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.

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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.

IMG_2984

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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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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New Year’s Resolution #1: Boycotting the Monkey Exchange

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By Self-portrait by the depicted Macaca nigra female. Public Domain, wikimedia commons.

My motto for this coming year: Not my circus, not my monkeys.

There is nothing we humans like more than to surreptitiously gift our monkeys to someone, and taking on other people’s monkeys can become second nature if we don’t watch out.

The problem with monkey gifting is that it affects our circus ecosystems. We have enough monkeys of our own, thanks. Any more, and it will throw everything off balance: they will take over the elephant show, the poor circus dogs will be lost in a flurry of tails and chatter and nobody will see the poor pups jump through the hoops. The acrobats will have to compete for the trapeze, causing some near fatal accidents. Chaos, I tell you. Circus chaos.

No. I hereby declare that I am against any exchange of monkeys.

What the hell am I talking about? Let me give you a couple of examples.

Example #1:

Monkey exchange: Your daughter eats the last piece of chocolate covered peanut brittle in the box. You get angry, feel hard done by, are consumed by a sense of loss and unfairness so great it makes you start to growl and moan in equal measure. Doesn’t she know that peanut brittle is your most favourite thing ever? Doesn’t she know that you were looking forward to that last piece and how much deprivation you have been putting yourself through to ration the box, to make it last so long? Doesn’t she care about you? She must not love you at all!

So, yeah, you might have told her to go ahead and eat the last peanut brittle. You told her it was okay, she should go for it. But…but she should have been reading between the lines! You shouldn’t have to tell her no! she should not have asked in the first place!

The rest of the night you sigh loudly every time she looks at you. You guilt trip her by picking at the crumbs of the box and looking forlorn.

Result: You have just foisted your martyr monkey on your daughter. Now she has to carry that particularly chattering package of guilt on her back. You see her stoop a little more. She looks equally exasperated and upset. But she loves you and you are her mother, so she doesn’t want to return your monkey.

Action step: You must take your monkey back and stop acting like a five-year old. It’s not only unfair to your daughter, but it’s affecting her posture.

Example #2:

Monkey Exchange: The whole high schoolish break up thing that so many do. Ahh, yes. This is a classic. Everything is going seemingly well until one day your boyfriend stops answering your phone calls. You don’t see him for days and then when you do he is very distant. Things go on like this for a while, making you feel more and more insecure. What did I do? What is going on?

You can sense him slipping away, but when you try to talk to him he insists that everything is fine. You are not sure what’s going on- your instinct tells you something is not right, but you have no idea what it is. When he denies it, you start to wonder if you’re just paranoid.

Until one day, when you have the conversation. It goes something like this: “You have to admit, we’ve been growing a part lately. There’s a disconnect between us. It just isn’t working. Come on, you know it isn’t working. I think it would be better if we were just friends.”

Result: You are left with your mouth wide open, your heart trampled in the dust, feeling like you just got hit by a mac truck and having this odd, contradictory feeling that you are somehow at fault and yet not knowing exactly what you did.

Action steps: It is not your fault. That, my friend, is a classic gifting of some very tawdry monkeys. Do not accept it. Instead of telling you the honest (yet probably brutal) truth that he is feeling dissatisfied in the relationship, that his needs are not being met or maybe even that he met someone else, he is going to blame it on “the distance” that, let me remind you, he created by, um, distancing himself. Or in the case of many years of marriage, on the fact that you are too controlling, that you are not fun enough, that, I don’t know, you never take the garbage out and therefore deserve to be left.

I say no more. No more accepting other people’s monkeys. No more trying to foist mine on other people. I am just saying no. Nada. Not going to do it.

I encourage you to do the same. To help, here are 5 easy (well, not so much, but with time they get easier) steps you can take to disengage from the whole sordid business.

  1. Are you trying to give away your monkeys? Are you angry? Sad? Hurt? Are you blaming the other person for all of the crap you are feeling? Chances are you are about to try and gift your monkeys. Take a minute. Do some deep breathing. Look at yourself and your feelings with some loving curiosity. Why are you reacting that way? Identify your own monkeys. This will help you to not foist them on the backs of your loved ones.
  2. Monkey triage. Mostly, the monkey exchange is a vicious cycle. Someone gifts us their monkeys and we react by gifting them ours. Our monkeys are getting vertigo from all the back and forth. It is important to take some time and figure out which monkey belongs to which person. Doing step 1 will aid greatly in the identifying of other people’s monkeys, just by simple process of elimination.
  3. Take responsibility for your monkeys. Because they are your monkeys. Love them, nurture them, but don’t try to foist them on others in a cowardly attempt to excuse and justify them.
  4. Do not take responsibility for other people’s monkeys. You can’t care for them. You don’t have room (remember your circus ecosystem). Plus it is impossible; sooner or later those monkeys always return to their owner, fatter, heavier and with larger, more fanged teeth than before. You are not doing anybody a favour by taking them on. So politely, respectful refuse to take them on. Repeat over and over the mantra, Not my circus, not my monkeys helps.
  5. Let your monkeys go. Eventually, our circus will not need so many monkeys. We can set them free one by one, and feel the blessing of a lighter load. This will come from practising #1-4 repeatedly. Because the sooner we recognize our own monkeys, the sooner we can catch them, hug them one more time, and set them free.

This new year, join me in boycotting the monkey exchange—I swera the world will be a better, calmer place.

 

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