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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In Honour of Divorce Month: Mid-Life Crisis, an Introduction

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By Pon Malar – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, commons.wikimedia.org

We are in the middle of our life. We have kids and teenagers and parents who are getting older. We have jobs. Houses. Responsibilities. It is our generation that is keeping the world running right now, the ones still young and strong enough to bear the brunt of the work and responsibility yet old enough to start making the hard decisions.

We are the axle in the wheel of the world so to speak.

This is not a comfortable position to be in. There is a lot of pressure. A lot of wear and tear. If something is off just a little bit friction occurs, sparks fly. Parts explode and we begin to lose pieces of our wheel until we find ourselves on a road littered with blown tires and rusty cogs.

Or we maintain the wheel, take care of ourselves and keep it going as best we can. Patch leaks when they occur, grease the axle regularly, keep rotating the tire. Listen for any warning sounds from the engine. Manage to keep rolling until our passengers have all disembarked and moved on to their own journeys and our load is a little less heavy to carry.

I am 42. Most of the people I know are close to this, give or take a few years. And we are all going through the same thing: attempting to navigate our responsibilities with our own needs and aspirations, the duties we have to our loved ones with our own hopes and dreams.

To do this gracefully with as much integrity as possible is difficult. The road isn’t an easy one – there are a lot of potholes, even sink holes. The pavement is uneven; sometimes pavement is a distant luxury and we have to off-road it. We are constantly jolted around, our suspension getting a run for its money, our chassis always threatening to come apart.

We work full-time. We have kids. Our backs start to go out and the grey hairs appear at an alarming rate. One day bleeds into the next and we go and go and go with no time to sit and think about where we are going. Rents need to be paid. Groceries bought. Permission slips signed. Taxes done and oh yeah, the toilet is backed up again. And so it goes, with no time to pause and take stock until it is too late and wham! We hit a wall. We don’t know where we are anymore, let alone who we are.

It is the mid-life crisis.

When we think of a mid-life crisis, we think of that middle-aged man with hair extensions and flashy clothes in a new red convertible. We laugh and make fun of them.

But the reality is very far from funny. A mid-life crisis is real and hard, as real as a snake shedding its skin or a caterpillar going through the difficult process of metamorphosis. It is both a biological stage of life and a cultural, societal, gendered response to one’s imminent mortality, a grieving of the care-free days of our youth and a dreading of what it means to be an adult, to grow up. It is, in many ways, a time of reckoning, the ultimate existential crisis.

My world exploded because of my partner’s mid-life crisis. My story is far from unique. In fact, what happened to me is so common that it is downright cliché; there is a whole book about the phenomena entitled Runaway Husbands. And just in case you feel like reading 60+ personal stories on this topic, including an abbreviated version of my own (I am #49), you can pick up a copy of Planet Heartbreak, an anthology of abandoned wife stories.

And that is why it is so troubling. What is wrong here? Is it the traditional model of marriage? Is it, as too many men have claimed, that we are not supposed to be with the same person for so long (a thesis I reject)? Why is it men that are the overwhelming majority who leave their partners in a sudden and brutal fashion? What is going on here?

I believe gender plays a big part in it and that it is not serving anybody anymore.

We grow up, fall in love, enter into long-term partnerships, have children while dragging the carcass of these centuries-old roles that fit us so badly it’s like we’re trying to squeeze into the musty old suit of our four foot nothing, 100 lbs. great grandfather.

And we don’t even realize it. We bend ourselves in two, live with our pants too short and our shoulders constricted. We think to ourselves, “I guess this is how it is. Best make it work.”

And we do make it work until it doesn’t and our pieces are scattered all over the highway.

In the next few posts I want to talk about the emotional labor gender gap. I want to talk about the mid-life myth of freedom and most of all of shame and the tendency to blame one’s loved ones for our own unhappiness.

Mostly, though, I want to appeal to all those who think that the only way to save themselves, to feel more free and less trapped, is by leaving their partners and their families.

It is not necessary. Don’t do it. There are better ways of using this existential dissatisfaction, this yearning for more. In fact, I think it can be an enormous gift if we choose to approach it with curiosity and a humble, open heart.

Happiness and freedom are not to be found on the scorched remains of our loved ones, but inside us. We have the choice to look inside ourselves and confront those patterns and stories that are no longer serving us, or to remain trapped within a prison of our own making by not taking responsibility for our own unhappiness.

Which do you choose?

 

 

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Hopeful: How to Survive the Collective Malaise

I had the privilege of meeting a woman this year who had been kicked out of her home in Poland after the war by the Russians and sent to Siberia to work. She told me of the horror she experienced there: the harsh winters, the gnawing hunger, the constant fear of the guards. Of sewing secrets pockets in her dress so that she can steal a few grains of wheat so her family wouldn’t starve. But in the midst of this harsh tale, her face lit up as she remembered the way the sun would set on the steppes in summer, the complete majesty of it. She had never seen anything so beautiful, she said. She would never forget it.

I am reading Viktor Frankl’s part memoir/ part treatise Man’s Search for Meaning right now. He is talking about his time in a concentration camp and how, despite, the extreme misery, and deprivation of everything that makes one human, or maybe because of that deprivation, their appreciation for beauty never faltered:

In camp, too, a man might draw the attention of a comrade working next to him to a nice view of the setting sun shining through the tall trees of the Bavarian woods (as in the famous water color by Dürer), the same woods in which we had built an enormous, hidden munitions plant. One evening, when we were already resting on the floor of our hut, dead tired, soup bowls in hand, a fellow prisoner rushed in and asked us to run out to the assembly grounds and see the wonderful sunset. Standing outside we saw sinister clouds glowing in the west and the whole sky alive with clouds of ever-changing shapes and colors, from steel blue to blood red. The desolate grey mud huts provided a sharp contrast, while the puddles on the muddy ground reflected the glowing sky. Then, after minutes of moving silence, one prisoner said to another, “How beautiful the world could be!”

Hearing the old woman talk so warmly about the Steppes and reading this passage from Viktor Frankl (actually the whole book is full of this kind of beauty and triumph of human dignity. If you haven’t read it yet I highly recommend you beginning 2017 by picking up a copy ), fills me with hope.

Hope is a word I approach with caution, but I still think Rebecca Solnit (I already quoted this here) said it best:

“Despair is a form of certainty, certainty that the future will be a lot like the present or will decline from it; despair is a confident memory of the future…Optimism is similarly confident about what will happen. Both are grounds for not acting. Hope can be the knowledge that we don’t have that memory and that reality doesn’t necessarily match our plans…”

2016 has been undeniably a terrible year on a micro and macro scale. I know it has been one of the roughest years for my family (and that is saying something) but also for many of those around me. But in the midst of all this grief, of  all this sorrow, anger and loss, there were many times when our flayed hearts were open enough to receive the gift of those sunsets.

There has been a lot of beauty in the sorrow, a lot of wisdom (which I tend to think of as ethical beauty). There has been moments when the anvil on my chest has been  lifted because of the certain glow of light reflected on a red brick building, or the way its dappled journey through autumn foliage bathed the path in gold. Days where the simple joy of being healthy and outdoors has made me want to burst into impromptu cartwheels.

This year I saw my oldest graduate from high school (well, at least in Quebec). I was given a moving send-off from my work. I had the bittersweet honour, and privilege of speaking at the memorial of a man who was a father to me. I have reconnected with long lost friends and shed some old stories that have been dragging me down for quite a while. I went on a road trip with one of my best friends where we visited a whiskey library (really, people, how much better does it get than that? Whiskey + library = heaven), toured a vineyard, tried to open a bottle of wine with our shoe and a rock, and walked on the Golden Gate Bridge. Everyday since July I have been able to go look at the ocean. I have seen the people around me suffer unimaginable losses and still find meaning and beauty in it.

I am constantly awed by the power, the resilience, the love in the world.

I want to keep on being amazed and awed and I can only do that with an open heart in the face of the unknown. In fact I want this so much I got a tattoo to remind me:

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Now, this is easy to do  when things are going our way, when the sea is calm and the boat is not rocking. It is harder to keep an open heart when we are in the midst of a storm—the lightning and thunder are right above us and the waves are taller than the Empire State building. In times like these, our first instinct is to curl up in the fetal position, close our eyes tight and pretend that if we don’t see it, it won’t exist.

In many ways, I feel like 2016 saw much of humanity curling up in a fetal position and closing its eyes in fear.

The world is changing and it is changing fast. I think we are experiencing a collective malaise, a massive, all-consuming growing pain. Technology, feminism, globalization has caused some very deep role confusion on a socio-economic level, on a gender level, on the way we structure our families and our work. Basically our whole lives.

Trump’s election, the swing to the right in so many countries, the surge of so much draconian misogyny and racism feels like that last desperate clinging to old ways, a romanticizing of a mode of life that never really existed (this whole post-war, ideal nuclear family values bullcrap) in the face of the Tsunami of change that is flooding the world. Confronted by such a global identity crisis, of course we are afraid.

Unfortunately, this fear makes us ashamed. And because we are ashamed of our fear, because we have not gathered the courage to confront it, we inflict countless harm on each other. This leads, of course, to more shame and fear. And voilà, you’ve got yourselves a nice, tight, vicious cycle.

But I have hope. I choose to see this royally fucked up time in our history as one of those transition moments. The last, violent flick of the tail of a wounded and dying era where we enslaved each other in narrow gender roles, segregated each other based on random genetics, where we refused to understand the beauty of slowing down, of sustainability, of policies that cared for our global community and instead embraced this frenetic, crazy-making need for growth at all costs (technological, economic, social).

I don’t know how long it will last. I might not be around to see the end of it. I believe it won’t be easy, or pretty or even survivable in the next few years. The tail of this dying beast is thick and spiked and its reach is long. It will not go gentle into that good night by any means.

All I know is that knee-jerk reactions driven by fear and shame will ultimately lead to a personal, as well as a collective closing down, a mass giving up, so to speak. We all need to unfurl ourselves. To open our eyes. To face the tsunami within ourselves and without  with as much courage and compassion and curiosity we can muster. How do we do that?

I have no idea. The only answer I have is to practice keeping an open heart. Maintain an active, non-judgmental curiosity towards our own feelings and motivations and those of others. And, most importantly, as Viktor Frankl so eloquently articulated when speaking about his concept of logotherapy:

There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life. There is much wisdom in the words of Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

In a way, it feels like humanity is going through its own mid-life or existential crisis. Shedding old skin and growing a new one that fits better is always hard. The question of what we keep from the old ways and what we shed, if we go through the next phase of our evolution trapped and scared or with the inner courage to confront ourselves, will be a matter of life or death.

Happy New Year Everyone. May your heart and eyes remain open, may you have the courage to face those inner and outer demons and most of all, may your ability to cherish those small sunset moments never falter.

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Love, Actually: Some mid-life musings

Every holiday season there are a couple of Christmas movies I re-watch with my daughters. One of the girls’ favourites is Love, Actually (I personally prefer Elf, myself.) I know there has been a lot written about this film, and much of it highly and justifiably critical. From the extremely degrading plotline of the high school boy porn fantasy of Colin going to America to find easy American girls, to the ethically irresponsible prime minister making spur of the moment state decisions based on his hard-on for an employee, the movie is severely flawed, not to mention confusing. Is that love, actually? I am not sure…

But there is one plotline that makes the movie worth watching and not only because the principal actors are superb in their own right. It is the most realistic, the most mundane and the most devastating story of the collection: the marriage portrayed by Emma Thloveactuallyompson and Alan Rickman. Very little happens, but in true Mrs. Dalloway style, everything does.

SPOILER ALERT (but I’m not too worried- if you haven’t seen this movie yet it is because you have made the conscious choice to avoid it and therefore will not care that I spoil the storyline).

Emma Thompson plays Karen, a stay-at-home mother (or, in modern Ann-Marie Slaughter parlance, she is the lead parent). Alan Rickman (may he rest in peace) plays her husband Harry, who owns his own business (what the business is actually is never described) and is a self-described grump.

We see Karen at home, making silly costumes for her children’s nativity play, comforting her friend (Liam Neeson) who has just lost his wife, running frantic trying to get the holiday baking done and the Christmas shopping done. There is a scene where the two of them meet at the department store to Christmas shop. She is the one who is doing all the thinking about and purchasing of gifts. She leaves her husband alone to amuse himself for a few minutes while she runs around buying the “boring gifts for the in-laws”.

Harry, on the other hand, is barely present at home and is more attune to the pining of his employee for another employee than he is paying attention to his wife. But worst, his new, sexy assistant has the hots for him and is making some not-so subtle advances. She makes it known to him that she would like a necklace from him. When his wife is off doing all the Xmas drudgery he spends his time alone buying a beautiful necklace for his assistant. When they get home, Karen is hanging his coat and feels a box in the pocket. She peaks and is tickled to see it is a necklace. He actually bought her something other than a scarf! He actually wanted to do something nice and romantic for her! She is moved and feels special and recognised for the first time in years. She can’t wait to open it!

Christmas Eve comes and they are all allowed to open one gift before heading to the kids’ play. Karen chooses the box shaped present from her husband. But when she opens it, it is a CD of Joni Mitchell, which her husband tells her it is for her “continuing emotional education.” Not the gold necklace, which he has given to sexy, young hot thing that wants to jump his bones.

Ugh. She haskaren-emma-thompson-love-actually-1024x725 to excuse herself to go sob privately for a minute before she puts on the smile again and goes to applaud her little lobsters in the nativity play (not sure what that’s all about…)

It gets me every time. That moment of disappointment when she thinks she is going to be recognized, when the man she loves has actually done something surprising and special for her completely of his own free will. And then the crushing realization that that special thing was for someone else…

That’s all. Nothing really happens. Her husband doesn’t have an affair with the assistant. There is no epic fight or big dramatic leave-takings. He only buys a necklace for a woman other than his wife. But in that one gesture, the cracks in their life, the depth to which he has stopped seeing his wife and to which he takes her for granted is revealed. On her side, the amount of neglect she has to swallow, the sacrifices she has made to her own ambitions and sense of self to be the one to stay home, the stigma around being the caregiver she must sweep under the carpet in order to be able to feel like her life has meaning, all rises to the surface. He has made a mockery of her life by not honouring her role.

This storyline portrays one of the daily, small cruelties we inflict on our loved ones- the violence of taking them for granted, of not appreciating what they bring to our life. It is so tempting. You see the person every day. You are besieged by all the little annoying habits of the other, of all the daily drudgeries of raising a family and trying to make a living. It is so easy to get lost in the maze of the quotidian, of the routine, where you do the same thing over and over again and wake up to do it again. You can start to feel like something is missing. Is this it? Is this all there is to life?

And bam! Because the drudgery has become too much, because this feeling of emptiness and imminent mortality has overwhelmed you, because you wonder when it will be your turn to have fun, to not have any responsibility, you give in to temptation, give the necklace to someone else and don’t even think of your partner. And this is how we break our worlds. By not paying attention. By blaming others for own unhappiness and sense of dissatisfaction.

I have been trying to write about the mid-life crisis for a while now and this seems like a good, seasonal entry point into this discussion. Apparently I need to say it out loud to make myself do it, so here goes. The next few posts will be devoted to this necessary, brutal stage of life that can either be devastating or expansive, depending on how you choose to go through it.

But before that, a word of advice for the holidays:

Stop. Take pause. Clear out the white noise of the holiday traffic, those full parking lots full of stressed out frazzled shoppers and fluorescent-lit stores with gaudy consumer products and the endless tirade of cheerful, monotonous ear-hurting Christmas music. Take a deep breath, preferably outside where there are trees and a view. Get some perspective. Let all of the stressful crap of Christmas fall away and think about your family. And for the love of all that is good in the world, give the damn necklace to your partner. Trust me. They deserve it.

 

 

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A Day in the Life: Still here.

I am forcing myself to write now, and I am going to just do it and post this today if it kills me. I have no idea what I am going to say or even if I have anything to say (one of my biggest fears, actually.) But whatever. Must unblock or die, so forgive the disjointness of this post.

The last blog post was three months ago. A lot as happened in those three months, not much of it good. Without going into detail, life is certainly doing its best to beat the shit out of me and my family. The last couple of years have been a tsunami of grief— the last three months the wave reached its climax and broke all over our world. It is all we can do to keep our heads above the rising water.

Grief. That is the theme for this holiday season. In the last couple of years, I have lost three family members, some expected, some not. I have lost a marriage and a partnership I really, really loved and believed in. I lost my idea of family. And a vision of the future that sustained me and gave me hope. Because of this loss I gave up the life I worked so hard for, the life that didn’t make any sense without that partnership. I gave up my job and my sense of security, my friends, my world in order to look towards a future that is still cloaked in darkness for me.

I am sitting on my mother’s couch looking at the Christmas tree while I write this. I am thinking of the promise I made to myself to not let these events break me, to not close down and become a bitter, broken middle-aged woman. And though I have not yet given in, it has been tempting. It is hard to keep an open heart. It is hard to keep showing up when others are not willing to do the same. It is hard to take risks and be vulnerable in a world that seems more and more fear-driven, where risk-taking is a negative thing and vulnerability is mistaken as weakness.

I am tired. I want to shut down. I want to give up. I want to curl up in the bed in my little garden shed and never come out again.

I am tired of trying.

 

Grief is a lonely business. It consumes you, wraps you up in a iron-clad bubble that makes you feel like you are all alone. It makes the world seem dull and grey (oh wait- that might just be a west coast winter…) There is nothing but the constant ache, the restless fluttering of all that love that has nowhere to touch down.

The longing for what used to be but is no longer is such a strong current; it is tempting to let it suck you in and pull you down.

 

Okay. Enough of the pity party. Maybe this is a good time to write down what I have learned in this maelstrom of pain and suffering, some important lessons from my scenic detour into hell.

  1. Nothing is permanent.

 

This is hard one because in many ways, we thrive on the idea of permanence. We have to hold the conflicting notions in our head- that we build for permanence and at the same time realize that it is an illusion and that it can go at anytime.

You will be doing a mundane thing like throwing away a cracked glass bottle and all of sudden you don’t have the use of your right hand for months (true story, but not mine- I still have the use of all my digits, knock on wood). One day, you will come home and the person you have painstakingly built your life with, the person with whom you think you will grow old, decides they don’t want to be married anymore. People die. Sometimes slowly and painfully. Sometimes all of a sudden. One day they are there. The next day they are gone.

How do we keep those opposing concepts balanced in our mind without going crazy? How do we still build and hope and love and work towards a future while at the same time knowing that it might not work out, that all of our love and labour might be for nought?

Honestly, if you think about it is a tad crazy-making.

The only answer I have found is through meditation and mindfulness and the idea of impermanence. It’s that old Buddhist saying, that what causes suffering is our attachment to things or people. We still need to build. We still need to love. We still need to feel a sense of peace and security. We just can’t get too attached to the external details:

Insight into impermanence is central to Buddhist practice. Buddhist practice points us toward becoming equanimous in the midst of change and wiser in how we respond to what comes and goes. In fact, Buddhism could be seen as one extended meditation on transience as a means to freedom. The Buddha’s last words were: “All conditioned things are impermanent. Strive on with diligence.”

…[The Buddha] said that suffering is not inherent in the world of impermanence; suffering arises when we cling. When clinging disappears, impermanence no longer gives rise to suffering. The solution to suffering, then, is to end clinging, not to try to escape from the transient world.-Gil Fronsdal, Insight Meditation center

Ok. Easier said than done.

2. Self-Compassion and Self-Love are not Silly Little Self-Help Concepts

But vital for the progress of humanity. The world feels off-kilter these days. It feels like the pendulum is swinging towards a dark time, one that is dominated by fear-driven anger and shame and a tendency to shut down one’s heart and mind instead of taking an open, honest, lovingingly critical look at ourselves and our own motivations.

I understand. It is the hardest thing ever to do.

It is taking a lot of courage and energy to look at myself and all of my flaws with lovingkindness. This will be a practice I will never perfect but will continue striving towards for the rest of my life. But the hard truth is that I cannot move forward, I cannot be the person I want to be in the world without first being my own safe harbour. if I don’t love myself, if I cannot find it within myself to be compassionate towards my own imperfections, I can’t expect it of others. That doesn’t mean that we don’t need other people to love us, everybody does. But the extent to which we are able to receive that love will be in direct correlation to our ability to love ourselves. Same goes for compassion and empathy- our ability to be compassionate and empathetic with ourselves will be the measure of our compassion and empathy for others.

We are living in an unprecedented time of self-loathing. (once again, I am writing as I think now, so bear with me). Not sure why this is- the fact that we are bombarded with ads that continuously tell us we are imperfect? That our selfie culture has insidiously transferred our self-validation to algorithms and random likes? Or that the norms with which we are being compared to are getting progressively smaller and uniformalized? Or maybe that as a collective society we are the most educated than we have ever been yet have the least time to actually think than ever before?

We are little, self-hating hamsters that keep on running on the wheel because we are scared to stop and actually think about what we are doing.

Unless we can find a way off the wheel and pause long enough to consider who we are and where we would like to go, we are all going to die running on a treadmill going nowhere in an effort to prove something that we don’t need to prove, that should simply be a given: that we are enough.

3. Fear is an Invisible Wall

And you have to bang your head against it several times before you even know it is there. Fear. It has been on my mind a lot lately. Mainly because I have a lot of it. I am afraid of not being enough or too much (both of which I have been accused of). I am afraid that I will never be financially independent. I am afraid that I will never write anything worth reading, that I am somehow not a good enough mother, that I am a burden to my family, that I will never again get a well-paying job I love. I am afraid of my damn large, open, trusting heart and the present and future pain and suffering that I am signing up for by insisting on keeping it that way.

Lots of fear. And these are just the things I am aware I am afraid of and thus can start to dismantle. But what I am really afraid of these days is all the ways my fear, unbeknownst to me, is limiting me. I had an experience the other day in my career counselling session that rocked my boat pretty hard. I had to do an exercise where I list ten things that I am doing in my ideal career. I did it, sent it in to my counsellor. When I got to the session, she had a few questions, namely why, when it is obvious that writing is central to my existence and the thing that gives me most joy, why I did not mention writing in my ideal list.

Huh.

That is because in my head, the writing I want to do and making a living are so completely separate, it didn’t even occur to put it on the list. I have a limiting belief that I will never make a living from my writing.  That is also a fear-based belief because it is terrifying to think the opposite. To believe that it could lead to a living means that I would actually have to, well, try and make a living from it.

Ugh.

Man, this thinking and writing at the same time is taking me to some uncomfortable places. I am going to stop now because I have literally scared myself away from this post. But at least that invisible wall, became a little less invisible.

That’s something isn’t it?

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