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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A Day in the Life: Stumps

It has been many months since I last posted anything on this blog and as always, the more time goes by without writing, the harder it is to actually get going again.So I used one of WordPress’s daily nudges to get myself started (the first time I’ve used them, but hey. Desperate times call for desperate measures.) The prompt was Stump.

Since I last wrote, I have discarded most of my belongings, packed up the rest, rented my apartment in Montreal, took a leave of absence from my job, seen my oldest graduate, got a fabulous new tattoo, then left my wonderful Montreal community and moved my daughters and myself to Victoria.

Why, you might ask?

Because my road map was torn up. Because who I thought I was turned out to be only who I was in the context of my marriage and my role as caregiver. Because I thought that being a better person meant squelching any of my own needs and desires and always putting those of my family first.

Because not only was my envisioned future ripped away from me, my past and present were also violently re-written. Behind me is a broken path littered with distorted, tainted memories. There is no path in front of me, only darkness. (In the Virginia Woolf sense, not in the Star Wars sense…)

Because I don’t know who I am anymore. The feeling is akin to looking into a cheap old mirror; I have a hazy idea the outline of a person is me, but I can’t make out any details. I have no features anymore.

So I made the hardest decision of my life: to move back home. To let my family take care of me while I work on getting a clearer picture of myself. To take some time off and reflect on what I want and to get a sense (as much as anyone can) on what a well-lived life means to me and make steps towards that life.

This, as you can imagine, is not only a herculean task, one that I’m sure will take me ore than a year, but also, well, a tad disorienting. And as always, I am getting in my own way.

Stump #1: The resident family failure

It is very hard to let other people take care of me. Once again, the incomparable Rebecca Solnit, who I am in real danger of over-quoting, has some words of wisdom on this topic:

“…But asking is difficult for a lot of people. It’s partly because we imagine that gifts put us in the giver’s debt, and debt is supposed to be a bad thing. You see it in the way people sometimes try to reciprocate immediately out of a sense that indebtedness is burden. But there are gifts people year to give and debts that tie us together.” p.121 Faraway nearby

And then Brené Brown on the subject:

“Until we can receive with an open heart, we are never really giving with an open heart. When we attach judgment to receiving help, we knowingly or unknowingly attach judgment to giving help.”p. 20 The Gifts of Imperfection 

This last quote physically hurt when I read it. It begged the question: If I feel so bad being indebted to other people, do I unconsciously feel that the people I help are indebted to me?

Ugh. I hope this is not the case. As an aside, it also makes me wary of how much economic terminology have infiltrated the way we speak about our relationships. Give and take. Investing time in someone. I am indebted to you. Like human relationships can be boiled down to simple transactions and that everything and everyone has a price. That we always get back what we put in plus profit. Thinking like this is its own kind of harm and sets us up for always being disappointed and hurt. It is also an ugly way of looking at love and connection. Whereas these are beautiful, organic evolutions, the metaphors  we use to describe them are ugly, fabricated and finite. And because we use them to explain these processes, these process inevitably become diseased with all the ugliness of expectations and notion of scarcity inherent in any economic metaphor.

But I digress.

Still. I can’t get over the stigma of it: from being employed full-time, paying my own bills, financially supporting my family to living in the garden shed in my mother’s backyard. (I like to say that I am now pursuing a career as a garden gnome.)

I feel like the family failure, the loser whose life is a complete shambles (actually, I am the loser whose life is a complete shambles. Let’s not mince our words here, Lina). This means that I distract myself from the difficult quest for clarity with feelings of shame and unimportant tasks. Instead of taking the time for myself, I find every opportunity to keep busy. I clean my mother’s cupboards. I take on menial, under-paying jobs that are not serving me and which take time from what I really want to do but for some reason won’t let myself.

Stump #2: Time

Time feels like a vast desert that I have to cross everyday, instead of the insane 150 km/hour hurdling down the autobahn my life has been for the last 17 years.

The kids started school last Tuesday. On the same day my mother left for two months to walk the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage. ( I know, right? How awesome is she?) I found myself for the first time in twelve years with hours ahead of me without having to factor in other people, where I have not been gone before the kids and where I am home when they get home.

Whereas time was my largest scarcity, I am now simultaneously drowning in it and also wondering how it goes so fast. I can’t concentrate. I feel like I have so many little things to do I forget to do the one thing that I am here to do which is to take that time and make it into space where I can think and feel and discover what I want.

Stump #3: Just say it already. God.

Except I do know what I want. It has been what I always secretly wanted and have never let myself say out loud. And yet it is so impractical, unfeasible, so…hubristic to think that I could spend my days doing this thing that doesn’t have any discernible benefit for those around me. It won’t save the whales or end poverty or fix climate change. It won’t make me any money or feed my family. It is outrageous and selfish and wholly out of the realm of possibility…

And there it is: the large stump of fear and excuses in my way. I have tried going around it, but it’s diameter spans all of my horizon. It is a wall that I keep banging my head against and I’m starting to feel concussed. It is the one thing I want to do and also the one thing I am terrified of admitting that I want to do.

I want to write. (Ugh. Did anyone else feel that large jolt, like the world just ground to halt? No? Huh. I guess it’s just me…) At least, I want to give writing more space than the dusty, neglected corners of time where I used to write.

Admitting this is very very scary. I’ve said it before, but I have always said it when I have had full-time employment and a roster of excuses not to do it. But since I (so foolishly) stripped those excuses away, I can no longer avoid this last gargantuan stump: Myself.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t want gainful, meaningful employment; I do. (Anybody looking for a writer/librarian perchance? I can write! I can organize! I can write in an organized manner!) I like working with people and getting out of myself. I also like being able to feed my children and have money for boots and wine (or, ok, fine, the phone bill).

But I think I know in part what the answer to what a life well-lived life means to me: putting words on paper, fashioning this chaos of thoughts and emotions jungling in my brain into some sort of coherence and meaning.

I am most myself when I am writing, when I allow myself with all my flaws and imperfections and bad grammatical habits to dribble on the page (sometimes the dribble is as innocuous as drool, but lately it’s been pretty bloody, I won’t lie).

So why do I deny myself this?

I honestly don’t know. But this blog post is the first stick of dynamite I am placing at the base of the stump. Soon I hope to have enough words and practice to blow it up for good.

Wish me luck.

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Making Friends with the Anvil: On Bearing Witness

I went to see Monumental by Holy Body Tattoo and Godspeed, You Black Emperor a couple of weeks ago. It was unbearable. Unbearable in the way Art with a capital A should be: a gut-wrenching reminder of the joy and suffering, the struggle and the weariness, the futile resistance and the final giving up, the longing to connect and the disconnect that comes from such desperate longing. In short: it exposes you to the viscera of the human condition.

The dancers begin on pedestals – they are dressed like drab workers out of some 1984-esque Dystopian fiction or communist-era propaganda film. They remind me a lot of the 1930s era art deco friezes of workers I saw in Nashville, Tennessee. The dancers configuration have that stolid, utilitarian, “I will endure” look.

But then Godspeed begins to play behind a scrim in the background. The haunting notes are slow at first, dirge-like. The dancers are still for the most part, with the occasional flinch. The pace quickens, the tension mounts. The dancers respond in kind – their movements are quick and jerky, engaging in neurotic acts like smoothing their hair or picking at lint until the full force of the Godspeed sound storm hits and the dancers fully give themselves to that state of anxiety and tension that has come to define our modern era, that feeling that something is not right but if we keep on moving maybe no one will notice.

Here is a trailer for the show:

I won’t lie. This performance broke my heart a little. Probably because, I suspect like all the members in the audience, we all recognized ourselves in the frantic desperation of the dancers. And, yes, I will admit, the sheer human-ness of struggling against the things you cannot change, of trying to find a way in, to connect to people and feeling like you are always failing, was a little too close to home. Like all good Art, it mirrors your own struggles then hands your heart back to you on a bloody platter.

Being an audience member has always struck me as simultaneously privileged and disturbing. On the one hand, nothing is expected of you. You can sit in the dark and simply watch what is unfolding on stage. Nothing else is required of you but to bear witness.

I have this moment when the lights go out and the theater is in complete darkness and hundreds of people have managed to remain silent with the exception of some shuffling and coughing (if you think about it, it’s kind of miraculous), where I feel something similar to when you are almost asleep and all of a sudden you feel like you’re falling, that feeling that in some sense you have ceased to exist, that you have now entered someone else’s narrative. The feeling lasts only a moment, but then I feel the liberation of not having to be my own narrative for a while, to be able to exist in the dark with nothing to do but watch.

As I watched the dancers tear their hair out and do impossible marathon feats with their bodies in order to create this heart-breaking assault on my eyes and ears, I thought how it is also one of the hardest thing to do, to sit and witness someone else’s expression of pain and suffering.

But that is what good art is: a constant bearing witness. Whether you are listening to a piece of music, watching a show like Monumental, standing in front of a painting or reading a poem. It does not exist without the audience to bear witness; it is the unknown factor that every artist has to contend with, the individual watching, processing, experiencing their work.

I have been thinking of the notion of bearing witness since last summer, when my two-year old niece was hospitalized for Meckel’s diverticulum. After a whole day in emergency where my sister had to endure watching her child be poked with needles, refused food and water because of the tests she might need to take and completely scared out of her mind, the doctors still hadn’t diagnosed it. My sister and her partner also had a young baby at the time and after 8 hours of the stress of advocating for their daughter, nursing the baby and trying to calm their child down, all while silently freaking out about their daughter’s condition, they finally phoned for relief.

I am the oldest out of three sisters. The sister above is the youngest. I am very, very close to both my sisters, to the point where for most of my life I felt extremely mother bear about them. We have that kind of sister bond where the other can feel when something is not right, even if we are on the other side of the country from each other. When they cry, I cry. What they feel, I feel. Mostly, I want to do anything I can to take away their pain, because it is my pain too.

But as I plastered myself against the wall of the tiny room in that emergency ward, trying my hardest to get out of the way of the nurses fruitlessly searching for a vein in a struggling two-year old’s arm, as I watched my sister remain so calm with her daughter, all the while deeply feeling her panic and fear, the full force of there being absolutely nothing I could do to fix this hit me.

This was not my story. But just as there was nothing to be done, I also felt the importance of my presence in that room. It was vital that I be there to witness the events, to absorb the terror, the panic, the vulnerability — to bear witness so that when the crisis is over, a dialogue is possible, a conversation where all the hurt and pain and chaos can be processed, made sense of.

I think these events in our life, the real big ones, the ones that sucker punch us in the face and knock the wind out of us, are a bit like Einstein’s moon, or that song about the tree in the forest. If nobody else sees it happening, we start to doubt their existence. I have mentioned before how our sense of self is shaped by other’s reflections of us. I think it might be the case with reality itself — things become real only when several pairs of eyes have looked upon it, when several brains have analyzed it and several hearts have felt the weight of it.

That doesn’t mean I know exactly what my sister went through. I don’t. But I had the privilege in that moment to have been able to put my own story aside and fully be present for hers. I honored my sister’s suffering by bearing witness to it. In the future, she will always know that on some level, I was present at that moment. I felt a little bit of what she felt. She will always be able to talk to me about it, as this kind of trauma has the tendency to rear its ugly head when we least expect it, and the first thing we want is to talk to someone who was there, who knows at least where the trauma is coming from.

It is a little thing, but also the biggest thing in the world.

We bear witness to the collective suffering through Art. We bear witness to our loved ones crisis moment by simply being present, by putting our own story aside when theirs takes precedence. But what about our own suffering?

Heartbreak was an anvil that fell from the sky and cratered my chest. I could not surgically remove it with a few caustic words and an upright middle finger (and oh, how I tried). I couldn’t make a detour around it by keeping ridiculously busy (and oh, how I also tried that).

The anvil was sitting on my chest. I couldn’t breathe. There was no ignoring it.

The only thing to do was face it.

At first I raged at the very presence of the anvil, tried to punch it away. How dare it lay on my chest? I didn’t do anything? What did I do? Why is it here? Go away, go away go away!

Yeah. Not so effective.

I had to let go of the idea that I could move it through the sheer force of my will. That perhaps the goal wasn’t to move it, but to make friends with it, to stop and listen to it, to give it room:

“Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery and joy.”Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart

The anvil is not gone. But it is less threatening, less ready to crush me under its weight. By simply accepting that it is there on my chest, by letting myself feel all the weight of its sorrow, by giving it room to exist and paying attention to it, its edges are getting less sharp, its surface is beginning to erode with gentle stroking. Heartbreak and rejection has taught me that just as it is important to bear witness to the pain of other’s, it is just as essential to bear witness to my own.

It might be too soon to say, but I think, maybe, my anvil and I are becoming friends. Here’s to hoping there’s enough room in my chest for the both of us…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I am an Adult but I’m Not a Grown Up

I am an adult. I have kids, a job. I pay bills and do laundry and sign permission forms. If the hot water heater is broken, I have to call the plumber, buy a new one. If there are mice in the house (and ugh, there are indeed mice in my house) I have to figure out where they are coming from and kill the bastards. If a kid breaks her finger, I am the one that has to take her to the hospital for X-rays.

But there are also advantages: I can sit for hours in a restaurant finishing bottles of wine with my friends. I can choose to buy that crap rotisserie chicken at the grocery store instead of actually making dinner. I can spend my hard-earned money on whatever I please (ok. That’s not exactly true. I can spend it on whatever I please if there is anything left after food and bills and kids’ expenses. But still. It’s my money).

In short, I make my own decisions. Am responsible for my own actions. I have kept two other people alive for 17 years now. I am an adult.

But in my head, I still feel like a teenager. I look at all those indisputable facts that I have just written down and feel, well, bewildered. Who thought it was a good idea to allow me to have kids? How can anyone think I am responsible enough for all this crap?  How did people get fooled into thinking that I know what I am doing? That I know who I am?

Mostly, I feel like an imposter in the world of adulthood.

It is not growing up that is the myth so much as the idea that it happens and then stops; that there is a point in your life where you stop growing up, stop maturing, where you can actually say, “Ok. I am here now. I have arrived. I am now a Grown Up.”

There are certain times in our life where we seem to do more growing than others. The coming of age ceremony for teenagers, is a nice example. The idea that they are shedding the old skin of childhood and beginning to grow a new skin of adulthood is a meaningful rite of passage. Another shedding of an old self for a new one happens when you have children.

I remember when my kids were very young, I went through one of these moments. At the time, it felt like depression. I was at home with two small people who needed me more than anybody has ever needed me. I did not see many adults. I did not have time for the things that have always brought me solace- reading, writing, thinking about the world. I had to accept that it was not all about me anymore, that my wishes were secondary to these small people who I loved with all my heart but demanded so much of my body and soul.

The shedding of the person I was before children was hard and painful. It required me to acknowledge that my actions mattered, that they now affected other people, not only myself. The growing of the new skin of motherhood is complicated and nuanced and did not come easy. I balked at their incessant needs. By the end of the day, I could not stand having anyone else touch me. Mostly I wanted to retreat into my old skin where I was alone and what I did had no repercussions.

That’s the thing about skin shedding- once shed, you can’t crawl back in. So I learned what it was to matter. I learned how to accept that it was not all about my needs. I learned that I was the one running the ship and if it foundered, it was my fault. Constant vigilance was needed. A steady hand on the tiller. Instead of getting angry about it, instead of feeling sorry for myself and letting myself feel overwhelmed (which there was a lot of, trust me), I accepted it. I changed what I could, tore off my old skin and embraced the new one.

But that is only one shedding in a lifetime of sheddings. And sometimes old skin lingers underneath the new, causing huge metaphysical lumps in our psyche. These lumps get bigger and bigger until we can’t ignore them anymore. The only thing for it is to slice through all the layers, find the lump and laser it away with our attention.

Yes. I was responsible for these two people. But underneath the old skin my old default pattern of thinking, the old feeling of not being worthy began lumping up underneath my new skin. The old pattern of thinking made me value everyone’s needs higher than my own until they were so buried, I couldn’t even tell you what they are anymore.

Growing up is an ebb and flow. We accumulate behaviours and patterns necessary for the moment; in short, we do what we have to do to get through. Then all of a sudden, the reasons behind those patterns are gone. Our children no longer need us in the same way. We ourselves have grown and do not need to cling to the familiar survival guide we’ve written for ourselves. We are left with a set of tools that were painstakingly collected but now useless.

Then comes the painful process of turning ourselves out of our own skin. We are simultaneously caterpillar and butterfly, a constant tension between clinging solid and heavy to a branch and sloughing off the cocoon and flying away.

While writing this, I had two very different quotes in mind. The first, because I come from good Catholic stock, is from Corinthians 13. I was originally thinking of the, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” But when I looked it up found that the whole paragraph was may more relevant than I could have imagined:

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

(taken from New International Version)

“For we know in part and we prophecy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.” From my middle-aged vantage point of a failed marriage, two almost grown kids, and the loss of another father, I look back at my young self and can’t help but grieve for her.

I tried my best to encapsulate what it was to be a grown up- I took responsibility. I got things done. I cared for those around me. I approached my life as a series of shoulds. But I forgot – no – I am pretty sure I never knew – that growing up is not only about duty and responsibility, but about knowing yourself. I was too busy running around trying to make other people happy, to make sure my family had what they needed to give myself a second glance. This is in part my personality (I want to fix things when they are broken even if they can’t, shouldn’t or it isn’t up to me to fix) , but it is in part a societal, gender thing, where women are taught that they are the emotional centers of their family, and if someone is unhappy, it must mean that we obviously fucked up.

I knew in part. Now I know a little more. I know that the business of making other people happy will make you bankrupt; it can’t be done. I know that my frenzy of activity was not efficient or productive but a way of running away from the voice inside my head that told me if I stopped, someone might see me and they will probably not like what they see, the voice that only got louder the more I ignored it.

This brings me to my second quote, this one from Pema Chödrön, a Buddhist nun, in her book aptly entitled, When Thing Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times:

“That’s the beginning of growing up. As long as we don’t want to be honest and kind with ourselves, then we are always going to be infants. When we begin just to try to accept ourselves, the ancient burden of self-importance lightens up considerably. Finally there’s room for genuine inquisitive-ness, and we find we have an appetite for what’s out there.”

I no longer want to go about this business of living seeing “only [my] reflection as in a mirror.” I want to see “face to face”, I want to “know fully, even as I am fully known.”

Time to confront the voices with honesty and kindness. To dig away at the cocoon made of old patterns and behaviours, accept them for the self-preservation technique they were and then let go of the branch and fly away. In short, it is time to practice some growing up.

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