to feed off people’s insecurities and were only attempts to sell us quick fixes for success! Happiness! Fulfillment! The way diet books try to sell you the promise of a Barbie body. If I saw some self- help titles in your bookshelf, I would have been probably judging you.

I am not proud of this. I am here right now declaring that I deserve a splatting of humble pie in my face.

Still I doubt I was the only one. I think many of us find ourselves at this stage of the game with no fucking clue how we got here. And then, like amnesiacs trying to piece together our past, we start researching to see what the hell went wrong.

That is what I did. I started reading anything I could get my hands on that seemed like it could shed some light on the sudden annihilation I just experienced.

Warning: This will not be a linear bibliography. And it will probably be the most deeply uncomfortable and embarrassingly personal annotated bibliography ever. So yay for me. It is always good being a first. Perhaps it will even become its own genre…

First section: Sex.

Yeah. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

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You Only Meet Yourself

 

It is strange how things come into your life when you most need them. I made a friend recently.  We met at a social networking event. The room was crowded and noisy and you had to yell to be heard. I was wedged between strangers on a circular bench table. He was on the edge, silently watching the proceedings, looking a tad too grateful for the fact that, positioned as he was, he could at any moment just get up and walk away. I struck up a conversation with him, seeing that he was not really participating in any of the myriad buzzings around us.

I don’t know how it happened, but within a few minutes we had determined we shared the bones of the same story. My dad was in the air force. So was his. His dad was a pilot. So was mine. His dad’s plane crashed when he was a kid. So did mine. Both our dads did not survive. Both of us are the eldest of three siblings. Both of us grew up very quickly because of that moment.

We sat across this table, in this loud and raucous room full of surface meetings and glass clinkings and though we were strangers we recognized each other, recognized the very particular trauma that comes from losing a parent so suddenly when you are a kid. I think we recognized the sad, bewildered and terrified children in each other.

If we are all our own worlds, this was like taking the TGV to the centre of my earth. It happened quickly, dizzyingly. Through this man, twenty years my senior, who has lived a very different life than me, I met the wounded, panicked fluttering child heart of myself.

It is rare to have these glimpses into the continuum, these millisecond revealings of how we are threads woven into the same fabric. Though the room was so loud with people trying to be heard over each other, where you could not move without prodding or poking someone, I experienced a slowing down, an expansion of space and silence.

It was my counsellor a few months ago who said it to me, probably when I was whinging about something or other. I can’t remember the context right now, but I do remember distinctly her telling me to remember that I only ever meet myself. At the time, I took this to be only in the negative sense and thus was terrified at the thought. Still, it nagged at me, wouldn’t leave me alone. It felt the way it does when you are probing a tooth ache- you know it is going to be painful if you place your tongue on it, but you do it anyway just to see if the pain is still there.

Whenever I am upset with someone, or am turned off by the way somebody behaves, I have been asking myself how I am meeting myself in this moment. It is not a comfortable question nor does it lead to any comfortable conclusions. When I, say, encounter someone’s callousness in the face of the other’s pain, or their inability to listen, I have to ask myself why that resonates so strongly with me, why does it make me so uncomfortable. What is that behaviour mirroring in me? To ask this question honestly, without judgement, is hard work.

Still, doing it is essential I think. In terms of keeping ourselves honest and not letting our harsh judgements and criticisms become detached from a sense of the flawed nature of humanity, ours or others. If we can hold in our minds our own shortcomings,  and that when we encounter other people, we bring those flaws to meet them just as they bring theirs, perhaps there would be a little more self-awareness. And with self- awareness comes empathy.

So yes. In the negative sense. Lately I have had to face the fact that I fall into the same patterns, those that began that day in 1982 when my teacher came to fetch me out of class and I was confronted with my mother in tears, surrounded by other tearful adults.

I still remember that moment by the way, that world-shaking revelation that adults cry, just like children. Up until then I had never seen it. Something was terribly, terribly wrong. My world went off-kilter. Everything I thought was real and true got thrown up in the air and jumbled. In a way, I don’t think I have ever recovered.

It is tiring always having to face oneself. It makes me want to never meet another human being again for fear of what other flaw, what other terrible self-told story I will have to encounter and face.

But a couple of days ago, someone flipped this concept of only ever meeting yourself from tails to heads. That yes, what you most dislike in other people is probably a reflection of what you dislike in yourself. But also, what you most admire and respect in other people are qualities that you most like and admire about yourself.

Huh. The flip side of that coin, where you could also meet the positive side of you when you meet others, never occurred to me.

Which is probably saying a little too much about how my mind works.

This flipping came up as I was describing a moment that felt like it shifted the earth into a more harmonious, better place.

On Tuesday, May 16th, my sister Katie stood up in front of a whole crowd of women and spoke about emotional leadership. I wish I could convey how beautiful she was up there. How poised and real and so strong and resilient in her pain and vulnerability. She spoke about the death of her son this last September and the constant, acute pain of it. The meta-stories that go with having lost your child, the “if-only’s” that play constantly in your head, the way I imagine torturers torture their victims by playing death metal at deafening volumes for hours on end.

She cried at first, but she took a deep breath and told her story. The pain of it. But also the lessons learned. How her son is near her all the time and how she is finding in this, the worst tragedy, how to listen to herself and to be true to herself.

What I saw on that stage was the epitome of courage and resilience. Of infinite wisdom and calm in the face of what is the worst possible thing to ever happen to a parent. She stood in front of the crowd (her first speaking engagement ever, I might add) and was so completely, so utterly herself.  She shone. She shone so bright the room was bathed in light, though it was a grey, gloomy west coast day.

A space in the world opened up in that moment, a space felt in the hearts of all those present. Though the story was heavy, and painful, it was also light and full of joy. Her son was beside her as she spoke and she did so without hesitation, without stumbling over her words.

Time slowed down. There was just this space and silence in which to appreciate what it means to live and to die, to love in the face of impermanence. Essentially, to get a fleeting glimpse of the fluid catastrophe of this, our human condition.

I understand a little bit more about the mechanics of inspiration now. If it is true, and I think it is, that we meet reflections of ourselves when we meet others, then meeting someone who has found the courage and wisdom to take a life shattering event and make it meaningful, even beautiful, means that you just met that potential within yourself.

They just showed us what our best selves looks like. Now it is up to us to notice it, acknowledge it and then the hard part: live up to it.

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in A Day in the Life, Inspiration, Parenting Confessions, Personal blog | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Grief is the Pain from a Phantom Limb

Last week the building where J and I first lived as a couple, our first apartment, suffered a fire. We lived there for two years, from right before our marriage to right after the birth of our daughter. We moved in almost twenty years ago in April. It was a one bedroom in a beautiful, old, quaintly rundown building: scuffed and uneven hardwood floors, an obnoxiously loud radiator that had two settings—off or sweltering—under a double window where the afternoon light illuminated swirling clouds of dust. A dignified old dame of a clawfoot bathtub. A tiny box of a bedroom.

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Chapman Group circa 1997

I was very happy in this apartment. I finished my B.A., got married to a man I adored, spent most of my time writing and reading and thinking about art and life within an intense arts collective, all of whom are still dear friends to this day.

Our oldest daughter was born there, on a futon on the living room floor at just before 7 on a cold, February morning. After she was born I didn’t leave the apartment for about three weeks. There was no need. I spent hours nursing my child, reading and staring at the dust illuminated particles in the cold winter light. It is where I finished Ulysses at 3 in the morning while breastfeeding. It seemed to be the only time that book made any sort of sense.

Ironically given the recent incident, it is also where I learned to face my fear of fire. Every time I would light our tiny, apartment-sized gas stove, a relic from the 50s, I would flinch, afraid of the moment the flame touched the gas. Every time I lit it, I thought I was going to cause a huge explosion.

In short, it was my first real home with my new, burgeoning family.

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New family, February 1999.

On Friday, I was walking home from downtown and found myself on the corner near the building. I could see our old window. It didn’t look too fire-damaged. I decided to go have a look, just to see. I crossed the street and made my way to the front door, where looming up were the steep steps I had to haul the stroller with a baby up daily.

The door was open. I poked my head inside. Old construction boots appeared at the top and a voice called down, “Can I help you?”

We got to chatting. I told him I used to live in the building, that my daughter was born here. That we had left a photo of her in the wall when we left to commemorate her birth and I was just wondering if it was still there, if the wall was still there.

He invited me in, asked me if I wanted to have a look. I nodded, amazed at my luck. I never thought I would ever see the inside of that apartment again.

He drilled out the screws of the board blocking the door. And there it was, exactly how I remembered it. The long living/dining room, which in my memory seemed larger. The small kitchen with the small, scary gas stove and the window that looked out into a dark shaft that ran the height of the building.

Our tiny bedroom with the narrow, adjacent bathroom. The claw foot tub. The wall where we had put the photo.

The fire had not touched it.

It even smelled the same.

img_3818Time accordioned in on itself; in an instant I traveled 20 years back. J and I had just married. He was gone to his studio and I was working at my large oak desk, the one I inherited from my father. Making my way through H.G. Wells, The Outline of History. Writing esoteric and probably bad poetry. In the corner our gold love seat we found in the dumpster, and on it my friends A and J drinking beer with their newborns on their laps.

Me sitting in the rocking chair I got at my baby shower with S in my arms. D coming every day for the first two months to take her photo before he moved to Toronto and became fancy rock and roll photographer guy.

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Godfather photographer who visited every day for the first two months of S’s life

For an instant, I was able to live my past again, live it like it was still happening.

Like it hadn’t been amputated by time, memory and circumstance.

The memory was so vivid, so real, it took me a moment to realize  it wasn’t my life anymore. That I was now 20 years older. The daughter who I would not let go of then was 18 and in another part of the country, visiting her father who is no longer that body in the bed, the man at the kitchen table reading the paper. He is someone else, 6000 km away, leading a life that has nothing to do with me.

It hurt. I put my hand to my chest, covered my heart in a fruitless attempt to protect it. The construction worker kept talking, oblivious. All the tenants had been evicted—3 days at a hotel paid for by the Red Cross then they were on their own, left to find another place to stay. Structural damage. Only one person in the building had insurance. A cigarette butt down one of the old shafts caused the fire.

I barely heard him. Grief, with its clawed fist, had grabbed hold of my heart and it was squeezing hard.

If I were to diagnose it, I would call it a phantom limb pain.

Here are the symptoms, according to WebMD:

In addition to pain in the phantom limb, some people experience other sensations such as tingling, cramping, heat, and cold in the portion of the limb that was removed. Any sensation that the limb could have experienced prior to the amputation may be experienced in the amputated phantom limb.”

I think maybe our memories are like limbs. Maybe all those smells and tactile experiences leave an imprint on us and when they are gone we feel their absence just as we would if somebody cut off our hand. To feel them again, to be reminded of how that limb used to work, how it flexed its muscles and wrapped itself around a certain person’s torso, sat and rocked and breathed in the newborn smell, hurts. And through the remembering, consequently being reminded of their absence hurts even more.

Grief is a physical thing. It is the muscle memory, the phantom pain of an amputated limb, a whole body response to the absence of a love that used to be. And that is why we feel its grip like a monster with a huge claw at our throats. Why we can’t breathe when it has us in its clutches.

Grief is a phantom limb pain.

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S, 18 years later.

After all, it was just an apartment. Only two years of my life, and 20 years ago. Those moments were long gone, replaced by a whole lifetime of other joys and sorrows. This apartment was a chapter in a book I read a long time ago, where the details have faded and only a vague sensation of having enjoyed it remains.

  What is that Marlow quote from the Jew of Malta?

“But that was in another country and besides the wench is dead.”

Because that wench is indeed dead. I don’t know who that girl is sitting at the desk and so earnestly reading about the ancient Romans. Who is that new mother that will not let go of her baby, that is so timid, so scared of everything?  Who thinks her life will be sitting at the desk and quietly catching meaning with her pen in the light-infused dust the way a frog catches a fly?

It is not that life I miss so much as the idea of who I thought I was, of knowing my place, and where I was going, even if it was just an illusion.

I miss my illusion.

I do not want that life back. I am growing new, stronger limbs. I am not only moving on but forward. I am building a good life on a wiser, more resilient foundation. I am finding peace with myself.

But in these moments when the past collides so violently with the present, there is nothing else to do but probe the absence, to go in search of that phantom girl and tell her to stop haunting me. To gently inform her, once and for all, that she belongs to another country and besides, she is dead.

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Me, 18 years later.

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Midlife Crisis, Part 1: On Freedom and its MidLife Mythology

canary_in_cageI have recently experienced my ex-spouse, my friends, the husbands of my friends, essentially many of the men I know who are in their forties (not all of them, of course, but too many to ignore), express a wistfulness, a nostalgia for a fictional freedom. The kind where you don’t have to let your partner know what time you are coming home that night, or need to make dinner for the family. The kind where you can go drink and smoke and party it up as if it were the early 90s and the Day-Glo Abortions were playing another Hell House gig (sorry- this is a localized Victoria reference of my youth) or simply get in your car and go on an impromptu road trip without telling anyone.

The kind that allows you to make decisions solely on your own needs- kind of like the way a two year old might wield a machine gun—not focussing on who the bullets are hitting but simply on their ability to push the button.

They think that if only they didn’t have the “burden”, the responsibility of family, if only they were on their own (or with that hot chick from accounting who surely would never be a burden- I am being facetious here, but, actually, not really) they could be free to be whatever, whoever they wanted. That they are trapped by the responsibility of a family and the expectations of their spouse, and the patterns daily life digs into all of us, men and women alike, until we are one big ditch and the only way we can see out is by using the bodies of our loved ones as a step ladder to haul ourselves out and run away.

But this kind of freedom is a fallacy. It is a myth born out of fear, dissatisfaction and desperation to recapture something that never existed in the first place, a harmful idea that claims the cause of our imprisonment is outside of ourselves, that our jailers are our loved ones instead of our own destructive patterns and thoughts.

Freedom is not the opposite of responsibility, love or family. If you take away these things, our lives become as meaningless and toxic as one of Donald Trump’s speeches. Freedom is found in the daily dance, the inner work that we must do to stay true to ourselves and our needs while at the same time considering the needs of those around us. We have freedom when we can walk through the world being entirely ourselves without stomping over everyone else, where we can embrace our relationships as joyful and meaningful a practice  as writing or drawing or making a beautiful table.

Yes. I said practice. Relationships take a commitment to ongoing work, a.k.a practice. If one wants to get good at something, one must practice. Why would relationships be any different?

I have just finished reading Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, on how our western society has allowed the medical system to take over the last stage of our lives: our decline. What Gawande is talking about when he is talking about death and dying, is really about how we want to be living our dying. What is important to us? How do we want to spend our last days?

In many ways, his experiences of the palliative care system and of hospice are lessons not only for that last phase of our life, but serve as a guide to how we want to go through each stage: with autonomy, meaning, and in charge of our story:

“There are different concepts of autonomy. One is autonomy as free action—living completely independently, free of coercion and limitation. This kind of freedom is a common battle cry.

But it is… a fantasy. Our lives are inherently dependent on others and subject to forces and circumstances well beyond our control. Having more freedom seems better than having less. But to what end? The amount of freedom you have in your life is not the measure of the worth of your life. Just as safety is an empty and even self-defeating goal to live for, so ultimately is autonomy… [I made it bold]” Atul Gawande, Being Mortal, p.140

Raising children is the perfect example. Being a parent means realizing that your actions have an impact on other people. That the way you behave, the way you react, your prejudices and biases, your preferences and dislikes, and the way you deal with your kids are going to have a big influence on shaping who the person you are raising will ultimately become. This means that you have to be careful. And thoughtful. And self aware if you don’t want to fuck it up too badly (which we all do, at least a little. Because let’s face it, we are human. But the extent to which you ignore this responsibility is in direct proportion to how little or much you fuck them up.)

Now this can be either perceived as a burden, an onerous task that weighs heavily on our shoulders, an albatross of responsibility. Or it can be seen as an incredible gift—to have people so intimately connected to us that our actions have an immediate impact on them. That people love us enough to be affected by our actions.

I think that is what jars me about the way I hear the men around me lately talk about freedom. They blame their supposed lack of it on the very existence of their family, their spouses, their girlfriends, etc. The old ball and chain metaphor once again rears its ugly, gendered head.

This is not only unfair, it is a violence. It is saying to your loved ones, “you are holding me down. I am in prison and you are the prison guard.” No one wants to be seen as a freedom taker-awayer (I’m working on a better title for this), especially the freedom of those we love.

Victor Frankl said, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitudes in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way.”

Frankl had a lot to say about responsibility and freedom as these concepts were deeply entwined with his ideas on meaning and purpose. Frankl saw Responsibility as the flip side of the Freedom coin (he liked to “recommend” to American audiences that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented with the Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast):

By declaring that man is responsible and must actualize the potential meaning of his life, I wish to stress that the true meaning of his life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system. I have termed this constitutive characteristic “the self-transcendence of human existence.” It denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself—be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.

He is saying that we have the freedom to choose and to discover what is meaningful to us. That is the inside work, the way in which we face the world. But ultimately, that thing  or person that gives our life meaning, whether it be our families, or our work or whatever combination of what we do that makes our lives meaningful, these things will be found outside of us. We cannot live only for ourselves. That truly is meaningless. Meaning requires the other.

Mid-life crisis, for all its clichéd resonances, is real. It is a time where we have to look hard at ourselves, to exercise our last and most vital freedom and choose whether and then how to change our lives.

In the name of this mythical freedom will we blow our life up and consequently the lives of our loved ones? Or will we choose to see these feelings of being trapped and dissatisfaction as an opportunity to make some meaningful changes? Ultimately to exercise our freedom to be as aware of ourselves as possible, humble in the face of the other, and consider our loved ones while we choose our own way?

In a nutshell:  Freedom does not require you to be a dickhead. In fact, quite the opposite.

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