Or perhaps not becoming, but emerging. I’m reminded of Michelangelo’s quote: “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”
I’m emerging as someone I was always meant to be.
This emergence began (I know you’ll be shocked) with a book by Pete Walker titled Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving. In the pages of this book I found the self I’ve always known and the private experiences I’ve hidden out of guilt, fear, and shame.
I also found a map to a new person.
Although the catalyst was the book, which by its nature is intellectual, the process itself is almost entirely felt. I can’t think myself into a new sense of self and my life; I must feel my way.
This makes it hard to write about here.
As so often happens, a poem came along that perfectly describes what I feel in the subtle, intuitive, symbolic language of poetry rather than carefully crafted, concrete prose.
The Return by Leanne O’Sullivan
I walk through paw-prints the frost has dug, among the moist grasses, my silver hair flowing like a cat’s deep stretch.
This is my season. Again and again I die under the blossom of leaves and count my lives by the sapped rings of trees.
No one will know me, none but the wood growth, its hug of frost its scent of moss its naked shadow
and I, standing at the end of an embered wood where once a light passed through me and passes again,
before I remember how I appeared or how I ended, folding myself into my arms —
the seed, the root, the blossom, the stone shining with all my running juices.
From Cailleach: The Hag of Beara (Bloodaxe Books, 2009)
Emergence, I discover, is a kind of death, like the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly or moth. It’s a process of uncovering, of freeing something hidden inside, somehow familiar but never before seen. The soul and spirit I was meant to be was covered with a stony crust, originally formed for protection, but long ago becoming a prison. A crust of coping mechanisms and beliefs. A crust covering feelings too painful and overwhelming to acknowledge or face when first felt.
As I scrape away that crust, the feelings it covered swell into life, and they do not want my intellect or to be pinned down into a blog post.
They want to be felt.
And, having been felt, they dissipate like incense smoke, leaving behind a coating of scented ash that scatters with a single breath and reveals someone I’ve never known or been before.
In the meantime, external life goes on around my internal experience. My car is in the shop. It’s a heavy work week. We are stifling in high humidity. I have just finished editing my second manuscript and am rolling up my sleeves to begin writing the third. I’m working on my new website.
As I live the days, I recognize triggers I wasn’t aware of before, triggers to old feelings and reactions, and I apply new tools, habits, compassion, and understanding to them. I’m grateful for the foundations I’ve already built of mindfulness, creativity, and emotional intelligence. I didn’t know they would become the foundations of a new self.
I am changing. I am emerging. I am learning and growing. I am wondering where I’m going.
Wherever I’m going, it’s better than where I’ve been.
I follow Courtney Carver’s blog, Be More With Less, and she coined a name for a dynamic that’s been a problem for me my whole life.
She calls it schedule shaming, and it describes “measuring who we are by what we accomplish.” Accomplish in the sense of produce. In other words, being mean to ourselves at the end of the day because we didn’t “do” enough.
I’ve known for several years that this is a problem for me, but I haven’t had a way to change it until I read Courtney’s post. The remedy is so simple I’m embarrassed I didn’t come up with it myself. I’m usually good at this sort of thing.
Instead of listening to that internal voice about what we should have done and didn’t do, and what a lazy, worthless, waste of space we are, she suggests applying a new set of questions, a better set of questions, to determine our value.
A list! I like lists! I took the idea and ran with it:
What were my feelings today? (Feelings are single words like mad, glad, sad, scared and ashamed, and we can experience any combination and number of them.)
After reading Courtney’s post, making my list, and making notes for this post, I put all my focus on these replacement questions every time I started hearing that internal critic tell me I was a useless and didn’t deserve to take up space.
I immediately noticed two things, and those things have remained unchanged every day since then.
I am a much nicer person when I don’t judge my worth by production.
I accomplish far more, with less resistance and more joy, than I did before.
I feel like a dumbass on a couple of levels. First, I know very well (who doesn’t?) that a carrot always works better than a stick. Nobody has ever been able to beat me into submission, including myself. Love and connection motivate me far more than any kind of force or coercion. As for disapproval – spare me. I don’t give a damn about winning anyone’s approval. People have been disapproving of me my whole life no matter what I do. I’m used to it.
Second, I’ve struggled with schedule shaming forever, and when I say struggle, I mean self-loathing, self-harm, financial dysfunction, compulsion, speeding, and mental health challenges like anxiety and depression. And all those years it was this easy to fix. All I needed to do was put being before doing and give myself permission and recognition for the person I naturally and honestly am.
The coronavirus has cast a harsh light onto the balance between being, doing, and having. I think about this kind of thing all the time anyway, but the shutdowns, furloughs, and limitations to our ability to live normally have made many people who were too busy and driven to notice such things newly aware. Interestingly, present circumstances have impacted our doing and having much more than our being. Being goes on, sick or well, rich or poor, working or not working, masked or unmasked. Being is what truly defines us, in spite of our attachment to things, activities, and identities. Without being, we’re just empty shells, and we really are wasting our lives, no matter what we accomplish or have.
Today I laughed until I ached at our kitten, Ozzy, who falls asleep on his feet and spends minutes with eyes tight shut, swaying and slumping, before he finally gives up and lies down. That’s what I remember about my day. I cleaned the kitchen, did a load of laundry, wrote, and dealt with the green caterpillars eating my growing dill, too, but none of that was as sweet, as real, or as important as laughing at Oz and the love and gratitude I feel for this small creature.
I’ve been rereading James Herriot, who was a Yorkshire veterinarian. It’s been a long time since I last read him. His books are filled with love, affection and humor for the animals and people he spent his life with, but there’s another thread that runs vividly through all his books, a thread of place. He loved Yorkshire, the hills, moors and Dales, the little towns, the seasons and remote old stone farms, walls and buildings. Every page communicates his gratitude and contentment with his life and the place he worked. He and his wife raised two children. He worked all hours, and it was hard work. He was qualified before antibiotics and what we think of as modern medicine. He made very little money, but he was rich in love and contentment.
Dr. Herriot knew how to live deeply. One of his greatest joys was to pull over during his rounds and sit in the heather with his dog, drinking in the air, the view and the silence.
As I’ve been reading Herriot, the Fourth of July holiday has come and gone. I’ve never liked it. I hate noise and crowds. Fireworks are terrifying for many animals, both domestic and wild. They’re also dangerous and a fire risk. My idea of a really good Fourth is a nice, drenching three-day rain during which I stay peacefully at home.
This year, in addition to the usual associations, we have a pandemic. Each of the holidays this summer seem to be dividing the country more and more painfully, and all the hype and noise around escalating infection rates, distortions, denials, lies, economic concerns and travel concerns made me feel particularly anxious and miserable this year.
My Be Still Now practice has developed nicely. I’ve done it every morning for more than a month and it’s become a useful and enjoyable habit. It occurred to me, as I was sitting over the holiday weekend, that during this time I have an experience of depth. As I breath and watch my thoughts move across my consciousness like clouds across the sky, I sink down to another kind of being, below the sound of boats, campers and ATVs passing the house, below my agonized empathy for animals, below my fear of fire, and below my general anxiety about the pandemic.
In the space of sitting, I move beyond and beneath clock, calendar, distraction, and compulsion. There is only the peace of breath, sun and rain, birdsong, wind, growing things, and the cycles and seasons of this place and my life. I feel peaceful and content. There’s nowhere I need to go and nothing I need to do. It’s all right here, right now.
We all have access to this deep life, but it seems that the modern world conspires to keep us away from it. We are assaulted by so much noise, so much seductive glitter and shine, so much chaos and so many voices. Clocks, calendars and screens rule our lives, as do the numbers in our bank accounts and on our bills and credit cards. We are completely caught up in short-term, surface activity.
To live deep is to remember geologic time and rediscover patience and perspective. To live deep is to climb into the mossy throat of an old well, filled with sweet water that knows ferns and frogs and underground springs. Living deeply takes us to the roots of things, the quiet musk of earth, mycelium, mineral and microorganism. We enter the endurance of bones and seeds, the long memory of stone.
Most of all, living deeply takes me below my thoughts and into my feelings. It’s in that deep space that I find all the women and children I have been and all the wounds I’ve neglected. Without thoughts attached to them, my feelings are intense, yet simple. I discover an affection and empathy for my fears, old and new. I gain intuitive understanding and insight into my behavior and choices.
I meet myself in the depths, my most primal, innocent, wise self. I put my arms around myself, kiss my own shoulders. Gratitude wells in me, along with comfort and love. Creativity and inspiration blossom. I rest.
This deep time anchors my day. I usually sit for less than an hour. Even 20 minutes of retreat below the surface agitations of life provide me with balance and peace. Living deeply prevents me from speeding and helps me control my compulsions. It helps me stay conscious as I make choices about how much media I allow into my life, how much distraction, and how much noise. It opens me to the simple joys of working in the garden, sitting in the sun, watching the trees move in the wind, listening to the birds, and playing with our two kittens.
James Herriot had fears, inadequacies and troubles, just as we all do. He knew a thing I’m only just learning, though, and that is the skill of downing tools and simply being, welcoming the joy of uncomplicated presence and feeling gratitude for the experience of life in all its magic and mystery.
The meaning and experience of life is not on a screen, on a calendar or clock, or in dollars and cents. Those are but glimmers on the water, the topmost leaves on a tree, a passing cloud, ephemeral and only meaningful because we make them so.
The real stuff of life is slow, deep, quiet and timeless. We carry it always within us, but no amount of doing or having can unlock it. The key is being, just that.
I’d love to be one of those serene, appropriately disciplined (as opposed to compulsive or utterly feckless) people who achieve an effective, useful, consistent morning routine.
Even during what I think of as “normal” times when my life was structured predictably by work and other obligations and activities, my morning schedule varied. Now, during weeks of unstructured time, I’m realizing how important it is for me to take responsibility for creating the shape of my life, rather than passively allowing work and other extrinsic forces to do it for me.
On the other hand, spontaneity is good, right? Going with the flow? Following my bliss?
I’m better at routine than I am at spontaneity. I’m better at working than relaxing. I get an A+ in productivity and a D at simply being.
I watch people who spend hours a day in front of a screen, reading, or otherwise appearing to do nothing but laze around with a mixture of envy, fury and contempt. How can they do that? I wish I could do that and still live with myself. What a waste of time! I hate myself if I reach the end of the day with nothing to show for it. (Show who?) The shame and guilt of just being and not doing is annihilating.
Doing is also my favorite remedy for anxiety, and that’s when the dark tentacles of compulsivity wrap around my ankles and start crawling up my body.
I’ve written before about my tendency to speed, back in the old days before coronavirus. My life was familiar to me then. I knew how to use my time and energy. I felt effective without being compulsive. I thought I’d defeated my old self-destructive patterns. I felt balanced and healthy most of the time.
Then I discovered, to my chagrin, that I was still speeding unconsciously in some parts of my life. It troubled me, and I resolved to bring that behavior into consciousness and change it, which is why I wrote about it. I discovered a great way to pull the plug on unconscious speeding is to develop a practice of sitting in silence daily.
I’m avoiding using the term “meditation” because it’s so loaded, for me at least. I’ve no interest in a guru, a chant or a sacred sound. I don’t have a special cushion or adopt a particular position. That’s all just in my way. What does work for me is sitting comfortably with my eyes closed, concentrating on the natural flow of my breathing. The world doesn’t have to be quiet. The room doesn’t need to be light or dark or smell of incense. I don’t need a special timer. The only thing required is the most difficult, boring part: Stop. Sit my ass down. Breathe.
I call this my Be Still Now time, and I’m annoyed by how powerful it is. I’m annoyed because it can’t be right that sitting, doing nothing but being, is more powerful and peaceful than doing and doing and doing. Everyone knows how important it is to be productive!
The problem with all this pressure to do is that sometimes I can’t stop. It’s a hard thing to explain to anyone who’s not been compulsive.
I start out feeling focused, energetic and excited about a project or task, looking forward to the satisfaction of completing it and looking back on a day in which I didn’t “waste” time. I begin working. I think about the task in front of me, but my mind also wanders as I work, sometimes into dark, fearful places. Pretty soon I’m working a little harder, a little faster, trying not to feel uncomfortable feelings, trying not to remember, trying not to worry.
Time ceases to exist, but vaguely, through my mental and emotional chaos, I realize I’m tired. I’m overheated and my shirt is sticking to my back. I’m filthy. The bugs are feasting on me. I’m thirsty. I feel all those things, but they’re not nearly as important as the noise in my head and my momentum. Doing the project or task (as perfectly as possible) becomes far more important than my state of being. I’m no longer in control of my day or my activity. I’m not pacing myself. I don’t give a damn about taking care of myself. I’m not having fun or feeling satisfied, and I don’t care about finishing. In fact, I hope I never finish. I want to go on and on until I’m beyond thought or feeling. If I stop, something just behind me, hard on my heels, will tear me to pieces.
I absolutely know that if I work hard enough and long enough I’ll find peace, my uncomfortable feelings will resolve, and I’ll be safe and happy and able to rest.
In that state of mind, just stopping is unthinkable. The very suggestion makes me want to tear out someone’s throat. Part of me realizes I’m out of control, speeding again, and it’s dangerous and self-destructive, but I feel unable to make a different choice.
I do, of course, eventually stop. I tell myself I was productive and did good work. I search for that feeling of gratification over a hard job well done, but I can’t find it. I feel more like I’ve been beaten up than anything else. I’m physically exhausted but my thoughts and feelings are churning and I’m pacing the floor, trying to crawl out of my skin, searching desperately for another project to throw myself into.
I’ve acted out this pattern my whole life, and until very recently it didn’t stop until I got sick or physical pain disabled me. I rarely get sick now, and I no longer have physical pain, thanks to my diet. I’ve gotten much better at using my support system and dealing with my feelings more appropriately. Still, the right kind of stressors over a long period of time, combined with not paying close attention to how I’m doing, reactivates my compulsivity.
The best way to pay attention to how I’m doing is to sit for a few minutes every day and just breathe. I’m not sure how, or why, but I’m quite sure it helps. The funny thing is, I don’t inquire within during that time, I just watch thoughts rise in my mind and let them go. Now and then I get a creative inspiration, which I jot down before going back to breathing. I’m not trying to process feelings or figure anything out. I’m not, in fact, doing or producing anything. I’m just sitting and breathing, and it’s so quiet!
I realize, in that timeless space, that peace and safety, both of which I’ve searched for my whole life, are fully present and always have been. I can’t chase them down or earn them. They’re not elsewhere. We have not become separated or severed. I am not lost. Neither peace nor safety can be found in compulsive doing. All I need to do is be still, be quiet, for just a few minutes, and they are there.
I’d love to say that I’ll Be Still Now every morning for the rest of my life and never be compulsive again, but it’s probably not true. I’ll get distracted, or bored, or lazy. My routine will change. I’ll make something else more important than my sit time. I’ll self-sabotage in all the ways we do self-sabotage. Fortunately, life will continue to be challenging and provide plenty of things to feel anxious and fearful about, and I will continue to work for growth and health, which means I’ll hold myself accountable and return home, to that quiet daily space in which compulsivity cannot live or take root and peace can find me.
Be. Still. Now.
My daily crime.
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you Are not lost. Wherever you are is called here, And you must treat it as a powerful stranger, Must ask permission to know it and be known. The forest breathes. Listen. It answers, I have made this place around you. If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here. No two trees are the same to Raven. No two branches are the same to Wren. If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you, You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows Where you are. You must let it find you.
It’s the season of Christmas music. Like it or hate it, it seems to be inescapable just now. I’ve never understood why “My Favorite Things” is a Christmas song, but it always seems to be in the holiday music lineup, so the lyrics have been winding their way through my thoughts.
Photo by Ludde Lorentz on Unsplash
One of the things I love about life is how multilayered it is, and how, paradoxically, the activities demanding most of our time and energy are not necessarily the things that truly nourish us and make our lives worth living. We can look around and identify a few of our favorite things on the surface of our lives. Several layers underneath the surface, however, is a different list, a list of what we’re rooted in. The loss of surface things is painful. The loss of what we’re rooted in is terminal.
I’ve come to appreciate the complex layers in life gradually. For a long time I was only aware of my shallow roots, and they were in other people. My possessions, my place and the people around me provided me with a sense of identity and I didn’t see myself as separate from them.
In fact, I didn’t see myself at all.
Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens certainly enrich my life, but I’m not rooted in them. I don’t draw joy, passion, hope and my desire to engage with life from them.
Photo by Gabriel Jimenez on Unsplash
So, I’ve been asking myself for the last few days, what are my roots growing in? What lies in the layers beneath my favorite things and my stories, beliefs and identity? What makes life possible and beautiful?
The resulting list, not of favorite things but of essential things, seems very odd to me. It’s so odd and unexpected, in fact, that I’m wildly curious about how other people would answer these questions. Am I the only odd one, or does everyone have a strange little inventory of necessities in their deepest layers of their experience? I was also surprised at how hard it was to excavate so deeply, far below my desire for seductive surface things I can buy. Making a wish list is easy. Making an external inventory of the stuff in our lives is also not difficult, though it may take some time. Descending deeply within ourselves, past our relationship to others, past our identity and past the things that fire or flood can take from us to scratch and sniff and burrow among our own roots, tasting the soil and filling ourselves with our own scent, is a journey through the dark without guide or companion into our own soul.
Photo by Riccardo Pelati on Unsplash
In that deep, internal place from which I draw faith, peace, and love reside a memory and a dream. The memory is of a crippled orange cat who taught me everything I know about unconditional love, survival, surrender, and courage. The dream is of my mother, young and carefree, as I have never seen her, leaping and running joyfully down a grassy hill under a blue sky toward a group of waiting horses, dogs and cats.
My roots must mingle with the roots of other lives, especially the patient trees, and always they reach for water in all its forms, as necessary to me as breathing.
Photo by Syd Wachs on Unsplash
I cannot imagine living without stories. My childhood was spent in secret gardens, Oz, Narnia and on the river with Mole, Rat and ridiculous Mr. Toad. The greatest loss of things I can imagine is the loss of my library, but the influence and inspiration of all the stories I’ve read, told, written and even forgotten have shaped me in countless ways that can never be lost. I am never tired of watching, listening to and reading the stories around me, mine, yours and theirs.
Stories are only one aspect of creativity, and creativity is perhaps the strongest support upon which my life rests. The power to make something out of nothing, the power to interpret a piece of life with music, words, dance, fiber, paint or any other material or medium, seems to me the most sacred power there is. The compulsion to make, not for money or fame, but as a love letter to life, animates and inspires me. The work of creativity is the greatest spiritual treasure we can give ourselves, one another and the world.
A dream that all will be well with someone beloved. A memory of a great love. Trees and water, stories and the joy of creation. These are the essential things without which I would not be. A strange assortment that doubtless makes a strangely shaped soul, but I don’t mind. I know who I am, and I know what I need.
The last time my job necessitated driving in the dark, I was a young married woman. I worked afternoons and evenings in a hospital in a large city and drove home on well-lit highways and city streets after the chaos of evening rush hour. I never left the hospital after dark without Security, who saw me safely to my car.
Photo by Peter Forster on Unsplash
As a child I was terrified of the dark. I was a fearful child in general and the dark was the culmination of every nameless horror, imagined and real. Somewhere in the years of early motherhood when I became a single parent my fear of the dark vanished and it became my friend — a place of peace, rest and privacy. It shielded me from critical eyes and harsh words.
If no one could see me or find me, they wouldn’t discover what a failure I was.
After some years of friendship the dark became my lover, and I adorned it with candlelight, welcomed starlight onto my pillow and delighted in night walks. I feel strangely at one with the pale, musky blur of the skunk; the large clumsy rustling and noisy chewing of the bear eating windfall apples and the kingly owls conversing solemnly overhead. The warmly-lit world inside where people talk, laugh, and live their lives is another universe and I a wild, aloof creature, silent and unseen under the grandeur of the night sky.
Photo by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash
Miracles happen in the dark.
Now I’m driving in the dark again, slipping through the folds and creases of the hills, passing over the river and gliding under the half-naked trees. The small city’s lights glow dimly, behind me if I’m going home after closing the pool, ahead of me if I’m coming in early to open it. The pavement undulates and curves, unfolding under my headlights. Lit windows give me intimate glimpses of people moving around in kitchens and living rooms, sipping from a cup, glancing at a TV screen. Other drivers are out, too, strung loosely along the road. Oncoming headlights force my gaze to the shoulder, scanning for hapless porcupines, impulsive deer or careless pedestrians.
Last night, an almost perfect Hunter’s Moon rose over a stubbled field where corn grew a few weeks ago, lighting a black and white vista of fields and scattered trees. It hung low, gleaming through bare branches, silvering my right shoulder as it saw me home. As I backed into the driveway to park under the friendly light at the apex of the barn roof, moonlight flooded in my windshield as though embracing me before I opened the cellar door and stepped inside the house, no longer half fey and wild but my usual civilized and responsible self.
Photo by Linda Xu on Unsplash
This morning, snow and leaves whirled in my headlights and my tires hissed on the wet road. The trees hunched, dark indistinct shapes, and the river was invisible as I crossed the bridge. I opened the car window for the pleasure of the wet snowflakes on my face, the damp autumn smell and the cold lash of dark air on my cheeks. I might have been the only living human being in the world. For a moment I wished it was so. I might have been going anywhere or nowhere through the darkness, the snow and the leaves. It seemed perfectly possible to stop the car and abandon it, to fling myself into the arms of the landscape and disappear into wood, stone, hair and bone.
Yet ahead lay the swimming pool, waiting in the humid darkness of its building for lights to discover it, for people to measure and balance its chemicals, for computer screens to come to life, for the daily schedule to be printed and the showers to be run to prime the hot water. In the town ahead were therapy patients, members of the early water aerobics class and crack-of-dawn lap swimmers. I drive through the dark for them.
So I shook off the wistful feeling that there are other ways to live, deeper, older and more magical, shut the car window and drove on, through the waking town under the dim dawn sky, heavy with downy snow, and stepped into the humid warmth and sound of the swimming pool, blue and white and brightly lit. The darkness and I parted for a time, but it has a piece of me I can give to no one and nothing else. The dark is a lover unlike any other.