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 have a friend at work who, in the moment of an unexpected event, says, “This is happening!” as he copes on the fly. The phrase (and my friend) makes me smile, and it keeps running through my head as our world changes.
We’re all affected, and we’re all saturated with news, statistics, opinions, thoughts, predictions and our own feelings about current events. We’re all sick of the subject (no pun intended), but it’s hard to talk about anything else.
The headlines are grim. The maps are grim. The future is uncertain. I’m writing this on Saturday, March 15. What will Monday bring? Where will we be on Thursday, when I publish this?
Last week I wrote about making choices, and discerning between the places we have power and the places we don’t. It was a timely post.
We can choose to see our current situation as an opportunity.
Before you start throwing rotten food at me, understand that I’m in no way minimizing our stress, anxiety, fear or loss. I’m very concerned, more for others than myself, but for myself, too. I don’t want to get sick and die. I haven’t finished my books yet, for one thing.
On the other hand, I admit to a sort of horrified fascination when it feels like everything is falling apart, either for me, personally, or on a larger scale. Chaos, in my experience, is filled with possibility, with sudden shifts and changes, with unexpected twists and outcomes. When we surf the edge of chaos, we’re in terra incognita, and anything might happen.
We’ve all been hearing about restrictions, limitations, cancellations, curfews, lockdowns, and other draconian measures as the pandemic sweeps across the globe. It’s not a good time to travel, have elective surgery, spend money frivolously, run out of toilet paper, or do a thousand other things.
It is a good time for … what?
I work in a hospital rehab center in a nonessential position. We currently have 30 confirmed cases of Coronavirus in Maine. I suspect there are actually many hundreds of cases by now, but testing is limited up here, so it’s hard to say. The hospital has put protocols in place, and we are now closed to the public and serving rehab patients only. I’m an hourly worker, so if (when) we shut down the rehab center, I won’t get paid.
My partner is at high risk due to his age and health history.
Just like everyone else, I’m anxious about how fast things are happening and what might happen next, and I have the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach that says we’re freewheeling, out of control. ‘Normal’ is MIA.
I always have my eye on power dynamics. We could make a long list of everything we can’t control right now, all that’s not in our power.
But what about what we can control? What is in our power? Again, I think of my post last week, and how many of us honestly feel that we don’t have time to engage with what matters most to us in our normal lives. But now we’re living not-so-normal lives, and we may spend some time doing that.
In my own life, when it’s all fallen down and I find myself wandering through the rubble, I’ve always found transformation. Pain, grief, tears, terror, yes, all of those. And transformation.
We each have the power to reach out to loved ones. We can’t choose who gets sick or who recovers, but we can communicate with the people we care about heartfully and honestly. It’s easy to lose touch, or interact superficially on social media and call it good. It’s easy to drift apart and become disconnected. Quarantine, isolation and lockdown are opportunities to strengthen connections.
Don’t forget it’s spring. We can choose to enjoy the return of the birds, the lengthening days, the sunshine, and the abundance of new growth and life around us. We can take a walk. We can make it a daily habit.
We have an opportunity to enjoy creativity. Listen to music. Read a book. You have time now, all you TLDR (too long, didn’t read) people! We can forget the toilet paper and buy ourselves a new box of crayons or some finger paints. Here’s our chance to nurture our creativity. If we’re in quarantine or lockdown we have time to play. No more excuses. Creative folks are reaching out to others in all kinds of nontraditional and beautiful ways right now.
Have I mentioned that it’s spring? It’s a great time to clean and declutter our homes. Not only can we make daily cleaning of all surfaces we touch easier right now, we can lighten up our lives and homes for the future. Let’s open the windows and let the sun come in. Let’s get rid of the stuff that doesn’t matter. Let’s clean our cars, our phones, our keyboards.
While we’re out walking, we can wave to our neighbors. We can smile. We’re all scared and worried. This is where our power is—with the people around us. We can check up on neighbors. If we’re at less risk than an elderly friend or neighbor, we can offer to run errands for them when we have to go out. We can find a dog to walk. We can practice social distancing and still connect with and care for those around us. We’re all in this together.
We can do ourselves and our immune systems a favor and rest. Relax. Laugh. When was the last time we checked in with ourselves? Are we happy? Are our needs being met? Are we pleased with the shape of our lives? We can take naps, or sleep in. We can exercise, eat good food, drink lots of water. We can challenge an addiction or a time-wasting habit. If not now, when?
When did we last give our intellect a fun thing to do? We could explore something that interests us, learn a new skill, play with critical thinking. We could exercise our brains. We could take on a daunting project we’ve been procrastinating about.
How’s our spiritual life? It’s a great time for prayer, ritual, or to begin a meditation practice. We could create a daily gratitude practice and focus on that instead of fear and anxiety.
Resilience equals survival. Resilient people make conscious choices about how they use their resources, especially in the face of unexpected disaster. We’re faced with a lot of unknowns right now, but let’s not obsess over the unknowable, including the future. Our power lies in our ability to choose in the present moment and let the rest go.
We know how to work, spend money, distract and be busy. Life is about more. Now we have an opportunity to simply be with the moment, with the world as it is, and with ourselves. Let’s remember how to live. Part of living is the necessity to come to terms with death.
Take good care, everybody. Love yourself and your people. Stay with your power and surrender the rest. We’ll get through this.
What if you thought of it as the Jews consider the Sabbath— the most sacred of times? Cease from travel. Cease from buying and selling. Give up, just for now, on trying to make the world different than it is. Sing. Pray. Touch only those to whom you commit your life. Centre down.
And when your body has become still, reach out with your heart. Know that we are connected in ways that are terrifying and beautiful. (You could hardly deny it now.) Know that our lives are in one another’s hands. (Surely, that has come clear.) Do not reach out your hands. Reach out your heart. Reach out your words. Reach out all the tendrils of compassion that move, invisibly, where we cannot touch.
Promise this world your love— for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, so long as we all shall live.
I’ve lately been revisiting David Whyte’s work, including one of his audiobooks titled What to Remember When Waking. He suggests having faith in things falling away.
It caught my attention because usually we speak of faith in what we judge to be positive: Courage, kindness and the sun coming out tomorrow. Having faith in the shadow side of life suggests a deeper wisdom.
This coincides with my current personal focus on shame, which I discover (to my chagrin and sorrow) is a burden I carry every day and can’t remember being without. I knew it was there, in the roots of me, but generally speaking I try to hide it and look the other way. I’ve never had any idea how to eliminate it or transform it into something less painful and more effective, so it’s become firmly and almost invisibly established.
Whyte, a magnificent poet, prompted me to think differently about feelings and experiences we typically cast as negatives and try to avoid, ignore, hide or minimize. Have faith in things falling away.
What kind of things fall away?
Leaves in autumn, innocence, comets, people, memories, time, feelings, others beloved by us, and our own lives. Flowers drop their petals. Snakes shed their skins. Seconds and years fall away, one by one. The sea ebbs from the land and then returns. What we can see of the moon wanes and falls away to nothing before it waxes once more. A fertile woman watches each month’s possibility of new life fall away when she is not pregnant. The dark falls away before the light, and the light before the dark. Cell by cell, lash by lash, hair by hair, our bodies fall away during our lifetimes.
Sometimes we fall away from others, or tear ourselves away from jobs, relationships or places.
Some things we are glad to let go and leave behind us. Other losses are so terrible we feel permanently maimed.
Then there are things like shame that are forced upon us by others, that cripple our joy and our ability to love ourselves. We long to be free of such burdens, to let them fall away, but we don’t know how to do it. Even if we find a way to loosen their grip upon us, we are sometimes unwilling to cast them completely aside, because then we would become strangers to ourselves, strangers in our own lives, and we fear that change more than our familiar suffering.
Photo by fancycrave on Unsplash
Faith in things falling away. Trust and confidence, in other words, in both loss (things we don’t want to lose) and relief (things we do want to shed).
Could it be that the way through shame, longing, fear, anguish and the like is to turn toward it, embrace it, kiss it on the mouth? Is that what must happen before it can fall away? I wonder.
Can we trust in the approaching storm as much as we trust in the sun coming out tomorrow? Can we trust in the unraveling, the fraying, the slow decline, the darkest shadows of our hearts and actions, as well as healing, vigorous new life, and our kindness and compassion?
I suppose what I’m really asking is if we can trust in all of our experience and feeling, whether comfortable or agonizing, in any given moment. Can we trust in change and suspend our judgement about whether it’s good or bad? If our world is burning around us and everything we know or have is falling away to ash, can we have faith in the purification of that terrible loss?
Taking it further, am I willing to have faith in my own frustration, anguish, scars and shame? Am I willing to explore these things, talk with them, allow them to teach me, even love them, and then let them go or transform? Do I possess the courage to let an outdated version of myself fall away while I enlarge my soul?
Inevitably, inexorably, things change and fall away. As human beings, how do we choose to live with that fact? Faith or resistance?
Tonight I will sleep with my worries through dreams dark with soil and the heaving cataclysm of the spade turning earth round me not speaking of air or light fused with greenness but of darkness and the first leaves like hands in prayer clasped inside the seed.
I’ve been thinking about this week’s post for a couple of days now. There’s a lot more to say about boundaries than I’ve discussed here and here, and maybe someone else can shape the many complex pieces into separate, coherent posts, but that person isn’t me. I can sort out a few points, but the rest is chaos containing all kinds of inflammable issues, such as parenting, corporal punishment, our justice system, religion, sexuality, morals, ethics, rape culture, racism, entitlement and patriarchy.
There’s no doubt in my mind that these are important discussions and ideas for all of us, but the purpose of this blog is not to have a shouting match or explore the different ways we can criticize, judge and belittle one another.
Photo by Andrew Loke on Unsplash
I suspect most of us agree boundaries are necessary, but after that point I see potential for endless violent disagreement about how and why we create and manage them. I believe it’s safe to say our understanding of boundaries is heavily influenced by our childhood experience, our culture and family, and technology and media.
I have no answers. I notice what I call my boundaries don’t work very well at times. I notice the conflict between what works for me, what others expect, and what I’ve been taught. I notice a generation gap around boundaries. My 20-something sons see the whole issue differently than I do. I think some of this is due to differences in our relationships to technology, but I don’t know how much.
I also notice a lot of my boundaries are around fear. As a single woman, I’m uncomfortable with the idea of being hooked into GPS and map information via technology. It doesn’t feel safe to me. Likewise, I’m uncomfortable discussing my spirituality, my parenting beliefs, my political beliefs, my dietary choices and the color of my underwear. I’m not ashamed of who I am — I’m afraid of being victimized. I don’t want to deal with mean, hateful or dangerous people. I don’t want to attract the attention of a psychopath or a sociopath. I don’t want to lose connections and relationships over something like religion.
Photo by Mike Wilson on Unsplash
Then there’s the part of me that simply isn’t interested in what I call oversharing. I mind my own business — why can’t everyone else mind theirs?
On the other hand, surely we have a right to be who we really are. But where is the line — the boundary, if you will— between that right and violating someone else’s boundary?
A highly topical example of this is the debate over Native American team names in the public school system. Many Native Americans find this offensive and racist — and say so. The other side hotly denies they’re racist and cites tradition and their intention to honor the Native American people. It’s a ding-dong argument. I’m hurt and offended and this feels racist versus I am not a racist, back and forth, on and on, with both sides becoming further divided with every iteration. Broken connection, broken relationships, divided communities, hurt and rage are the result.
At bottom, it seems to me these are all boundary issues. Our boundaries don’t appear to work well. What can we do about that?
This very morning, I had an interesting discussion with one of my sons about this. We were talking about privacy in regard to technology, and he suggested that soon we may have to accept the idea of 0% privacy because of our increasing reliance on and use of technology. Everyone (at least in this country) will be equally exposed and we’ll have to figure out how to live with that exposure as a culture and move on, or we’ll simply self-destruct. I’d never considered this point of view and I’m fascinated with it, as well as slightly appalled.
Perhaps the chaos around boundaries is present because, as my son suggests, we’re in transformation. Transformation is inherently chaotic, after all. Maybe my generation’s ideas and beliefs about boundaries aren’t working because they’re outdated. Our world, our culture, our understanding of life, technology and science are dynamic, always changing, always correcting and expanding. Perhaps the world we live in today requires different boundaries and we’re struggling to shape them.
At the risk of sounding like an old granny, however, I think healthy, effective boundaries must contain elements of respect, compassion, authenticity, dignity and kindness, not only for others but for ourselves. I think it’s important to remember that boundaries are about ourselves and what works and doesn’t work for us. It’s not our job to choose boundaries for others. We may have to defend our boundaries and others will certainly try to violate them, but that’s the only place our power is.
Interestingly, I’m reading a book right now that relates to this. It’s called Being Wrongby Kathryn Schulz. It’s a great book — well written, funny, intelligent and thought-provoking. I highly recommend it. The reason I mention it is that so many of our rules, expectations and yes, boundaries, are based on our beliefs and we have a tendency to make our beliefs universal laws. We all do this, one way or another. But take one of your central beliefs, a hot one like politics or diet or religion, one you argue about on Facebook, block and unfriend people for disagreeing with. Now just imagine, if you can, for one minute, only 60 seconds, that you’re wrong.
Pretty uncomfortable, right? Now everything changes, including your rules, expectations, stories and, inevitably, your boundaries.
Photo by Alessio Lin on Unsplash
In other words, effective boundaries need to flex and change as we learn and grow. Otherwise, all we create is a jail cell for ourselves. We can’t change, we don’t admit new information and we keep ourselves small and rigid.
On the other hand, if we have inadequate boundaries our power is leaking all the time. We fall prey to dysfunctional relationships, our integrity breaks, we fail to take care of ourselves, and our lives don’t work well.
A year and a half ago I left everything I knew and traveled halfway across the continent in a U-Haul to start a new life in Maine. I’d never even bought a plane ticket for myself before. I’d never taken a road trip. I’d never lived anywhere but Colorado. I’d never been to Maine. I rented my little house, which I’d never intended to leave, and I’d never been a landlady before. I had very little money, and in fact had to borrow money to accomplish the transition (which I’ve since paid back).
I was 51 years old.
As you can probably imagine, this decision was not met with enthusiastic support from all sides.
How this impacted my relationships will be a subject for future posts. Today I want to answer the question no one quite asked, but everyone wanted to:
Photo by SHTTEFAN on Unsplash
It’s complicated, of course. It always is. The short version is that I slowly realized I was living a life that didn’t feel like my own. Nothing fit right. It was as though I’d been wearing clothes and shoes from someone else’s closet. My life was a tiny room that got a centimeter smaller every day. I lost a relationship, the neighborhood diner and my dearest companion. I woke every morning knowing I would fail, no matter how hard I worked at…everything. I felt like a character in a play someone else had written and I began to drop my lines.
The most remarkable thing about that time wasn’t that I was having an unusual experience. I’m certain many of you reading this can relate to my experience. No, what’s remarkable is that few people knew how it really was with me, which was exactly how I wanted it.
Photo by Hailey Kean on Unsplash
I had a beautiful little house that everyone loved. I had friends. I had a garden. I lived in a lovely place that had been home for nearly twenty years. I was financially independent — as long as nothing unexpected happened. I had my music, my movies, my books, my early morning walks, my comfortable bed, my dance group, my small luxuries. I had a good life, and I wasn’t happy. I was deeply ashamed. I was also unbelievably, unbearably, terminally lonely.
I began to write more, not with any plan or hope, but because I had to. Because it was the only thing I really enjoyed. It was the only time I felt real. For various reasons I felt unable to seek support for my writing locally, so I went online and connected with other writers. One of the writers I connected with was a life coach who teaches emotional intelligence.
I decided to work with him, and that’s when it all began to change.
I’m not going to try to sell you on life coaching. You’re online right now — research for yourself. There are lots of articles and sites to look at. I’ll let the coaches sell themselves. What I want to do is give you reasons not to do it, because if you hire a well-trained, certified, experienced coach and you’re serious about the work your life is going to transform, and an exhausting, bloody, terrifying experience it is. Creating new life is damned hard work. Ask any mother.
So here we go. Don’t do life coaching if:
You don’t want things to change, both internally and externally (good luck with not wanting things to change, by the way!).
You’re not really willing to invest time and money in yourself.
You’re looking for a therapist or prescription medications, or you’re struggling with serious mental illness.
You’re perfectly happy with your current role of victim, martyr, addict, people pleaser, passive aggressive, etc. (But in that case you might recommend life coaching to someone you’re in relationship with. Perhaps they could use it!)
You don’t want your creative life to blossom.
You don’t want to be honest.
You don’t want to learn new language, strategies, coping mechanisms and communication skills.
You don’t want your relationships at work, in your family and with your friends to become healthier, more honest and more effective.
You don’t want to become a more effective and loving parent.
You don’t want to cut out of your life the habits, relationships, behaviors and beliefs that are holding you back.
And so how, you ask, has it worked out so far? The coaching, the move, the new life?
Guess what? It’s not perfect. I miss parts of my old life. But I live with meaning, learning, creativity, humor, curiosity, joy, love and companionship. I recognize myself. I like myself. I feel useful and successful. I’m learning to be more honest.